How far back in time do you have to look to find the first crime fiction stories? Charles Dickens’s Bleak House? Shakespeare’s Hamlet? Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex? For now, I’m moving the bar forwards to more modern times. The majority of crime fiction during the first half of the 20th century, including those of the Golden Age, followed a pattern: There would be a dead body in chapter one, and the rest of the novel would be the puzzle to solve it. The central characters, our trusty detectives, like Holmes, Watson, Miss Marple, Poirot, would remain unmoved and unchanged throughout the journey. The puzzle would be solved (and by clever readers ahead of the detectives), end of story. The books were fun, but essentially lightweight and, with notable exceptions, no one could class them as serious fiction.
But today, I believe crime fiction is rightly back where it belongs, among the most important literature being created today. If Dickens, Shakespeare or Sophocles were alive, writing novels now, much of their work would be found rubbing spines on bookstore shelves along the modern crime writing greats. So what brought about the change? I believe these five, among many other books, played a significant role.
You Are Dead by Peter James is published 21st May (Macmillan, £20).
Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
Graham Greene threw the rule book out of the window in 1937. Firstly it has surely one of the most attention-grabbing opening sentences ever: "Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to kill him." Secondly, no longer is the detective the key character, but the villain himself – Pinky, a 17-year-old killer in charge of a bunch of middle-aged misfit mobsters, and a devout Catholic, terrified of eternal damnation. And there is no cozy puzzle to be solved, no happy ending. It’s last line is devastating. It makes you put the book down, tingling, your emotions floored, your imagination soaring.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
In 1965 this seminal, brutal, rivetingly constructed non-fiction book had, in my view, a major impact on the course of future crime fiction. This story is of the motiveless murder of four members of the Clutter family in Kansas in 1959 by two losers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. You can see elements of the way Capote constructed the build-up, the killings and the subsequent enquiry and impact on the locals in a very high percentage of the most successful crime novels subsequently. In Wambaugh, Reichs, Connelly, Patterson, Deaver, Slaughter, Harris, McDermid and Rankin, to name but a few…
The Con Man by Ed McBain
McBain published his first 87th Precinct novel in 1956 and it marked the beginning of the end of the road for the traditional private eye who is smarter than the cops and the start of the emergence real, gritty police officers as characters – both in uniform and in plain clothes. I was blown away when I picked up this book – the terse writing, the descriptions of the mean streets of New York, the characters, and the brilliant creation of Steve Carella, honest, dogged, persistent, bright but no Einstein and with an intriguing marriage. I think McBain’s influence on the crime novel of today is far greater than any one realises.
The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
In 1988 Harris wrote a true game-changer. In the power of his writing, his extraordinary characterisations, the introduction of profiling, the tension and sense of authenticity dripping from every page but above all the game he really changed was this: up until now we had had good versus evil. Now by pitting the monstrous but intensely charismatic Hannibal Lecter against Buffalo Bill, we had for perhaps the first time in crime fiction, bad versus evil. It was a stroke of genius by the author and I don’t believe anyone, since Greene, ignored the rule book so elegantly or effectively. This book became the one to beat by almost every crime writer in the world, but even now, over a quarter of a century later, I don’t think it has been.
Along Came a Spider by James Patterson
When a writer becomes a global phenomenon clearly he or she is doing something right. In 1993 I think Patterson sent a benchmark with this spellbinder of a book. It has an extraordinary energy and creepy power about it and is about as diametrically opposite to an Agatha Christie as you could get. Alex Cross, himself a decent, damaged, sad but wise man whose wife was murdered. Gary Soneji, one of fiction’s most evil yet credible monsters and must be inspired in some part at least, by Hannibal Lecter. It is the juxtaposition between these characters that gives the story its power. No longer is the cat stalking the mouse but it is the cat stalking the stalker who is stalking the cat. This has emerged into a powerful new theme in modern crime fiction.