Monday, October 29, 2018

A Library of Crime Fiction Classics

 - from Susan

We Minds get to go free-form this week. I would like to answer a question I got at a book event recently. The audience member asked, “Can you share three crime fiction books you think newcomers to the genre should read?” Because my brain tends to freeze when I’m put on the spot, and because I have more time to think when I’m writing it down, I’m expanding it to ten books, which is way easier than three and allows me to focus on different kinds of crime fiction. Of course I will leave out your favorites, the ones my fellow Minds and other readers will insist be on any list, so please chime in.

Crime and Punishment, by Dostoevsky. Perhaps the original psychological thriller. Why would someone commit a crime? What would be his internal rationale? How would he cope with the knowledge he had committed a crime? For a no-holes-barred voyage into the mind of a murderer, this is a classic, disturbing and intense. 

Murder on the Orient Express, by Agatha Christie, a devilishly clever whodunit that is a showpiece on how to carry off a murder mystery plot that confounds the reader and yet offers carefully placed and disguised clues. And, of course, it features that Belgian detective for the ages, Hercule Poirot.

The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett is as good as any to introduce readers to the noir side of modern crime fiction, one in which the protagonist and crime solver is a wounded/jaded person beset by internal demons even as he (mostly) calls on a moral core to right wrongs.

The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith, would be my choice as an introduction to the modern psychological thriller. We see into Tom Ripley’s head as he goes about stealing the identity of a man he likes (loves?) and falls deeper and deeper into his own instability. 

The Hot Rock, by Donald Westlake is the first in his humorous caper series starring a criminal named Dortmunder, who is doomed to perpetual failure in his escapades. I read it decades ago and remember laughing out loud many times. Capers don’t have to be funny, but the sub-genre is one of my favorites. It’s chess with guns, ransom notes, and explosives.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, by John LeCarre, has to be on any list for readers who want to experience the quality in crime fiction. Lots of authors write wonderful spy/espionage stories, but for me this one, with all of the ambiguity and double dealing and cynical governments, is the very best. 

Danny Gilver and the Reek of Red Herrings, by our own Minds contributor Catriona McPherson, is a historical murder mystery within the classic mystery series genre. I picked this because seldom have I read a more compelling use of setting from another period in history - Scotland in the 1930s. All of the trappings of the mystery genre are there and intertwine easily in what reads like the gloomiest place on earth. 

I’m cheating for the rest of my list because the closer I get to what’s being published in this new golden age of crime fiction the harder it is to choose among them. There are terrific novels by women featuring women protagonists who may or may not be what are called 'reliable narrators' (something Agatha Christie did way back when). 

There are exciting crime fiction stories by writers of color and LGBTQ authors who are bringing new voices and perspectives into the genre and enriching it greatly. 

There are novels that sit only partway in the genre as they incorporate homicide into larger plots and themes, societal, psychological, political. 

There are the other authors in Criminal Minds, each of whom has her or his special talent and take on crime fiction and does it well. 

So much to read…

And a short bit of BSP: 

The first series, the Dani O'Rourke Mysteries, is in the style of the traditional murder mystery, with a smart amateur detective able to see things the police don't understand.

My second series is a bit more cozy but the novels are really about how people co-exist in small societies when trouble strikes. 


Paul D. Marks said...

Great list, Susan. There's so many to choose from, but I think it's a great starter list for people who want to get into the genre.

RJ Harlick said...

Terrific list, Susan. I will add The Woman in White by Wilky Collins, a must read for any reader new to the genre.

Susan C Shea said...

RJ, I considered adding The Woman in White, because it's a first and a clever form for the story.. But I wasn't sure everyone would enjoy its 19th century prose style, and it might not pull people into our genre, which is my goal if it looked too old fashioned.

Susan C Shea said...

Paul, that's the thing: so much to choose from. I bet your take would be a little different from mine?

Paul D. Marks said...

Susan, there would be some overlap with your list, but yeah, it would probably be a little different :-) .