20 Detective Novels You Should Read (and Probably Already Have): 20-10

For my Detective Fiction class (again), as part of our conclusion to the course, we were asked to offer up suggestions for what we would add to the course. During the course, we read many of the big authors — Doyle, Christie, Chandler, Poe, Hammett, Stout — so this is meant to supplement those. It’s also why I make reference to various authors and books we studied in the class, or topics/theories we discussed. (We were very big on the psycho-intellectual side of detective fiction this term.)

I wound up choosing twenty, the first ten of which are after the jump. This is not meant to be a review piece, or a critical piece, as some of these books/authors are ones I responded to in a very personal way, and it’s by no means meant to be inclusive. I know I’m leaving a ton out. They’re in descending order. However, you can easily jump in at any point and get enjoyment out of any one of these novels.

The list begins after the jump… 

20. William Hjortsberg and Falling Angel

The detective novel has become so fractured and so fascinating that all genres are out the window. There are detectives working in everything from medieval monasteries to stories inspired by 50s science fiction. One of the most common is the detective as literal monster slayer — where the Maltese Falcon might be a magical artifact, the femme fatale a succubus, the meathead enforcer an ogre — as seen in the Harry Dresden, Anita Blake, or Joe Pitt novels. Falling Angel is one of the earliest novels in this genre, and was the basis for the film Angel Heart. Both a horror novel and a detective novel, it plays with the noir conventions developed by Chandler and Hammett, as well as their style and language. To say much more would spoil its surprises, but the way this novel riffs on narration and the psychological aspects of the detective novel we’ve discussed all semester is a delight. After years of hearing about it, I read it for the first time this semester and loved it. One of the joys of being a fan of this style is being able to share with fellow fans when you’ve discovered the great lost book you can’t put down. Read this one.

19 (tie). Mark Haddon and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time and Thomas H. Cook and The Chatham School Affair.

Two more non-traditional detectives in non-traditional stories. At this point in the development of the genre, many of the stories have been told over and over again, where the importance of the singer over the song is paramount. Haddon’s book is a marvel, told from the perspective of an autistic child who is also a Sherlock Holmes fan (where the title of the book comes from). When he finds a murdered dog, he decides to solve the case, documented in his “murder mystery book.” There are twists and surprises galore, and even a return from the dead. It’s a book that I recommend for people interested in working with autistic children, but it’s also a deeply pleasurable mystery. It’s also interesting to compare its main character to Holmes: some contemporary Holmes scholarship has suggested that the great detective himself might be autistic.

Cook’s Chatham School Affair is a sentimental favorite of mine. Since I discovered it in the aisles of the Mogadore Public Library, I can see how influential it remains in my life. Like another book on the list, the protagonist of Chatham School Affair is quite young, and it’s about how memories of an event (a crime) can change and alter over time, how we can hide certain things, admit others, and realize the truth only after years of self-reflection. I’ve said many times throughout the course that one of the key elements of a detective is awareness–self-reflection is a quieter way of putting that. It’s a lovely, mournful crime story that proves you don’t need to zip along with the pace of a Chandler or Doyle to have an effect.

17. Scott Turow and Presumed Innocent

Scott Turow famously wrote the first draft of this novel while riding the subway to and from his work at a big law firm. He was not the first lawyer to write a novel, nor would he be the last, but when you want to consider the “legal novel” and its place in the detective genre, Turow’s first, and best, book is a good place to start. Through his use of first-person narration, Turow infuses Presumed Innocent with the fear of a man, prosecutor Rusty Sabich, is wrongly accused of murder. Here, the stakes are raised as the detective (Sabich) is literally trying to clear his own name. The psychological and psychosexual are on full display here, something the most famous lawyer-writer, John Grisham, often shies away from in his work. Like Christie, Turow knows how to play with audience expectations, and like Stout, he crafts memorable, gripping characters. I guarantee you’ll fall for Sandy Stern. Along with Thomas Harris, the “legal thriller” dominated detective fiction in the late 80s and 90s. If you’re going to look for trends or understand the ebb and flow of the genre through its various incarnations, you could do far worse than spending a winter afternoon with Presumed Innocent.

16. Daniel Woodrell and Winter’s Bone

A bit more natural than Falling Angel, acknowledgement of Woodrell’s contribution to the detective fiction genre seems to have grown in the past couple of years. Perhaps that has to do with the film adaptation of Winter’s Bone, but it could also be his earlier novels are now being reissued after years of being out of print. Woodrell is someone to read when you want to consider the non-traditional detective — here, it’s Ozark teenager Ree Dolly on a hunt for her missing father — but Woodrell’s lyrical language will stay with you and haunt you. We’ve talked a lot about the detective as character and the plotting of many of the novels. We haven’t talked much about how good some of the writers were at simply putting a sentence together, taking words, and making them sing. Woodrell carries on that legacy, and he’s magnificent.

15. Christa Faust and Money Shot

I’ve mentioned her a bunch, and I suppose that’s because I owe her. If it wasn’t for the owner of Partners & Crime shoving a copy of this book into my hand a few years ago, I might not even be at BMCC. And I could go on about how Money Shot is a great revenge novel on top of being a detective novel, about how Faust’s attention to detail and verisimilitude lends the adult film world setting a gritty authenticity, about how Angel Dare is a refreshing detective hero because she is almost Buffy the Vampire Slayer-esque in description — the cast away sex worker of a million SVU and CSI episodes is back, and on a roaring rampage of revenge, about how Faust subverts the detective genre with love and humor on every page.

Or I could just share the opening lines of the book:

Coming back from the dead isn’t as easy as they make it seem in the movies. In real life it takes forever to do little things like pry open your eyes. You spend excruciating ages trying to bend your left middle finger down far enough to feel the rope around your wrists. Even longer figuring out that the cold hard thing poking you in the cheek is one of the handles of a pair of jumper cables. This is not the kind of action that makes for gripping cinema…

…I’m sure you’re wondering what a nice girl like me was doing left for dead in the trunk of a piece of shit Honda out in the industrial wasteland east of Los Angeles. Or maybe we’ve met before and you’re wondering why it hadn’t happened sooner.

14. Mickey Spillane and the Mike Hammer novels

Spillane’s one of the novelists I have the least to say about, but I think he’s essential when considering the course and development of detective fiction. Mike Hammer is Archie Goodwin without Nero Wolfe, none of the tact and fashion sense, and about a fifth of the brains. Okay, so maybe he’s not like Archie Goodwin at all — but he represents the apex and id of the two-fisted tough guy detective fiction that served as a counterpoint to Poirot and the like. Hammer is like the Hulk of crime novels, a pure sociopath punching and fucking his way blindly through cases until he reaches the solution, which usually (but not always) involved a treacherous woman and godless Communists. Spillane remains an influential writer on modern “thriller” fiction, from David Morrell (creator of Rambo) to Lee Child’s traveling detective-badass Jack Reacher. I recommend Kiss Me Deadly or I, The Jury (with its famous last sentence), and promise you’ll be able to feel the pulpiness sticking to your hands.

13. Dennis Lehane

So we come to the first author on the list without a novel attached to their name. That’s because much of Lehane’s work is wonderful, save The Given Day. Lehane exists here as a chronicler of the American city other than New York or Southern California. I debated putting many other authors on here (George Pelecanos’ Washington D.C., or maybe Laura Lippman’s Baltimore, or James Lee Burke’s New Orleans) to illustrate how–like Doyle, like Chandler, even Christie and her quaint English villages–a detective can be reflective of their city, and their city a reflection of them. However, Lehane’s the closest to my heart, despite his participation in one of The Wire’s most shocking deaths. Maybe it’s because I’m Catholic. Still, there are passages in Mystic River that still take my breath away, and the private eye duo Patrick Kenzie and Angie Genarro are one of the genre’s most delightful pairings. Lehane, to me, represents how an author, and a detective, can embody a city’s sins (and Boston is loaded with them) and its virtues in a single gripping tale. This duality is best represented in the first Kenzie & Gennaro novel A Drink Before The War*, and Mystic River is a stellar example of the detective novel as community excavation, as its horrendous crime ripples through the lives of everyone it touches. No sins stay buried in Boston — but then, do they anywhere?

*If you enjoy this, I recommend steeling yourself before diving into its sequel, Darkness, Take My Hand. I’m a pretty strong reader of this stuff, and this remains one of the bleakest books I’ve ever read. Ever. It occupies a place where there are no stars, only blackness. You are warned.

12. John LeCarre and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

I realize, at this point in the list, it seems like I’m just throwing in titles to make sure every off-shoot and genre of detective fiction is represented. True, but if we can consider Lazlo Kreisler a detective, why not George Smiley? After all, the expert spy is called out of retirement to solve a mystery: who’s the mole in Britain’s spy service? Unlike the other detectives we encountered this semester, Smiley isn’t flashy or overtly witty. He survives by being anonymous — but behind that gray exterior is a keen, cunning intellect. This is perhaps an even more complex novel than either of its adaptations, where much of the narrative boils down (like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd) to men talking in rooms, where the moral ambiguity of spies is called into question. Smiley functions as rebuke and response to James Bond, much like Chandler and Hammett were, perhaps, responding and rebuking Doyle or Christie. I feel it deserves a place here.

11. James Crumley and The Last Good Kiss

“When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.”

So begins The Last Good Kiss, and if I had a dollar for every time that I saw that line on a list of best opening lines, I would have…maybe a hundred dollars. Authors (James Patterson) go their whole life writing books and never get close to greatness. Crumley was lucky. He wrote one of the all-time great private eye novels, a novel that combines gorgeous language with an engaging plot. Through this course, we’ve seen how great detective fiction is in reaction to turmoil and tumult, that detective striding down its mean streets (or, in this case, mean highways), and so this novel doesn’t just react to the Sixties’ dark, bloody side–it swings a wrecking ball through it. It was published a few years before Joan Didion wrote The White Album, with its titular essay serving the same type of Sixties revisionism, but it achieves much the same effect.  It’s a novel that, once you’ve read it, you can’t stop seeing its influences in fiction today. Any list of post-war detective fiction demands that this book be included.

10. Don Winslow and The Dawn Patrol

Of all his contemporaries–and we are living in a new golden age for this genre, folks–Don Winslow is perhaps without peer. Though it took him a few books to find his voice (stay away from the Neal Carey novels until you’re an aficionado), once he started writing about San Diego and Southern California, he grew exponentially with each book. California Fire and Life, The Winter of Frankie Machine, The Death and Life of Bobby Z, Savages. These all have their charms, and reading them in roughly sequential order, one sees the refinement of Winslow’s style, a style easily imitated but never replicated. I firmly believe you’ll see, sooner rather than later, authors stealing from Winslow the way they steal from Chandler and Doyle and many of the other giants represented on this list, trying to capture the same laid-back, “guy telling you a long, rambling, but never boring, and never without meaning story” at a bar feeling you get when you open a Winslow.

Despite the grimness just lurking under the surface of The Dawn Patrol, Winslow writes one of the most fun private eye novels I’ve read, with a cast of characters that’s not just memorable, but well rounded. Sure, names like Boone, High Tide, Sunny Day, Dave the Love God, Hang Twelve, and Johnny Banzai seem like they’re the names of G.I. Joe characters, but Winslow gives each of them a rich, reflective inner life that would make Chandler and Hammett proud.

09. Walter Mosley and Devil In A Blue Dress

08. Joyce Carol Oates

07. James M. Cain and Double Indemnity

06. Megan Abbott

05. Truman Capote and In Cold Blood

04. Thomas Harris and The Silence of the Lambs

03. Michael Connelly

02. James Ellroy and The Black Dahlia

01. Lawrence Block and Eight Million Ways To Die

Honorable mention: Akashic Noir and Hard Case Crime

Others: Jim Thompson, John D. MacDonald, Donald Westlake, Andrew Vacchs, George Pelecanos, Vicki Hendricks, Chester Himes, P.D. James, Ellis Peters, Max Allan Collins, Richard Price, Ryan David Jahn, Jason Aaron, Donald E. Westlake, Charlie Huston.

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