Last week I wrote about being unable to meet Uriah Robinson’s challenge of putting together a list of books in these categories as a reading list for someone new to this genre. I was told by more than one person that I was missing out on a golden opportunity to recruit new people to the crime fiction cult fold and, when Uriah created a new, more varied list, I decided I’d give it a go in the interests of spreading the word to the uninitiated. And so, my recommendations to you, the novice crime reader.
1] The Origins:
Naturally enough it’s all my mother’s fault. My obsession with crime fiction that is. She has admitted to reading her favourite writer, Edgar Allan Poe, to her children as babies. She started with the poetry but soon moved on to the darker prose. She could be forgiven for thinking that 6 month old me wouldn’t understand anything but her tone of voice but something must have seeped into my teeny developing brain because as soon as I could choose my own books I was reading mysteries. And I’ve never stopped. In honour of my mum then I would have to recommend you pick up a copy of Tales of Mystery and Imagination and read the two stories featuring the adventures of Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin, probably the world’s first detective and definitely a direct ancestor of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. Or, as it’s freely (and legally) available on the web you could get started on The Murders at the Rue Morgue right now.
2] The Age of Sherlock Holmes:
I’d just turned 20 when I moved to Sydney to take up my first ‘real’ job after leaving Uni with a fascinating but almost useless politics degree and the clothes on my back. The place I moved to had a pretty woeful library (countless rotating stands full of Mills & Boon books and two shelves of mechanical manuals for Holden cars) and my budget didn’t run to buying a lot of books. I scoured second hand shops though and discovered a set of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and I read the lot, cover to cover, several times over that year. The Adventure of the Final Problem is my favourite Holmesian adventure though only by a bee’s whisker from almost everything else. It’s quite fascinating to trace back many of the character traits today’s fictional detectives display, including arrogance (albeit justified), above average intelligence and a predilection for self-destructive behaviour, to Holmes.
3] The Golden Age:
In Australia it’s fairly common practice to appropriate all the good things that come out of New Zealand as ‘ours’ so here I will recommend a novel by New Zealand author (Edith) Ngaio Marsh. First published in 1935 The Nursing Home Murder was the third of 32 novels featuring British police detective Roderick Alleyn and on the surface it’s a standard police procedural about the death threats being made against a leading British politician. Like much of Marsh’s work though it has a serious undercurrent and tackles the weightiest political issue of the time namely the rule of what was then called Palestine by Britain. Even today it is illuminating and as a bonus Marsh wrote superbly.
Without question this is my least favourite of the sub-genres. I’ve read a few over the years but can’t recall being engaged by a single one. All the things that define the genre: the sex and violence, the focus on plot over character development, the kind of first person narrative many of them use, leave me cold. To top it off I generally find them pretty misogynistic and although I can accept they were a product of a different time there’s not enough incentive for me to forgive that. If forced at gunpoint I’d recommend Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon as the ultimate example of the genre but I find it difficult to recommend something I didn’t enjoy.
5] The Police Procedural:
In contrast to the previous category this is one I adore. I have read avidly and compared techniques of fictional police investigators all across the US, the UK, Europe, and parts of Africa. Of late I’ve been discovering my own country’s rich offerings in this arena too and therefore will recommend Peter Temple’s The Broken Shore. It’s a dark, sometimes funny, tale of the investigation into the death of a local businessman in a rural Victorian town. It’s a very Australian story and although when I first read it I lamented its grimness it has stuck with me long after many other books have been forgotten. It also features some of the clearest, most concise writing you’ll see in the genre.
6] Detectives [police, forensic and private]:
Another category where I am spoiled for choice. However I’ll continue to highlight Australian talent and recommend Kathryn Fox‘s Without Consent which features forensic doctor Anya Crichton who helps police investigate a series of brutal rapes which may, or may not, have been committed by a man recently released from prison after serving 20 years for rape and murder. I was delighted when I first read this book because it reminded me of the early Patricia Cornwell novels (the ones that actually made sense and had a credible plot). Crichton is a fabulously believable character with no super human powers and the book has a real humanity too in the way it tackles the issue of rape and its affect on its victims.
7] Psychological suspense:
Don’t tell anyone but I’m not much of a fan of Barbara Vine novels. I know it’ll probably get me thrown out of the crime fiction fan club (or at least earn myself a few demerit points) but of those I’ve read I’ve found most of them dull and ponderous. For that reason I have tended not to read other novels in this genre but one I can happily recommend is Dead Lovely by Helen Fitzgerald (another Australian author although she lives in Scotland now). On the very first page of Dead Lovely we’re told that Krissie has killed Sarah, her best friend since they were four. The book then looks retrospectively at how the friends’ relationship deteriorates from ‘best friends’ status and also at the aftermath of the killing. The book’s chapters are short and sharp and Fitzgerald does a great job of differentiating between the voices of her very believable characters, especially Krissie who is struggling with the responsibilities and feelings she experiences as a new mum.
8] Caper and comic crime fiction:
I have written before about the elusive nature of comedy in fiction. I’ve lost count of the number brand new Janet Evanovich books I’ve given away unread because people keep giving them to me as gifts. They’re not funny (to me) and I wish people wouldn’t make assumptions. It’s probably not quite a match for this category but I’m nominating Ian Sansom’s The Case of the Missing Books anyway. It features the world’s most reluctant mobile librarian, Israel Armstrong, whose trials and tribulations while recovering the lost books of the Tumdrum and District Public Library (Northern Ireland) were, for me at least, genuinely laugh out loud funny. And it’s the only book on this list in which no one dies so it’ll suit the weak-stomached reader.
9] Historical crime fiction:
Here I can’t go past Elizabeth Peter’s Amelia Peabody books which combine several of my favourite things in fiction: a strong female character, humour and Egyptology (I dreamt of being an archaeologist as a child). The series is still going today but I think for this series you have to start with the first book, Crocodile on the Sandbank. It’s 1884 and our heroine, Amelia Peabody, travels to Egypt for the first time meets the man who will become her husband and solves her first archaeological mystery. It’s a rollicking, old-fashioned puzzle with loads of suspense, fantastic characters and a whole lot of heart.
Mostly, for me, this category is my ‘summer/airplane’ reading: fast, fun and a bit forgettable. They generally don’t have the memorable characters that take a book from good to great on my scale but, on the flip-side, the genre has some of the best story tellers in all of fictiondom. To introduce a newbie to the genre I’d recommend Airframe by Michael Crichton. Actually I’d recommend almost anything by Crichton but this one in particular because it takes such a mundane subject and makes a thoroughly entertaining, edge-of-your-seat story out of it. I’m sure it takes skill to make thrilling stories out of international espionage or ancient curses but to make one out of aircraft design and maintenance demonstrates another level of genius all together. It shows, as always, his skill in turning extensive research into entertainment and my only caveat would be to suggest nervous travellers choose something else to read on their next flight.
11] Crime fiction in translation:
I’m sad that the rest of my list is entirely populated by books written originally in English but in my defence I’ve only been actively seeking out the translated stuff for about a year. Until then I relied on my local library for advice and, frankly, they stick pretty much to the mainstream. However it’s hard to pick just one of of all the marvellous translated books I’ve read in the past 12 months but I am going to choose something I only read this month. Fred Vargas’ The Three Evangelists is a truly marvellous book (here’s my review) and, I think, a particularly good pick for people new to the genre as it has a fairly literary feel to it.
12] The Wild Card category:
Here I’ll stick with the translated fiction and recommend Asa Larsson’s The Savage Altar (published as The Sun Storm in the US). It was the first Scandinavian crime fiction I read and I think it encapsulates the best of the standard procedural while successfully moving the genre to a modern setting. If you haven’t read translated fiction it’s an excellent place to start because it evokes a wonderful sense of its unfamiliar (to me) Swedish setting yet there are familiar plot devices such as the investigative techniques used by the police so you don’t feel completely like a fish out of water. And the characters are wonderful.
There are many, many books I couldn’t squeeze into the above categories. Where does the amateur sleuth/cosy fit for example? It’s an enormously popular sub-genre and one I dabble with on occasion. And none of my Dick Francis favourites seemed to fit either although he’s just about written enough for a genre all of his own. And in most categories I have a lot of equally good suggestions as the book I chose. However I’ve decided not to be too concerned about the books not listed as I’m confident that once my target reader has sampled what the genre has to offer via these recommendations they’ll be in touch for the names of the several hundred other books on my shortlist for this challenge.
Other people who’ve met Uriah’s Challenge
Feel free to leave a link if you also have met Uriah’s challenge