A friend asked me for a list of crime fiction he should read. Then he suggested I turn it into a blog post. So here goes. The list isn’t comprehensive. Nor is it a bunch of hidden gems. If you’re a crime and mystery fan, you’ve probably read these already. It’s more just the works that have defined the genre for me. Everything and everyone on here is worth reading, I promise.
Edgar Allan Poe, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”
This short story is where it all begins. Wilkie Collins gets credit for inventing the mystery novel with The Woman in White and The Moonstone, but Poe invented the detective story. C. Auguste Dupin is the model for every detective to come, including Sherlock Holmes. “Murders in the Rue Morgue” is short and great and atmospheric—and very weird. One of the most memorable, if a bit nonsensical, “solutions” ever. Poe’s other Dupin story, “The Purloined Letter,” is much shorter—and much worse.
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Holmes’s adventures really begin with two short novels, A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four. But those pale compared to the short stories. So start with this first collection, and read as many as you enjoy. (Which means you’ll likely read them all.) Raymond Chandler dismissed Holmes as “mostly an attitude and a few dozen lines of unforgettable dialogue,” and he’s partially right. The mysteries are often silly, but they’re always intriguing. The appeal of Holmes, for me, is mostly the atmosphere of the stories, but what atmosphere it is. These stories are fantastic.
Agatha Christie, And Then There Were None
I’m not a fan of Christie, for reasons Raymond Chandler expresses far better than I could. I find most of her novels trite, the characters dull, and the crimes and their solutions too neat. She writes crimes that have never happened and never could happen. And her novel lack the atmosphere to get away with it like Poe and Doyle can. In short, Christie’s books are boring.
But And Then There Were None rocks. You’ll want to read it in one sitting. Great setup, great conclusion. And no Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot in sight. Yes, the book still suffers a bit from being maybe too precise in it’s happenings, but that’s forgivable.
It’s also a perfect mystery, one of only two on this list.
Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon, Red Harvest, and The Thin Man
There’s a reason I named one of my children after Hammet and another after one of his characters. Of the major, early hardboiled authors, he’s the finest writer. He didn’t write many novels. All of them are worth reading.
The Maltese Falcon kicks all kinds of ass. Sam Spade’s an icon for a reason, and this is very likely the best MacGuffin story there is. Red Harvest gets called Hammet’s best novel. There’s little mystery, and what there is ends up solved in the first few chapters. Then it’s just double dealing, brutality, and tough guy (and gal) dialog like nobody’s business. Plus, Red Harvest features the Continental Op, my favorite of the hardboiled detectives. (Sorry, Marlowe!) The Thin Man gets a mention because it’s funny as hell and has the best married couple in all of literature.
Raymond Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely
Dashiell Hammett invented the hardboiled detective. Chandler made him unforgettable. Hammett’s prose is simple and straight and wonderful in a Hemingway sort of way. Chandler’s is lush and funny— and has better similes than anyone’s ever written, except for maybe Roger Ebert.
Philip Marlowe is one of literature’s great creations. Like Hammett, Chandler didn’t write many novels, and all of them are worth reading. The Big Sleep is his first, and introduces Marlowe. The Long Goodbye is his last (finished) work, and many consider it his best. I may agree, but it’s also quite a bit different from his usual stuff. So I recommend starting withFarewell, My Lovely. It’s probably the best mystery of the bunch.
James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity
So far, everything on this list has been a mystery. Cain wrote straight up crime. Both are stories of bad men getting involved with bad woman and things going south very quickly. Cain writes spare prose and wonderful dialog.
Ross MacDonald, The Chill
MacDonald is the heir to Hammett and Chandler. His Lew Archer (named after Sam Spade’s murdered partner in The Maltese Falcon) is more melancholy than his predecessors, and MacDonald’s books are more novel-ly. His mysteries focus on corruption within families and rot hiding under the facade of high society. The Chill is widely regarded as the best in the series.
Ed McBain, Cop Hater
I chose Cop Hater because it’s the first in the 87th Precinct series. But, really, you could grab any of them (there are a lot) and be good. With this book, McBain invented the modern police procedural. His books feature fun mysteries, a terrific and huge cast of characters, and the best dialog this side of Elmore Leonard.
John le Carré, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
I’m maybe cheating by putting this here because it’s espionage instead of strictly crime. But it’s also the second of only two perfect mysteries I’ve ever read—see above for the first—and it’s goddamn amazing. Le Carré is a hell of a writer. Plus it’s a book about bad people doing bad things and destroying each other in the process, which is crime fiction’s M.O.
James Ellroy, The LA Quartet
Crime fiction doesn’t get better than this. Hell, fiction doesn’t get better than this. Ellroy is my favorite author, period. And I’d argue he’s not only our best living writer (in any genre) but as quintessentially an American writer as they come.
The first book in the quartet is The Black Dahlia. It’s also the least mind-blowing. (But still mind-blowing.) Ellroy’s ambition and obsession choke every page—and the books only become more ambitious and obsessive as they go along. The prose evolves heavily, too, something most authors don’t try—and fewer still are capable of. But Ellroy updates his style with every book—and his prose in the latter half of the quartet is utterly unique. Most think he reaches his peak in L.A. Confidential, the third book. I prefer White Jazz, the fourth.
The L.A. Quartet are perhaps the four most masculine books you’ll ever find, and not at allin a glamorizing way. They’re about men destroyed by their masculinity, by their obsession with—but also power over and powerlessness in the face of—women. They’re violent, emotional, and angry books And, on top of all that, they’re incredible mysteries.
Even if it means reading nothing else on this list, read all four of these books..
Elmore Leonard, [Really Anything]
Leonard’s an easy writer to underestimate. His prose isn’t flashy, and his books aren’t deep. But I challenge any author to write as smoothly and elegantly. Reading Leonard is like watching one of those world class chef cooking shows and thinking, “Boy, that looks pretty easy.’ Then you try it.
I’m in awe of Leonard’s craft. And nobody writes better dialog. It’s difficult to pick a single book to recommend— in part because they’re all pretty much the same book. Take one or two good people, mix them up with a lot of bad and stupid people, throw in one or two bad and smart people, and have them all get into a lot of trouble. He’s written some very fine westerns, but you want his crime stuff. I love City Primeval. Lots of people think Killshot is his best. But grab anything from the middle period (i.e., stay away from his last five or six books unless you’re a serious fan) and you’ll love it.
This essay originally appeared at AaronRossPowell.com. I don’t just recommend fiction. I write the stuff, too. If you’d like a free ebook of my short story collection Animus, you can join by very low volume mailing list.