For the last few years, I’ve provided part-time help to an independent bookshop in my north Seattle neighborhood. This started out primarily as a way to lever me out of my office chair more often, and expand my social contacts beyond my wife and our cosseted feline. However, I have come to relish these opportunities to talk with other people about books they’ve enjoyed, and some they found disappointing.
Not surprisingly, I fall easily into the proselytizer mode when it comes to selling crime, mystery and thriller fiction. Which is swell for some customers, especially those who deliberately visit the store when I’m behind the counter, hoping to expand their acquaintance with books and authors in this realm.
Recently, though, a rather demure young woman entered the shop, and after browsing the stacks, she asked for a crime-fiction recommendation. She said she’d read little in the field, but that many of her friends were fans, so she hoped to learn more. She didn’t want me to expound at length on the broad range of works available; she just wanted suggestions of a few novels that aren’t tremendously intimidating, but might serve as introductions to this literary domain.
After some pondering, I recommended 10 books—scattered across the genre’s history and all still in print—that I thought fit the bill. If you have friends hoping to grow comfortable with crime fiction, you might propose these titles to them as well.
The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Even after more than a century in print, this Sherlock Holmes outing—combining murky English moors with an elusive “devil dog” and a heapin’ helpin’ of suspicious figures—remains one of the foremost edge-of-the-seat mysteries available.
The Maltese Falcon (1930), by Dashiell Hammett: This is the only novel featuring self-protective, wise-cracking San Francisco private investigator Sam Spade (though he did star in four later short stories). The 1941 Humphrey Bogart film version of Falcon is fabulous, but nothing beats reading Hammett's original yarn about Spade’s involvement with deceivers and killers on the quest for a jewel-studded statuette.
Roseanna (1965), by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö: Nowadays we take Scandinavian mysteries for granted. But it was this novel, first released in an English translation in 1967, that got the snowball rolling. It finds melancholic Swedish police detective Martin Beck trying to identify the nude corpse of a female American tourist pulled from a lake, and then identify her killer. The authors went on to pen nine sequels.
The Underground Man (1971), by Ross Macdonald: I usually recommend this author’s 1964 masterpiece, The Chill. But novices might find The Underground Man more approachable. Like most of Macdonald’s later tales, this one rattles with unsettled family skeletons, as compassionate Los Angeles gumshoe Lew Archer searches a coastal town for the abducted son of a beguiling blonde, while fires consume the surrounding woodlands like “a besieging army.”
The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972), by George V. Higgins: This novel about a small-time hustler’s efforts to pull off one last big score, and maybe save himself from incarceration by turning “rat,” rings with the arcane rhythms of the courthouse. Not the spectacle of the court chambers themselves, but the slang-stuffed gab that goes on between lawyers, and between lawyers and their sleazy clients. Rarely has gritty realism been so compellingly presented.
The Scold’s Bridle, by Minette Walters (1994): Miserable old Mathilda Gillespie is found in her bathtub, her wrists slit and her head clapped into an archaic torture cage. Her physician, Sarah Blakeney, is shocked by this turn of events—but even more disconcerted to learn that she’s been named prominently in Gillespie’s will. As police come to suspect foul play, and look toward Sarah as a suspect, the doctor delves anxiously into her late patient’s history of abuse, hoping to expose the real killer. This keenly suspenseful work captured a Gold Dagger Award from the British Crime Writers’ Association and earned Walters international prominence.
In a Dry Season (1999), by Peter Robinson: The skeleton of a murdered woman, hidden since World War II in a reservoir-flooded English hamlet called Hobb’s End, has suddenly been exposed by a drought. As Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks and a local detective sergeant, Annie Cabbot, re-create the crime scene, they bring Hobb’s End figuratively—and intriguingly—back to life. Into his modern story, Robinson intertwines the fictional text of a memoir, written by a septuagenarian detective novelist, that sheds additional light on doings in wartime Hobb’s End.
Wolves Eat Dogs (2004), by Martin Cruz Smith: Ever-cynical Moscow Inspector Arkady Renko debuted in 1981’s Gorky Park. Here, he investigates the peculiar case of Pasha Ivanov, a flush businessman in the “New Russia,” whose seeming suicide leap from his 11th-story condo leads Renko to the radioactive, haunted netherworld of Chernobyl, where one of Ivanov’s vice presidents was also killed.
Bruno, Chief of Police (2009), by Martin Walker: Benoît “Bruno” Courrèges is a soldier turned policeman in rural France. His worries usually extend little beyond the quality of his meals, the quantity of his female companions and the complaints he hears from his fellow townspeople. But in these pages he tackles an alleged hate crime, which has stirred interest from a young Parisian cop and will eventually uncover resentments left steaming since World War II.
The Gods of Gotham, by Lyndsay Faye (2012): Finally, to represent the burgeoning subgenre of historical mysteries, I recommended this quick-stepping thriller about a fire-disfigured bartender, Timothy Wilde, who in 1845 joins the embryonic New York Police Department. Right away, Wilde gets mixed up with a young girl who’s fled one of the town’s higher-end brothels, covered in blood and claiming to know the whereabouts of a concealed graveyard for abused children.
Of course, no such list will satisfy the tastes of every reader. I might instead have offered select works by Raymond Chandler, Anne Perry, Walter Mosley, Sara Paretsky, John Harvey, Alistair MacLean, P.D. James, Ian Rankin and others. But the titles mentioned above do cover a breadth of the storytelling styles crime fiction offers.
In the end, my customer walked away with copies of Roseanna and In a Dry Season. And claimed that would be enough. Knowing the addictive power of this genre, though, I expect to see her back again soon.