Several years ago, I got the bright, if not terribly original, idea of putting together an inventory of crime, mystery and thriller novels that anybody interested in this genre should definitely read. A crime-fiction life list, if you will. I figured that 100 titles would do the project justice, and decided that no single author should be represented by more than one novel. A simple plan, right?
Read the last Rap Sheet on revisiting great reads with Ellery Queen's Calamity Town.
But then I actually tried to compile such a rundown.
There were a number of classics that demanded inclusion, such as Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1860), Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866), Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1930), Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1934), Rex Stout’s The League of Frightened Men (1935), Eric Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios (1939), Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town (1942), Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train (1950), Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (1951), Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye (1953), Len Deighton’s The IPCRESS File (1962) and John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963).
On top of those were books that expanded the genre’s breadth and popularity during the latter half of the 20th century. For instance: Stanley Ellin’s The Eighth Circle (1958), John D. MacDonald’s The Deep Blue Good-by (1964), Ross Macdonald’s The Chill (1964), Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna (1967), Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal (1971), George V. Higgins’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972), Gregory Mcdonald’s Fletch (1974), James McClure’s The Gooseberry Fool (1974), Ruth Rendell’s A Demon in My View (1976), William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw (1977), Robert B. Parker’s Looking for Rachel Wallace (1980), Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park (1981), Sara Paretsky’s Indemnity Only (1982), Elmore Leonard’s LaBrava (1983), James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia (1987), Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress (1991), Ian Rankin’s Black and Blue (1997) and Robert Crais’ L.A. Requiem (1999).
The real value of such a list, however, is not to catalogue best-known novels, but to introduce readers to authors they have never enjoyed and might need a critic’s encouragement to try. People such as William Campbell Gault (The Convertible Hearse, 1957), Anna Katharine Green (The Leavenworth Case, 1878), Horace McCoy (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, 1935), Megan Abbott (The Song Is You, 2007), Bill Pronzini (Blowback, 1997), Vera Caspary (Laura, 1942), Chester Himes (Cotton Comes to Harlem, 1965), Arthur Lyons (Castles Burning, 1979), Earl Derr Biggers (The House Without a Key, 1925), Ernest Tidyman (Shaft, 1970), Mickey Spillane (I, the Jury, 1947), Leigh Brackett (No Good from a Corpse, 1944), Margaret Millar (Beast in View, 1955), Don Winslow (The Winter of Frankie Machine, 2006), Robert Wilson (A Small Death in Lisbon, 1999) and Max Allan Collins (Flying Blind, 1998).
Look, though, I’m already halfway through compiling 100 titles, and I have barely scratched the surface of what a crime-fiction reader should enjoy before he or she dies.
Often part of the problem is deciding which work best represents a writer’s talents. In the case of James M. Cain, for instance, how do I choose between The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) and Double Indemnity (1943)? And for Erle Stanley Gardner, should I suggest a Perry Mason novel such as The Case of the Perjured Parrot (1939), or one of his delightful Bertha Cool-Donald Lam detective stories—perhaps Owls Don’t Blink (1942)?
Another thorny issue: balancing U.S. novels against those by writers elsewhere. Who do I sacrifice, American Stephen Greenleaf (Blood Type, 1992) or Australian Arthur W. Upfield (The Bone is Pointed, 1938)? Kris Nelscott (A Dangerous Road, 2000) or Brit John Harvey (Lonely Hearts, 1989)? Helen McCloy (Through a Glass, Darkly, 1950) or Swede Stieg Larsson (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, 2008)?
And what about making sure that the entire range of crime fiction—from traditional mysteries and noirish yarns to foreign espionage thrillers, hard-boiled detective tales and more cozy-ish fare—is covered? In 100 books? Are you kidding me?
I envy critics confident or foolish enough to make up these sorts of must-read lists. Really, I do. Just don’t ask me to join their ranks.