Attending crime-fiction events such as last month’s Bouchercon in St. Louis reminds me of how different other readers’ experiences can be from my own. Just because I have enjoyed the works of, say, Raymond Chandler, Robert B. Parker, Sara Paretsky, Erle Stanley Gardner, Jim Thompson and Linda Barnes doesn’t mean that others have done the same. This came up during a conversation in St. Louis with a couple of first-time attendees, both of them fans of the genre, rather than authors or critics.
Catch up on your mysteries and thrillers with the last Rap Sheet.
The two women admitted rather sheepishly that they’d never once cracked the spines on books by Dashiell Hammett or Bill Pronzini, and had never even heard of such noteworthy wordsmiths as Don Winslow, Kris Nelscott and John Shannon. What a pity, was my initial thought. But then it occurred to me what pleasures these women still had ahead of them. They could read some of my favorite novels with an innocence about the contents that I was no longer able to summon. And I started to think about which mysteries and thrillers I’d love to read again for the first time. Not necessarily famous works, but those that lingered most in my mind after I set them aside.
Here are eight books I would include on that list:
The Jazz Bird, by Craig Holden (2001): Filmmaker Ken Burns’ recent public-TV documentary about the history of Prohibition reminded me of the sordid story of lawyer-turned-bootlegger George Remus. In 1927, Remus shot his estranged wife, Imogene, and then hired Charles P. Taft II, the son of former President William Howard Taft, to mount a dubious defense claiming that Rebus—who’d been cuckolded and bamboozled by Imogene during a short prison stint—was temporarily insane at the time he pulled the trigger. As I wrote of this novel upon its release, “Imagine an F. Scott Fitzgerald story as edited by James Ellroy and you get an inkling of The Jazz Bird’s multifaceted allure.”
The Chill, by Ross Macdonald (1964): Since his death in 1983, Macdonald (real name: Kenneth Millar) seems to have slipped from his former place among the Holy Trinity of U.S. detective novelists (Chandler and Hammett being the other two). This is downright criminal! The Chill, an intricately plotted yarn that finds Los Angeles gumshoe Lew Archer on the hunt for a half-mad bride—whose disappearance has opened up a trail of murder dating back 20 years—is filled with elegant prose, extraordinary empathy and a humanity still remarkable in this genre. Irish author John Connolly calls The Chill “a ‘nearly perfect’ crime novel.”
A Quiet Flame, by Philip Kerr (2008): British author Philip Kerr’s 2009 novel, If the Dead Rise Not, won him the Ellis Peters Historical Award, but for my money its predecessor was even better. A Quiet Flame finds Berlin ex-cop Bernie Gunther posing as a Nazi war criminal in order to escape Europe for Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1950. There he’s called upon to investigate the gruesome slaying of a young girl—a murder similar to one Gunther worked in the early ’30s. Kerr excels at bringing to life historical figures such as Eva Perón and Hitler henchman Adolf Eichmann, but it’s Anna Yagubsky, a beautiful young Jewish woman in need of Gunther’s help to find her lost relatives, who steals the show (and many a reader’s heart) in these pages.
Defend and Betray, by Anne Perry (1992): The horrific murder of General Thaddeus Carlyon and the subsequent admission, by his wife, Alexandra, that she bumped him off in a fit of jealousy, shocks Victorian London. Carlyon’s sister, though, believes that Alexandra is covering up somebody else’s crime, and seeks help from her friend, nurse Hester Latterly, to prove it. Hester, in turn, enlists barrister Oliver Rathbone and Thomas Monk—a policeman before he lost his memory in an accident, now working as a private inquiry agent—to the cause. But what they discover about the Carlyon family and the motive for this crime is even more stunning than the act itself. All is revealed in an uncommonly dramatic courtroom scene. This was the third of Perry’s Monk adventures.
The Eighth Circle, by Stanley Ellin (1958): Murray Kirk is a top-rung detective in Manhattan. He wouldn’t usually be interested in taking on the case of Arnold Lundeen, a vice cop who’s caught up in a huge corruption scandal. However, Kirk is drawn to Lundeen’s schoolteacher fiancée, Ruth Vincent. Before long, Kirk becomes more interested in being with Ruth than in helping her boyfriend. In fact, he reasons that if he could get Lundeen out of the way—somehow reveal the man’s guilt without leaving too many of his fingerprints on the act—he could have Ruth all to himself. Readers who like their P.I. fiction full of fisticuffs and firearms might be disappointed with The Eighth Circle. (When a gun is finally drawn deep into Ellin’s story, it turns out to be empty.) Yet this Edgar Allan Poe Award winner is an entrancing look past the clichés of detective fiction and a rich display of the faults of Gotham’s upper-crust.
A Small Death in Lisbon, by Robert Wilson (1999): Wilson presents parallel stories: one set in Portugal during World War II, the other unfolding around modern Lisbon. In the former, German industrialist Klaus Felsen is sent to Lisbon on behalf of the Nazi SS to corner the market on wolfram (aka tungsten), an element used in munitions manufacturing, which Adolf Hitler needs to prosecute his blitzkrieg. Felsen does better than expected, creating a powerful Portuguese bank and a business empire that outlast the Führer’s fall. Meanwhile, the second narrative begins with the slaying of Catarina Oliveira, a prestigious lawyer’s promiscuous offspring. Assigned to the case is Inspector Zé Coelho, whose delving into Catarina’s past sparks resistance from his supervisors, even as it reveals a family’s many secrets, leading up to Catarina’s killing as a final act of depravity and deceit. Wilson can be unsparing in his depictions of violence, yet other authors would do well to copy his methods of establishing captivating characters.
A Place of Execution, by Val McDermid (2000): Another thriller with joint story lines. The first follows the 1963 disappearance and presumed murder, in central England, of 13-year-old Alison Carter, and the ensuing investigation by green police inspector George Bennett. Beside that unrolls the modern tale of Catherine Heathcote, a go-getting journalist who’s composing a book about the Carter case, with Bennett’s cooperation. Just as that true-crime work is set for publication, though, Bennett retreats from the project and insists it be terminated. To discover what’s scared the aging cop, Heathcote digs again into the past, stumbling onto dark truths about a community’s efforts to avenge a wrong committed against one of their own.
The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett (1930): I can’t completely ignore the classics, and this tale of avarice, corruption, and the capricious limits of larceny and love ranks among the finest American detective works. It’s also the only novel-length adventure Hammett ever wrote about San Francisco private eye Sam Spade (though that character later appeared in three short stories as well as Joe Gores’ 2008 prequel, Spade and Archer). The Maltese Falcon established many of the most appealing conventions of P.I. fiction, which may be why it spawned three movie adaptations and remains popular seven decades after its debut.
Not surprisingly, the more I think about this topic, the longer my list grows. Really, how could I not want to bring fresh eyes to William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw (1977)? Or Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s The Silence of the Rain (2002)? And how about Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye (1953), Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna (1965) and Stephen Greenleaf’s Book Case (1990)?
But let me ask: Which crime, mystery and thriller works would you like to read again for the very first time?