There’s been a lot of comment online about the Crime Writer’s Association (CWA) list of the 10 Best Crime Novels of All Time, taken from a poll of their members to celebrate the CWA’s 60th birthday. Much of the debate has been around what it does and doesn’t include; but I was particularly disappointed that the list was so predictable. I guess that’s what happens when you put something to the wider vote – you lose the intimacy and the personality of an individual’s choices. Reading one of these lists, I want to be surprised and lead down a new path that I haven’t trodden before – which is surely the point of all fiction, not just the crime genre.
So, in honour of our recent anniversary (WAYRF was 6 months old last week – fancy that!), I decided to put together my own list. Initially excited at the prospect, it quickly became apparent how hard it was narrowing the field down to just 10 titles. In the words of Neil Gaiman, ‘picking 5 favourite books is like picking the 5 body parts you’d most like not to lose.‘
But I did it, and here it is. It’s based on a policy of one author, one book (unlike the CWA list, which features two by Raymond Chandler; God love him, but I think this is a bit of a cheat); I’ve also deliberately left out some of the classics (The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon and The Moonstone among them). I’ve taken my cue here from Desert Island Discs, which supplies you with a copy of the Bible (or other holy book of choice, presumably) and Shakespeare’s complete works alongside the book you want to take with you. It’s my attempt to try and avoid some of the predictability that I talked about above.
Oh, and the list is arranged in chronological order, for no other reason than I had to organise it somehow.
1) GBH (1980) by Ted Lewis. Lewis is best known as the author of Jack’s Return Home, the source novel for 70s Michael Caine gangster-flick Get Carter. But it’s his last novel that is his most powerful, a hallucinatory story featuring an underworld protagonist in a very, very bad place indeed. Whilst his search for the traitor within is ultimately successful, it comes at a very high price, and the blurring of truth and illusion in the book in incredibly well done. It’s the sort of book likely to give you nightmares, which in my twisted book amounts to a recommendation. You can find more of my thoughts on Lewis here.
2) How the Dead Live (1986) by Derek Raymond. Book 3 in Raymond’s ‘Factory’ series turns the classic country house murder mystery on its head. The series’ unnamed Detective Sergeant heads out of London, to a small town where the local doctor’s wife has gone missing, and the locals are reluctant to talk. The country house is a mouldering pile, slowly being reclaimed by the countryside around it, and the final revelation of what happened to the missing woman is chilling, in a very literal sense.
3) Poison (1987) by Ed McBain. The first 87th Precinct book that I read, when I was around 14 or 15. I was immediately gripped by the blurb, which describes a man poisoned with nicotine. Reading the book, which has a squad of detectives at its heart rather than a lone maverick or genius amateur, was a revelation. It felt real, and I’ve admired the series ever since. McBain also portrays his (unnamed, but clearly based on New York) city as another character in the drama, the changing seasons and weather adding further realism.
4) Sideswipe (1987) by Charles Willeford. You don’t often read crime novels about policemen suffering from nervous breakdowns, but that exactly what Hoke Moseley is doing here. Or is he? And is his behaviour an elaborate ruse to get away from his teenage daughters, heavily pregnant partner and demanding boss? Willeford draws his characters incredibly skilfully, nowhere more so than the odd collection of individuals that make up villain Troy Louden’s ‘criminal’ gang. The build up to the confrontation between Louden and Moseley is slow and deliberate, resulting in a violence that finally shakes Moseley out of his ennui.
5) The Big Nowhere (1988) by James Ellroy. This book is the second in Ellroy’s first L.A Quartet (a second begins next Autumn with the publication of Perfidia). It’s noir pulp turned up to the max, and features a murderer who bites his victims with dentures made from animal teeth, investigations into Commie sympathisers in Hollywood, and the far-reaching tendrils of the underworld. Two stand-out aspects of the book: the character of obsessed Detective Danny Upshaw, whose final fate is truly tragic, and who pays the ultimate price for his commitment to the job; and on the final page, the description of Los Angeles as ‘just a neon smear in his rear view mirror.’ Exceptional.
6) Eye of the Cricket (1997) by James Sallis. Book 4 in the Lew Griffin series, and the first one that I read – I later went back and made sure I took the books in order. Griffin is a remarkable central character, and the series jumps between different eras of his life. There’s something of the resonance of myth about Cricket; part of it concerns Griffin’s search for his missing son, a quest that eventually leads to him descending into his own personal underworld. The book (and the others in the series) tackle some dark themes, but there’s great humanity there, too, and Sallis depiction of New Orleans is remarkable.
7) Nineteen Eighty (2001) by David Peace. Peace’s ‘Red Riding’ quartet is the British equivalent of Ellroy’s LA series, and similarly the books’ power magnifies when read together. But Nineteen Eighty is the most unified of the four, with Peace employing a single protagonist. Peter Hunter is a Senior Detective brought it to assist the West Yorkshire force with the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper. Hated right from the beginning, Hunter encounters a wall of silence and corruption, with foundations that lie buried in the past. The fact that Part 1 of the book is entitled ‘Saint Cunt’ – Hunter’s nickname – gives you some hint of the darkness which follows.
8) The Guards (2001) by Ken Bruen. I only started reading Bruen recently, having heard good things about him for a very long time. The Guards didn’t disappoint; simultaneously lyrical and economical, heartfelt and heartless, it is a book which doesn’t pull its punches. It’s also a book soaked in booze, and one which gives the lie to the idea of the Irish as a nation of happy-go-lucky drunks, revealing dark truths behind the endless pursuit of hard liquor. You can read my longer review of The Guards here.
9) The One from the Other (2006) by Philip Kerr. This book marked the return of Berlin-based PI Bernie Gunther, after a 15-year absence, and is easily as good as the original trilogy. Kerr always said he created Gunther by imagining what Raymond Chandler would have written had he lived in 1930s Germany, and whilst the wisecracks are firmly in place in this book, what defines it from the competition is the extraordinary plot (which had me laughing on the train in surprise, much to my fellow commuters’ annoyance) and Kerr’s use of period slang. Set in 1949, it’s a remarkable, uneasy recreation of the period.
10) Dead Money (2011) by Ray Banks. I love Ray Banks. Dead Money is the second of his books that I’ve read, following on from a terrific novella called Gun. I like him because he’s a very British writer, and his books are set in a world I recognise, albeit one shifted slightly to the left. In Dead Money (and isn’t that just the best title you ever heard?), anti-hero and double-glazing salesman Alan Slater helps an increasingly unhinged friend dispose of a body, a favour which leads to Slater’s life falling increasingly apart. Dead Money is the blackest of black comedies; and if that weren’t enough, it’s also cheap as chips, and available from the good people at Blasted Heath.