If you are looking for a list of crime novels to take to the beach this summer other than the ones on the bestseller list, here are 11 books to consider. As the author of a novel that pays homage to Georges Simenon, Raymond Chandler, and Jim Thompson (all of whom I've accordingly included on this list), it should be no surprise that my taste in crime fiction is more focused on the past than the present. But like a good radio mix station, I've tried to include the greatest hits from the '80s, '90s, and today (and the '30s, and '40s, and 50s).
Georges Simenon wrote an estimated 200 novels. He divided those into <em>romans populaires</em> (popular novels), lighter mysteries usually about the detective Inspector Maigret, and <em>romans durs </em>(hard novels), philosophical tales of crime. <em>The Engagement</em>, one of Simenon's first hard novels, is about a scam artist and pornographer who becomes a suspect in a murder. He is at first unaware of the police's suspicions, because all of his attention is focused on the woman in the adjacent building, who he stalks and watches through the window at night. Simenon's ability to create sympathy for someone who is really a reprehensible person, and to turn his case into an indictment against society is astonishing.
Raymond Chandler should be read in full by everyone, and <em>The Big Sleep</em> (1939), his first novel, is the best place to start. But it's his second novel, <em>Farewell, My Lovely</em> that's my favorite. It starts with private detective Philip Marlowe literarily thrown into a bar just because he was passing by. The next moment, he's the witness of a murder. He begins to follow up on the case because he has nothing better to do, and soon he's tied up in another murder, a blackmail case, a drug ring, and offshore gambling. The whole thing is very messy, and a lot of it turns out to be only tangentially related, which makes it feel real.
<em>Nightmare Alley</em> traces the path of Stanton Carlisle, a young carnival magician, as he rises to the heights of vaudeville, sets up an elaborate con as a medium, and eventually loses everything. The novel's description of carnival life is a fascinating insider's look. (The novel is credited with introducing the word "geek," a person who bites off the head of chickens, to the general public.) It was included in the <em>Library of America's Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s</em>, and reissued by NYRB Books in 2010. Watching in horror as Carlisle abandons all morality is captivating.
Patricia Highsmith is best known for the masterpiece <em>The Talented Mr. Ripley</em> (1955), and <em>Strangers on a Train </em>is best known for its 1951 Alfred Hitchcock adaptation, but the novel <em>Strangers on a Train</em> was Highsmith's first, and she was already a master. Guy Haines and Charles Bruno happen to meet on a train. Bruno has a theory that a completely motiveless murder could never be solved, and he proposes to Haines that he will kill Haines's faithless wife if Haines will kill his father, so he can get his inheritance. In each murder, neither of them would have a motive, and there would be no connection between them since they only knew each other by chance. The perfect crime. Needless to say, there is no perfect crime.
Jim Thompson's first person narrators are usually unsympathetic psychopaths, apologizing for their crimes by blaming someone else. In <em>Savage Night,</em> Charles Bigger is a sociopath, but he has genuinely gotten out of his life as an assassin. Then The Man locates him and sends him on one last gangland murder. To get close to his target, Bigger takes a room at the boarding house where his target lives, and poses as a student at a teacher's college, actually going to classes, and working in a bakery at night. His ability to murder without thought, coupled with his reluctance to follow through on this particular murder makes Charles Bigger Thompson's most sympathetic narrator.
This is the book that gave us the Batman we know today. Set in a crime-ridden future after Batman has hung up his cape, Bruce Wayne is forced to once again take up the mantle in response to escalating gang activity. The first person narration is the epitome of hardboiled: "This would be a good death...but not good enough." And Miller's take on not just Batman, but Superman as well, is bleak and raw.
I started reading mysteries as soon as I could read, series like<em> Cam Jansen</em> and <em>The Boxcar Children</em>. But Sue Grafton was my first exposure to adult crime fiction, and <em>F is for Fugitive </em>was my first Grafton. In the sixth of the alphabet mysteries (Grafton's through V now), private detective Kinsey Millhone is hired to clear the name of a convicted murderer for a murder committed 17 years earlier. Grafton gives us a cast right out of Chandler: a dying father, an invalid mother, a jealous high school counselor, a town doctor, a former burglar, an alcoholic mother. Everyone seems to have an interest in keeping the case closed. When the final face off comes, the event is so shocking that I remember it vividly 23 years later.
Stephen King has gone on record many times over the last twenty years saying <em>A Simple Plan</em> is one of the best thrillers he's ever read, which is what got me to pick it up. It doesn't mean as much when I say it, but<em> A Simple Plan</em> is one of the best thrillers I've ever read. Scott Smith managed to take a Jim Thompson narrator, eliminate the anger, and make him so quiet that once the bodies start piling up, you have to look back and say, Did that really just happen? When two brothers and a friend find a bag of money in a crashed one-man airplane, they make a simple plan: tell no one and spend none of it for a year, and if no one comes looking for it, it's theirs. Is it that simple? I already mentioned the bodies.
Jonathan Lethem won the National Book Critics Circle award for this genre-bender about a small-time hood with Tourette's syndrome who is forced into the role of detective when his boss gets fatally stabbed. Lethem delivers a perfect Chandleresque mystery while detailing how Tourette's can completely shape a life, and the challenges it poses a detective.
Tana French's novel <em>Into the Woods</em> (2007) won four Best First Novel prizes including the Edgar, and with good reason. I read it and her second novel <em>The Likeness</em> (2008) back to back because I was so enthralled. One of the most interesting aspects of the books is their interconnectedness. Each novel takes as its protagonist a secondary character from the previous book instead of following the same police officer each time. It's the same kind of idea that I had when writing <em>The Twenty-Year Death</em>; what if there was a series of mystery novels that followed a character other than the detective? French's fourth novel promises to be every bit as brilliant as her first three.
My novel, <em><a href="http://www.amazon.com/Twenty-Year-Death-Hard-Case-Crime/dp/0857685813?tag=aolbooks-20" target="_hplink">The Twenty-Year Death </a></em>is three mystery novels in one. Set in 1931, 1941, and 1951, and written in the style of Georges Simenon, Raymond Chandler, and Jim Thompson respectively, the books tell the larger story of "Great American Novelist" Shem Rosenkrantz as he falls from the heights of critical acclaim and financial success to burned-out jobless hack. According to Stephen King, it's "Bold, innovative, and thrilling- <em>The Twenty-Year Death</em> crackles with suspense and will keep you up late."