I was an imaginative child. I read a lot.
I got into crime fiction when I was seven or eight and spent my pocket money on batteries so I could read by torchlight under the bedcovers. And like all slightly odd kids I wanted to emulate my literary heroes. Unfortunately, on the council estate in Northern England where I grew up, nobody was keen on joining in.
Looking back, I still can't understand it. What kind of eight-year-old would turn their nose up at the chance to spend the afternoon sitting in a rocking chair and knitting a scarf while trying to work out who poisoned the vicar of St Mary Mead?
Thankfully by the time I was a couple of years older (and for the sake of my dad's mental health) I had discovered that Americans wrote crime fiction as well. And they wrote it rather differently. It was loud. It was brash. It was dark streets and neon signs, fancy cocktails and dames with lipstick the colour of blood. It was, well, American.
Essentially, I didn't want to be Miss Marple any more (although the stockings were incredibly comfy). I wanted to be Philip Marlowe. Or Sam Spade. I wanted to be able to knock out a bad guy with one punch or say something witty in the face of death. I wanted to drive a car that purred along the mean streets. I wanted to pop into Sam's Diner and order pastrami on rye and a black coffee then shoot the breeze with Blousy Malone as she made suggestive comments about what to have for dessert.
I didn't know what any of it meant, of course. Shooting the breeze sounded distinctly dangerous and counter-productive. Pastrami-on-rye? I'm presuming that's some kind of sandwich. But boy did it sound sexy.
As the years have gone by and I've dipped in and out of the various schools of crime fiction from around the world, it has become increasingly clear that the boundaries are blurring. The best of British crime writers can do brash, ultra-violent and cool as well as anyone. The Scandinavians are producing noir so hard-boiled that you can use it to bend horseshoes.
It wasn't always so. The American and British schools used to be poles apart. Both were entertaining, but in markedly different ways. In British novels, a crime was an aberration. It was something that upset the balance of things, and tended to happen to bad people. It involved complicated poisons, ingenious alibis and an uncanny number of twins. It happened in stately homes in pretty rural villages and tended to be solved by a middle-class outsider who could figure everything out while doing a crossword and making scones.
In American novels, crime was a part of life. People were crooked, decent folk could get a hole blown in their guts as easily as somebody rotten to the core, and the kind of hero who put the pieces together usually had a taste for whisky, a soft spot for the ladies, and a never-ending supply of witty rejoinders.
As an adolescent, I knew which I preferred. I admired the traditional British crime novel and the intricacy of the plots, but the characters all seemed so one-dimensional and the heroes insufferably rich and smug. I was drawn to a world where characters could be introduced one moment and then blown away in a hail of bullets the next. It was all stiletto knives and squealing tyres, smoky bars and kohl-eyed, silk-stockinged hookers with hearts of gold.
These days, the differences are far fewer. British crime writing has moved away from cozy fireside tales and locked room mysteries. They're brutal. They're hard. They're set in the real world and there are no black and whites. The hero and the villain both recognise something of themselves in the other, and good people die in horrible ways.
There has been a change in America too. Sometimes, only one or two people will die in a novel, rather than the dozen or so disposable characters that seemed to be consistently bumped off in days gone by. The cops aren't such rule-breakers. There's paperwork to be considered. The cost of overtime. Test results can take a few days to come back from the forensics lab and fewer cops make wisecracks at crime scenes. I don't know if it's deliberate. It all just seems to be getting a bit more believable.
The world has got smaller since the 50s. We know more about other countries and cultures and crimes. We're a big homogenised melting pot of other people's corruptions, fears and notions of justice.
And it makes for a very interesting place to read crime fiction. Just don't ask me to make you a pastrami-on-rye. I've no bloody idea.
This is the first instalment in the superb Roy Grace series set in Brighton on Britain’s South Coast. It starts with a drunken bridegroom being buried alive by his friends as a stag-night prank. When his mates are killed before they can dig him up, Roy Grace faces a race against time to save him.
If you haven’t read the Detective Inspector Thom Thorne books this is a great place to start. X marks the spot - and when that spot is a corpse's naked back and the X is carved in blood, Detective Inspector Tom Thorne is in no doubt that the dead man is the latest victim of a particularly vicious contract killer.
Rankin is very much the king of British crime fiction and if you haven’t read him yet there is a big chunk of pleasure missing from your life. This is the book that made his hero, Detective Inspector John Rebus, a household name. It sees Rebus juggling four cases trying to nail one killer - who might just lead back to the infamous killer Bible John. And he's doing it under the scrutiny of an internal inquiry led by a man he has just accused of taking backhanders from Glasgow's Mr Big.
Everything written by Colin Dexter is worth your time but my personal favourite in the Inspector Morse series is this one. Morse is lying in a hospital bed gnashing his teeth with boredom when he begins to investigate the apparent murder of a local woman more than a hundred years before. It’s fiendishly clever.
Martyn Waites spends a worrying amount of time pretending to be a woman (he also writes with his wife Linda under the name Tania Carver) but this solo effort is gripping from the very off. Once a renowned investigative journalist, Joe Donovan’s life fell apart when his six-year old son disappeared without trace. Now a virtual recluse, Donovan is abruptly thrust back into the limelight when a teenage boy makes contact, in desperate need of his help.
Tartan noir gets no better than this. Set in Glasgow just after the war, it sees disenchanted ex-soldier Douglas Brodie try to save his childhood friend from the gallows in a dark, atmospheric tale.
Val’s name is a mark of quality on any book but my personal favourite is this one. Young girls are disappearing around the country, and there is nothing to connect them to one another, let alone the killer whose charming manner hides a warped and sick mind. Nobody gets inside the messy heads of serial killers like Val’s superb creation, Dr Tony Hill. You’ll be sleeping with the light on for a while after this one.
I don’t want to brag, but anything Scandinavia can do, we can do just as well - thanks to Steve Mosby. His superb standalone thriller is not so much about a girl being abducted – it’s about the one girl who came back. It’s a clever, atmospheric and terrifying tale that will turn your brain inside out.
Mari has taken the brave step of creating a protagonist quite unlike any you’ve read before, and come up with a hard-boiled, grisly but very human tale of death and justice in a North East town. It sees the enigmatic Kate Daniels trying to solve a brutal double murder to which she is dangerously and indelibly linked. You’ll get goosebumps.
The first in the Isle of Lewis trilogy, this thriller is so atmospheric that you’ll feel genuinely windswept and exhausted by the end of it. It sees Edinburgh detective Fin Macleod return to the island of his birth, where a childhood nemesis has been found brutally killed. On the island, Fin must face ghosts from his own dark past.
When a Cambridge student dramatically attempts to take her own life, DI Mark Joesbury realizes that the university has developed an unhealthy record of young people committing suicide in extraordinary ways. Young policewoman DC Lacey Flint is sent to work under-cover, posing as a depression-prone, vulnerable student. It’s a game of cat-and-mouse that will scare your pants off. It’s bound to be a movie soon but please read the book first. It’s unputdownable.
Everything written by Reginald Hill is better than every book not written by Reginald Hill. This may be my favourite but just try anything he wrote and you will be gripped.