There's a blonde in a dumpster behind a restaurant. There's a brooding aunt and a butler with a grudge. Standing in one corner is a laconic detective. By page three you can already guess that it was Colonel Mustard who did it in the dining room with the lead pipe.
Detectives solve mysteries, but sometimes tales of their exploits seem terribly predictable. When I sat down to write my own detective tale, the last thing I wanted was for everyone to be able to see the solution by the end of the first chapter. I wanted the thrill of the chase to persist, to keep pulling even jaded readers in.
One of the best things about having a book to promote is that you get invited to do posts like this. Ones where you don't have to talk about your own work (always a slightly embarrassing and self-aggrandizing task) but instead get asked to point and shout about other's excellent work.
So here are nine detective novels that inspired me, that helped me see how to keep my own writing fresh. All of them stray from the predictable path and wander into more complex territory, following clues across genres, and reaching beyond the limits of our expectations. A couple don't even feature detectives. Several find ways to laugh in the face of death. Every one of them is an essential read, even for people who don't read detective novels.
Storm Front by Jim Butcher
Considering I am, as an author, walking firmly in Jim Butcher's footsteps, it would be remiss not to start this list with his excellent Dresden Files. Fourteen books in, Jim Butcher been charting the adventures of Harry Dresden--described as the only man listed in the Yellow Pages under "Wizard"--since 2000's Storm Front. Blending supernatural action with noir-influenced private eye plots, the books consistently deliver thrills and twists aplenty. Highly recommended for those who wonder what Philip Marlowe would do if the girl in the dumpster had been left there by a vampire.
Shadow Unit by Emma Bull, Elizabeth Bear, Sarah Monette, Will Shetterly, Leah Bobet, and Holly Black
There's been a bit of press recently about the rise in popularity of binge watching and binge reading. Shadow Unit--a long-running series of tightly-plotted novellas structured to resemble a TV show--lets you combine the two. Written by a who's-who of supernatural thrillers, the series sucks you in as much with its lovable misfit cast as with its tense episodes, each one charting the course of FBI's Anomolous Crimes Task Force investigations. Recommended for anyone who's mainlined a series on Netflix recently.
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams
While obviously better known for The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams also turned his monumental talent to the mystery story with this novel, and it's sequel, The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul. Murderous editors, alien ghosts, and time travel are just a few of the problems that complicate Gently's attempts to save the human race. Recommended for people who are in the mood for, in the author's words, "a thumping good detective-ghost-horror-whodunnit-time-travel-romantic-musical-comedy-epic."
The City and The City by China Miéville
Having kicked the entire fantasy genre squarely in its most sensitive parts, Miéville has started working his way through other genres. The City and The City is his excellent police procedural. Tyador Borlú lives in a city that co-exists in the same physical space as another city in another country. Citizens must carefully ignore events occurring in this other city or face draconian retribution. When a murder transgresses this "cross-hatched" border, Borlú becomes embroiled in a mystery that is as taut as it is decidedly odd. Recommended for anyone who wished Prime Suspect was more heavily influenced by Kafka.
Finch by Jeff Vandermeer
One of my favorite books of all time, Vandermeer's Finch is a terrifying look at a murder investigation in the occupied city of Ambergris. John Finch, the titular character is a policeman working for the oppressive, horrifying gray caps--anthropomorphic mushrooms that rule the city with fungal thumbs. The only problem: If he solves the case he'll be killed. On the other hand, if he fails he'll be killed. Etched in glittering, fragmentary prose, Finch is a brilliant novel that traps its readers as neatly as it traps its protagonist. A must for anyone willing to take even half a step off the beaten path.
Men At Arms by Terry Pratchett
Terry Pratchett's career needs little help from me. He's both a master satirist and fantasist. However, perhaps less well know is his skill as a mystery writer. Men At Arms--my favorite of his Discworld novels--charts the antics of Ankh Morpok's city guard, led by the fantastically cynical Captain Vimes, as they stagger through political machinations, encounters with dragons, and fights with murderous clowns. Mysteries are rarely so funny, and the Discworld rarely so dark. Recommended for everyone who wishes Sherlock Holmes would crack a joke once in a while.
The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry
Reading Berry's The Manual of Detection feels like watching Harold Lloyd after he has accidentally blundered onto the set of The Maltese Falcon. Then the whole affair is further complicated by surreal cases such as "The Man Who Stole Tueday." Absurdist comedy meets knife-edge thriller and the reader watches entranced as Berry's protagonist, Charles Unwin, evolves from file clerk to master detective. Recommended for any cog that's ever wanted to tear the whole machine down.
Dead Famous by Ben Elton
In my twenties I was slightly shocked to discover that 90% of my political views had been inherited from a two-hour cassette of Ben Elton's stand-up comedy. Perhaps then it is no wonder that I enjoy the comedian's award-winning crime novels. In Dead Famous, Elton not-only spit-roasts reality TV over a blazing fire of satire, but he also manages to tell one of the best locked-room mysteries I've ever read. A must for anyone who's ever wished Survivor lived up to its name better.
The Oneiromatic Mosaic of Harry Potemkin by Mark Teppo
This one is a little bit of a stretch. Even the term "novel" doesn't quite fit. Postmodern, hyperlinked fever-dream is closer. Teppo takes a thriller, Kafka-esque surrealism, and New Age philosophy, shoves them in a blender, and reconstitutes the fragments into one of the most genuine detective experiences I have ever had. No PI's or policemen lurk in it's pages. Instead the readers becomes the detectives, constantly searching for a sense of the whole as they navigate from fragment to fragment. Always entertaining, always intriguing, Teppo's masterpiece is a must for any armchair detective looking for a real challenge.
Jonathan Wood is the author of the new book, No Hero.