Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Off the back of the CWA shortlist, here's ten of my favourite crime novels

The Crime Writers Association (CWA) is in the process of choosing the best crime novel of all time (here). A few days ago it came up with its short list of the ten best, accoring to its 600 members. And a fine list it is, too. I’ve read eight of them, and I’ve no argument with any of the octet: in fact, at least three of them  - The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Big Sleep and The Moonstone – would definitely be in my Top Ten. Here's the complete list:

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith
The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayers
The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
On Beulah Height by Reginald Hill

On Beulah Height is one of the Dalziel and Pascoe novels, to which I have no objection. But I have to admit that, despite numerous attempts to read Dorothy L. Sayers' novels, I find it impossible to believe that any self-respecting copper wouldn’t drag Lord Peter Wimsey off to the cells for a severe duffing up within five minutes of meeting the pompous twit: he is undoubtedly the most irritating “detective” in all of crime fiction.

The CWA list got me thinking, and I’ve come up with a personal alternative Top Ten. They're not meant to be better - they're just crime books (spilling over into spy and thriller fiction) that I loved on first reading, have re-read at least once, and would be only too happy to read again. When it comes to this sort of fiction, I'm not much interested in either fine writing (although most of them are brilliantly written) or in the solution to a mystery (although there are some great mysteries among this lot): I suspect it's mainly the atmosphere of these books that continue to enthral me:

The Chelsea Murders by Lionel Davidson (1978) - murder among art students in seedy Chelsea – clever, witty, cynical, enormously atmospheric and actually quite scary.

Farewell My Lovely by Raymond Chandler (1940) - this is the Philip Marlowe novel I’ve re-read most often – a delight from the wonderful first scene where Marlow encounters giant ex-con Moose Malloy.

Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (1980) – Franciscan friar tries to figure out who’s bumping off monks in 1327 – could have been horribly pretentious, but it works on every level.

Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth (1971) – we know the assassin doesn’t succeed in killing de Gaulle, and the writing style is at best perfunctory, yet the book is ridiculously compelling throughout – and it counts as a crime novel because the Jackal’s nemesis is a good old-fashioned cop.

The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (1955) – startlingly original tale of a clever but impoverished young New York sociopath who ends up rich in Greece

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carré (1974) – okay, Smiley’s a spy, but in this, he’s a classic detective trying to figure out which of a range of suspects dunnit.

Before the Fact by Francis Iles (1932) – lonely English woman living with her parents in the country marries a wrong ‘un – formed the basis of the Hitchcock film, Suspicion.

Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler (1944) – English crime novelist in istanbul becomes interested in the life of a master criminal whose body has just been washed up on the shores of the Bosphorous – or has it! 

Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey (1951) - police detective stuck in hospital with a broken leg investigates the crime of Richard III using historical documents – original idea, brings history alive.

Miami Blues by Charles Willeford (1984) – down-at-heel Miami detective Hoke Mosley sets out to find the man who put him in hospital – Mosley’s an ordinary bloke, but enormously memorable - Willeford was a genius.

No, it's no good - I've had to leave out so many favourites, I'm going to have to come up with another alternative list...

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