by BJW Nashe

1. Dog Soldiers, by Robert Stone

Dog Soldiers Dog Soldiers may be the best thriller ever written by an American. Set in the tumultuous early 1970s, the story follows John Converse, a journalist on his way back to California from Vietnam, who decides that sending a shipment of heroin on ahead of him might be a good way to earn a small fortune. The deal goes horribly wrong, and Converse is swept up into a whirlwind nightmare featuring gung-ho soldiers, amoral drug dealers, corrupt DEA agents, and psychotic hippies. Dog Soldiers, which won the National Book Award in 1975, is both a gripping crime story and a profound exploration of post-sixties disillusionment — when the idealism of the civil rights and peace movements was obliterated by drug addiction, moral depravity, political corruption, and mass violence. Stone captures the era of Altamont, Manson, and the Weather Underground better than anyone else has. A must-read.


2. Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith

110_gorkyCruz Smith’s classic is set in late 1970s Moscow — a full decade before the eventual fall of the Iron Curtain, but you can already tell that the center will not hold. Homicide Investigator Arkady Renko seems to sense the inevitable Soviet slide. In the dogged, cynical, yet ultimately humanistic Renko, Cruz Smith has created one of the most compelling protagonists in all crime fiction. Arkady is assigned to a triple murder case when three corpses are discovered frozen solid in Gorky Park. When the murder trail leads to an American fur dealer, Arkady must navigate through a menagerie of shady characters that stretches from Moscow to New York City. He even manages to fall in love in the midst of all the intrigue. This sophisticated, vodka-drenched mystery, so rich in character and culture, accomplishes far more than the average, run-of-the-mill police procedural.


3. The Quality of Hurt and My Life of Absurdity, by Chester Himes

lifeWhat to do if you’re an intelligent African-American man who’s run afoul of the law, spent five years in the Ohio State Penitentiary, and is sick to death of Jim Crow racism? If you’re Chester Himes, you head over to France, travel around Europe, drink too much, chase beautiful women, and write a series of brilliant noir thrillers. In these two volumes — which basically constitute a single autobiography, Himes pulls no punches in telling how it all went down. Essential reading for anyone interested in the politics of race, the European literary scene in its existential heyday, and the life of one of America’s greatest crime writers.


4. American Tabloid, by James Ellroy
tabWhy not turn the Rat Pack Era and the Age of Camelot into a lurid, blood-drenched crime drama? Plenty of scandal, corruption, and violence comes ready-made with this material. All Ellroy has to do is apply his signature ultra-hardboiled style, crank up the intensity level, and presto, we have an assassination conspiracy novel so feverish that it makes Oliver Stone’s JFK film seem like an after-school sock hop. All the big players are here–the Kennedys, J. Edgar Hoover, Jimmy Hoffa, Howard Hughes, the Mob bosses. And Ellroy skillfully invents a whole cast of schemers, fixers, and thugs to do their dirty work. The language used to tell the tale is brutal and offensive; the rapid-fire prose and jittery pacing are relentless. Dense plotting unfolds like a flow chart from hell. At the end we’re not left wondering who really killed JFK, so much as we’re casting around for anybody who wasn’t somehow involved.


5. Mystic River, Dennis Lehane

riverLehane’s novel is an emotionally wrenching tour de force that explores the lives of three working class Boston men and their families. One man is struggling to deal with the emotional scars caused by his childhood abduction, a second is devastated by the murder of his nineteen year-old daughter, and a third is a homicide cop investigating the girl’s death. Lehane is clearly a master of plotting and suspense. What’s most impressive here, though, is the depth and compassion he uses to explore the thoughts and feelings of his characters. Lehane understands that daily life for “ordinary working Americans” is often not that “ordinary”. His prose can veer from rock hard to razor sharp, to cynically humorous, to richly poetic — often in the same paragraph. This is American realism striving to achieve the scope and grandeur of Greek tragedy within a rock-solid crime novel framework. Ultimately, Mystic River succeeds not just as modern noir, but as a gutsy requiem for the dreams of all Americans forced to confront the harsh realities of class and crime.


6. Baise Mois, by Virginie Despentes

meThink women can’t write disturbing crime fiction? We dare you to read Baise Moi (which  translates as “F—k Me”). Despentes is a well-known in France as a radical post-punk feminist author, filmmaker, and provocateur. Here she takes two reckless women, arms them with guns and a ton of attitude, and turns them loose on a thrill-seeking, nihilistic, sexually-charged crime spree. Picture Thelma and Louise as vengeful ex-prostitutes or sex-workers, starring in a French version of Natural Born Killers. This book delivers a swift kick in the groin to patriarchal society. The film version (co-directed by Despentes) featured a couple of porn actresses in the starring roles.



 7. Clockers, by Richard Price

richNobody writes dialogue better than Price. When his characters talk, they come alive on the page. They keep on talking in your ear even when you’re done with the book. In Clockers, Price alternates between two main characters as they grapple with the crack-addled mean streets of a tough New Jersey town called Dempsy. Strike Dunham is running a crew of dealers selling rocks on the street, but his panic attacks and dangerously unstable drug-king boss lead him to consider a possible change in lifestyle. Rocco Klein is a homicide cop six months away from retirement, struggling to curry favor from an actor who might portray him in a movie. Dunham and Klein’s treacherous paths of self-discovery and revelation intersect in a series of highly dramatic, nerve-shattering plot twists. This masterpiece of urban storytelling is both a searing character study and a clear indictment of American drug policy. There are no winners in the violent drug trade, and nobody ever wins the war on drugs.


8. Let it Bleed, by Ian Rankin

letEdinburgh in winter time is no place for sunny dispositions or happy talk. Detective John Rebus will never win any “employee of the month” awards. He drinks too much, has a smart mouth that tends to talk trash to those in charge, and likes the jagged, shambling sounds of the Rolling Stones at their peak in the early ‘70s. He also has a distinctive way of digging deep into the most baffling crime investigations. Here a possible kidnapping and double suicide launch him on a back-alley pub crawl that leads takes us through the underbelly of Scottish society all the way up the ladder of power. Rankin has re-invigorated the British crime novel by incorporating elements of the best American noir, injecting a serious dose of rock and roll energy, keeping the IQ level high, and never taking his foot off the gas pedal. Let it Bleed is one of his best. Should be prescribed by doctors to anyone caught bemoaning the current state of crime fiction.


 9. The Snowman, by Jo Nesbo

snowingNesbo’s Detective Harry Hole is the Norwegian cousin of Rankin’s Rebus. Both are lone wolves with problematic reputations. Hole’s drinking problem is much more severe, though. Hole intersperses his brilliant crime investigations with deadly alcoholic binges, frequently emerging from blackouts to somehow pick up the pieces and get on with his nightmarish but strangely addictive job. All of Nesbo’s books are worthwhile, but The Snowman marks a definitive step forward in terms of overall plotting, depth of character, and level of suspense. Hole’s attempt to solve a series of murders lead him into a dense maze of tangled psycho-sexual guilt and obsession.


10. Bangkok 8, by John Burdett

bangHorrific crime, wry black comedy, Buddhist philosophy, and Thai exotica are blended together in this shrewd concoction. Burdett’s first-person narrative, from the endearing perspective of Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, is one of the most compelling voices in modern crime–alternately amused, cynical, outraged, and humorous. He frequently addresses his farang (foreign) readers directly, as he patiently explains the absurdity of his travails. The juxtaposition of Buddhist meditation, acceptance, and nonchalance with the lurid, peep-show decadence and corruption of Bangkok is both insightful and entertaining. The story starts off with a man locked inside a car and executed by cobra bites. It only gets more bizarre from that point forward.


11. Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn

nightThis powerful piece of crime fiction takes an In Cold Blood style Kansas family farm massacre and updates it to include our contemporary obsession with Satanic cult killings. The narrator, Libby Day, survived the murder-spree 25 years ago. Her brother is in jail for the crimes. Narrating from the present day, with flashbacks to the day of the tragedy, Libby lets us in on her current dilemma: a group of amateur sleuths and true crime fanatics called the Kill Club don’t believe her brother is guilty. They offer Libby money to help find out the truth, which leads to a gripping confrontation with the dark side of Middle America. A tremendous book by a great writer. Flynn is getting more famous each year, and she deserves it.


 12. Sick City, by Tony O’Neill

the sickAn outlandish, grotesque display of cutting edge fiction straight from the bowels of Los Angeles. The story involves a couple of drug casualties who meet in rehab and end up trying to cash in on what they think is a secret Sharon Tate group-sex film. Needless to say, this scheme has its downside. O’Neill’s book reads like Celebrity Rehab turned into an x-rated Tarantino freakfest. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the new gonzo noir style, which uses extreme dark humor as a filter for the worst tendencies of contemporary culture. O’Neill’s throw down on the ridiculous, exploitative pretensions of media recovery gurus is highly worthwhile.


3 Responses to Best Crime Fiction: Twelve Remarkable Crime Novels

  1. Jo-Anne says:

    They sound liked some bloody great books

  2. Some interesting choices here. Nice job! If interested in TRUE New York gangland stories, I have a new, FREE (of course) blog post on the subject. I was born and raised in Brooklyn, and then became a NY cop.

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