Sunday 3 May 2020

My Top Ten Crime Novels

A Facebook friend issued me a challenge this week to come up with my top ten favourite crime novels.

I immediately broke the rules of the challenge — I was supposed to post the cover of one book per day, and pass the challenge on to someone else. I didn't.

But I did come up with a top ten list which I thought I'd share with you...

I have imposed some rules of my own — keep it down to ten, and only one novel per author, otherwise at least half the writers on this list would have had multiple titles. So here we go:

Raymond Chandler — The Big Sleep. Certainly the Howard Hawks movie starring Bogart and Bacall didn't hurt this novel's prospects, but it was always a clear winner. The opening sequence where Marlowe meets General Sternwood in the greenhouse is unforgettable.

Agatha Christie — Murder in Retrospect (aka Five Little Pigs). This is not only a brilliantly clever whodunnit, it is also beautifully written with powerfully realistic and complex characterisation. And it is easily the finest of the many Christies I've read so far. Its only weakness is the silly title which invokes an irrelevant nursery rhyme. Hence my preference for the American Murder in Retrospect.

Dick Francis — Enquiry. I've read a lot of Dick Francis but this was the first and it remains most vivid in my memory, not least for the brilliant description of the hero's love interest, and the incredibly harrowing sequence where he almost gets chopped in half by a train.

Dashiell Hammett — The Maltese Falcon. If I had to choose just one crime novel as the greatest of them all, this would be it. It's coming up for a hundred years old but still feels fresh, sharp, modern and deeply cynical. Again, the great Bogart movie (directed by John Huston) does no harm to its reputation. This is the book that gave us the private eye novel as we know it.

Thomas Harris — Red Dragon. If Hammett created the private eye novel, this is the book that introduced serial killers and profilers into the literature and into the language. Before Harris did his research, no one had heard of any such things. After this book — and its sequel The Silence of the Lambs — they were suddenly tropes, with literally thousands of imitators. Astoundingly well written. Harris is a genius.

Ira Levin — A Kiss Before Dying. A masterpiece of suspense literature by one of the best writers in this (or any) genre, featuring one of the most ingenious narrative tricks ever devised for a crime novel. The psychopathic killer at the heart of the story is both unforgettably evoked and cunningly concealed from the reader. Levin moved on to writing classics of supernatural horror (Rosemary's Baby) and science fiction (The Stepford Wives) but he would return to pure crime and suspense for his late gem Sliver.

John D. MacDonald — The Drowner. I've read something like sixty novels by John D. MacDonald and I think there was only one dud in the whole bunch. A truly extraordinarily gifted writer, he's largely forgotten today but his influence lives on in the work of Thomas Harris, who has modelled his superlative prose style at least in part on MacDonald's and also in the work of Stephen King, who is influenced by MacDonald's subject matter, notably in this book.

Philip MacDonald — X v Rex (aka Mystery of the Dead Police). A serial killer novel before the term existed (1933). Philip MacDonald was a master craftsman who wrote dozens of crime novels under his own name but used a pseudonym ('Martin Porlock') for this one, perhaps because it was so darkly outrageous. It's the tale of a psychopath who decides to begin killing policemen at random... Terrifyingly modern.

Charles Willeford — Miami Blues. Ah, Charles Willeford. In a list of writers who are no strangers to dark humour, Willeford is the darkest and funniest. Labouring in the world of cheap paperback fiction he had been writing extraordinary, indelible novels for years (like Pick Up). This was his breakthrough to the big(ger) time, about a Miami cop called Hoke Mosely who would become his series character.

Charles Williams — The Sailcloth Shroud. Williams is a recent discovery of mine, and he immediately ranks with the best. This is a characteristic story of an innocent man caught up in murderous machinations and being hunted by both the police and the bad guys. Beautifully written, occasionally hilarious, and tremendously suspenseful.

(Image credits: The Maltese Falcon is from Facsimile Dust Jackets. The Big Sleep is from the same site. A Kiss Before Dying ditto. X v Rex? You guessed it. The hardcover of Murder in Retrospect? Yup. However, the Dell paperback is from Good Reads. Enquiry is from JW Hubbers' excellent Dick Francis site. The Corgi paperback of Red Dragon is from Good Reads. The Ballantine paperback of Miami Blues is also from Good Reads. The Drowner is also from there. The Sailcloth Shroud is my own scan of my own copy. The Spanish edition of X v Rex is from the fine Tipping My Fedora site.)


  1. I've never been big on crime and mystery novels, but your postings may allow me to dig in without fear of reader's remorse. As I just discovered, the Toronto Public Library system shelves a book titled 100 Must-Read Crime Novels (Richard Shephard) on its racks. It would be interesting to see how it stacks up against your list.

    Of course, your own terrific 'Vinyl Detective' series, from which I've read the first two books, with the third next in the queue, should have been the light....

  2. Thank you! Not least for your generous remarks about my own books. Do please let me know if there's any overlap between the Toronto Library list and mine!

  3. You are most welcome.
    I'll be sure to match lists once I can grab that book. By the way, a friend of mine likes your blog -- he's a Charles Williams fan.