‘Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.’ Crime novels need to have gripping openings, and the first line of Graham Greene’s novel is considered by many to be one of the best in literature. Featuring teenage sociopath ‘Pinkie’, and encompassing Greene’s traditional themes of Catholicism, moral decay, and redemption, the book has inspired two screen adaptations to date and many devoted fans. Bestselling Brighton crime writer Peter James says it’s his favourite book.
You should read it: to decide whether you prefer Greene doing crime or doing literary agonising (eg The End of the Affair); to admire his crafting of antihero Pinkie; to see a woman taking on the role of ‘detective’ in the form of stalwart Ida; for tips on how to create a (literally) killer opening.
Forget the Da Vinci code. Long before Dan Brown put pen to paper, this novel by Italian author Umberto Eco was playing with the notion of signs and symbols. A series of murders takes place in a remote Italian monastery in the year 1327. Using logic and deduction, Friar William of Baskerville solves the mystery. A nod to Holmes in his name perhaps? Narrated by Watson-like sidekick Adso, the novel takes in semiology, biblical mysteries, and the postmodern idea of palimpest.
You should read it: to see that a crime novel can also be literary, and vice-versa; for the rich historical detail; for the layers of meaning and dense literary and mythical allusion.
If you thought the film was dark, try this – a hundred times more shocking and visceral, with some added child murder, mutilation, torture and so on. A group of LAPD officers get embroiled in the dark underbelly of the city following a shooting in a late-night coffee shop. In luminous, violent prose, James Ellroy twists the plot strands of the three policemen leads, and skillfully juggles their encounters with prostitutes, broken women, corrupt child stars, abusers, and worse.
You should read it: if you need an antidote to cosy crime; if you thought the film was a little too tame for you; if you want to see how to handle multiple plot strands, long timelines, and a shifting viewpoint that leaves no one free from the shadow of corruption.
We can’t have a crime list without Sherlock Holmes, perhaps the most enduring character in crime fiction. His deerstalker, pipe, and ‘elementary’ deductions have spawned plays, films, TV series, musicals, and more. In recent years they’ve been revamped with spin-off novels. What’s the speckled band? What is the Musgrave ritual? And why did the King of Bohemia need Holmes’s help? These mysteries and more are solved in the four novels and 56 short stories that make up the collection.
You should read it – for enjoyment! To remember why people love crime fiction’s puzzles and solutions. To see how to create an enduring character that is so beloved you have to bring them back after you’ve killed them off, due to popular demand (see also Misery…).
David Peace’s quartet of books are set in Yorkshire in the seventies and eighties. The books – 1974, 1977, 1980 and 1983- deal with different aspects of the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper, which Peace has described as an obsession and key influence for him from childhood. Following corrupt cops, disillusioned journalists, and beleagured lawyers, the books chart a dark period in the history of the north. Peace’s other books, notably The Damned United, have skipped between fiction and non-fiction, and likewise the quartet skirts real-life darkness in a chilling and captivating way.
You should read it because: of the dazzling use of language; the pared-down characterisation, dialogue and description; the sheer darkness within; to see how to handle grim material with a masterful literary touch.
The basis for two films, a radio adaptation, and a stage play, Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 bestseller has become the blueprint for the ‘sympathetic anti-hero’ novel. Tom Ripley is dissatisfied with his life, scraping by in New York. When he gets the chance to visit Italy he jumps at it, pretending to a rich man that he’s friends with his playboy son, Dickie Greenleaf. Tom is soon charmed by Dickie’s sybaritic life and beautiful girlfriend Marge – but when he realises his new friend is tiring of him, he kills him with an oar then sinks the boat they’re on. From then on he takes over Dickie’s life.
You should read it because: it inverts the traditional format where we follow the detective character and root for the killer to be caught; it helped to forge the modern psychological thriller; it’s a masterclass in how to work with anti-heroes.
One of Stephen King’s rare straight novels – not an alien or monster in sight – Misery has a special place in the heart of every King fan, partly due to the chilling film with Kathy Burke. Paul Sheldon is a popular romantic novelist – only trouble is, he’s sick of ‘Misery’, his lead character. After a car accident he’s taken in by his biggest fan. Unable to move, at first he’s well cared for, until his nurse/captor discovers he has killed off Misery. Now Paul has to write a whole new book, with his biggest fan looking over his shoulder – and she’s got a big hammer….
You should read it because: every writer secretly wants to have a fan so devoted they might keep you prisoner until you write the book they want; it’s a brilliant thriller; it makes excellent use of a small, restricted location – Paul is bedbound for most of it; and it’s by turns terrifying and funny.
A slightly overlooked literary thriller, David Guterson’s award-winning 1994 novel is a thoughtful look at a community torn apart by the legacy of the second world war. Set on a small island off North America in 1954, the novel is part courtroom drama, part intimate portrait of a small town. A German-American fisherman’s boat is found with the owner dead, and a Japanese-American islander is accused of his murder. The two have an uneasy history due to both the war and disputes over land ownership. With a host of wonderful characters, including Ishmael, the editor of the local paper, who lost an arm in the war and is in love with the accused’s wife, the crime is eventually solved in a surprising way.
You should read it: in case you need to refute the oft-made statement that crime can’t be literary; to see how to use flashbacks to help the denouement unfold; to learn about combining beautiful prose with a breathless narrative; and finally to remind yourself what crime writing is really about – loss, and history, and the truth.
Sarah Waters’s brilliant evocation of the Victorian world is full of mirrors and tricks, featuring two female leads whose lives are linked inextricably in ways which they could never imagine. Susan has grown up in a den of thieves, the ‘fingersmiths’ of the title, raised by fearsome Mrs Sucksy. She’s drawn into a plot to marry the mysterious Gentleman to a wealthy heiress, Maud, by posing as her maid. But she soon realises her feelings for Maud are not what they should be – and that she is just as much a pawn as the other girl.
You should read it: to see how to blend erotica with crime fiction; for the dazzling double-crosses; to see how to use voice and unreliable narration to build breathtaking suspense.
A publishing phenomenon that began the Millennium trilogy; the author, deceased before publication, had a life at least as exciting as any character in a crime novel. Mikael Blomkvist, a tough investigative journalist, is suspended after losing a libel case, when he’s invited to a remote Swedish island by a rich industrialist. He wants to know what happened to his granddaughter, who went missing as a teenager years before. The island was sealed off that day for a festival, so it must be someone in the extended family who killed Harriet, if she is dead. But who? Teaming up with brilliant hacker Lisbeth Salander (the girl of the title), Mikael delves into the dark secrets of the family.
You should read it because: it’s a brilliant reworking of the locked room or country house mystery; it has the original ‘strong female lead’; and it unflinchingly examines the nature of violence in crime fiction, especially against women (the original Swedish title was ‘Men who Hate Women’).