Originally written for the Serpent’s Tail monthly newsletter.
Since I’ve written two CWA-award nominated crime novels with my third, Missing, hopefully to follow in their footsteps, people have begun asking me with regularity what books in the genre I enjoy. I don’t lay claim to any particular insight, but I do have some favorites, and I’d like to share my top five with you now.
1) No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy. It’s no exaggeration to say that reading Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men was a turning point in my writing life. Though not always considered a crime novel because of its literary pedigree, No Country is absolutely crime and crime of the first order. I won’t say I ape McCarthy’s style with my own, but I learned critical lessons about economy of words, stripped-down characterization and plotting… all the essentials to good storytelling. Other people may like certain of McCarthy’s works better, but this is my favorite of his.
2) The Hunter, by Richard Stark. I have yet to write a book with the punch of The Hunter. Few ever do. The (there it is again) economy of style and characterization are top-notch, and the action propulsive. Short by contemporary standards, The Hunter can be blasted through in a couple of hours, but they are such a good couple of hours. There’s a reason Parker, the antihero of the book, went on to star in 23 more books: he’s a fascinating thug we like watching fight his way to the top again and again. I only wish I had characters who stuck so well.
3) Hell Hath No Fury, by Charles Williams. In a world of James M. Cains and Richard Thompsons, Charles Williams is easily forgotten, but he was a noir master in the vein of those other two authors. His finest work was arguably this novel, in which a bad man blows into a small town with nothing but scams on his mind and ends up caught in a trap no amount of cleverness can escape. Everybody has their own favorite version of this kind of story, where impossible circumstances turn a hopeless sap’s life into a nightmare, and this one is mine.
4) Eight Million Ways to Die, by Lawrence Block. The kind of crime fiction I like is the kind that doesn’t necessarily have to wear that label. I like good books, and if they happen to feature crime and criminals, that’s how it shakes out. This, the fifth of the Matthew Scudder series, was originally meant to be the character’s swan song, so the book is full of significant moments which give it genuine power. Very few writers in or out of the crime genre tackle alcoholism with anything approaching realism, so my hat’s off to Block on that point alone. That the novel is also gripping and well-plotted is a bonus.
5) The Town, by Chuck Hogan. Originally titled Prince of Thieves, but renamed because of a movie adaptation, The Town is one of the best books I’ve read in the past ten years. Hogan evokes Boston so vividly you feel like you’ve been to the places he’s described and the plot functions like a handmade timepiece. Heist books come and go, but only a relative handful actually elevate themselves above the standard. I was totally engrossed in this book, and I suspect you will be, too.
And that’s my top five crime reads. Most are easy to come by, so you should be able to whisk them up and start reading right away. Let me know what you think by contacting me through my Facebook page or in a comment below.