Ruth Ware, Abir Mukherjee, Lisa Jewell and more on the best crime novels

It’s not exactly a secret that crime novels have been experiencing a boom over the last few years, but the genre has experienced yet another explosion of popularity more recently, since the end of lockdown. As The Guardian reports, the last two weeks of June 2020 saw such an increase in sales for the genre that it surpassed both general fiction and children’s fiction. There’s never been a better time to get into crime fiction.

Of course, nobody knows the power of the genre better than its writers, so we got in touch with a host of them to ask for their favourite or most formative crime books ­– a must-read list for the crime aficionado, or a perfect jump-off point for readers new to the genre.

Ruth Ware on ‘The Speckled Band’ by Arthur Conan Doyle (1892)

The first proper crime story I can remember encountering was Arthur Conan Doyle's ‘The Speckled Band’, from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which my mum (with commendable optimism) read to me and my sister as bedtime story when I was around 8. Obviously I did not sleep for about a week, so terrified of midnight whistles and mysterious sudden deaths that I could not risk closing my eyes even for an instant.

Something about the terror of that “low whistle” still haunts me 30-odd years later – and gave me a lifelong love of the locked room mystery.

Ruth Ware is the author of One by One and The Turn of the Key.

Abir Mukherjee on Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith (1981)

I first read Gorky Park in the mid 1980s. Arkady Renko, an inspector in the Moscow militia, is called to investigate the murder of three people found frozen in the snow of Gorky Park. All have been shot, the tips of their fingers removed, and their faces skinned. When I first came across it, this was like no thriller I’d read before. Not only was it a tightly plotted, page-turning police procedural, it also offered so much more: a glimpse into the world beyond the Iron Curtain and the life of a Moscow detective – the politics, the humdrum of bureaucracy and the need to kow-tow to the KGB. Most importantly, it was a book about a good man working to uphold a corrupt and evil system he didn’t believe in. When, almost 30 years later, I’d come to write the Sam Wyndham novels, that was something I’d strive to echo.

Abir Mukherjee is the author of A Rising Man and the Sam Wyndham series.

Lisa Jewell on After You’d Gone by Maggie O’Farrell (2000)

The book that I think flicked the switch that led me on the path from romantic comedies to psychological thrillers was not so much a psychological thriller as a tantalising mystery. After You’d Gone by Maggie O’Farrell was ground-breaking at the time of its publication in the way it painted family trauma and dark secrets into an intricate layering of seemingly unconnected vignettes. Such a delicate book, yet I read it like a steamroller, breathlessly turning the pages, desperate to know and to understand everything. A book that can draw pictures fine as gauze but rip your heart out at the same time is truly something to be inspired by.

Lisa Jewell is the author of The Family Upstairs and I Found You.

Kate Riordan on In the Woods by Tana French (2013)

All my most beloved books seem to be populated by characters who are haunted and damaged by their pasts, so it makes sense that my favourite crime novels are of the cold case variety. Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories springs instantly to mind but I’m a huge fan of Tana French, and her first Dublin Murder Squad book, In the Woods, blew me away with its opening passage about lost childhood summers. All her books are perfectly plotted and effortlessly clever, but it’s the intricately-layered characters and vivid evocation of Ireland that make them unforgettable.

Kate Riordan is the author of The Heatwave and The Stranger.

Alex Pavesi on The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy

It’s hard to pick a favourite crime novel, but The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy is definitely one of the greats. It wasn't my first – I'd read a few classic murder mysteries before coming to it – but this was something very different. A fictionalised account of the investigation into a real-life murder in 1940s Hollywood, this is noir in the true sense: no redemption, no heroes and definitely no happy ending. The writing is visceral and energetic, and the plot comes together perfectly.

Alex Pavesi is the author of Eight Detectives.

Denise Mina on The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain (1934)

I love The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain with an enduring passion. As a schoolgirl I was made to read a lot of romantic literature, Wuthering Heights and Tennyson’s poetry, but then I read this. I love the sparse language and the bleak honesty. I can still taste the food and feel the prickle of straw on the floor of the pickup Frank arrives in. For me, the yearning between Frank and Cora was more existential than sexual. Because of the film adaptations, James M. Cain is sometimes overlooked as a literary figure, The Postman Always Rings Twice is about the lost and the desperate, about crime as nihilism and the impossibility of justice.

Denise Mina is the author of The Less Dead and Conviction.

John Harvey on LaBrava by Elmore Leonard (1983)

When asked why he turned to writing crime fiction, Elmore Leonard said it was because there was no longer a market for westerns. I could say the same. Between 1976 and 1983, under a slew of pennames, I wrote some 50 pulp westerns. Then nothing. I tried inventing a private eye but he died on the page: crime fiction, I thought, was not for me. Then I discovered Leonard, crime that was so much fun to read I thought it might be fun to write. Fiction that lived through its characters, through their conversation. Invidious to choose a favourite, but LaBrava, with its photographer protagonist and faded femme fatale, just might be the best.

John Harvey is the author of Lonely Hearts and the Resnick series.

Jessica Moor on A Place of Execution by Val McDermid (2009)

The great thing about a crime novel is the way it can drill straight to the heart of a place, a time, a worldview. For my money, none does this better than Val McDermid’s A Place of Execution. Like the wintry Peak District landscape it depicts, the novel is chilling in its bleak clarity. McDermid spins a terrific yarn, but she does so much more: old world collides with new, rule of law with private justice, the voiceless assert themselves against the powerful. Everything that’s fascinating in crime, everything that’s fundamental in fiction.

Jessica Moor is the author of Keeper.

For more on crime and thriller books, visit Penguin’s Dead Good website, where you’ll find recommendations, discounted books at bargain prices and exclusive giveaways.

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