An illustration of crime readers, holding a magnifying glass, etc, gathered around a table whose top is Richard Osman's novel 'The Man Who Died Twice'.
An illustration of crime readers, holding a magnifying glass, etc, gathered around a table whose top is Richard Osman's novel 'The Man Who Died Twice'.

The best examples of crime fiction allow us to explore our darkest fears from a safe place – the killer under the bed, a murderer's face in the kitchen window, footsteps in the hallway – and remind us that bad people usually face justice in the end, even if they do leave a trail of blood.

So here – from trailblazing novels and classic true-crime to great modern works that carry the torch – are some great reads for crime lovers.

The Jealousy Man by Jo Nesbo (2021)

He’s known as ‘The King of Scandi Crime’ for his deft, winding crime thrillers and his beloved series of novels following detective Harry Hole, but Jo Nesbo had never released a short story collection until this weighty tome. In The Jealousy Man, Nesbo weaves a series of taut, gripping stories that pack all of the intrigue, murder and revenge of his longer works into shorter, even punchier tales: one of a man accused of murdering his twin; one of an airplane meet-cute turned sinister; and plenty more. In these stories, readers will find one of crime’s best writers, distilled to his very essence.

You Don't Know Me by Imran Mahmood (2017)

In this scintillating debut novel, an unnamed defendant facing charges of murder – with seemingly insurmountable evidence against him – sacks his lawyer in the final moments of his trial in order to take the stand and tell his story himself: about the woman he loves, the trouble she faced, and what he had to do to save her. As a reader, you are a member of the jury, and across You Don’t Know Me’s You Don’t Know Me 400 pages, you’re forced to hear the defendant’s story and decide for yourself his fate. Mahmood’s gripping novel was named one of the best crime novels of the year by The Telegraph, and was shortlisted for the Glass Bell award in 2018; no wonder the BBC has now turned it into a major television series.

True Crime Story by Joseph Knox (2021)

In this original, captivating take on the crime genre, writer Evelyn Mitchell finds herself drawn to the years-old story of Zoe Nolan – who slipped away from a Manchester University party in 2011 and was never seen again – and, through interviews with Zoe’s family and friends, begins piecing the story together. But first, there are inconsistencies; then revelations of Zoe’s secret life; and, finally, a mysterious figure pursuing Evelyn, who turns to crime writer Joseph Knox – yes, our real-life author – to help make sense of dense, spiralling case. By inserting himself as a character, Knox subverts the usual crime formula, lending it a creative twist that blurs the line between crime fiction and true crime, fiction and reality.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1965)

In short, the most important true-crime book ever written (and second best-selling of all time). Which is to say, in telling the story of the brutal murders of four members of the same family in a Kansas farming community, Truman Capote created the “non-fiction novel” - or narrative non-fiction. It is a page-turner worthy of the best fiction, as he reports from the ground his encounters with many characters affected by the killing, as well as the killers themselves (with one of whom he developed an unlikely and fabled bond).

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman (2020)

Few books have made a bigger wave in the past few years than Richard Osman’s breakout debut novel, The Thursday Murder Club – in fact, it set a record in late 2020 for being the first debut novel ever to land at number one on the bestsellers chart at Christmas. That being said, it’s unsurprising: Osman’s debut is a charming, smart and gripping murder mystery about four pensioners who team up to solve the case after a property developer is found murdered in a retirement village in Kent. The inspiration came when Osman was visiting his mother’s care home, which explains the warm, genial tone of this sharply observed, one-of-a-kind crime novel. And, of course, Osman followed his success up the following year with a sequel: The Man Who Died Twice.

Snap by Belinda Bauer (2018)

This is one of the very few crime novels ever considered for the Booker Prize (it was longlisted in 2018), when judges described it as “an acute, stylish, intelligent novel about how we survive trauma”, which “undermines the tropes of its own genre, and leaves us with something that lingers”. Inspired by by the real-life murder of Marie Wilks on the M50 in 1988, tension-queen Belinda Bauer tells the story of three siblings who's mother left them by a motorway and never returned, as they seek the awful truth of what may or may not have happened to her. Bauer’s latest novel, Exit, is every bit as captivating, too.

My Dark Places by James Ellroy (1996)

James Ellroy is one of the world's most famous and prolific crime writers. What got him into the subject? The murder of his mother when he was 10 years old. It sparked an obsession that not only fuelled a stratospheric writing career, but led him on a lifelong hunt for his mother's killer. My Dark Places is the story of that hunt – both a gripping chase for justice (with the help of an LAPD detective) and a moving attempt to come to terms with his past.

A Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes (1957)

Chester Himes was one of the great crime writers of the 20th century. And yet, as per his biographer James Sallis, he remains “one of America’s most neglected and misunderstood major writers.” His greatest creations – Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones – were two of the first Black detectives in hard-boiled fiction, a no-nonsense duo with brains as big as their muscles who crack as many skulls as they do cases. Darkly comic, subversive, violent, sexy, absurd and noir to to its core, this is the first of Himes' Harlem Cycle series that explore race, class and killing on the dark streets of mid-century New York.

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep (2019)

After Harper Lee published To Kill A Mockingbird, she turned her curious mind to murder – specifically, the case of Reverend Willie Maxwell, accused of slaughtering five relatives - including two wives - in 1970s Alabama, and getting rich on the insurance payout. But soon after a shrewd lawyer got him off, he was sensationally shot dead at the funeral of his final victim. Yet, despite months of on-the-ground reporting, Lee mysteriously never wrote the book. This, according to Casey Cep, is "the story Harper Lee wanted to write... and the story of why she couldn't."

Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee (2019)

Calcutta, 1921. Captain Sam Wyndham of the Calcutta (now Kolkata) police is a copper come a cropper – he's spiralling towards a crippling opium addiction that he must keep hidden at all costs. But then – as he escapes a police raid on his favourite drugs den – he staggers across a dying man with his eyes gouged out, and grows convinced a conspiracy is afoot. Backdropped by a Gandhi-led India in the grip of social turmoil, this book is as gripping and atmospheric as it's two predecessors in the series, from Britain's hottest historical crime writer du jour.

They Walk Among Us by Benjamin and Rosanna Fitton (2019)

The eponymous “they”, as you've probably guessed, are murderers, mostly, and sociopath fraudsters. Unseen and unknown until the police finally catch up with them, dead-hearted criminals lurk, not just in our imaginations, but in the streets, offices and homes in which we live. Both fascinating and unsettling, this book (by the married duo behind the hit podcast of the same name) serves up ten small-town British criminal cases in disturbing detail, from the British Army officer who sabotaged his wife's parachute to the real-life “Talented Mr Ripley” who lived in his victim's shoes.

Traitor's Purse by Margery Allingham (1941)

Margery Allingham was one of the four great “Queen's of Crime” (see also Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Ngaio Marsh), whose mystery novels starring the foppish gentleman sleuth Albert Campion rank among the most distinguished books of detective fiction's golden age. In Traitor's Purse, he is at his best, waking up from an accident with no memory, only a driving sense that a national catastrophe must be averted. Like all her novels, evil seeps from its pages – witty, twisty, dark and cold-hand-on-the-shoulder sinister, it is a must-read for anyone drawn to the birth of modern crime fiction.

No Way Out by Cara Hunter (2019)

This, from one of Britain's best new crime writers, is a story set during the Christmas holidays. It starts with a fire at a family home in Oxford. Two children are dragged out. Both die from their injuries. The parents are nowhere to be found. So, it's up to DI Adam Fawley – still mourning the loss of his own son and with a marriage on the rocks – to work out where they are. As clues pile up, it fast becomes one of his most disturbing cases. This is not the Oxford of Inspector Morse. No, no soothing classical music or picturesque spires here. Just nightmares of the blackest order.

The Boy from the Woods by Harlan Coben (2020)

Politics, sex and religion are the flavour of bestselling American author Harlan Coben's latest concoction, a heady brew of murder, mystery and fingers in the post. Wilde is our hero – once a boy found living feral in the woods, now a world-weary detective, living off the grid. That is, until a child goes missing, and her family begs him for help. As body's mount up, it becomes a race against time to save the girl's life in a town brimming with dark secrets. This was one of the most hotly-awaited crime novels of 2020.

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.

Illustration above: Bianca Bagnarelli for Penguin Random House

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