It’s not exactly a secret that crime novels have been experiencing a boom over the last few years; there’s perhaps never been a better time to get into crime fiction, or to fill out the gaps in your knowledge of the genre.
Of course, nobody knows the power of crime fiction 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 – just ahead of the holiday season.
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.
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.
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.