I was thinking about a top-ten list of favourite crime novels recently and jotted them down on a notepad. They are in no particular order of preference. Some may have been covered in previous lists, but I’m trying to keep the list fresh.
1) The Laughing Policeman – The fourth in the series of Martin Beck novels by Sjöwall and Wahlöö has probably the most ironic book title in crime fiction history. Beck and his team investigate a massacre on a bus in Stockholm, and find that one of their own has also been killed in what appears to be a meaningless slaughter. The pacing is superb, the writing spare and the ending is a marvel – the one moment where Beck does laugh, though not through amusement I might add.
2) Red Harvest – Dashiell Hammett’s first novel might not be his best (a tie between The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key) but it’s certainly my personal favourite. The action is relentless and the storyline is anarchic. The Continental Op is brought into a town by a client who is murdered. He then realises why he was brought in by the client and proceeds to clean up the town by turning the various factions running the place against each other. The body count is high and Hammett’s camera-eye prose captures it all without a wasted word. Brilliant.
3) The Long Goodbye – Choosing between this and Farewell, My Lovely is a difficult one. I’m only going for The Long Goodbye because it contains some of Raymond Chandler’s finest prose and his most acerbic comments about humanity, friendship and the nature of the world. In many senses it is also the closest that Chandler comes to noir. By the end of the novel Philip Marlowe has spurned a woman who is besotted with him, has pretty much lost his one ally in the police force and has little in life to look forward to; the only thing he has is himself and he doesn’t really seem too happy about that. The following novel, Playback, probably the lightest and slightest of Chandler’s works, seems to almost be an apology for The Long Goodbye. But there’s nothing to apologise for – it’s a brilliant piece of work.
4) The Last Good Kiss – James Crumley’s superb hardboiled mystery has one of the finest opening paragraphs in all of crime fiction:
When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.
And it goes on from there brilliantly. TLGK starts with private eye C W Sughrue tracking down Abraham Trahearne, a writer out on a bender, and leads into the search for a girl who has been missing in San Francisco for a decade. It almost feels like a distillation of the work of Ross MacDonald – an initial case which leads into another case involving family intrigue – but the prose is more incisive and the detective is harsher and less forgiving of human foibles than MacDonald’s Lew Archer. It’s a fantastic piece of work and if there was any justice in the world Crumley would sell far more novels than the Jeffrey Archers and Dan Browns of this world.
5) The Friends of Eddie Coyle – George V Higgins’ debut novel is a marvel of concision; there are literally no wasted words. Bare prose descriptions are merely a framework for some of the finest dialogue ever to be put on the page by anybody (including Elmore Leonard). The story is told in the dialogue, including backstory, and concerns arms deals, armed robberies, affable but ultimately deadly hitmen and Eddie ‘Fingers’ Coyle who is as tragic a protagonist as you’re likely to get in a noir. He tries to dig himself out of a hole, only to find out that he’s digging an even bigger hole, a fact he doesn’t really discover until the very end. The whole thing is pure noir, but it feels lighter because Higgins presents everything with such matter-of-fact brilliance. In fact, the damn thing is so good that Higgins spent the rest of his career trying to live up to it.
Part 2 to follow…