British Crime Favorites: Spies, Inspectors, Historical Figures, Serial Killers, and People with Serious Issues!
British crime fiction can carry some weak connotations across the pond. I mean, the police there don’t even carry guns, and our last execution was in the same year that Ian Fleming died (he wasn’t the one hanged, I hasten to add…).
It’s true that we have our share of cozy mysteries, and there’s the odd detective who’d prefer some weak tea to a drop of the hard stuff, but there are also some ultraviolent, edge-of-your-seat sensations that pulse with dark menace and dread.
And let’s not forget that we gave the world James Bond, and that Raymond Chandler, the father of hard-boiled noir, spent his early years in and around London.
In chronological order, my favorite thrillers from Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland…
The Spy Who Came In From The Cold – John le Carré
Perhaps the father of the intelligent international thriller. John le Carré took the cold war, with all the double-bluff, betrayal, and personal compromise, as his muse. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, his best novel, pits one broken man against two regimes: the enemy’s and his own. At the center of this thriller, oddly, is a sweet love story, which will come to a violent and shocking climax at the Berlin wall. A lights-out classic.
Devices and Desires – P.D. James
In true P.D. James style, Devices and Desires takes place in a remote, closed-off setting, with a limited list of suspects and claustrophobic tensions between the characters. Adam Dalgliesh has inherited a windmill from a deceased aunt and finds himself in isolated Norfolk in the shadow of a large nuclear power plant. But Dalgliesh’s holiday is disrupted by The Whistler, a serial killer on the prowl. Dealing with issues such as bereavement, nuclear power, and psychosis, this is a Grade-A thriller that rattles along and leaves you feeling more intelligent afterwards.
Fatherland – Robert Harris
One of the great what-if thrillers of our time, Fatherland reimagines the world as though the Nazis had won World War Two. A novel that opens, audaciously, with the lead-up to Adolf Hitler’s 75th birthday and only gets more jaw-dropping and engrossing from there is something very special indeed. We follow an SS officer investigating the murder of a leading Nazi official in a case that will take him to the dark heart of the Third Reich. Brave, bold, and essential.
Kolymsky Heights – Lionel Davidson
One of the most gripping thrillers I’ve ever read and perhaps even the best. A subtle, coded message is smuggled out of Siberia to a linguistic genius. He is literally the only man alive who could infiltrate the area and is sent, almost against his will, on a suicidal rescue mission to the barren far east of Russia. The climax is unbelievable and spectacular.
The Mermaid’s Singing – Val McDermid
The first novel featuring the warped mind of clinical psychologist Tony Hill. The Mermaid’s Singing feels like the template for a lot of the thrillers that followed it, with so much of the plot revolving around the special gifts of our protagonist. Where McDermid’s work differs from her peers is her social conscience, the quality of her writing, and her total commitment to entertainment. A book, a series, to cherish.
Black and Blue – Ian Rankin
What a writer, what a series, what a book! Black and Blue is the eighth Rebus novel—Rankin’s favorite of his own works and a great starting point for new readers overwhelmed by a large backlist. I remember so clearly reading it in the boozy drizzle of a Mancunian winter. Absolutely freezing cold with a broken boiler and not a penny to my name, wrapped in a bed sheet, watching my breath in the air, TEARING through the pages.
Dark Fire – C.J. Sansom
Dark Fire is the second in Sansom’s astonishing Shardlake series, which sees a hunchback lawyer cajoled, threatened, and blackmailed by Thomas Cromwell into an investigation that will take him, quaking, to the very feet of King Henry VIII. The plot is satisfyingly bleak, punctuated with shocking violence, and weaves a confounding mystery through a rich historical background to an almost desolating conclusion.
In The Woods – Tana French
I was mesmerized, haunted, and blown away by the first of French’s Dublin Murder Squad Series. With each installment focusing on a different member of the squad, it feels as though she’s able to squeeze every last drop out of her protagonists while maintaining consistency throughout the series. When a twelve-year-old girl is murdered, two young detectives are put on the case. But one of them has a secret. When he was a child, he was one of three who went missing in the same woods. He was the only one of the three ever found. As the past reverberates into the present, and as the lies begin to stack up between the two detectives, we rocket toward a conclusion that, to my mind, is almost unique in all of crime fiction.
Blacklands – Belinda Bauer
A terrific thriller, told through the eyes of twelve-year-old Steven Lamb, a little boy who lives in the moors and spends his free time digging for dead bodies. The reason being that his uncle, someone he never knew, was murdered and buried there at around the same age. Steven believes that if he finds the body, it will bring him closer to his broken family. So when he decides to start communicating via letter with the incarcerated serial killer responsible for the murder, he sets in motion a deadly game of cat and mouse.
Make Me – Lee Child
Although always thought of as an American author, Big Lee was born and raised in Britain, so I’m claiming him for my own. Make Me is the twenty-second Jack Reacher thriller and, somehow, my favorite of all I’ve read. An unusually dark tale, the final reveal was actually astonishing and sent shock waves back through the rest of the novel.