SIX GREAT SOUTHERN CRIME NOVELS
The American South.
It is All The Things. It was once the Crown Jewel. It wore the black hat during the War Between the States. It was”Occupied Territory.”
It’s hot. It’s vilified. It’s dangerous.
It’s earned its tarnished legacy.
However, the true #NewSouth only works when the pot melts. She has never belonged only to rich white men, nor shall she ever. She belongs instead to all persons who can temper both the brutality of her summers as well as the fickle nature of her winters. The Rebel-flag-waving peckerwood lays just as much claim to her as do those who shepherd her greatest exports: blues, bourbon, barbecue, tacos, Tejano, yaka mein, and jazz.
These collisions of culture have provided the world with much fodder for American crime fiction.
Listed below are six I feel you cannot do without.
The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O’Connor
No list of Southern novels should start with any other name but Flannery O’Connor. She whitewashes nothing in her fiction. She looks race and religion and hypocrisy dead in the eye and dares it to blink. She does so with prose that does not flinch.
Her second novel doesn’t enjoy the same notoriety as Wise Blood but is twice as harrowing. The story follows a man of dark sensibilities and questionable mental aptitude who believes himself to follow a higher calling from the instructions of unseen voices. The ending fills the reader with hope or dread and left me immediately to return to Page One so I could start all over.
A Gathering of Old Men by Ernest J. Gaines
A plantation work boss is murdered. A black woman confesses. So does a black man. As does another black man, then another…yet another still. The mystery before the white Sheriff Mapes is not only to decipher who is the real killer, but also how he must maneuver through the turbulent racial implications in this mystery that reaches far beyond the majestic magnolias of the Marshall Plantation.
Ernest J. Gaines novels are steeped in crime but their approach to contemporary themes immerses them deep within literary tradition. The dialogue crackles with a tragic humor that can only come from the sticky bayou country of Southern Louisiana.
The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock
Pollock rarely gives readers time to change their minds. Since the publication of his short story collection, Knockemstiff, he’s perfected the art of hooking them early. Often by the first line.
In The Heavenly Table, Pollock hits the ground running. The Jewett brothers, three Georgia sharecroppers, find themselves destitute and wanting more. They seek fortune and fame—actually infamy—as they blaze a hilarious trail of destruction toward Canada.
The result is Erskine Caldwell meets the Coen Brothers, sprinkled with a healthy dose of rotgut whiskey. Your only regret will be reading it too fast.
The Bayou Trilogy by Daniel Woodrell
Three books in one bound collection that features the mastermind of Winter’s Bone in his early days. Seriously, it’s like a completely different writer. Not better or worse, but different. Daniel Woodrell’s approach to the detective novel reads like an Ozark Chester Himes. Instead of Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones, we’ve got Detective Rene Shade. Shade’s turf is St. Bruno and its many seedy, multicultural neighborhoods that know him better than he knows himself.
Hardboiled. Nasty. Brutal.
In the Heat of the Night by John Ball
The notoriety of the film (and the television series) far eclipsed the book, but the novel—published in 1965—brought social issues to the forefront of what might otherwise be read as a simple procedural. An ordinary small town in North Carolina is rocked by a murder as well as the arrival of an outsider. The outsider, a black California detective named Virgil Tibbs, must combine forces with the racist Sheriff Gillespie in one of the first mismatched detective stories.
Peckerwood by Jedidiah Ayres
While a common argument asks if Missouri counts as “Southern,” there is no questioning that the lunatic sensibilities of Jed Ayres’s prose belong squarely below the Mason-Dixon. The lives of a local hellion, the corrupt sheriff, and a meth kingpin all collide in hilarious but tragic brutality. There isn’t a single character to root for, but that won’t stop you from doing it. The moment you pick up the book, you are complicit. By the end of the first chapter, you have become an accomplice. And by the end of the book, you are downright guilty.
Sinning has never been so much fun.
The American South: Good guys and bad guys, rubbing elbows and sharing alibis.
The perfect recipe for a solid crime story.
Eryk Pruitt is the author of What We Reckon, Hashtag, and Dirtbags. He wrote and produced the short film Foodie, which went on to win eight top awards at over sixteen film festivals. His short fiction has appeared in The Avalon Literary Review, Thuglit, Pulp Modern, and Zymbol, among others, and he was a finalist for the Derringer Award. He is the host of the monthly radio show and podcast The Crime Scene with Eryk Pruitt. He lives in Durham, North Carolina with his wife, Lana, and their cat, Busey. Follow him at @ReverendEryk.