Ten Crime Novels for People Who Don’t Read Crime Novels
Back when I started writing The Day I Died, it was not a crime novel. It was not a novel. It was a short story. Today, my novel is a phoenix rising from the ashes of what is commonly known among writers as the “drawer” book, an abandoned story that has spent the better part of the last decade hibernating in a corner of my laptop.
But before being totally revised, rescued, and seeing the light of day, the best thing this story ever did for me was to teach me the kind of stories I wanted to write.
Back about ten years ago, I had turned in a few pages to a fellowship program with Midwest Writers Workshop, which earned me a spot in a two-day retreat with fellow scribblers and a teacher. When I arrived, I was startled to realize I’d been placed in the mystery group. “Um, excuse me?” I said to Terence Faherty, the teacher and Indianapolis mystery writer whom the rest of the group recognized. “I may be in the wrong group,” I said. I hope I said it kindly and not in an I’m-in-an-MFA-program kind of way. You know the tone. Faherty very nicely pointed to the crime I’d written into the pages I’d handed in; he had read them. “If you solve that crime,” he said, “you might be writing a mystery. Maybe.”
That one-degree change of perspective opened up a new world to me. I soon found that the mystery community was exactly where I wanted to be.
I had a lot of catching up to do: I hadn’t read the canon. I soon found out that what constitutes a crime novel and what constitutes what I thought I was writing—gen pop fiction—well, it’s hard to find the line that divides. As I’ve caught up reading some of the best that the crime-fiction world offers, I’ve identified a few crime novels that might entice readers who don’t think they like them. What’s not to like?
The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters
Part sci-fi, part police procedural, all moving. If you can get past the premise—the earth is about to get flattened by a fast-moving space object—the crimes won’t keep you up at night. The three-book series is beautifully told and heartbreaking.
Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran
A little bit private investigator, a little bit woo-woo, Claire DeWitt works the mean streets of post-Katrina New Orleans with a questionable work ethic and a pill problem. Unreliable and unpredictable, but still someone to root for.
Heads You Lose by Lisa Lutz and David Hayward
A hilarious amateur sleuth novel about a pair of siblings who take on the case of the decapitated head found in their, ahem, farm. For aspiring mystery writers, the meta-textual footnotes between the authors are more than funny; they’re instructive.
The Quiet Woman by Terence Faherty
An estranged brother and sister agree to a relationship-saving trip to see the Irish filming sites of their shared favorite film, The Quiet Man. It’s a ghost story, a family comedy, a romance, and a mystery.
See How Small by Scott Blackwood
Read this brief, multivoiced novel in one sitting about the murder of a group of young women working in an ice cream parlor in Texas, and then come up for air to find the world changed. Spare and haunting, like crime poetry.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
The less said here, the better for the first-time reader. Clear your calendar. If you don’t like it, don’t tell me.
Quiet Neighbors by Catriona McPherson
A woman on the run goes back to the last place she felt at home: a disordered bookshop that she quickly puts to order, Mary Poppins-style. The troubled people she meets there give her a lifeline and a family.
I Hate to See That Evening Son Go Down by William Gay
A collection of short stories that will throw a reader into the deep end of what a crime story can be. “The Paperhanger” is the one that will stick with you.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
The crime occurs before the book starts, but the ramifications lie beneath every word and action as sisters Mary Katherine and Constance live on after tragedy has done away with the rest of their family. Shirley Jackson is the queen of unease.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Oh yes, it is a crime novel, and so are many other works of literature that are allowed to roam outside the fence of mystery/thriller bookstore sections. The crime-fiction field is as varied as any other designation. If you don’t like crime stories, maybe you just haven’t tried the right one yet.