Top Ten Literary Detective Novels…has Hammett keeping company with Chandler and contemporary master Lauren Beukes jazzing with James Ellroy…
A couple of quick notes about how I put this list together:
First, by literary, I mean that the novel in some way subverts the standard conventions of the genre. Maybe the mystery is never solved, maybe the killer goes unpunished, or maybe the subversion occurs in the novel’s structure or language.
Second, I’ve used the word detective as a constraint. The categories mystery and crime are too expansive to yield just ten books, so the novels I’ve chosen all feature a professional detective (one example: if there’s no Simenon here, it’s because I prefer novels like the detective-less Dirty Snow to the Maigret series).
Third, I’ve deliberately picked authors whose larger body of work in the genre is worth exploring.
Finally, I’ve arranged the list in alphabetical order because I don’t think I could rank these books: each has something unique and extraordinary to offer.
Narrated from multiple points of view—a single detective/mother, her daughter, a freelance journalist, a homeless man—and featuring a serial killer who sews animal parts to his victims’ corpses, this novel is a Murikami-esque blend of genres rendered in sharp, stylish prose.
No surprise here. The Big Sleep hits all of the criteria I mentioned above: some murders (there a number of them) go unsolved, and at least one killer goes unpunished. And of course, Chandler remains the hard-boiled standard bearer.
The body of this novel takes the form of a story narrated by a retired detective to an author of crime fiction. The detective’s goal is to demonstrate how far-fetched most crime novels are. Setting aside the meta-commentary on the genre, the story itself is a compelling account of a detective whose obsession with a case leads him into increasingly murky moral terrain. The spare, straightforward prose contrasts nicely with the narrator’s spiraling mental state (the Joel Agee translation is excellent).
Police corruption, political corruption, a sea of bad behavior set in Los Angeles—you expect all of this (in a good way) from Ellroy, but what distinguishes this one for me is the writing itself. Ellroy has pushed his style to its limits (again, in a good way); I can’t think of another author who manages to go baroque and minimalist in the same sentence.
This book is strange in a way you don’t necessarily expect from Hammett. The hardboiled P.I. finds himself in what feels like a plot from the Wild West. Throughout, there’s a sense that the genre could bend in any direction, and anything at all might happen.
This is the second book in Peace’s Red Riding Quartet, but the first narrated (or half-narrated—the second narrator is a journalist) by a detective. Based on the real-life case of the “Yorkshire Ripper,” Nineteen Seventy-Seven is gritty and gruesome and unflinching. Peace owes a stylistic debt to Ellroy (Ellroy, in turn, named a character after Peace), but he’s very much his own writer. I particularly admire his willingness to look long and hard at some of the ugliest aspects of human behavior/psychology.
- Live Flesh, Ruth Rendell
In Live Flesh, Rendell, best known for her Inspector Wexford series, renders the interior life of a serial rapist in such a way that it’s almost impossible to stop reading. The detective here is a pivotal character who quickly drops to the background as the criminal’s voice takes over. Live Flesh is at once a compelling psychological thriller and a remarkable feat of empathetic imagination.
- The Day of the Owl, Leonardo Sciascia
The Day of the Owl is both a brilliant exemplar of the genre in its most literary form and a scathing indictment of a society that allows the Mafia to thrive. This one’s a must-read.
- The Three Evangelists, Fred Vargas
While I wouldn’t exactly call it a cozy, Vargas’s novel is a departure in tone from other books on this list. The inciting incident involves a retired opera singer looking out her window to find that a new, fully grown tree has suddenly appeared in her backyard. Inventive, playful, and just plain fun, The Three Evangelists is a comic novel that manages to hold its own as a mystery.
Inspector Chen is an amateur poet, translator, and literary critic. These hobbies might sound like a stretch for a detective, but somehow it all works. Death of a Red Heroine is interesting and compelling for its simultaneous damning of the Cultural Revolution and celebration of larger Chinese culture. The mystery is slow to unfold, but the digressions are revelatory and provide ample evidence that the genre needn’t rely solely on plot.