The Top Ten Texas Crime Novels
by Harry Hunsicker
Everything is bigger in Texas, except top ten lists. Really? Only ten?
In no particular order, here are my top ten crime novels set in the Lone Star State.
Big Red Tequila (1997) by Rick Riordan. Before he became known for his mega-bestselling young adult series featuring half-god, half-mortal Percy Jackson, Riordan was a mystery writer of some note, winning the Shamus and Anthony awards for his debut novel, Big Red Tequila. Featuring an unlicensed private investigator named Tres Navarre, the story follows a twisted tale of corruption on the mean streets of San Antonio.
The Son (2014) by Philipp Meyer. Imagine if Cormac McCarthy wrote Giant. That’s the feel of Meyer’s sprawling epic spanning several generations of an iconic Texas family. The story begins when 13-year-old Eli McCullough is kidnapped by the Comanches right before the Civil War. Eli, the future patriarch of the family, eventually escapes, but the brutal experience shapes him and his descendants in a myriad of ways—some good, some less so—as he establishes a ranching empire that lasts up to the current era. Told in alternating points of view, from Eli as a captive, to his son and great-granddaughter, the story is as vast and unrelenting as Texas.
North Dallas Forty (1973) by Peter Gent. If football is king in Texas, then the crown resides in Dallas. Gent, a former NFL wide receiver, offers a thinly veiled look at the Tom Landry-era Cowboys. The story follows battered wide receiver Phil Elliot (Gent) as he limps his way through a season with the North Dallas Bulls, relying on pain pills and booze to lubricate the journey. His sidekick and drinking buddy is quarterback Seth Maxwell (Don Meredith). Hijinks ensue.
Mercy (1990) by David Lindsey. Set amid the tony high-rises of Houston, this psychological thriller pits Detective Carmen Palma against a serial killer who targets S&M aficionados, specifically, masochists who willingly allow themselves to be tied up. As Palma gets closer to the truth, she finds herself repelled by the viciousness of the crimes.
No Country for Old Men (2007) by Cormac McCarthy. Narrow in scope, vast in complexity, this novel offers a desolate portrayal of hard people living in a hard land. Nominally about bad choices, the book really belongs to the villain, Anton Chigurh, a sociopath who makes Hannibal Lecter look warm and cuddly, and the foreboding west Texas landscape.
Galveston (2011) by Nic Pizzolatto. Long before he gave us the brilliant dialogue and tormented characters in HBO’s True Detective (Season One at least), Pizzolatto published this gem of a crime novel set on the Gulf Coast of Texas. Mob enforcer Roy Cady finds out he has terminal cancer on the same day his boss puts a contract out on his life. Going on the run, Cady soon pairs up with a teenage hooker and her toddler daughter, forming the semblance of a family unit. The story is simple but the characters stay with you long after the book ends.
Freezer Burn (1999) by Joe Lansdale. No list of books set in the Lone Star State would be complete without something from the Bard of East Texas, Joe Lansdale. When lovable loser Bill Roberts robs a fireworks stand, he ends up stranded in an East Texas swamp where he is attacked by a swarm of mosquitoes. With the police after him and his face swollen from the bites, he takes refuge with a traveling carnival and freak show. Hiding in plain sight with his new friends, the bearded lady and the pinheads, Bill tries to avoid the po-po as the carnival makes its way across the back roads of Texas. Drenched in atmosphere and humor, this is one of Lansdale’s finest.
Black Water Rising (2010) by Attica Locke. Imagine Dennis Lehane transforming himself into an African-American woman. Now imagine s/he lives in Houston and wrote a murder mystery about a black activist attorney, set in the oil-boom years of the 1980s. Now picture the novel—a page-turner that will keep you up all night—being shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the Edgar Award, and the Orange Prize for Fiction. That’s Black Water Rising.
Robbers (2000) by Christopher Cook. Told mostly from the point of view of two drifters who rob a convenience store, ergo the title, this gritty crime story is so real you can almost smell the cigarette smoke and taste the beer. Even more real: the violence and the picture the story paints of rural poverty and desperation.
The Far Empty (2016) by J. Todd Scott. The most recent book on this list, this brutally powerful novel tells the story of a corrupt sheriff in a fictional county near the Big Bend. Though a debut, Scott’s voice and story-telling chops are those of a veteran. Keep this book and author in mind; you’ll be hearing more about both.
Harry Hunsicker is the former executive vice president of the Mystery Writers of America and the author of seven crime thrillers, all set in Texas. His work has been short-listed for both the Shamus and Thriller awards. He lives in Dallas with his wife, Alison. The Devil’s Country, his latest novel, will be published in April 2017 by Thomas & Mercer.