It must be noted that David Montgomery's list of detective novels at Crime Fiction Dossier -- which prompted my current ruminations on favorite thrillers -- is not surprising in that it's really a list of favorite hard-boiled, American detective yarns, post mid-20th century for the most part. There are no Conan Doyles or Poes or Ellery Queens.

I'm not knocking him for this; it's usually the case with literary critics. The classics and the "cozies" haven't rated very highly with serious critics ever since "Why Do People Read Detective Stories?" and "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Akroyd?," Edmund Wilson's famous 1944 take-downs of Agatha Christie et al. This doesn't mean there aren't serious intellectuals who would defend the classic novel of detection (see The Believer. Or G. J. Demko ). And in fact, cozies remain huge sellers with the public.

But if you took a poll of, say, the membership of the National Book Critics Circle, I suspect that thriller writers of the hard-boiled school -- Hammett, Macdonald, Chandler, Crumley, Leonard -- would rate much higher than the Sayers, the Dick Franciseses.

I tend to agree with this view -- as Jeff Siegel noted in his study, The American Detective: An Illustrated History, the key to the great modern American crime novel is character, generally a character somewhat emotionallly/morally removed from the culture around him, whether on the streets or in the boardroooms. And because the main character in the Chandler school is often the narrator as well, that means the novel's voice or style is crucial, too. Put another way: Because the conventions of the noir genre are so well-established, an author has to do something interesting with style, voice and character to keep me reading past the first chapters.

In valuing such things, I've compiled a list that cannot claim to be one (entirely) of detective novels, although hard-boiled detectives do appear in many of the books. It's more accurate to say that these are my favorite literary thrillers or noir crime novels. There were several I wanted to slip in here -- notaby, The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sowall and Per Wahloo, maybe something by Ed McBain. But those really are more "police procedurals." And I couldn't figure out how to justify squeezing in Iain Pears' An Instance of the Fingerpost.

Basically, these are often novels that use the hard-boiled conventions but don't fit simply into the genre. Or they are the essential definers/redefiners of the genre itself. Those conventions include, but are not limited to: a sense of moral complexity if not outright confusion, a society that is compromised or corrupt and violent, crime treated not as a puzzle to be solved but as an act of violence that typifies something about this noir world, a protagonist who doesn't so much solve a puzzle as make a dangerous moral choice or act of redemption (the protagonist himself is most likely implicated or compromised, too) -- and a menacing mood, a laconic or succinctly vivid style and various characters to suit all of this.

For one of the most illuminating discussions of the noir novel as a genre, I highly recommend John Cawelti's Adventure, Mystery and Romance: Formula Stories as Popular Culture.

(Not in any order of priority.)

1. True Confessions by John Gregory Dunne
2. Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem
3. The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley
4. Clockers by Richard Price
5. Stick by Elmore Leonard
6. The Underground Man by Ross Macdonald
7. Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith
8. To Live and Die in L.A. by Gerard Petievich
9. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
10. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
11. Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley
12. The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett
13. The Contortionist's Handbook by Craig Clevenger
14. The Tesseract by Alex Garland
15. The People's Act of Love by James Meek

Inadequate explanations to come ...

October 23, 2006 12:10 PM | | Comments (12)



good blog

Thanks awfully for the Believer link. And for considering me a serious intellectual. (Now if only my PhD advisers would do the same!)

My feminist inclinations would lead me to add Patricia Highsmith and I think you might also do well to check out Louise Welch. She's anew talent, two books so far, but awfully good. And while she wouldn't make my "best" list, I might also look to Megan Abbot's Die a Little. Excellent Noir Ventriloquism and that very rare combination in noir (as opposed to more recent policiers/forensic works) of a female writer and a female protagonist. Denise Mina is worth reading, particularly the Garnet Hill trilogy.

Red Harvest is my Hammett pick every time. Keep toying with assigning it to my students. And Long Goodbye over Big Sleep. And as I'm a lover of the classics: Trent's Last Case, Lady Audley's Secret. Hound of the Baskerville's, the Man Who Was Thursday, The Secret Agent, and though it's nonfiction, William Roughhead's classic crimes.

Your very enjoyable blog was recommended to me by my super women's health doc Richard Glendon. After finishing the pelvc exam, he suggested I look you up. (Perhaps he saw something mysterious?)

Drop a line if you read anything good, currently enjoying the Felony and Mayhem series.

Ms. Brussel:

I may give the Flynn a shot, but the two reasons I've ignored it so far are 1) a blurb from Stephen King and 2) the novel involves a serial killer, a literary device whom I find it increasingly difficult to believe in let alone be fightened by.

But thanks for writing.

I agree that the Ice Harvest is a wonderful book; my inclusion of the Walkaway is more to the literary skew of things. Cottonwood is better than both in my opinion. For Leonard, my thinking is towards Out of Sight and Tshimingo Blues. Woodrell is quite good in all forms, but Give US A Kiss was more crime related than a lot of his other later work. Goldberg's book was either Soho or Carrol & Graf

Mr. Norton:

Frankly, I much prefer Scott Phillips' The Ice Harvest to The Walkaway (in fact, some of my review is blurbed on the paperback of The Ice Harvest). I'm not sure which of Elmore Leonard's "more formidable" novels you speak of. If you mean something like Glitz, I'm afraid you find formidable what I find bloated. I prefer him lean and not so comical. I also think his attempts at 'serious' topics, as in Pagan Babies, seriously misfire.

I'm unfamiliar with the Goldberg or the Woodrell. Thanks for the recommendations.

I'm a bit befuddled by the inclusion of Leonard's Stick over many of his other more formidable novels, but it's a good list. I'd add Tod Goldberg's Living Dead Girl, Daniel Woodrell's Give Us A Kiss, James Lee Burke's Jolie Blon's Bounce, Scott Phillips' The Walkaway, and, for the sake of newness, Michael Collins' Death of a Writer.

Smilla's Sense of Snow

Hello, was referred here by David Montgomery. I concur that Denise Mina's Garnethill trilogy is good but I would recommend avoiding her "Field of Blood" (latest novel) --- apparently written for the YA market. I read it and was disappointed compared with the Garnethill trilogy and her standalone immediately after that and before Field of Blood (forget title).

I made my list in riposte to D Montgomery's on my blog Petrona at:

Would be interested to know your views on that list.

Nice blog! And a great list--I'm adding you to my blog list, if that's okay!

I'd recommend you check out Scottish writer Denise Mina - she's really excellent. Was (quite badly) published by Carroll & Graf before, now nicely pub'd by Little Brown.

Jerome, have you read Gillian Flynn's SHARP OBJECTS?

Thanks for the link. You've compiled a very solid list, plus a few I'm not familiar with (the last 3).

Welcome to the blogosphere!


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