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Ten Crime Books You Have to Read Before You Die

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Article by Declan Hughes, John Connolly & Vanessa O'Loughlin ©.
Posted in Resources (, ).

International best sellers John Connolly  and Declan Hughes  first presented versions of this list at the Dalkey Book Festival back in June 2011, then at the world mystery convention, Bouchercon in San Francisco. It went on to develop into Books to Die For, an Edgar nominated anthology put together by John and Irish crime writer and journalist Declan Burke.

It is essential reading for all aspiring crime and mystery writers, detailing crime greats such as Dashiell Hammett, James Lee Burke, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Patricia Highsmith and George V. Higgins – but of course leaves out two that no self respecting crime writer should miss – Hughes and Connolly themselves.

john-connellyDiana Pinckley in a recent article said of Declan Hughes: “Hughes is something of a specialist on devastating twists in crime fiction. His series of novels starring Ed Loy are dark, and not just because the days are short. Families, drink, religion and the economy are interdependent — and all are fraught with complications.

‘Loy is a private detective with a true heart and a hard head — a good thing, given the number of blows it, and other body parts, accumulate in the books. The most recent, City of Lost Girls, sends Loy to Los Angeles to find a serial killer who targets attractive movie extras on the sets of Loy’s estranged friend, an acclaimed director whose latest blockbuster chronicles nothing less than the history of Dublin.

Hughes is a beautiful and evocative writer — the kind whose paragraphs demand rereading for the pure joy of language — though his words often are in service of violent ends.”

John’s Connolly’s  first novel, Every Dead Thing, introduced the character of Charlie Parker, a former policeman hunting the killer of his wife and daughter, and was met with huge critical acclaim; it was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel and went on to win the 2000 Shamus Award for Best First Private Eye Novel – he is the first author outside of the United States to have won the award.

Connolly has written nine Charlie Parker novels, and a stand-alone novel Bad Men. He has since published The Book Of Lost Things,The Gates and its sequel Hell’s Bells (UK)/The Infernals (US) his first novels for younger readers, as well as a collection of novellas and short stories entitled Nocturnes, which contains the Charlie Parker novella The Reflecting Eye.

Pinckley says of Connolly, “That belief in true evil — a honeycomb world just below the surface of everyday life — permeates the nine-book Parker series.Connolly offers up compelling detective stories, overlaid with supernatural horror and larded with images you’ll remember for years.”

So back to the list and Hughes says: “A top ten inevitably leaves too many titles out, so we threw in an extra ten for good luck. John has decided to add the tens together and make it a top twenty; I’m not so inclined, as the second ten is rather more provisional than the first, and in any case, we differ in some of our choices. Feel free to disagree: we do …

1) THE GLASS KEY (1931) – Dashiell Hammett

Also: The Maltese Falcon (1930)

Red Harvest (1929)

The Master – the JS Bach, the Louis Armstrong of crime fiction.

2) THE LONG GOODBYE (1953) – Raymond Chandler

The Big Sleep (1939)

Farewell, My Lovely (1940)

The greatest prose stylist in the genre. Romantic, lyrical and witty.

3) THE CHILL (1964) – Ross Macdonald

Also:

The Galton Case (1959)

The Underground Man (1971)

Sleeping Beauty (1973)

The Doomsters (1958)

The single greatest novelist of the genre. No one has surpassed him. The Lew Archer novels make most crime fiction look like cartoons.

4) DEEP WATER – Patricia Highsmith (1957)

Also:

The Talented Mr Ripley (1955)

Strangers on a Train (1950)

Haunting, unsettling, extravagantly misanthropic.

5) THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE (1972) – George V. Higgins

Also:

City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit (1980) – Elmore Leonard

Looking for Rachel Wallace (1980)- Robert B. Parker

Dialogue worthy of David Mamet, Higgins’s first half dozen novels are electrifying, and unlike anything else in the genre.

6) DIXIE CITY JAM (1994) – James Lee Burke

Also:

Heaven’s Prisoners (1988)

Black Cherry Blues (1989)

Purple Cane Road (2000)

Simply the greatest living crime novelist.

7) RED DRAGON (1981) – Thomas Harris

Also:

The Silence of the Lambs (1988)

Hannibal (1999)

Although they form a trilogy, I don’t believe Hannibal belongs on this list: I think it’s a terrible book. John and I have cheerfully argued this one through many a last orders, and will again, no doubt.

8) A STRANGER IN MY GRAVE (1960) – Margaret Millar

Also:

Beast in View (1955)

How Like An Angel (1962)

The Listening Walls (1959)

Like a comic, psychologically acute Highsmith with a lighter touch. Structurally brilliant. Ross Macdonald’s wife, and the single most underrated crime writer.

9) LET’S HEAR IT FOR THE DEAF MAN: A NOVEL OF THE 87th PRECINCT (1972) – Ed McBain

Also:

Cop Hater (1956)

Blood Relatives (1975)

Fuzz (1968)

Here begins the police procedural.

10) THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD (1926) – Agatha Christie

Also:

The Nine Tailors (1934) by Dorothy L. Sayers

Tiger In The Smoke (1952) by Margery Allingham

Christie is darker and subtler than she gets credit for, particularly in her dialogue; long derided by the hardboiled school, she is ripe for re-evaluation (not that the reading public give a hoot one way or the other: they love her and always have).

And then there were ten more…

MIAMI BLUES (1984) – Charles Willeford

Willeford was such a tough, funny, surprising writer. Read all the Hoke Mosleys and THE BURNT ORANGE HERESY, an hilarious portrait of artistic envy and psychosis (but I repeat myself).

THE LAST GOOD KISS (1978) – James Crumley

Crime fiction’s ultimate shaggy (alcoholic) dog story.

GONE, BABY, GONE (1998) – Dennis Lehane

The PI novel meets Bertolt Brecht.

DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS (1990) – Walter Mosely

Easy Rawlins, the PI resurrected. One of the outstanding series characters of the nineties.

THE BLACK ECHO (1992) – Michael Connelly

Harry Bosch’s explosive debut. See also ANGELS FLIGHT, my personal favourite.

THE BIG BLOWDOWN (1999) – George Pelecanos

The historical wing of Pelecanos’s great Washington Quartet.

WHAT THE DEAD KNOW (2007) – Laura Lippman

One of the most devastating twists in all crime fiction. A mighty book.

Books to Die ForTHE BROKEN SHORE (2005) – Peter Temple

South African born, Australia’s finest.

DEVIL TAKE THE BLUE-TAIL FLY (1948) – John Franklin Bardin

Genuinely frightening psychological suspense.

THE HANGING GARDEN (1998) – Ian Rankin

Rebus and Edinburgh, a match made in the Oxford Bar. This is the best of a great series.


(c) Declan Hughes, John Connolly & Vanessa O'Loughlin August 2011.

Read the Resource in this section chronologically.