I do love a list. And so I seized upon Dead Good’s list of the 100 best crime novels of all time, as chosen by their readers. I was surprised by how many were completely unfamiliar to me, and by how many of my favourite writers and novels didn’t feature at all.
So, obviously, I had no choice but to put together my own list…
Not ranked, just in alphabetical order of author’s names, only one title per author allowed. Many are in series, and I have been completely inconsistent in whether I cite the first in the series, or the latest, or just one I happen to particularly care for. I’ve linked to reviews, where they are not too spoilery.
The stories span the centuries – from 1327 to some time in the future – and the continents. Whilst most are set in the UK or the US, we also travel around Europe, and to Africa. It’s a pretty white list, only three black writers, to my chagrin. To my ‘read more black writers’ resolution I will add the postscript, ‘and more black crime writers’… About half the writers are women – and more than half if we just take contemporary writers.
Not all of these are whodunnits – in some we know who from the start, in others there may be uncertainty even on the final page, or the ‘who’ may simply not be the point. The protagonists may be coppers or PIs, perpetrators or victims. Not all feature police procedure or private detectives or lawyers. But all have crime at the heart of the story.
So. My top 100:
Ben Aaronovitch – Moon over Soho. My favourite (because jazz) from the brilliant Rivers of London series.
Kate Atkinson – Case Histories. First in the excellent Jackson Brodie series.
Oyinkan Braithwaite – My Sister, the Serial Killer. Audacious Lagos-set novel. Evidently not a whodunnit…
Chris Brookmyre – Places in the Darkness. Brookmyre does scifi. Crime scifi.
James Lee Burke – The Neon Rain. First in the Dave Robicheaux series, set in Louisiana.
Michel Bussi – Maman a tort. A highly complex and twisty French thriller, which really messes with your head. In English translation as The Wrong Mother and recently on the telly as The Other Mother…
Helen Cadbury – To Catch a Rabbit. First of three Sean Denton police procedurals, set in South Yorkshire, gritty and gripping.
Andrea Camilleri – August Heat. The late Andrea Camilleri’s tenth Inspector Montalbano novel. Plenty of humour and forthright political commentary too.
Jane Casey – The Cutting Place. Latest in the Maeve Kerrigan series, which just gets better and better.
Raymond Chandler – The Long Goodbye. Stone cold classic.
Agatha Christie – Sleeping Murder. I always liked the Miss Marple ones best. Something about her beady-eyed take on the world made the murders creepier and this is one of my favourites.
W H Clarke – An End to a Silence. First in a trilogy, part 3 still eagerly awaited.
Ann Cleeves – Harbour Street. A Vera Stanhope title (I was torn, could have chosen a Shetland, but there you go, and I do like Vera a lot).
Harlan Coben – Home. The first of his that I read. Slick but very skilful.
Wilkie Collins – The Woman in White. Arguably one of the earliest detective novels. A brilliant story, with a great female character in Marian Hascombe.
Joseph Conrad – The Secret Agent. A political thriller, featuring Chief Inspector Heat, the precursor of so many dogged coppers in pursuit of criminals of various stripes.
Patricia Cornwell – Postmortem. The first Scarpetta novel.
Didier Daeninckz – Meurtres pour memoire (Murder in Memoriam). A contemporary crime leads back to a suppressed atrocity in 1961 and back further to war crimes under the Vichy government.
Jill Dawson – Fred and Edie. Based on the true story of Edie Thompson & Fred Bywater, who conspired to murder Edie’s husband, and were both hanged for the crime.
Colin Dexter – Last Bus to Woodstock. The first Morse.
Charles Dickens – Bleak House. Another early detective, Inspector Bucket, possibly based on real-life detective Jack Whicher (see Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher). It’s also the finest novel in the English language, BTW.
Eva Dolan – Long Way Home. First in a series featuring DI Zigic and DS Ferreira from the Peterborough Hate Crimes Unit.
Fyodor Dostoevsky – Crime & Punishment.
Arthur Conan Doyle – Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. I read these as a child, in the bound volumes of the Strand Magazine that my grandfather had owned. ‘The Speckled Band’ in particular haunted me.
Theodore Dreiser – An American Tragedy Based on a 1906 real-life murder.
Umberto Eco – The Name of the Rose. “Books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told”. Postmodernism, semiotics and murder.
Gillian Flynn – Dark Places
John Fowles – The Collector. Fowles’ disturbing literary debut.
Tana French – Broken Harbour. In the excellent Dublin Murders series. This one got thoroughly under my skin.
Frances Fyfield – Perfectly Pure and Good. A crime writer who doesn’t get enough attention these days – I read her a lot in the 80s and 90s. This is one of a series featuring lawyer Sarah Fortune.
Robert Galbraith – The Cuckoo’s Calling. First in J K Rowling’s pseudonymous crime series.
Valentina Giambanco – The Gift of Darkness. First in her Alice Madison series.
Andrea Gillies – The White Lie . I came across this writer with her moving account of life with a family member with dementia. Themes and preoccupations recur…
Lesley Glaister – Honour thy Father. The first of Glaister’s novels that I read, I think. Gothic, murdery, full of secrets.
Graham Greene – Brighton Rock. Damnation and justice. Ida Arnold fighting crime, not because it’s her job but because it’s the right thing to do.
Isabelle Grey – Good Girls Don’t Die. First in the DI Grace Fisher series
Elly Griffiths – The Crossing Places. First in the splendid Ruth Galloway series. Read them all, and Griffiths’ other series too. You’ll thank me later.
Jane Harper – The Lost Man. Third novel from Harper and the strongest, I think. The landscape – in this case, the Australian outback, where the scorching heat itself is a ruthless killer – is a powerful part of the narrative, almost a protagonist.
Joanne Harris – Different Class. Darkly funny and a bit bonkers.
Robert Harris – An Officer and a Spy. The story of the Dreyfus affair and the officer who fought to prove his innocence
Thomas Harris – Red Dragon. A baroque serial killer and an FBI profiler, precursor to Silence of the Lambs
John Harvey – Cold in Hand. The penultimate novel in John Harvey’s wonderful Resnick series
Mick Herron – Slow Horses First in a series about a department of MI5 rejects – acerbically funny but without pulling any emotional punches.
Patricia Highsmith – Strangers on a Train
Lynn Hightower – Flashpoint. First in the Sonora Blair series.
Sarah Hilary – Never be Broken. The most recent Marnie Rome.
Reginald Hill – On Beulah Heights. The best Dalziel & Pascoe.
Susan Hill – The Betrayal of Trust. One of the best of a fascinating series, featuring DCI Simon Serrailler.
P D James – Cover Her Face. The first Adam Dalgliesh novel.
Philip Kerr – Prague Fatale. Bernie Gunther’s eighth outing. As always, Kerr walks a fine line, integrating Nazi atrocities with the mechanics of the thriller. But he does it superbly well.
Stephen King – Mr Mercedes. First in a trilogy (see also Finders Keepers, and End of Watch) with characters who recur in other recent King novels.
Stieg Larson – Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
John Le Carré – Call for the Dead. Our first encounter with one George Smiley…
Ira Levin – A Kiss before Dying. Less well-known than some of Levin’s other titles, but an absolutely cracking thriller.
Attica Locke – Pleasantville. Sequel to Black Water Rising
Henning Mankell – Sidetracked. Wallander no. 5
Peter May – The Blackhouse. First of the Lewis trilogy
Ed McBain – Let’s Hear it for the Deaf Man. 26th in the 87th Precinct series, and the third to feature their most challenging adversary, the eponymous Deaf Man.
Alexander McCall Smith – No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency
Val McDermid – The Distant Echo. The first in the DI Karen Pirie series
Adrian McKinty – The Cold Cold Ground. First of his Belfast-set Sean Duffy crime series
Denise Mina – The Long Drop. Based on a real 1950s Glasgow murder case
Sara Paretsky – Indemnity Only. Our introduction to the redoubtable V I Warshawski
Nii Ayikwei Parks – Tail of the Blue Bird. Set in the Ghanaian ‘hinterland’, the storytelling is shared between Kayo, the young forensic pathologist armed with all of the science stuff, and Opanyin Poku, the old hunter who is armed with proverbs and stories.
Louise Penny – A Fatal Grace. The second in the Inspector Gamache series, set in a small Québécois town. Not at the gritty end of crime fiction but that doesn’t mean they’re superficial or cliched.
Ian Rankin – The Naming of the Dead. The 16th Rebus
Danuta Reah – Silent Playgrounds. Atmospheric thriller, set in Sheffield
Ruth Rendell – Judgement in Stone. Generally reckoned to be one of her greatest works. Adapted for the cinema by Claude Chabrol, no less.
C J Sansom – Dark Fire. Second title in the Tudor-set Shardlake series. If you’ve been missing Thomas Cromwell since finishing The Mirror & the Light, he’s here.
Dorothy L Sayers – Strong Poison. Probably my favourite of the Lord Peter Wimseys, which I have read and re-read for decades. Always loved Harriet Vane. Shout out, BTW, to the late Jill Paton Walsh who wrote a series of four Wimseys, which are very good indeed.
Lynn Shepherd – Tom All Alone’s. ‘Literary’, postmodern crime – this one riffs primarily on Bleak House (see above), and there’s a slice of The Woman in White in here as well.
Cath Staincliffe – The Girl in the Green Dress. Staincliffe is always concerned not just with the crime and its solution but the ripples that flow out from the crime, and her novels carry real emotional heft. This one is devastating.
Susie Steiner – Remain Silent. The latest in the Manon Bradshaw series, featuring a tremendous, real, abrasive central character.
Lesley Thomson – The Detective’s Daughter. The start of a most intriguing series. Thomson has been compared to Rendell, and to Kate Atkinson.
Of course, if I were to do this again in a few years, some of these titles would have been superseded. But I am inclined to think many of the authors will still be there.
This genre has so much potential. The titles I’ve picked not only give us plot and character, suspense and tension. They also address issues of morality and mortality, class and race and gender, politics and psychology and sociology – the whole rich tapestry of human life is here. And human death, obviously…