The best crime novels grip you right from the first sentence and don’t let go. We asked a bestselling crime author to tell us about his favourite examples of the genre
Before we discuss your five book recommendations, I wanted to find out more about what got you interested in writing crime fiction.
What got me started was when I got burgled just after my first-ever book had come out, 30 years ago, which was a really bad spy thriller! A young detective came to the house and he pointed at my book and said if you ever want any research work get in touch, and he gave me his card. My wife and I went on to become friends with him and his wife, who was also a detective. We started to meet their friends and realised that almost all of them were other police officers and that it was a very inclusive world.
Once they got to know and trust me, they started inviting me to go on patrol with them and then to increasingly adventurous things, such as crime scenes. A single day can include attending at a cot death, sorting out a domestic fight and dealing with the victims of a major crime. I started to realise that nobody sees more of human life than the police. So I thought that if you actually want to understand human life there is no better way of doing it than through a crime novel.
I am currently the chair of the Crime Writers’ Association and I really fight the corner for the crime fiction market because many people don’t think we write serious literature. My argument for that is that William Shakespeare wrote plays because in those days people didn’t read books. Most people didn’t read, or if they did they couldn’t afford books, so if you wanted to communicate through writing you wrote a play. Over half his plays have a courtroom scene. I think if Shakespeare was writing today, he would be writing crime fiction because it allows you to explore so many of the big themes which dominate our lives. Certainly King Lear, Hamlet, Richard III, Othello and Macbeth would be on the crime fiction shelves today!
By Graham Greene
You have started with the classic Brighton Rock by Graham Greene, which contains many of these big themes.
This is the book that made me want to be a crime writer. I grew up in Brighton [an English seaside resort] in the 1950s and 60s and it was a thoroughly unpleasant place then, seedy and violent. It has changed dramatically in the last 25 years. The book has two really key things about it that were such a big influence on me. The first is that it has one of the most grabbing opening sentences ever written: “Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.”
You just have to read on after that. And secondly, I grew up weaned on Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Sherlock Holmes and this was the first crime novel I came across where the central characters were the villains. They were the most important and interesting characters. You had someone like Pinkie, this teenage murderer, yet he is a devout Catholic who is obsessed with eternal damnation and sin and guilt. I just found the book absolutely extraordinary. I read it when I was 14 and said to myself: I want to write a crime novel one day that is 10% as good as this.
Why do you think it became such a classic? Was it just the characters?
I think it has stood the test of time because it is a real page-turner. It has got tremendous characters. There isn’t a dull person in the book. It is utterly riveting in evil and malevolence and in humanity. It is also universal. People around the world that don’t know Brighton read this book and still love it. Greene is an immensely compelling writer. He writes about big themes and he writes brilliant characters. Although the book is set in an English seaside resort it has got the themes of right and wrong, of guilt and religion and good versus evil.
The Con Man
By Ed McBain
Next up is Ed McBain’s thriller The Con Man.
This was another life-changing book for me. At the age of 14, in England in the early 1960s, I was steeped in the traditional, often slightly dull, crime novel culture. Then I picked up Con Man and I was just blown away. It is set in the 87th precinct of New York and was very different to the English tradition of the time of having a murder in the first chapter and then working back to find out who had done it. This book was a breath of fresh air. Let me read you the opening lines which have this energy to them:
“Everyone has a right to earn a living. That is the American way. You get up there and sweat and you make a buck. And you invest that buck in lemons and sugar. The water and ice, you get free. You’ve got yourself a little lemonade stand by the side of the road, and pretty soon you are pulling in five bucks a week…”
There is a lovely flow to his writing, which rapidly gets very dark. I think the best crime writers are the ones that really give you a sense of place, and I could smell and feel and breathe that district in New York long before I ever went there.
What about the pace in the book? How do you think good crime writers create the sense of pace throughout the book?
I think characters drive every story, because if you care about the characters you care about what happens next. I think that different writers have their own technique. I like short chapters, and I like to read books with short chapters because I tend to read at night in bed when I am tired, and if I pick up a book and I see 38 pages I think, “Oh shit, I will read it tomorrow.” But if I see it is only a few pages I am more likely to read it. Short punchy chapters are one big key to it. I have an imaginary card sitting beside my computer when I am writing that says, is this going to make the reader want to read the next sentence?
The Hound of the Baskervilles
By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
What was it that kept you reading Conan Doyle’s classic The Hound of the Baskervilles?
I guess I have always had an interest in the supernatural. I loved the way that this was a supernatural tease. I don’t want to spoil the ending for those who don’t know the book, but for a long time it reads like a very credible ghost story until it turns to a more prosaic explanation. I like it because it was a real adventure. Holmes was a man of action in this book and Watson also plays quite a key role. It actually scared me the first time I read it as a kid. And I have always liked it. It is my favourite of all his books and it has a very clever ending.
It is also very evocative, with the dark menacing house on the moors and all that fog.
Yes, he does it so well, you can feel the fog. It was set on Dartmoor, down in Devon in the west country. And it’s full of surprises. I think part of the joy of reading good books is to be constantly surprised as a reader.
The Silence of the Lambs
By Thomas Harris
Many of us will have seen the chilling film Silence of the Lambs, starring Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster – but do you think it is still worth reading the book?
Yes, absolutely. If you want to be a crime writer it is one of the books that you absolutely have to read. It has been one of the most successful, if not the most successful, crime novel of the 20th century. You could argue that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is as well, but I think this book is infinitely superior.
Because it is a far better researched book that works on many different levels. One of the things it does, in a way that Stieg Larsson doesn’t, is to love all its characters. In Hannibal Lecter you have this appalling monster and yet you have a sneaking admiration for him. There is this idea of setting a monster to catch a monster.
And there is his relationship with Clarice.
Yes, there is a sexual frisson there, as well as him wanting to help her. I read this book for the first time in a hotel in Thailand and I was so bloody scared I had to sleep with the light on! The book is infinitely scarier than the film. Buffalo Bill is actually based on a real character, and where the author has been so clever is that he hasn’t made him one-dimensional. He has got his pet poodle – something he loves. So you think that if anyone loves something they can’t be all bad. It is an absolutely gripping thriller. My friend James Herbert sent me an early reading copy of it in 1988 and he rang me and said, “I am sending you this reading copy, you have got to read it.” And I read it over the next couple of days and put it down and thought, “That is a book I wish I had written!”
By Michael Connelly
Your final choice is The Reversal by Michael Connelly, starring the attorney Mickey Haller.
Michael Connelly is the only writer I know who writes like me. I don’t mean that in an arrogant sense – I am talking about the way he researches things, has rich characters and a real sense of pace. He is a former court reporter. You can pick up any of his books and feel you are in the hands of somebody who knows their subject, who knows the police and the law and the world in which he has set his books.
He writes with a huge amount of warmth. You feel this absolutely with every character, as well as warmth towards them. He holds me completely riveted. I love everything of his I have ever read. I think he is the greatest living American crime writer.
What is Mickey Haller like as a character?
I like him. He’s had a hard time, but he is not this hard-boiled-type character. He has seen it all. He is very experienced and vulnerable as well.
You talk about the importance of doing thorough research, so what kind of research do you do for your work?
I spend on average one day in five with the police because they are the primary characters in my books. I spend time with them mostly in the UK, but I have also spent time with many different police forces around the world – for example, in the States, Russia, Germany, Australia, France, Sweden and in the Caribbean. I have a particular relationship with Sussex police because that is where I live and base my novels. Part of the reason I go out with them so often is that there are so many different moving parts to the police and they are constantly changing, so I like to see what is going on, understand their culture – and I really find it fascinating as well.
What about for your recent book, Perfect People?
The starting point was meeting the head of brain genetics at the Californian Institute for Technology 12 years ago, and he said to me, “I know you have an interest in science – you might want to come to our lab. We have just identified the cluster of genes responsible for empathy.” And I was amazed. I went there and they started showing me the work they were doing. I couldn’t believe it. They had also identified the cluster of genes responsible for hand-eye coordination and he said parents in the future will be able to choose things like the amount of empathy in their kids and whether they are good at sports.
Which puts far too much responsibility on to parents and throws up all sorts of ethical issues.
Yes, and early on in my book the scientist says something that the scientist said to me in California 12 years back. The book starts there with my couple visiting a controversial geneticist. You hear how their four-year-old kid had died of a rare disease and they both carry the genes – so there is a very high chance if they have another baby that it could happen again. So essentially they want to pay to choose the genes of their next baby, which they can be sure will be fit and healthy and not at risk from this disease. But, instead, they are made to make many more far-reaching choices about its character and are told that if they don’t, given what the future holds, they are bad parents condemning their child to being born into a genetics underclass – effectively a second-rate person.
What is amazing is that this kind of thing is already starting to happen in real life and I realised that if I didn’t write the book real-life events would overtake me. The genie is already out of the bottle and nobody really knows what the consequences will be.
Interview by Daisy Banks
This interview first appeared in The Browser, as part of the FiveBooks series. Previous contributors include Paul Krugman, Woody Allen and Ian McEwan. For a daily selection of new article suggestions and FiveBooks interviews , check out http://thebrowser.com/ or follow @TheBrowser on Twitter.