The books that hooked me on crime fiction

The Neon rainDo you remember what books got you into crime fiction?

When it all comes down to it, I have to credit my late father. Dad loved writers like Carter Brown, Mickey Spillane and Ian Fleming. He passed on his readings tastes to me, particularly his love of dark, pulp influenced crime fiction.

Here are the five books that began my love affair with crime fiction.

What are yours?

From Russia With Love – Ian Fleming I still have my father’s collection of James Bond novels published by Pan Books in the late fifties and sixties, which I saved from my mother’s frequent op shop culls. Published in 1957, From Russia With Love was the fifth Bond book but the first one I read.

It involves a complex plot by Soviet counter intelligence, SMERSH, to kill Bond and discredit British intelligence, using a beautiful Russian cipher clerk and a secret decoding machine as bait. Lashings of action and intrigue, evocative settings such as Istanbul and the Orient Express, characters including the SMERSH executioner, ‘Red Grant’, and the diabolical Colonel Rosa Klebb.

I can still remember reading this in my late teens and my mind going whoooosh with the possibilities.

The Neon Rain – James Lee Burke

The Neon Rain was another of my father’s books. After nineteen novels, I’m a bit over the character of Dave Robichaux. But that won’t stop me from recognizing how incredibly influential the books were for me and countless other crime writers and readers.

The Neon Rain was the book that kicked off the series. Robichaux, an ex-alcoholic, ex-Vietnam vet New Orleans cop tangles with an impressive list of psychopathic heavies in his battle to track down a young prostitute’s killers. It’s a terrific tale from a master of crime fiction narrative and place.

The Dying Trade – Peter Corris The private investigator was languishing in almost complete obscurity in Australian crime fiction before Peter Corris wrote The Dying Trade, the 1980 debut of the now legendary fictional Australian private investigator, Cliff Hardy.

This was one of the first Australian crime novels I can remember reading. Hardy is hired by a shifty property developer to discover who’s behind harassing phone calls to the man’s sister.

It’s a violent, hard-boiled mystery, the apparent simplicity of the case inverse to the reality of what’s really occurring. Corris also infuses the text with a wonderful sense of class and geography in eighties Sydney.

The Last Good Kiss – James Crumley

“When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside Sonoma California, drinking the heart out of a fine spring afternoon.” I was hooked from the opening line of James Crumely’s The Last Good Kiss.

C. W. Sughrue is a Montana investigator and part time barman in a topless joint. He’s hired to track down a missing girl, a search that takes him deep into the heart of America’s post Vietnam nightmare. This book blew me away when I first read it, the complexity of the story, the flawed and damaged nature of the characters, the way it wove counter cultural themes and crime fiction together. It felt real and urgent.

This is an author I wish had written a lot more.

The Big Nowhere – James Ellroy

I’d never even heard of James Ellroy when I picked up a second hand copy of The Big Nowhere while back packing in Guatemala in the mid-nineties.

I loved the dense, intersecting plot lines revolving around a series of gruesome murders and three desperate, ambitious men recruited to investigate Communist influence in early fifties Hollywood. This book blew a giant hole in what I thought crime fiction could be.

It also introduced me to what remains one of the most terrifying and corrupt bad cop fictional characters I’ve read, Lieutenant Dudley Smith of the LAPD. “Knock knock, whose there? Dudley Smith so Reds beware.”


15 Responses

  1. Posts like this, Andrew, cause my “Need To Read” list to grow.

    Oh well, Winter is coming here in NJ. Plenty of time…

  2. Jim Thompson is god…

  3. I guess it was my mum who got me hooked…we didn’t own many books when I was a kid (we basically lived at the library) but my mum did have a set of Agatha Christie novels and a Sherlock Holmes compendium that I re-read often – they were the only things available when my library stash ran out.

    • Bernadette,
      Thanks for stopping by. Interesting how many people got their first taste of crime fiction through Christie. As you say, that probably reflects the fact that our parents had a lot of her books on their shelves.

  4. For me it was Right As Rain by George Pelecanos. Showed me crime was more than a whodunnit

  5. Ellory was everywhere in the 90s and he was such a goldmine of influences and information. Just from reading about him led me to Jim Thompson, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Joseph Wambaugh. That was a pretty good footing for crime/noir fiction.

    • Ian,
      Thanks for stopping by. Although I think he is now in serious danger of disappearing up his own arse, Ellroy has been a huge influence. The idea that you could do a sprawling, complex, historical crime saga, that comes from Ellroy. He blew a massive hole in our preconceptions of what crime fiction could be and say. I cited The Big Nowhere in this post, but I also loved White Jazz and American Tabloid. Even his early Floyd Hopkins books are good.

  6. I’ve got my Dad to thank too, for sure! First I quickly devoured his collection of Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L Sayers, before discovering that he was keeping Peter Corris on shelf that was previously out of reach!

    Then came Chandler’s ‘The Big Sleep’, of which I now own four copies. I always have an old Peter Corris paperback in my handbag. At the moment it’s Heroin Annie – great reading for trams, queues and such! 🙂

    From there I headed to Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs before finding Ian Rankin and Val McDermaid. Then came the Scandinavians, with the Martin Beck and Wallander serials!

  7. Yes, I blame my dad as well. Like you, I started off with James Bond and then a few years later I got seriously hooked thanks to Ross MacDonald and John D. MacDonald’s Travis Magee novels. The years since then are a blur of Simenon, Reginald Hill, Bill James, and so on. One distinctive American writer of crime fiction who really grabbed my attention early on was K.C. Constantine. He has a unique voice and a real appreciation for working class characters, which is damn rare in crime fiction. He’s fairly obscure now, but he’s well worth seeking out.

  8. James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia got me started, and American Tabloid made sure I stayed hooked. The latter is possibly the most terrifying book I’ve ever read, just for the portrayal of sheer corruption rather than its many brutal moments.

    I didn’t like The Cold Six Thousand much, but I really enjoyed Blood’s a Rover, despite it being all over the place.

    For a good laugh, I love a bit of Carl Hiaasen.

  9. I’ve got more than five, Andrew, but for the sake of brevity; Daniel Woodrell’s “Under The Bright Lights” is a wonderful depiction of Deep South noir and had me hooked on everything he subsequently wrote. George Pelecanos’ “The Sweet Forever” had me searching the DC native’s back catalogue. Carl Hiaasen’s “Double Whammy” is outrageously funny and he consistently writes the best whacked out Florida fiction – I never miss a release; “Maximum Bob” was the first Elmore Leonard book I read. Elmore is the king, nuff said; Peter Doyle’s “Amaze Your Friends” is one of the finest Australian historical crime novels ever – a distinctive larrikin voice, pitch-perfect tone, great characters both real and ficticious. It’s a shame Peter doesn’t write crime fiction anymore.

  10. Elmore Loenard, Robert B. Parker and a book by John Williams – Into The Badlands that helped me discover, Burke, Crumley and a whole host of other guys.

  11. Shame I can’t spell….Leonard!

  12. I was never much of a fan of crime fiction until a friend turned me onto a recently published book called The Gemini Factor from Philip Fleishman. The plot has an interesting focus on telepathy between twins separated at birth and its one of those books that just bends your mind. I was really impressed with the way the author was able to bring such a complex story together into such a thrilling and unexpected conclusion. Absolutely great book and probably the best read I’ve had this year.

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