Each month, I recommend five works of mystery/crime/suspense fiction, new or old, with no agenda other than to share a distillation of more than a half-century of avid reading in this most distinguished literary category.
Shaun Harris, The Hemingway Thief
Capers (carefully choreographed cons and robberies) and bibliomysteries (crime stories in which the world of books plays a role) are two of my favorite sub-genres. Harris combines both in this novel, based on a well-known true story. In 1922 Paris, Ernest Hemingway entrusted a suitcase filled with his work to his wife. It is stolen and never recovered. In the present, a small-time crook has the first draft of A Moveable Feast and claims to know where to find the suitcase. Is the manuscript genuine? Is there a suitcase? A lot of people want the priceless suitcase, including a bookseller, some American ex-pats, drug lords, hit-men, con-men, and the beautiful La Donde, the country’s most dangerous assassin.
John Dickson Carr, The Three Coffins
Among the most challenging and compelling of pure detective novels are so-called impossible crimes, the master indisputably being Carr. In this tour-de-force, his series character Dr. Gideon Fell delivers a lecture describing scores of methods by which the crime could have been committed, but then explains why the criminal used an alternative method. Two people see a masked figure enter Professor Grimaud’s study. They hear a shot. When the police arrive, they break down the locked door to find a body but not the killer. Outside the window, the fresh snow is pristine with no hint of footprints. A careful examination of the room reveals no secret doors or hiding places. Only Dr. Fell can bring the villain to justice.
Ken Bruen, The Emerald Lie
Called the “Godfather of the modern Irish crime novel,” Bruen is beloved for his black humor, poetic prose, and irascible protagonist Jack Taylor, an ex-cop, now a private detective, who is as addicted to trouble as he is to Jameson, pills, and pop culture. In his most recent novel, the villain is a Cambridge graduate who becomes murderous over split infinitives, dangling modifiers, and any other sign of bad grammar. Galway’s Garda have dubbed him “the Grammarian.” Even more challenging than catching the serial killer is dealing with the psychopathic Emily (previous alias: Emerald), the brilliant young woman who seems to love Taylor but is so unpredictably violent that she frightens even him.
Mickey Spillane, I, the Jury
The private eye novel was largely moribund in the 1950s, with Hammett no longer writing, Chandler with just two novels to his credit, and Ross Macdonald not yet widely known. Spillane filled the breach to become the best-selling author in American history with Mike Hammer, the toughest P.I. in the business. In this, the first book in the series, the hard-boiled detective hunts the killer of an old army friend who lost his arm saving Hammer. When he catches the killer, he handles the execution himself. When the dying murderer asks, “How could you?,” Hammer says, “It was easy.”
Vera Caspary, Laura
I’ll concede that my affection for this book, read 40 years ago, might be influenced by the superb film version, which I’ve watched a half-dozen times. Detective Mark McPherson is assigned to the murder case of Laura Hunt. When he interviews Waldo Lydecker, New York’s most famous columnist, the journalist speaks of her so intimately that the detective begins to feel that he truly knows her. Fascinated by a portrait of the beautiful young woman (Gene Tierney in the movie), McPherson cannot deny that he has fallen in love with her. He soon learns that nothing is as it seems and an unexpected murder further complicates the case.