In the late 1880’s, a figure appeared on the English Literature scene. What most people didn’t know was this figure, supposedly keeping residences at 221B Baker Street, would take the detective fiction world by storm. A storm that would last for decades and overwhelm many generations of voracious young readers. Sherlock Holmes! The man who revolutionized detective fiction for readers to an extent that people found it hard to separate truth from fiction. When Arthur Conan Doyle (the author) decided to do away with Holmes; innumerable letters of request flooded his house, all of them with a constant plea,” Bring back Holmes!” Hesitant at first, but Conan Doyle, did yield to popular public opinion. What ended as The Final Problem, found re-birth in The Empty House, and voila Holmes was back in action. The astute logical reasoning and fastidious application of forensic science to solve cases and not to forget Holmes’ endearing temper, that had charmed a million hearts, was back with a bang!
The following list explores the other significant high points of the world of crime fiction:
10. The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934)
Author – James M. Cain
Cain is the brain behind Mildred Pierce (crime fiction novel later made into a Hollywood movie of the same name). He is also the author we must thank for the above-mentioned short story – The Postman Always Rings Twice. Frank Chambers, a young drifter, ends up at rural diner run by the gorgeous femme fatale Cora who is married to a much older Nick Papadakis. Frank and Cora begin a passionate love affair. They also hatch a plan to permanently do away with Nick. Will they succeed? Written in a way that has you racing through pages, the story comes with a solid plot. Only request: read the book; don’t judge it by its movie (although the movie lives up to the book more than sufficiently)!
9. The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955)
Author – Patricia Highsmith
When I think of the phrase, “The one who got away”, Mr. Ripley comes to mind almost instinctively (notwithstanding the unfortunate romantic liaisons the phrase connotes). Mr. Ripley did in fact literally get away with a heinous crime. Patricia Highsmith gives us Tom Ripley, a young man, newly arrived in Manhattan and struggling to make ends meet. He develops an all-consuming lust towards his friend’s wealth. The unfortunate friend is Dickie Greenleaf. Can one really get away with murder or will the clutches of law find Tom Ripley eventually? I would love to tell you, but you kids got to read and learn!
8. The Maltese Falcon (1930)
Author – Dashiell Hammett
Sam Spade is another milestone in the ‘private detective genre’ of crime fiction. He appears in three other novels after this but The Maltese Falcon is what set the ball rolling. Sam Spade and his partner Miles Archer are hired by a Miss Wonderly who assigns them the task to follow a man, who she claims has run-off with her sister. They accept the commission but Spade cannot shake off the feeling that Miss Wonderly spells trouble. His suspicions are proved right when his partner Miles Archer turns up dead. Soon Spade finds himself in the middle of a chase for an elusive gold statuette, that of a falcon. Who will get the falcon, who killed Archer and who is Miss Wonderly? There is only one answer: READ!
7. Red Dragon (1981)
Author – Thomas Harris
If like me, you find yourself, taking a morbid fascination in the film “Silence of the Lambs” and in particular have been taken in by the vicious Dr. Hannibal Lecter, then, you need to thank Thomas Harris. He is the author who created Dr. Hannibal Lecter and what came next is what people call history, but I would like to call it a wave of great reads and great movies! Will Graham is a FBI profiler who helped catch the malicious serial killer Dr. Lecter. Now he is faced with a new serial killer nicknamed Tooth Fairy, responsible for randomly killing families on nights of the full moon. Graham finds himself on a chase aided by clues and the macabre advice of Dr. Lecter!
6. The Green Ripper (1979)
Author – John D. MacDonald
This novel won the U.S. National Book Award in 1980. The main character is Travis McGee, the “salvage consultant” that we were first introduced to in the 1964 novel The Deep Blue Good-by. McGee isn’t a detective or even a private investigator; he is a recoverer of lost items. He goes after lost items and finds them for his clients and thereafter earns a percentage of their value. Not to mention the said ‘lost items’ are items of great monetary value. In this novel, however, McGee loses Gretel, the woman he loved. She dies from a mysterious illness but McGee refuses to rest until he proves who or what murdered Gretel. Will he find the answer?
5. Miami Blues (1984)
Author – Charles Willeford
This novel first put us face to face with Hoke Moseley, the ace in the stack of hard-boiled detectives. The book has been extremely influential in determining the course of contemporary crime fiction. Hoke Moseley settles into his hotel room after investigating a quadruple homicide. There is a knock on the door to which he attends to impulsively. A simple act that results in him finding himself in the hospital the next day! He sports bruises and a broken jaw. His gun and badge are missing too! He does a quick recapitulation of his past cases in an attempt to figure out the person responsible for his present state. The pieces of the puzzle he manages to salvage never seem to fit but they do take him on bizarre quests that keep the reader fixated!
4. The Hunter (1962)
Author – Richard Stark (a pseudonym for Donald Westlake)
It’s time for payback! We know that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, in case we ever decide to quantify fury and assign it ranks, then ‘the fury unleashed by a man betrayed’ would most certainly come in a close second! Parker is a criminal who is betrayed by his wife and partner; shot and left to die. He marches into the city of New York determined to claim vengeance. He tracks down his former partner and his wife with an intention to retrieve his money and of course wreck havoc in their respective lives! Parker is not an ideal of morality; he is relentless in his quest and doesn’t shy away from stepping onto the ladder of crime to get to his goal!
3. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2008)
Author – Stieg Larsson
Mikael Blomkvist, is a respected financial journalist who finds himself on the wrong side of the growth curve. He gets a chance at redemption when a well-known tycoon of the Swedish industry- Henrik Vanger- engages his services to investigate the mysterious disappearance of his grand-niece. The quid pro quo being that Vanger would help Blomkvist resurrect his name. Blomkvist has few other options at his disposal, so he ends up enlisting the help of Lisbeth Salander; a brilliant hacker and misunderstood genius who comes with her own brand of authority issues. The book is a prolific page-turner and effortlessly engages the reader and manages to keep him on tenterhooks. Larsson beatifically gift-wrapped one of the most enthralling superhero (or should I say heroine!) of our time in this novel.
2. When the Sacred Ginmill Closes (1986)
Author – Lawrence Block
This is another one of the Matthew Scudder novels. The private detective rears his head again with no real change in his formidable habits. He continues to drink heavily whilst he solves crime in New York. Scudder thinly misses crossing into vigilantism with his fearless and sharp crime apprehending ability. Scudder finds himself helping the owner of a gin mill recover stolen (doctored) financial records, while also helping a friend accused of murdering his wife, at the same time we get a glimpse into the psychological problems plaguing Scudder. Gritty and complicated; this book is not just another crime novel. It is high-octane crime-solving, topped with a detective with more than his fair share of gray shades!
1. The Long Goodbye (1953)
Author – Raymond Chandler
The winner of the 1955 Edgar Award for Best Novel, the world of critics’ stands divided on the superiority of this novel over other works by Raymond Chandler. Leaving aside the debate, it is undoubtedly a fascinating work and a gift to crime fiction! Philip Marlowe, the well-known detective that we first caught sight of in The Big Sleep returns again in The Long Goodbye. Marlowe meets Terry Lennox, a war veteran outside a club. They start a friendship that will take Marlowe on a dangerous quest! When Lennox’s wife turns up dead, the law accuses Marlowe of helping Lennox abscond. A whirlwind of revelations and numerous twists finally take Marlowe to the murderer’s doorstep.