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Top writers choose their perfect crime


Crime fiction is now the UKs bestselling genre. So which crime novels should everyone read? We asked the writers who know …

On Beulah Height by Reginald Hill
Val McDermid


This is the perfect crime novel. Its beautifully written elegiac, emotionally intelligent, evocative of the landscape and history that holds its characters in thrall and its clever plotting delivers a genuine shock. Theres intellectual satisfaction in working out a plot involving disappearing children, whose counterpoint is Mahlers Kindertotenlieder. Theres darkness and light, fear and relief. And then theres the cross-grained pairing of Dalziel and Pascoe. Everything about this book is spot on.

Although Hills roots were firmly in the traditional English detective novel, he brought to it an ambivalence and ambiguity that allowed him to display the complexities of contemporary life. He created characters who changed and developed in response to their experiences. I urge you to read this with a glass of Andy Dalziels favourite Highland Park whisky.

Insidious Intent by Val McDermid is published by Sphere.

The Damned and the Destroyed by Kenneth Orvis
Lee Child


My formative reading was before the internet, before fanzines, before also-boughts, so for me the best ever is inevitably influenced by the gloriously chanced-upon lucky finds, the greatest of which was a 60 cent Belmont US paperback, bought in an import record shop on a back street in Birmingham in 1969. It had a lurid purple cover, and an irresistible strapline: She was beautiful, young, blonde, and a junkie I had to help her! It turned out to be Canadian, set in Montreal. The hero was a solid stiff named Maxwell Dent. The villain was a dealer named The Back Man. The blonde had an older sister. Dents sidekicks were jazz pianists. The story was patient, suspenseful, educational and utterly superb. In many ways its the target I still aim at.

The Midnight Line by Lee Child is published by Bantam.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens
Ian Rankin


Does this count as a crime novel? I think so. Dickens presents us with a mazey mystery, a shocking murder, a charismatic police detective, a slippery lawyer and a plethora of other memorable characters many of whom are suspects. The story has pace and humour, is bitingly satirical about the English legal process, and also touches on large moral and political themes. As in all great crime novels, the central mystery is a driver for a broad and deep investigation of society and culture. And theres a vibrant sense of place, too in this case, London, a city built on secret connections, a location Dickens knows right down to its dark, beating heart.

Rather Be the Devil by Ian Rankin is published by Orion. Siege Mentality by Chris Brookmyre is published by Little, Brown.

The Hollow by Agatha Christie
Sophie Hannah


This is my current favourite, in its own way just as good as Murder on the Orient Express. As well as being a perfectly constructed mystery, its a gripping, acutely observed story about a group of people, their ambitions, loves and regrets. The characters are vividly alive, even the more minor ones, and the pace is expertly handled. The outdoor swimming pool scene in which Poirot discovers the murder is, I think, the most memorable discovery-of-the-body scene in all of crime fiction. Interestingly, Christie is said to have believed that the novel would have been better without Poirot. His presence here is handled differently he feels at one remove from the action for much of the time but it works brilliantly, since he is the stranger who must decipher the baffling goings on in the Angkatell family. The murderers reaction to being confronted by Poirot is pure genius. It would have been so easy to give that character, once exposed, the most obvious motivation, but the contents of this killers mind turn out to be much more interesting

Did You See Melody by Sophie Hannah is published by Hodder.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
SJ Watson

SJ Watsno

I first came to Rebecca, published in 1938, with one of the most recognisable first lines in literature, not knowing exactly what to expect. That it was a classic I was in no doubt, but a classic what? I suspected a drama, possibly a romance, a book heavy on character but light on plot and one Id read and then forget. How wrong I was.

It is a dark, brooding psychological thriller, hauntingly beautiful, literature yes, but with a killer plot. I loved everything about it. The way Du Maurier slowly twists the screw until we have no idea who to trust, the fact that the title character never appears and exists only as an absence at the heart of the book, the fact that the narrator herself is unnamed throughout. But, more importantly, this thriller is an exploration of power, of the men who have it and the women who dont, and the secrets told to preserve it.

Second Life by SJ Watson is published by Black Swan.

Mystic River by Dennis Lehane
James Lee Burke


To my mind this is the best crime novel written in the English language. Lehane describes horrible events with poetic lines that somehow heal the injury that his subject matter involves, not unlike Shakespeare or the creators of the King James Old Testament. Thats not a hyper-bolic statement. His use of metaphysical imagery is obviously influenced by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Mystic River is one for the ages.

Robicheaux by James Lee Burke is published by Orion.

The Expendable Man by Dorothy B Hughes
Sara Paretsky

Author Sara Paretsky for Arts. Photo by Linda Nylind. 15/7/2015.

Today, Hughes is remembered for In a Lonely Place (1947) Bogart starred in the 1950 film version. My personal favourite is The Expendable Man (1963). Hughes lived in New Mexico and her love of its bleak landscape comes through in carefully painted details. She knows how to use the land sparingly, so it creates mood. The narrative shifts from the sandscape to the doctor, who reluctantly picks up a teen hitchhiker. When shes found dead a day later, hes the chief suspect, and the secrets we know hes harbouring from the first page are slowly revealed.

Hughess novels crackle with menace. Like a Bauhaus devotee, she understood that in creating suspense, less is more. Insinuation, not graphic detail, gives her books an edge of true terror. Shes the master we all could learn from.

Fallout by Sara Paretsky is published by Hodder.

Killing Floor by Lee Child
Dreda Say Mitchell


What is it about any particular novel that means youre so engrossed that you miss your bus stop or stay up way past your bedtime? A spare, concise style that doesnt waste a word. A striking lead character who manages to be both traditional and original. A plot thats put together like a Swiss watch. Childs debut has all these things, but like all great crime novels it has the x-factor.

In the case of Killing Floor that factor is a righteous anger, rooted in personal experience, that makes the book shake in your hands. Its the story of a military policeman who loses his job and gets kicked to the kerb. Jack Reacher becomes a Clint Eastwood-style loner who rides into town and makes it his business to dish out justice and protect the underdog, but without the usual props of cynicism or alcohol. We can all identify with that anger and with that thirst for justice. We dont see much of the latter in real life. At least in Killing Floor we do.

Blood Daughter by Dreda Say Mitchell is published by Hodder.

The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
Benjamin Black (John Banville)


The Long Goodbye is not the most polished, and certainly not the most convincingly plotted, of Chandlers novels, but it is the most heartfelt. This may seem an odd epithet to apply to one of the great practitioners of hard-boiled crime fiction. The fact is, Chandler was not hard-boiled at all, but a late romantic artist exquisitely attuned to the bittersweet melancholy of post-Depression America. His closest literary cousin is F Scott Fitzgerald.

Philip Marlowes love and surely it is nothing less than love for the disreputable Terry Lennox is the core of the book, the rhapsodic theme that transcends and redeems the creaky storyline and the somewhat cliched characterisation. And if Lennox is a variant of Jay Gatsby, and Marlowe a stand in for Nick Carraway, Fitzgeralds self-effacing but ever-present narrator, then Roger Wade, the drink-soaked churner-out of potboilers that he despises, is an all too recognisable portrait of Chandler himself, and a vengefully caricatured one at that. However, be assured that any pot The Long Goodbye might boil is fashioned from hammered bronze.

Prague Nights by Benjamin Black is published by Viking.

Love in Amsterdam by Nicolas Freeling
Ann Cleeves


Although Nicolas Freeling wrote in English he was a European by choice an itinerant chef who roamed between postwar France, Belgium and Holland, and who instilled in me a passion for crime set in foreign places. He detested the rules of the traditional British detective novel: stories in which plot seemed to be paramount. Love in Amsterdam (1962) is Freelings first novel and it breaks those rules both in terms of structure and of theme.

It is a tale of sexual obsession and much of the book is a conversation between the suspect, Martin, whos been accused of killing his former lover, and the cop. Van der Valk, Freelings detective, is a rule-breaker too, curious and compassionate, and although we see his investigative skills in later books, here his interrogation is almost that of a psychologist, teasing the truth from Martin, forcing him to confront his destructive relationship with the victim.

The Seagullby Ann Cleeves is published by Pan.

Laidlaw by William McIlvanney
Chris Brookmyre


I first read Laidlaw in 1990, shortly after moving to London, when I was aching for something with the flavour of home, and what a gamey, pungent flavour McIlvanneys novel served up. A sense of place is crucial to crime fiction, and Laidlaw brought Glasgow to life more viscerally than any book I had read before: the good and the bad, the language and the humour, the violence and the drinking.

Laidlaws turf is a male hierarchy ruled by unwritten codes of honour, a milieu of pubs and hard men rendered so convincingly by McIlvanneys taut prose. His face looked like an argument you couldnt win, he writes of one character, encapsulating not only the mans appearance but his entire biography in a mere nine words.

book made me realise that pacey, streetwise thrillers didnt have to be American: we had mean streets enough of our own. It emboldened me to write about the places I knew and in my own accent.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Laura Lippman


Im going to claim Lolita for crime fiction, something I never used to do. But it has kidnapping, murder and its important to use this term rape. It also has multiple allusions to Edgar Allan Poe and even hides an important clue well, not exactly in plain sight, but in the text of, yes, a purloined letter. And now we know, thanks to the dogged scholarship of Sarah Weinman, that it was based on a real case in the United States. (Weinmans book, The Real Lolita, will be published later this year.)

Dorothy Parker meant well when she said Lolita was a book about love, but, no its about the rape of a child by a solipsistic paedophile who rationalises his actions, another crime that is too often hidden in plain sight. Some think that calling Lolita a crime novel cheapens it, but I think it elevates the book, reminds us of the pedestrian ugliness that is always there, thrumming beneath the beautiful language.

Sunburn by Laura Lippman is published by Faber.

The Moving Target by Ross Macdonald
Donna Leon


Ross Macdonald, an American who wrote in the 60s and 70s, has enchanted me since then with the beauty of his writing and the decency of his protagonist, Lew Archer. I envy him his prose: easy, elegant, at times poetically beautiful. I also admire the absence of violence in the novels, for he usually follows Aristotles admonition that gore be kept out of the view of the audience. When Archer discovers the various wicked things one person has done to another, he does not linger in describing it but makes it clear how his protagonist mourns not only the loss of human life but also the loss of humanity that leads to it.

Macdonalds plotting is elegant: often, as Archer searches for the motive for todays crime, he unearths a past injustice that has returned to haunt the present and provoke its violence. His sympathy for the victims is endless, as is his empathy for some of the killers.

The Temptation of Forgiveness by Donna Leon is published by William Heinemann.

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
Nicci French


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