New month. New theme. This time round we’re taking a look at crime and punishment, so here’s a fresh crop of novel recommendations with a focus on crime novels. Time to break out a fresh bottle of luminol or find an alibi…
I haven’t actually read that many books from this category – none that I would recommend, anyway. So my tenuous link to Crime and Punishment comes in the form of a young adult, girly series, where the protagonists are Robin Hoods of the 21st Century – Ally Carter’s Heist Society series.
Hear me out. This series probably isn’t on a level with the other recommendations you see around this. But I found this series ridiculously fun. Cat is a 15 year old girl who has grown up in a family of grifters and thieves. She tries to escape the world by conning her way into America’s best private school but finds that she can never truly run away from the criminal world.
Heist Society feels a lot darker and a lot more realistic than Carter’s other books. The bad guys are really bad and the situations make the characters question their morals. You may be surprised to hear that Heist Society doesn’t have too much boyfriend or relationship pining that plagues other YA novels.
Like any good crime novel, the crimes are explained in great detail from the criminals’ viewpoint. Cat and her friends steal from the rich to give to the poor and the decisions they make are justified and realistic. In other words, it’s a ridiculously fun series, and I’m looking forward to reading more of the author’s work.
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler is a novel about a private investigator who gets hired to investigate a missing persons and a case of blackmail, gets embroiled with a dying old man, his two rich and spoilt daughters, a local gangster and the police, and leaves a trail of murder victims in his wake. But it’s also so much more than that. The Big Sleep is a scathing examination of Los Angeles, all sun baked and rotten to the core, and of human nature. It’s a profound, complex and relevant book. And it’s also the novel the introduced the world to Philip Marlowe.
Influenced by the hardboiled detectives created by Carroll John Daly and Dashiell Hammett, Philip Marlowe rose above the mould they created and changed the genre forever. Sure, he was wisecracking and hard-drinking like all the other PIs out there, but Marlowe was also contemplative and strangely poetic. And he liked chess. He was a new breed of private investigator – one who has never been beaten, no matter how many times authors try to upstage him. Chandler didn’t just write an excellent crime story, full of twists and shocks and murders, he created an iconic and memorable character to lead us through it.
Philip Marlowe has been the king of the private investigator novel ever since he first appeared in 1939, and with his sharp tongue, irreverent wit and philosophical mind, he continues to captivate readers and inspire a thousand imitations. And The Big Sleep – atmospheric, intricate and hugely enjoyable – was the book that brought him to us.
There’s something rotten in Edinburgh. Something so rotten, it’s threatening to do away with the media’s carefully manicured image of the city that’s forgotten its less than wholesome history and contemporary voices in the shadows. Little girls are being murdered and no one knows why.
The city runs deep throughout the novel and while many remember Knots and Crosses more for Ian Rankin’s depiction of John Rebus (a man with the kind of past that regularly comes back and strangles you by the throat), I found his vision of Edinburgh more compelling. The novel has a lot about innocence and guilt between the lines and whether not just that Rebus can be redeemed for his past, but an entire city as well.
A detective who is, essentially, damaged goods wasn’t exactly new, even when Rankin was writing back in the 1980s. But the vision of Edinburgh that sprawls out throughout the pages is a tad more unique, with the gentle folk seemingly unaware of the rot that lurks beneath their feet. Coupled with Rebus’s post traumatic stress disorder and the faceless killer that haunts Rebus for much of the novel and you’ve got what is a Jekyll and Hyde story (which is kind of poetic, considering where that novel is set), but with a Jekyll who is far more likeable.
I wouldn’t say this is the best crime novel I’ve ever read, technically it is Rankin’s first and there is much of the inexperience of the first time published to be found in its pages (the sex scenes left me cringing), but it is good. Rankin manages to play around with a character who not only isn’t trusted by those around him, but doesn’t trust himself either. It’s painful, but sweet.
Is Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, by Douglas Adams, really a crime novel? It’s got “Detective Agency” in the title, certainly. But it’s hard to pin down exactly whodunnit or even, in fact, what they dun. Adams himself called it a “detective-ghost-horror-
This is a story where the titular private detective is hired to locate a missing cat, and ends up billing his client for saving the world. To the untrained eye, it may look like Gently is a conman – dawdling along looking into whatever catches his attention and just waiting for the case to solve itself. But this is actually the key to his unique holistic approach, relying on the deep and subtle interconnections between all things. At least, that’s what he tells people.
Adams’ much more famous Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is, of course, a triumph of mad genius – bursting at the seams with outlandish and hilarious ideas. You might expect him to tone down that insanity for this very different genre, but no, his detective stories are every bit as crazy as his sci-fi. Alien ghosts use time-machines to summon robots from the distant past. Also present: Adams’ sharp satire, as those robots are programmed to believe irrational things so that we don’t have to.
It’s a great story, though maybe not a great detective story. There’s a sequel too, and Adams sadly died partway through writing a third. That unfinished book, The Salmon of Doubt, is confusing and wonderful – we’ll never know what it was about or where the story was leading. It’s a mystery!
…but I bet Dirk Gently could solve it.