At number 17 in my countdown of 20 greatest crime novels is Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s haunting, meta-fictional mystery The Pledge (1958). Prior to writing the novel, Dürrenmatt had long been a vocal critic of the genre and its conventions. In particular, he found it difficult to reconcile the neat and tidy resolutions often found in detective novels with the inherent chaos and incomprehensibility of real life and real crime. It is no surprise then that The Pledge is a somewhat unconventional detective novel, one that deliberately defies the possibility of logical solutions.
The novel is structured as a frame narrative, one that begins with a fictional Dürrenmatt interviewing a former “chief of police in the canton of Zurich” as part of research for a detective novel. Rather than encouraging the author, the former chief of police criticises the institution of crime fiction for creating a fantasy of order and resolution that is inapplicable to the real world:
“People hope that at least the police know how to order the world—I can imagine no more pathetic hope—but unfortunately in all these detective stories there is another quite different swindle going on—I don’t even mean the fact that your criminals will be brought to justice. This delightful fairy tale is no doubt morally necessary. It is one of the lies that keep the state going, as does the pious saying, crime doesn’t pay—whereas in fact you only have to look at human society to see the truth on that score”
The former chief of police gradually assumes the role of primary narrator and proceeds to tell a cautionary tail of a former police inspector, Detective Matthäi, who on his last day with the department is called to investigate a brutal child murder. Although a suspect soon comes forward confessing to the murder, Matthäi’s experience and instincts tell him that the real culprit is still at large. Having promised the victim’s parents that he would find the culprit and bring him to justice, Matthäi continues his own private and unsanctioned investigation into the crime, even after the case has been officially closed.
Suspecting a connection between the crime and other child disappearances and murders, what unfolds over the course of the novel is a paranoid and sombre tail of obsession, solitude and duty. Matthäi becomes entirely consumed by the hunt for the true killer, despite the fact that other’s dismiss the legitimacy of his investigation and see his obsession as evidence of some form of early onset psychosis. In may ways The Pledge is a heartbreaking novel, one that that is gripping despite it almost plodding pace. Without wanting to spoil anything, the ending to the novel is certainly one of the main reasons to read this text. It is both brilliant and utterly desperate and certainly magnifies Dürrenmatt’s clear frustration with the myth of resolution often propagated by detective fiction.
Although a little unconventional, The Pledge is an excellent novel, one that i think would please both purists and fans of more unconventional or ‘metaphysical’ detective fiction. Sean Penn’s adaptation of the book starring Jack Nicholson (also called The Pledge) is also worth a watch!
In at number #18 is E.C. Bentley’s comic masterpiece Trent’s Last Case (1913). Once described by Agatha Christie as ‘one of the three best detective stories ever written’, E.C Bentley’s classic ‘whodunit’ is often heralded as the prototypical ‘Golden Age’ detective novel. Featuring an urbane, genius detective and located within the typically closed, almost claustrophobic domestic environment, Bentley’s novel very much anticipates and heavily influences the later and more fully realized works of classic golden age writers such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers.
The central mystery of the text concerns the bizarre murder of entrepreneur Sigsbee Manderson, whose body is discovered on the grounds of his country house estate with a single bullet wound through the eye. No murder weapon is found, however the body does exhibit signs of a struggle, with scratches and bruises around the wrists. There are also seemingly inexplicable clues; Manderson’s pocket watch is discovered in the wrong pocket, his false teeth are missing and he is oddly dressed in a combination of day and evening clothes. This is of course a shocking sartorial irregularity according to Manderson’s servants, who all testify to him being such a neat and discerning dresser.
With the police unable to distinguish any clear suspects or discernible motive for the attack, charismatic artist and amateur detective Phillip Trent is summoned to intervene. Bentley immediately establishes Trent as a comparable figure to archetypal armchair sleuths such as Sherlock Holmes, able to solve the most impenetrable mysteries through a reliance on his superior powers of deductive logic and bizarre expertise in obscure fields of knowledge such as ‘good shoe leather’. Despite these superficial displays of genius, Trent is ultimately a comic figure, one who bumbles through the case misinterpreting clues and implicating the wrong suspects. A desperate romantic, he also makes the mistake of falling in love with a prime suspect – the dead millionaire’s widow, Mabel.
In many way’s Trent’s Last Case is more interesting for the ways it subverts the expectations and conventions of the detective format than for the ways it conforms to them. Not only is amateur sleuth Phillip Trent unable to successfully solve the central mystery, but the novel pushes the parameters of ‘fair play’ to such an extent that it is similarly impossible for the reader. Notions of logic and reason are replaced by chance and coincidence, whilst seemingly concrete clues become unstable and open to interpretation. Trent’s Last Case is a witty and thoroughly enjoyable novel that has a complex and surprising denouement, one that deliberately defies logic and reason. The unforeseeable solution to the mystery ultimately leads Trent to bemoan the ‘impotence of human reason’ and vow ‘never to touch a crime mystery again’.
Despite such pronouncements, luckily Trent does return in both Trent’s Own Case (1936) and Trent Intervenes (1938) – the latter a collection of short stories. Featuring a number of satisfying mysteries that provide a welcome comeback for the charismatic and charming detective, these later stories nonetheless fail to replicate the ingenuity and originality of Bentley’s first Trent mystery. Over a century after its initial publication, Trent’s Last Case still remains a humorous, sophisticated and gripping masterpiece of detective fiction, with Trent himself still one of our most compelling, charming and multifaceted detectives. A must read for fans of ‘Golden-Age’ or ‘Country House’ detective fiction.
In at #19 is Megan Abbott’s gripping neo-noir thriller The Song is You (2007). I first encountered Abbott whilst doing research for my PhD, after I stumbled across her excellent monograph The Street Was Mine: White Masculinity in Hard-boiled fiction and Film Noir. Abbott’s passion for crime fiction is certainly stylistically palpable in her work. Heavily influenced by writers such as James M. Cain, Ellroy and Jim Thompson, Abbot manages to forge a prose style that is unique and engaging with a real attention to period detail. Although slightly more lucid than Ellroy, there is a comparable intensity to Abbott’s writing that makes it equally hypnotic.
Similarly to James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia (1987), Abbott’s The Song is You centres on the real life disappearance of a ‘bit-part’ Hollywood actress. In this case it is twenty-six year old Jane Spangler, a mother of one who vanished in 1949 under suspicious circumstances. As with much neo-nor fiction, Abbott depicts the sleazy underbelly of Hollywood celebrity, a ruthless, vacuous world saturated by sex, scandal and violence. Enter Gil ‘Hop’ Hopkins, a smooth talking ex-reporter turned Hollywood ‘fixer’ who is paid to disguise/ bury certain aspects of celebrities private lives in order to maintain their public image. Hop’s and Spangler’s worlds collide the night before her disappearance, when the slick ‘fixer’ parties with the Spangler and one of her friends in an L.A. bar. Hop ultimately leaves Jean with a couple of celebrities rumoured to have a predatory and violent reputation, after which she is never seen again.
Two years later, Hop is still consumed by Spangler’s disappearance and ravaged by guilt for his complicity in covering up the two actors potential involvement. Although he initially justifies his actions as being part of the job, Hop eventually undertakes his own unsanctioned investigation into the disappearance in an attempt to atone for his past transgressions.
The Song is You is an excellent novel. Abbott’s prose is sharp, suspenseful and packed full of brilliant dialogue. Abbott’s work also brilliantly rewrites the codes and conventions of previous noir fiction, as she places a greater emphasis on female perspectives and female agency. Although Hop is very much built in the tradition of ‘hardboiled’ masculine heroes, Abbott’s female characters exhibit a profound understanding of the patriarchal demands of their society (be that sexual or marital) and are celebrated for their ability to circumvent, manipulate and perform these expectations. All of Abbott’s characters have a depth and complexity and the denouement of the novel deliberately subverts the typical expectations of these kinds of narratives.
I really can’t speak highly enough of Abbott’s writing, so do check her out! Unfortunately, some of Abbott’s early novels are no longer in print so it might be hard to get hold of them brand new. You can still pick up The Song is You second hand pretty easily though. Also check out Die a Little (2005), Queenpin (2007) and Bury Me Deep (2009).
The first text in my countdown of the ’20 greatest crime novels’ is David Peace’s 1974. I was a bit of latecomer to David Peace, but having picked up 1974 – the first volume in his ‘Red Riding Quartet’ – a few months ago, I have swiftly worked my way through the other three books in the series.
Inspired both stylistically and thematically by James Ellroy’s ‘L.A. Quartet’, the ‘Red Riding Quartet’ traces the secret criminal history of Yorkshire in the 1970’s and 80’s, following multiple characters though a bleak and violent world of police corruption, organised crime and murder. In the process, Peace – like Ellroy – deliberately blurs the line between fact and fiction, drawing on real life crimes (such as the Yorkshire Ripper Killings) to inspire his sordid and brutal alternate history.
1974 centres around journalist Eddie Dunford, a cocky yet troubled crime correspondent for The Yorkshire Post, who is tasked with covering the mysterious disappearance of ten year old school girl Clare Kemplay. After Clare’s mutilated body is discovered on a decrepit refuse site, Dunford’s investigation leads him to suspect a connection between Clare’s death and the disappearance of a number of other young girls.
The plot of Peace’s novel is extremely complex, which, coupled with the frantic and unhinged style of the narration, makes 1974 a book that demands focused attention. It propels you full-speed through a disorientating whirlwind of corruption and crime, and at times is difficult to follow. But don’t let this put you off! The style and pace of the book is breathtakingly hypnotic and Dunford is a flawed yet compelling central character.
My one major criticism of the book is that the violence, language and racism are at times a little extreme. One could argue that much of this can be attributed to Peace’s attempts to vividly capture the fractured and incohesive social context of late 70’s/early 80’s Britain. Yet, I can’t help but feel that 1974 is a little too excessive in its detail. There are some sections that provide extremely lurid accounts of forced sodomy and other forms of violent sexual assault that might be uncomfortable and/or upsetting for some readers. In fairness, even Peace himself has admitted that he regrets certain aspects of the novel’s hyperbolic violence.
Nonetheless, 1974 is an original and mesmerizing novel that is unlike anything I have read in British crime fiction (other than perhaps, Derek Raymond). Peace captures the noir nihilism that has energized american crime fiction for the last century, creating a frenzied, brutal and paranoid novel. 1974 is therefore a must read for fans of dark and violent crime!
Over the next twenty weeks, I will be counting down my twenty favourite crime novels. These are always tricky lists to devise and will undoubtedly leave some people feeling incredulous about the non inclusion of a particular text. So from the off I will stress that this list is obviously subjective and of course I would love to hear from you if there are any novels/writers that you feel were wrongfully omitted from my list. Indeed, there are many crime novels that I love that didn’t make the top twenty, so i do intend to post some honourable mentions in the final week.
The decision over which designation to go for has also caused me a certain amount of vexation. I considered ‘detective novels’, ‘mystery novels’ and many other titles, but ultimately landed on ‘crime novels’. The reason for this is quite simply that not all of the novels I have selected contain a conventional detective, nor a conventional mystery for that matter. They span across genres such as the ‘Private Eye’ novel, the ‘Noir Thriller’ and the ‘Police Procedural’ and therefore seemed most logically collated under the banner of ‘crime novels’. Nonetheless, I am hoping that there is still some kind of internal logic connecting the novels that I have selected, a logic that will – again hopefully – become clear over the coming weeks . This list does not, for instance, include any spy novels or generic ‘thrillers’ – just plain on old crime!
So enjoy! I will be posting no #20 later this week…… (hears the sound of shrugged shoulders).