Can’t decide what to read this summer? Our blogging supremo and Murder Room author Deborah Valentine makes it easy for you, with her pick of our crime classics.
I’m going to dive right in because there’s a whirlpool of summer reading here. Enough for every taste, every mood and I’ve divvied them up into sub-genres so you can find whatever suits your fancy.
The Nut Cases
For all the film adaptations of John D. MacDonald’s Cape Fear, there’s nothing like the original book. His writing is superb. His portrayal of a family terrorised by a psycho so spot-on, making us care so much about them, it’s edge-of-the-seat suspense. And the dog – oh, god, the dog . . .
Of course, for full straitjacket psychosis it’s hard to beat Robert Bloch’s Psycho. Even if you already know the denouement there’s an hypnotic fascination in reading this plot unfold, and if you don’t, well, you’re in for a jump-in-the-seat shock. Brilliantly done.
Speaking of lunacy, Pamela Branch gives us a full dose of another sort in The Wooden Overcoat. It’s psycho slapstick à la Arsenic and Old Lace or The Ladykillers. It’s the loony escapades of a bedroom farce except, well, it’s murder. Delightfully subversive and laugh-out-loud funny. The jewel in the crown of this month’s round-up.
The Private Eyes
For style, grace and economy Dashiell Hammett’s prose has long been a crime fiction standard. The description of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon is a treasure: ‘he looked like a rather pleasant blond Satan’. Spade’s satanic charisma still holds. He’s the PI’s PI. Tough, sometimes morally ambiguous but fundamentally decent. But be warned: reading this book may give you a hangover, the amount he drinks . . .
Part gangster, part PI noir, to read No Orchids for Miss Blandish is to be sucked into a scenario so black it makes midnight bright. In this tale of a kidnapping gone awry James Hadley Chase churns out enough ’30s American slang to require a dictionary and doesn’t flinch from the brutality of the criminal mind. For those who like’em lean and mean with no soft centre.
Ed McBain was so prolific it makes the head spin. We talked about Fiddlers in the July blog but it’s worth repeating that his tales of the 87th precinct are classics and this book a prime example. The internal politics, the banter between the lads in the NYPD and, significantly, his portrayal of their quarry ring authentically. Its jigsaw puzzle of dogged police work slots together to make a very satisfying picture.
Erle Stanley Gardner, the grand godfather of the legal procedural, is on top form in The Case of the Glamorous Ghost. His Perry Mason leads the courtroom drama with the suave authority of a symphony conductor even when, as in this case, he’s winging it. His unreliable client looks done for but when Mason is put under pressure the action is brought to a fine crescendo. One of his best.
The Country House Mystery
John Dickson Carr’s To Wake the Dead is a ’30s Golden Age delight. You get a two-for-one here: a ‘locked room’ country house mind-bender and corresponding London hotel. We’ve a collection of unlikely victims and suspects, the head-scratching ‘why?’ (everyone appears so ordinary and upright) but, more importantly, the seemingly impossible ‘how?’. But of course someone is not so upright and it’s not as impossible as it appears, if you read the clues right – and this unravels to an inventive finale. Could Carr have been projecting himself in the character of the young writer? The debate about life experience vs creative closeting (another ‘locked room’ scenario) is intriguing. Good fun.
J. J. Connington has a great twist in Murder in the Maze, which does exactly what it says on the tin, more than once. And has an amusing play on the Holmes/Watson dynamic in dry-witted Chief Constable Sir Clinton Driffield and sidekick ‘Squire’ Wendover. Oh, and the villain – the villain is genius. A perfect read for an afternoon in the garden (though you may feel impelled to keep a wary eye on the nearest hedge).
The Espionage Thriller
Though The Alamut Ambush by Anthony Price was first published in 1971, many will find its subject matter has spooky timeliness. Plus ça change . . . Terrorism, Middle East politics, Syria, it’s all here in this psychological spy game. Fast paced and well researched, it also generates a lot of sympathy for the moral dilemmas of its hero, Hugh Roskill. Excellent.
Buy The Alamut Ambush for just £2.99.
I don’t know what’s more exotic here, the location or the long-lost social hierarchy in M. M. Kaye’s Death in Kashmir. What I do know is Kaye knew the place and the period, the last year of the Raj, intimately. It shows. The voice is engaging and poignant without being nostalgic. This world is about to fall apart; perhaps it should. We see it through a prism of an innocent abroad, a sweeping panorama of intrigue, murder and breathtaking beauty. For romantic suspense, Kaye is ‘the one’.
Is Wyoming exotic? I’m the only person I know who’s been there, so I believe it qualifies. Revenge is a dish best served cold and Craig Johnson whips it up with panache in The Cold Dish. It’s hard to praise Johnson highly enough: the beautifully articulated landscape, the humour! Sheriff Walt Longmire is a lawman who tugs at your heart, and he makes a terrific double-act with friend Henry Standing Bear. This Wild West adventure is garnished with tantalising dollops of the mythic and the mystic. Yum. Advice: wear woollies while reading.
That’s it! A blizzard of good books to cool a long hot summer – keep your G&T at the ready.
Deborah Valentine is a British author, editor and screenwriter, who has lived in London for many years after moving there from California. Her crime novels feature former California sheriff Kevin Bryce and his artist girlfriend, Katharine Craig, and chart their turbulent romance amid murder and mayhem. Unorthodox Methods is the first in the series, followed by A Collector of Photographs, and the Ireland-based Fine Distinctions. In addition to the Kevin Bryce series, Deborah Valentine has been the editor of a number of niche journals, and is a prolific writer of articles, screenplays and novels with a supernatural theme. Find out more on Deborah’s website.