We’ve posted just about every Top 20 list from the contributors of our Top 100 Crime & Suspense Fiction List. We’ve seen just as many takes on the genre as we’ve received lists. To paraphrase an old adage, it’s difficult to define a great detective novel, but you know it when you see it. Tomorrow morning, we’ll put up the link to the full list, but until then, it’s only fair to put up each of our lists. Molly Odintz’s list is below.
Molly Odintz’s Top 20 Mysteries
Molly Odintz is a bookseller at BookPeople and handles much of MysteryPeople’s online presence, including as much blogging as possible. This list represents an eclectic mixture of genre classics and works with great personal meaning. She tried to include those novels which, by the end, make the reader feel completely devastated and, simultaneously, awed.
- Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon I first read this novel when I was 15 and my sister brought it home from college, and its bleak poetry and complex anti-hero stunned me.This novel has a solid crime plot set on the cold and unforgiving streets of occupied Paris during WWII. You can see why it took French literary critics, post-war, to create the concept of noir. Emerging from their own dark experience, and seeing a turn in American detective fiction toward dark, marginal, and realist subjects, French authors and critics took note of the genre possibilities for telling true-to-experience stories in a shattered world.
- Pop 1280 by Jim Thompson On a Texas list of top crime novels, you gotta know Jim Thompson’s going to be well-represented. In Pop 1280, as well as in The Killer Inside Me, Thompson uses his psychotic anti-heroes not as a symbol of ultimate evil, but as a cheerfully sardonic method of pointing out Southern racist hypocrisy. His protagonists are equal opportunity killers. They poke a finger at the supposedly upright citizens around them, who condemn violence against half the population while they condone violence against the other half.
- The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith Of her novels, it was difficult to choose a favorite, but I’m going to go with the perennially popular and always creepy Talented Mr. Ripley, and you’ll have to read to the end of the novel to understand why. And she’s long gone, so you can go ahead and buy her books without supporting her politics!
- Shoot The Piano Player (or Down There) by David Goodis David Goodis, in all his work, told human stories of desperate individuals, and each of his novels leaves the reader feeling shattered by the end, yet Shoot The Piano Player, partially because of its artistic antihero and bleak portrayal of a musician’s world, has stuck with me the most, through the years.
- The Honorable Schoolboy by John le Carré I struggled choosing which le Carre to include in this list. After much deliberation, I picked The Honorable Schoolboy, for its vast scope, sprawling plot, and relentlessly depressing portrayal of basic human impulses. The novel’s characters are warped and destroyed by the combined machinery of Cold War politics and modern capitalism. The Honorable Schoolboy is the perfect bridge between early and late le Carre, and like most of his work, get ready to feel betrayed, devastated, and furious.
- The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö So, this is a book about a mass shooting on bus in Sweden in 1960s, before those were a regular thing in the world, and the Swedish detectives dealing with a serial killer have just the right mixture of incredulity (Isn’t that an American thing?) and ingenuity to get their man. Martin Beck, the policeman protagonist, has a cold throughout the entire novel, and as a frequent sufferer from Austin allergies, that’s kind of my favorite part. To me, this book is the essential procedural to read, by a couple who combined activism and authorship in their series-long writing partnership.
- And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie I can’t say here why I love this book so much, but I can at least hint at it – there is a certain finality, and universal condemnation of human nature, to this novel, that I quite appreciate.
- The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin This is the only children’s book on my list, but I’m glad I thought of it, for it’s the book on this list I’ve read the most times. The Westing Game takes place in a new apartment building, where the diverse residents soon realize they may share more in common than just a place of residence. A series of petty crimes first divide them and then bring them together in their quest for answers, big and small. Turtle, the novel’s grumpy 13-year-old sleuth, was a character that a young me could truly identify with.
- Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell Daniel Woodrell writes as well from a woman’s perspective as Patricia Highsmith writes from a man’s perspective. Winter’s Bone explores a meth-plagued community in the Ozarks, and is the epitome of rural noir.
- Double Indemnity by James M. Cain James M. Cain snuck so much sleaze and salacious behavior into his novels, you’d think he was writing today. Double Indemnity set the stage for every doomed affair, every dame feeling trapped, and every sleazeball pretending to rescue her, since the novel’s publication.
- Innocence, or, Murder on Steep Street by Heda Margolius-Kovaly This novel was just published in English for the first time this year, and was written by a Czech woman who had worked translating Raymond Chandler’s works into Czech. She used Chandler’s style to explore Soviet society, and like Daniel Woodrell’s characters in Winter’s Bone, describes a world of female community and competition, with men either locked up, useless, or threatening. A perfect feminist noir.
- The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson Along with Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, and even earlier, Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, this novel has made generations of readers confront the story of a sociopath – from the sociopath’s point of view, complete with justifications for their behavior. Thompson truly had a talent for pointing out society’s hypocrisy through the exaggerated yet fairly believable actions of a sadistic killer.
- The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler I picked The Long Goodbye as Chandler’s most personal novel. I like that in this one, Marlowe starts by helping a friend, and then gets involved in a case. It’s also Chandler’s longest, at over 400 pages, and has a bit more time to explore the psychology of the characters, in particular Marlowe, than any other Chandler I’ve read.
- Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg A Greenlandic glaciologist living in Copenhagen travels to the Arctic in pursuit of a close friend’s murderer. The novel’s subtext explores Denmark’s legacy of colonialism, and metaphorically links ice formations and the emotionally closed off protagonist.
- Out by Natsuo Kirino Japanese authors, over the past few decades, have put out some of the most fascinating crime fiction around, and my favorite to come out of Japan is definitely Natsuo Kirino’s feminist crime masterpiece, Out. Four women who work together at a factory band together to cover up a murder. The novel explores female community and competition, and is one of the best “no way out of this” books I’ve ever read.
- Cotton Comes to Harlem by Chester Himes Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed, two ace black detectives in Harlem, get assigned to locate funds stolen from Back-to-Africa movement fundraisers, but something’s fishy with both the thieves and the fundraisers. This book ushered in the detective novel’s take on Blaxploitation, and Chester Himes was one of the few African-American crime writers to stay in print through the decades.
- The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster This book felt like Italo Calvino writing a detective novel. So much paranoia, imagery, foreboding, and surveillance pervades this novel. Paul Auser, in The New York Trilogy, has created a challenging and discomforting literary take on the detective novel, and that’s a good thing.
- The Devil of Nanking by Mo Hayder Wow. Mo Hayder, after working as a hostess in a Japanese club, wrote a novel about a mentally unstable young woman working as a hostess in a Japanese nightclub, obsessed with finding and befriending a mass murderer responsible for the Rape of Nanking. Terrifying, erotic, and creepy, this one’s empowering for those who think female characters have a right to be less than sympathetic.
- Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith Highsmith perfectly encapsulates the hypocrisy of appearance-obsessed post-war America in this novel. The plot of two men on a train swapping murders is as creative today as when she wrote the novel in the early 50s. Patricia Highsmith may, for the most part, have hated people, but man did she understand them.
- Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett Men at Arms is Pratchett’s send-off of modern armaments. When the citizens of Ankh-Morpork start dying from a mysterious weapon known only as a “gonne,” it’s up to Sam Vimes and his newly diversified Night Watch (now with its first troll, dwarf, and woman) to stop the city from descending into new-fangled chaos. Men at Arms encapsulates Pratchett’s use of the detective novel to tell humorous stories with a humane message.