Ask a group of crime fiction enthusiasts to name the best crime fiction books of all time and you’ll get a varied list and vigorous debate. Some will tell you it’s the tried and true classics from legends like Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler. Others will lobby for more recent big hitters like Ed McBain, John le Carré, Joseph Wambaugh, and Michael Connelly. Hell, if people are feeling feisty enough the very definition of “crime fiction” can turn into a bone of contention.
I can’t say for sure what the “best” crime fiction books are, but it felt a bit more manageable to present a list of my favorite crime fiction books. There being no right or wrong answer to that since it’s my opinion, how difficult could it be?
Tremendously, as it turns out. But after several days of hair pulling and apologizing to inanimate objects for leaving them off the list, I finally narrowed it down to ten. In no particular order, my Top 10 Favorite Crime Fiction books.
L.A. Requiem by Robert Crais
When his ex-girlfriend is murdered, former Force Recon Marine Joe Pike is called upon by her father to investigate the crime. Pike in turn enlists his best friend Elvis Cole, a private detective, and things quickly go from complicated to deadly. L.A. Requiem is the book that took an already great series to epic level, and changed the way a lot of people looked at crime fiction. Crais broke all the rules, wrote a few news ones and, most importantly, gave readers their first real glimpse behind the shades of the enigmatic Joe Pike.
A Place of Execution by Val McDermid
For my money, A Place of Execution is grand dame of crime fiction Val McDermid’s masterpiece. Told in two parts, in the first half McDermid presents – and seemingly resolves – the case of a missing child in early 1960s northern England. In part two she then revisits the case and its players 35 years later and turns everything you thought you knew on its ear. Quite possibly the most intricate, tightly crafted plot I’ve ever read.
The Wheelman by Duane Swierczynski
When the bank job Lennon is serving as the getaway driver for goes wrong, it goes seriously wrong. Like betrayed, beaten, and left for dead kind of wrong. But he wasn’t killed, and Lennon cuts a deadly path through dirty cops, multinational mobsters, and assorted thugs who have the misfortune to cross him on his quest to find out who set him up. Oh, did I mention Lennon is a mute? Yeah, our narrator can’t talk, but that’s ok because his actions speak volumes.
Gun Monkeys by Victor Gischler
Pulp noir with a sick sense of humor is the best way to describe this instant classic. Mob hit man Charlie Swift is not having a good week. Of course, when you mistakenly kill four cops, your boss disappears, you fall for the ex-wife/widow of a man you took out in a hit, and end up with a set of cooked books that both the FBI and rival mobsters are after what do you really expect? A bloody good ride, that’s what. And, seriously, with a title like Gun Monkeys how could you possibly go wrong?
Forty Words for Sorrow by Giles Blunt
Set against the backdrop of a bitter winter in Algonquin Bay, Northern Ontario, Detective John Cardinal tries to unravel a string of child murders while himself being investigated for corruption by his own department. The main story line splits about halfway through, allowing the reader to follow both the progress of Cardinal’s investigation as well as the ‘progress’ the killer is making with their next victim. Forty Words for Sorrow is an amazing piece of writing from a criminally underrated author.
Sleepyhead by Mark Billingham
Though this was the first book to feature Detective Inspector Tom Thorne, he sprang from the mind of author Mark Billingham as fully formed and wonderfully complex as any longtime series character I’ve ever had the pleasure to spend time with. For a man with a background in comedy, Billingham plotted a marvelously dark and twisted tale in Sleepyhead, and confidently showed from the get-go that he wasn’t going to be a slave to crime fiction conventions. Billingham so vividly describes the mind of the villain and the results of his method that I had sporadic nightmares about locked-in syndrome for weeks after reading this book…so thanks for that, Mark.
The 50/50 Killer by Steve Mosby
Revolving around a killer who kidnaps couples and forces them to choose which will be the one to die, while the other is made to watch, The 50/50 Killer works on several levels. On the surface, it’s a fast paced police procedural involving the race to catch a serial killer. On a deeper level, it examines the psychology of how people decide how much they are willing to sacrifice for someone they love, and the mental trauma that results from making such a (literally) life-altering decision. The 50/50 Killer also has one of the most wonderfully open to interpretation endings I’ve ever come across.
Late Rain by Lynn Kostoff
This Southern Gothic masterpiece dissects the murder of a soft drink mogul from no fewer than four different first person perspectives, including a murder witness in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and a hit man with Asperger’s syndrome. Yet despite the copious information collectively provided, Kostoff still manages to leave it up to the reader to use his own judgment about each character’s motives and trustworthiness to decide where the truth really lies. Kostoff’s plot construction in Late Rain is nothing short of sublime, with several threads coming together so subtly you almost feel like a chump for how easily Kostoff got them past you.
The Shape of Snakes by Minette Walters
“Mad Annie,” the only black resident in her West London neighborhood, is found dead and the police write it off as an accident without even a cursory investigation. When another resident we know only as Mrs. Ranleigh argues it was murder both the police and her neighbors turn on her, which only fuels her determination to prove the death was no accident. In that it frankly tackles racism, misogyny, and ostracization of the mentally ill this book is somewhat polarizing, even amongst Walters’ most ardent fans. An outstanding book in general, its presence on the list is a lock because the ending of The Shape of Snakes hit me harder than any twist in any book I’ve ever read.
A Very Simple Crime by Grant Jerkins
A Very Simple Crime is both brilliant and brutal in its take no prisoners look at a murder involving the spectacularly dysfunctional Lee family. Rachel, the victim, was known to be psychologically unstable. Adam, her husband, is surprisingly detached about being on trial for the murder of his wife. Albert, their mentally retarded young-adult son, was originally suspected by the police of committing the crime. And Monty, Adam’s unnervingly charming brother, who also serves as Adam’s defense attorney. Despite being a first novel, this wickedly dark character study easily found a place on my all time favorites list.
Elizabeth A. White is a lifelong avid reader who has channeled her love of reading, especially crime fiction, into her book review blog Musings of an All Purpose Monkey.. In addition to on her website, Elizabeth’s reviews have also appeared in Spinetingler Magazine, The Savannah Morning News, The Florida Times-Union, been quoted on numerous authors’ websites, and used as a blurb for a novel. When she’s not reading or reviewing books, she’s the Content Manager for the official website of musician Bruce Kulick (KISS, Grand Funk Railroad), a position she’s held for 14 years. Elizabeth is also a licensed attorney.