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The Best Discoveries of 2019: Crime Fiction

If you like film noir, you’ll probably like some of these crime fiction novels I discovered for the first time in 2019, some of which have been adapted into movies or TV series. Here we go:


Fatale (1977; English translation 2011) Jean-Patrick Manchette

Manchette may be an acquired taste, and I’m not sure I’ve fully acquired it yet, but I found Fatale an absorbing and somewhat challenging read. It’s only 112 pages long, but during that short time, I found the protagonist Aimée to be part femme fatale, part grifter, part avenging angel, part anarchist. I’ve read a couple of Manchette books since discovering this one early in the year and hope to revisit it soon.

The Feral Detective (2018) Jonathan Lethem

This may not be the best place to start with Jonathan Lethem's fiction and I certainly haven't read enough of his work to tell you where that starting place might be. Yet, if you like quirky detective stories - and have a willingness to look with openness at the current state of America - I think you'll find something here that's intriguing, hilarious, and sadly prescient.

God Save the Child (Spenser #2, 1974) Robert B. Parker

When you read one of his books, you realize how much you truly miss Robert B. Parker. I haven’t read all of his Spenser novels, but doing so is one of my goals. This, the second book in the Spenser series, isn’t my favorite, but it does introduce the character of Susan, who will become an important woman in Spenser’s life. The story involves Spenser investigating the disappearance of a 14-year-old boy, whom everyone (except Spenser) believes is simply a runaway. Start with the first book in the series, The Godwulf Manuscript before moving to this one.

So Many Doors (1950) Oakley Hall

You could easily mistake this novel for a melodrama or even for dismissing it as a "relic" from its original publication date of 1950, but So Many Doors does a superb job of handling character development and motivation. Even more important, you understand (even if you can't relate to) the way people can become so obsessed with someone to the point of destruction and/or self-destruction. This is good stuff.

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead (2011) Sara Gran

Very good New Orleans crime fiction/detective story (the first in what I hope will be a long series). That's all you need to know. Just read it.

The Galton Case (Lew Archer #8, 1959) Ross MacDonald

Although this is the eighth book in the Lew Archer series, it was my first Ross MacDonald reading experience and I liked it quite a bit (more than I liked the first book in the series, The Moving Target, which I read later in the year).

Cutter and Bone (1976) Newton Thornburg

Superb. This is perhaps the best novel about Vietnam I've ever read, even though it contains no scenes set in Southeast Asia. The novel also serves as a jarring yet necessary (maybe even inevitable) bridge from the hippie era of the 1960s to the era of corporate greed that really took off in the 1980s (and is unfortunately still with us with even greater power). If you've seen the movie Cutter's Way, you'll want to read this novel. It's very interesting to note the differences between the two versions, especially in their finales.

A Firing Offense (1992) George P. Pelecanos

Pelecanos isn’t a flashy writer, but who cares about that when he gives you such great characters in a compelling story with a location that’s integral to the novel? I wish more people would discover his work.

The Way We Die Now (Hoke Moseley #4, 1988) Charles Willeford

When I started this book, I had no idea it was the fourth and final book in the Hoke Moseley series, but I didn't care. Willeford's writing is so good I'd read a narrative of his trip to the grocery story. On second thought, make that the liquor store, which would probably be more interesting and accurate. Regardless, read more Willeford. Which leads me to…

Miami Blues (Hoke Moseley #1, 1984) Charles Willeford

When I make a mistake, I usually take steps to correct it, as in starting with the wrong book in a series. Miami Blues introduces Willeford’s detective, a man who’s “chronically depressed, constantly strapped for money, always willing to bend the rules a bit, Hoke Moseley is hardly what you think of as the perfect cop, but he is one of the greatest detective creations of all time” (from the publisher). I agree.

John Woman (2018) Walter Mosley

One day Walter Mosely is going to have his work published in the Library of America series. He certainly deserves it. John Woman is just one of his novels that makes a strong case for including Mosely in that series. The transformation of a quiet young man named Cornelius Jones into John Woman - a controversial history professor and a murderer - is spellbinding. But Mosely is doing far more than telling a crime story, far more.

The Executioner Weeps (1956; English translation 2017) Frédéric Dard

This short, fast-paced amnesia/murder noir is excellent. I'm certainly going to seek out more Frédéric Dard novels. (Thankfully he wrote about 300 of them!) This one certainly needs to be filmed.

The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (2018) Stuart Turton

Some have called this book Gosford Park meets Groundhog Day, but I prefer Agatha Christie meets Quantum Leap. One of my favorite reads of the year.

Savage Season (Hap and Leonard #1, 1990) Joe Lansdale

Joe Lansdale is a national treasure. Savage Season, the first book in the Hap & Leonard series, introduces the reader to Hap Collins, an East Texas white guy, and Leonard, a gay, black Vietnam vet. When an old flame of Hap’s tells him about a large cache of hidden money, Hap brings in his skeptical friend Leonard. The result is hilarious, brutal, and satisfying.

The Puppet Show (Washington Poe #1, 2018) M.W. Craven

M.W. Craven’s new British series begins with a serial killer burning his victims alive at several sites containing prehistoric stone circles. Detective Washington Poe discovers his own name carved into the remains of one of the victims. Although this initial entry contains a few cliches and rarely stops for breath, the series shows much promise.

Mischief (1950) Charlotte Armstrong

Okay, I just started reading this one, but so far it’s terrific. At the last minute, a couple in a hotel is forced to hired an unknown babysitter. Although she’s the niece of the hotel’s mild-mannered elevator operator, the babysitter is not what she appears. (The book was filmed as Don’t Bother to Knock [1952] starring Richard Widmark and Marilyn Monroe.) Charlotte Armstrong is in danger of becoming a forgotten crime writer, and that should not happen. Seek out her books. You can also find Mischief in the Library of America volume Women Crime Writers: Four Suspense Novels of the 1950s, or in the box set Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s and ‘50s, which is (hint, hint) on my Christmas list.

There were more, but these were the best of the bunch. I’d love to hear what crime fiction you read and enjoyed.

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