Question: What one crime, mystery, or thriller novel do you think has been most unjustly overlooked, criminally forgotten, or underappreciated over the years?
Simon Kernick, author of Severed and Relentless:
“Get Carter (original 1970 title: Jack’s Return Home) by the late, great Ted Lewis, remains for me the seminal British gangster novel of all time, even now, close to 40 years after it was written. Violent, uncompromising, and with a stark, minimalist prose style that was somehow beautifully evocative, it was a major influence on my own writing. I suddenly realized there was decent British noir fiction out there, and with some of the best one-liners I’ve ever read, many of which made it to the 1971 movie, starring Michael Caine. One that didn’t, and is still my all-time favorite: ‘He was the type of fat man that fat men loved to stand next to.’”
Christa Faust, blogger, writer of horror short stories, and author of the forthcoming novel Money Shot:
“It was tough to pick just one, but my vote goes to Douglas E. Winter’s Run (2001), because I’m amazed at the number of people who give me a blank look when I mention it. A bad guy’s bad day goes from bad to worse, and nothing is what it seems in this adrenaline fueled, high-caliber crime thriller about gunrunners and gangstas and government corruption. Like guns? You’ll love Run.”
David Liss, author of The Ethical Assassin:
Bodies Electric (1993), by Colin Harrison. “Most thrillers miss the point. No one cares if the bad guys plan to kill the president or take over the world or hide the truth about a deity. Thrillers work best when they’re about real people in real trouble, and if the trouble is on a small scale--the fear of being beaten up or losing a job--it can still hit you like a sledgehammer. No one is better at writing gripping thrillers about ordinary people than Colin Harrison, and Bodies Electric is probably his best novel, and maybe the best thriller ever written. The story is simple enough: workaholic widower Jack Whitman becomes involved with sexy Dolores Salcines, who is on the run from her terrifyingly menacing husband, Hector. Jack must balance the dangers of his relationship with Dolores with corporate shenanigans that can either elevate or destroy him. The book works because it is peopled with real, often flawed, characters who care deeply about the things they want, and who live in perpetual danger of losing everything.”
Ed Gorman, veteran editor, blogger, and author of Fools Rush In:
“How Like an Angel , by Margaret Millar, has always struck me as the best-plotted and best-written mystery I’ve ever read. This story of a tapped-out private eye who finds himself in a cult religious compound is as devious as Christie and as emotionally powerful as anything her husband, Ross Macdonald, ever wrote. The same can be said for her novel A Stranger in My Grave .”
Sarah Weinman, blogger, Los Angeles Times book critic, short-story writer, and a contributing editor of January Magazine:
The Late Man (1993), by James Preston Girard. “Simply put, if there’s a book I want to emulate, copy, steal or pilfer, The Late Man is it. Running in the background is the once-dormant investigation of a BTK-type serial killer (who places roses by each victim’s side) that flares up once again when a new victim is discovered. Though there is a resolution, the book is really about the lives and flaws of its three main protagonists: police Captain L.J. Loomis, journalist Sam Haun (the “late man,” because he works the overnight shift at the paper), and rising star Stosh Babicki. Each character wrestles with palpable demons, mostly to do with failing relationships. Loomis has lost his wife to another man and misses her and their children--whom he does not see--terribly. Haun’s wife, Claire, and younger son are dead, and in the aftermath he chances upon Claire’s diary, confessing in great detail to an affair with the newspaper’s main boss ... who, at this time, is having his own affair with the intelligent but impressionable Babicki. Is that affair a case of real love, or manipulation, or something in between? Babicki doesn’t really know for sure, but, as she discovers, it’s a vice from which she must ungrip herself.
“The Late Man is ultimately about loss of every kind, and Girard writes of such things with an almost terrible knowledge; even if he didn’t know about it personally, his characters do, and very well at that. Though at times uncomfortable, the writing is so beautiful and understated that the emotional heft packs a wallop. What’s also gripping is what is left unspoken and unresolved; Girard doesn’t hit the reader over the head with revelations and conclusions but allows them to find them out of their own accord. It’s intelligent writing that’s extremely well-done and worth bringing back into print sooner rather than later.”
Lee Child, author of Bad Luck and Trouble:
No Highway (1948), by Nevil Shute. “Might have sold well at the time--I wasn’t born yet--but it seems very underappreciated to me. It’s a seminal ordinary guy/extraordinary circumstances techno-thriller, and a man-of-integrity tale, and it has some romance and great suspense ... the hero does ‘A,’ which is a very bad thing unless ‘B’ also happens, in which case it’s a very good thing ... we wait and wait, and sure enough ‘B’ happens: vindication, closure, and redemption.”
Jeff Shelby, author of Wicked Break:
California Fire and Life (1999), by Don Winslow. “Despite the fact that it won the Shamus, people rarely mention this title when discussing the pantheon of great private investigator novels and I think there are several reasons why. It isn’t part of a series, Jack Wade isn’t your traditional gumshoe, and the entire story revolves around an arson investigation. And yet it still contains so many elements of great P.I. novels--a flawed hero, lost love, wasted opportunities. Add in Winslow’s ability to put words together in a unique and lyrical fashion and a story that just rips along, and you have a book that should start any discussion of great P.I. novels. It is just a hauntingly beautiful work.”
Ali Karim, the assistant editor of Shots and a regular contributor to The Rap Sheet, January Magazine, Deadly Pleasures, and CrimeSpree Magazine:
Blackburn (1993), by Bradley Denton. “This is the story of Jimmy Blackburn, a boy who is lied to, beaten, brutalized from childhood, and grows up on the dark side of the American dream, eventually becoming a serial killer. The novel shows the hypocrisy and absurdity of modern America. It’s partly social commentary, partly black comedy, and a full-blown, surreal, and cynical look at modern life when the moral compass malfunctions. Free from moral judgments, and written in an easygoing style, this novel captivated me from word one. There is much black humor in the narrative, as Blackburn flips back and forth in time, using the killings as the basis of each chapter. The denouement is tragic, but in a strange way uplifting, as all Blackburn needed was love to survive the harshness of a world he struggles to comprehend. The need for a boy to have the love of his father (in order to find his moral compass) is something that many do not fully understand, and this work shows the dangers to society when that love is denied.
“It is a pity that Blackburn is not more widely known, as it contains a forceful message about the human condition and is in my opinion a must-read for anyone interested in crime fiction. I have read this work several times since it first appeared. Discovering it was, for me, a revelation.”
Giles Blunt, author of By the Time You Read This (aka The Fields of Grief):
The Fiend in Human (2002), by John MacLachlan Gray. “A terrific murder mystery set in Victorian London, in which a scuffling journalist must battle cops, colleagues, and hookers in order to stop a serial killer. Exuberant detail expressed in exuberant language will prove a delight to readers who expect a little more from their thrillers. The dialogue is crisp and witty, and the plot clatters along like a Victorian coach picking up one vivid character after another. A book that really deserves a much wider readership.”
Kevin Guilfoile, author of Cast of Shadows (aka Wicker):
“Full disclosure, I know Sean Chercover. His first novel, Big City, Bad Blood , was released on the same day as another terrific debut, also set in Chicago and also written by a swell local guy. It turned out to be a mixed blessing for Sean, as Marcus Sakey’s The Blade Itself had quite a bit of (much-deserved) hype behind it, and while he enjoyed a little extra review coverage by drafting behind the bigger release, I think Sean's book got lost a bit squeezing through the narrow window of hardcover publishing. It deserves some hype of its own.
“Sean is a former P.I. and Big City, Bad Blood is filled with authentic details. (Or authentic-sounding anyway--how would I know?) The real test is my father-in-law, a retired South Side Chicago contractor and stone mason and a voracious reader of crime novels. I frequently lend him books I’ve enjoyed, and two out of three of them come back the next day after only a few chapters. When he returned Sean’s novel he tapped the cover (almost as if he were chiding me for my lesser recommendations) and said, ‘Now THAT one was pretty good.’ Considering the high standards of the source, they ought to make that the lead blurb on the paperback.”
Ben Hunt, Material Witness blogger:
“I’d like to nominate Citizen Vince , by Jess Walter. On more than one occasion while reading Citizen Vince, I had to recheck the cover and the author’s biography to remind myself that this book wasn’t written by Elmore Leonard. It could have been. This story of a minor mob figure relocated to Spokane, Washington, by the FBI’s witness protection program in the late 1970s is funny, smart, thoroughly entertaining from start to finish, and deserves a far wider audience than it has so far earned. Passages describing Vince grappling with the pros and cons of the candidates in the first election he has been eligible to vote in--the Carter/Reagan presidential race [of 1980]--are laugh-out-loud funny but also suffused with a streetwise wisdom that pricks the absurdity and pomposity of politicians and politics with the sharpest of thrusts.”
James R. Winter, author of Northcoast Shakedown, a contributing editor of January Magazine, and a regular contributor to CrimeSpree Magazine:
“Philip Roth’s The Human Stain , an acclaimed literary novel, is often overlooked in crime-fiction circles precisely because it’s by one of America’s literary darlings. Actually, it’s part of the “Zuckerman Chronicles,” but Nathan Zuckerman is merely an observer in this dark tome.
“The plot centers on the affair between Professor Coleman Silk, a black man passing himself off as Jewish, and illiterate janitor Faunia Farley, a woman young enough to be Silk’s daughter and fleeing an abusive marriage to a damaged Vietnam vet with a jealous streak. At first glance, however, the main story seems to be Silk’s ironic dismissal from his college for being a racist. Silk would rather be done in by an unfortunate (and rather innocent) choice of words than reveal the truth about himself. The story is one only Roth could tell, but at its core lies a thriller worthy of James M. Cain himself.”