A Classic Crime Curriculum

Rob Kitchin needs the assistance of crime fiction readers everywhere. He wants your suggestions for the ten classic* crime fiction books that a fan of the genre who is more familiar with contemporary fiction than the older stuff should read.

As I mentioned in my review of the Patricia Moyes book the other day I’m fairly ignorant of the classics myself but surely we all know by now that I’d never let a lack of knowledge get in the way of having an opinion.

Last year I prepared a ‘Dartmoor Dozen’ list of books in a variety of mysterious sub-genres and three of those are books I would recommend to Rob

  • Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders at the Rue Morgue (blame my mother, when she got through the poetry she started reading Poe’s murder mysteries to baby Bernadette assuming that it was tone of voice rather than content that was important)
  • Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Final Problem (actually I have a giant volume of Doyle’s collected works and if I had the power I’d make Rob read the whole thing – it’s a delight)
  • Ngaio Marsh’s The Nursing Home Murder (published in 1935 it tackled weighty political issues like pre-Israel Palestine among the murder and mayhem)

From my own reading I would only add another three to the list

  • Rex Stout’s Fer-de-Lance (it’s his first and one of the best and does a great job of introducing all the players)(plus Rob might enjoy the plot of a university professor being killed)
  • Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile (we’ve talked about this book before)
  • Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Vagabond Virgin (legal procedurals are a sub genre of crime fiction that seem to be out of favour these days but Gardner’s 85 Perry Mason books were damned good crime solving yarns)(I could have chosen any one of several books but seriously aren’t you just dying to know what the heck a vagabond virgin is?)

That’s it. I can’t come up with four more classics I’ve read that I would recommend (I have actually read a few more than this but not all old books are great) (sorry Dashiell Hammett and Arthur Upfield but …well…”ugh” on both counts).

However I’ve been preparing my own list of classics to read and I’m planning to read

  • Fergus Hume’s The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (Hume was arguably Australia’s first writer of detective fiction and this 1886 novel was discussed on a local radio show last year and was said to influence the great detective writers including Arthur Conan Doyle) (though this may be hogwash, we Aussies tend to believe we’ve had more influence on the world stage than is actually the case)
  • Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (I’m pretty sure I have read this before as it’s one of a collection of 20 leather bound books I inherited from my paternal grandmother and I read them all as a teenager but I cannot recall a single detail of the Collins)(which is every sad because Collins was a protégé of one of my favourite writers ever, Mr Charles Dickens)
  • Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train (does it count that I’ve seen the film a bunch of times?)
  • Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (It’s highly unlikely I will like Chandler but stranger things have happened)
  • Something by Margery Allingham (I’ve no idea what as to be honest none of the titles immediately appeal but I feel I ought to read something)

Actually ‘planning to read’ sounds a bit more organised than I really am. So far all I’ve done is make the list. But I’m in no great rush and I’m not going to devote oodles of reading time to books that are decades old when there is so much new stuff that intrigues me. I don’t mind delving sporadically into my favourite genre’s heritage but I’m not about to devote my life to such pursuits.

Please head over to Rob’s site and leave him your suggestions and I’ll check them out too. I am open to the idea of adding some more titles to my own ‘crime fiction to read before I die’ list.

*Rob defines classic crime as anything published before 1970. I define it as stuff published before I was born (spot the self-absorbed one). Oh and my date is 1967 (I have plenty of hang-ups but you knowing how old I am isn’t one of them).

This entry was posted in Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe, Erle Stanley Gardner, Fergus Hume (Aus), list, memes and challenges, Ngaio Marsh, Patricia Highsmith, Raymond Chandler, Rex Stout. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to A Classic Crime Curriculum

  1. Norm/Uriah says:

    Pity I can’t define classic crime as before I was born, we would just be left with Wilkie Collins, Conan Doyle and early Christie. ;o)
    A very good list Death on the Nile is one of my favourites, and thanks for the link.


  2. Dorte H says:

    Well, a 1970 limit suits me fine. Though I was born in 1961, I didn´t exactly READ much crime in the 60s 😉

    My first was Enid Blyton´s Five series. I was 9 when I saw the Danish film version of one of them, and afterwards I read the whole series (early 1970s).


  3. Deb says:

    For some reason, I can’t seem to post a comment on Rob’s blog, but here’s what I’d like to say: I think it would absolutely impossible to boil down almost 100 years of crime/mystery/detective fiction into ten books; so, instead of focusing on ten specific books, how about selecting a number of books in each of ten categories and letting readers select at least one book to reach from each category? It would be easy to divide crime/mystery books into at least ten categories. Off the top of my heard, I can think dividing it this way:

    Precursors: 19th Century works by Poe, Doyle, etc., along with works from the first two decades of the 20th century.

    Golden Age: Works from 1920 through WWII by Christie, et. al. (Or, being the grande dame of the genre, Christie might deserve a category of her own.)

    American Pulp/Noir (Pre-WWII): Chandler, Hammett, Cain, Woolrich.

    American Pulp/Noir (Post-WWII): Spillane, Thompson. (I agree that to our modern sensibilities, Spillane is hard to take—I just tried, and failed, to finish One Lonely Night—but there’s no denying his impact or influence on mid-century American crime writing.)

    American Police Procedurals: For example, Ed McBain’s Precinct 87 series

    British Police Procedurals: Waugh’s Last Seen Wearing, among others. (A great contrast to American police procedurals, which tend to be grittier with less focus on the details of an investigation than the British ones.)

    Psychological Thrillers: There seem to be many more of these written after 1970, but there are some. Celia Fremlin’s The Hours Before Dawn springs to mind.

    Astonishing plot twists: I’m thinking of Ira Levin’s A Kiss Before Dying, but also Diabolique, etc.

    Cozies: Mid-century domestic mysteries by writers like Celia Dale, Margaret Erskine, Elizabeth Lemarchand, etc.

    One-offs: Those books that are sui generis and impossible to classify but should be read because of that unique voice.


  4. Rob Kitchin says:

    Hi Bernadette, thanks for these. By no coincidence, 1970 is the year I was born in (and 40 years is a nice round number).

    Deb, no doubt that 10 is a tricky task and involves some tough decisions, but is not impossible. If I was going to leave you on a deserted island and you could take only 10 crime books published prior to 1970 what would they be? In your list you only name 16 authors, which is not far off the target.


  5. Ann in Ottawa says:

    for the American hard-boiled selection, I’d nominate one of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer books. I don’t remember individual books, i read them many years (not to say decades) ago, but along with Rex Stout, he was my favourite of that genre.



  6. Maxine says:

    Gee, Bernadette, you, Dorte and Rob are all mere striplings compared with me!


  7. Maxine says:

    PS to Ann – Ross Macdonald was on my list, too.


  8. kathy durkin says:

    I love legal mysteries, was weaned on Perry Mason tv shows and books followed–my first mysteries, then Sherlock Holmes and Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, to be followed by some Hercule Poirot, and authors Dorothy Sayers and Josephine Tey. We’d all gather around the tv and watch Perry Mason every week. Not a pin would drop. Thus were born two legal mystery fans, one a fanatic, the other not so much.
    I can’t wait to get “Innocent” by Scott Turow, have read all of his other legal mysteries, all Steve Martini, John Grisham, Lisa Scottoline, Perri O’Shaughnessy and more. If there are lawyers and they talk and have good courtroom dialogue and wit, I’m in.


  9. kathy durkin says:

    Oops. I made a mistake. I started with Nancy Drew mysteries when I was in grade school. I’d go to a friend’s house and read them.


  10. Greg says:

    “British Police Procedurals: Waugh’s Last Seen Wearing, among others. (A great contrast to American police procedurals, which tend to be grittier with less focus on the details of an investigation than the British ones.)”

    Hilary Waugh was an American writer and Last Seen Wearing takes place in the states.


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