Book of the Month
Book Club turns detective this month. But none of your ITV Sunday night fodder, thank you. Midsomer can moulder; Poirot can push off. Here, instead, are six distinctive detective novels written with style, where the craftily turned sentence is as important as the cryptic clue. Vote for our November book of the month and pick your favourite private eye from these six contenders.
Raymond Chandler: The Big Sleep
Despite being British, Chandler nailed hardbitten, fast-paced American low life better than anyone. Philip Marlowe, an ironic, wisecracking hero, tries to solve a blackmail case involving the wayward daughters of General Sternwood. With many twists and turns across the deserts and casinos of California, he ends up with five dead bodies and a surprise romance. The metaphors are magic ("dry white hair clung to his scalp, like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock") and Marlowe's victories against his foes are usually verbal, rather than physical. You'll spend every page wishing you could talk that fast and be that laconic. A truly brilliant book, as fresh now as it was in 1939.
Kate Atkinson: Case Histories
Atkinson is always surprising and inventive, and here is her own genre-twisting take on the crime novel. A former police inspector who now makes a living as a private investigator, Jackson Brodie is trying to deal with his failed marriage. But if his own life is adrift, perhaps he can justify his existence through his belief that he can do some good for the people he encounters in his job. The brilliantly imagined characters begin to overlap, and turn the book into a complex and moving page-turner. Hugely enjoyable.
Ian Rankin: Hide & Seek
Ian Rankin is constantly applauded for taking the crime novel beyond simple entertainment, using his literary skill to add depth and meaning to his famously conflicted detective, John Rebus. This episode is early on in the Rebus series, where our anti-hero finds a junkie murdered, surrounded by cultish candles and a five-pointed star on the wall. Treachery, sleaze and seductive danger follow, all lurking beneath the Edinburgh façade of tourism and towers. If, like me, you've not read Rankin before, you can read or listen to extracts on the author website for a taste.
Alexander McCall Smith: The Good Husband of Zebra Drive
The No.1 Ladies Detective series stands out for its gentle, simple 'goodness'. In fact, it barely fits the crime genre, being mainly preoccupied with a love of Africa, a light-hearted view of life and a quietly moral message. In this episode, as always, Precious Ramotse solves human dilemmas with much humour and more tea drinking and, although there are definite sorrows within these cases, the mood remains very good-natured. Pure escapism.
Peter Hoeg: Miss Smilla's Feeling For Snow
Smilla Qaaviqaaq Jaspersen isn't a bona fide detective but, when her neighbour's son falls to his death from the rooftop, she's the only one who believes it isn't an accident. Her investigations lead her to decades-old conspiracies in Copenhagen, and then on a voyage on an icebreaker ship to a remote island off the Greenland coast, where the truth is finally discovered. Uncovering political corruption, conspiracy, personal greed, stories of alcoholism and suicide, this is a book of moods and atmosphere. It's sensuous, heady, dense – full of complex ideas expressed with lyricism and stunning descriptions of the snow and ice. Not a straightforward crime novel but a beautiful one.
Arthur Conan Doyle: The Hound of the Baskervilles
Everyone's favourite morphine-injecting, deer-stalker-sporting investigator is called to a Devonshire stately home to resolve a mystery and look after the newly arrived heir. Rumours abound that the sudden death of Sir Charles Baskerville was brought about by a fearsome and ghostly hound that is said to have haunted his family for generations. Dr Watson and his boss explore the wild moors, and, in the cold night, a savage and bestial howl may be heard... Holmes may seem familiar territory from the films but have you ever met the original literary version? Spooky, atmospheric and really quite scary.
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