Mystery Dance

An open letter to my fellow murder-fiction aficionados:

This spring I’ll be teaching a class here at Butler University, where I adjunct in the MFA writing program,  about  reading crime and mystery fiction—my (accurate) thesis being that truly great crime novels and mysteries, far from being mere “popcorn books” or “beach reads”, have much to teach us about structure, style, tension, conflict…you know, all the elements of good writing.


So I’m in the process of drawing up a list of ten classic crime/mystery novels—no, you know what, forget “classic”—ten crime/mystery novels that are A) really good and B) pedagogically valuable, in terms of showing off some aspect or aspects of craft particularly well.


All I’m 100% certain on, so far, are The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith, and Clockers, by Richard Price.

What else would you insist that I include?


9 thoughts on “Mystery Dance

  1. Greg Daniel

    Hammett – The Maltese Falcon
    Chandler – The Big Sleep
    Christie – And Then There Were None
    McDonald – Fletch
    MacDonald – The Dreadful Lemon Sky
    Greene – The Third Man
    Then probably something by Westlake (maybe Hot Rock) or Mosley (Devil with a Blue Dress) or for something completely different Ffforde (The Eyre Affair)

    1. RD Hawk

      You don’t want to over think it. Stick with the absolute masters:

      John MacDonald is a must. Anything in the Travis McGee series is worthy, but I would suggest “End of the Night” which is a classic.

      Ross MacDonald is another. Anything in the Lew Archer series is worthy, I would suggest ‘The Doomsters.”

      How has no one mentioned Elmore Leonard. Who does it better more consistently (other than John MacDonald)? I would recommend “LaBrava” or “Swag”. Leonard was a huge influence not on only other riders but filmmakers, most notably Tarintino.

      Raymond Chandler can’t be overlooked. “Big Sleep” is an obvious selection with good reason.

      Jim Thompson is another that cannot be overlooked. “After Dark My Sweet” is quick and masterful.

      I second the recommendation of David Peace’s “Red Riding Quartet”. However, I think the difficulty is the books are best consumed as a whole.

      Henning Mankell deserves a read. He is the grandfather of Swedish Noir. “Dogs of Riga” or “White Lioness” are good choices.

      Derek Raymond is worth consideration. He is one that created his own noir universe. “He Died With His Eyes Open” is excellent.

  2. Kevin

    “The Big Sleep” is a must. If we’re talking crime novels and not just mysteries, I insist on a Jim Thompson first-person novel because he wrote powerfully and believably as sociopaths/unreliable narrators. “The Killer Inside Me” is his best known — and don’t get me wrong, it’s terrific, but I actually think “Savage Night” is better and has an eerie structure in the final chapters. “After Dark, My Sweet” is also kind of existential. David Goodis’ “Shoot the Piano Player” is a beautifully written. Chester Himes’ “A Rage in Harlem” shows criminals and cops living side-by-side in the same community. And as far as I know, in “Rendevous in Black” Cornell Woolrich invented a revenge plot-structure where a sympathetic anti-hero is murdering his enemies one-by-one (the same structure that was used in a few Vincent Price movies like “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” and “Theatre of Blood” and dozens of other films.) Woolrich and Thompson also get you to side with the bad guy, which was probably very daring. Of course most of these titles were first published as pulp paperbacks, but later gained respect from literary types, so any one of the books should support your thesis. Lastly, there’s an odd book by Gahan Wilson called “Eddie Deco’s Last Caper” which is not a graphic novel, but an illustrated detective novel which ends up bringing in all kinds of Lovecraftian evils. It might not be in a top ten, but it’s a one-of-a-kind worth noting. I wish I could take this class.

  3. Sharon Abra Hanen

    Josephine Tey’s THE DAUGHTER OF TIME (1951). Can’t go wrong with anything of hers, but this one is extraordinary. The author has tied her hands with a detective who does all his detecting while restricted to a hospital bed, and an apparently insoluble historic mystery hundreds of years removed from his time. The intellectual challenge of it, plus a wonderfully drawn character (fortunately not his only appearance in her work) and dialogue that snaps, makes it hugely absorbing. Made the top of the Crime Writers’ Association Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time lists (#1 in UK, #4 in US)

  4. Kathleen A. Ryan

    Hi Ben,
    Greg’s got a good list working already.
    Here’s a few more to consider:
    Christie’s Murder at the Vicarage OR The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
    Dorothy L. Sayers Gaudy Night
    Wilkie Collins The Woman in White
    John Dickson Carr: The Three Coffins
    James M. Cain: Double Indemnity
    John Le Carre: Thy Spy Who Came in From the Cold
    Ruth Rendell: A Judgement in Stone
    Josephine They: Daughter of Time

    BTW, I was at the Mysterious Bookshop in NYC the other night for the release of DEVIL IN THE HOLE by Charles Salzberg. While people were lining up to have him sign books, I noticed a woman also clutching a copy of THE LAST POLICEMAN. I couldn’t help but mention to her that I was fortunate to have attended the MWA Symposium earlier this year ~ in which you were on a panel ~ and that I had the opportunity to chat with you @ the agents & editors party (Oh–and that you won the Edgar the next day!). Just thought I’d pass that along 🙂

    Best wishes with your class in the spring!

    Kathleen A. Ryan

  5. Jason Rekulak

    Ira Levin’s A KISS BEFORE DYING Is a terrific choice for college students, because I’m pretty sure Levin completed the manuscript on his 21st birthday. Otto Penzler writes about it in his introduction to the novel. If there’s a better crime novel written by a 21 year old, i don’t know it.

  6. Chris Dikes

    Here’s some more to consider:

    -Jo Nesbo’s books would be great- maybe The Redbreast or The Snowman
    -Ken Bruen- the first of the Irish crime writers- who writes with a brief lyrical pose- The Guards or The Killing of The Tinkers
    -Akimitsu Takagi- Only a few of his books are available in English- The Tattoo Murder Case is excellent.
    -David Peace- the red riding Trilogy- 1977, 1980, 1983 or his book Tokyo Year Zero
    -Richard Stark/Donald Westlake- the master of pulp fiction- Slayground, Plunders Squad, or Butchers Moon
    -Olin Steinhauer wrote a great crime series- The Bridge of Sighs or The Confession

  7. Larry Holloman

    Hum, I’d also have to go with Christie/And Then There Were none. Here are some others I’ve particularly enjoyed:

    Prelude to a Certain Midnight- Gerald Kersh
    The Man Who Killed Himself- Julian Symons
    Let’s Kill Uncle- Rohan O’Grady
    The Moving Toyshop- Edmund Crispen
    The Killer Inside Me- Jim Thompson (or anything else by him)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *