Five of the best: Literary crime fiction

The whole literary versus genre argument just won’t go away will it? There are two ways to settle it. Either Ian Rankin and William Boyd go mano-a-mano in no-holds barred cage fight, or we all show a little grace and see if we can meet in the middle somewhere. With that in mind here are five literary novels with crime at their core.

Despair by Vladimir Nabokov
If your only experience of Nabokov is Lolita then Despair would be an ideal way to dip back into his work. It tackles one of crime fiction’s most persistent tropes, the doppelganger, and binds it up with an unreliable narrator of classic Nabokovian bent. Hermann is a wealthy businessman with a silly wife and delusions of brilliance. Felix is an inoffensive tramp he runs into in Prague. Seeing how alike they look Hermann lures Felix into a scam which will ultimately end in murder. Being Nabokov the writing is witty and nimble, full of neat linguistic tricks, but it is also an arresting crime story which delves deep into the mind of a killer.
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Thérèse Raquin by Emile Zola
Zola was writing noir 50 years before the term was invented and Thérèse Raquin should satisfy the most hardcore pulp fans. You’ve got a steamy affair which leads to murder, then guilt and recrimination and finally some more death, all set against the grimy backdrop of fin de siècle Paris. The language is spare and Zola’s realist sensibilities shine through, stripping the story back to bone and sinew; if you’re going to screw you husband’s best friend, prepare for the consequences.
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Confession of a Murderer by Joseph Roth
“I have killed and yet I consider myself to be a good man.” What crime fiction lover could resist that opening? After hours in a bar on the Left Bank, Golubchik reveals how he came to be a killer. His story simmers with lust and sibling rivalry and it is at once intensely personal and absolutely political, with Golubchik a pawn in the opening gambits of the Russian Revolution. Confession of a Murderer is a slim but potent book and a great introduction to Roth.
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Jezebel by Irène Némirovsky
This perfect little gem by the author of Suite Francaise, set in 1930s Paris, follows the trial of Gladys Eysenach, a well-to-do French-Brazilian woman accused of murdering her younger lover. Her guilt is exposed in the first chapter but Némirovsky takes us back through Gladys’ life, showing her desperation to remain youthful, her affairs and vices, and it slowly becomes clear that the version of events recounted at her trial are very far from the truth. Gladys is a femme fatale par excellence, cold and uncompromising, willing to sacrifice everything on the altar of youth; Raymond Chandler would have been proud to have created her.
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The Collector by John Fowles
This elegantly written novel, about a lower middle-class lepidopterist who finds that sudden wealth gives him the opportunity to indulge his obsession with an unobtainable art student, is the forerunner for numerous genre imitators, most notably Nicci French’s Land of the Living and Stephen King’s Misery. Written in two parts, following the kidnapper Frederick then his victim Miranda, Fowles details the shifting dynamic between captor and captive, and the result is the most complete exploration of a stalker’s mindset put down in fiction yet.
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Feel free to recommend your own favourite literary crime novels below…

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    1. eva dolan Reply

      hi denise, i debated Crime and Punishment for ages but decided to go with some more leftfield choices in the end. haven’t read The Sound and the Fury yet…will have to look out a copy. eva

  1. MrsT Reply

    Interesting post here, thank you. I haven’t really read much crime fiction but have read it will help me in my own writing with plotting.. I have recently read Rosamund Lumpton’s ‘Sister’ which I found very engaging and I did read Crime and Punishment a long time ago and thoroughly enjoyed it!

    Good to have your recommendations, am actually reading Suite Francais at the moment and really enjoying itm so will definitely give Jezabell a go too.

    Thanks again

  2. crimefictionlover Reply

    Thanks for posting your suggestions. Will check them out. A few people have tweeted to us about The Secret History as well. Any other literary crime classics out there?

  3. Heath Lowrance Reply

    Many on this list that I’ll have to read. Thanks for the recs. Denise mentioned Faulkner– which reminds of two of his that have crime and/or noir creds: As I Lay Dying and Sanctuary (which was, according to the drunk genius from Mississippi, inspired by the paperback originals he loved).

    1. eva dolan Reply

      slightly ashamed to admit The Name of the Rose defeated me around the halfway mark…but Auster, yes, love that chilly prose – may have to expand this list on my blog at some point.

      1. Andrez Bergen Reply

        Yep, sentimental attachment – but not so enigmatic, I’m afraid. We did The Name of the Rose @ university, and my essay was (a) based on the movie since I didn’t have time to read the book (I did read it later, tho’, and dug it), and (b) written in 3 formats: electric typewriter (the ink died), manual typewriter (the ribbon ran out, and the machine was literally lobbed out the window), and in handwriting.

  4. Stav Sherez Reply

    Great post!
    How about “No Country For Old Men”, Pynchon’s Chandler homage “Inherent Vice”, Denis Johnson’s “Nobody Move”, Matt Thorne’s “Cherry” – I could go on for ever…

    1. eva dolan Reply

      thanks stav. had no idea pynchon had written a chandler homage – amazing how many literary titans have a soft spot for the hardboiled stuff isn’t it? amis’ night train was a close call.

  5. Maxine Reply

    Some other suggestions of literary “fiction with a crime in”

    Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier
    To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
    Lord of the Flies by William Golding
    Bleak House by Charles Dickens (Inspector Bucket, etc)
    He Knew he Was Right by Anthony Trollope (private detective in subplot)

  6. Dorothy James Reply

    A prime example of literary fiction with a crime in it, in my opinion, is Friedrich Duerrenmatt’s “The Pledge” (Das Versprechen). Short novel set in Switzerland. A Swiss classic, translated by Joel Agee. Just posted on my blog a piece on it and on the movie Sean Penn made of it.

  7. Martin Stanley Reply

    Surprised nobody has suggested ‘The Stranger/The Outsider’ by Albert Camus.

    Especially surprising considering it deals with a murder and its aftermath, and Camus also admitted that James M Cain helped inspire its lean prose.

  8. denise meredith Reply

    Blimey – there’s tons on here. Delighted to see Cormac McCarthy here, God of Murk and Dark. Also suggest: “In The Heart of the Country” by Coetzee (grim, dark, bloody, hell on earth, astonishing) and yeah another Cormac – “Child of God.” Interesting crime at its core but its so weird and shocking, am saying nothing more than her flesh tasted electric.

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