Five of the best: Literary crime fiction

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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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