World Book Night: 25 great crime reads

Well, it’s Shakespeare’s birthday and 23 April has also been designated World Book Night. While we think the charitable effort – distributing a million free books to people less fortunate – is commendable, when we looked at this year’s WBN list we couldn’t help but feel that more crime fiction should be on the menu. It’s great to see Mark Billingham along with a couple of other writers on there but we decided to compile our own list of books that will hopefully help promote crime fiction and make it accessible to more readers. All the Crime Fiction Lover contributors got together and made suggestions, and we asked readers of our site for their suggestions too.

Our question was: which books would you recommend to somebody who wants to start reading crime fiction? And based on hours and hours of head scratching, research and sharing of opinions, here’s what Crime Fiction Lover would suggest. Welcome to our World Book Night top 25 crime books:

Sleepyhead by Mark Billingham
One of the only crime fiction books on the World Book Night list of titles this year, Sleepyhead is Mark Billingham’s first Tom Thorne novel and sees the detective hunting down a psychopath who hones a method of inducing strokes in his victims. The first three he kills and the third is left in a ‘locked-in’ state. Troubling stuff for the maverick cop to face. Purchase

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
For crime fiction lovers all around the world The Hound of the Baskervilles is what sparked their passion for the genre. Conan Doyle’s careful plotting and gradual revelation of key clues works in the background as the brilliant, archetypal sleuth, Sherlock Holmes works his logic on a case where the murder weapon appears to have been a supernatural, enormous, glow-in-the-dark dog. Purchase

LA Confidential by James Ellroy
Ellroy hones his scat-like 1940s lingo down to a fine art in the third segment of his LA quartet. The manoeuvring and juxtapositioning of his three brilliantly characterised protagonists – Preston Exley, Bud White and Jack Vincennes – are what makes this book outstanding. Investigating a massacre in the Night Owl Cafe, they uncover all sorts of scandal and corruption. Fantastic ending. Purchase

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
Agatha Christie became the successor within the genre to the likes of Edgar Allen Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle with the release of this wonderful book in 1929. Aside from the great Hercule Poirot, an eclectic cast of suspects with various motives, and Agatha Christie’s masterful plot twists, we love how she engages the reader, challenging them to solve the mystery. There’s not enough of that these days! Purchase

One Step Behind by Henning Mankell
Did someone say ‘Scandinavia’? The seventh Wallander novel opens with a gripping hunt and subsequent execution of three innocent people in a nature reserve. The Swedish detective pieces this together with two further seemingly unrelated crimes as Mankell drives a plotline that will leave you breathless and pondering whether man, or nature, is more bestial. Purchase

The Naming of the Dead by Ian Rankin
We reckon this book has been rightly hailed as Ian Rankin’s finest novel. DI John Rebus investigates an apparent suicide, but it turns out the dead man was an anti-arms trade campaigner, while in parallel a serial killer is operating in Edinburgh. Set in summer 2005,  it draws in and plays on multiple real world events. They should make a film of this one! Purchase

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
The progenitor of modern PI fiction, tight story twists and turns keep the reader guessing. Published in 1930 it ushered in the role of the detective as an active participant rather than detached crime solver. Sam Spade is hired on a case but it quickly turns into the murder of his partner, and a shady tale involving a bejewelled falcon, kidnapping and more killing. Purchase

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain
This 1934 title brought a much needed dose of American realism to the crime genre as we see ordinary people, living greasy, downbeat lives, turning to crime in hope of happiness. In doing so it became a classic as bored housewife Cora convinces lover Frank to kill her husband. But will causing harm to others really lead to a happier life, or will things just get even more sordid? Purchase

The Broken Shore by Peter Temple
This book established Temple as a crime writing force in Australia and internationally. It won a slew of awards, including The Crime Writers’ Association Duncan Lawrie Dagger in 2007. It’s a dark, wonderfully written book about a Melbourne homicide detective who moves to rural Victoria to recover his mental and physical strength after being injured on the job. Purchase

A Certain Justice by PD James
Last year’s Theakston Old Peculiar Outstanding Contribution to Crime Fiction Award winner, Baroness PD James has been one of the UK’s foremost crime fiction writers since Cover Her Face in 1963. We could have picked any number of her killer reads but we love the way A Certain Justice revolves more around the murder victim, lawyer Venetia Aldridge, than James’ popular investigator Adam Dalgliesh. Purchase

The Snowman by Jo Nesbo
Jo Nesbo’s unreliable alcoholic detective Harry Hole has one redeeming feature – he won’t let go until the crime is solved. In this case, quite literally. The Snowman is one of his darkest cases yet as women are being hideously decapitated by a serial killer who builds menacing snowmen at the crime scenes, and toys with Hole like a cat with a felt toy mouse. Purchase

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
The very first novel featuring hardboiled detective Philip Marlowe, The Big Sleep has been turned into two motion pictures since it came out in 1939. Set in LA it sees Marlowe hired to deal with a blackmailer. He quickly uncovers a pornography operation and finds himself in neck deep when the blackmailer is shot and another man drowns. Purchase

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
This novel introduces the introverted Lisbeth Salander, a prodigy and a misfit with many secrets which unravel to form the basis for Larsson’s two subsequent Millennium books. But here she helps Mikael Blomkvist solve the mystery of a young girl who disappeared from a remote island homestead in Sweden decades ago. A fantastic, pacy and dramatic read, it’s the reason crime fiction is booming in Europe at the moment. Purchase

Agatha Raisin & the Quiche of Death by MC Beaton
Let’s go light-hearted… This is tongue-in-cheek amateur sleuthing with the marvellous Agatha finding herself as chief suspect for the death of a local quiche competition judge. In order to clear her name and make peace with her new neighbours in the Cotswold village she’s just moved to, she decides to solve the case herself with hilarious consequences. Purchase

The Cut by George Pelecanos
Pelecanos helped write the grippingly gritty Baltimore crime show The Wire, and is also behind several excellent novels. The Cut apparently begins a new series and in this page-turner ex-marine Speros Lucas turns his skills to recovering stolen property taking a 40 per cent cut. This time the property stolen is drugs, and he goes into action against those who’d rather there was no cut. Purchase

Modesty Blaise by Peter O’Donnell
Why? “Because she kicks ass and girls need good role models,” says our very own Eva Dolan. What began as a comic strip became a series of novels starting with Modesty Blaise in 1965, featuring the eponymous all-action female ex-crime boss and her sidekick Willie Garvin. Here she must rescue Garvin from a South American prison on behalf of the secret service, and bust a major jewel-thieving operation. Purchase

The Mermaids Singing by Val McDermid
Scotland is becoming as well known for its crime fiction as it is for Scotch, haggis, tartan and so forth. Val McDermid’s series of Dr Tony Hill novels starts with this excellent title which is actually set in a fictional  English city. Tortured and murdered, men’s bodies are turning up in the gay quarter and Hill isn’t just drawn into the investigation, he becomes the killer’s target. An award winner and a perfect read for World Book Night. Purchase

Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood
Greenwood has written 19 books featuring the late 1920s female PI Phryne Fisher. They meld classic whodunnit plots with meticulous period research and a wonderful female sleuth. Her books have become a huge hit in Australia, where they have just been made into a television series. In Cocaine Blues, Fisher departs England for Down Under and uncovers a drugs ring. Purchase

The Dawn Patrol by Don Winslow
Our writer Mike Parker reckons Don Winslow is a bit like reading Elmore Leonard on drugs, but don’t slap us with libel, please. It’s a compliment. The Dawn Patrol is the first in a very readable series about surfing PI Boone Daniels. All sorts of dark secrets – like child slavery – come to light as Daniels and his surfing buddies start off searching for a missing stripper. Winslow’s book Savages will be appearing as a film this summer. Purchase

Tell No One by Harlan Coben
Coben’s books are truly gripping and once you start reading Tell No One you won’t put it down. Just remember to keep breathing. Daniel Beck was left for dead by the murderer who killed his wife. Eight years later he thinks he’s recovered but his life is turned upside down by an email suggesting she’s still alive. He ends up on the run, pursued by the very nasty Eric Wu. Purchase

No Time For Goodbye by Linwood Barclay
Cynthia never found out what happened to her family – father, mother and sister all disappeared after an argument 25 years ago. Encouraged by her husband she takes part in a reality TV re-enactment hoping it will jog the memory of somebody out there. As they dig deeper, with the help of a PI, there are several murders and danger encircles them. Purchase

Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard
We’re lucky, really. Elmore Leonard could have stuck to Westerns and we’d have missed out on some great books. Get Shorty is the best place to start with this author, bundling humour with action and intrigue as Chili Palmer tracks down an insurance fraud, attempting to collect on a loan. He jumps into a world of threats, drugs and, somehow, film production. Purchase

Venus in Copper by Lindsay Davis
If you enjoy a touch of satire, it’s littered all through the dialogue in this, the third book in Davis’ Falco series. He’s commissioned to investigate a murder plot and expose a fortune hunter, but things don’t quite go to plan. The client he’s meant to protect is dead and someone’s out to prevent any investigation. Now Falco and his girlfriend are in grave danger. Purchase

Black Cherry Blues by James Lee Burke
There are many great James Lee Burke books but this one’s a good starting place and was an Edgar Allen Poe award winner in 1990. It’s the third Dave Robicheaux book from the author and here the alcoholic cajun detective begins trying to solve a problem for an old friend, becomes a murder suspect, and has to head out to Montana to get to the bottom of it. Purchase

Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L Sayers
Taking place several decades before Mad Men is set, this excellent mystery begins when an ad agency copywriter Victor Dean mysteriously falls to his death after discovering a scandal. Lord Peter Wimsey is hired to go undercover in the agency to investigate and finds a ring of cocaine dealers is operating in ad land. There’s cricket, disguises and plenty of murder. Purchase

Dennis Lehane, Megan Abbott, Colin Dexter, Michael Connelly, Jim Thompson, Lee Child, Thomas Harris, John Burdett… Yes we know there are dozens more authors worthy of being on our list but we have done our best to bring you a far-reaching and accessible introduction to crime fiction for new readers, and hopefully some great suggestions too for people already well into the genre. We welcome more tips from fans of Crime Fiction Lover below. Who would you recommend to a friend who’s never read any crime fiction before?

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