David Prestidge: The five books that got me hooked on crime fiction

As the most venerable of the CFL contributors I make no apologies that one or two of the books that got me hooked on crime fiction are – at least for modern readers – a little off the beaten track. My earliest reading memories are of those lantern-jawed (and wildly politically incorrect) heroes Bulldog Drummond and Biggles. These books were usually borrowed from our local children’s library, but I recall that you could buy Biggles books for about two shillings from Woolworths. My father was an avid reader of crime fiction, and it is from his collection that my first choice was taken.

SHS013The Stolen Home Secretary by Leonard Gribble
Gribble was the author of over 70 books and this, published in 1932, was one of the first to feature Superintendent Anthony Slade of Scotland Yard’s Criminal Investigation Department (X2). In this book Slade is still a Detective Inspector, and he must solve the disappearance of Sir William Farroll. The Home Secretary’s daughter, Geraldine, sees two men carrying off what appears to be the bloodstained body of her father from their country house. The story has all the right ingredients – a cunning cover up, untrustworthy gypsies, laconic pipe-smoking coppers, and an idyllic home counties setting – and I loved every word of it.
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The Moonstone by Wilkie Collinsbooks_moonstone_SE1871
I was drawn to this classic by the 1959 BBC TV adaptation. It starred the great Patrick Cargill as Inspector Cuff, and was one of the fine series of adaptions of classic stories which the BBC used to show on Sundays at teatime. I determined to read the book, and was entranced by the complexity of the story. It remains the archetypical detective tale, with mysterious foreigners, a cursed diamond, a country house, bungling local coppers, a locked room, a consulting detective, a range of different suspects and a glamorous heiress. Like many books of the Victorian era it was written in serial form, but it remains a great favourite of mine.
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BOPBurden of Proof by James Barlow
This 1968 novel is one of the first to reflect the dark legacy of the Kray Twins. Vic Dakin is a violent homosexual psychopath but, naturally, he loves his dear old mum. Vic mixes with barristers, celebrities and an MP or two, and is feared the length and breadth of the East End for his unpredictable behaviour. “As a businessman he was successful and had only one fault. He was insane.” Dark, brooding and with its unflinching stare at the dark side of London, this book was ahead of its time. Although it has none of the savage poetry of Derek Raymond’s Factory novels, it is a forgotten classic.
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The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandlerthe-big-sleep
I came late to American private eye fiction, but reading this 1939 classic sparked a love affair with that sub-genre. Philip Marlowe has never been bettered by his many imitators. If I were advising someone where to start with Chandler, it mightn’t be here, as the plot is a labyrinth, but for mordant humour, intense atmosphere and memorable characterisations this is the novel I turn back to again and again. Marlowe’s dogged honesty as he wades through the sewers of blackmail, pornography and mob violence is little short of inspiring. And did anyone write a better line than this? “I don’t mind your showing me your legs. They’re very swell legs and it’s a pleasure to make their acquaintance. I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter nights.”
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The Nine TailorsThe Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayers
If there has been a finer opening to a crime novel than this one, then I have yet to read it. “Right and left, before and behind, the fen lay shrouded. It was past four o’clock and New Year’s Eve; the snow that had fallen all day gave back a glimmering greyness to a sky like lead.” Lord Peter Wimsey has driven his car into a ditch, and as he seeks help from the good people of Fenchurch St Paul, he becomes involved in a mystery involving jewel thieves, deserters, unexplained death, devastating floods and – of course – church bells. This is the most golden of Golden Age novels, and yes, it is archaic, mannered and implausible at times, but the characterisation and sense of place have hardly been improved upon.
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What books got you hooked on crime fiction? Tweet them to us with the tag #hookedoncrime or post your comments below. Next week, DeathBecomesHer will share the five books that drew her into the crime fiction fold.

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4 Comments

  1. Marina Sofia Reply

    The Nine Tailors is such a lovely book. I have to admit that the Golden Age crime fiction books were my preferred fare when I was a teenager. I seem to have got more violent in my old age!

  2. southcott Reply

    Interesting choice

    Burden of Proof was filmed as “Villain” in 1971, with Richard Burton very convincing in the title role.

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