Spriteby: The five books that got me hooked on crime fiction

I’ve always enjoyed books with a sense of adventure about them, and whilst I did read Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven mysteries as a child, I was probably more interested in her Malory Towers books. My first real introduction came in my early teens with a broad diet of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and anything else my crime fiction loving mother had just been reading. It’s hard to select just five books that got me into crime fiction because the list just goes on, but these ones certainly stand out from the crowd.

maelstromMaelstrom by Michael J Bird
Possibly the book that really got my obsession with Nordic noir started. Yes, it’s written by an Englishman but as Michael Ridpath has also shown with his Fire & Ice trilogy – set in Iceland – it’s possible to write a great mystery if you know the environment you’re writing about well enough. I must have been about nine or 10 when the BBC made a series based on the book which really captured my imagination, but it wasn’t until my teens when I came across a secondhand copy of the book. Catherine Durrell travels to Ålesund in Norway to claim a mysterious inheritance from a man she has never met. The man’s family are welcoming but equally intrigued as to why he has made the bequest. It’s not long before events take a more sinister turn – is she going mad or is someone, or something, really trying to kill her? Catherine has to dig deep if she is to save her sanity or quite possibly, her own life.
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The 39 Steps by John BuchanBuchan
Written in 1915, my first introduction to Buchan’s classic novel was via Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 adaptation with Robert Donat as Richard Hannay. Newly arrived in London from Rhodesia he has a chance meeting with a man, who warns him of an assassination plot. However Hannay is left as the prime suspect when the man is murdered in his flat and he becomes a new target for the killers. With the threat of war the underlying theme of the book, tension lies in the fact that it’s not just Hannay’s life that’s in danger if he fails. The reader follows Hannay as he goes on the run in the Scottish Highlands and attempts to find out more about the plot so that he can warn the government, but time is not on his side. Can he get back to London in time?
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GorkyGorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith
This is the book that taught me to be open-minded about crime fiction. It’s a story that mixes the police procedural approach with an element of the thriller, and there’s a sense of danger on every page. The main protagonist is Moscow detective Arkady Renko. He’s just landed the investigation of a brutal triple slaying in Moscow’s famous park, and it has him questioning everything he’s ever believed in, whilst treading on some very dangerous toes. He’s a good policeman with a deep-seated desire to see justice done but in this instance the political machine running the USSR may not want the truth to be revealed. What I love most about this book is the sense of atmosphere that Cruz Smith conjures up. It’s bleak and very dangerous, and the author draws on his own journalistic experience to show his readers the harsh realities of life in 1980s Russia. It’s a book I first read in my late teens and find myself returning to every once in a while.
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The White Rose Murders by Paul DohertyDoherty
As a historical crime fiction writer, Dr Paul Doherty has covered quite a lot of ground, ranging from the ancient world to medieval and Tudor England. The White Rose Murders is the first of the five Tudor mysteries featuring Roger Shallot, who narrates each of the books. Shallot is an old man looking back at some of the cases he investigated with his master, Benjamin Daubney, the nephew of Cardinal Wolsey. Roger isn’t even your typical protagonist. He’s a bit of a rogue and frankly, at times, he’s rather vulgar, but there’s an element of tongue-in-cheek humour about him that makes it hard not to like him. In this first mystery, it’s 1517 and Henry VIII’s forces have just defeated James IV of Scotland at Flodden. James’ widow, Henry’s sister Margaret, has fled to England, leaving the crown to be administered by a Council of Regency. Roger and Benjamin are ordered into Margaret’s household to restore her to the Scottish throne. It’s a story filled with murder, riddles and a plot to overthrow the Tudor monarchy.
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RobbThe Apothecary Rose by Candace Robb
Candace Robb’s Owen Archer mysteries were something of a chance discovery in my 20s. The Apothecary Rose is the first book in a series that really needs to be read consecutively because there’s a natural flow from one book to the next. This is a well-researched series that would appeal most to historical crime lovers who are looking for something in a similar vein to Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael novels. The setting is York in the late 14th century. Welshman Archer is an ex-captain from the forces of the Duke of Lancaster and lost an eye during military campaigns in France. He’s now working as a spy for Archbishop Thoresby, and his first investigation sees him looking into the poisoning of two pilgrims in the city. Masquerading as an apprentice to apothecary Nicholas Wilton, and working in the shop suspected of dispensing the fatal poison, Archer must track down a murderer.
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Tune in again on Friday next week when David Prestidge will share the five books that got him hooked on crime. Share your choices in the comments below…

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1 Comment

  1. d e meredith Reply

    I loved The 39 Steps and Gorky Park, too. Both brilliant books. I haven’t read the others but fascinating choices from our much loved, mysterious crime lover *Spriteby*.

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