Jeremy Megraw: The five books that got me hooked on crime fiction

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After reflecting on the diverting challenge by CFL to pick the top five books that got me hooked on crime fiction, I’ve found the stories that moved me most turned out to be ones that sought to subvert the genre in some way. My favourite crime titles include ones where the protagonist is neither a true detective nor a willing participant, where the identity of investigator and criminal blurs, or even where the narrator charged to tell the story is the murderer himself.

lunapic_136658996464831_3The Deadly Percheron by John Franklin Bardin
The opening lines of The Deadly Percheron read like a happy hour joke: A man walks into a psychiatrist’s office. “Doctor I’m losing my mind…” The patient then leads the skeptical doctor to a bar to meet a fiendish leprechaun, whom he claims is manipulating him as an unwilling agent in some criminal enterprise. The next day, while mulling over this strange situation, the doctor reads in the papers that a woman is found murdered and he learns his new patient is the prime suspect. The doctor is compelled to solve the mystery, but before he can investigate, he is knocked unconscious. He subsequently wakes up in a hospital with a disfigured face, a new identity, and learns from officials that his true self has been found murdered.

This rare specimen of bizarro-noir from the 40s is brought to us by John Franklin Bardin, one of the best American crime writers you’ve never heard of. The Deadly Percheron has all the elements of classic noir but is freighted with psychotropical elements that leave you wondering which version of reality will prevail. The suspense-driven plot involves our mysterious leprechaun and a string of murders, each attended by a surreal calling card (a live horse tied to the crime scene), propelling the reader toward the ultimate, equally freaky show-down in an amusement park.
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lunapic_136658996464831_5Phantom Lady by Cornell Woolrich
A man meets an attractive lady with a stylish orange hat in a bar. Meanwhile, his wife is strangled to death at home. His alibi is compromised by the fact that nobody recalls seeing him or the lady with the distinctive chapeau, neither bartender, patron, nor cab driver. Now that he is accused of murder and locked up, it is up to the man’s secretary to get to the bottom of the mystery in her search for the mysterious lady. Called the Father of Noir, Woolrich, here writing as William Irish, earns the title in this exemplary book. He holds the reader captive in this page-turner where the protagonist, like in Percheron, must pull back the curtain of reality to reveal the sinister undercurrent behind appearances before it’s too late. Readers might find the resolution of Phantom Lady far-fetched, but for fans of good noir it’s not the destination so much as the journey that matters.
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lunapic_136658996464831_7Eye of the Beholder by Marc Behm
If you like vamp noir, check out The Eye of the Beholder, a fairly obscure gem from the 1980s that starts with the typical private eye scenario but which quickly verges into Hitchcockian ambiguity. When a private eye is assigned to stake out an alleged black widow, he soon observes her luring the first of many hapless victims to their deadly demise. Armed with binoculars, our dick himself becomes so enamoured by the lady’s supernatural charms that he is soon transformed into helpless voyeur. As she closes in on her next victim, he does nothing to influence the outcome of her deadly game. On the contrary, he is so entranced by her that he crosses the line from investigator to accomplice – he not only helps her avoid the authorities, he becomes an unseen hand that facilitates her deadly path to murder. If you can find this one, pick it up for your next vacation, it is a quick and compelling read.
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lunapic_136658996464831_9The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox
The murder mystery The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox grabs the reader’s attention immediately. We learn in its provocative opening line that our narrator is the murderer himself: “After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn’s for an oyster supper.” What follows is an impeccable example of Victorian crime fiction wherein we gradually discover the true motive of the narrator. His murderous career, we come to learn, is a case of revenge for an early insult on his personal destiny, the details of which are revealed as he advances toward the guilty man he seeks to destroy. If you enjoy this one, there is also the follow-up title, The Glass of Time.
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lunapic_136658996464831_11The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing
Given my personal fetish for the NYRB Classics line, it was inevitable I would come across this one. The Big Clock is one of my favourite noir novels of all time although it is one which I only recently encountered. My reaction, as I waded through its rich mise en scène, was “Where have you been all my life?” Written in 1946, and set in and around the environs of a large publishing firm, this title also turns on its head the notion of the typical investigator/criminal paradigm. The Big Clock has a simple but audacious plot: George Stroud has a secret affair with his boss’s wife. Boss kills wife in a rage, then tasks his own employees to find the adulterer whom he determines is the only potential witness. Who’s put in charge? George Stroud. This story is imbued with period detail and the lost argot of New York City in the 1940s, thus creating an atmosphere that transports you directly into its now rarefied world. Pick up a copy and please let us know what you think.
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I also recommend The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler,  The New York City Trilogy by Paul Auster, An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears and Passing Time by Michel Butor.

Last week we brought you five hooked on crime choices from DeathBecomesHer which you can read here. Tune in next week for the books that got MarinaSofia hooked on crime fiction.

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