LoiteringWithIntent: the five books that got me hooked on crime fiction

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In comparison to my fellow CFL contributors, I came to crime pretty late. No Famous Five, no Secret Seven. Although Roald Dahl covered some very dark territory – domestic violence, worldwide infanticide plots, elaborate tortures in a chocolate factory. So when I finally caught up, in my late teens, I gravitated to the big names, wanting to experience what I assumed would be the best of the genre. Since then many early favourites have fallen by the wayside and my reading has broadened significantly, but these are the books that had the greatest impact.

brightonrock100Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
Brighton Rock straddles the line between ‘entertainments’ and ‘serious’ literature which Greene imposed on his work, a pacy, violent thriller about a teenage gangster Pinkie trying to move in on Brighton’s lucrative protection rackets by way of murdering a journalist who has exposed him, then anyone else who gets in his way. It’s also a meditation on Catholicism, with Pinkie embodying the most self-serving interpretation of the faith, believing he can bully and maim and kill with impunity, as long as he repents before he dies. He is a loathesome character, cold and without remorse, one of the most chilling figures in 20th century literature. Greene pits him against an unlikely avenger, Ida Arnold, a pragmatic hedonist, all dirty laugh and sentimentality, slamming her agnostic sensibilities against Pinkie’s Catholicism as they tussle over the soul of witness-turned-wife Rose.
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longgoodbye100The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
“The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers.” It’s one of the most iconic opening lines in crime fiction and sums up what you get with Chandler, luxe and sleaze cheek by jowl. Marlowe, the shop-soiled Galahad, is sucker for a bird with a broken wing and ends up driving Lennox to Tiajuana, presuming he’s evading the police, but he makes no judgements. Then a New York publisher calls on him to baby sit the brilliant but deeply flawed author Roger Wade and Chandler’s definitive PI Philip Marlowe finds himself amid screwed-up rich folks and the criminals who feed off them, trying to unearth the terrible secret plaguing Wade. The prose sings with hardboiled poetry and the Chandler’s eye for the interplay of high society and low habits have made this a genre-defining classic.
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talentedmrripley100The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
Tom Ripley is kind of a nobody, a low level con man in 1950s New York, scraping a living and dreaming of a better life. He’s fairly smart, fairly resourceful, but it’s a simple case of mistaken identity which changes his life. Tom is despatched to Italy by a wealthy businessman, tasked with persuading his feckless son to come home and face his responsibilities. Dickie Greenleaf is everything Tom aspires towards: wealthy, self-assured, cultured. But Dickie soon tires of Tom and his dismissal sets our amoral anti-hero on a murderous career path which spans five books and 30 years and stands as one of the highest accomplishments in psychological crime fiction. Ripley shouldn’t be an attractive character, we really shouldn’t root for him, but we do, and after many re-reads I’m still not sure why, which is testament to Highsmith’s sly skills. Read our article Revisiting Mr Ripley here.
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mildredpierce100Mildred Pierce by James M Cain
Mildred Pierce is the least crimey of Cain’s ouevre. In fact, other than a spot of fraud and an instance of attempted infanticide, it is completely crime free. Except it isn’t. Mildred Pierce, the eponymous heroine, is a newly divorced mother of two in depression era Los Angeles, struggling to make enough to look after her two girls, the angelic Ray and spoilt diva-in-waiting Veda, who disapproves of Mildred’s low status job as a waitress. Veda softens slightly when Mildred’s hard work leads to a string of successful restaurants and an affair with blue blood playboy Monty. The mother/daughter relationship is at the heart of the book, a twisted dynamic with Veda taking everything she can get and Mildred idolising her despite her myriad slights and betrayals, which build inexorably towards stealing Monty away. I love books which explore the small crimes that families and couples commit against each other, when they’re as well written as this is, they are far more disturbing than the goriest of serial killer novels.
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catchaser100Cat Chaser by Elmore Leonard
Set in the Dominican Republic, miles away from Leonard’s regular stomping grounds, we’re in the company of ex-US marine turned hotel owner George Moran, who returns to the island looking for Luci Palma, a revolutionary who shot him during the US occupation years before. Instead he runs across Mary de Boya, an ex-lover now married to a former death squad general with heavy mob connections. Moran wants to spirit Mary away from her husband – along with $2 million in dirty cash – but an assortment of small time crooks and bent cops are on the trail too, along with a woman who may or may not be the elusive Luci Palma. There’s a reason why Elmore Leonard is considered the daddy of crime writing and Cat Chaser, with it’s pared back style, oddball characters and complex plot deftly resolved, is one of his best.
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Last week, MarinaSofia shared the five books that got her in to crime ficiton, and you can read that article here. Tune in next Friday when PulpCurry will be here.

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