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

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Like all children growing up in an English-speaking environment, I had my share of Famous Five and Secret Seven as a child, but I think I realised even back then that the carefree lifestyle depicted would not suit my own urban existence. Growing up in big cities, I was always attracted to the endless possibilities of the metropolis, without forgetting its potential for danger, pollution, noise and bustle. A good sense of atmosphere, wit and humour are also important to me, and I think the selection of books that got me hooked on crime fiction reflects that.

EmilEmil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner
This story has the same premise as Little Red Riding Hood, but is much funnier and less didactic in tone. Emil is a boy from a small provincial town in Germany who travels to the big city to see his grandmother and give her some money. On the train, however, he meets a shady character, Herr Grundeis, who steals the money from him. Emil is reluctant to involve the police and sets off himself on a wild chase through Berlin, ably helped by a band of eager young detectives. This is no nicely sanitised version of city life, but a noir for children: a realistic portrayal of rather rough neighbourhoods, which reminded me (once I grew up) of Christopher Isherwood and Kurt Weill.
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Hundred MillionA Hundred Million Francs by Paul Berna
This time the backdrop is a Paris slum in the 1950s, surrounded by grimy warehouses. This is where an odd assortment of children of all ages meet to play with their pride and joy: a headless horse on wheels, which they use to career down the steep cobblestoned streets. Their games turn dangerous, even deadly, when a gang of train robbers hide their loot in the toy. Yet the tough little gang of children will not allow themselves to be intimidated that easily.  This story also features one of my favourite characters. Marion, the girl with the dogs, was my first feisty role model, far more streetwise than Nancy Drew or Pippi Longstocking.
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DeadlockDeadlock by Sara Paretsky
Yet another strong, independent female character, private eye VI Warshawski beckoned next, as did the gritty cityscape of Chicago. It can be easy to forget just how revolutionary Paretsky was in introducing us to her tough-talking, utterly fearless female version of Sam Spade. This time the case is personal, as it’s Vic’s favourite cousin who is found drowned in Lake Michigan. For once, we discover the soft heart beating under her hard-as-nails exterior, as she refuses to believe the verdict of accidental death. She soon discovers dangerous links leading to the all-powerful shipping industry of the Great Lakes.
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gaudy-nightGaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers
OK, Oxford is no metropolis, but it is an extremely photogenic city and by now I had developed a taste for smart women detectives. This is a Harriet Vane rather than a Lord Peter Wimsey novel and perhaps it is all the better for it. When Harriet attends a college reunion in Oxford, she is both a victim and a witness to increasingly nasty and menacing pranks and poison pen letters. The pace of her investigation may leave something to be desired, but this book is about so much more than plotting or dead bodies. And, just in case you think that the proto-feminism of the 1930s cannot possibly still be relevant, we do hear many of the same concerns expressed today, although couched in terms such as ‘work/life balance’ and ‘glass ceiling’.
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crime_and_punishmentCrime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Back to the big city for my final choice. St Petersburg in the 19th century was a place of unremitting poverty and squalor, where it was easy to lose one’s mind and turn to prostitution or violent robbery. Genre distinctions become truly meaningless when you realise that one of the great classics of world literature is in fact a crime story. Like all good crime fiction, though, it is about so much more. This book features all of the elements that later crime writers would develop: a carefully planned crime with a bungled outcome, a criminal torn between self-justification and guilt, and a dogged detective playing cat and mouse games with his suspect. If you can get hold of either Peaver & Volkhonska’s or Julius Katzer’s excellent translations, you will get much more of a feel for the richness and vernacular of Dostoyevsky’s original style.
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