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

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I’ve been reading crime fiction almost since I learned to read. My tastes in crime fiction have changed markedly over the years, but that’s the great thing about this genre. It grows and evolves with us, always offering top-notch writing in many different styles.

encyclopediabrownboydetectiveEncyclopedia Brown by Donald J Sobol
My interest in crime fiction began early, as I voraciously devoured various (and mostly) age-appropriate mystery books. Donald Sobol’s Encyclopedia Brown series was my favorite, and introduced me to deductive reasoning. Granted, the cases were low-stakes. Leroy Brown, nicknamed Encyclopedia for his impressive brainpower, would solve any neighborhood kid’s case for the sum of 25 cents per day. Encyclopedia Brown also had a recurring antagonist in Bugs Meany, the neighborhood bully. Encyclopedia was only able to stand up to him with the help of his partner Sally Kimball, who was tougher than anyone else in the neighborhood – including Bugs – and almost as smart as Encyclopedia Brown. The cases were fascinating to a young kid like me, and Sobol’s precocious PI launched a lifelong interest in reading crime fiction.
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thecompletefatherbrownFather Brown stories by GK Chesterton
As I grew, I transitioned to more adult books. I still had a strong interest in ratiocination, inspired by Encyclopedia Brown. And my favorite of the Golden Age sleuths was odd little Father Brown. GK Chesterton’s priestly sleuth could deduce with the best of his peers, but deduced criminals’ identities from intuitive, rather than rational, premises. Father Brown did not claim any great intellect, he simply put himself in the shoes of the person who committed the crime in order to find out what might have motivated them to commit it. By doing this, he could figure out which suspect was most likely to be guilty. The empathetic detective would then offer to hear the guilty party’s confession. Chesterton loved a good paradox, and he created one in Father Brown – a humble man of the cloth who understood criminal passions better than the police.
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themaltesefalconThe Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
Dashiell Hammett’s classic was my introduction to hardboiled crime fiction. The introduction came not from the book, but from the classic John Huston film. Huston’s screenplay uses Hammett’s dialogue almost verbatim, and Hammett’s hardboiled magic is evident throughout the movie. The film led me quickly to Hammett’s novel. I was able to revel in Sam Spade’s cynicism all over again. Spade, as described by Hammett, isn’t quite Humphrey Bogart, though I regard both the book and movie as indispensable. Sam Spade inspired my love for hardboiled PIs and their snappy retorts, jaded cynicism and idiosyncratic moral codes. Along with pioneering the hardboiled genre, Hammett’s novel also introduced the femme fatale and a host of other low-lifes that have since become stock characters.
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abulletforcinderellaA Bullet for Cinderella by John D MacDonald
As my tastes in crime fiction continued to evolve, I moved beyond the hardboiled and noir classics such as Hammet, Chandler and Cain, and began seek out all sorts of pulpy paperbacks from previous decades. John D MacDonald is best known for his Travis McGee series, but I first encountered him via A Bullet for Cinderella. MacDonald’s protagonist, Tal Howard, is a WWII veteran and former POW who sets out to find some loot that was hidden by a dead comrade before the War. But of course Tal is not the only one looking for it. The plot is fast-moving and packed with violent confrontations. MacDonald is as good at writing a thrilling fight scene as he is tossing off witty epigrams. The first-person narrator, the heavy-knuckled goons, the femme fatale and John D MacDonald’s hardboiled sensibilities make A Bullet for Cinderella a quintessential pulp tale.
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inalonelyplaceIn a Lonely Place by Dorothy B Hughes
Hardboiled and noir fiction are often assumed to be one and the same, but they are subtly different. But Dorothy B Hughes (a respected reviewer of crime fiction in her day) blends the two forms better than any other author I’ve come across. Her best known book is In a Lonely Place, mainly because of the film adaptation starring Humphrey Bogart. Unlike The Maltese Falcon, the adaptation of In a Lonely Place deviates significantly from the novel on which it is based. In a Lonely Place has hardboiled detectives and snappy dialogue, but is also much deeper – a despair-filled psychological thriller about the hunt for a serial killer. Hughes is adept at portraying the increasing alienation of her protagonist, and combining the incisive psychological portrait with a twisting plot and shocking finale.
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Last week, Lucy revealed the books that got her hooked on crime fiction and you can read about those here. Tune in next Friday for RoughJustice and his choices.

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