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

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Looking back, my reading habits have always followed a similar course. Something piques my interest and sets me down a path which I then follow obsessively until I either lose interest or find a new compulsion. That has seen me devouring the Beats, the Angry Young Men of 50s Britain, and more besides. However, the one constant thing in my reading habits has been crime fiction, and the more I read the more I want to read. This is no fad.

Fu manchu_Mystery ofThe Mystery of Dr Fu-Manchu by Sax Rohmer
Honestly, I can’t recall exactly the first time I read any of the Fu-Manchu books. They seem to have been something I’ve always been aware of. The first of them was published more than a century ago and they remain in print. The ‘yellow peril’ menace is terribly dated now of course, but to a young lad entering secondary school, the battles of Commisioner Sir Denis Nayland Smith and his good friend Dr Petrie against the evil genius of the insidious Fu-Manchu and his murderous Si-Fans was manna from heaven. Every chapter is full of the breathless exhortations of Nayland Smith warning of some terrible danger, each worse than the last. The whole series is being reissued through Titan Books and has given me another chance to reacquaint myself with them. Times and attitudes have thankfully changed, but the books remain a deliciously guilty pleasure.
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The-First-Rumpole-Omnibus-9780140067682The First Rumpole Omnibus by John Mortimer
There are some characters destined never to be forgotten. Rumpole is one of them. Re-reading any of the stories from my well-thumbed paperback never fails to raise a smile. Read enough of these stories and after a while you come to realise they are all alike – gentle mockery of the British legal system, Rumpole getting the better of his snobbish colleagues but not She Who Must Be Obeyed, a genuine and enduring concern for the powerless, and a healthy suspicion of authority. They are so familiar to me by now it’s like spending time with an old friend. In my opinion the earlier collections are superior to later ones such as Rumpole Rests His Case.
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Black EchoThe Black Echo by Michael Connelly
The Black Echo is the first of the Harry Bosch books, about Connelly’s almost pathologically driven LA homicide detective, who is also a Vietnam War veteran. For me, reading this book marked the point for me when my interest in crime fiction got serious. Bosch, like many fictional detectives, is hostile to his bosses and resents their interference which is often political in nature. By writing a detective who isn’t another drunk or cynic, but more like a shark on LA’s freeways, relentlessly moving his case forward, Connelly brought something new to the genre. In his introduction to the 15th anniversary edition, James Lee Burke called the book “…a milestone that is much larger in importance than itself.” I think history will prove him right.
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FiringA Firing Offense by George Pelecanos
This I picked up during one of my trips down to London in Maxim Jakubowski’s now defunct Murder One book shop. A Firing Offense isn’t the first book Pelecanos wrote (that was Shoedog) but it was the first published in the UK, and the first of his Nick Stefanos trilogy. Stefanos is a second generation Greek American working as a salesman in Nutty Nathan’s electronics store. He’s also a part time private detective, marking time, content to do an easy job that doesn’t challenge him, and making enough money to get high after work and catch the shows on Washington’s nascent punk scene. The plot is pretty thin, but what sticks in the memory is Pelecanos’ portrayal of a talented young man in danger of squandering his future. The author has gone on to write a series of critically acclaimed thrillers with a marked concern for the way American society is changing, but his Stefanos books feel more personal to me. Though not as polished, they are actually some of his better books.
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UmbrellaUmbrella Man by Doug Swanson
Another book I picked up from Murder One, and maybe the best book Elmore Leonard never wrote. Jack Flippo is a washed up lawyer turned investigator, or as one character puts it ‘a shit-out-of-luck Holmes’. Swanson wrote four increasingly dark Flippo mysteries before disappearing from the crime fiction scene. This is the third in the series and centres around a conspiracy nut’s attempt to find a counterpart to the infamous Zapruder film, proof allegedly of a second gunman in Kennedy’s assassination. Full of memorable characters, hilarious dialogue, and a subtle sadness which creeps up on you when you’re not looking, this book should have been a bestseller.
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Last week, DispatchesFromNoir shared the five books that got him into crime fiction here. Join us next Friday for the last in our Hooked on Crime series – by CrimeFictionLover.

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