CIS: My classics by TJ Cooke

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TJ Cooke’s Defending Elton was the legal thriller that proved to be so much more than just a legal thriller. Not only is the main character a lawyer – someone who altruistically defends the helpless and hapless – he’s also a killer. The book’s so original, we had to know what TJ’s influences are, as an author, so we invited him to pick his five favourite classic crime novels. This is what he said…


The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (1955)
Highsmith’s narrative in this, and in Strangers On A Train, is essentially a study of good, evil and moral ambiguity. She wasn’t afraid to divert from the template and allow evil to triumph, which is something some writers of the genre would never dream of. It makes her work all the more fascinating and compelling. Woe betide the agent or publisher who passed on this saying ‘the public won’t empathise with Tom Ripley’. Such condescending nonsense has an all too familiar echo. Readers don’t necessarily want to empathise, they want to be entertained, and Highsmith keeps you turning the pages with vigour.
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The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1929)
The first thing that really hits you when you read Dashiell Hammett’s novel is that his dialogue is often spouted verbatim in the film version. That’s a tremendous tip of the hat to the author, as hardboiled dialogue can often be crass and on occasion turn characters into plot ciphers. Very much of its time, Hammett weaves a wonderfully intriguing web of suspense around the tiny statuette. Just in case you haven’t seen the film, do read the book first. I guarantee you’ll envisage Lorre, Greenstreet and all long before you see the movie.
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The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915)
None of the screen versions do justice to the jeopardy posed by the ‘secret state’ which author John Buchan teases out. It’s a surprisingly short read, but crammed full of twists and turns as his hero Hannay endeavours to solve the puzzle to prove his innocence. Hitchcock chose to add his own take with many staged ‘action’ scenes that aren’t in the book. In doing so he watered down the vital ingredient that makes this book such a great read – menace.
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LA Confidential by James Ellroy (1990)
Like all crime fiction classics a wonderfully engrossing plot knits it all together. It was hardly the first novel to expose the cancer of police corruption, but the narrative is so well constructed that it’s often a challenge to decipher who the goodies and baddies really are. That’s because Ellroy allows good folks to do bad things and vice versa. He does it better than any writer I know and shows that good cop/bad cop isn’t a device to prize out a confession, it’s a study of human nature. Atmospheric, tense, undoubtedly noir, and a classic crime fiction page-turner.
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Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg (1992)
Another fairly modern ‘classic’ but worthy of inclusion. It’s a stunningly original novel, unafraid to introduce a quirky and somewhat unorthodox protagonist. Her peculiar knowledge of all things frozen gives her the edge in uncovering a complex mystery. The story takes Smilla away from her ‘lonely city’ to the desolation of ice around Greenland. The plot is at times difficult to follow but here’s a writer who isn’t afraid to admit that intuition and coincidence do actually play a major part in detection. Possibly a ‘Marmite’ read, but if you get the taste from the start you’re in for a real treat.
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Join us again next week when Canadian author Cathy Ace covers her top classics.


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