Vicki Weisfeld: The five books that got me hooked on crime fiction

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Today, our contributor Vicki Weisfeld tells us how she got hooked on crime fiction. You can read what our other contributors have said here.

Three big reasons account for my love of crime fiction: early exposure, constant reading, and better and better stories from the international crime- and thriller-writing elite. In the last decades, the genre has grown in terms of number and availability of authors and books, which has led to an exciting diversity in terms of settings (both time and place). The enduring appeal of these stories arises, I think, from the desire to understand what motivates people to violate the rules of society and whether society can heal itself afterward. Narrowing the crime hooks that grabbed me to five requires mention of the following.

secretofoldclock100The Secret of the Old Clock by Carolyn Keene
I must have been about eight when my mother bought me a copy of the Nancy Drew classic, The Secret of the Old Clock (1930), which involved theft, a missing will, illegal drinking, imprisonment and gunfire! We now know that the Nancy Drew books were written by whole gangs of authors, and if the mysteries were tame, they whetted an appetite for adventure. I read these books as originals – before they were rewritten to be more politically correct – under the covers by the bare bulb of my yellow duckie night light. It’s a miracle I didn’t set fire to the bedclothes.
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murderontheorientexpress100_vwMurder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
Subsequently, I read many of the classics, including much of the oeuvre of Dame Agatha. I enjoy a good puzzle, and with these books I could solve away without leaving my hammock. Of all her books, Murder on the Orient Express epitomises the dictum of ‘have lots of suspects!’ What I learned is the critical importance of small things, the lure of red herrings, and the essential importance of human nature in the ultimate solution to a crime. Nevertheless, I believe I have an unbroken record of not figuring out whodunnit.
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chinesebellmurders100The Chinese Bell Murders by Robert van Gulik
My next great crime-reading obsession began with the University of Chicago’s reprint of four of Robert van Gulik’s Judge Dee mysteries. Set in seventh century China and based on the real-life magistrate Dee Renjie, the U of C’s appendix describing how the books came about was almost as interesting as the stories. The first I read was The Chinese Bell Murders, and like the others, several plots are cleverly intertwined, and it’s instructive how he keeps that all going. For a time, I was undoubtedly a danger on the highways, because my body might be behind the wheel, but my mind was parked in the Tang Dynasty.
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Red Gold, Alan Furst, WWIIRed Gold by Alan Furst
An abiding interest in World War II history led to my fangirl admiration for Alan Furst’s wonderful books about the days leading up to World War II. I’ve read them all now and cannot say which one came first. Or Furst. But Red Gold is an excellent one. Like many Furst books, it’s about an ordinary, nonpolitical individual gradually drawn into more and more dangerous situations – in this instance, the missions he carries out in service to the French Resistance, where loyalties were fragile and retribution deadly. His characters know the Nazis are coming but think, “How bad can it be?” We know.
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In Cold Blood, Truman CapoteIn Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Finally, a crime story with significant impact on me was not a novel at all, but Truman Capote’s sort-of-true-crime story, In Cold Blood. Even his exhaustive examination and occasional tidying-up of details around this crime, the 1959 Kansas murders of the four members of the Clutter family, did not totally resolve the mystery of these events. Nor did it resolve whether the prosecution and execution of the perpetrators led to any semblance of justice or restoration of the social order. These are salient issues every time we pick up a newspaper, and we’re confronted with limited facts and strongly held opinions about crimes and criminals.
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