Zac Colbert: the five books that got me hooked on crime fiction

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Stories save lives, I truly believe that. Being able to get lost in a world even if only for an hour, provides crucial respite from the harsh realities of real life. I discovered crime fiction in my mid-20s. After falling in love with the likes of Bret Easton Ellis and Hunter S Thompson when I was 21, I was ready for something more mature, something a little less obvious. I’m a British kid raised on American culture so it was no wonder I was soon sucked in by the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashielle Hammet. But it wasn’t until I discovered Elmore Leonard that I embarked on a relationship I’d die for.

freakydeaky200Freaky Deaky by Elmore Leonard
Not his best known by a long shot, but certainly one of the first Elmore Leonard books I absolutely adored. It was a blast to read, the fun but flawed characters that leapt off the page to punch you in the face or spit some slick dialogue into your mouth, the story that continually surprised you, seemingly without even trying. It was the beginning of my love affair with the Kingpin of Crime. Elmore Leonard is in a league of his own; witty, great pacing, characters you both love and hate, and straight up awesome stories that bedroom readers as much as Hollywood producers can’t get enough of.
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postmanalwaysThe Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain
His terse yet vulnerable writing style has been imitated but never bested, and his stories around femmes fatales and fallible men have given birth to some of the finest film noir ever made. The Postman Always Rings Twice was his debut novel, a tale of erotic obsession, a drifter’s desperation and pre-meditated murder. For me it was less about the story and more about the style, so spartan and coarse yet totally mesmerising, with characters you might not like but somehow cared for. Blending violence and sexuality in a fast-moving plot, this novella demands to be read in one sitting.
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redharvest100Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammet
When Hammet’s longest running character, the Continental Op, visits Personville – better known to the locals as Poisonville – his mark is murdered. But the Continental Op stays on to clean up the crime ridden town of its back stabbing gamblers, corrupt cops and risqué racketeers. The gritty and unforgiving protagonist is cool and calm even when every less than reputable character in Poisonville is closing in on him. The plotting isn’t a tight as The Maltese Falcon, but as hardboiled detective stories go, you don’t get much harder than this.
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the-big-nowhere-book-coverThe Big Nowhere by James Ellroy
The second book of his LA Quartet, for me The Big Nowhere finds the perfect level of Ellroy’s signature staccato style of prose. Unlike later works such as the Cold Six Thousand, which are so incredibly stripped back and declarative, in The Big Nowhere the machine gun sentences are short and to the point, but still retain some description and creative language. The twisting of two tales, one around a brutal sex murderer, the other hunting down Communists in Hollywood, hold all the hallmarks I love from the Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction – period-specific slang, police patois and densely complex plotting.
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TheKillerInsideMeThe Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson
After watching the eponymous 2010 film with Casey Affleck playing the psychotic Sheriff Lou Ford, I immediately sought out the source material and that’s how I discovered the genius of Jim Thompson. Sheriff Lou Ford plays the fool in small town Texas, but beneath this facade he is one depraved human being with some sick sexual tendencies. The subject matter is as rough and tough as old meat but Jim Thompson never flinches. His uncompromising brand of crime fiction lures you in with a tickle before grabbing you by the neck and forcing you to take a seat as Lou’s mask of sanity cracks and the murders pile up. As another Thompson, Hunter S, said, “Buy the ticket, take the ride.”
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To see what our other contributors chose as the books which got them hooked on crime, click here.

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