NTN: The 12 debut novels that changed crime fiction

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NTN_2015_100We’ve looked at plenty of brand new crime novels and up-and-coming authors during New Talent November 2015, but now we’re going to look at some books that, when they were first written, sparked changes and new developments in the genre. The entire Crime Fiction Lover team have looked back and carefully chosen a set of 12 debut novels that really changed how crime stories were told, and have influenced characters, settings, plot structures – you name it – ever since. We hope you enjoy the ride as we count down the 12 debut novels that changed crime fiction…

nameoftherose20012 – The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
Il nome della rosa was printed in Italian in 1980, but first appeared in English three years later. Set in the 14th century, it sees Franciscan friar William of Baskerville visiting a Benedictine monastery in Northern Italy. When a monk commits suicide and there are further suspicious deaths, he’s tasked with investigating but each corpse sets new questions before him – all with the Inquisition as a backdrop. A literary masterpiece, the book is layered with references to sacred and philosophical texts, and semiotics forms the spine of the mystery. Dan Brown might have been cleared of plagiarising the Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, but he surely took an idea or two from The Name of the Rose, an altogether more baffling story than The Da Vinci Code. It was made into an atmospheric film in 1986, staring Sean Connery as William and Christian Slater as his novice sidekick.
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elizabethismissing20011 – Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey
Disability crime fiction? Geriatric noir? Do we have a new genre emerging, with Elizabeth is Missing at the spearhead alongside books like Norwegian by Night and the Bryant & May series? It could be. Released in 2014, is the most recent novel on our list and its narrator is Maud, who is unheroic, older, and slightly damaged. In fact, Maud suffers from dementia and while there aren’t many things she’s certain of, what she does know is that her friend Elizabeth is missing. This is paralleled by another story from deep within Maud’s remaining memory – that of her sister Sukey who disappeared just after World War II. Although the book was hailed as the crime fiction version of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, which featured a boy with autism, we still reckon Elizabeth is Missing brought together an original idea and brilliant execution. There will be plenty of imitators but few will best this fine novel.
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butchersboy20010 – The Butcher’s Boy by Thomas Perry
Witty, dark, complicated and perhaps the hidden gem on this list, if we’re allowed one. Published in 1982, it won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel the following year but it wasn’t before a decade has passed that Perry added to the series with Sleeping Dogs. He waited another 19 years before delivering The Informant in 2011. Michael Schaefer is the butcher’s boy of the title. Raised by Eddie ‘The Butcher’ he’s now a mob hitman and an actual butcher. Naturally, he’s a cold blooded killer, and naturally his bosses turn on him and pay the consequences as he begins terrorising the mafia. However, his activities attract the attention of Justice Department analyst Elizabeth Waring who works out that rather than a mafia war, what’s happening is a one-man murder spree. There’s a lot of hitman anti-hero crime around, but this is one of the best examples.
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facelesskillers2009 – Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell
This 1992 novel by Henning Mankell won the first ever Glass Key, which each year rewards the best crime book to be published in the Scandinavian countries. As well as introducing perhaps the best literary detective of the last 25 years, this shocking, violent novel explores issues of immigration in a changing Western society long before other writers – and it played a huge part in establishing the Nordic noir sub-genre. Wallander proves to be a morose, lonely Swedish detective but any ailment he seems to suffer is swept aside by his sense of justice. He’s loved because when he’s on a case nothing can distract him. After police find an old man dead in a Skåne farmhouse, and his wife utters the word ‘foreign’ before passing away, the information is leaked and leads to a series of racially motivated attacks that cloud matters for 42-year-old Wallander in his first police procedural. It has been filmed twice, with Rolf Lassgård (1994) and Kenneth Branagh (2010) playing Wallander.
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lastbustowoodstock2008 – Last Bus to Woodstock by Colin Dexter
The Morse TV series rewrote the code when it came to successful crime drama. The groundbreaking two-hour format proved to be a huge ratings success and we’ve recognised Inspector Morse as one of the best crime shows of all time. But it was the adaptations of the novels – not the later TV scripts – that you remember because Colin Dexter’s clever crime plots are so perfect for the Oxford setting and his irascible, intellectual detective. Yes, he’s the maverick copper, but that doesn’t mean he beats people up or doctors evidence. Like Holmes he is cleverer and more cultured than the villains and, indeed, his colleagues. And like Holmes he has a Watson-like companion in the form of Lewis. In his very first case, two women hitch lift in Oxford late one night, but one of them turns up raped and dead in a pub car park in Woodstock the next day.
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godfather3007 – The Godfather by Mario Puzo
Even though Mario Puzo himself admitted that parts of The Godfather were badly written, its impact on crime fiction and filmmaking cannot be denied. The story of the assassination attempt on Don Vito Corleone, the rise of his son Michael to lead the family, and Michael’s eventual ruthless mission for revenge, is memorable for so many reasons. One is the humanity with which the characters are portrayed. They’re mobsters and killers yes, but they are family men with their own code of honour. Then there’s the Italian vocabulary we learned – capo di tutti capi, cosa nostra, omertà and consiglieri, for instance. And who can forget lines like, “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse,” or images of a horse’s head in the bed? The book and films fuelled a decades-long obsession with Italian-American organised crime worldwide and certainly inspired films like Goodfellas, and the hit TV series The Sopranos.
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girlwiththedragontattoo2006 – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
While the Martin Beck and Wallander series certainly found their audiences, it was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that made Scandinavian crime fiction a global phenomenon. You will be hard pressed to find a crime author from Sweden, Norway, Denmark or Iceland who isn’t thankful for Stieg Larsson’s impact. Like his predecessors, Larsson successfully brought issues of social justice and corrupt institutions to the fore, but the pace of his storytelling, thunderous set-piece action scenes and strange, damaged, genius heroine gripped readers in a new way. He worked new technology into the plot in seamless and believable fashion. In the first book, Salander helps crusading, disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist take on a private investigation into what happened to Harriet Vanger, who went missing in 1966. We learn a little of how Salander has been abused but it’s really in the second and third novels that her own story comes into focus. Films in both Swedish and English. A new nomenclature for crime book titles, that start with ‘The Girl…’ Many, many imitators. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo remains a phenomenon more than a decade after its author’s passing.
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BlackEcho2005 – The Black Echo by Michael Connelly
First released in 1992, Michael Connelly’s award-winning debut novel also marked the first appearance of LAPD detective Hieronymus ‘Harry’ Bosch, and set the bar high for every crime author that followed. Many have tried to emulate the complex and unpredictable central character but few have succeeded. We are 20 novels in the Bosch series now and he remains a protagonist that never fails to surprise. The supporting characters may come and go but Bosch remains the linchpin, even though you’re never 100 per cent certain of what his next move will be. In this story, the body of a former army comrade is found in a drainage pipe off Mulholland Drive and first impressions are that it’s a simple drug overdose. But Harry isn’t convinced, and when he spots a fresh puncture wound among a web of old scars on the man, his instincts tell him to delve further. Driven, obsessive, unpredictable… Bosch is the archetypal detective of recent crime fiction. Amazon has made a TV series based on Connelly’s books, and a second season is in the offing.
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strangersonatrain200b4 – Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith
Patricia Highsmith’s 1950 debut immediately revealed her skills not only as a storyteller, but as one who could create complex and compromised characters and have them weave a web of psychological deception all by themselves, and then get caught in it. As the title suggests, two strangers meet on a train and agree to swap their problems – Charles Anthony Bruno will murder architect Guy Haines’ wife and in return Haines will eliminate Bruno’s father. One of them takes the scheme more seriously than the other and that’s when things really get sticky. Hitchcock immediately saw its potential and made a film based on the story the following year, and let’s not forget the 1987 parody remake Throw Momma From the Train with Billy Crystal and Danny DeVito. The serious Hitchcock version is now being reworked for the screen by David Fincher and Gillian Flynn, and countless crime authors today refer to Patricia Highsmith as an influence.
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CasinoRoyale2003 – Casino Royale by Ian Fleming
‘My name is Bond, James Bond.’ It’s one of the best-known and best-loved film lines ever and it’s estimated that a quarter of the people alive today have seen at least one Bond movie. Yet Casino Royale was written for a very different audience. It came out at a time when Britain, recovering from winning World War II, faced the new threat of the Cold War. Stories of defections and the arms race filled the newspapers, and conflicts between the communist and capitalist regimes were popping up around the globe. And as Britain’s international influence diminished, Bond perpetuated the idea that the UK was still a power via Flemings series of escapist espionage adventures. Casino Royale inspired a whole range of writers who created lone spy characters – William Garner, Alastair Maclean, Len Deighton, Frederick Forsyth and Ken Follett. Meanwhile, Le Carre responded by writing spy characters who were weak and insignificant, while the intelligence services became faceless behemoths. After more than years, Ian Fleming’s work is still an inspiration to writers and filmmakers, and it seems likely Spectre will be one of the top films of 2015.
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astudyinscarlet2002 – A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle
What a brilliant story this is. It sounds like it could be yesterday, but it’s 1886 and Dr Watson returns home from Afghanistan to convalesce at 221B Baker Street, the home of Sherlock Holmes. When a man is found dead in a grimy house nearby, the word rache written on the wall in blood, and a look of terror on his face but no bodily wounds, the pair form a detecting partnership with Holmes leading the way and using acute observation and deduction to solve mysteries. The partnership as a device – with Holmes explaining his conclusions to Watson throughout – was established by Conan Doyle and continues to be widely used in crime fiction. However, his greatest achievement is the creation of this enigmatic character who has been imitated, adapted, invoked, corrupted, deconstructed, recreated… you name it… countless times on the page, for radio, on television and on the big screen. And he’s still just as compelling as ever.
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thebigsleep2001 – The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
If Dashiell Hammett initiated the private eye genre with the stories he wrote for various pulp magazines, it was Raymond Chandler who refined it and, in his first novel, gave it true definition. His hardboiled detective Philip Marlowe, with his weary cynicism and rich vein in one liners, also had a moral core that saw him gravitate towards justice. The natural kind, if not the legal one. Marlowe’s facsimiles are still instantly recognisable in crime fiction and an entire genre – we could even say an industry – continues to thrive on the pulp noir vibe that Raymond Chandler pioneered. Published in 1946, made into a film in 1946 and again in 1978, The Big Sleep sees Marlowe summoned by an ageing general to deal with a blackmail threat made against one of the man’s daughters. Marlowe plunges into a confusing hunt involving a pornography ring, troubled relationships, revenge and… murder. All of this with 1930s LA as not just a backdrop, but a veritable character in the story. Between its covers, you’ll find 277 pages of crisp prose that changed crime fiction for good.
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What debut novel has made the biggest impact on you? Let us know in the comments below. And for more debuts, click here.

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