CIS: 10 literary classics that are also crime stories

•button-150x150Here at Crime Fiction Lover we don’t care about genre labels as long as a book is well-written, suspenseful and contains a few dead bodies. Other readers seem to feel the same way and crime fiction still sells by the bucketload. Recent reports suggest that His Bloody Project, the most ‘crimey’ book on this year’s Man Booker shortlist, is doing far better than its rivals in terms of sales.

In the past Stav Sherez has paid us a visit to talk about about crime novels in disguise, and Eva Dolan has shared some of her favourite literary crime novels. In fact, one could go as far as saying that many of the best-loved works of literary fiction have a mystery and a murder or two at their very core. What’s more, they infiltrate virtually every subgenre of crime fiction. Don’t believe me? Have a look at the following works of literature that are also full of crime and mystery…

Domestic noir

oedipusrexOedipus Rex by Sophocles
Welcome to the most dysfunctional family in history, which has given rise to a psychological complex known all over the world. The Greek prince Oedipus unwittingly fulfils the prophecy of the gods, kills his father and marries his mother. Most of the play is concerned with his effort to find the murderer of the king, unaware that he is the one to blame. A powerful meditation on fate, free will and pride, it also points out the devastating consequences of asking too many questions and finding out a truth that no-one can handle.
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womaninwhiteThe Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
We recently revisited the classic The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins, which is the earliest novel to feature many of the tropes which became essential for crime fiction, but The Woman in White is the prototype for bad marriages and scheming husbands everywhere. Multiple narrative strands, complex plot twists and a rising sense of Gothic horror keep this novel of inheritance and sexual inequality ever-fresh and popular.
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rebeccaRebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Another story of a bad marriage and its fatal consequences, featuring a rather naive and not entirely reliable narrator who plays amateur detective. Obsessed with the beauty and glamour of her husband’s first wife, who died in a boating accident, she becomes convinced that her husband is unable to forget the past and to love her fully. She is hindered rather than helped in her detecting work by the sinister housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, one of the most memorable creations in literature.
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Political thriller

aloneinberlin300Alone in Berlin (or Every Man Dies Alone) by Hans Fallada
Based on a real-life case of private resistance to the Nazis, Fallada describes a simple working class couple, Otto and Anna Quangel, whose only son died on the Western front. They decide to write and distribute postcards reviling Hitler and encouraging Germans to think for themselves. Gestapo inspector Escherich is under pressure to find the perpetrators quickly, but what follows is very dangerous game of cat-and-mouse, involving neighbours both good and evil. The book superbly conveys the all-encompassing atmosphere of fear and cowardice, disillusionment but also desperate bravery of the times.
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deathintheandesDeath in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa
This is the 2010 Nobel Prize winner’s second novel follows the classical murder mystery format… and then completely subverts it. It follows Corporal Lituma from Who Killed Palomino Molero, who has been punished by a transfer to a remote rural community in the Andes. When three local men disappear from the village, he has to find out if the perpetrators are the Shining Path guerrillas or something even more sinister. Using elements of magical realism and Peruvian folklore, Llosa creates not only a compelling and disturbing page-turner, but also asks questions about the violence that lies at the heart of his country.
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Psychological thriller

tell-taleheartThe Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe
In this iconic short story, the author captures the state of mind of an increasingly nervous murderer. We have little insight into the background of the narrator and his victim, but in just a few pages we witness his attempts to justify himself by providing an extremely detailed description of what was supposed to be the perfect murder. Although he initially gets away with hiding the body, in the end his own feelings of guilt get the better of him.
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crimeandpunishmentCrime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
I’ve often wondered if Dostoevsky had read Poe’s story and been influenced by it, as this novel about the murder of an elderly pawnbroker in St Petersburg and the self-justification of the murderer, impoverished student Raskolnikov, bears many similarities to the story above. Although Inspector Porfiry deliberately tries to entrap Raskolnikov into confessing the crime, the real punishment comes from the guilt that the perpetrator can no longer bear.
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Serial killer

perfume300Perfume by Patrick Suskind
Before we had yuppie Patrick Bateman giving in to his sadistic urges in American Psycho, there was French perfumer Jean-Baptiste Grenouille with his uncanny sense of smell and obsession with the scent of young girls. In an effort to preserve that rare and exquisite perfume and in an attempt to recreate it in-house, he sets off on a killing spree. Grenouille – his name means ‘frog’ and he is unwanted and despised by all around him until near the end – is one of the most sinister and pitiful killers of all times and his end is richly ironic.
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Quirky investigator

nameoftheroseThe Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
The pragmatic and logical Franciscan friar William of Baskerville (a nod to Sherlock Holmes there) is visiting a Benedictine monastery in Northern Italy in 1327, where a strange suicide occurs. As other monks die in mysterious circumstances, he and his disciple Adso of Melk get caught up in an atmosphere of conspiracy, involving secret manuscripts in a labyrinthine library, against a background of the Inquisition. The ending is very ambiguous and although is often heralded as a postmodern novel, it is an exciting investigation nevertheless, with a charismatic amateur detective.
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Espionage

ashendenAshenden by Somerset Maugham
Based on his own experiences of working as a secret agent during World War I, Maugham published a series of loosely connected short stories featuring the spy Ashenden. Unlike the flamboyant Bond of later years, Ashenden is less overtly heroic and more cerebral, a bon viveur writer turned spy, a predecessor to John Le Carre’s spies with their moral dilemmas and quiet tragedies. Ashenden is a flawed character, constantly questioning himself and his actions, and therefore probably the wrong person for the job. Hitchcock based his 1936 film Secret Agent loosely on two of the Ashenden stories.
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For more classics published by Bloomsbury Reader, click here and here. The publisher is sponsoring Classics in September all month here on Crime Fiction Lover.

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