Philip Rafferty: The five books that got me hooked on crime fiction

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I missed many years of mystery reading due to the faulty assumption that what I would encounter in crime fiction would be trite and less well-written than more serious literature. I wondered why anyone would read mysteries when they could read Proust, or James Joyce, or Tolstoy?

But when my wife shoved Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep into my hand and told me to put aside my ridiculous notions of what literature was, everything changed. I saw with Chandler, and in a subsequent long list of crime fiction books, the rich literature mysteries held within their pages.

Every story is at its core a detective story. We are always the detectives trying to piece together the world of any book we read. But with crime fiction, there are the added pieces of the mystery driving the narrative: a death, a crime, an ethical dilemma, or a pathology. These days, on the rare occasions when I do dip into a non-crime book, I find myself wondering when it’s going to get good in the way that only a truly great crime book does? The following are the five big ones for me. The books that broke me out of a way of thinking and introduced me to the wonderful world of crime fiction.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
The classic and unbeatable introduction to Philip Marlowe, the funny, smart, wandering, classic noir detective who is always ready with a one-liner better than any one-liner you’ve ever heard. Without this book, my foray into crime fiction would never have happened. Chandler shows us that crime fiction can be artful, funny, fun, and moving. The complexity, the double crossing, all of it is just unbeatable. For Chandler, the plot was less important than characterisation and atmosphere and this is completely apparent in this first book of the series. I feel like I have wandered down those “mean streets where a man must go” with Marlowe personally and am changed because of it.
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The Skating Rink by Roberto Bolano
The Chilean exile Roberto Bolano’s book is about a seaside town north of Barcelona. It is narrated by three different male narrators who are all interested and talk about a beautiful, local figuring skating champion named Nura Marti. When she is thrown off the Olympic team, a local government employee uses public funds to build a skating rink in an abandoned mansion for Nura to skate in. But life in the town grows more complicated, as Nura engages in affairs and, eventually, the rink becomes a crime scene.

Bolano lived and worked at a campground in a small town north of Barcelona just like where this book takes place. The fun is figuring out where the line between reality and fiction lies in this novel, and in all of Bolano’s work. A great introduction to an author who uses a mystery element in all of his fiction to write about poetry, exile, and Latin America.
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Knots and Crosses by Ian Rankin
Nothing excites me more than a long series. My eye is always on the prowl for a series. Rankin was always a writer to entice, mostly because a lot of his books were already available by the time he came onto my radar. I started at the beginning, and I am sure glad I did. Knots and Crosses doesn’t disappoint. Rebus is an iconic procedural detective: flawed, alcoholic, well-meaning, smart but grounded enough to have a pint with the guys at the Oxford Bar. The family drama in these books made them stand out, the way Rebus’ personal life was so intricately laced into his ethos, pathos, and logos makes this book and the others in the series well worth the now 22 novels.
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The Doomsters by Ross Macdonald
The king of California cool, the heir apparent to Chandler, and quite arguably the best crime fiction writer of the 20th century. The Doomsters was Macdonald’s turning point, where he left Chandler and Hammett in the dust and went his own way. Macdonald started to see a therapist during the time he was writing this book and the result is the first novel where he uses psychology as a driving force. He shows us in The Doomsters that he is more interested in understanding the pathology of the criminal even more so than catching him. The title to the book is a Thomas Hardy reference, we see the influence of Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby all over the Doomsters, and look out for maybe the best three last pages in a crime novel ever. Man, I am almost ready to re-read it again!
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The Deep Blue Goodbye by John D MacDonald
The first book in MacDonald’s Travis McGee series introduces us to the original ‘dude’ detective. His Fort Lauderdale houseboat lifestyle is evocative of the Big Lebowski, Carl Hiaasen novels, and a slew of other sleuths who are cool above all. The book puts McGee on the trail of a misplaced inheritance for Cathy Kerr, a down-to-earth backwoods woman. The defining characteristic that drives this book and makes it so enjoyable is how good McGee is. In the world of detective fiction, you are apt to come upon drunk detectives and a lot of broken men, but McGee shows us that you can be a good guy, mostly whole, and that that can be the driving force behind your work.
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Click here to find out what books got my fellow contributors on Crime Fiction Lover hooked on crime.

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