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Mal McEwan: The five books that got me hooked on crime fiction

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I came late to crime fiction after many years of playing the field. My earliest childhood was filled with Famous Five, Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries but as I got older the crime dropped away and I dutifully read through classic and modern literary novels. And they bored me rigid. Coming back to crime fiction opened up fiction that is, by turns, literary and pulpy, but never lacking depth and social resonance. Choosing five books shows just how much I am pulled towards the hardboiled. These are the books that hook me; morally ambiguous, sometimes violent, and frequently blackly comic.

Quite Ugly One Morning by Chris Brookmyre
Jack Parlabane is an investigative journalist who is not averse to a little breaking and entering should the story he is chasing merit it. I read this as a medical student back in the 1990s when Brookmyre’s Edinburgh-based satirical crime thriller was first published. Lashings of social and political commentary alongside the blackest of humour make Brookmyre one of my long-standing favourites. And Brookmyre and Parlabane are still going strong. The titles are not quite so extravagantly titled and Brookmyre has toned down the polemic but they remain gems.
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The Godwulf Manuscript by Robert B Parker
There might be an argument that Spenser is just a straight pastiche of Chandler’s Marlowe but Parker inhabits the character and even years after it was written it still feels fresh. The dialogue and Spenser’s laconic commentary, at times laugh-out-loud funny, is one of the treats of this book. There might be better books in the series but the first is still the best place to jump into the world of Spenser. And there are another 40-odd books to savour after this one.
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Laidlaw by William McIllvaney
McIllvaney is often held up as the grandad of Tartan noir, a label that is perhaps just a little reductionist but is given as a high compliment. Glasgow detective Laidlaw has all the right qualities. He is flawed, fights with his superiors, but still holds himself to his own moral standards. We all know the archetype and the mean streets McIllvaney put him on were Glaswegian. As Chandler might put it, Laidlaw is “a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man”. It would almost be contrary to love Scottish crime fiction and not have a place in your heart for Laidlaw.
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Farewell My Lovely by Raymond Chandler
The best Chandler. Really. It all kicks off when Marlowe agrees to help after Moose Malloy, framed for armed robbery, who then kills a black man in a nightclub. Malloy wants his girl back and Marlowe takes up the search for Velma Valento. I can recall reading it as a teenager but it didn’t bite. Perhaps I simply wasn’t sufficiently world weary. Coming back to it in recent years and I wonder at the vacuity of my younger self. The dialogue sparkles and the originality of the turn of phrase lingers long in the memory. A classic for a reason.
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Total Chaos by Jean Claude Izzo
This is a book that cemented my love of crime fiction. Jean Claude Izzo died in 2000 but left behind a sublime crime trilogy set in Marseilles. Fabio Montale takes on the mafia when his best friends are murdered. It has been cited as the book that triggered Mediterranean noir. Importantly, this book also drew my eye to the sumptuous Europa Editions and their World Noir series. Massimo Carlotto, Mallock, and Georget amongst others are all waiting to be discovered. Crime fiction that spans the globe but with universal themes. How can you not be hooked?
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To see which books got my colleagues here on Crime Fiction Lover hooked on crime, click here.


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