Kate Vane: The five books that got me hooked on crime fiction

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For a long time I thought that crime fiction was just about perplexing puzzles and contrived plot twists, perhaps due to gorging on Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie when I was a child. I was working in criminal justice and my fascination was character and motivation. Then I read an interview in a newspaper with James Ellroy and was intrigued. Here was an author immersed in the very questions I was asking! I had to explore, and from the on I was hooked…

The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy

This is the first book in Ellroy’s LA Quartet and perhaps the most famous, because he drew extensively on two true stories. The book is based on the unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short in Los Angeles in 1947 but his own mother was also murdered in a horrific case which has parallels with Short’s. Ellroy’s novels are dazzling and dark, full of violent, driven characters, with complex plots, inventive language and a fantastic sense of place and period.
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A Judgement in Stone by Ruth Rendell

Ruth Rendell’s characters often seem very ordinary, living in small-town Suffolk or London bedsits. She peels back the skin and shows you the darkness in us all. A Judgement in Stone is one of her standalone thrillers, and, unusually, gives us both murderer and motive in a striking first line. “Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.” The tension comes from understanding why an apparently kind and loving family met this fate at Eunice’s hand and how the case is solved.
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On Beulah Height by Reginald Hill

The Dalziel and Pascoe novels are set in the fictional Mid Yorkshire but brilliantly capture the atmosphere and landscape of the real Yorkshire. In On Beulah Height, the village of Dendale was flooded 15 years earlier to make a reservoir. In a drought year the reservoir is receding and the ruins are reappearing, awakening memories of a terrible unsolved crime. Then a girl goes missing. There is a haunting sense of loss in this book, not only of people but of home and identity. Dalziel and Pascoe also grow with each book in this series, transcending the original premise of blunt old timer and eager young graduate.
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The Flanders Panel by Arturo Perez-Reverte

Over the years I have travelled the world in crime fiction, but this is the first translation I remember reading. Arturo Perez-Reverte’s novels have quite a literary feel to them, while at the same time enlisting the puzzles and devices of classic crime. In The Flanders Panel an art restorer in Madrid believes she has found the clue to a murder in a 15th century painting. Her research into events during the Renaissance leads her into a world of betrayal and murder in the present day. This translation by Margaret Jull Costa is rich in details about art, chess and history while having a plot that rattles along.
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A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss

David Liss was my first foray into historical crime fiction, bringing to vibrant life such apparently abstruse issues as the origins of the joint stock company and political corruption in 18th century London. His protagonist is the vivid and engaging character of Benjamin Weaver, thief-taker, pugilist, and estranged son of Jewish immigrants. In A Conspiracy of Paper, a mystery involving his own father leads Weaver into the coffee houses and gambling dens of stockjobbers and speculators at the height of the South Sea Bubble. There is humour, adventure, deception and disguise but there is also a strong sense of the injustices Weaver sees and experiences.
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Find out which books got the rest of our team members hooked on crime here.

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