Paul Burke: The five books that got me hooked on crime fiction

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Nothing beats the thrill of a great mystery, which is why I came to crime fiction for the excitement of the genre as a teenager. It became more than that over time – I stayed for the love of a genre that is perceptive and insightful of life and society. In tough times the best and the worst of us comes out and it’s always fascinating to put yourself in the situation of a character and wonder how would I react?

It won’t surprise readers who follow my reviews that I like the dark side of crime – deeper, more intense fiction that reflects our broken world. But it’s still about entertainment and that is to be found on my list in abundance.

Thérèse Raquin by Émile Zola

Thérèse Raquin by Émile Zola front cover

Published back in 1868, this gripping novel opened my eyes to the depth a literary crime novel could excavate the soul. With Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Thérèse Raquin is a forerunner of the psychological thriller. It’s the tale of a long-suffering wife and her lover who murder the husband. They appear to have gotten away with it but rather than end their troubles it’s the beginning of a nightmare. They are afflicted with guilt, remorse, anger, suspicion and mistrust as the enormity of their act sinks in, the dead man haunts them. This inspired James M Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity and a wealth of films and novels ever since. The story is as old as the hills but it’s all in the way you tell it – a masterpiece.
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The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle front cover

My grandmother borrowed this collection from the library and I borrowed it from her. I fell in love with Sherlock Holmes and, of course, Irene Adler in A Scandal in Bohemia. Like millions before me and since I tried puzzling out The Red Headed League, The Five Orange Pips et al. Holmes is still the most intriguing of amateur detective creations along with his endearing sidekick, Dr Watson. They have been reinvented on the page and screen too many times to count. My personal favourites are Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce on film and Jeremy Brett/David Burke on TV.  Now I can see how some of the stories were reverse engineered, the solution first, clues followed but it doesn’t diminish their enjoyment. Who can resist the extraordinary powers of detection of the great detective?
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Smiley’s People by John le Carré

Smiley's People by John Le Carré front cover

For most of my late teens I was exclusively a spy fiction fan. It all began with George Smiley. It led me back to Tinker, Taylor, Soldier Spy and to Len Deighton, Charles McCarry and decades of future reading. This is the climax of the great battle between George Smiley and his Russian foe, Karla. Le Carré got a certain class of Englishman better than anyone else writing at the time; his novels are passionate, provocative and insightful. Smiley’s People is elegantly complex and every literary espionage author aspires to something of le Carré’s genius.
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Requiem for an Angel by Andrew Taylor

Requiem for an Angel by Andrew Taylor front cover

Better known now his 17th century historical series which opened with The Ashes of London, Taylor has always written original crime novels. Requiem for an Angel is a ground breaking trilogy that really reveals the possibilities of the crime novel. The first volume, Four Last Things, is set in the then contemporary 1990s and deals with the disappearance of a young girl and a grisly discovery in a church graveyard. We follow the progress of the investigation to its conclusion. Then the second novel goes back to the 1970s for the origins of the later crimes. The third is set in 1950s, it also throws light on what happens in the decades that follow. The present is always in thrall to the past, the trauma of crime haunting generations to come. Each novel layers a deeply intriguing and disturbing tale that grips like a vice. Everything you think you know is only scratching the surface until you reach the final pages. A staggeringly brilliant opus.
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The Laughing Policeman by Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall

The Laughing Policeman by Sjowall and Wahloo front cover

Contrary to popular opinion, Swedish crime fiction has its origins in the 1920s, it just wasn’t regularly translated until Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson came along. The real break through was the Martin Back series in the 1960s, adapted as a contemporary series on BBC4. The politically motivated writing duo Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall have influenced crime writing across the globe ever since. The Laughing Policema is the fourth book in the Martin Beck series. An apparently random mass killing on a night bus is deemed to be the work of a madman, only Beck and his team don’t believe that. The best detective in their division was on that bus and there has to be a reason for that. The why and the who are fascinating. The whole novel riffs on interpretations of the title, a 1920s music hall standard, then there’s a final reveal and you really get it. You can read our complete guide to the books here, and the TV series here.
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Find out which books got my colleagues on Crime Fiction Lover hooked on crime here.

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