I got to spend a week in Exeter this summer, as the International Writer-in-Residence at the Quay Words literary festival.
Part of the deal was to give a talk on Icelandic crime writing and at the end of that talk (which I may post here later) I told the audience about the books that most influenced my own writing. Books that I’ve read over and over and I think are, actually, some of the best out there.
Here is that list.
1 – Silence of the Grave, Arnaldur Indriðason
This is my favorite of Arnaldur’s books. A body (well, skeleton) is found as the foundation for a new house is being dug. Detective Erlendur is put on the case and soon suspects the skeleton may be connected to a row of cherry trees near the construction work (cherry trees being very rare in Iceland).
We hear the story of the people who lived in a cabin near the trees around the time of the second world war, a family living in poverty under the thumb of an abusive father. There is the story of the cabin-owner’s pregnant fiance but more and more the focus is on the people who lived there, and a “crooked green woman” who sometimes could be seen among the trees.
It is a great example of Arnaldur’s writing and gives readers a look into Iceland’s history.
2 – Winter’s Bone, Daniel Woodrell
This is one of my favorite books.
Sixteen year old Bree Dolly’s father has jumped bail on his family and is missing, leaving Bree to take care of her younger siblings and their mentally ill mother.
Bree has to find her father and get him to appear in court or the police will seize their home as payment for the bond. That, or find proof that he is dead.
Bree goes through the seedy meth and opium riddled poor society in the U.S. Ozarks to find him. The prose is beautiful, Bree is an amazing character and the story is excellent.
This was made into a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence, and she was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Bree Dolly.
Daniel Woodrell writes great books, I recommend reading everything he’s written. Everything.
3 – Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris
This is simply the best thriller ever written.
FBI trainee Clarice Starling is tasked with interviewing serial killer and psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter in order to help track down another serial killer, Buffalo Bill. Clarice trades personal information with Lecter in order to get him to help and we hope the FBI catch Buffalo Bill, both before he kills the woman he is holding in his basement but also before Lecter corrupts Starling.
The basement scenes in Buffalo Bill’s home actually turn this thriller into a horror novel (yes, it is) in parts.
The prose, as I’ve written about before, is surprisingly good.
I’m sure you’ve seen the movie, and the book is just as good, though it offers quite a bit more insight into Lecter.
4 – FINCH, Jeff VanderMeer
This is added as a bonus, as it is really more of an urban fantasy than a noir crime novel. It is one of my favorite books but is perhaps a little too odd for most people.
The titular character, Finch, is a detective in the city of Ambergris which is under the control of the gray caps, a race of mushroom-like humanoids. The city is infested with fungus, whole buildings have been consumed and a number of humans are sick.
Finch gets tasked with solving the case of two bodies found in an abandoned apartment, seemingly dead from falling from a great height. The case quickly turns out to involve a rebellion of humans against the gray caps, something that Finch tries to hide from his gray-cap superior while still giving him enough to let him continue pursuing the case.
I recently made a point of highlighting the wonderful weirdness of the book.
Finch took his gun from its holster. Recoiled from the touch of the grip. “For Truff’s sake,” Finch said. Laid it on his desk with a squelch. The gun had been issued by the gray caps. Dark green exoskeleton, soft interior. Its guts stained his hand. Reloading didn’t seem like an option. It had been seeping a lot lately. “I wonder if it’s dying on me,” Finch said.Finch
But it is noir, and it is a crime novel for the most part. The weirdness is just extra.
5 – In the Woods, Tana French
The plot of the novel revolves around the murder of a twelve-year-old girl, Katy Devlin, whose case Dublin Homicide Detectives Rob and his partner Cassie Maddox are assigned to investigate.
The body is found in the same woods where Rob and his friends disappeared twenty years before (only Rob was found and has amnesia to this day). The body was found at an archaeological dig site; and the coincidence is enough to make Rob nervous, though he insists to his partner that he is fine.
The investigate the murder and we get a look into the male-female partnership and into the workings of an Irish police squad.
Have you read any of these?