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03.31.11

Five Literary Crime Novels

Crime writer Ian Rankin shares his five favorite literary crime novels, from James Hogg’s masterpiece to Ruth Rendell. Rankin’s new novel, The Complaints, is out now.

Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner
By James Hogg

This book has been haunting me since student days. It has been an influence on Scottish literature and certainly on my own Inspector Rebus stories. Set in pre-Enlightenment Scotland it concerns a young religious zealot called Robert Wringhim. Convinced by his preacher guardian that he is a member of “the elect,” Wringhim then meets a charismatic stranger by the name of Gil-Martin who convinces him that they should dispatch anyone who has strayed from the path of righteousness. But who is Gil-Martin really? Is he the Devil, or a figment of the anti-hero’s fevered imagination? Very little is what it seems in this complex novel. Nemesis seems to be coming in the shape of two unlikely female detectives, but the fates have other plans for Wringhim. A psychological horror story, this also works as a novel of stalking, grooming, and serial killing.

Bleak House
By Charles Dickens

Dickens spins a yarn crammed with mysteries, unexplained deaths, blackmail plots, and courtroom drama. There’s also plenty of satire and a serious exploration of the ties that bind us all together. The main mystery concerns the parentage of Esther Summerson. A lawyer called Tulkinghorn may hold the answers, but there’s also a landlord with the all-too-apt name of Krook, a mysterious tenant called Nemo, and the enigmatic Lady Dedlock. Spinning a web to trap all of them is the extraordinary figure of Inspector Bucket. Bucket owes something to a real-life French detective of the period, Vidocq. Vidocq was a master of disguise and intuition, a man who seemed to appear from nowhere and know everyone’s innermost secrets and desires. He is, then, the template for many fictional detectives to come.

The Driver’s Seat
By Muriel Spark

When I wrote my first Inspector Rebus novel, I was supposed to be studying towards a PhD in the novels of Muriel Spark. This incredibly slim, satisfying, and surreal slice of modern gothic is my favorite of hers. Lise is a woman from northern Europe, who decides on a holiday in the south. We first meet her as the assistant in a boutique tries (without success) to sell her a non-stain dress. Lise, it transpires, is a “victim” looking for someone to end her life. She wants the fleeting fame that comes with a shocking murder. On her travels, she hopes she will meet the right man. But is she then the victim, or is she in the driving seat? The clever, subversive Spark takes the reader down a gentle but inevitable slope towards hell. Is our fate pre-ordained? How much free will do we have? Like Graham Greene before her, Spark, a convert to Catholicism, wants her readers to ponder the big questions.

The Name of the Rose
By Umberto Eco

Eco’s brilliant deconstruction of the traditional crime novel wasn’t actually published in English until 1983 (in a superb translation by William Weaver), but literature students knew it was coming. Some of us wondered if the literary theorist’s first novel might turn out to be a bit dry, a bit too serious. We shouldn’t have worried. The Name of the Rose is a playful homage to Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe, Agatha Christie, and many others. It also manages to be an engrossing mystery in its own right and a fascinating historical re-enactment. The action takes place in a Benedictine monastery in northern Italy. The year is 1327 and a Franciscan friar by the name of William of Baskerville arrives with a young novice called Adso. They are there for spirited debate, but a series of gruesome murders takes place and William must use his intellect, learning, and intuition in order to solve the crime.

Live Flesh
By Ruth Rendell

In truth, I could have chosen any one of Ruth Rendell’s many novels, but this was the first I read. I had just left university and moved to London with the mad scheme of becoming a full-time novelist. Rendell remains the crime writer’s crime writer, never content merely to hoodwink the reader with red herrings. Often she dispenses with the “whodunit” element early on, because her real interest is in human motive and the aspects of society which make criminal behaviour possible (and sometimes inevitable). Live Flesh concerns an ex-con whose life seems to have been a series of accidents and wrong turns. Can he exert any control at all over events, or is each step of his journey pre-determined? It is a question many of the other writers in this list have wrestled with. The best crime writers have always explored not only our deepest natures but the nature of society itself. I think that’s why so many of us keep reading crime fiction.

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Ian Rankin is a #1 international bestselling author. Winner of an Edgar Award and the recipient of a Gold Dagger for fiction and the Chandler-Fulbright Award, he lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, with his wife and their two sons. His new novel featuring Detective Malcolm Fox, The Complaints, is now available. Follow him on Twitter.