Malcolm Mackay's top five crime novels

10 April 2015

By Pan Macmillan

Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson
One of the greatest challenges in crime fiction is making a ruthless psychopath likeable. Well, maybe not likeable. Intriguing is enough. Intriguing is as far as most of us hope to get. For Thompson, with the character of Nick Corey, he created a loveable, goofy, charming killer that you find yourself rooting for, right before you realise what he is and pull yourself back.

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett 
This book was first published in 1929. 1929! Remembering that fact is the one difficult thing about reading this book. It’s as fresh as it ever was, and sharp enough to cut most books that have followed to ribbons. A grubby little city held together by corruption and a lead character willing to blur the line between hero and villain to get the right result.

A Gun for Sale by Graham Greene
Brighton Rock would be the more obvious choice for a Greene crime novel, but while Pinkie was a magnificent creation, Raven should not be overlooked. A professional hitman. Scarred. Bitter. Lonely. As a study of a damaged, murderous mind it’s hard to beat as Raven flees the police, is tricked by a cop’s girlfriend and chases down the man who paid him to kill with fake banknotes.

Up at the Villa by William Somerset Maugham
May not technically be a crime novel, but the heart of the story is two people burying a body they don’t want the world to find, and I’m not putting together any book list without slipping a Maugham in there somewhere. A wealthy young Englishwoman in Italy, the suicide of a lover that could ruin her reputation, and the cad who rescues her. As with anything by Maugham, there are a thousand psychological things going on at once and characters that deserve a second and third reading.

Double Indemnity by James M. Cain
Short, fast and thrilling. A magnificent femme fatale in Phyllis Nirdlinger (maybe that was a sexy name for a femme fatale in 1936, who knows?) manipulating an insurance investigator to murder her husband. There aren’t many things that matter more than pace, and Cain was a man of exceptional speed. In an inferior writer’s hands, this book would be twice as long and half as good. A novel containing only what’s needed for brilliance.

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