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The 10 best crime novels of the past decade: Let the fun begin!

February 23, 2010

David Peace

A couple of “crime fiction experts” have chosen the top 10 crime novels for the decade over at the London Times. I hope it proves provoking to those more knowledgeable about the genre. For me it’s merely expanded the scope of titles on my personal so-many-books-so-little-time compilation. Take David Peace, for example, a writer I’d never even heard of until two weeks ago.

And right there he is, atop the list compiled by critic/scholar Barry Forshaw and novelist Laura Wilson, with his novel Nineteen Seventy-Seven selected as the best crime novel for the year 2000. Peace is the author of nine well-reviewed novels since 1999, when his first, Nineteen Seventy-Four, came out–all of which managed to elude my attention, and I read books for a living.

Peace is finding a small sunny spot in the dappled forest floor of the American media landscape, thanks to a British TV adaptation of his “Red Riding Quartet” of novels that’s being released here as three feature films, available in theaters and On Demand at IFC.

I’ve read several rave reviews lately, my interest piqued because they all made the series adapted from Peace’s books sound like a U.K. analogue to the late HBO show, The Wire — a dramatic study in crime and corruption in a major, second-class city. Finally, I watched the first of the films, Nineteen Seventy-Four, on the telly the other night.

Gotta say, it’s a really good movie, but so bleak it’ll have you thinking there is no God, but the Devil surely exists. And no, it’s no match for The Wire. It’s humorless, for one thing (though I’ll admit it may have had some Brit humor that went over —or under –my head), and it doesn’t have the scope, for another.

The entire story is presented from the point of view of a hip young crime reporter, Edward Dunford, whose investigation into a series of missing children slowly uncovers a rot of corruption extending from the police to top businessmen to the managers of the newspaper.

My only specific criticism (apart from wanting to kill myself afterward) is a technical newspapery thing: The film follows Dunford for weeks, and yet we never seem him write a single story. Or even sit down at a typewriter. Believe me, in the real world, he would have been fired for nonproduction long before he reached the rancid bottom of the Yorkshire barrel.

Of course, that’s no comment whatsoever upon Peace and his book, which I hope to read one of these happy days. But I thought I’d get my two-cents in on the movie.

Here’s the rest of the Forshaw/Wilson list (and you should visit it yourself; the honorable mentions are fascinating, too):

2001: Mystic River, by Dennis Lehane; 2002: Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters (a crime novel shortlisted for the Booker Prize); 2003: The American Boy, by Andrew Taylor; 2004: The Power of the Dog,  by Don Winslow; 2005: No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy; 2006: The Broken Shore, by Peter Temple; 2007: Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand, by Fred Vargas; 2008: Blood From Stone, by Frances Fyfield; 2009: Hypothermia, by Arnaldur Indridason.

Okay, I loathe No Country for Old Men (you can read why here) and think McCarthy one of the most overrated writers in the history of, I don’t know, writing. But I can appreciate how it might appeal to some people, even if they ought to know better.

The books on that list that most whet my appetite are Fingersmith, a lesbian novel set among the pickpockets of Victorian London; The American Boy, a Regency London criminal underworld seen through the eyes of Edgar Allan Poe as a child; Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand, if only for its great, great title; and The Power of the Dog, a sweeping California noir.

While I’m settling down to my reading assignments, I hope some of you can write in with verdicts on the Times‘ best crime novel list — the books that made it, and the ones that didn’t.  Surely some Michael Connelly, Laura Lippman or James Ellroy partisans will write to protest…

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. rachel permalink
    February 23, 2010 1:43 pm

    Sounds interesting, but I think that the whole wanting to kill yourself afterwards deters me a little bit. I’ve watched stuff like that before and it has very little reward. The thing that is so brilliant about “The Wire” is that it is realistic enough to be incredibly depressing, but as you noted Chauncey Mabe it is still humorous and that saves it and makes it one of the best shows ever, maybe the best show ever, rather than being unwatchable.

    Okay,I’ve never read “Mystic River” but I was very much not a fan of the movie. I haven’t read any of the others on the list either. What about, as we’ve mentioned on this blog a number of times, “The City & The City?” Now I have to say that I don’t read much crime fiction, but “The City & The City” is one of the best books that I have read, ever. So certainly it qualifies no?

    I also like “The Good Thief” by Hannah Tinti pretty well.

    • Tommy permalink
      February 23, 2010 2:18 pm

      I really enjoyed “The Wire” also. At least the first two seasons. You know before McNulty got sober and was pretty much neutered. Then sadly the fourth and final seasons lost some of their believability due to the outrageous plots.

      Omar Little should have his own show. Omar was one of the most original character I can remember. Or the young boxer who took his place. Those I would watch.

      • rachel permalink
        February 23, 2010 3:27 pm

        I think it was solid all throughout the series.

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        February 23, 2010 4:08 pm

        Tommy, I don’t know what show you were watching, but it wasn’t the Wire. The Wire never had an outrageous plot. Explain yourself, sir.

      • Tommy permalink
        February 23, 2010 8:23 pm

        I thought Hamsterdam, McNulty’s invention of the Red ribbon killer, Bunk’s choice to risk jail time and his job to cover that lie up all over the top. (I know over the top when I see it, my favorite show has smoke monsters and parallel universes) The relationship between Freamon and the young woman was a stretch. Omar leaps off a five story building and only suffers a broken leg?
        Between the second and third season the show lost something. What? I don’t know. Probably just a natural progression that the stories would get bigger, it just seemed unwieldy after season two.
        I know I am talking to the wall here because you both believe this is the greatest show ever.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    February 23, 2010 1:59 pm

    I’m quite fond of The Good Thief, too. And while I named The City & The City the best novel of 2009, I think most people are choosing to think of it as a fantasy, not a crime novel, though it certainly qualifies as both or either. I’ve never read Mystic River, nor seen the movie made from it, primarily because it’s about the murder of a 19-year-old girl and my three daughters were all in that age range when the movie came out.

    • rachel permalink
      February 23, 2010 3:26 pm

      I think it is definitely crime fiction. Fantasy or not, crime fiction first. It is a detective story.

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        February 23, 2010 4:10 pm

        Yes, and not only is it crime fiction, it is much better than average crime fiction, with a mystery that holds up all the way through to resolution. And that’s not even to mention the incredibly brilliant fantasy stuff woven seamlessly throughout.

  3. Tommy permalink
    February 23, 2010 2:04 pm

    I really wish I had read Forsaw and Wilson’s pick for 2006 The Broken Shore by Peter Temple so that I could argue Joe Meno’s The Boy Detective Fails is better. I am surprised Meno did not get an honorable mention for 2006 since the list makers claim to have highlighted books that were innovative and individual as opposed to generic. The Boy Detective Fails is certainly a unique crime novel.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 23, 2010 4:11 pm

      I do not know The Boy Detective Fails, but I’ll have to keep an eye out for it.

  4. Candice permalink
    February 23, 2010 3:38 pm

    You’ve hit upon a genre, Chauncey Mabe, that I read very little of. Don’t know why really. I shall have to rehabilitate on that. I’m sure I am missing some good novels.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 23, 2010 4:12 pm

      I don’t read much crime fiction either, which is why I defer to the London Times for this list. But if I’d put together such a list, it would have Dave Seltzerman’s Pariah on it. Also Richard Price’s Lush Life. And Colin Harrison’s The Havana Room.

  5. John Karwacki permalink
    February 23, 2010 10:12 pm

    Loved crime fiction early in my reading career – Chandler, McBain, John MacDonald, James Ellroy, Robert Crais, Carl Haisen, Elmore Leonard, ad nauseum. Ever read George Chesbro, I loved Mongo like a brother. But in the last decade, I don’t know. Maybe a James Lee Burke novel, though Dave Robicheaux’s rage scares me in its familiarity. Maybe a Patricia Cornwell Scarpetta novel. Or a Walter Mosley Easy Rawlin’s tale. It all seems so sad and juvenile, to play on fear and a reader’s worst voyeuristic tendencies, like CSI and all these cut ‘em up television programs. Wah, now I sound like a curmudgeon. I am going back to Conde’s “The Story Of the Cannibal Woman”, thanks for the tip, Chauncey.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 24, 2010 12:08 am

      No one is obligated to read crime fiction, or indeed any genre. But it is useful to remember that good work appears in every category, and even the most literary of novels and stories can have elements of the genre. What is Crime and Punishment, if not a crime novel, or Benjamin Button, if not sci-fi? Oh, and you’re welcome for the recommendation on Cannibal Woman–which, don’t you agree, is a bit of a murder mystery?

      But for all the snark of this reply, I’m not a big fan of crime fiction, either. I drift into and out of it.

  6. April 19, 2010 12:44 pm

    I hope you’ll forgive me for intruding on this conversation a couple of months after the fact. As a fan of Joe Meno’s work I stumbled across this post after searching for something related to his work.

    I’d like to briefly say two things from two perspectives: a native of Baltimore and a long time crime fiction reader.

    First, while I would agree that that the red ribbon serial killer plot in S5 of The Wire was just down right absurd (as was much of of S5) at least two of the things that you point out are either real events or rooted in something real. The idea of Hamsterdam was rooted in

    Hamsterdam was an extrapolated idea rooted in Baltimore’s Mayor Kurt Schmoke who was a staunch advocate of the legalization of drugs and was once called the most dangerous man in America. When he considered drug abuse a public health issue rather then a criminal one he was quite ahead of the curve.

    When Omar jumped out of the building and survived – Omar was a composite character of a couple of stick up men that David Simon had met over the years. Chief among them was a guy named Donnie Andrews. Donnie Andrews was in The Wire, he was the guy who went into the building with Omar and he also was an associate of Butchie’s (not the first such meta moment in The Wire). Donnie Andrews in real life, jumped out of a building and lived.

    Realated to this — I think anyway. Years ago I read an Amazon review of the first season of The Wire that was heavily critical of the fact that the police were using typewriters. “A modern police department would NEVER use typewriter. They would have computers.” Of cource this person failed to grasp just how broke the city is.

    Anyway, I digress.

    Second, the crime fiction community hasn’t really embraced the China Mieville book. One of the reasons the crime fiction community hasn’t really embraced The City and The City, as opposed to other books released last year like Finch and Sandman Slim, is that from our perspective the book sorely lacks in the crime department. It’s clearly a secondary world fantasy first and a crime novel maybe a distant third. Which isn’t to suggest that its a bad book. No at all. In fact its a very interesting book that succeeds on quite a few levels. But as a crime novel? Nope.

    One of the things that I find interesting is the reaction that readers who don’t read a lot of crime fiction (or any at all) feel that The City and the City succeeds in the crime department. There is an interesting…I don’t know, is disconnect the right word…that could be worth exploring.

    Any way, thanks for hearing me out.

    • Tommy Smart permalink
      April 19, 2010 1:29 pm

      Hey Joe,
      No worries about joining in late. Hamsterdam may have been a vague idea in one mayors mind (Schmoke?, really? that’s fitting) but has a police force ever openly or even secretly allocated a portion of it’s city to drug users/vendors? Sounds all so T.V. to me, which is fine, I just take issue when folks tout this program as ultra-realistic. And yeah you can survive a five story fall, but would you only suffer a broken leg, escape and continue to murder other drug dealers?

      I still have not read Mieville’s The City and The City, so I won’t comment on that. Do you like crime-fiction? If so, have you read any of Henning Mankell’s books? In my opinion he puts this Stieg Larsson to shame.

      • M. King permalink
        January 16, 2011 4:05 pm

        I finished Mankell’s Kurt Wallender series last month (except, of course, the last one which is coming out in English in March) and I can’t say enough about his writing style: spare and tight and utterly engrossing. He’s set a high level of expectation and I’m finding it hard to find other books that give me the same satisfaction. I’ll look into some of these other suggestions. Others high on my list of favorites:Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole series, (another Swedish crime novelist) and Olen Steinhauer’s The Tourist and Nearest Exit.

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