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Books: Five Best Crime Novels

I read a lot of crime fiction in between the more respectable books – sort of a guilty pleasure I don’t feel guilty about.

I’m not talking Agatha Christie whodunits or cozy mysteries with knitting themes. I like the sort of gritty crime noir that mid-century masters, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Patricia Highsmith set the bar for, but that has been pushed to a whole new, darker level by great contemporary authors.

This is a list of my personal, all-time "Top Five" favorite crime novels – in no particular order. With the loose exception of the James Crumley, all of these novels are one entry in a larger series, some small and completed, others large and ongoing. Several of these books I have read more than once – something I rarely do because of time. But I consider these classics, and well worth multiple readings.

"The Guards" by Ken Bruen (2003, US)

Jack Taylor was removed from the Galway police force (the “Guards”) when, while drunk on the job, he punched out a corrupt local politician at a traffic stop.

Now, between rounds at the pub, he works as what he dubs a “finder," since he believes that his Irish brethren could never abide the likes of a “private investigator” – too intrusive. Jack’s path through life is constantly inundated with endless pints of stout, lines of cocaine, multi-colored pills, tall Jameson’s, and punches to the face – all made that much more intense by Bruen’s sharp, staccato style of prose blasting off the page with a thick, cynical Galwegian accent.

The Guards is the first of the Jack Taylor novels – an ongoing series – and is perhaps the best of the bunch. These are not just mere “detective” novels, (Bruen has called Jack “the worst detective in the world”) they’re a microcosm of the dark fringes of Irish society, filled with pain, rage, riotous humor, and evocative, original prose.

"Instruments of Darkness" by Robert Wilson (1995)

Wilson has achieved some degree of commercial success in recent years with a series of novels set in Seville, Spain, but those lack the humor and the punch of his early West African quartet of novels.

British ex-pat, Bruce Medway works as a “fixer,” (as he puts it) arranging and liaising between various nefarious parties in Cotonou, Benin – taking cash for services rendered. Benin is the heart of darkest Africa – hot, humid, corrupt, and violent on a primeval scale.

Bruce usually gets himself into some pretty tight scrapes, exposing the seedy underbelly of an already seedy society in Benin. But Wilson writes with enough humor to keep the devil at bay – something he's never been able to achieve in his later novels.

The quartet of Medway novels really could be read as one long piece, as the plots within each blend and merge, progressing over the course of one year. (They are "Instruments of Darkness," "The Big Killing," "Blood Is Dirt," and "A Darkening Stain.")

"The Last Good Kiss" by James Crumley (1978)

Probably the best opening sentence I've ever read to start a crime novel: “When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.”

How could you not keep reading after that? Crusty private detective C.W. Sughrue is a cynical, violent man who often drinks and fights to terrifying excess, yet there is something redemptive in his character that draws in this reader.

"The Marseilles Trilogy" by Jean Claude Izzo (2005 US): "Total Chaos," "Chourmo," and "Solea."

The first of this trilogy was published to great acclaim in France in 1995 and translated into English ten years later, just after the author’s death.

Frenchman Fabio Montale is the king of the self-loathing detectives – if such a title exists. Although he spends a lot of time waxing philosophical and drinking scotch alone in his rowboat, he’s tremendously protective of those he loves.

These books are perfect examples of the difference between “crime novels” and “mystery novels” – there’s no mystery or case-solving within, just crime and its fallout. I have never felt tension ratcheting up in a novel like I did at the end of "Solea" (book 3) and it’s rare that I genuinely have absolutely no idea what a main character’s fate will be.

"The Neon Rain" by James Lee Burke (1987)

Burke has written 18 subsequent novels about Southern Louisiana cop Dave Robicheaux since "The Neon Rain" was first published in 1987. The rest of the series (especially some recent volumes, like the harrowing "Swan Peak" and the sobering post-Katrina "Tin Roof Blowdown") are far better works than this, but "Neon Rain" is the first and is really the only place to start.

Burke’s descriptions of the cooling rains on tin rooftops, paper plates filled with spicy boudin, the beaded sweat on bottles of Dixie beer and the peaty smell of the Mississippi River helped steer me towards making my home in “The City That Care Forgot.” I drop everything when the new JLB novel arrives – something I cannot say about any other author.

Others I couldn't leave off the list: Olen Steinhauer’s "The Bridge of Sighs," "Bangkok 8" by John Burdett, "Lie in the Dark" by Dan Fesperman, "Citizen Vince" by Jess Walter, and Philip Kerr’s "Berlin Noir."

Seth Marko is a bookseller at Warwick's bookstore in La Jolla and author of the blog The Book Catapult. Marko is grudgingly reading a chapter a day of James Patterson's recent novel and blogging about it at The Book Catapult.

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