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Building a respectable collection of mystery and detective fiction is rather like assembling a galaxy. You start with a strong center of older stars. Gathered tightly around those should be representatives from generations of younger leading lights, each of whom hopes someday to outshine their rivals and precursors in the firmament. And beyond them lie newer stars, all currently hot but still anxious about attracting followers with the gravity of their literary brilliance.

Even for crime fiction enthusiasts, getting the mix of styles and authors right is a challenge, if a gratifying one. But how can somebody new to mysteries hope to select the right books for a fan during this holiday gifting season, or for any other special occasion? It helps to have guides who are practiced in distinguishing books destined to win permanent places in the genre's orbit from others more likely to wind up in the black hole of temporal trash that every belletristic category claims.

While there's no unimpeachable list of must-haves for a crime fiction library, the following books would certainly be among the top choices. Most are still in print, though a few (identified here with asterisks) might be harder to find. If the fans on your gift list are missing any of these titles, now is your opportunity to expand their universe.

At the Core
Mystery fiction dates back at least to the 19th century. It was then that Edgar Allan Poe created the school's foundations in The Murders in the Rue Morgue, Wilkie Collins explored Gothic sensationalism in The Moonstone and The Woman in White, and Arthur Conan Doyle spun out intriguing tales featuring a British consulting detective with a cocaine jones named Sherlock Holmes.

But by the early 20th century, this genre was threatening to settle into a self-satisfied middle age. Agatha Christie and her prolific contemporaries churned out shelves full of country house puzzlers peopled with Oxford dons, threadbare aristocrats, gloomy butlers, and bluff, ruddy constables. Long on intricate problems in deduction and logic, most of these books offered little in the way of character development and barely acknowledged any social or familial aspects of the crimes so central to their plots. Only a few writers of "cozies" managed to transcend the style, as Josephine Tey did with her historical mystery The Daughter of Time (1951). Even Christie proved her innovativeness with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), a story that delighted readers but shocked critics, who accused her of playing fast and loose with literary conventions.

At the same time, in the United States a potent antidote to the antimacassar-and-old-port school of crime fiction was brewing. Black Mask, an American "pulp" magazine, was founded in 1920 by H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan. Rather than confine its fictional ferocities to European train trips and labyrinthine coastal estates, Black Mask dumped murder right back into the urban alleyways and raucous waterfronts where it had always been most familiar. Many of that publication's "hardboiled" yarns were written in a venal, blunt-instrument style that quickly wore out its welcome. However, Black Mask did launch the writing careers of Dashiell Hammett, a former Pinkerton detective, and Raymond Chandler, who had been an oil company honcho in Los Angeles before he was fired for drinking and dereliction of work. Both men ultimately made great contributions to the detective story. Hammett, because he could impart to his fiction a grim verisimilitude; and Chandler, for he gave the school some literary sophistication. Authors ever since have sought to emulate these masters of the medium, with varying degrees of success.

While the preponderance of great mystery writers are from England and America, no list of vintage detective fiction would be complete without the works of Australian writer Arthur Upfield, who chronicled the adventures of half-Aborigine police detective Napoleon Bonaparte, or the prolific French writer, Georges Simenon, creator of the formidable Inspector Jules Maigret.

Before anybody can truly boast of depth in their crime-fiction collection, they must have on their shelves the following classic authors and works:

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Even after most of a century, this Holmes outing -- which combines the foggy English moors with an elusive "devil dog" -- is still one of the foremost, edge-of-the-seat mysteries available.

The Maltese Falcon (1930), by Dashiell Hammett. Surprisingly, considering how well known his name is, this is the only novel that features shifty, wise-cracking San Francisco private eye Sam Spade (though he did star in four subsequent short stories). The Humphrey Bogart/Sydney Greenstreet film adaptation of Falcon is terrific, but nothing beats reading Hammett's original tale about how Spade gets involved with a den of deceivers and killers on the quest for a jewel-studded statuette.

Farewell, My Lovely (1940) and The Long Goodbye (1953), by Raymond Chandler. The former has all the ingredients of a familiar American gumshoe tale: nefariousness among the wealthy, arrogant criminals, and a femme fatale worth ditching one's virtue for. In the latter novel, Chandler ranges well beyond his form's standards, allowing Los Angeles private eye Philip Marlowe more vulnerability than he had previously displayed.

Too Many Cooks (1938), by Rex Stout. Books chronicling the armchair adventures of gourmandizing New York detective Nero Wolfe and his tough-talking colleague Archie Goodwin fall squarely between cozy and hardboiled. The de rigueur gathering of suspects in Wolfe's office at the end of each story has all the artifice of an English country house tale, but Wolfe's cold view of the world -- and the complex motives behind the distinctly urban crimes in his stories -- would give Miss Marple the vapors.

The Galton Case (1959) and Sleeping Beauty (1973), by Ross Macdonald. Until his death in 1983, Macdonald (aka Kenneth Millar) had been the foremost successor to Hammett and Chandler. His early books, showcasing an empathic southern California detective named Lew Archer, were certainly derivative of theirs; but with The Galton Case, Macdonald began a distinctive run of stories delving into the ways that deep-rooted family tensions and duplicities can precipitate homicide. Sleeping Beauty introduces into his usual equation of adultery and avarice one of the author's personal interests: environmentalism.

The Patience of Maigret* (1966), by Georges Simenon. French police Inspector Maigret has been described as "one of the most completely realized characters in all modern fiction." Both author and character are fascinated with the criminal mind -- exploring it during interrogations in which every word, every movement, every brandy tossed back or coffee allowed to cool has significance. No wonder the Maigret novels were favorites of Carl Jung.

The Green Ripper (1979) and Free Fall in Crimson (1981), by John D. MacDonald. "Salvage expert" Travis McGee lives aboard a boat in southern Florida, practices unsafe sex with giddy abandon, and whenever possible, tries to stitch back together torn lives. Both of these colorful books come from MacDonald's later days, when he had better honed his ear for language and his skill at describing even the most offensive scenes.

The Bone is Pointed (1938) and Death of a Lake* (1954), by Arthur W. Upfield. Australian Inspector "Bony" Bonaparte, half Aborigine and half white, takes pride in combining the skills of a native tracker with the strategies of a refined armchair detective -- though at times, conflict between his two cultures threatens both his sanity and his life. These two books rank among Upfield's finest explorations of the beauty and the cruelty of the Australian outback and its denizens.

Star Power
After overcoming its gams-and-gore addiction during the Mickey Spillane years of the 1950s, the genre was re-energized by -- of all things -- television. Popularity of The Rockford Files, Columbo, and similar shows during the 1970s and early 80s sent tubeheads scurrying to bookstores, hungry for more clever mayhem. New wordsmiths took up their pens, hoping to be named the next Chandler. Although many of those folks have since disappeared, some have become venerable practitioners of this trade.

Another development over the last two decades has been the emergence of a new school of British mystery novelists, a number of whom have made invaluable contributors to the hardboiled story. For many years, it was hard for Brits to get published if they didn't follow the neat formulas of Agatha Christie. But that's no longer true, as is evidenced by the success of folks such as Reginald Hill and Ian Rankin.

The writers and books mentioned below have all given new life and luster to the classic mystery:

Looking for Rachel Wallace (1980), by Robert B. Parker. This Massachusetts litterateur has now sent his ultra-honorable gourmet private eye, the single-monikered Spenser, on more than 20 forays (with a new entry in the series, Hush Money, due out next spring). Many of the latest Spenser stories have depended on snappy dialogue to make up for their flabby plotting. But his sixth venture -- in which Spenser is hired as a bodyguard for a lesbian feminist author doing her latest book tour -- remains the sharpest of the lot.

The Black Dahlia (1987), by James Ellroy. A noirish story, inspired by the true mystery surrounding an unidentified murder victim in Depression-era Los Angeles. Ellroy pulls no punches -- literally -- in exposing readers to the depravity possible in both good guys and bad. A thoroughly memorable work, even more affecting than Ellroy's LA Confidential.

Snapshot (1993), by Linda Barnes. One of the best things about the resurgence of American detective fiction has been the entry of talented women into this field. Barnes' sexy blues-loving, taxi-jockeying Boston PI, Carlotta Carlyle, far outdoes most of her sisters. In Snapshot, she's hunting for the unknown child portrayed in a photograph sent anonymously to her office, only to find herself drawn into a conspiracy that extends from a New England hospital to the Third World.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972), by George V. Higgins. Boston attorney Higgins captures the rhythm of the courthouse -- not what goes on in the well of the court, but what's snarled in the hallways and what's agreed to in the shabby offices of small-time lawyers and their sleazy clients. The story of Eddie Coyle's attempt to pull off the crime of his career is as gritty as it gets. You don't feel as if you're reading a book; it's more like overhearing a series of conversations -- ones that will leave you extremely disquieted.

LaBrava (1983), by Elmore Leonard. Talk about hot stars. After penning westerns in his early years, Leonard struck gold with his move into mystery fiction. Thanks to Hollywood, some of his later works -- including Get Shorty and Out of Sight -- have become universally familiar. But LaBrava remains Leonard's pre-eminent achievement. It's the dark-edged tale of a former Secret Service agent whose new start as a portrait photographer is endangered by his encounter with a fading but still sexy actress. She sucks him down into a world of redneck cops, deadly Cuban gunmen, and bizarre, big-bucks scamming.

Blood and Thunder (1995) and The Neon Mirage* (1988), by Max Allan Collins. The Golden Age of the hardboiled American detective -- the 1920s to 1940s -- lives on in Collins' Nate Heller series. While he's based in Chicago, Heller has worked as far away as the Bahamas, always in the employ of some well-known historical figure, be it Al Capone, Charles Lindbergh, or Amelia Earhart. Blood and Thunder finds Heller bodyguarding fiery Louisiana Senator Huey Long. The "Kingfish's" assassination partway through the story robs it of its most engaging character, but it also provides Heller with the chance to explore Byzantine Southern politics of the 1930s. Even better is The Neon Mirage, which sends Heller out to help gangster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel protect his interests -- and his life -- in aborning Las Vegas.

The Last Good Kiss (1978), by James Crumley. Imagine Tom Robbins co-authoring with Hammett, and you get a fairly good idea of the attractions in Crumley's handful of crime novels (also including The Wrong Case and Bordersnakes). Kiss takes snoop-for-hire C.W. Sughrue on a booze-addled roller coaster ride through Denver jails, San Francisco's underbelly, and an Oregon commune, all in search of a girl who vanished 10 years before.

The Man Who Liked to Look at Himself* (1973), by K.C. Constantine. When a bird dog at the local Rod and Gun Club unearths a human thigh bone, small-town police chief Mario Balzic must work his way through a tangle of theft, lies, kinky sex, and blackmail to find a suspect. Known for his black humor and complicated story structures, Constantine includes a subplot in which Balzic is hampered at every turn by incompetent town bureaucrats, his demanding mother, and his loving but martyred wife.

The Chatham School Affair (1996), by Thomas H. Cook. Few suspense novels are guaranteed to keep you wide awake and reading through the night. But this one is. Set in a quaint Cape Cod village during the 1920s, it focuses on the local school's new art teacher, a worldly young woman whose belief that "life is best lived at the edge of folly" may heap catastrophe down upon not only her, but the headmaster's son and the town itself.

Burn Marks (1990), by Sara Paretsky. Chicago investigator V.I. Warshawski can be alternately endearing and irritating, but her experiences rarely lack for excitement. Here, the fiercely independent Warshawski is saddled with a down-and-out aunt who's been burned out of her residential hotel, probably as part of a scheme to benefit local developers. Paretsky always offers lots of drama -- both criminal and personal.

Pictures of Perfection (1994), by Reginald Hill. Behind this deceptively serene title lurks a novel that is classic Hill: by turns brutal, arch, gripping -- and hilarious. Ill will generated by ancient feuds and modern land deals erupts in a quaint village in Yorkshire, England, leading to a bloody massacre on the annual feast day. Police investigators Andy Dalziel and Peter Pascoe are two of the most complex characters in contemporary crime fiction, and their uneasy teamwork is one of the many vital elements that make Hill's books so realistic.

Black and Blue (1997), by Ian Rankin. The Scottish slang can be a bit overwhelming in Rankin's police procedurals, starring an intractable Edinburgh inspector named John Rebus. But you catch on eventually, and in the meantime you're hypnotized by the author's blunt and gritty style. In this novel, Rebus must contend with a slain oil-rig painter, allegations that he planted evidence in a long-ago case, and a string of murders committed by somebody who's imitating a real-life serial killer of the 1970s called Bible John.

On the Fringe
Reader demand for more and more crime fiction has inevitably led to the creation of some intriguing subgenres -- gay detective novels, culinary cozies, and even stories in which animals (mostly cats) sniff out the clues. Two of the most vital mystery subcategories, though, are the historical whodunits and the ethnic mysteries. The best of these introduce us to unfamiliar landscapes and unusual investigative techniques -- even, sometimes, unusual crimes. All of these works merit attention:

Defend and Betray (1992), by Anne Perry. This third installment in Perry's oeuvre featuring William Monk, a brilliant but overweening investigator in 1850s London, has him digging up the dirt on an ostensibly virtuous general. It's a case that exposes more about the general's family than anyone expected or wanted to hear, spiced up by Monk's rediscovery of his own past (he lost his memory in his first escapade, The Face of a Stranger), and with a most painful but exquisite concluding courtroom scene.

The Alienist (1994), by Caleb Carr. Novels that sell well often have little behind them other than huge publicity budgets. But Carr's fast-paced suspenser about a mental pathologist ("alienist") in 1890s New York City who, with the help of a crime reporter and police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, seeks to assemble a psychological profile of a grisly murderer before he strikes again is much better than your average best-seller. Like its sequel, The Angel of Darkness (1997), The Alienist digs enthusiastically at the roots of modern psychology and is gorged with the multi-leveled life of Gay 90s Manhattan.

The Roaring Boy (1995), by Edward Marston. Marston constructs his often-comic fables of butchery in 16th-century London around theatrical stage manager Nicholas Bracewell and the motley troupe of actors, Lord Westfield's Men, that he oversees. In this particular book, the beleaguered troupe seeks to regain its success with a new play, written by an anonymous author, that may expose a serious miscarriage of justice -- if it doesn't first bring destruction to the performers themselves.

The Devil in Music (1997), by Kate Ross. The fourth and final novel by Ross, who died earlier this year, plunks dandyish amateur sleuth Julian Kestrel down into the opera-entranced world of Northern Italy in 1825. There he must solve the four-year-old murder of a Milanese marquis and the disappearance of the English tenor thought to have done him in, without losing his own life in the process. This is an intricately detailed and spirited yarn, one of those that you're sorry to see end.

Person or Persons Unknown (1997), by Bruce Alexander. Eighteenth-century London positively comes to life as Alexander weaves tales (five of them thus far) around the historical figure of Sir John Fielding, a blind magistrate who co-founded his city's first police force. In this installment of the series, Fielding and his precocious assistant Jeremy Proctor try to identify the murderer -- or murderers -- responsible for leaving dead prostitutes around Covent Garden.

Waxwork* (1978), by Peter Lovesey. With three different series to his name, Lovesey is deservedly one of the best-known modern British crime novelists. However, many of us who've followed his career since he turned to full-time writing in the mid-1970s applaud him not only for what he's done recently, but for his early stories about Detective Sergeant Archibald Cribb. Of those, Waxwork is the top of the line. Haunting and darkly eccentric, this book pursues the twin plotlines of a hangman preparing to add another execution to his tally, while Cribb makes a last-ditch effort to determine whether the elegant woman awaiting the noose is really guilty of the crime to which she confessed.

March Violets (1989), The Pale Criminal (1990), and German Requiem (1991), by Philip Kerr. This superb (if sometimes sad) trilogy follows a German private eye, Bernie Gunther, as he tries to do his job and not ruffle Nazi party feathers in Hitler's Berlin.

Devil in a Blue Dress (1990), by Walter Mosley. This Chandleresque novel, set in post-World War II Los Angeles, introduces black sleuth Easy Rawlins. Fired from his factory job, Rawlins takes on the task of finding a glamorous white woman who has vanished in a black jazz club. He's soon out of his depth in a dangerous subculture where black and white society come together to enjoy drugs, alcohol, sex -- and even murder.

Skinwalkers (1986), by Tony Hillerman. While Hillerman's more recent books have seemed predictable, it's worth noting that his early ones about Native American tribal police officer Jim Chee and Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn brought fresh voices and ideas to crime fiction. Skinwalkers is a slim, lithe story with moments of electrifying suspense as Chee stalks -- and is stalked by -- a homicidal maniac cloaked in the power of Navajo ritual and witchcraft. | December 1998

 

 

J. KINGSTON PIERCE is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.

KAREN G. ANDERSON, a regular contributor to January, wants more bookshelves for Christmas.

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