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A Short History of Crime Fiction in 9 Books and the Noirwich Crime Writing Festival


To celebrate the Noirwich Crime Writing Festival (10th-14th September 2014), try some of the greatest crime novels ever created with ‘A Short History of Crime Fiction in 9 Books’.

On Wednesday 10th from 1.00-3.30 PM, we’ll be holding an event in the Start Up Lounge in association with Waterstones Book Shop where crime authors will be talking about their work and what drew them to crime fiction. It’s open to any City College students and completely free!

Check out the Writers’ Centre website for more details on the events coming up.

A Short History of Crime Fiction in 9 Books

Crime fiction is a broad genre filled with murder, suspense and action. While tales of crime have been thrilling people for hundreds of years, Edgar Allan Poe, now better known for his horror stories, was the first author to find widespread fame for a recurring detective with his tales of C. Auguste Dupin, first published in 1841. Crime fiction (also called mystery and thriller) boomed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and now is a widespread genre in its own right with hundreds of authors keeping readers on the edge of their seats as they ask the classic question, “Whodunit?”

We’ve brought together nine books that sum up the history of crime fiction through some of its most well-known classics. Prepare for terrifying killers and stalwart detectives in stories that will tease your brain in style.

Detective Fiction

“There is no detective in England equal to a spinster lady of uncertain age with plenty of time on her hands.” – The Murder at the Vicarage, Agatha Christie

A brilliant but no-nonsense detective and his or her faithful sidekick collaring the killer before teatime. Anyone who has watched Sherlock, Inspector Morse or Midsomer Murders is familiar with the formula, but here are the writers who did it first.

Hound of the BaskervillesArthur Conan Doyle – The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) – BOOK ZONE 823.91

We’ve already reviewed a graphic novel of The Hound of the Baskervilles, but it bears repeating, since Sherlock Holmes is the most famous detective in fiction, and this is his greatest adventure. If you’re going to try one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic mysteries about ‘the Great Detective’, read this gothic masterpiece, about a death seemingly caused by a ghostly dog and an ancient curse. Sherlock Holmes is on the case to find a rational explanation, but can he catch a criminal and solve a mystery, all while battling a deadly superstition?

Miss MarpleAgatha Christie – The Murder at the Vicarage (1930) – NORFOLK HOUSE 823.91

Agatha Christie is the most well-known writer of the ‘cosy’ detective story, set in a country house or a quaint village with a series of hilarious characters, it could be the perfect setting for a break away. But as we all know from detective fiction, evil never takes a holiday. The Murder at the Vicarage is the first Miss Marple story, about an elderly lady who surprises policemen and criminals alike with her brilliant deductive skills when a murder upsets the calm of her quiet little town. Christie paints a humorous portrait of small-town life with murderous intent simmering under the surface.

Strong PoisonDorothy L. Sayers – Strong Poison (1930) – BOOK ZONE 823.91

Lord Peter Wimsey might not be the first name that springs to mind when you think of crime fiction these days, but Dorothy L. Sayers’ aristocratic detective is funny, charming and devilishly clever. In Strong Poison, he meets Harriet Vane, a brilliant mystery author who is accused of murder, and falls for her. Can Lord Peter and his faithful manservant Bunter find the true killer and clear Miss Vane’s name before she hangs? Sayers’ narration is sharp and witty and the banter back and forth is a delight, but always with the dark motives of murder to make it more than a comedy of manners.


Hardboiled Fiction

“Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.” – The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler

Grim cities, beautiful dames and murder most foul – this is the realm of the hardboiled detective, an antihero who’s seen too much and won too little. The hardboiled tone is often imitated but rarely equalled, so we’ve chosen two of the original greats that made the genre popular and one of the few writers who’s managed to make it his own without slipping into parody. The hardboiled hero is usually a detective who finds that a routine case turns ugly, and these novels are characterised by double crosses and twisted truths coming to the surface.

The Maltese FalconDashiell Hammett – The Maltese Falcon (1929) – BOOK ZONE 823.91

While Dashiell Hammett may not have written the first hardboiled novel, his private detective Sam Spade is often credited as the major iconic figure influencing the development of the genre (and its cynical protagonists). What first looks like a simple job for Sam Spade quickly becomes a murder case, as villains cross and double cross each other in their rush to get hold of a mysterious figurine of a bird: the Maltese Falcon. Hammett’s novel is a tangle of intrigue and suspense, but watch closely, because there’s a brilliant mystery at the heart of this tale.

The Big SleepRaymond Chandler – The Big Sleep (1939) – NORFOLK HOUSE 823.91

The Big Sleep is one of the most famous noir novels of all time, partly because Chandler weaves magic into his descriptions of the seedy underbelly of American society. Philip Marlowe, Chandler’s famous sleuth, is called to a millionaire’s mansion to discover the truth behind blackmail, but he uncovers a tangled web of lies within the rich Sternwood family, tied up with murder. Raymond Chandler’s writing style is unique and from page one he drags the reader through the majesty, and the malevolence, of the corrupted wealthy in Los Angeles.

The Black DahliaJames Ellroy – The Black Dahlia (1987) – NORFOLK HOUSE 823.91

Inspired by the gruesome real-life murder of Elizabeth Short, James Ellroy wrote about 1950’s Los Angeles as a decadent and damaged city, a place where the city is as much of a character as the detectives and the murder victims. Ellroy’s portrayal of L.A. was a big influence on the computer game L.A. Noire and the film adaptation of another of Ellroy’s books, L.A. Confidential, has become a defining modern noir film. Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert and Lee Blanchard are officers in the LAPD who become obsessed with the murder of Elizabeth Short, the so called ‘Black Dahlia’ murder. Their investigation leads them deep into the sleazy underbelly of the City of Angels and forces both to confront uncomfortable truths about themselves.

Mysteries and Thrillers

“I am an ordinary sort of fellow, not braver than other people, but I hate to see a good man downed…” – The Thirty-Nine Steps, John Buchan

The question posed by many crime novels is ‘whodunit’, but these books are more concerned with why they did it and how the heroes will escape the same fate. Modern thrillers are often pulse-pounding chases and games of cat and mouse with a violent killer, but while the classics we’ve chosen are a bit less frantic, they’re full of tension and suspense that’ll have you spellbound right to the end.

The Thirty-Nine StepsJohn Buchan – The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) – BOOK ZONE 823.8

The most action-packed of our three mystery and thriller novels, The Thirty-Nine Steps is the story of Richard Hannay, an ex-soldier who is unwittingly drawn into an international anarchist plot. He has to evade villains and the police alike, as he is wrongly accused of murder and fears that what he knows could put Britain in danger. The Thirty-Nine Steps is an early example of the ‘man on the run’ thriller as Hannay is pursued through cities and the British countryside, even as he is searching for the true meaning of ‘the thirty-nine steps’.

Brighton RockGraham Greene – Brighton Rock (1938) – NORFOLK HOUSE 823.91

Graham Greene’s iconic novel is named for the sweets sold at Brighton, but don’t think this is a children’s book. Pinkie is a gangster on the way up in his gang, ruthlessly disposing of those who get in his way. Ida Arnold meets one of Pinkie’s victims shortly before his death and makes it her mission to track down Pinkie and rescue his young wife, Rose, from his spiral of violent crime. Greene’s underworld thriller is shot through with questions of morality and faith, and while he writes believably about his sociopathic hero, there is no doubt that Pinkie’s story will end violently.

RebeccaDaphne du Maurier – Rebecca (1938) – NORFOLK HOUSE 823.91

Rebecca is most famous for Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation, but the film took its inspiration from the claustrophobic tone of Daphne du Maurier’s novel. It tells the story of an unnamed woman who has a whirlwind romance with a charming aristocrat called Maxim de Winter. When she goes to Manderley, Maxim’s ancestral home, she feels haunted by the ghost of his first wife Rebecca, and her journey to uncover the truth about ‘the first Mrs de Winter’ is tense and chilling. The forboding and silent Manderley is the perfect setting for a grim story of secrets and betrayal.


If you want to learn more about crime fiction…

Try our Speedy Reads in the Quick Reads section for a series of short and snappy thrillers.

Have a look at some other crime fiction we’ve reviewed on this blog, such as The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon and The Third Man by Graham Greene.

Choose from our collection of Miss Marple, Sherlock Holmes and Jonathan Creek DVDs, as well as a number of crime and thriller films in the DVD Lobby.


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