When I was asked to tell you what’s on my bookshelf, I thought of making an almost forensic study of the crime novels and thrillers I have read over the years, and arranging them into some kind of significant sequence, with the best first – or last. Then that seemed far too nerdy. Instead, I have walked along my untidy, over-filled shelves, with my neck cricked and my head on one side, reading off the titles to myself. Here, in a totally random sequence, are the ones that stood out.
1.The Load of Unicorn by Cynthia Harnett
The first crime novel I ever read as a child, this deals with William Caxton’s attempts to set up his printing press in London and the industrial sabotage carried out by a bunch of nefarious scriveners, who hijack his paper deliveries. Great characters, tension, colour, interest, involving relationships, and a smashing hero in Benedict, the teenage sleuth.
2.The Beckoning Lady by Margery Allingham
Of all the Golden-Age novels, this is probably my favourite. It deals with the murder of an income-tax man and is set in the ravishing Suffolk countryside during the preparations for a magnificently eccentric party. There are good jokes, terrific writing, and the kind of anger you need in an effective crime novel.
3.Bratt Farrar by Josephine Tey
Tey is another Golden-Age writer I really enjoy and I was hard-pressed to pick only one of her titles. The Franchise Affair is good, as are all the others, but this (first read when I was in my teens) lingers longest in the mind.
4.The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
The first serial-killer novel I read. They have become so ubiquitous now that the punch and excitement have gone. But I was distinctly struck by this one and it bears re-reading, which is a test I always apply to the books I keep on my shelves. A lot better than the sequel.
5.Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow
Terrific court-room drama, which expands outside the courtroom to bring in convincingly awful characters, as well as the flawed hero, Rusty Sabitch, and a whole slew of weird relationships. Gripping.
6.A Distant Echo by Val McDermid
Moving exploration of the enduring friendship of a group of Scottish undergraduates, accused of a horrible murder one snowy night. Definitely my favourite among McDermid’s novels.
7.Waking Raphael by Leslie Forbes
Exhilarating, colourful, bravura timeslip novel with a background in the Second World War, exploring the enduring horror so much of Europe faced of neighbours having to live on beside collaborators and traitors who had done appalling things.
8.On Beulah Height by Reginald Hill
The first of the terrific Dalziel and Pascoe novels that moved me as well as making me laugh and turn the pages. Terrible acts made understandable, set against a magnificent landscape, and all the incidental pleasures Hill offers up so generously with every book.
9.California Fire and Light by Don Winslow
Winslow is one of the most intriguing of the US writers, and this novel was a revelation. I had not known that fire could be so interesting – or so well described.
10.Blame the Dead by Gavin Lyall
Most of the tough-guy thrillers of the 1970s never appealed to me, but this one is quite different, dealing with the bitter unhappiness of a life fuddled by alcohol, as well as a nice line in dry wit from the laconic hero, and a truly revolting villain. Very much of its time, it is still re-readable with great pleasure.
11.Death of an Expert Witness by P D James
Early James novels still appeal to me more than the ‘bigger’ books she has written since, and this one presses most of the buttons: inside knowledge; perceptive insights into relationships and family life; a good mystery; and a magnificent modern house.
12.The Quest for Karla trilogy by John le Carre
Le Carre is one of my great heroes and these three novels represent what I love most about his work: warmth in desperate circumstances, the insider’s revelations of the bitter excitements of spying, and the terrible choices that have to be made. George Smiley is one of crime & thriller’s most weirdly alluring characters
13.A Word Child by Irish Murdoch
Although not technically a crime novel (there’s no detection), this, nevertheless, deals with two deaths, and guilt, and a doomed attempt at expiation – all the things I look for in this kind of fiction. I loved it when I first read it, and can re-read with delight.
14.The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay
Again one that isn’t technically a crime novel, except that it deals with murder and other crimes, set partly in the south of France and partly in post-Blitz London. The revelation of who did it is utterly convincing and utterly unexpected and, on the way to it, Macaulay gives me everything I most want: fabulous landscapes, delicious food, wit, intelligence, jokes, with believable and moving emotion.
15.Tokyo by Mo Hayder
Although I dislike reading scenes of graphic violence, this novel struck me as deeply impressive. It is another with a background in the Second World War and so the worst violence actually happened, which, for me, makes it different from the stuff that often seems to be written for reasons of marketing rather than any kind of artistic intention.
16.The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin
A completely different kind of historical novel, full of warmth and colour and jokes and intelligence and good food. A delight.