When I joined the Classics Club back in June 2016, I created a list of 90 books which I planned to read and review during the next five years. I divided the original list into five sections: American, English, Scottish, Crime and Science Fiction. So rather than trying to summarise the whole thing in one post, I’ve decided to give each section a post to itself as I complete it. Here’s the second…
THE CRIME SECTION
Despite my fairly eclectic reading tastes and my disgruntlement about the state of contemporary crime fiction, crime is still where my heart lies and is the genre I know best. So most of my choices were either books I’d long wanted to read, books from authors I’d enjoyed previously, books of films I love, or occasionally re-reads. The result? I thoroughly enjoyed most of the books in this section! They provided welcome breaks between the more heavyweight novels on my list.
Starting with the bad and working up towards the good then:
Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Trevor
No abandonments at all in this section, and this replacement wasn’t because I had gone off the idea of this book but because I received a review copy of another one that seemed too perfect for the challenge to overlook – The Conjure-Man Dies by Rudolph Fisher. I still intend to read Anatomy of a Murder at some point.
THE BAD ONES
Bad is, of course, a subjective term. The quotes are from my reviews.
The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler – “The biggest problem, though, is that the book is bloated to a degree where the actual story gets almost completely overwhelmed by the rather pointless padding, repetitive dialogue and occasional mini-essays on what Chandler feels is wrong with the world.”
THE MIDDLING ONES
The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr – “I certainly recommend this one to anyone who enjoys the impossible crime style of mystery, but less so to people who prefer the traditional whodunit.”
The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan – “…there’s an awful lot of coincidence and near-miraculous luck, and it’s one of those ones where the hero just always happens to have the knowledge he needs: how to break codes, for example, or how to use explosives. But when it reaches its climax . . . I found myself nicely caught up in it.”
The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett – “Oddly, despite the fact that the plot is nonsensical, episodic, and barely hangs together, I still found the book entertaining. This is largely due to the snappy, hardboiled style of the writing and the relentless pace, which doesn’t give the reader much time to ponder the basic absurdity of the storyline.”
The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain – “Reading it is a little like being held up on the motorway because there’s been a crash just ahead – you know you shouldn’t stare but you can’t help yourself. As a study of two amoral, self-obsessed monsters drawn to each other through lust, it’s brilliantly done. But, like Damien Hirst’s dead cow, can it really be considered art?”
I, the Jury by Mickey Spillane – “Sexism, racism, sexism, homophobia, sexism, misogyny and did I mention sexism? Then there’s the violence, the sex, and the guns – good grief, so many guns! The odd thing is: I quite enjoyed it!”
Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith – “Guy’s inability to deal with the moral dilemma and subsequent descent into a state of extreme anxiety is done brilliantly, and the psychology underpinning Bruno’s craziness is well and credibly developed. However, the unlikeability of both characters made it hard for me to get up any kind of emotional investment in the outcome.”
THE GOOD ONES
The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers – “. . . Germany was growing and becoming more powerful at this time, and while Carruthers and Davies feel goodwill towards it and admire all the Kaiser is doing to advance his country, they also see it as a potential opponent in the future. There’s an odd sporting edge to this – they rather look forward to meeting Germany in war one day, as if it were some form of jousting contest fought for honour and glory. (One can’t help but hope neither of them were in Passchendaele or the Somme twelve or thirteen years later.)”
The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White – “This is the book that has been made into more than one version of a film under the title of The Lady Vanishes. The basic plot is very similar – Iris is struggling to get anyone to believe her story, partly because she has made herself unpopular with her fellow travellers, and partly because each of those travellers have their own reasons for not wanting to get involved in anything that might delay the journey.”
The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham – “. . . we mostly follow Geoff as he gets himself into deep peril, and Inspector Luke as he and his men try to catch up with Havoc. The tension wafts from the page in these scenes, and they are undoubtedly as thrilling as anything I’ve come across in crime fiction, old or new.”
She Who Was No More by Boileau-Narcejac – “They are the authors who wrote Vertigo on which the Hitchcock film is based, and there are some similarities between the books. Both blur the line between villain and victim, concentrating on the effects on the central character’s mind as he is drawn into a plot that spirals out of his control, and both veer close to mild horror novel territory as he gradually loses his grip on reality. And both are dark, indeed.”
Cop Hater by Ed McBain – “When he writes about the city – the soaring skylines, the dazzling lights, the display of wealth and glamour barely hiding the crime, corruption and violence down on the streets – it reads like pure noir; and in this one there’s a femme fatale who equals any of the greats, oozing sexuality and confidence in her power over men.”
4.50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie – “. . . one of the major joys of Christie’s books is that they manage the difficult feat of being full of corpses and yet free of angst – a trick the Golden Age authors excelled in and modern authors seem to have forgotten. She ensures that the soon-to-be victims deserve all they get, being either wicked, nasty or occasionally just tiresome.”
The Spy Who Came In from the Cold by John Le Carré – “There’s an almost noir feeling to it, certainly dark grey anyway, and a kind of despairing cynicism of tone, but there are also small shafts of light and the occasional unexpected humanity that remind us that these people do what they do so that we can live as we choose to live. But at what cost to themselves and, ultimately, to us?”
THE BEST ONE
The Conjure-Man Dies by Rudolph Fisher – “Amid the mystery and the lighthearted elements of comedy, a surprisingly clear picture emerges of this black culture within a culture, where poverty and racism are so normal they are barely remarked upon, and where old superstitious practices sit comfortably alongside traditional religion. Life is hard in Harlem, for sure, but there’s an exuberance about the characters – a kind of live for the moment feeling – that makes them a joy to spend time with.”
….In the narrow strip of interspace, a tall brown girl was doing a song and dance to the absorbed delight of the patrons seated nearest her. Her flame chiffon dress, normally long and flowing, had been caught up bit by bit in her palms, which rested nonchalantly on her hips, until now it was not so much a dress as a sash, gathered about her waist. The long shapely smooth brown limbs below were bare from trim slippers to sash, and only a bit of silken underthing stood between her modesty and surrounding admiration.
….With extraordinary ease and grace, this young lady was proving beyond question the error of reserving legs for mere locomotion, and no one who believed that the chief function of the hips was to support the torso could long have maintained so ridiculous a notion against the argument of her eloquent gestures.
….Bubber caught sight of this vision and halted in his tracks. His abetting of justice, his stern immediate duty as a deputy of the law, faded.
….“Boy!” he said softly. “What a pair of eyes!”
* * * * *
A great section – not only did I enjoy so many of these books but they led me to spiral off into other books and authors, and over the course of the six years of the challenge classic and vintage crime has become my safe space to escape from the horrors of real life! Plus I loved watching lots of the films that have been made of some of these books. [Note to self: really must get back to doing “film of the book” comparisons.] Thanks for your company on my journey!