Returning to the Scene of the Crime
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (1939)
This is the granddaddy of literary detective fiction. Chandler was a scholar and an intellectual. His fiction brims with lush descriptions, striking metaphors and a diverse gallery of vivid characters, each of whom has an angle. The Big Sleep follows Philip Marlowe through a tour of L.A.’s sleazy side -- gangsters, pornographers and blackmailers are just some of the lovely people you will meet. Marlowe wades in but somehow stays untainted, like the knights that he refers to from time to time.
The Black-Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black (2014)
Benjamin Black (the mystery nom de plume of the Irish writer John Banville) was given the go-ahead by the estate of Raymond Chandler to write one or more of the novels begun by the king of the genre, the first of which is The Black-Eyed Blonde. Black has a similar literary and descriptive style to Chandler, and he employs it well in the 1930s Los Angeles setting of the classic novels.
Here’s how it starts: "It was one of those summer Tuesday afternoons when you begin to wonder if the earth has stopped revolving. The telephone on my desk had the look of something that knows it's being watched. Traffic trickled by in the street below, and there were a few pedestrians, too, men in hats going nowhere."
If you enjoy Black’s take on Chandler, check out his Quirke novels (Christine Falls is the first one). Dublin in the '50s is a dreary and depressing place that lags behind the rest of Europe. Our tour guide through the dark of Dublin is a pathologist named Quirke. Quirke is prone to bouts of alcoholism but unwavering when it comes to discovering the originators of heinous acts.
The Deep Blue Good-By by John D. MacDonald (1964)
Travis McGee lives on the Busted Flush, a boat docked in Fort Lauderdale that he won in a poker game. He sometimes visits the ongoing parties on the neighboring boats, but unlike so many of the other people who populate the world of South Florida, he’s not a pleasure-seeker. In fact, his work brings him face to face with the tragic results of the hedonistic lifestyle. In this, the first in the series, McGee tracks a violent sociopath named Junior Allen who jumps from one ‘party’ to the next, leaving a trail of bankrupt and abused women behind. McGee must find Allen to track down some stolen merchandise and exact revenge for his friend, one of Allen’s victims.
Miami Blues by Charles Willeford (1984)
Moving on into the '80s, things have gotten a little stranger in South Florida. Detective Hoke Mosely finds himself in a hospital without his dentures, pondering who would have had the motive and the wherewithal to leave him in such a state. Meanwhile, pickpocket artist Freddy Frenger starts a crime spree by killing a Hare Krishna. Made into a fun 1990 film with Alec Baldwin as Frenger and Fred Ward as Mosely.
Double Whammy by Carl Hiaasen (1987)
Deeper into the '80s and things have gotten positively bizarre. People are being murdered over bass-fishing tournaments and there are hitmen going around with severed bulldog heads lock-jawed onto their arms. This is the world of P.I. R.J. Decker, who has been hired to investigate allegations of cheating in the tournament fishing circuit. Decker’s investigation will bring him into contact with murderous televangelists and an Everglades anchorite named Skink, a man who shoots at jumbo jets in revenge for the sound pollution they produce.
If you still can't get enough Floridian crime fiction, check out Florida Heat Wave, a 2010 compilation of noir "set in the gun-shaped state by Florida's foremost crime writers."
Inspired by life experiences during the Great Depression and Bonnie and Clyde, Edward Anderson wrote Thieves Like Us. It’s the story of Chicamaw and Keechie, lovers robbing banks across Texas and Oklahoma because they don’t know what else to do. The law advances on them inexorably, eventually tracking them down to an isolated country house. It’s a sad, poetic novel: “The lights of the little highway town ahead spread with their approach and then scattered like flushed prey as they entered its limits.”
If you like Thieves Like Us, check out the other novels that share space with it in Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s. To quote Charles P. Silet (article available from DC Public Library’s Gale database), “Crime noir fiction memorialized the losers, the misfits and the wayward wives who stumbled into crime through their greed, insanity or just plain stupidity and paid the price.”
Galveston by Nic Pizzolato (2010)
Reading Galveston, you wouldn’t know that the Great Depression is long gone. In the 1980s Louisiana and Texas that Pizzolatto portrays, weeds are pushing up through the broken-down infrastructure everywhere. A hitman’s boss puts a hit out on him. In the chaos of his escape, he teams up with a young woman in an equally desperate situation. He figures their only chance is to get out of Louisiana and into Texas, where they’re from and where, hopefully, they can get lost. My advice to those who check out this book: remember to breathe.
If you enjoy the quickened pulse that comes with reading about characters in frantic situations, then check out A Simple Plan by Scott Smith. Hank Mitchell does well as an accountant for an agricultural supply company but his brother Jacob and Jacob’s friend Lou are unemployed. An accident on a snowy highway and a subsequent hunt for Jacob’s dog leads them to a plane crashed in the forest. Inside the plane, along with the dead pilot, is $4.4 million. At this point, Hank hatches the simple plan -- they will keep the money until spring when the snows melt and the plane is clearly visible. If the money is never mentioned, they’ll divide it three ways. Best laid plans…
The film adaptation currently enjoys a 90% ‘fresh’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes and stars Bill Pullman as Hank and Billy Bob Thornton as Jacob.
Silet, Charles L. P. "Noir, Crime." Mystery and Suspense Writers: The Literature of Crime, Detection, and Espionage. Ed. Robin W. Winks and Maureen Corrigan. Vol. 2. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1998. 1009-1028. Scribner Writers on GVRL. Web. 1 July 2015.