TOP BOSTON CRIME NOVELS by Thomas O’Malley and Douglas Graham Purdy, authors of Serpents in the Cold and We Were Kings

Promised Land (1976), Ceremony (1982), The Widening Gyre (1983) – Robert B. Parker

With the dean of American crime fiction, the forefather of all Boston crime writing, there are simply too many books to praise, but Promised LandCeremony, and The Widening Gyre are, for me, ones that come to mind that still contain the grittiness, the wit, and the particular concern for characterization and psychological exploration that mark the earlier novels, featuring the wise-cracking, street-smart Boston private eye, Spenser. In these novels, we move between Cape Cod, Boston’s Combat Zone, high-class brothels, and the world of Boston’s elite, ripe with corruption. Parker wrote best about people on the fringe, the innocent ensnared by the machinations of the city, its politicians, its rich, its various savage mob factions—those elements that made Boston itself a dark and unforgiving place. Thankfully, it is Parker’s humor and insights into the human condition that allow us to see the light in the dark, even if it is through a half-empty bottle of Murphy’s Irish Whiskey. (Thomas)

Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972), Digger’s Game (1973) – George V. Higgins

The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins

With his first two novels, George V. Higgins created a new type of crime fiction, a gritty blend of tragedy and comedy that pistol-whipped the genre’s tropes, and then tossed them into the dirty waters of the Charles River. These are blue-collar operas, arias sung by hoodlums, criminals, and crooked cops. It’s like the reader is sitting at a dive bar, having a few beers with desperate low lives and “regular Joes.” We readers have no choice but to listen to them complain about their wives, their kids, their mortgages, their parole officers, and their dreams of a bigger, better payday. Hard-knuckled and terse, these books are the gold standard of Boston crime. It’s noir over a cold Schlitz and a pack of Winstons, peanut shells on the floor, and the Bruins on a black-and white-television, losing another game. (Douglas)

Prince of Thieves (2004) – Chuck Hogan

Prince of Thieves is a tense, psychologically gripping novel set in Charlestown, a working class Boston neighborhood that produces more bank robbers
and armored car thieves than any square mile in the world (or so the introduction tells us). It centers on townie Doug MacRay, the brains behind a tough crew of bank robbers, and his precarious and dangerous relationship with the bank manager his crew had taken hostage during a robbery and then later released. The pervasive yet unmanageable question that haunts the main characters in so many of Hogan’s books is: Once you’ve traveled too far into darkness, what is the cost of returning? A compelling, artfully crafted story that shows Hogan writing at the top of his game. In the crime and thriller genre, there aren’t many who do it better. (Thomas)

North of Boston (2014) – Elisabeth Elo

North of Boston by Elisabeth Elo

A magnificent debut from Massachusetts native Elisabeth Elo. Pirio Kasparov is a first-generation Russian-American who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. On afishing boat with her old friend Ned, she watches as a freighter comes out of the fog, which crashes through their much smaller boat. An accident or cruel fate? Ned drowns, but amazingly, Pirio manages to survive in the ice-cold Atlantic, saved by the Coast Guard. Once she’s back on the streets, she navigates many levels of deceit that stretch well beyond the waterfront. This is a well-researched steamroller of a suspense novel, and it captures the grit of a Boston crime opus, yet reaches far beyond the city’s confines. I’m very much looking forward to another Pirio novel. (Douglas)

Shutter Island (2003) – Dennis Lehane

This is the closest thing to Gothic noir that Lehane has written. United States Marshal Teddy Daniels reports to the Ashecliffe Hospital, an asylum for the criminally insane located on a remote island in the Boston Harbor. But this case is not as cut and dry as originally expected. All the ingredients are present here: the lockdown, a big storm, an escaped inmate, shuttered rooms, bizarre experiments, and a sadistic doctor. Shades of John Franklin Bardin’s novels and Val Lewton’s films shape this highly compulsive read, which I believe is one of Lehane’s most unique and impressive novels. (Douglas)

Top Ten Crime Novels Set in Boston

A Trouble of Fools (1987) – Linda Barnes

Linda Barnes has long been one of the most skilled writers of the crime novel and this, the first in the Carlotta series, is the book that introduced readers to Carlotta Carlyle, the six-foot-tall, redheaded, former Boston cop, part-time cabbie, and neophyte private eye. This is a must-read for crime fans who have yet to explore the Carlotta series and experience the character who became a treasured mainstay in crime fiction from the very beginning. Here we have all the sensibilities of hard-boiled crime: the gritty language, the down-and-dirty description of the Boston streets, the no-nonsense tone of the PI who’s been bounced from the Boston police for insubordination. Linda Barnes was one of the first and she remains one of the best. (Thomas)

Boyos (2004) – Richard Marinick

Born and bred Southie boys, Jack “Wacko” Curran and his brother Kevin are ambitious, tough young men working for the Irish-American mob, and they’re quickly climbing the ladder. Tired of paying tribute to the local mob boss, the brothers have dreams of replacing him and establishing themselves at the top, but their boss has other ideas. Marinick writes about this world with stark and brutal authenticity. A one-time Southie gang member and ex-con, he’s experienced it all and it shows in his writing. This is a “hahd-boiled,” relentless novel and “Wacko” Curran is one of the most perverse antiheroes in crime writing today. (Thomas)

Christine Falls (2006) –Benjamin Black / John Banville

Christine Falls by Benjamin Black / John Banville

While the novel mainly takes place in Dublin, Ireland, there are wonderfully vivid scenes set in the Boston area. This sweeping, grand book kicks off an evocative series featuring the brooding pathologist Quirke. Not only is the prose gorgeous, the plot is intricate and tough to predict as our unlikely sleuth crosses the Atlantic and uncovers a family’s secret that refuses to be buried. This book is set in the 1950s, and it feels like we’re submerged in the decade. Christine Falls knocked both of us on our ass, a highly influential book for our own novel, Serpents in the Cold. (Douglas)

Serpents in the Cold by Thomas O'Malley and Douglas Graham Purdy

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Thomas O’Malley is the author of the novels In the Province of SaintsThis Magnificent Desolation, and, with Douglas Graham Purdy, Serpents in the Cold and We Were Kings. A graduate of the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he is currently Director of Creative Writing at Dartmouth College. He lives in the Boston area.

Douglas Graham Purdy is the co-author of the novels Serpents in the Cold and We Were Kings (both with Thomas O’Malley). He grew up in the Boston area and now lives in Brooklyn. He is currently working on his next novel, a grim crime comedy set in Boston.

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