Seven American Crime Novels That Changed My Life
Although my books are all set in the UK, American crime and mystery fiction has been far more of an influence on my writing than British thrillers. Here, I explore seven US novels that had a profound impact on my David Raker series…
The original novel is markedly different from the film of the same name, even though Goldman himself adapted it for the screen, but the central premise remains intact: New York post-grad history student and long-distance runner “Babe” Levy sets out to clear his father of accusations of Nazi collaboration, only to stumble into the crosshairs of former Nazi SS doctor Christian Szell. Most famous for its “Is it safe?” scene, Marathon Man is much more than that: its measured, almost glacial first half helps mask a middle-of-the-novel twist that resets the entire story and accelerates the rest of a novel to a breathless conclusion.
The Silence of the Lambs is, of course, a brilliant book, but Red Dragon is, I believe, superior, scaling back Dr. Lecter’s involvement in favor of a dual portrait of psychosis: FBI profiler Will Graham’s slow descent into the mind of a serial killer, and then the serial killer himself, the frightening, disturbing Tooth Fairy. Over thirty years later, it’s easy to forget just what a pioneer this novel was, single-handedly kickstarting an entire sub-genre. Few thrillers have built such a compelling picture of a diseased mind, and, of course, few books have introduced an antihero as timeless as Hannibal Lecter.
The story of Hank Mitchell, his brother Jacob, and their discovery of $4.4 million in a downed plane in the Minnesota wilderness is a classic tale of greed, its effects, and ultimately its consequences. Scott Smith’s writing is gorgeous, a beautifully crafted vision of corruption, but it never comes at the cost of pace: A Simple Plan also doubles up as a lightning-fast page-turner.
Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series has been a big influence on me, but his 1996 standalone novel The Poet remains, perhaps, his most perfect thriller: pacy, lyrical, gruesome, frightening, it centers on journalist Jack McEvoy’s discovery that his brother’s suicide may not actually have been a suicide at all – but the work of a serial killer flying beneath the radar. For me, Connelly is the daddy of modern crime fiction.
Blessed with the pace and tension of a thriller, this is probably my favorite Stephen King novel. There’s little horrific (aside from one spectacularly nasty execution); instead, its suspense comes from the often simmering relationships between the guards and prisoners at Cold Mountain State Penitentiary. The writing is wonderful, the story beautifully constructed, and it has the kind of heart you rarely see in genre fiction.
Four Corners of Night by Craig Holden (1999)
Set in a wintry Midwestern city, this mournful, absorbing book sees two cops realizing the abduction case they’re working may be tied to another seven years before. Holden is an incredibly powerful writer, evoking a clear vision of a duplicitous city and the population that abides by its lies. His books never offer definitive conclusions, and at the end of Four Corners, there are still big questions left hanging, but it’s somehow in keeping with the muddy, complex, unyielding world he creates.
A bit of a cheat as Connolly’s Irish, not American, but the early books in his scary, atmospheric, and beautifully written Charlie Parker series are sensational. Dark Hollow, his second novel, sees Parker searching for the killer of a woman and her young son. It’s probably his purest piece of detective fiction—and, for my money, the best he’s ever written.
- Tim Weaver is the bestselling author of seven novels, all of which feature missing persons investigator David Raker. His work has been nominated for a National Book Award, and he is also the writer and presenter of Missing, an award-winning podcast series about how and why people disappear. His latest novel, Fall from Grace (Viking), is on sale now.