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The Many Flavors of Crime Fiction

Like its older sibling, the mystery novel, crime fiction focuses on characters in high stakes situations. Whether they’re planning a heist, impersonating a dead man, or chasing a perp, these stories get our blood pumping as we delight in seeing cops, pretty crooks, cold blooded killers and ordinary people enforce, evade, or operate wholly outside the law.

I recently completed two classic series in the crime genre. Patricia Highsmith’s Ripliad is a five book series detailing the misadventures of expatriate con-man Tom Ripley, a cunning and charming psychopath who values his leisurely lifestyle and causing trouble above all else. It’s hard to know exactly what makes Tom tick, but whether he’s lying to the police or hiding the corpse of someone who insulted him, Highsmith mounts the tension, forcing us to root for him to get out of it. The first three novels are available in one edition, with The Boy Who Followed Ripleyand Ripley Under Water concluding the series. The stories have been adapted many times on screen. My personal favorite, The American Friend, stars Dennis Hopper as the scheming Tom Ripley.

Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter series revolves around the activities of the titular cannibal psychiatrist and the FBI agents who try to get him to help solve active cases. From Red Dragon to The Silence of the Lambs to Hannibal, Lecter’s game of cat-and-mouse with detectives escalates, as they all seek to outsmart each other and their enemies on both sides of the law. The prequel Hannibal Rising goes back in time to Lector’s youth in war-torn Lithuania, giving us a fuller sense of his psychological development and criminal origins. The series oscillates between gritty police procedural and gruesome horror and is definitely not for the faint of heart. The series has been famously adapted to film and television, with director Michael Mann’s Manhunter remaining my favorite.

My favorite recently discovered crime author is Donald E. Westlake. In A Travesty (half of the recently re-released Double Feature), film critic Calvin Thorpe uses his knowledge of criminal behavior learned from the big screen to help police investigate the death of a friend, further complicated by the fact that he is the killer. It’s sordid, tragic and funny, with plenty of murder sprinkled throughout, and we can’t help but root for the flawed but clever protagonist as he tries to stay out of the gas chamber.

Westlake writes with the same precision, coupled with less humor and more grit, under the pseudonym Richard Stark. The use of pennames is particularly common in the crime and mystery genre, as an author may adopt one to establish a brand or obscure their true identity when delving into pulpier territory[1]. Stephen King famously wrote under the pen name Richard Bachman in the 70s and 80s, and later named a character George Stark[2], a conscious nod to Westlake’s experimental pseudonym[3]. Stark’s The Hunter opens with a hardened criminal named Parker prowling the streets of New York City. We don’t know much about him except he has big, powerful hands, he’s good at what he does, and he wants revenge. The books are nihilistic and antisocial, written in a cold, austere style. This series delights in describing the nuts and bolts of criminal activity: how a scam works, who gets paid off, for how much, and who “gets retired, with flowers” when it goes sour. My favorite sequence in the series is a run of chapters in The Outfit which detail different scams, followed by Parker’s associates ripping each of them off after he gives them the go ahead. The books are lean and mean, “each one put together like a beautiful little machine of pure chrome.”[4] Each book picks up where the last left off (after reading six of the 28, I wouldn’t say they need to be read in order), usually setting up Parker against a variety of ne’er-do-wells with some connection to the corporate crime syndicate operating across the country. This is crime writing at its most delightful, where who lives and who dies is a mere footnote to how our (anti)hero will maneuver through the next trap.

There are many crime fiction subgenres I’m excited to continue exploring, including Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett’s hardboiled detective stories, Elmore Leonard’s heist capers, Ed McBain and Ruth Rendell’s police procedurals, and the wider world of suspense and mystery by Daphne du Maurier and the master of the whodunit, Agatha Christie. But while I’m always eager to dive deep into “classics” and become more fluent in a genre, it’s important to recognize that this is far from a contemporary or diverse group. As is often the case with decades-old fiction written by straight, white and predominantly male authors; racist, misogynistic and homophobic language and characters are commonplace, and the canon of 20th century crime fiction[5] is no exception.

One of my favorites among more recent titles is Oyinkan Brathwaite’s My Sister, The Serial Killer. This lightning-paced thriller dedicates equal attention to sibling rivalry and crime scene cleanup, and is darkly humorous, bleak, and cuttingly satirical, subverting the femme fatale trope. The book serves as a psychologically complex character study while still managing a sleek, minimalist style befitting the crime genre. Some other recent highlights include novels penned by great filmmakers. Director Michael Mann and Meg Gardiner’s Heat 2 (a prequel and sequel to the 1995 film) is jam packed with heists gone wrong and high speed chases, but also has a modern facelift, as the safe cracking masterminds adapt to the age of the dark web. Brian DePalma teamed up with Susan Lehman to write Are Snakes Necessary?, bringing the director’s lifelong interest in seedy politicians, backroom deals and blackmail to the page. Speaking of filmmakers, I can’t help but mention a few non-fiction books about crime films. For a definitive discussion of the genre, see Carlos Carlen’s comprehensive Crime Movies. For a closer look at the film adaptations of novels, check out Ron Miller’s Mystery Classics on Film.

If you like the sound of the pulpy throwbacks I’ve mentioned, you’ll probably like most of the titles being released by Hard Case Crime, a publishing imprint “motivated by a love for the noir genre” and whose titles feature “a tough, atmospheric prose style”[6]. To diversify your bookshelf and discover new authors, check out anthologies The Perfect Crime: 22 Crime Stories From Diverse Cultures Around the World, Marple: Twelve New Mysteries (new stories about Agatha Christie’s famous detective penned by women authors) and Black Noir: Mystery, Crime, and Suspense Fiction by African-American Writers. You may also like browsing GoodReads Crime lists (including #DiverseDetectives) and websites like Crime Writers of Color. For award winners, check the Edgar Awards database, as well as lists of past Agatha and Macavity winners. And to discover even more about all things mystery and suspense related, check out the excellent LibGuides from Delaware Libraries and John Jay College of Criminal Justice, as well as website Crime Reads, which features book, TV and podcast recommendations and news.

Next up for me are Kaoru Takamura’s Lady Joker, Volume One, Quentin Tarantino’s newly published Cinema Speculation (once I’ve watched all the movies, which are almost entirely crime films), and my ever-growing stack of dusty old paperbacks. Happy heisting!

[1] My favorite example of this is poet laureate C. Day Lewis’s mystery persona (“Nicholas Blake”), responsible for the Nigel Strangeways detective novels including the hilariously over the top title, The Smiler With The Knife.

[2] Westlake became frustrated by the fact that the Stark pen name became more famous than his own, as does King’s character in The Dark Half(

[3] Both authors  described his use of a pen name as “an experiment to see if he could succeed as an author under a new name”


[5] These authors dominate lists like the Mystery Writers of America’s list of yearly award winners.

[6] Picker L. 20 Years of Hard Case Crime Books. Publishers Weekly. 2021;268(5):5-.