Michael Connelly, Harlen Coben and 10 more unearth buried treasure just for you.
I would say New Hope for the Dead, by Charles Willeford, is a buried treasure. Published in 1985, it is the second instalment in the Hoke Moseley series. In this story, the Miami homicide detective finds himself juggling an investigation of a boy's killer with all the cold case files that his promotion-seeking boss has dumped on his desk. Added to that, Hoke has female problems coming from all directions; his partner, his daughters and the stepmother of the boy whose death he is investigating.
Willeford keeps all these balls in the air like an expert juggler. There are humour and humanity in equal parts and you just can't help but love the way the pragmatic Moseley goes about his life and work, keeping it simple but always with a plan. Willeford was in the front of the pack when Florida crime novels became so popular they got their own genre heading. This was one of the best to ever come out of the sun-drenched state, getting the place just right on every page.
What's more, Willeford had Moseley working cold cases long before it became in vogue in police departments and crime novels around the world. That's even before the advent of DNA typing and other technologies brought new hope for the dead.
Michael Connelly's The Black Box will be published in the fall.
In the 1950s, the crime genre was more or less restricted to detective stories and still subject to the strict rules drawn up by commentators such as Ronald Knox, Dorothy L. Sayers and Raymond Chandler. However, plenty of novels were published that would, I believe, now be categorized as "crime fiction." One of my favourites is Rose Macaulay's The World My Wilderness, from 1950.
Set in Collioure in the south of France, and then London and Scotland, it deals with relations between Helen Michel, the English widow of Maurice, a French collaborator, and her daughter, Barbary. Maurice was murdered by the Maquis, and questions of guilt, innocence, punishment and redemption saturate the novel. Helen herself – beautiful, scholarly and self-indulgent – is a sinner by any measure applied by her still-living first husband, a strict English barrister, or their alluring son, Richie. Not only did Helen refuse to live by the ferocious rules of British society before the Second World War, but she is also now an intellectual fraud, pretending to have "discovered" some French medieval poetry she has in fact written herself.
But it is the murder of Maurice and Helen's fight to name and punish – or forgive – his killers that drive the novel through the unhappy exile of the troubled teenage Barbary, who is the true heroine, and who nearly dies in the ruins of bombed-out London before the revelations that make sense of everything.
Natasha Cooper's, Vengeance in Mind is published in Britain this summer.
Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder series is both a classic and probably the best modern private eyes series you've haven't read. I would start with A Dance at the Slaughterhouse, a noir novel that takes dark to a whole new hue. Thank me later.
Harlan Coben's Stay Close has just been published.
The Nero Wolfe Cookbook, by Rex Stout. Forty years ago, I read Stout's The League of Frightened Men, and entered into a love affair that I knew would last a lifetime. Jacques Barzun praises Stout for his "sinewy, pellucid, propelling prose," but it wasn't Stout's prose that drew me to his protagonist. My passion for Wolfe is carnal. He's brilliant; he seldom leaves his elegant brownstone on West 35th Street. He solves cases; grows orchids ("my concubines: insipid, expensive, parasitic and temperamental") and he lives to eat.
In The Final Deduction, Wolfe's legman and trusted confidant, Archie Goodwin, describes a scene at Wolfe's dinner table: "In between bites of deviled grilled lamb kidneys with a sauce he and Fritz had invented, Wolfe explained why it was that all you needed to know about any human society was what they ate. If you knew what they ate, you could deduce everything else – culture, philosophy, morals, politics, everything."
The Nero Wolfe Cookbook introduces us to a world of civilized pleasures where food preparation is taken seriously, a dish is cooked only for an occasion that is worthy of it, and every bite is savoured.
No recipe in this book will disappoint, but it is the pleasure of Wolfe's company that will draw you back again and again to the graceful dining room of the brownstone on West 35th Street.
Gail Bowen's 13th Joanne Kilbourn mystery, Kaleidoscope, has just been published.
The Cameraman, by Bill Gaston. This noir novel is cleverly structured and beautifully written. The plot pivots around what may have been a snuff film, the death by poisoning of an actress who is romantically involved with both the cameraman and the director of the movie. The story is told in a series of fast-forwards and reverses, much of it as if seen by the camera's eye. Both men have to confront looming charges of murder.
For fans of crime fiction, The Cameraman is indeed a buried treasure, because Gaston – winner of the Timothy Findley Award in 2002, and who teaches creative writing at the University of Victoria – is not known as a crime author and the novel was never marketed within the genre. But who cares? It's damn good.
William Deverell's most recent Arthur Beauchamp mystery is I'll See You in My Dreams.
My favourite crime writer also happens to be one of the almost forgotten greats of the Golden Age of crime writing. It's Josephine Tey, and while most people feel The Daughter of Time was her masterpiece, my favourite is The Franchise Affair (though Daughter of Time is absolutely remarkable). Most of Tey's books are crime novels, but not murder mysteries. In many there's no murder, but there is a crime. Or, is there?
What I simply adore about all of Tey's books is her economy of words, the crystalline clarity of her ideas and characters. But at the same time, there's an ambivalence about them. I'm attracted to the characters, but at times also repulsed. It's never totally clear whom I should be rooting for. Who are the heroes, who are the villains, who are the victims?
In The Franchise Affair, we meet an elderly woman and her middle-aged spinster daughter, newcomers to a dreary village at the end of the Second World War. While the villagers are leery of the newcomers, the mother and daughter hardly ingratiate themselves. They're aloof and standoffish. One day, a hysterical schoolgirl claims the two women abducted and held her for days.
She managed to escape. The mother and daughter answer a knock on their door to find the police, and the girl, with a story that apparently astonishes the women. They vehemently deny they kidnapped her and the police seem almost convinced. But then the girl describes the inside of their home perfectly, including the room in which she was held.
Not knowing who else to turn to, the women ring a country solicitor and ask for help. He agrees, and realizes that if he can't prove the little girl is lying, his clients will be found guilty. But as he investigates, he begins to have his doubts.
The Franchise Affair is a work of pure genius and proves how masterful Tey was, in her ability to create characters, then manipulate them and us. It's a glorious read, and Tey is worth discovering and rediscovering.
Louise Penny's new Chief Inspector Armand Gamache mystery, The Beautiful Mystery, is to be published in August.
A Married Man, by Piers Paul Read, was published in 1980. I keep talking about this book, hoping that someone will reissue it; it is out of print. It's a wonderful novel. It is elegantly plotted and about serious stuff. A lawyer in London who is turning 40 is engrossed with thoughts about the onset of middle age and the decline of Britain. He is drawn into an affair, with calamitous results. Obviously, some of the themes resemble those in my own books, which is probably what enhances my appreciation for it. The book was adapted as a TV movie, also quite good and equally disremembered.
Scott Turow's most recent mystery is Innocent.
The only thing bigger than Kinky Friedman's ego is his cowboy hat? That may be a reasonable assumption to make of a guy who casts himself, by name, as the hero in a private eye series. But the Kinkster is more complex that that. In his time, he has been a Peace Corps worker in Borneo and a stand-up comedian, helped run an animal sanctuary, fronted a country and western band called the Texas Jewboys and even ran for governor of that great state. He hasn't written anything of note for a few years. Some might say the only memorable thing he has ever written is a song called They Ain't Makin' Jews Like Jesus Any More. But I'm not one of those.
I was happily amused and entertained for years by his Village Irregular novels, and most of all by Roadkill, a fable wrapped around an entirely fictional attempt to assassinate Willie Nelson, and I've missed the series since it ended. Go on, Kinkster. Dig out the typewriter again. No one in their right mind will ever elect you governor of anywhere, so, to quote your last campaign slogan: Why the hell not?
Quintin Jardine's Funeral Note publishes in July.
The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey. Most people haven't even heard of Tey, but she should be revered next to Agatha Christie as one of the all-time greats. Here the mystery is centuries old and the detective spends the whole book in bed, but it's as gripping as any thriller.
Inspector Grant is stuck in hospital with one leg in traction. To stop himself going off his head with boredom, he ends up flipping through old mysteries and finds himself caught by Richard III. The only thing anyone knows about Richard is that he had his young nephews, the Princes in the Tower, murdered. But did he? And if he didn't, who did?
It's a wonderful police procedural, with Grant and his sidekick teasing out the evidence step by step, trying to reach a tentative understanding of both events and people across a gap of four-and-a-half centuries. But it's also a passionate and intelligent attack on the ways history is made, and the ease with which agenda-based myth comes to be taken as reality.
Tana French's Broken Harbor publishes in July.
Back in the eighties, when I first started reading crime fiction, I came across the name of Henry Wade. His books were nigh impossible to get, but I did manage to find a tattered old paperback copy of Mist on the Saltings (1933) in one of the many second-hand bookshops on Harbord Street, in Toronto, and I remember being struck as much by the setting as by the characters.
The story is set on the bleak Norfolk coast, full of mists, marshes and long perspectives where sea, sky and land become indistinguishable. Wade's characters are psychologically interesting too, damaged and troubled for the most part. This book also paints an interesting social picture of Britain between the wars. It's not such a great mystery, but there are plenty of other things to make it an interesting read. Wade's books are still hard to find, but I liked this one enough that it led me to seek out A Dying Fall (1955) and The Dying Captain (1932), both well worth reading.
Peter Robinson's Before the Poison has just been published in paperback.
I knew very little about so-called "crime fiction" when I wrote my first novel, Old City Hall. I soon discovered there was a whole world out there of very sophisticated readers – professors, tax lawyers, judges and even – who knew? – Toronto's own mayor at the time, David Miller.
He recommended the books of Andrea Camilleri, an 87-year-old (my hero) Italian writer of precise and amusing mysteries set on the rocky shores of Sicily. Each starts with the protagonist, Inspector Montalbano (who always sleeps, swims in the ocean and usually opens his front door naked) waking up cranky, horny and, most of all, hungry.
Camilerri writes with a sly political wit, laugh-out-loud sarcasm and just the right mix of anger at injustice and understanding of human shortcomings. But solving the murder always takes a back seat to finding just the right trattoria. Delicious stuff. Bet you can't read just one.
Robert Rotenberg's Stray Bullets was released on May 1. His The Guilty Plea has been nominated for the Arthur Ellis Award as Best Mystery Novel of the Year.
Tough Guys Don't Dance (1984), by Norman Mailer. The film version of his novel, which Mailer wrote and directed, is a cult classic as a bad movie, and returned less than a fifth of its cost. Both film and book pay homage to Cape Cod and Provincetown, where Mailer summered for many years, as did I.
The story is told by Tim Madden, writer, drunk, womanizer – a cartoonish portrait of Mailer's own self-generated image. Of his missing wife, the fictional Tim writes, "I wonder if her true passion was to reveal the abyss beneath my vanity." That abyss occupies as much of the novel's landscape as the dunes, the seashore and the wayward bars and deranged personalities of P-town.
When the severed heads of his lovers appear in Tim's marijuana patch, he's his own prime suspect, being prone to blackouts brought on by cocaine, alcohol and depression. But there's always the possibility that somebody else might be blamed. The ensuing search is both a hoot and a mean plow through washouts and the malevolent, a gallimaufry of rogues beset by drug- and sex-induced ambitions destined to fail before they've been concocted.
The novel has been called Mailer's worst, but he's had other clunkers. This deserves better play. It's funny and savvy, demented and sad, and while the plotting has blemishes, the writing has none.
Trevor Ferguson's series featuring Sergeant-Detective Émile Cinq-Mar is written under the name John Farrow. His most recent novel is River City.