Thomas H. Cook, one of the best at what he does, has done it again with 2013's Sandrine's Case, which is just as intricate and surprising as you'd expect from the Edgar winner. A veteran thriller and mystery writer of over 20 books, Cook shared his favorite mystery novels.
I went to the Alabama public schools at a time when my English teachers, all but one of whom was a woman, taught nothing but the classics. They revered the great British and American writers. As a high school student, I read Shakespeare and Dickens, Hemingway and Fitzgerald. As a result, my reading taste has always been guided by the sense that a novel should be a complete work of art, that action, alone, is not enough, and that it is moral dilemma that ups the ante in crime fiction just as it does in all other literary forms. For these reasons, the 10 books listed below are all novels that skew toward the literary. Their plots are character-driven and their action is organic. They have distinct narrative voices and the sense of place is, as they say, palpable. That said, they are extraordinarily different in time, place, style, voice and probably in every other way one novel can be technically different from another. In the end, of course, the relationship between a novel and a reader is one in which one subjectivity confronts another. My choices are admittedly subjective, with plenty of room for disagreement, but in my view they remain if not the 10 best mysteries every written, certainly my favorites.
1. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins - This is still a wonderfully mysterious novel. It is large and sweeping, with skillfully drawn characters, lovely passages and absolutely haunting scenes, a fully formed 19th century novel with all the trimmings. The story is complicated, but it was originally written in serial form, so the story moves forward in carefully measured steps. Much of what became standard in crime fiction was first done here, so it is not only an engaging read, but a fundamentally instructive one.
2. A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne - I have recommended this book many times to all kinds of readers. For me, it is a novel that uses suspense in the best possible way, not by having a character confront one contrived obstacle after another in a mindless stream of action, but by creating an atmosphere of deep moral peril in which the culminating tragedy seems as inevitable as it is, well…tragic. It is also one of those books in which the title become completely apt, and very moving, after one has completed the book. In this case, the “crime in the neighborhood” turns out to be far more profound and long lasting than any single act of violence could be.
3. A Dark-Adapted Eye by Ruth Rendell - I confess that this is one of the most beautiful titles in mystery fiction. The good news is that the book lives up to the title. It is intricate, with genuinely surprising revelations, and the depth of the characterizations makes a major contribution to the novel’s suspense. This is psychological suspense for adults, with real people confronting real, and very dark problems.
4. A Coffin for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler - “It is not who fired the shot but who paid for the bullet.” It is a line that has since become famous, but it is only one of the many literary beauties of the book. Dimitrios, in life and death, is a figure of surpassing fascination, his life a tale of struggle and fierce intrigue that I have never forgotten. The secondary characters are wonderfully drawn. From the moment Charles Latimer meets Colonel Haki and hears of the mysterious Dimitrios, the reader is returned to the lost Balkan world that flourished between the two world wars, a boiling cauldron of expediency and deceit that Ambler renders in exquisite detail.
5. True Confessions by John Gregory Dunne - The novel begins with a crime based on the Black Dahlia murder, and from there steadily deepens into a work of great emotional power, complete with an unforgettable portrait of Los Angeles in the '40s. It is a story of two brothers, one a cop, the other a priest, and by following their relationship along the trail of a gruesome crime, it ultimately becomes one of the most movingly redemptive novels I have ever read.
6. The Eye of the Beholder by Marc Behm - I read this novel years and years ago, and have never been able to get it out of my mind. It is a story of obsession, with a private detective called only The Eye who follows a nameless female serial killer for more than a decade. The Eye is the classically damaged PI, not just solitary, but deeply lonely, and the woman he pursues is a heartless--yet in some sense comprehensible--hater of men. The macabre dance of death that becomes their lives is one of the strangest and most intriguing relationships in mystery fiction.
7. A Simple Plan by Scott Smith - In this wholly realistic novel, two brothers and a friend come upon a crashed plane in whose shattered ruins they find an enormous sum of money. Before that moment, none of these men has ever needed to concoct a simple plan to keep and conceal a fortune that quite obviously does not belong them. In the midst of doing just that, they become criminals, as well as victims of crime. The story builds steadily as the wages of sin become more and more costly. Here is a classic cautionary tale about the penalty dishonesty may exact upon ordinary, and largely innocent, human beings.
8. Sneaky People by Thomas Berger - This is arguably one of the funniest crime novels ever written. It is set in the 1930s, and its main character is Buddy Sandifer, a used car dealer who wants one very simple thing: his wife dead. The reason is no less simple. He yearns to live the rest of his days with Laverne, a woman who on occasion dimly realizes that sleeping with men for money adds up to prostitution. Buddy’s efforts to plot his wife’s murder creates one of the most hilarious tales of misadventure you will ever read.
9. The Quiet American by Graham Greene - Published in 1955, The Quiet American provides an intensely observed portrait of Vietnam on the eve of French defeat. Fowler, the world-weary British journalist whose observations enrich this fiercely observed novel, provides just the right counterpoint to Alden Pyle, the idealist “quiet American” whose mysterious death provides the narrative heart of the story. Part novel of intrigue, part mystery, part love story, The Quiet American remains as powerful today as when it was first written.
10. Cutter and Bone by Newton Thornburg - Hailed by the New York Times as the best novel of its kind in 10 years, Cutter and Bone is the story story of one man’s obsession with another man’s crime, in this case, a murder. What makes Thornburg’s story unique is that the “murderer,” a big money man by the name of J.J. Wolfe, may not have committed the crime at all. For that reason, it is Cutter’s mad pursuit of Wolfe, rather that the justice of that pursuit, that gives the book its passionate momentum.