Noir — from the French, er, noir, meaning “black” — is a label adopted by, or possibly foisted upon, the end of the crime fiction genre where things get appropriately murky: we have anti-heroes, moral bankruptcy, dodgy dealings, and possibly criminals getting away with things and the social order not necessarily restored. My Vintage edition of Laura (1943) by Vera Caspary showcases the New Yorker declaring this novel “Noir in a nutshell”…and that feels like a desperate bid to invite a female author into the sausage-fest that the annals of Noir tend to be. Because, honestly, Laura couldn’t be further from that promised noirsette if it tried…and I really do think it’s trying.
Do anything for long enough – spelunking, chicken farming, marriage, presenting live television – and you’re bound to make some mistakes. Thus, no novelist with more than a few books to their name is going to have a perfect run, even allowing for the subjectivity of readers’ opinions; class being permanent and form being temporary, everyone writes a dud now and then. Which brings us to Buried for Pleasure, the sixth of Edmund Crispin’s nine detective novels based around Gervase Fen, Professor of English Literature at a fictional Oxford college, sometime detective, and springer spaniel in human form. A more likeable, enthusiastic, and chaotic protagonist you are unlikely to find, and here the joys of Don-ship have worn off and so Fen has decided to stand for parliament as an MP for an out-of-the-way country constituency in the upcoming General Election. And then there’s a murder, and then another murder, and our springer spaniel is suddenly up to his bloodhound tricks again…
So I love my classic crime, we’ve established that, but where does this leave you? After all, having someone go on about themselves all the time gets a bit boring. You’re always saying that, aren’t you? Sensible person that you are. So, just for you – yes, you – here’s a list of five books I’d recommend if you’re thinking of getting started reading classsic crime fiction but are a little overwhelmed by all these books by dead authors (I feel the same about classical music, for what it’s worth).
My criteria are fairly simple: novels only, first published between 1920 and 1950, and widely available for purchase now. It’s all very well having someone recommend the most amazing book ever, but if it was last in print in 1932 and only changes hands in book-fair back rooms for the kind of money that it takes to keep your kids in shoes for a decade…well, that’s just someone showing off, isn’t it. Why share a love of something that can’t itself be shared? The list is alphabetical by author, too, because that just seems sensible: