Rob Kitchin’s classic crime fiction curriculum challenge

Classic_Crime_Fiction_Challenge Rob Kitchin, author of The Rule Book and who blogs at The View from the Blue House, has an unusual dilemma – he wants some recommendations for books to read. Not just any book, as he explains: "Imagine a reader new to crime fiction and wanting an education in the classics. Or consider a seasoned crime fiction reader who’s barely read a crime novel published prior to 1970. Well I’m that latter reader."

Rob is therefore issuing a challenge:set a ten book, pre-1970, crime fiction curriculum (ideally, of different subgenres and styles) and either post the list on your own blog and send Rob the link by email  (, or post the list in a comment to his "challenge" post, by 31 January. Rob will then compile a curriculum based on the most popular choices (and provide link-backs to posts).

My suggestions, made on the fly in about five minutes, are:

1. Dashiell Hammett (the master) – I like The Dain Curse best but most people like The Maltese Falcon.
2. Ross Macdonald – any really, eg The Drowning Pool
3. James Hadley Chase eg No Orchids for Miss Blandish
4. Hillary Waugh, Last Seen Wearing, usually said to be the first police procedural told from the point of view of the details of the investigation, and fantastic.
5. Ngaio Marsh – again, any, really – I'd pick one with Agatha Troy in it. (wife of the detective, Roderick Alleyn)
6.Patricia Highsmith – the Ripley books were the start of something really else in the genre, but other books are also good: Strangers on a Train is great, much darker than the movie.
7. James Cain, eg The Postman Always Rings Twice
8. Raymond Chandler, any. (Lady in the Lake, perhaps?)
9. Wilkie Collins, either The Woman in White or No Name or Armadale (The Moonstone, to my mind, has not stood the test of time so well because the police detective novel has been so regularly imitated, and dare I say it, developed in more interesting ways)
10. I've run out! So many more I could choose. Dorothy Sayers is a bit snobbish but she is a classic so one of hers , eg Nine Tailors or Have His Carcasse.

Breaking the rules, I continued a full Baker's dozen:
11. John Franklin Bardin, who wrote three extraordinary novels – one could buy them in a three-in-one Penguin edition years ago. 
12. Julian Symons, a superb author. One of his earlier ones (pre-1970), eg The Man who killed himself or the Solomon Grundy one.
13 Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo's books were mainly written after 1970 but Roseanna, the first, just about scrapes in and of all these old books, is perhaps the freshest today in terms of its lean prose and lack of "style of the times". (I've only read one Ed McBain, who is often compared to S/W or vice versa, but I prefer S/W on that basis.)

What do you think? Can you compile your own list, post it on your blog, and provide Rob with the link? (There are already several lists in the comment field to Rob's challenge post and some further discussion at Friend Feed.) I'm eagerly anticipating the final breakdown on 1 Feb or thereabouts.


12 thoughts on “Rob Kitchin’s classic crime fiction curriculum challenge

  1. Several of your list are already on my own ‘crime fiction I must read before I die’ list. I’m definitely going to have to retire early so I have time to read everything 🙂
    I had forgotten about Hillary Waugh’s book – set in the women’s university if I recall correctly and a great read.

  2. There are several of these I haven´t even read, and the funny thing is that the list I am compiling is much more British than yours.
    Well, I know that British and Swedish are my favourites, but who knows, the global challenge may change some things this year.

  3. Hi Dorte, you put your finger on it for me – one reason I enjoy crime fiction is for the variety of places and settings. I remember discovering some of these American authors (eg Waugh, Hadley Chase) when a teenager and, wow! Another world, in spades (Sam Spades ;-))
    Hi Bernadette, I thought I’d better just write a list off the top of my head, or I would never be able to whittle it down. As it was I broke the rules and since then I’ve thought of many more old favourites…

  4. Do not neglect an anthology of Black Mask stories; they were the foundation upon which much of 20th century American crime fiction was built.
    And, whether or not you like her work, something from Agatha Christie is an absolute obligation (if for not other reason than her influence upon so many subsequent writers).

  5. What about Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell? Arguably the first crime novel in English.
    I have been reading this blogg for a while now, but this is the first time I have commented, so I also want to say that I enjoy your postings very much!

  6. What a great post. I too would have Agatha Christie in there. It has taken a long time for me to appreciate her work, but recently have come round to the cleverness and craft in it.
    The most grievous omission for me, however, is the “other” MacDonald, John D, whose Travis McGee series started in the mid 1960s with the Deep Blue Good Bye (MacDonald’s book titles were all colour-coded). These books are tremendous entertainment and McGee is a role model for the maverick detectives that followed.

  7. Good suggeston of John D MacDonald, Ben. And yes, I do agree that Christie was a pivotal influence – as was Conan Doyle and I omitted him, too. Sigh. (Other people have included Conan Doyle and Christie on their lists.)

  8. james hadley chase is an excellent choice.Patricia Wentworth is well worth reading.As is Bill James,Reginald Hill,Colin Wilson,Henning Mankel,Boris Akunin,Ann Granger,Peter Lovesey,Bill Knox,Denise Mina.

  9. It is not necessary that First Edition/ First Printing is same as First Edition book. An Edition of a book means all printing of a book in one typeset and no significant change alterations. So if the publisher decides to print another batch of 50,000 of book X – then they will still be First Edition Books but Second print.

  10. Good list. Sherlock Holmes was among my first detectives and aside from some U.S. lawyers or detectives, I recall reading Hercule Poirot-themed books by Agatha Chrystie, and one or two by Dorothy Sayers and Josephine Tey. That was in the 1960.
    A reader should read some of Arthur Conan Doyle’s classics; they really made me get tuned in to the importance of keen observation and using the scientific method.

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