For those with work to do and kids to homeschool, the idea that you might have lots more time on your hands amid the coronavirus lockdown probably seems like a bad joke. But for those who have a bit of extra reading time to make the most of, here are five crime fiction series to help pass the lockdown hours:
The LA Quartet, James Ellroy
James Ellroy L.A. Confidential (Cornerstone)
James Ellroy is well deserving of his status as the pre-eminent crime fiction writer of our times, and for those yet to discover the demonic delights of his oeuvre, the original ‘LA Quartet’ is definitely the place to start. The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz are self-contained, labyrinthine mysteries united by recurring characters (most notably, the monstrous Irish detective Dudley Smith), caustic language and plotting that paints Los Angeles as a seething hotbed of violence, racism and sexual depravity.
Ellroy’s stories are entertaining and alarming in equal measure. Due to their length and narrative complexity, they also make serious demands of the reader. LA Confidential is the best-known book of the four thanks to the excellent film adaptation and White Jazz is a master class in the machine gun prose style Ellroy developed as the quartet progressed.
For me though, my first Ellroy, The Black Dahlia, will always be my favourite. It is perhaps the most accessible book of the lot, but that’s not any kind of criticism. It’s the perfect introduction to the author’s mad and dangerous world. For those who feel at home there, it’s a magnificent place to be.
Claire DeWitt mysteries, Sara Gran
Claire DeWitt mysteries, Sara Gran (Faber & Faber)
I recently read Sara Gran’s 2011 novel City of the Dead and absolutely loved it. Set in New Orleans, Gran’s private eye Claire deWitt, whose approach to crime-solving involves drug taking, using her dreams for inspiration and following the principles set out in a book written by an unorthodox French detective, goes on the hunt for a missing assistant district attorney in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
DeWitt is that increasingly rare thing in crime fiction, a totally unique creation, and the New Orleans that Gran brings to life is both recognisable and otherworldly. The Clare DeWitt series is only three books in, so it’s not too much of a challenge to get through the lot. The Bohemian Highway and The Infinite Blacktop, books two and three respectively, are right at the top of my ‘to be read’ pile.
Bosch, Michael Connelly
The Night Fire, Michael Connelly (Orion)
If you want to get into a big modern series of crime novels, there are, of course, many options at your disposal, from Jack Reacher to Cormoran Strike (and a whole load of private eyes, police officers and journalists-turned-crime fighters in between). My recommendation would be Michael Connelly’s bestselling Bosch books. Set in a less crazed but no less acutely drawn version of LA than Ellroy’s, Connelly continues to find gripping new plots for his jazz-loving Detective Harry Bosch, even though he is more than 20 books into the series.
The action-packed second book The Black Ice, that starts with a cop committing suicide and ends with Bosch on the mean streets of Mexico, really gets things moving. The TV adaptation available to stream on Amazon Prime is worth a look, too.
Poirot, Agatha Christie
Cards on the Table, Agatha Christie (Harper Collins)
For many, reading is currently a blessed relief, a great escape from the endless coronavirus news cycle. What better way for crime fans to escape the horror stories than by being transported back to another era via Agatha Christie’s expertly plotted whodunits. Her books about the genius Belgian detective are a joy, whether you reading them for the first time or returning to them after a few years break.
I strongly recommend The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which starts with our moustachioed hero taking time off from work and tending to his marrows at his home in the fictional village of King’s Abbott, but soon has him on the trail of the killer of a wealthy local businessman.
The Laidlaw Trilogy, William McIlvanney
Laidlaw, William McIlvanney (Black Thorn)
William McIlvanney died in 2015 at the age of 79, just two years after this influential trilogy was returned to print by Canongate. Writing the first of the books, Laidlaw, in the mid-70s, McIlvanney brought an American-style grittiness to his crime fiction and a literary élan to go with it. In the opening installment, Inspector Jack Laidlaw is trying to solve the brutal murder of a young girl whose body has been found in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Park, with the case taking him deep into the city’s shadows.
At one point we are told Laidlaw keeps the work of Camus and Kierkegaard locked in his desk draw, later a thug’s face is described as being so angry that it “belonged on a medieval church”. These are the books that kick-started the ‘tartan noir’ sub-genre, influencing the likes of Ian Rankin and Val McDermid along the way. If you love hard-boiled crime writing that pulses with descriptive language, you’ll devour McIlvanney’s compulsive series in no time at all.