The Five Best First-Person Crime Novels
I recently wrote a long post on private eye novels, and thought about including a few from the criminal’s point of view, but decided it was a separate category. These are often grouped with private eyes under the vague headings of “noir” or “hardboiled” fiction, maybe since they started in some of the same magazines, but it’s a very different type of story.
I warned in that private eye post that you can’t rely on the most devoted fans, because “they’ve often developed a kitschy affection for a lot of the crap.” That warning goes double here. I’ve read a number of “classics” in this category that are just laughably dated. And the other thing to admit upfront is that the movies are often better than the books. Most of the prominent authors were also screenwriters, and you can tell far too often that they were writing with Hollywood in mind. Some of the most-filmed pulp writers that fans gush over — Cornell Woolrich, David Goodis, Jim Thompson — don’t get me started.
But again, I read all that stuff so that you don’t have to. For you, I’ve narrowed it down to just five must-reads.
“Let’s use my car,” she said. She went directly to it and got in on the driver’s side. I climbed out of the Ford and walked over and got in beside her. She spun the wheels in the crushed stone backing up.
On the highway she turned south. I watched alternately a full moon off over the gulf and the road unwinding in the headlights. There was no conversation. Sometimes I know ahead of time, but tonight wasn’t one of those times.
Rule #1 with old crime fiction is not to be put off by over-the-top titles. For Dan Marlowe, the most commercial writer on this list, this isn’t even a particularly lurid one. The story, which Stephen King called “the hardest of the hard-boiled,” is about a bank robber trying to track down one of his missing partners, and getting into serious trouble along the way. The narrator is one of the most vivid sociopaths in crime fiction, and the sequel, One Endless Hour, is nearly as good.
Black Wings Has My Angel (1953)
She waved her glass. “I want to make it plain as the nose on your face. I can stand anything in the book but gentlemen. Because I’ve spent a lot of time, too much time with them, and I know why gentlemen are what they are. They decide to be that way after they’ve tried all the real things and flopped at them. They’ve flopped at women. They’ve flopped at standing up on their hind legs and acting like men. So they become gentlemen. They’ve flopped at being individuals. So they say to themselves one fine morning: ‘What can I be that’s no trouble at all and that doesn’t amount to a damned thing, but yet will make everyone look up to me?’ The answer’s simple. Be a gentleman. Take life flat on your back, cry in private, and then in a well-modulated voice.”
This book, which has recently gotten a much-deserved reissue from NYRB, is probably the most cinematic story that’s never been filmed, about an ex-con and a call girl plotting an armored car heist. I see now from Wikipedia that it’s in development with Tom Hiddleston, Anna Paquin and Elijah Wood, which is casting against type for all three, but we’ll see.
It was raining that night, so I didn’t go out. I lit a fire and sat there, trying to figure out where I was at. I knew where I was at, of course. I was standing right on the deep end, looking over the edge, and I kept telling myself to get out of there, and get quick, and never come back. But that was what I kept telling myself. What I was doing was peeping over that edge, and all the time I was trying to pull away from it, there was something in me that kept edging a little closer, trying to get a better look.
A little before nine the bell rang. I knew who it was as soon as I heard it. She was standing there in a raincoat and a little rubber swimming cap, with the raindrops shining over her freckles.
These two mid-30s novellas by James Cain are in some ways the archetype of the first-person criminal story in the same way as Philip Marlowe is the archetypal detective. They have a very similar plot, which Cain took in part from the real life case of Ruth Snyder: the male narrator falls in love with a married woman and together they plot to kill her husband. Postman is the blue-collar version, with the narrator as an aimless drifter and the couple running a roadside diner; Double Indemnity has a white-collar setting, with an insurance salesman getting entangled with a wealthy housewife. A decade later, they were made into iconic movies, with Lana Turner and Barbara Stanwyck as two of the definitive femmes fatale. The books are just as good: compact and propulsive, they build up an incredible amount of tension in only about a hundred pages each.
Cain would go on to write one more classic, Mildred Pierce, which was also made into a great movie with Joan Crawford, but the adaptation is less faithful and both are closer to the melodrama category than pure crime.
The Big Clock (1946)
I had been living pretty much alone for the last three weeks, since Georgette and Georgia had gone to Florida, and I felt talkative. So I talked. I told her the one about what the whale said to the submarine, why the silents had been the Golden Age of the movies, why Lonny Trout was a fighter’s fighter, and then I suggested that we drive up to Albany.
That is what we finally did. I experienced again the pleasure of driving up the heights of the only perfect river in the world, the river that never floods, never dries up, and yet never seems to be the same twice. Albany we reached, by stages, in about three hours.
Written by Kenneth Fearing, a proto-Beat poet who was probably the closest thing here to an intellectual (but don’t hold it against him), this is more of a Hitchcock-type story in which the police are looking for the wrong man and he has to race to prove himself innocent. It was made into a solid movie with Ray Milland.
All of the above are quick reads (I’d be surprised if they add up to 800 pages combined) and unlike with private eyes, there aren’t a lot of long series in this category, usually because the average character’s life expectancy is a lot shorter. If you’re looking for more, you’re better off either watching the movies or moving laterally to some related types of stories. I went in order above from the hardened criminal who knows what he’s doing, to greedy, selfish characters carried away by their passions and getting in over their heads, to the narrator of The Big Clock who actually doesn’t seem like such a bad guy, though he’s still no saint. If you wanted to move further in that direction to the outwardly ordinary character who suddenly finds himself leading a life of crime, the best examples are probably the non-Maigret novels by Georges Simenon: start with The Man Who Watched Trains Go By or Monsieur Monde Vanishes. In the other direction, the consummate professional crook who’s always in control of his emotions, the best example is the Parker series by Donald Westlake.
One final note: if this post and my previous one seem a little too opinionated, I’m just trying to correct for the tendency of genre fans to declare every old book a forgotten masterpiece. After all, “ninety percent of everything is crap” (a rule coined by another great genre writer) and it’s no good pretending otherwise. There’s a certain fan culture around “hardboiled” fiction that I’ve always been a little baffled by, and I can see how it would be off-putting to a lot of readers. If that’s you, these are the books you should read anyway.