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Crime and Literature: 10 Literary Classics with Criminal Elements

The case has been knocking around for as long as novels have been published. There is supposed to be great literature on one side of the divide and grubby disreputable crime fiction on the other. The usual suspects always get trotted out and displayed in the harsh light of the lineup. Did you commit pulp or literature, kid? It’s invariably Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Sometimes Agatha Christie and somebody like Dorothy Sayers gets dragged in for interrogation. And these days, maybe P.D. James or Ruth Rendell.

But what if we turned the bright lights around, for once? How many classic works wouldn’t exist without the elements of crime fiction? The answer, I think, is quite a few. I know there are some people who say that if a novel isn’t a mystery or a thriller, it doesn’t belong in the crime fiction category. I disagree. My favorite books are about how a crime ripples out into people’s lives, not about simple answers.

So here are 10 blue-chip picks, meant to provoke arguments and alternate choices. If you haven’t read them because they’re “classics,” don’t be intimidated. A good story is a good story.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

You knew I had to start off with that one because it’s right there in the title. A cat-and-mouse psychodrama. The duel between Raskolnikov and Porfiry, criminal and cop, echoes all over the fields of mysteries, thrillers, and suspense stories. But the more you read Dostoevsky, the more crime you see in his work. Not surprising for an author who was put before a firing squad and spent some of his best years in prison. The Brothers Karamazov has those great trial scenes, and you can see a kind of proto-noir in The Gambler, The Double, and many of his other works. But for me, the clear forerunner is Notes from Underground, with its seedy backdrop and the unstable, unreliable narrator who could step onto the streets of contemporary Chicago or Boston and commandeer a novel by Gillian Flynn or Dennis Lehane like he was hailing a cab on the street.

The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor

Literary critics often write about O’Connor as if she was mainly a Southern Gothic writer or a Catholic writer. But when I first read her as a teenager, I thought she was a crime writer—and a sensational one.

She doesn’t write mysteries or thrillers or anything with a tidy, comforting ending. Her intention seems entirely the opposite, which is why I also took her to be a great punk writer when I encountered her. Her most famous character in her most famous story is The Misfit (how punk is that?) in A Good Man Is Hard to Find, a notorious murderer who bats away a grandmother’s pieties when she encounters him after a roadside accident, scoffs at Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, and then dispatches the old woman with three shots to the chest when she tries to touch him. Then, there’s “Good Country People,” in which a traveling Bible salesman tenderly offers his attention and his whiskey to a 32-year-old virgin and then steals her prosthetic leg. Or one of my personal favorites, “The Lame Shall Enter First,” in which a well-meaning social worker named Sheppard takes a teenage juvenile delinquent named Johnson into his home and sees his life torn apart as a result of his good and rational intentions.

Yes, we’re a long way from the classic detective story, where a crime is solved by logical deduction and moral order is restored to the universe. So what?

Atonement by Ian McEwan

McEwan is widely and deservedly acknowledged as one of the masters of modern literature. But many of his best books have a crime as its primary engine. Enduring Love is a stalker story about a same-sex obsession, not that different in structure from something Patricia Highsmith might have written—if she’d philosophical ambitions. The Innocent, set in Berlin at the beginning of the Cold War, strays well into John le Carre territory and adds a twist gruesome enough to make Thomas Harris flinch. But in Atonement, his most famous and possibly greatest work, the crime is both more subtle and far more devastating. A child’s reckless and false accusation of rape leads to an innocent man being arrested, destroys a number of adult lives in the process, and produces a heartbreaking work of art.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Like McEwan, a modern master but on this side of the Atlantic and decisively grander and less approachable. Her greatness is undeniable, though I must confess I sometimes get lost in the hallucinatory thickets of her dense lyrical prose. Crime plays a role in several of her key works, though nowhere more plainly or poignantly than in Beloved. The plot, if narrowly defined, turns on a desperate mother’s attempt to free her children from a life under slavery by killing them. She succeeds in doing away with only one and then is haunted long after by what could be the child’s ghost. But, obviously, the greater crime—and the one that looms behind much of American literature, including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—is the original sin and lasting national shame of slavery itself.

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

If you’ve read this far, you might very well be rolling your eyes and saying, “uh, duh, what about The Great Gatsby?” But Fitzgerald doesn’t need the hype. He’s still on a lot of high school reading lists, and his work keeps getting adapted into movies starring the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio. Dreiser doesn’t have the glitzy reputation or glamorous downfall story. His deliberate, heavy-footed style, underpinned by studious research, marks him as a relic of another era. But, for me, there’s a realism to his work that transcends its time, and I see his influence in the work of contemporary authors like Richard Price and Tom Wolfe. Like those writers, he knows how to anchor an ambitious story about an individual and their society in the specifics of a crime story. An American Tragedy, the story of a young factory supervisor who kills his pregnant lover, is his greatest work. Its best-known iteration is A Place in the Sun, the film version starring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, and Shelley Winters (as the victim, naturally). But look for Dreiser’s book and give yourself some time to fall under its spell.

Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy

In his lifetime, Count Tolstoy did pretty much every kind of writing you can think of: religious tracts, philosophical works that influenced Gandhi and Martin Luther King, tortured love stories that anticipated the soap opera, and some of the most powerful war stories ever committed to prose. But his shorter narratives, particularly, contain great crime stories that reverberate all over the cultural landscape. “God Sees the Truth, But Waits” has been identified by some as the inspiration for Shawshank Redemption (though not necessarily by Stephen King, as far as I can tell). “The Kreutzer Sonata,” a tale of jealousy and madness culminating in homicide, was the basis of the Preston Sturges film Unfaithfully Yours with Rex Harrison and Linda Darnell. And “Hadji Murad,” one of Tolstoy’s last works of fiction, based on his experiences as a soldier in the Caucus region a half-century before, anticipates the modern terrorism novel but with more psychological complexity and acuity. It contains one of the most startling images in all of Tolstoy’s work: a Muslim insurgent—handcuffed to a Russian soldier and being led down a mountain road to his certain execution—decides to leap over the ledge instead and survives.

House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Like many others, I was puzzled when Martin Scorsese chose to follow up Goodfellas and Cape Fear with an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence. Then, I started reading Wharton, and the decision suddenly made perfect sense. Although she’s often bracketed as “a women’s author” and associated with Gilded Age New York, her sense of strict customs, violent underlying emotions, and the consequences for transgressing tribal codes is as barbed and tense as anything you can find in Mean Streets or Taxi Driver. And her most hardboiled novel is House of Mirth. Sticklers may point out that its protagonist, Lily Bart, never quite breaks the law in her desperate search to find money, respectability and, yes, love before time runs out on her. But she skitters pretty damn close to the edge in dealing with her rising gambling debts, de facto prostitution, and deepening drug addiction. There’s even an episode that looks to the modern like something very close to insider trading. Wharton is, of course, a greater writer than, say, a Jim Thompson or a David Goodis, but somehow I think their seedy hustlers and last-chance hoodlums might recognize a kindred spirit in her work.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

Before there was a musical! Before there was a mystery section in most bookstores! Before the title itself evoked visions of a volume big enough to keep your door against the strongest breezes of spring! Before any of that, there was a cat-and-mouse tale about a thief named Valjean and a cop named Javert who wouldn’t leave him alone. I read somewhere recently that at least 25 percent of Victor Hugo’s epic consists of digressions and essays on subjects that are irrelevant to the plot. True, but so what? Hugo, who was a contemporary of Dickens and Tolstoy, was also a great storyteller, and what’s at the heart of this novel is a great crime story.

Bonus detail I only recently learned: both Valjean and Javert are thought to be based on the same real-life individual: Eugene Francois Vidocq, a French criminal turned criminalist, who is also considered by many to be the world’s first private detective and also inspired characters from Balzac, Poe and, yes, Arthur Conan Doyle.

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Don’t even try to get out of it, okay? Yes, it’s a coming-of-age story. Yes, it’s about the American South and racism. Yes, it won the Pulitzer Prize, was instantly a monster bestseller, and is enshrined as a mid-20th-century classic and on respectable English class reading lists all over the world. But it’s not much of a novel without the story of an African-American man falsely accused of rape providing gravity at its center.

Want to see what would happen if it wasn’t there? Read Go Set A Watchman, written before Mockingbird but published just a few years after Lee’s death. Most reviewers fixated on the unsympathetic (some would say more honest) portrait of Atticus Finch as a main problem in the book. But the absence of a compelling crime narrative may have been the more fatal flaw.

American Pastoral by Philip Roth

This last pick was a tough one because it came to a choice between Roth’s 1997 novel and Billy Bathgate by E.L. Doctorow. Both are seminal works by masters of the late-20th-century American novel. For a while, I was giving the edge to Bathgate, a rocketing tale of a 15-year-old boy from the Bronx who winds up falling under the sway of the true-life gangster Dutch Schultz. The book opens with a chapter that any crime novelist would have literally killed someone to have written: A precise and lyrical description of Schultz’s men fitting a lieutenant named Bo Weinberg with a pair of cement overshoes and tossing him into the East River. But in the end, Roth’s novel may be the larger, darker, and more encompassing work. The story of what should have been a wonderful American undone by a kidnapping, a bombing of a post office, and a daughter’s betrayal. But it’s much more than that. Just read it, and you’ll see. When Roth died earlier this year, I saw a number of critics dismiss his work as retrograde, anti-feminist, and myopic. I do not believe most of them could have read this novel and still said that.

© Peter Blauner
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