My Favourite Crime Writers

What I Read – Part 2: American Crime Writers

Although I’m terrified that reading someone else’s mystery style will seep into mine, I do read some American crime when I’m working, because that’s so different to what I do that there’s no danger of it influencing me.

Perhaps the best of them is Stanley Ellin, who wrote three masterpieces – STRONGHOLD, VERY OLD MONEY, and MIRROR, MIRROR ON THE WALL. STRONGHOLD is the story of how an isolated Quaker community deals with being taken over by a psychopath. VERY OLD MONEY concerns an aspiring writer and his wife who take jobs as servants with a very rich family in New York. The details of how the house is run shouldn’t be the least bit interesting, but I found myself gripped from the start. MIRROR, MIRROR is just weird, but beautifully constructed.

Another fine writer, whose books are not so much mysteries as thrillers, is Ross Thomas. His plots are very complicated, very fast and probably wouldn’t hold up to detailed examination, but they carry you along like no one else’s. And he has the ability to give the reader a compete biography of a character in a couple of hundred words (that shouldn’t work, by the way, but it does).

Finally, there’s Ed McBain. His real name was Evan Hunter, and he wrote serious novels including the very famous BLACKBOARD JUNGLE. He started writing the 87th Precinct novels for relaxation, and his original plan was to produce twenty-six of them – each starting with a different letter of the alphabet, and then blow the precinct up. That never happened, of course, and he wrote a lot more of the series. Actually, I’m not that fond of the 87th Precinct books – I find them a little formulaic – but I’m a big fan of his Matthew Hope series. They’re a bit like the Ross Thomas books in a way – the plot often isn’t that great, but he takes you into another world, which is reward enough in itself.


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  1. Any views on Ross Macdonald ? I read most of his Lew Archer books a good 30 odd years ago and recently revisited one on audiobook to find I was still riveted. A fascinating picture of the changing scene in Southern California and Lew Archer is much more of a realist than Philip Marlowe(who seems too good to be true at times). His wife Margaret Millar also wrote some excellent ‘psychological’ thrillers. Talking of Macdonalds I have a sneaking liking for Philip of that ilk. His Anthony Gethyn books may not always be the most subtly plotted but still have a curious appeal


    • Sorry, Mike – Alan sent me a reply that got lost in the emails:
      Yes, I agree with you about Lew Archer ( and wasn’t Paul Newman great in the film?). I’ve never read any Philip MacDonald. I’m a big fan of Ross Thomas, who is more thriller than mystery. His plots don’t hold water, and he’s constantly bombarding you with potted biographies of minor characters which should, in theory, destroy the narrative flow, but once I’ve picked up one of his books I find it hard to put down again. Much the same could be said about Ed McBain’s Matthew Hope novels – another of my favourites. If you read English detective novels, could I recommend Reginald Hill. His later novels are extremely complicated, but well worth the effort.

  2. In studying the Lew Archer novels of Ross Macdonald I’ve tried to identify certain characteristics, themes, motifs, images – call them what you like – that crop up frequently throughout the various books. I don’t claim that the following are particularly important or have any special significance or meaning; nor do I say this is a comprehensive list. They are simply some things I’ve noticed in more than one of the novels. Some of these appear in quite a few of the Archers. In time I hope to post the results of reading through each of the books individually while searching for these ‘repeaters’.