Advancing the Darkness: Five Modern Masters of Mystery and Crime

(Please welcome a new contributor to LitKicks, Garrett Kenyon, a writer from Kansas City who can be reached at The illustration is by Clayton Douglas. — Levi)

Poe, Chandler, Hammett … even casual readers have heard the names of the writers who started the crime and mystery genres in America. They’re spoken of with reverence by those who take their fiction with a dash of intrigue and a spoonful of blood. Their craft was insured its place at the heart of American culture by those that came after – such worthy torchbearers as crime legend Jim Thompson, noir virtuoso Cornell Woolrich, and others. And so it continued until the present day.

There’s a glut of contenders hoping to be the next to carry the banner in the 21st Century. But for every author who crafts a worthy, literate crime novel, there are thousands whose work ends up in dusty bins in Salvation Armies and 50-cent grab-bags at neighborhood garage sales. With all those names floating around, it can be difficult for the dilettante to find a mystery novel worth reading. Here are five writers who are keeping the noir tradition alive here in the States, and spreading the work across the waters:

Ken Bruen (Ireland)

Bruen’s work has been described as what Joyce would have written if he tried his hand at mystery. While that may be a tad overwrought, it’s not entirely unrealistic. My favorite Bruen series follows hard-case Jack Taylor, an Irish ex-cop with addiction issues, through a series of mishaps and disasters that have a way of turning deadly serious. One of the pleasures of the series is watching Taylor come to grips with the fact that his country has passed him by. His hometown, the once-gloomy Galway, is now a neon-gilded city on the move, and Jack has become an “undesirable” — a reminder of a grittier, seedier Ireland that the new Celtic Tiger would rather forget.

Bruen’s writing is spare — what remains is geared for maximum impact. Jack Taylor has the requisite fatalistic humor and wicked Irish wit that make him an endearing, if completely fucked, character to follow through his various misadventures. The novels are packed with a rotating cast of eclectic characters, from a chain-smoking, trash-talking priest to a stranded ex-junkie punk grrl from London. Bruen’s other series are worthwhile, but for my money — I recommend starting with The Guards and working your way up the ladder.

Denis Lehane (United States – East Coast)

This Boston prodigy burst into the public’s awareness when his second novel Mystic River was made into a movie starring a cast of Tinseltown A-listers. But even if you’ve already thrilled to Sean Penn’s portrayal of simmering ex-thug Jimmy Markum dealing with the brutal murder of his daughter, you still need to pick up the book. Lehane might be crime’s closest thing to a classic talent. His skills in rendering the brute physicality of a setting and the uncoupling of past and present are unparalleled, and he’s a maestro of character ambiguity and quick, sudden violence.

Soon, Lehane’s Shutter Island will be released in theaters. Before it hits, do yourself a solid and give it a read. It has the perfect set-up: two federal marshals summoned to an island housing a gigantic home for the criminally insane to investigate the disappearance of a lovely, but psychotic, female patient. Mystic River was one hell of a book; but it was after reading Shutter Island that I went out and purchased every Lehane book I could get my hands on.

James Ellroy (United States — West Coast)

It’s common to hear that a particular writer has developed a completely original writing style. Though it’s rarely true, when applied to James Ellroy this becomes an understatement. Ellroy has described himself as “the Beethoven of crime” and, as repulsively arrogant as that is, not many would argue that he’s right. Ellroy writes with a staccato style that strips every non-essential word from each sentence — often leaving just a subject and a verb — sometimes not even that. What results is a novel that reads like you think. Ellroy is unforgiving in his pace — he refuses to slow down and explain things — so your first read can be challenging. But once you’re firmly entrenched in the mind of an Ellroy protagonist –- the unobstructed pace at which you receive their perceptions is something unique to literature.

Ellroy recently released Bloods a Rover, the final installment in his Underworld USA Trilogy. It’s great. But if you want the most bang for your buck, I recommend starting with LA Confidential. Even if you’ve seen the movie, you’ve got nothing to fear. LA Confidential is packed with enough bagmen, crooked cops, brutal vigilantes, ruthless career climbers, femme fatales, shady mobsters and sociopathic journalists to float anyone’s boat.

Henning Mankell (Sweden)

If you like your mysteries stark and moody, Mankell’s your guy. His protagonist, Inspector Kurt Wallander, is an aging divorcee in the rural Swedish town of Ystad. For those requiring a high body count, or exciting shootouts in gritty urban settings, Mankell’s books will disappoint. Instead, Mankell weaves plausible narratives with multi-dimensional characters, methodic police investigations and skillfully described landscapes.

What raises Mankell’s books to the level of literature is his portrayal of Wallander as he deals with the issues that confront every human in the twilight of their life. The loneliness, the slow erosion of critical faculties, the disillusionment and sense of loss. Wallander even (gasp!) changes with each novel as his perception of the world becomes further refined and, sometimes, jaded. Each book tackles a social problem faced by Sweden — from racism and immigration to child abuse. Through it all Wallander struggles with the unmistakable feeling that Sweden has lost some essential part of itself, that modern culture is dehumanizing us, often with gruesome results. The language is heavy with the cold, desolation of Sweden, but Mankell’s portrayal of flawed humanity is warm as a crackling fire on a damp night.

Ian Rankin (Scotland)

Over the past few years, Scotland’s additions to the noir tradition have advanced by leaps and bounds. Names like Val McDermid and Denise Mina are popping up on “best of” mystery lists with greater frequency, and even Irvine Welsh got into the act last year with his well-received Crime. But for my money, the best of these is still Ian Rankin. His first book, Knots and Crosses introduces us to Inspector Rebus (though in this book, he’s not yet an Inspector). In many ways, Rebus shares the traits that mystery readers know and love in their protagonists — he’s a divorced and lonely, wisecracking cop with a drinking problem, whose personality is a mix of cynicism and empathic concern. But there’s more to Rebus than meets the eye.

As he struggles through a series of gruesome crimes and personal tribulations, with his partner (Det. Siobhan Clarke) by his side, Rebus grows on the reader in a way that few mystery characters do. Maybe it’s his sharp Scottish wit, the protectiveness he feels for Siobhan, or his sad resignation to life’s monstrosities — but Rebus is a character who, after a couple of books, feels like a friend. Having such an intellectually and emotionally principled tour guide through the violent underbelly of Edinburgh is invigorating. Each novel is tightly plotted, evenly paced and interesting enough to keep you turning pages all night.

6 Responses

  1. Good choices. haven’t read
    Good choices. haven’t read Bruen yet, but I’ll give him a try now. glad you included Elroy, cuz he’s often overlooked. i would have added Elmore Leonard, but it seems like you were going for recent peeps.

  2. I echo Michael’s comment:
    I echo Michael’s comment: Excellent roundup. Nicely written, too.

    I just finished reading the noir/fantasy/horror novel Finch, by Jeff VanderMeer. Liked it very much. This is the third book of the “Ambergris” cycle, the first being City of Saints and Madmen, followed by Shriek. Each book stands alone; that is to say, you can enjoy any one of them without having read the others, but I kind of think I enjoyed Finch more, having read the other two in order. So as to not mislead anyone, I should mention that only Finch qualifies as genuine noir/detective fiction.

  3. Interesting. I’ll check some
    Interesting. I’ll check some of these out. One little note: a divorcee is a woman…

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