CrimeStars: Ten Prophets of the Golden Age of Ultraviolence

The last decade has brought a massive infusion of new talent to crime fiction and its sub-genres. Brilliant young writers all over the world are brushing off stale literary conventions and using their formidable skills to write stories in which things actually happen. And with these guys – they’re usually very bad things.

Carrying the torch are James Ellroy, Dennis Lehane, and Ken Bruen – the unholy trinity of modern crime. But coming up fast from the shadows is a fierce new breed of gifted writers. They’re bringing a new level of violence and linguistic excellence to the craft and giving life to some of the darkest visions put to paper since Poe was found floating in a Baltimore gutter.

These are the 10 to look out for the next time you’re out after dark:

1. Charlie Huston writes ultra-violent pulp so fluid it cuts out the middleman and projects itself straight to your brainpan in digital HD. Huston always delivers, but the 3-part Henry Thompson series is a great place to start. It starts when Henry, a typical NY bartender with a coulda-been-a-contender story stumbles into the crosshairs of the Russian mob. By the end, he’s a rusty, pill-popping hitman submitting to indentured servitude to keep his parents alive. Along the way, he discovers a knack for killing and leaves a trail of bodies leading to a Grand Guignol finale that kicks like a tweaker on Cops. Warning: Don’t start a Huston book unless you’re ready to forego unessential activities (like bathing and sleeping) for days. His work is best described as paper crack.

2. William Christopher Baer’s Phineas Poe trilogy is one of the most disturbing things ever written. And completely brilliant. It begins when Phineas, a schizophrenic, drug-addled ex-cop fresh out of a padded cell, meets a hot little number in a hotel bar and wakes up in a bathtub missing a kidney. His memories of the previous night are as unreliable as a Saturday night special – his thoughts a swirling broth of hallucinations, drug fog, traumatic memories and sudden snaps of cold, sharp reality. When Poe sets out to find the shady lady who made off with his kidney, he descends into a rabbit-hole full of dubious characters that may be figments of his fevered imagination. If the DNA of Dante and Jim Thompson were combined to create a child raised by H.R. Giger and a string of deranged ex-prostitutes, it would write stories like Baer. You wouldn’t want to meet him in a dark alley, but if you’re ready to take one of fiction’s darkest journeys, he’s the perfect guide.

3. I was a Duane Swierczynski skeptic until I picked up The Wheelman, which starts with a botched bank job and gets increasingly complicated as the enigmatic protagonist unties a Gordian knot of Russian and Italian gangsters, crooked cops, double and triple-crossers and a mysterious government agent as unrelenting as Robert Patrick’s cyborg in Terminator 2. What unfolds, as in all Swierczynski books, is an ampthetamine-fueled symphony of violence with more shoot-outs and car chases than a John Woo film festival. Swierczynski is a master conductor. He parses the gunplay with enough sharp dialogue, intriguing characters, interesting trivia and deft descriptions to make you actually care about the outcome. Within minutes of finishing The Wheelman, I bought Swierczynski’s entire oeuvre. Having read them all, I must say I’m sorry for doubting Duane.

4. South African Roger Smith’s first two novels (Mixed Blood and Wake Up Dead) are masterpieces of modern crime. They’re set in Cape Town – a noir playground where the where well-fed Afrikaners and wealthy ex-pats in the tony Ridge District look down (literally) on the sprawling Cape Flats, a Boschian slum that makes the worst American ghetto look like Norman Rockwell prints. Both novels explore what happens when morally ambiguous men and women at the top of the Cape Town’s food chain clash with those desperately clawing their way up from the bottom. Smith’s Cape Town is a city of extremes – one where immense mansions with sublime ocean views sit like fatted calves on display before the post-apocalyptic Flats, where the only order is the line that separating predator from prey. All this is handled with an élan rare for a new writer, making Roger Smith one of noir’s newest all-stars.

5. Allan Guthrie, the premier writer of Scottish noir, writes hyper-brutal one-offs starring men and women for whom violence comes as naturally as breathing. His two best, Slammer and Savage Night, are bleak-to-the-bone examinations of the human psyche pushed over the edge. Slammer stars Nick Glass, a weak-kneed guard at a Scottish prison who falls victim to the machinations of the scheming cons who surround him. He bounces like a pinball from one tormentor to the next until his psyche shatters – triggering a bloody downward spiral that haunts your memory long after you finish the book. Savage Night contains more humor and triple the body count. While Guthrie’s characters are often complex, his plots are direct and his style razor sharp, making his books connect with the impact of brass-knuckle uppercuts.

6. Anthony Neil Smith is one of crime’s least recognized and most talented new scribes. His latest two, Yellow Medicine and Hogdoggin’, are pure hardboiled heaven for the dark at heart. Both follow the violent exploits of Billy Lafitte, a crooked cop plucked from Louisiana (over some shady Katrina shenanigans) and dropped into rural Minnesota’s remote Yellow Medicine County where he uses his badge to bed local coeds and his viciousness to carve a slice of the local meth pie. Yet somehow, just Nabokov made us sympathized with an oily Humbert Humbert, Smith gets us rooting for Lafitte when he discovers a terrorist plot unfolding under his nose. By Hogdoggin’, Lafitte’s lost his badge and is riding with an outlaw biker gang. But no matter how far he roams, he’ll eventually have to return to Yellow Medicine to attend to some unfinished business and kill a whole lotta people. If you like your fiction dirty and lethal, this is one homecoming you don’t want to miss.

7. In 2008, Dave Zeltserman released Small Crimes, the first of what he calls his “bad-ass out of prison trilogy.” This dark tour-de-force, described by the Washington Post as “a piece of crime-noir genius,” stars ex-cop Joe Denton, who finishes a 7-year bid for a vicious assault that left the local D.A. with a ruined face. Joe returns home shunned by all sides, and his plans to go straight sour when his former boss, the crooked local sheriff, pulls him into middle of the unfolding local drama. It seems the town’s cancer addled area mob boss is considering a deathbed confession to the same D.A. Joe tried to kill 7-years earlier. Now Joe’s given a choice…of which one to kill. The plot that unfolds from there was described by Ken Bruen, as “Pure magic of the blackest kind.” The next two books in the trilogy, Pariah and Killer, while not quite the masterpieces Small Crimes was, are easily strong enough to earn Zeltserman a spot in the front ranks of modern crime stars.

8. David Peace is scary. If it’s darkness you crave, fiction doesn’t come blacker or bloodier than his critically acclaimed Red Riding Quartet. Set in a Northern England rendered in shades of gray and black, the books (1974, 1978, 1980 and 1982) concern a series of gruesome murder-sprees linked by the men and women pulled into their bloody orbit. The protagonists are cogs in the dark machinery of a deeply corrupted police force and a complicit press establishment, who struggle with the crimes and their own personal demons against a backdrop of sex, graft and nostalgia. Peace proves himself a literary stylist par excellence, employing a clipped-to-the-bone style reminiscent of Ellroy, but seasoned with a haunting mixture of repetition, song lyrics and thought fragments. As a fully desensitized child of the 80’s, I’m nearly impossible to shock, but Peace’s books stayed with me long after I’d clapped off my bedside lamp, haunting my dreams like a late-night pepperoni pizza. Peace’s series sets a high-water mark for disturbing crime fiction that’ll be hard to top.

9. Jo Nesbo is one of the finest writers you’ve never heard of. If you’ve read Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, or spent time with Henning Mankell’s Inspector Wallander, then Nesbo’s series starring the chronic misanthrope Harry Hole, is right up your alley. In my humble opinion, the wave of Scandinavian crime fiction finds its peak in Nesbo’s work. His books have all the grim moodiness of the others, with an added sense of immediacy and a heightened level of conflict. The Redbreast (the first Nesbo release in the US) is a sleek literary voyage into dark waters that has Hole looking for a mysterious killer of aging Nazi collaborators. He works alongside Tom Waller, a crooked cop who soon reveals a capacity for cruelty that makes him a truly compelling and frightening foil. Devil’s Star is the latest Nesbo released in the US, and it’s a compelling read. But the next two coming down the pike are even better. By the time you read The Snowman you’ll understand why Nesbo is at the pinnacle of the thriving Scandinavian crime scene.

10. Adrian McKinty doesn’t write crime fiction. He produces stark explorations of the darkest realms of the human heart, masterfully executed with poetry and precision. His latest, 50 Grand, follows a Havana detective who smuggles herself into the U.S. to find and execute the yanqui who left her estranged father dead at the scene of hit-and-run in a chic Colorado resort town. Mercado is by turns dangerous and vulnerable, full of self-doubt and unwanted sympathy for her quarry, and yet humming with a bloody-minded intensity. Like all McKinty’s books, 50 Grand is an epic journey steeped in lyrical wordplay, biting wit and a protagonist so real she seems to sit beside you, whispering her story softly into your ear. In McKinty’s deft hand, an ultraviolent tales of corruption and vengeance become literature of the highest order. Bar none one of the best writers of this or any era.

11 Responses

  1. *cracks fingers*
    I have a LOT

    *cracks fingers*

    I have a LOT of reading to do. The only one I know in there is Jo Nesbo, which… I don’t like much. But Huston and Baer? They are as good as read.

  2. Originally, it said “since
    Originally, it said “since Poe pulled a floater in a Baltimore gutter”…but I didn’t want to dis the master.

    A few more who I would’ve added if not for my laziness: Stuart Neville, Declan Burke and Victor Gischler. Neville and Burke have only written 2 each – but they’re top-shelf (and Burke’s “8-Ball Boogie gets my vote for Best Title.) Gischler’s “The Deputy” was the biz…

    And Benoit — That Huston warning was for serious. I gave a few to my boy Clayton (who usually does the art for my articles), and he cursed me for getting him hooked on “paper crack.” Don’t blame me if you wind up barricaded in your room covered in papercuts and bed sores. Mine are still healing.

  3. Glad to see Christopher Baer
    Glad to see Christopher Baer and Anthony Neil Smith on your list. Haven’t finished the second novel in the Poe trilogy, Penny Dreadful, yet, but it’s one of the most original premises for noir fiction I’ve ever seen.

  4. I can vouch for paper crack.
    I can vouch for paper crack. Sometimes I sneak out of work to get a fix. I found myself at the bookstore. They didnt have any more Ken Bruen or Huston. I was on my knees in seconds.
    “Cmon man….I got a cheeseburger,…theyre still warm. Ill do anything.

    I went a litte further with my begging and was promptly removed from the store by security.

  5. The girl at the check-out
    The girl at the check-out counter said, “Haven’t you had enough Bruen?”

    “Damn you!” I bellowed. “I’ll tell you when I’ve had enough!”

  6. I’m glad I stumbled upon this
    I’m glad I stumbled upon this list. A friend loaned me McKinty’s 50 Grand — which, like you said, is absolutely brilliant — and, as someone who normally sticks to lit-fiction, I was clueless about where to find more writers like him. I’m not sure I’m ready for Baer or Guthrie yet — but your description of the two Smith’s piqued my interest. Next stop, Amazon. Thanks!

  7. Why can’t I find most the
    Why can’t I find most the authors you list in bookstores?I’ve bought 2 books you recommended on this site and they were great. But why does there seem to be such a disconnect between the thrillers in the stores and the ones crime reviewers call lthe best?

  8. Hi Garret – I’m a bit late
    Hi Garret – I’m a bit late coming to this, obviously, but many thanks for the mention – deeply appreciated. As for your original list, Allan Guthrie, Adrian McKinty, David Peace are of the first rank of novelists, crime or otherwise …

    Much obliged,


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