by BJW Nashe

The best crime fiction has always been somewhat weird and shocking. Early hardboiled thrillers by the likes of Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Horace McCoy must have felt like a punch in the gut for readers accustomed to the more genteel literature being praised in  newspapers and taught at universities. No doubt, those writers knew how to tell a good story. But they did more than just entertain. They used fiction to confront the dark side of human nature, and to explore the moral ambiguities and uncertainties of life in modern society. The best crime writers challenged readers to see the world differently, and to question the established order of things.

Certain elements of the genre have by now become traditional and formulaic. Yet crime has lost none of its ability to provoke and astonish, as writers have continued to experiment with the basic building blocks, bending and twisting and shaping them into fascinating new fiction. The following diverse selection of novels is united by each author’s attempt to take crime fiction into uncharted territory. Each of these books is weird in the best sense of the word. Not surprisingly, we find graphic depictions of sex, drugs, and violence featuring prominently on the menu. But there is more than shock and awe on display. We also get to have fun with deadly poetry workshops, wild west cowboys, hippie detectives, deranged rabbis, gourmet chefs, Yoruba sorcerers, and a highly cultured chimpanzee who has mastered the English language, only to end up a murderer.

 

Motherless Brooklyn, by Jonathan Lethem

mothLethem’s homage to classic detective fiction takes a number of imaginative liberties with the traditional form. Not least among these is the book’s protagonist, the self-styled “human freakshow” named Lionel Essrog. Lionel has Tourette’s Syndrome — a disability for many, but here also an occasion for all kinds of spontaneous poetry. Lionel is an orphan who grew up in Saint Vincent’s Home for Boys, until he was rescued as a teenager by a Brooklyn wiseguy named Frank Minna. Lionel now works as a key member of Minna’s ragtag private detection agency, largely made up of big-city misfits and outcasts such as himself. The plot kicks into high gear when Minna is abducted and stabbed to death during a stakeout, sending Lionel into a frenzied search for his boss’s killer. Paying homage to the conventions of the hardboiled detective genre, while infusing the whole production with Tourette’s inspired lunacy, is a stroke of genius on Lethem’s part. Lionel’s disability is sometimes painful and often funny, but in the end it turns out to be beneficial. Tourette’s, with its obsessive attention to tiny details and it’s rapid-fire conceptual associations, actually makes Lionel a more astute detective than he would be otherwise — probably better than any of his peers. This is a great book, with fascinating characters, and an adventurous plot. The sights and sounds and feel of New York City, especially Brooklyn, are brilliantly rendered.

 

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, by Michael Chabon

In terms of sheer talent, Chabon is considered by many to be the most gifted writer currently working in America. With The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, it’s easy to see why. This novel, which followed his Pulitzer Prize-winning Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, takes the yidhardboiled mystery genre and stretches and bends it with Nabokovian glee. The setting of the story is an outrageously imagined alternate reality, in which the new Jewish state formed in the aftermath of the WWII holocaust is not Israel, but rather a place called the Federal District of Sitka, located in the Alaskan panhandle. Stuck in this Yiddish frontier state, homicide detective Meyer Landsman is grappling with severely Chandleresque personal problems: his marriage is ruined, his career is going nowhere, he drinks too much, and he’s living in a flophouse hotel. When a fellow resident of the hotel, who happens to be a chess expert and a drug addict, is found murdered, Landsman’s investigation of the case sends him careening through a bizarre underworld of Orthodox black-hat mobsters and rabbi crime-bosses. Along with virtuoso riffing on Jewish culture and identity, Chabon has delivered a complex, entertaining whodunit that also succeeds as an exploration of rich themes such as exile and redemption.

 

The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt

How about a dark, revisionist, wild west crime drama? This superb novel, shortlisted for the sis2012 Booker Prize, reads like the bastard offspring of Cormac McCarthy and Samuel Beckett. Eli and Charlie Sisters are hit men hired to track down and kill a prospector named Hermit Kermit Warm. The brothers’ picaresque journey on horseback from Oregon to San Francisco, narrated in Eli’s deadpan voice of impending doom, includes a wide range of misadventures involving violent fur trappers, drunken floozies, con artists, drifters, and frontier dentists. Both Sisters, especially Charlie, are troubled psychopaths. Yet as the story unfolds in a rigorous subversion of various western cliches, the brothers’ humanity is brought into sharper focus. This novel is a tour de force, guaranteed to be the best work of fiction you’ve read in some time — possibly the best book you’ve never heard of.

 

Distant Star, by Robert Bolano

distFor readers reluctant to commit to Bolano’s lengthy masterpiece, 2666, Distant Star is a perfect place to get acquainted with the contemporary star of Latin American fiction, who tragically passed away in 2003 due to liver disease. Set in the author’s native Chile during the years of the brutal Pinochet regime, the novel tells the story of the unnamed narrator’s attempt to unravel the mystery surrounding Alberto Ruiz-Tagle, an air force pilot who exploits the 1973 coup to launch his own version of the “New Chilean Poetry,” a multimedia enterprise involving sky-writing, poetry, and photo exhibitions. The narrator first meets Ruiz-Tagle at a poetry workshop. As a political prisoner, the narrator witnesses one of enigmatic man’s high-flying routines. Later, he discovers that the sky-writing pilot-poet is also a sadistic fascist and a murderer. Written in spare, precise prose and laced with the corrosive wit and irony that sets Bolano apart from the crowd of magical realist disciples, this novel succeeds as an odd detective story and as an examination of extreme political and artistic corruption.

 

The Royal Family, by William T. Vollmann

This sprawling work of fiction caps off the vastly prolific Vollmann’s incendiary “Prostitution Trilogy” (Whores for Gloria and Butterfly Stories are the two preceding volumes). Drawing upon the author’s extensive personal experience researching the trials and tribulations of the denizens of San Francisco’s infamous Tenderloin District, the novel tells a heartbreaking tale of two brothers. One of them, Henry Tyler, is a struggling private investigator hired by a shadowy tycoon to track down the Queen of the Whores, a quasi-mythical character who oversees the city’s vollunderworld of sex workers and addicts. Henry’s brother John is a successful lawyer who works in a state of deep denial in the city’s Financial District. Henry is infatuated with John’s suicidal wife Irene. Henry’s quest to infiltrate the court of the Queen, coupled with his obsessive fixation on his brother’s wife, turns into a shattering, profane experience. Vollmann’s unflinching look at all manner of extreme behavior regarding sex, drugs, and violence is not for the faint of heart. But the novel succeeds both as a gripping, humanistic crime drama, and as an exploration of the spiritual dimension of extreme degradation and despair. The book also serves as a kind of bizarre love letter to San Francisco, a place Vollmann clearly cares deeply about. This can be a great summer read, if your idea of fun includes lugging a 900 page postmodern crime epic to the beach.

 

Bone in the Throat, by Anthony Bourdain

Former chef Anthony Bourdain is best known as the glib, globe-trotting host of cable TV shows such as “No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown.” His first taste of fame came from writing, however, when his gonzo memoir Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly became a surprise bestseller in 2000. Subsequent books on travel and food showed that his debut success was no fluke. And his forays into crime fiction demonstrate his skills as a writer. Bone in the Throat cross-breeds New York restaurant culture with mafia hijinks. Tommy Pagano is sous chef at a Little Italy eaterie called the Dreadnought. Tommy’s uncle is a crazed mafioso named Sal the Wig Patera. When Sal persuades Tommy to let him use the kitchen to “conduct a little bonebusiness,” the sous chef becomes engulfed in a crime debacle, with the FBI in hot pursuit. Bourdain serves up a main course of deranged mobsters, coked-up chefs, foul-mouthed feds, plenty of violence, and ample foodie knowledge. People rave about some of the recipes that grace these pages, as well as the cocky, testosterone-driven prose. (Hint: Finish this book sometime in the middle of the night, then pick up Irvine Welsh’s Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs. I sense a new sub-genre in the making…)

 

Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon

hereThe great Pynchon used to live in the Manhattan Beach area south of Los Angeles during the late sixties and early seventies, while he was penning his classic novel Gravity’s Rainbow. Here he returns to his old stomping grounds with a rambling piece of stoner noir set in the hazy, sun-baked environs of LA circa 1970. Larry “Doc” Sportello is Pynchon’s psychedelic version of classic hardboiled private eyes such as Philip Marlowe and the Continental Op. The story begins with Doc’s ex-girlfriend Shasta Hepworth enlisting his help regarding a supposed plot against a married real estate mogul she’s having an affair with. When the mogul disappears, and his bodyguard is murdered, Doc becomes ensnared in an increasingly complicated web of criminal activity involving police vigilantes, assassination plots, drug deals, shady business practices, and increasingly unhinged political radicalism. Given the tangled nature of this case, Doc’s substantial pot consumption is hardly the sole reason for his paranoia — but it’s certainly a factor. Doc’s cat-and-mouse game with his longtime LAPD nemesis, Detective “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, occasions some of Pynchon’s most humorous writing. The side trip to Las Vegas is also suitably twisted. The whole saga, so thoroughly steeped in the milieu of post-sixties disillusionment, explores a critical point in time when the big waves started crashing on California’s freewheeling shores, in the form of unprecedented greed, corruption, and oppression. Inherent Vice is a fascinating novel that succeeds on many levels. Above all, Pynchon is just plain fun to read.

 

Tropic of Night, by Michael Gruber

Gruber, a former successful ghost writer for Robert K. Tannenbaum (among others), pulls out all the stops in his debut thriller released under his own name. Anthropology, sorcery, tropeand crimefighting come together in a story set primarily in Miami, with flashbacks and detours to West Africa and Long Island. A former anthropology student called “Jane Doe” is living incognito in Miami, following a disastrous trip to Nigeria with a poet named DeWitt Moore. There, under the influence of spiritual practitioners of the Olo tribe, Moore became a sorcerer, and things quickly got out of hand. Jane ended up faking her own suicide and fleeing back to the States in disguise. Now it turns out Moore has returned to Miami as well, as evidenced by a horrifying series of murders involving pregnant women. Police Detective Jimmy Paz is assigned to the case, and Jane Doe decides she needs to get involved as well, in order to somehow put a stop to Moore’s evil plans. This is a suspenseful novel with plenty of intellectual heft. The supernatural elements in particular are handled skillfully and intelligently, as is the rich cultural milieu of Miami. Gruber followed this one up with a series of sophisticated thrillers. This is probably the best place to start with this talented author.

 

The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death, by Charlie Huston

deathCharlie Huston is the best author of contemporary American pulp fiction. He should be far more famous than he is. This fantastic novel follows the exploits of a typical Huston protagonist, a down-on-his-luck, perennial smartass named Webster Fillmore Goodhue. Web is mooching off a friend who owns a LA tattoo parlor, when he gets an unlikely job offer from a guy named Po Sin. The job is with an outfit called the Clean Team. They do “trauma scene and waste cleaning.” In other words, they mop up bloody crime scenes (hence the title of the book). When Web gets involved with a seductive female client whose father has blown his brains out, events spiral out of control. Web’s sprint through the wild side of LA’s seamy underbelly has him running with quite a cast of characters, including hijackers, smugglers, and cold-blooded killers. Huston writes in terrific, rapid-fire, hardboiled prose — much like Ellroy, but without all of the right-wing, racist, Fox News paranoid schtick. This novel is as hilarious as it is horrifying. You’ll be howling with laughter one moment, and nearly ready to vomit the next.

 

The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, by Benjamin Hale

Calling this a crime novel may be a bit of a stretch, but the narrator and star of the show is a murderer, writing what are essentially his prison memoirs. He has committed a murder, been captured, and now is living out the rest of his days in confinement. He is also a chimpanzee. You see, Bruno Littlemore is a miracle of evolutionary science — the first chimpanzee to learn how to use language. And his language skills are indeed impressive. One of the pleasures of this novel is the style and wit Bruno uses to tell his story. He comes across as a kind of debauched aristocrat, with highly refined tastes, and unapologetically scandalous desires. He reminds me of a primate relative of Humbert Humbert, the scoundrel from Lolita. Yet, brunhowever highly evolved and enlightened he may be, Bruno is still an ape (aren’t we all, in a sense?). Bruno’s relationship with Lydia, the primatologist who helped him learn to speak, and their bizarre and ultimately tragic journey ranges across America, from a Colorado ranch to the theaters of New York (Bruno, a skilled thespian, lands a part in The Tempest). This is a big, bold novel full of fascinating insights into what it means to be a human, an animal, an artist, and a murderer.

 

The City and the City, by China Mieville

citKnown primarily as an award-winning author and leader of the “New Weird” school of science fiction and fantasy, here Mieville gives us a gripping crime novel in an other-worldly setting. The plot consists of a murder investigation following the discovery of a woman’s corpse in the city of Beszel, vaguely located somewhere along the eastern edge of Europe. The story’s ingenious twist becomes apparent when the mystery leads Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad to venture from decaying Beszel to its vibrant twin city of Ul Qoma. The border separating the two cities turns out to be a psychic, rather than physical, barrier. Both cities in fact inhabit the same space, yet remain largely invisible and untouchable to each other. Along with his fictional double, Ul Qoman detective Qussim Dhatt, Borlú becomes enmeshed in a treacherous political game involving nationalists intent on destroying their neighboring city, and unificationists who dream of dissolving the two into one. As the detectives uncover the dead woman’s secrets, they begin to suspect a truth that could cost them their lives, and then some. The murderous powers lying between Beszel and in Ul Qoma pose a threat to all of humanity. This is a brilliantly imagined and executed novel — a kind of cross between Franz Kafka and Philip K. Dick. Highly recommended for fans of both cutting edge sci-fi and crime.

 

 

 

 

7 Responses to Ten Best Weird Crime Novels (That Will Keep You Up All Night Reading)

  1. Derek L says:

    I think the first line of the post summed up my favorite kind of crime novels quite nicely, “The best crime fiction has always been somewhat weird and shocking!” I have to recommend an author who has recently published his first and only murder mystery/thriller “The Gemini Factor” by author Philip Fleishman (http://www.philipfleishmanmd.com/). This book has excellent character development, a thick and intertwining plot line, and covers mind bending topics such as twin telepathy and the relationship between random events. The only thing that was disappointing about this novel is that I had nothing else to read by this author once I was finished! For fans of medical thrillers, paranormal activity and psychological thrillers such as novels by Robin Cook or Michael Crichton, there’s a new contender! Hope you will give it a read

    • PatrickHMoore says:

      Thanks for the tip. I will certainly take a look at “The Gemini Factor”. Twin telepathy sounds very interesting.

  2. Mary Carlson says:

    Please let me recommend to you one of the most unusual and actually kind of beautiful crime novels I’ve ever read. What Dies in Summer is a powerful muder mystery with lots of darkness and hints of the paranormal. It’s also irresistibly funny. It starts out with a puzzle that you just can’t let go of and the first chill of danger, and the meance just keeps building from there (Nick Cave’s review said this feeling of dread would be unbareable if not for the laughs salted in here and there). You will be glad you read it. Mary

  3. Jonathan McElhatten says:

    I’m not sure if what I have to say matters, but if anybody is interested in knowing about another weird crime novel–or at least a mystery novel, check out William Hjortsberg’s “Falling Angel”.

  4. Natasha says:

    The City & The City is one of the best novels I have ever read…and I don’t ever read sci-fi, and rarely read crime–I read it for a class in college and I am keeping it forever. Glad to see it on your list! Perhaps I will try reading the others 😉

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