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Hanging Light Bulb at Evan's & Peel Detective Agency © Derek Key/Flickr
Hanging Light Bulb at Evan's & Peel Detective Agency © Derek Key/Flickr

10 Great Crime Books From the Early 20th Century

Picture of JW McCormack
Updated: 1 December 2017

Crime fiction may have had its roots in the mannered detective stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but as it was perfected by American noir masters like Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, and Dashiell Hammett, the emphasis came to rest as much on the crime as its solution. British and American crime fiction (and the expat Belgian Georges Simenon) wrote textured, haunting psychological thrillers that brilliantly complemented the malaise of a generation whose moral order had been overthrown by the wars. These were also social novels that tackled topics too taboo for polite literary fiction; like prostitution, racism, homosexuality, and corruption in the police force. Below, 10 excellent entry points into the morally gray world of early 20th Century crime writing.

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett

Arguably Hammett’s most damning take on city corruption (and one of the few not to feature his famous detective Sam Spade or married sleuths Nick and Nora Charles), Red Harvest takes place in Poisonville, where a Pinkerton detective becomes determined to solve a murder even if it means uprooting the entire city in search of justice.

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Courtesy of Vintage Crime/Black Lizard

The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

Jim Thompson was known during his lifetime as the “dimestore Dostoevsky” for the psychological penetration of his crime stories. None are as seductively brutal as The Killer Inside Me, in which a beloved deputy Sheriff narrates the web of murder and manipulation that he weaves over his small town in order to protect his own bloodthirsty compulsions.

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Courtesy of Mulholland Books

Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler

Transparency is not Raymond Chandler’s strong suit. His storylines are so complex, the motives of his gallery of rogues so difficult to tease out, the solutions to his mysteries so insane, that his books demand repeated readings. One of his best written is Farwell, My Lovely, made into the movie Murder My Sweet, which gives us the works: murders, jewel thieves, blackouts, and his signature detective Philip Marlowe.

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Courtesy of Vintage Crime/Black Lizard

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith wrote about the duplicitous and superficial world she perceived around her, with her hero Tom Ripley an amoral master con artist more than equal to the task of beating society at its own game. The Talented Mr. Ripley introduces Tom as the quintessential outsider, dispatched to Italy to bring back a wealthy acquaintance—only to wind up taking his place.

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Courtesy of W. W. Norton & Company

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

One of what Graham Greene referred to as his lighter “entertainments,” Brighton Rock is a nonetheless grizzly crime story that follows the underworld denizens of a seaside town, a gang led by the remorseless teenage gangster Pinkie, as they trail destruction in their wake. Eventually, Pinkie has his chance at redemption through the indefatigable Ida Angel, who comes to Brighton Rock looking for justice for one of Pinkie’s victims.

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© Wikimedia Commons

Mildred Piece by James M. Cain

Bearing only a slight resemblance to the Academy Award-winning 1945 film of the same name, Mildred Pierce is a far darker and more sordid portrait of class conflict, as sexual rivalry takes hold between a mother forced to great lengths to keep her family intact and her wanton daughter.

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Courtesy of Vintage Crime/Black Lizard

The Real Cool Killers by Chester Himes

Two black detectives, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, set about solving the Harlem murder of Greek Ulysses Galen, despite the indifference of the rest of the police force. In the bargain, they encounter mysterious gangs, femme fatales, and the kind of racial complexity that has made Chester Himes’ Real Cool Killers both a classic crime yarn and a brilliant novel of the midcentury African-American experience.

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© Wikimedia Commons

My Friend Maigret by Georges Simenon

The absurdly prolific Georges Simenon wrote over a hundred crime novels in the course of his life, many of them starring his Detective Maigret. My friend Maigret is among the most classic examples of Simenon’s page-turning Euro-noir, as Maigret traffics with art forgers in the south of France while searching for the killer of an old friend—or was he an enemy?

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Courtesy of Penguin Books

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

An eternal, essential novel, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is the gothic tale of the new Mrs. Maxim de Winter, a young bride who discovers that her husband, master of the sprawling Manderley estate, is not all he seems and that the legacy of his late first wife, the bewitching Rebecca, still haunts the premises. Worth reading even if you’ve seen the Alfred Hitchcock adaptation of the same name.

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Courtesy of William Morrow Paperbacks

A Walk on the Wild Side by Nelson Algren

The classic tour of the New Orleans underworld, Nelson Algren’s influential A Walk on the Wild Side is still shocking in its frank depiction of French Quarter hustlers, bootleggers, and prostitutes. It also famously lays out Algren’s three cardinal rules: “Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.”

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© Wikimedia Commons