Summer is winding down, and the hallowed halls of education will soon be opening their doors. Except for me, who has been stuck in the classroom for nearly three weeks now. Whatever happened to the agrarian calendar?
At the beginning of August, Ben, that scintillating John Dickson Carr enthusiast over at The Green Capsule, presented his choices of five Carr titles to read before they are spoiled for you. Inspired as ever by my fellow blogger, I subsequently offered my choices for both Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen. Today, I’m going to branch out – and I mean really stretch my limbs – by offering five titles from five different authors that you should really read before someone gets into your head and starts whispering spoilers. I’m going to go chronologically, and it will become clear to you eventually that I’m not sticking with the Golden Age. My list spans fifty-eight years, and two of the titles can hardly be said to embody classic detection tropes. But, for various reasons, these are books you will want to savor without too much pre-reading conversation.
What you won’t find here are any unreliable narrator novels from the likes of Gillian Flynn and Paula Hawkins, although you will find those on every other list if you Google “best surprise twists ever. ” Far be it from me to conform to the crowd. Besides, you know by now how I feel about UNNovels, right? Right . . . let’s move on to better fare.
- Red Harvest (1929) by Dashiell Hammett
I will never lay claim to being either a fan or an expert on hard-boiled detective fiction. Yet, although he cut his teeth on hard-hitting short stories for the pulps, Dashiell Hammett’s five novels are clearly steeped in the lore of the classical mystery. The Dain Curse and The Maltese Falcon both contain surprise murderers, and The Thin Man is a clear-cut whodunit, complete with a gathering of the suspects at the end. Being Hammett novels, they contain so much more: gripping atmosphere, sudden violence, and a world-weary sense that the planet is too corrupt to save but we might as well have some sex, good whiskey, and a few laughs along the way.
Hammett is the only “hard-boiled” novelist whose work (at least in the long form) I have read and studied (except for The Glass Key – I really must get to The Glass Key!) And I’m here to tell you that, if you really want to get your Hammett on, you should start at the beginning with Red Harvest. The story of one man’s attempt to tame a town and rid it of corruption reads like one part Western, one part Twin Peaks, and ten parts epic. But what people may not mention to you is how rich in classic mystery tropes the novel is. Over and over again, Hammett surprises you with twists on character and incident. Nobody turns out to be exactly as they seem at the beginning . . . except, of course, those who do.
The novel feels like a series of short mysteries cobbled together that advance the larger efforts of the Continental Op to shake up Personville, the dirty industrial town with the aptly earned nickname “Poisonville,” and this is no illusion. Hammett presented the novel in four monthly installments in Black Mask magazine between November1927 and February 1928. The whole set-up and atmosphere are pure noir, but the twists come straight from Christie. It’s a big, messy, wonderful work that too often stands in the shadow of more famous Hammett novels, like Falcon and Thin Man, perhaps because these were so easy to film, and nobody has figured out how to do this with Red Harvest. I wanted to turn it into a musical of the size and breadth of Les Miserables; I only lacked the talent. May I suggest that this would be a great mini-series on Netflix or HBO?
- She Died a Lady (1943) by John Dickson Carr
I have purposefully not done one of these “5 books” posts on Carr because I didn’t want to compete with Ben’s wonderful efforts. There is one book of Carr’s that Ben did not include that I think includes one of the best shock endings of his career. I’m not saying that this is my favorite Carr by any stretch, nor would I argue that it’s his best. In fact, there is quite a difference of opinion over this one, and I offer reviews from Ben (here) and from Sergio at Tipping My Fedora (here) along with my own (here) to illustrate this.
I’ve been reading a lot of “howdunits” lately because so many of my blogging bros are big locked room fans. This is something that I am not. I don’t have a mathematical mind, and I cannot ever follow the complex murder methods of some of these impossible crimes. (On the other hand, I do love it when the solution is a model of simplicity.)
But what mystery fans who may shy away from novels that emphasize the “how” should note is that JD Carr was also brilliant at hiding his culprits. You could almost always be assured that the final unmasking would elicit a gasp. The ultimate explanation of how a pair of lovers seemed to jump off a cliff and end up somewhere else shot to death may provoke arguments as to its effect. But nobody can argue that the final reveal of the killer is a slam-bang success in the gasp-producing factor. Read it quickly, then we’ll talk.
- Green for Danger (1944) by Christianna Brand
Green for Danger was my gateway drug into the marvel that is Christianna Brand. It was turned into one of the best classic whodunit films ever made, but you really must read the novel first to see how cleverly Brand works. First, establish a realistic setting (here the place is smack dab in the middle of World War II England, with all its attendant dangers). Then introduce a group of characters who may have their foibles but who you instantly take to your heart. (Here, it’s a team of doctors and nurses.) Add an impossible murder and slowly weave in the insidious effect of suspicion on this close-knit group. The clueing is subtle, and the solution both surprising and emotionally devastating. You want to read this before it’s spoiled for you, but really I’m just dangling the candy. Once you get through Green for Danger, you’ll want to eat those Brand novels up!
- We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962) by Shirley Jackson
You can read my full review here, but I want to point out that fifty-two years after her death, Jackson’s studies in social and psychological perversity feel as modern as can be. I find it hilarious that her adopted home of North Bennington celebrates Shirley Jackson Day on June 27, which is the date that the story “The Lottery” is supposed to take place. “The Lottery,” folks! I mean, what do the citizens do – get stoned? Play Pin the Tail on the Donkey?
Castle would be a gripping novel even without its delicious twist. The quirky characters, the pervading aura of doom combined with a sort of naturalistic American can-do spirit, and the haunting New England setting are all rendered effortlessly. The climactic scene with the fire shows what a master of crowd psychology Jackson was. Ultimately, though, this is an intimate story about the devastation that the darkest human compulsions have upon a family. It shares something with one of Christie’s most compelling titles, but Jackson does this like nobody else, even Dame Agatha. And you should go read it now. I’ve said too much!
- The Killings at Badger’s Drift (1987) by Caroline Graham
Before it became the mind-numbingly formulaic Murder, She Wrote-style crap fest it is today, the TV series Midsomer Murders chugged along pretty well by either adapting Caroline Graham’s novels or sticking to her style with original stories. I tend to spend too much time here lamenting the loss of the Golden Age and the lack of really solid modern authors I enjoy reading. Let me say right at the start that Caroline Graham was a wonderful mystery writer, and all I will lament here is her decision to stop writing her Inspector Barnaby mysteries after seven books. Graham’s willingness to steep her mysteries in all the classic get-up, even as she excels at painting a strong psychological portrait of village life and tops it off with an intriguing relationship between Barnaby and his flawed sidekick, Sergeant Troy, has probably earned her a ton of fans who really like their scones buttered on the early side of 1945.
Badger’s Drift starts the ball rolling very well indeed with the death from seemingly natural causes of a sweet village spinster in her picturesque cottage in the woods. Except we know that Miss Simpson did not die naturally because of something awful that she saw. What she witnessed and what caused her death and a second murder is related in a classic style, full of biting humor but affection for its subjects, and with a nasty, modern twist at the end. (Well, when you think about it, that twist is pretty classic, too.)
There you have it – five suggestions of novels with so much to offer, especially in the realm of surprises. I’d love to hear your suggestions, particularly of lesser known but available titles, where you felt the twist was too good to be missed. No spoilers, please – I’m looking for reading material, now that I’ve whittled my TBR list down to 34, 247,063, 881, 590.