FIVE BOOKS TO READ BEFORE THEY’RE SPOILED FOR YOU – The Random Edition

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.

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  1. 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?

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  1. 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.

 

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  1. 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!

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  1. 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!

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  1. 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.

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28 thoughts on “FIVE BOOKS TO READ BEFORE THEY’RE SPOILED FOR YOU – The Random Edition

  1. Oh, Brad, these are great choices! In different ways, they all have such suspenseful atmospheres, and there are some great twists in them. I also like the fact that they are different enough to one another that there’s some variety here, too. Hmmmmm…. *starts thinking about own choices…*

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  2. Red Harvest is rather wonderful, it’s the only hammett I’d recommend anyone reading…he gets too Hemingway after that, all “I picked up the gun. The gun was warm. I shot the man. He fell down. He was dead.”

    Thr foregoing begs a question that extends logically, with apologies for potentially unhelpfully hijacking this in the first comment: are there any books in the genre that should be spoiled before reading them? The Maltese Falcon, had I not seen the film and known how things turned out, would have irritated the hell out of me if I was unaware of its final development…I could write an essay on why, but I’ve already done one essay this week.

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  3. This is just the type of conversation I was hoping to stimulate with my Carr-themed post. Thank you so much Brad for all of your contributions. In this case, I’m treated to three titles that weren’t even on my radar.

    She Died a Lady is an obvious omission from my list in retrospect. Everyone just loooooves talking about that ending, and someone’s bound to eventually slip up with a comment that allows another person to read between the lines. I kind of worry about The White Priory Murders in that same sense, although for very different reasons.

    Both She Died a Lady and Green for Danger are interesting choices, because on paper it is the impossible crime that should draw a reader to both, when really the ultimate shock is due to a different element of the solution.

    What’s up next? A Nordic crime fiction edition?

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    1. All Nordic crime fiction is already spoiled: the killer is the seemingly-innocent Nazi paedophile priest/neighbour/grocer with whom the detective has previously enjoyed good relations and seemingly had no connection to the case. This prompts an existential crisis on the detective’s behalf, and he starts drinking again. His wife leaves him.

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      1. Yes, and six books in, he comes to terms with his past, reconciles with his daughter, moves past his partner’s suicide, and meets a fine woman who teaches him to love again.

        Then he contracts pancreatic cancer.

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  4. Of these I’ve only read the Carr and Brand (two choices I wholeheartedly approve of) although I have a copy of the Hammett on the shelf.
    I like that you also included Caroline Graham as I’ve had it in mind to sample a few of her books and the recommendation is appreciated.

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  5. “I’d love to hear your suggestions, …….., where you felt the twist was too good to be missed. ”
    I suggest La Malédiction de Barberousse by Paul Halter.

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  6. Thanks for this list. Agree wholeheartedly about WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE. Wish those who claim to write Psychological thrillers would first go and read this book. Not so sure about the
    Graham title. I think that twist has become a little predictable now.

    Since you asked for suggestions, here are two: DEATH KNOCKS THREE TIMES and THE CLOCK IN THE HAT-BOX, both by Anthony Gilbert.

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    1. Thank you, neeru! Fellow bloggers have spoken about Gilbert before. I heard he is a mixed bag. (Or is it a she?) It’s nice to have some specific titles to look for. I know what you mean about the predictable twist. I just thought it was done so well here.

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    1. The book’s supposed to be great, arguably his best, and the movie gets raves. Right now, I have my fill of rotten politicians, Sergio, but someday! Someday . . .

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      1. Strictly speaking, along with the official versions filmed in the 1930s and the 1940s, there is also MILLER’S CROSSING, which is most definitely an uncredited adaptation of GLASS KEY. The Coen brothers are big Hammett fans – the title of their debut, BLOOD SIMPLE, is taken from Hammett’s RED HARVEST incidentally. And Walter Hill’s LAST MAN STANDING was inspired by RED HARVEST too in fact (though technically a remake of Kurosawa’s YOJIMBO, which was also adapted in FISTFUL OF DOLLARS). If you find this sort of thing of interest, there is an interesting comparison of these various version of RED HARVEST here: https://h2g2.com/edited_entry/A1161271

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      2. Agree, The Glass Key is exceptional. The movie wasn’t bad, but movies never capture the novels perfectly (esp internal dialogue); it’s a great read,

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  7. Thanks Brad, an amazing list. I am very to read this as I have bee making my way through Jackson lately and have just got this one out of the library last week! I also didn’t know that Midsommer was an adaptation so really keen to give the Graham a try.

    My suggestions for brilliant ending that you might not have read:

    The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada (get ready for some brutality with that one) which has two wonderfully clever impossible crimes, and a brilliantly hidden killer.

    And I know you haven’t got to Cue For Murder yet by McCloy but the killer/motive really hits home on that one.

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  8. I too, adore Inspector Barnaby novels. Her characterizations and descriptions are vivid and realistic. Mysteries are darned good too. Loved the original Midsomer with John Nettles. Though Niel Dudgeon is a marvelous actor (and appeared in one of the original MM season 4 Garden of Death) the new eps are shallow and very predictable. They lack the charm (if that’s the right word) of the original series.

    The books, on the other hand are exceptional and my only complaint is that there aren’t more of them.

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    1. I’m in the middle of the latest series (I buy them all), and I realized that this may be it for me. The scenes of Barnaby at home are in the EXACT same place in the screenplay of every story, and I realized that Dudgeon is just reciting interrogation lines in the investigation scenes, that nice medical examiner does her bit and each Detective Sergeant is essentially the same person with a different face and mode of dress. And the new cases bore the heck out of me. But we have the first few years and those glorious novels. I agree with you: there aren’t enough of them.

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      1. I think the Midsomer Murders TV series has jumped the shark. It’s outplayed itself. You’re not the only one Brad, who feels the same way about the series now. All TV series, no matter how great they are and how long they lasted, all needs to end or else it ends either on a sour note or at and end that isn’t completely satisfying as it would be if it ended earlier.

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    2. I agree, Caroline Graham is a great writer and it’s unfortunate that she isn’t continuing writing new mysteries (whether they be stand alone or adding onto the Inspector Barnaby series). She is a breath of fresh air. Her writing is crisp and vivid and her books don’t deviate far from the formula attempting to be either literary or too modern by being graphic.

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      1. Between The Killings at Badger’s Drift and Faithful Unto Death. Love the characterizations and the attention to detail is exquisite. Frankly they’re all great but those two… especially. How ’bout you?

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  9. @Marblex, surprisingly I haven’t read any of Graham’s books all the way through, but I have glimpsed at bits and pieces and loved the crisp writing style and the attention to detail that I’ve seen thus far. I have “The Killings At Badgers” on my TBR list so HOPEFULLY I’ll be reading that soon, even though I know what already happens.

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  10. A very fun post, Brad. RED HARVEST is my favorite Hammett, and it still feels exhilaratingly fresh and nihilistic. (I prefer Hammett to Chandler about 3 to 1…) You remind me that it is high time I find my copy and revisit it.

    GREEN FOR DANGER is a lot of fun, and very well constructed. I think I’ve read three other Brands or so (including HEADS YOU LOSE and LONDON PARTICULAR, I believe) but none was as memorable personally as DANGER. It was very interesting to see how Martin Edwards characterized Brand in his GOLDEN AGE OF MURDER as essentially a grievance-bearer and an unreliable character witness regarding the other Detection Club members.

    And I do love Shirley Jackson’s writing, which is masterful on a literary level and psychologically always compelling. Just read THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE for the first time, which is a masterpiece of mood and escalating dread, and I use her short story “The Possibility of Evil” as a choice for text analysis in my college composition classes.

    I haven’t read anything by Caroline Graham, so I should remedy that. Thanks again for sharing these suggestions —

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