THE FOLLOWING LIST of my favorite crime novels, novels of detection, and novels of international intrigue--restricted with an effort to a dozen in number--is drawn from a half-century of reading in these criminal departments of letters, is entirely the product of my own tastes with no leaning on outside wisdom, and, consequently, may well be regarded by authorities on the subject, some of them my dear friends, as outrageously eccentric and disorderly.
But, as they say, chacun a son gout, and my gout is for the novel where the author is intensely involved in his characters, where those characters are shown in depth, where there is an accurate and vivid sense of place, and where the writing style indicates what a marvelous instrument of expression the English language can be in the right hands. As for plot, what I ask for is a narrative line which apparently stems from the characters in their interaction and is not imposed on them like a straitjacket.
Above all, the ultimate test I apply to any novel is that of rereadability, and the dozen chosen texts here have each met the test triumphantly. I also believe that virtually all are obtainable in reprint, which suggests that I am not alone in my opinions.
Let's start with three novels of international intrigue:
Kim, by Rudyard Kipling. 1901. (Airmont, $.75; Dell, $1.95; Doubleday, $6.95). This tale of the coming to manhood of an orphaned Irish street boy in India during the palmiest days of the Raj is the prototype spy story, the granddaddy of all that followed. Kipling's knowledge of India and love of it permeates every page and has won the book the plaudits of even the Indian literary establishment. A vast panorama of India emerges in passing scenes, and at the same time the story is as deep as it is wide in its examination of the variegated peoples who make up the subcontinent. And the narrative moves without haste but always compellingly to its resolution.
A Coffin for Dimitrios, by Eric Ambler. 1939. (American Reprint-Rivercity Press, $12.95; The Mystery Library, $10.95). Following Kipling and with few exceptions, spy stories before Ambler's arrival on the scene tended to be romanticized, simplistic, and steely-eyed, pin-headed chauvinistic. Ambler combined political acumen with a sense of human complexity to raise the level of the genre from potboiler to literature. Human beings rather than cardboard figures were now involved in the deadly game of espionage, locales were provided with authentic color and texture rather than with guidebook descriptions, the writing is a model of prose that always obtains its effects without straining for them.
The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, by John le Carr,e. 1963. (Bantam, $2.95; Coward, McCann, $9.95) Marking the Cold War era, le Carr,e presented peacetime espionage as the ugly and corrupting business it is, and did so by a harshly realistic treatment of his protagonist and of the man's day by day operations. There is a restrained anger in le Carr,e which heats what would be an otherwise chilling work and which makes it absorbing, almost hypnotic reading.
To turn now from the international scene to the local, my list includes two private-detective tales in the so-called hardboiled category.
The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett. 1934. (Vintage $1.95; also The Novels of Dashiell Hammett, Knopf, $15.95). Authority would have it that this is the least worthy of Hammett's novels, hardly in the class of such as The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key. I am intensely devoted to it, however, for various private reasons and regard authority as blinkered in this matter. As one who enjoys an enduring and happy marriage, I relish the fact that the story is actually, in the persons of Nick and Nora Charles, Hammett's prothalamion to his enduring and happy relationship with playwright Lillian Hellman, his lover and best friend. And as a native New Yorker, I find myself much closer to the locale of the story, which happens to be New York City rather than the San Francisco that was usually Hammett's mise en scMene. Beyond this, while the plot is no great shakes, the book offers a brilliant study of that social element known then as the Smart Set, and in successive decades as Caf,e Society, the Jet Set, and the Beautiful People. With a sardonic eye and always the light touch, Hammett gets right to the heart --or heartlessness--of this crowd, each of whom springs to full life on appearance. The writing, too, is diamond-edged and devoid now of all remnants of hyperbolic pulp style, and the final line of the story, spoken by Nora Charles, may well offer a vital clue as to why Hammett, in the flush of his novelistic career, made this his last novel. All in all, the story offers large rewards to the reader who approaches it without hard and fast conceptions of what is to be expected from Hammett.
Farewell, My Lovely, by Raymond Chandler. 1940. (Vintage, $1.95; also The Raymond Chandler Omnibus, Knopf, $13.95). Other writers of distinction have tried, none has succeeded better than Chandler in capturing that curious combination of lush profusion and sun-beaten aridity which appears to stamp Southern California's population as well as its scenery. And while his plot is sometimes baffling in its complexities, Chandler's total submersion in his idealized hero, Philip Marlowe, provides the narrative with a natural tension from start to finish.
Two rather more softboiled detective novels are on my list.
Gaudy Night, by Dorothy Sayers. 1935. (Avon, $2.95; Harper & Row, $12.95). I cherish almost all of Sayers' novels, but I find her noble hero Lord Peter Wimsey and his romantic pursuit of her literary alter ego, Harriet Vane, embarrassments. In Gaudy Night, thank God, Lord Peter plays a secondary role, so we can properly focus on Harriet who is, indeed, very much Dorothy Sayers herself. This is a novel of sense and intense sensibility set in a facsimile of that women's college of Oxford that Sayers attended, and in exposing bitter truths about the career woman of that time-- notably the professional scholar--and in weighing agonizing problems of scholarly integrity, Sayers wrote a story as moving and meaningful today as it was then.
The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey. 1951. (Berkley, $1.50; Pocket Books, $2.50; Buccaneer Books, $13.95). One of the most brilliant tours de force in detective fiction, it has a temporarily bedridden detective occupy his time by putting together, through documents provided him, a legal defense of King Richard III, long held guilty by Shakespeare and history of having ordered the murders in the Tower of his two youthful nephews, rightful heirs to the throne of England he had seized. While I wholly disagree with Tey's position, I would hate to appear in court to face her cross-examination. The author is deadly serious in her thesis here, but has handled it so cunningly and enterainingly that the reader is likely to be charmed out of his wits by it.
Now for four novels which, eschewing detection, focus on the criminal and his crime.
Sanctuary, by William Faulkner. 1931. (Vintage, $2.95; Random House, $10). For a long time, Sanctuary was deprecated by highminded authority--and even by the unblushing author himself--as a potboiler, although to the sane reader the quality of the novel itself would seem to belie that. It's now known that Faulkner gave his best to the story, and the result, by my lowminded judgement, was a small masterpiece. It is expressionistic in mode, existential in outlook long before that term had been invented. The emptily destructive characters of Camus were all predated by Faulkner's Popeye here and never more tellingly. Each rereading of it, I've found, provides added insights.
The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain. 1934. (Vintage, $2.95). Cain here presented sensuality without ever descending to the cliche,s of pornography. The hbeseat of lust rises naturally out of his scenes and provides all the motive needed for the progression of action to a tragic finale. His people are shabby in spirit and mind, but they are made vivid and memorable by the way the heat within them drives them to their disastrous reckoning. A unique stylist too, Cain wrote a vivid prose that might be described as gritty American.
A Gentle Murderer, by Dorothy Salisbury Davis. 1951. (Gregg, $11.95). A priest hears the confession of a murderer and must then move to keep the man from killing again. An inspired theme that brings up infinite considerations about theology, confidentiality, human responsibility, all dramatically developed to powerful effect. A remarkable story in the way it has the reader constantly testing his own attitudes and feelings as he reads.
Brighton Rock, by Graham Greene. 1938. (Penguin, $2.95; Viking, $14.95). A mordant picture of a British cock-of-the-walk murderous street boy which for me provides the experience of watching a poisonous snake coiling to strike you as you stand frozen before it. The story appears to move along a lazily erratic course, it takes awhile to appreciate where it is going, and the discovery of that direction never loses its shock effect for me. And its ultimate scene--a voice from the grave, so to speak--is overwhelming.
Finally, one police procedural novel.
Love In Amsterdam, by Nicolas Freeling. 1962. (Out of print). To me, Freeling's novels about Amsterdam detective Van der Valk are Amsterdam, and if this is my favorite it is largely because of the vital role played in it by Van der Valk's wife, Arlette, who is as captivating a woman as any author in the genre has ever created. Van der Valk himself is pure cranky, hardheaded, sorefooted professionalism, but a man with a keen mind and with emotions that sometimes run in unpredicatable and unwanted patterns, and the Amsterdam we see through his eyes is, in a sense, as much a character in the story as any of its protagonists.
And that makes 12 to complete the list, leaving a few dozen other favorites out in the cold. As the farmhand said while sorting strawberries, it's making the decisions that makes the ulcers.