If you’re a lover of crime novels (count me in) and especially those with a heavy emphasis on the psychology of the characters (ditto) you’ll find this list interesting.  Andrew Klavan, author of True Crime, Don’t Say a Word, and the recently published Empire of Lies, has compiled what he believes to be the top five most engrossing crime novels from1866 to1992.  Here are his choices, along with his {edited by me} reasoning:

1. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky: Former student Raskolnikov conceives the idea that an “extraordinary man” should be free of socially constructed moral constraints. Working off that theory, he brutally ax-murders a pawnbroker and her sister–and discovers, to his horror, that he has violated not a mere social construct but the unfathomable Moral Law Within. His escape from the crime scene is as suspenseful as anything in Hitchcock. The scenes of his psychological duel with the canny police detective Porfiry Petrovich have been imitated endlessly yet never matched. But if Dosteovsky had written only the heart-wrenching scene in which the prostitute Sonya reads to the murderer from the Gospels, he could have retired after a life’s work well done. {I read this in high school but had forgotten its wonderful scenes. I may have to dig through it again.}

2. The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes: This is a wonderful read and a forgotten genre classic. Two retired servants, The Buntings, find their respectable middle-class London life about to collapse into poverty. Then the same night a serial killer called The Avenger strike again, the mysterious Mr. Sleuth arrives to rent a room. Is it possible their new lodger and the murderous Avenger are one and the same? What’s so mesmerizing here is not just the suspect, but the way Mrs. Bunting’s desperation to hold onto her middle-class respectability compels her to become his tacit accomplice. {I’d never heard of this one but will check it out now.}

3. The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain: The gold standard for American noir, this is also a stark, incisive portrayal of human desire stripped of every spiritual gloss. Depression-era drifter Frank Chambers takes one look at diner waitress Cora and falls for her hard. The two want desperately to be together, but there’s the small matter of Cora’s husband. While most of Cain’s work were made into films, such as Double Indemnity, and often improved, this is not the case here. The story is still most powerful in its book form. The murder scene remains shocking. The sex scenes will put starch in your collar with nary a foul word. But it’s the depiction of petty weakness and selfishness as the motivation for unconscionable wrongdoing that’s uncomfortably seductive and reminiscent of our own lives. {Never read the book, just saw the two movie versions. I’ll have to read this now, though.  PS: The title comes from Cain’s own desperation of  the postman’s rings when dropping rejection letters.}

4. The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham: Sweet-natured war widow Meg Elginbrodde is about to marry a self-made millionaire when she receives photos suggesting her first husband migth still be alive. One of Allingham’s Albert Campion mysteries, her usual cast of appealing characters is overshadowed by the murderous treasure-hunter Jack Havoc.  He is the embodiment of a post-WWII atheistic materialism that Allingham understood to be nothing more than a new kind of superstition. Havoc is a remarkably original invention, the prototype of the soulless but philosophical killing machines who populate modern thriller novels and films. His final confrontation with the consequences of his worldview is deep, moving and spectacular. {This is a different twist from Allingham’s pleasant Campion series; reading it you feel the depth of her awareness.}

5. The Secret History by Donna Tartt: I love the scope and vision of this novel, its precise characterization and its beautiful prose. Richard Papen hopes to leave his working-class origins behind when he enrolls at an exclusive college in Vermont. Accepted into an elegant clique that centers on a charismatic Classics professor, the group’s immersion in ancient culture leads them to a moment of Bacchic ecstasy and murder. Erudite and compelling, the book is at once a riveting crime story and, I suspect, a meditation on the famous snowstorm scene in Thomas Mann’s “Magic Mountain;” a coming-to-terms with the cornerstone of human savagery on which even the greatest civilization stands. {My friend Melissa gave me this one birthday and it was engrossing and hard-hitting.}

Readers: Which ones have you read? Which ones will you give a try?

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