The first time I read this locked-room mystery--where the room is a rock on the beach at high tide--was on a cloudy beach at high tide (with a box of Cheez-Its). I remember that day very clearly, but no matter how many times I read this book I always forget the ending, which, in my opinion, is the sign of a very good mystery. Get yourself a box of Cheez-Its and read this very good mystery.
A self-described beach bum taking his retirement early and in installments, Travis McGee lives on his houseboat The Busted Flush, cooling his heels until he runs out of money, at which point he'll take a case. In this first book of the series, Trav agrees to track down a grinning psychopath, Junior Allen, and recover loot smuggled in from Asia during the war - in exchange for a cut, of course. A cynic with a kind streak, and a refreshingly compassionate champion of women, McGee is one of the all-time great heroes of the detective genre, and a perfect vessel for MacDonald's wry take on modern American society.
The Last Good Kiss starts with a major bender as the detective takes an impromptu tour across the west with an alcoholic author and his beer-drinking bulldog. It gradually morphs into a domestic tragedy, a mystery that draws you into the intrigue and suspense with laconic humor. A unique book that still exemplifies all that is good about noir.
Protagonist Alec Leamas is a 60-year old former British Intelligence officer who, resigned and alcoholic, takes one last assignment out of sheer restlessness. Far from following a triumphant has-been-to-champ character arc, Leamas only falls deeper into the disgust and cynicism that made him quit in the first place. There are no good guys; the East Germans are antisemites and opportunists, the Brits calculating and callous; Socialism is presented as brutal and delusional, the "non-ideology" of the West as blind and hopeless. The Cold War has never felt so cold.
A returned serviceman in late '40s Los Angeles goes out driving at night and women wind up killed. They're found on beaches, in eucalyptus groves, by the side of the road in isolated canyons. A beautiful noir about a serial killer at work, the fact that this was written by a woman make a huge difference - you see the threads of violence and misogyny woven through post-war American culture, see the way that culture naturally and obviously produces a person like this, and still does.
For when you want a mystery that's less murder-ey and more Murder She Wrote-ey.
Bite-sized, train-related whodunits from an assortment of classic mystery writers and some you won't have heard of. There is no better summer reading. Or subway reading. Or bathtub reading. Or "I estimate that in approximately ten minutes I will pass out" bedtime reading.
My favorite entry in the long-running Easy Rawlins series find the detective broke and raising two adopted children while hampered by a bad real estate investment. In bad need of money, he reluctantly accepts a job from another PI to track down a woman from his past, all while keeping an eye on his murderous friend Mouse. A page-turner that is also observant and humane.
As if Maupassant (or the filmmaker Jacques Rivette) reflected on stories from their lives in the midst of crafting an elaborate jewel heist crime mystery. Except the mystery story is quickly forgotten, instead you're left with a somber, existential rumination on the nature of life, ambition, mundane work, and the intricacies of family histories. Simenon is a master and one could spend a full year reading as many of his works as possible, back-to-back.
I first met Lord Peter Wimsey on a train (or rather, in an anthology of train-related murder mysteries), and pretty much instantly fell in love. Here are the collected short adventures of my new imaginary 1920's detective boyfriend.
A carnival mirror image of Thompson's classic The Killer Inside Me, Pop.1280 follows the machinations of a crooked small town sheriff as he gleefully manipulates his colleagues and constituents. The only fun novel Jim Thompson ever wrote.
The midcentury lesbian lovers-on-the-run novel of your dreams, The Price of Salt has the distinction of being the only Patricia Highsmith novel with a (relatively) happy ending, and it is also her sexiest.
Read Tana French if you love mysteries, read her if you don't. The writing alone is enough to turn you into a lifelong fan: images so thick and syrupy you might mistake them for your own memories. Add to that a gripping plot and characters you feel you know--French is particularly skilled at embodying the *ahem* complexities of fragile masculinity - there's no way you can lose. Start here and don't stop til you've read them all.
Chandler's famous creation, private detective Philip Marlowe, glibly offends the rich and the unjust while trying to defend an acquaintance of dubious morality. My personal favorite of the Marlowe novels and maybe Chandler's most complex tale of the rot and the greed pervading the upper crust of Los Angeles.
The year is 1995. Down-and-out writer Viktor lives in Kiev with his adopted penguin Misha. Unexpectedly, he's contracted to write "snappy, pithy, way-out" obituaries of Kiev's still-living mafiosos. Right on schedule, his subjects begin to die mysterious, dramatic deaths. Could something nefarious be afoot? It could be. These weird ingredients somehow work together to create a bleak, tender, and funny little novel that's ostensibly a thriller but also something more. Death and the Penguin brilliantly captures the surreal, lawless quality of the post-Soviet bloc, and slyly indicts our own personal complicities in any corrupt regime.