Foundation Blocks: Modern Favorites in Crime Fiction

Foundation Blocks: Modern Favorites in Crime Fiction

Most readers will tell you that the books they read in their youth have shaped who they are today, and Glen Erik Hamilton is no different. When working on his debut novel, Past Crimes, he found inspiration in the mystery and thriller books that he devoured in his youth. Hamilton’s novel follows Van Shaw, a former thief turned military man who is racing the clock to clear his name after the murder of his grandfather. Here, Hamilton reveals some of his favorite books that helped to shape his own gritty novel:

I grew up aboard a sailboat, which offered a lot of time for reading (and re-reading) favorite novels as a teenager, especially while waiting for the wind to move the boat. Most of those books were mysteries and crime thrillers, and unsurprisingly, they were ones I reflected on when writing my own debut, Past Crimes.

I’ve narrowed my list of favorites to the novels published during my lifetime, and which I can still picture occupying a place on the overstuffed bookshelf above my narrow berth.

In order of publication:

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The Day of the Jackal

Frederick Forsyth practically invented a genre with his debut novel about a professional assassin contracted by French dissidents to kill President Charles de Gaulle: the thriller as a how-to book. Using his journalistic expertise to blend real events and techniques into his fictional story, Forsyth follows the unnamed hitman as he creates false identities, secures weapons, and stays just a jump ahead of the brilliant but beleaguered cop assigned to track him down, political opponents be damned. The techniques may be dated, but the book is still so exciting that the pages practically turn themselves.

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The Scarlet Ruse

The Travis McGee novels were among the first series I read and probably a little earlier than I should have, given the sex and violence. I might have picked almost any of the 21 McGee novels as a favorite, but Ruse (published the same year John D. MacDonald was given the Grand Master Award by Mystery Writers of America) stands out as a prime example of what the author did best: creating a palpable sense of impending danger surrounding a very realistic financial scam. Combine that with some of the most menacing villains in mystery fiction, and any reader will quickly see why MacDonald is one of the greats.

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Early Autumn

Robert B. Parker wrote 40 of the Spenser mysteries (along with a dauntingly prolific output of other novels), but this seventh entry may be the high-water mark. Former heavyweight contender and private eye Spenser takes on the protection, and mentorship, of a teenage boy with no decent role models. More than providing dangerous exploits for the hero (who’s backed up as always by the inimitable enforcer Hawk), Early Autumn is an exploration of what makes a man a man, above and beyond just being a tough guy.

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Gorky Park

Arkady Renko is one of the modern mystery era’s great characters. A brilliant chief investigator for the Moscow militia, Renko doggedly pursues the truth even as he is threatened by killers on every side, including some from his own government. Even if he solves the crime, the true culprit may not be acceptable to the Soviet nomenklatura. A great example of the hero with a haunted past, redeemed and perhaps endangered by love.

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A is for Alibi

1982 was a banner year, launching two series centered on female protagonists who have since entered the canon. Both are private eyes, and both are utterly self-reliant, requiring no sidekicks or bodyguards to bail them out of trouble. The first is Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone, who makes her home in the wealthy enclave of Santa Teresa, California. From the start, the alphabet mysteries showed Grafton’s knack for plot twists and long-buried (if rising) secrets. With only X, Y, and Z to go, Kinsey’s in the home stretch with no sign of slowing down.

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Indemnity Only

Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski is perhaps even tougher than Milhone: an expert in karate, a quick shot, and quick-tempered to boot. Murder cases, and the kinds of suspects those investigations involve, don’t give Vic any pause. She’s an underdog’s best hope, and a Chicago sausage’s worst nightmare. Warshawski may be a loner by nature, but her attachments to family (both blood and chosen) are as whole-hearted as they come.

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When the Sacred Ginmill Closes

One of my most beloved for last: Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder is an unlicensed private eye in gritty 1980’s Manhattan. The series was already ten years and six novels along when Block had Scudder confront his serious problem with alcohol head-on. I don’t recall nearly as many plot points of the mystery as much as Scudder’s hard choices, and harder journey, to save himself. With this entry, Block risked alienating readers in order to revitalize the series and take his hero in a new direction.

A native of Seattle, Glen Erik Hamilton grew up aboard a sailboat, and spent his youth finding trouble around the marinas and commercial docks and islands of the Pacific Northwest. He now lives in California with his family.

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