Staff Pick: Two Crime Novels

April 14, 2011 | 1 book mentioned 12 3 min read

I’ve been thinking lately that I should be reading more crime fiction. I’ve never been against it—in theory I’m in favor of anything good, regardless of genre, although I’ve never taken to werewolves—but I haven’t actively sought it out.

But since my second novel keeps getting categorized as crime fiction, my illiteracy in the genre that I’ve apparently been shoehorned into has become slightly uncomfortable. “What kind of a book have you written?” people ask.

“Um,” I say, “I guess it’s a sort of literary crime novel?” (I know. Awkward. But if you set out to write literary fiction and end up getting reviewed in Spinetingler Magazine, what are you supposed to call it?)

“Oh!” they say. “Have you read [insert name of high-profile crime writer whom I haven’t read but obviously should have if I’m claiming any sort of association with the genre]?”

The most recent books I’ve read in the genre confirm my long-held suspicion that attempting to categorize books by genre does readers a disservice; these books are no less literary than any of the other great books I’ve read this year, they just have crimes and/or guns in them. For your reading pleasure, two books you might consider reading even if you don’t think you like crime fiction very much:

coverSavages by Don Winslow: I think this book is perhaps best described as a Tarantino film crossed with a prose poem. It’s violent, beautifully written, and experimental, and I’ve never read anything like it. Structurally, it’s a dizzyingly intricate 290 chapters, the first one only two words long (1. “Fuck you.”)

Ben is a brilliant botanist who’s partnered up with his best friend, Chon, to produce and distribute the best pot on the West Coast. Chon, a former Navy SEAL who brought unspeakably high-quality marijuana seeds back from Afghanistan, has a girlfriend named O, but she sleeps with Ben too. Everyone’s in their twenties. The trio lead lives of hedonistic ease in Laguna Beach, until a vicious Mexican cartel arrives on the scene to stage a hostile takeover of the business.

The shifts in perspective are interesting; Winslow shifts back and forth within his central trio and then moves outward, until we’re reading short chapters from the viewpoint of practically every thug who populates the pages. The effect is fragmented, but effective. What I found most startling about this book was Winslow’s willingness to abandon conventional form and slip without warning in and out of a sort of loose poetry—

Slicing through SoCal
Cutting through a California night
The freeway (5) is soft and warm and
But for Ben
The green exit signs are like steps climbing up a scaffold
Toward O.

The cartel kidnaps O to speed up the takeover negotiations. The body count is considerable. The book’s practically impossible to put down.

coverSnowdrops by A.D. Miller: Snowdrops is as quiet as Savages is loud. The book opens with the early-spring discovery of a body; a snowdrop, in Moscow slang, a corpse hidden all winter under heavy snows. It appears with the first thaw in front of Nick Platt’s apartment building.

It’s apparent from the first pages that a complicated crime is being played out, something slow and deadly unfolding over weeks and months; evidence of it is all around us even as we can’t see how the pieces fit together—until, of course, the trap snaps shut in the final chapters and the significance of the body in the first chapter falls devastatingly into place.

Nick Platt is a British lawyer who lives and works in Moscow in the early 2000s. One day in the Metro he meets a young woman, Masha, and quickly falls in love. His narration takes the loose form of a confession to his soon-to-be-bride, years later—“You’ve wanted to know why I haven’t talked to you about Russia”—although the deeper he goes into the story, the less certain the wedding seems.

Masha asks for his assistance in helping her aunt, Tatiana, move to a new apartment. The real story here isn’t the crime; it’s the extent to which we’re willing to lie to ourselves, to ignore the obvious, in pursuit of happiness or companionship or love. A lonely man in a foreign city, courted suddenly by a beautiful young girl, is willing to suspend disbelief even when her story begins to crumble and lies start showing through, even when he’s half-aware at every turn that he’s complicit in something dreadful and that everything is wrong. An intriguing debut, suffused with an atmosphere of dread.

is a staff writer for The Millions. Her most recent novel, Station Eleven, was a 2014 National Book Awards finalist. She is married and lives in Brooklyn.


  1. i just got into literary mysteries thanks to “Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer” by Wesley Stace. I never knew the genre could be so satisfying. These look great. You make a strong case for “Savages”

  2. Great post. I came across “Savages” thanks to its inclusion in the Tournament of Books this year and also found it hard to put down. I’ve checked out a couple of Winslow’s older books from the library and hope they end up similarly satisfying.

    I used to read a good bit of not-so-literary crime fiction in my teenage years thanks to the sorts of books my dad would read a lot and pass on to me, but I grew away from the genre as my tastes turned a bit more literary the past couple years. Books such as Savages, though, have drawn me a bit back into the genre, and I even find a great deal of entertainment in cozier mystery series such as the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series that aren’t necessarily the brainiest or most challenging, but at the same time don’t patronize the reader.

  3. Thanks for reinforcing my wanting to read Savages, and for putting Snowdrops on my list. I have two thoughts to extend what you said.

    Could much of what is called literary crime fiction be better called literate crime fiction? Literate meaning it doesn’t patronize the reader, insult the language, or strain credibility. It doesn’t have to be on the bleeding edge of what it means to be human, or reconstruct how we tell stories, to justify itself. The literate telling of a good story, about bad people, good people, and some who blur the boundary, is justification enough; calling Rankin, McDermid, Connelly, Mosley, Minna, or Mankell writers of literate crime fiction is sufficient praise for now.

    A useful distinction others have made is between crime fiction and noir fiction. In crime fiction, the crime upsets the moral order; in the end, the crime is solved and the order restored. In noir, no absolute moral order is recognized, and the partial demands of society, family, and the individual will fight for dominance. The Singer’s Gun seems to me to be more noir-ish than crime-ish, but still literary.

  4. Emily,
    Thanks for the heads-up on the latest from Don Winslow. Your mention of the weed-growing botanists reminds me of the only Winslow I’ve read, “California Fire and Life,” which is about sleazebags who set arson fires and the people who try to catch them. Terrific stuff. And it reminded me that the best novels are rarely about people stewing in their juices; they’re almost always about people who do actual work. I’m thinking about wheat-threshing in “Anna Karenina,” bomb de-fusing in “The English Patient,” glove-making in “American Pastoral,” to name just a few.
    Bill Morris

  5. I can’t wait to read Savages. It sounds a bit like the novel Baked, Mark Haskell Smith’s pot-crime-romp through LA, which is a super fun read.

  6. One of the most compelling crime thrillers that I have read is Power of the Dog by Don Winslow. Winslow used to be a DEA guy but left in disgust and then wrote Power of the Dog about the Mexican drug wars. This was in the nineties! When I read it a couple of years ago I thought one of the scenes was a bit too much…but then the next week, in the news, the exact same scenario was reported! This guy has seen it all.

  7. I love crime novels in general – right now I’m finishing Breeders by Barney Rostaing, and I like it a lot. You made “Savages” sound like an absolute must-read, so I think I’ll pick up a copy as soon as I’m done with Breeders!

  8. “The most recent books I’ve read in the genre confirm my long-held suspicion that attempting to categorize books by genre does readers a disservice; these books are no less literary than any of the other great books I’ve read this year, they just have crimes and/or guns in them. ”
    I couldn’t agree more – assigning labels can sometimes have the unintended effect of missing out on a great book or a great experience. Thanks for these two recommendations, I have added them to my summer reading list. Have you read Skylights and Screen Doors by Dean Smart? I would define it as un-categorizable as it is part memoir, part true crime, part just great writing. Another example of how genres can be misleading.

  9. These days crime fiction is the only stuff I read. Thanks for the reccomendations. I will look out for both Snowdrops and savages.

    I have had enouogh of reading the ‘classics’ to impress others and ‘improve myself’.
    I want my daily adrenalin rush and the only way is through crime fiction!

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