16 Crime Novels That Could Save Humanity
By Greg LevinJuly 29, 2020
If you’re looking for novels that can cure COVID-19, you won’t find them here. However, you will find sixteen amazing novels to distract you from the virus while simultaneously helping you get closer to self-actualization.
The famously acerbic author, poet, and alcoholic Charles Bukowski once said, “Without literature, life is hell.” Sure, he was likely drunk and didn’t remember saying it, but that doesn’t make the quote any less profound.
Great works of fiction entertain and inspire. They educate and heal. Yes, even crime fiction. In fact, especially crime fiction. Great crime novels have the power to positively transform not only individual readers but also entire societies—assuming those societies continue to read rather than spend all their free time watching TikTok videos.
I have personally experienced the transformative power of crime novels and dark fiction. The Girl on the Train taught me not to be so quick to judge others; The Big Sleep showed me how power corrupts; and Fight Club made me realize I should stay on my meds.
Call me an idealist, but I think crime fiction can pave the way to human salvation. I believe it can alleviate if not eliminate most of the psychosocial and emotional issues holding us all back, making us all miserable—even killing us.
Now I know what you’re thinking: Why not encourage people to read non-fiction to fix what ails us? Why not have everyone pick up a self-help book to bring about global enlightenment? I’ll tell you why not: Because I don’t write that stuff. And because Criminal Element is dedicated to crime, not personal improvement. And because nobody wants to be seen reading a book with a title like, So, You’re a Misogynist or The Idiot’s Guide to Being Inclusive.
Below I’ve made a list of some of the biggest flaws that have been plaguing humanity since the beginning of time or at least since the early 2000s. Each is followed by two novels that can help set us straight with regard to the problem area in question. I recommend that, when you finish reading this piece, you go read (or re-read) the books addressing the flaws that most pertain to you, personally. (Just read all of the books, to be safe.) Then, in a year or so, report back to me to discuss how much better a person you’ve become—and how less horrible the world is.
NOTE: If you’re looking for novels that can cure COVID-19, you won’t find them here. However, you will find sixteen amazing novels to distract you from the virus while simultaneously helping you get closer to self-actualization.
If you are DEPRESSED, read:
One for the Money by Janet Evanovich
Laughter is the best medicine, and there are few things funnier than a laid-off lingerie buyer becoming a bounty hunter to pay the bills—and whose first assignment is to bring in a corrupt vice cop who skipped bail. I laughed. I cringed. It was better than Prozac.
Swag by Elmore Leonard
Every time I write about the power of humor in crime fiction, I cannot NOT mention Elmore Leonard. And while any of his novels could be used to treat depression, Swag could probably be used to cure it. Hell, the book might even serve as the antidote for ennui and melancholy, and thus should be read to young children before life punches them in the face. That’s just good parenting.
If you are GREEDY, read:
American Tabloid by James Ellroy
If this literary noir masterpiece doesn’t make greedy people examine the errors of their ways, no book will. It cuts open the chest of 1960s America and uses rib spreaders to show us a heart as diseased by corrupt intelligence agencies and politicos as it is by mob bosses. Throw in a few fall guys and femmes fatales, and you’ve got a satirical dirty bomb ready to blow the country’s innocence to Kingdom Come. In other words, typical Ellroy—at his best.
A Simple Plan by Scott Smith
An exquisitely written train wreck of a novel that starts off with a plane crash… and only gets worse from there. Two adult brothers and their mutual pal find four million dollars (and a dead pilot) amid the wreckage of a small aircraft in the middle of nowhere. All they have to do to get away with the cash is keep their mouths shut. Easy, right? Riiiiight. This book will knock the sticky off even the greediest of fingers.
If you are RACIST, read:
Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke
Winner of the 2018 Edgar Award for Best Novel, this book is as much a nuanced meditation on race as it is a gut-wrenching, gripping murder mystery. Through her use of a multifaceted and perfectly flawed protagonist, Darren Matthews—a black law enforcement agent in small-town Texas—along with her profound sense of place, Locke goes far beyond the mere black and white, delving deftly into gray areas. Areas where some readers may fear to tread but who’ll find themselves unable to resist going—a credit to Locke’s inimitable skill as a brazen yet sensitive storyteller.
Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley
Walter Mosley is one of the most versatile and admired writers around, and this novel is perhaps his crowning achievement. Considering he’s authored more than forty critically acclaimed books, that’s saying something. Devil in a Blue Dress introduces us to Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, a black war-veteran-cum-factory-worker-cum-private-investigator who both experiences and exposes the racial inequities and injustice endured by people of color in mid-century Los Angeles, and beyond. Gritty, hardboiled, and determined as hell, it’s hard for any reader not to fall for Easy—and the entire series of eleven books he’s featured in.
If you are HOMOPHOBIC/TRANSPHOBIC, read:
Bury Me When I’m Dead by Cheryl Head
Head isn’t a talented LGBTQ writer; she’s a talented writer, period. She creates complex, kick-ass characters, and one of her best is Charlie Mack—a detective who’s black and a lesbian. In Bury Me When I’m Dead (the first book in the Charlie Mack Motown Mystery series), Head does what she does best: Refusing to shy away from important themes and issues around diversity while simultaneously keeping crime fiction fans riveted.
Seven Suspects by Renee James
Up until recently, I hadn’t read this book (or the other two in the series) or even heard of Renee James. Know who did? The great Jodi Picoult, who offered this praise for Seven Suspects protagonist Bobbi Logan: “You’ve most likely never met a narrator like Bobbi. Tough, tender, funny, full of heart—and a transgender woman.” Not that Ms. Picoult needs my approval, but her blurb says it all. In Bobbi, Renee James has brought to crime fiction someone who’s been sadly lacking: a three-dimensional and positive trans character. While Seven Suspects is Book 3 in The Bobbi Logan Series, it’s arguably the most gripping of the trilogy, and works well as a standalone.
If you are MISOGYNISTIC, read:
Dead Connection by Alafair Burke
How would a novel about a sociopath who goes on a killing spree against women in New York rid misogynists of their misogyny? A fair question, but I firmly believe even the most despicable woman-hater would respect the hell out of and even develop a healthy fear of Ellie Hatcher—the multifaceted and brilliantly bold detective in Dead Connection, which is the first book in Burke’s phenomenal five-book series. Ellie Hatcher possesses the kind of inner strength, self-awareness, and compassion every human—even the seemingly awful ones—secretly yearns for in themselves.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
Nobody needs me to explain why I’ve included this book here. If they do, they haven’t read it. If they haven’t read it and they’re misogynistic, let’s all chip in and buy them a copy, then bring in Lisbeth Salander to stand over them to ensure they read every single word.
If you are ISLAMOPHOBIC, read:
The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan
Sometimes when I read a debut novel this good, it makes me angry. I can’t help but think such petty thoughts as Where does this newbie get off writing such a phenomenal work of fiction right out of the gate? I felt a lot of things while reading Khan’s phenomenal debut—about a former Toronto homicide detective/counterintelligence agent of Islamic faith who’s now heading up Canada’s Community Policing Section—but anger wasn’t one of them. At least not anger toward the author. No, what I felt (in addition to a whole lot of tension and heartbreak) was an overwhelming urge to shout Finally! As in, Finally, a Muslim crime fiction character written with depth and complexity. (As a Jew married to a Muslim, I’m a fan of complexity—and easily irked by tired tropes and stereotypes.)
Murder Under the Bridge by Kate Raphael
With this provocative indie offering about the only female Palestinian police detective working in the occupied West Bank, Kate Raphael gives crime fiction fans all the mystery and thrills they crave while simultaneously providing an intimate view of one of the most misunderstood geopolitical conflicts in the world. What’s most impressive is how she does all this without exploiting any characters or glossing over the challenges of life in the occupied territories. The protagonist and principal narrator, Rania, is a tough, nuanced character who faces increasingly high stakes with enough tenacity and agency to fill countless novels—novels that readers would not only devour but learn from as well.
If you REJECT CLIMATE CHANGE, read:
Odds Against Tomorrow by Nathaniel Rich
A disaster book that’s anything but disastrous. Rich’s literary thriller will leave you trembling with fear of a very real future while at the same time making you laugh at the horror of what we humans have done to ourselves and our habitat. The best novels are as entertaining as they are thought-provoking; Odds Against Tomorrow crushes it in both of those areas—and gives us a fearless writer to keep an eye on.
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
While this novel may be more dystopian sci-fi than straight-up cri-fi, I simply had to include it in this list. Few works of fiction take on environmental degradation and corporate greed as powerfully or as inventively as Bacigalupi does in this unsettling masterpiece. Difficult to describe and, at times, to read, but those who stick with it will be rewarded—or at least will be terrified enough to ponder the fate of our increasingly less-blue planet.
If you are COMPLACENT/APATHETIC, read:
The Border by Don Winslow
Just about any novel by Winslow would have been fitting here, and sure, it might have made more sense to list the first book of this series (Power of the Dog) rather than the third. But The Border is arguably the best example of Winslow’s ability to reveal the power of corruption and the flaws of humanity without losing all hope in it. He delves deep into the brutal world of Mexican cartels and America’s war against drugs—and shows in gripping, unflinching detail how sometimes cutting off the head of one monster causes countless more to grow in its place … and how we still must fight. A work of fiction that’s all too true and impossible to forget.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk
As hard to categorize as it is to put down, this literary murder mystery will have you questioning everything—and not just who the killer is. Tokarczuk’s use of the first-person perfectly captures her highly distinct voice (albeit translated from Polish, if you bought your copy in ‘Merica or the UK) and puts the reader in the saddle of this epic, existentialist poem of a crime novel. But, you know, if you’ve read one story of an aging astrologer who insists on getting to the bottom of all the dead bodies piling up in her small town on the Czech-Polish border and who refuses to bow to the powers that be, you’ve read them all. But seriously, a mesmerizing book from the opening sentence on.
That’s it! Though, naturally, this is not an exhaustive list. What books would YOU like to add? What CATEGORIES would you like to add? What makes me think anybody stuck around long enough to even read these questions?