Crime and Literature: 10 Literary Classics with Criminal Elements

Read Peter Blauner's discussion of classic literature featuring criminal elements, then make sure to sign in and comment below for a chance to win a copy of his latest Lourdes Robles novel, Sunrise Highway!

The case has been knocking around for as long as novels have been published. There is supposed to be great literature on one side of the divide and grubby disreputable crime fiction on the other. The usual suspects always get trotted out and displayed in the harsh light of the lineup. Did you commit pulp or literature, kid? It’s invariably Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Sometimes Agatha Christie and somebody like Dorothy Sayers gets dragged in for interrogation. And these days, maybe P.D. James or Ruth Rendell.

But what if we turned the bright lights around, for once? How many classic works wouldn’t exist without the elements of crime fiction? The answer, I think, is quite a few. I know there are some people who say that if a novel isn’t a mystery or a thriller, it doesn’t belong in the crime fiction category. I disagree. My favorite books are about how a crime ripples out into people’s lives, not about simple answers.

So here are 10 blue-chip picks, meant to provoke arguments and alternate choices. If you haven’t read them because they’re “classics,” don’t be intimidated. A good story is a good story.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Cover of Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

You knew I had to start off with that one because it’s right there in the title. A cat-and-mouse psychodrama. The duel between Raskolnikov and Porfiry, criminal and cop, echoes all over the fields of mysteries, thrillers, and suspense stories. But the more you read Dostoevsky, the more crime you see in his work. Not surprising for an author who was put before a firing squad and spent some of his best years in prison. The Brothers Karamazov has those great trial scenes, and you can see a kind of proto-noir in The Gambler, The Double, and many of his other works. But for me, the clear forerunner is Notes from Underground, with its seedy backdrop and the unstable, unreliable narrator who could step onto the streets of contemporary Chicago or Boston and commandeer a novel by Gillian Flynn or Dennis Lehane like he was hailing a cab on the street.

The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor

Cover of The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor

Literary critics often write about O’Connor as if she was mainly a Southern Gothic writer or a Catholic writer. But when I first read her as a teenager, I thought she was a crime writer—and a sensational one.

She doesn’t write mysteries or thrillers or anything with a tidy, comforting ending. Her intention seems entirely the opposite, which is why I also took her to be a great punk writer when I encountered her. Her most famous character in her most famous story is The Misfit (how punk is that?) in A Good Man Is Hard to Find, a notorious murderer who bats away a grandmother’s pieties when she encounters him after a roadside accident, scoffs at Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, and then dispatches the old woman with three shots to the chest when she tries to touch him. Then, there’s “Good Country People,” in which a traveling Bible salesman tenderly offers his attention and his whiskey to a 32-year-old virgin and then steals her prosthetic leg. Or one of my personal favorites, “The Lame Shall Enter First,” in which a well-meaning social worker named Sheppard takes a teenage juvenile delinquent named Johnson into his home and sees his life torn apart as a result of his good and rational intentions.

Yes, we’re a long way from the classic detective story, where a crime is solved by logical deduction and moral order is restored to the universe. So what?

Atonement by Ian McEwan

Cover of Atonement by Ian McEwan

McEwan is widely and deservedly acknowledged as one of the masters of modern literature. But many of his best books have a crime as its primary engine. Enduring Love is a stalker story about a same-sex obsession, not that different in structure from something Patricia Highsmith might have written—if she’d philosophical ambitions. The Innocent, set in Berlin at the beginning of the Cold War, strays well into John le Carré territory and adds a twist gruesome enough to make Thomas Harris flinch. But in Atonement, his most famous and possibly greatest work, the crime is both more subtle and far more devastating. A child’s reckless and false accusation of rape leads to an innocent man being arrested, destroys a number of adult lives in the process, and produces a heartbreaking work of art.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Cover of Beloved by Toni Morrison

Like McEwan, a modern master but on this side of the Atlantic and decisively grander and less approachable. Her greatness is undeniable, though I must confess I sometimes get lost in the hallucinatory thickets of her dense lyrical prose. Crime plays a role in several of her key works, though nowhere more plainly or poignantly than in Beloved. The plot, if narrowly defined, turns on a desperate mother’s attempt to free her children from a life under slavery by killing them. She succeeds in doing away with only one and then is haunted long after by what could be the child’s ghost. But, obviously, the greater crime—and the one that looms behind much of American literature, including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—is the original sin and lasting national shame of slavery itself.

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

Cover of An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

If you’ve read this far, you might very well be rolling your eyes and saying, “uh, duh, what about The Great Gatsby?” But Fitzgerald doesn’t need the hype. He’s still on a lot of high school reading lists, and his work keeps getting adapted into movies starring the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio. Dreiser doesn’t have the glitzy reputation or glamorous downfall story. His deliberate, heavy-footed style, underpinned by studious research, marks him as a relic of another era. But, for me, there’s a realism to his work that transcends its time, and I see his influence in the work of contemporary authors like Richard Price and Tom Wolfe. Like those writers, he knows how to anchor an ambitious story about an individual and their society in the specifics of a crime story. An American Tragedy, the story of a young factory supervisor who kills his pregnant lover, is his greatest work. Its best-known iteration is A Place in the Sun, the film version starring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, and Shelley Winters (as the victim, naturally). But look for Dreiser’s book and give yourself some time to fall under its spell.

Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy

Cover of The Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy

In his lifetime, Count Tolstoy did pretty much every kind of writing you can think of: religious tracts, philosophical works that influenced Gandhi and Martin Luther King, tortured love stories that anticipated the soap opera, and some of the most powerful war stories ever committed to prose. But his shorter narratives, particularly, contain great crime stories that reverberate all over the cultural landscape. “God Sees the Truth, But Waits” has been identified by some as the inspiration for Shawshank Redemption (though not necessarily by Stephen King, as far as I can tell). “The Kreutzer Sonata,” a tale of jealousy and madness culminating in homicide, was the basis of the Preston Sturges film Unfaithfully Yours with Rex Harrison and Linda Darnell. And “Hadji Murad,” one of Tolstoy’s last works of fiction, based on his experiences as a soldier in the Caucus region a half-century before, anticipates the modern terrorism novel but with more psychological complexity and acuity. It contains one of the most startling images in all of Tolstoy’s work: a Muslim insurgent—handcuffed to a Russian soldier and being led down a mountain road to his certain execution—decides to leap over the ledge instead and survives.

House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Cover of The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Like many others, I was puzzled when Martin Scorsese chose to follow up Goodfellas and Cape Fear with an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence. Then, I started reading Wharton, and the decision suddenly made perfect sense. Although she’s often bracketed as “a women’s author” and associated with Gilded Age New York, her sense of strict customs, violent underlying emotions, and the consequences for transgressing tribal codes is as barbed and tense as anything you can find in Mean Streets or Taxi Driver. And her most hardboiled novel is House of Mirth. Sticklers may point out that its protagonist, Lily Bart, never quite breaks the law in her desperate search to find money, respectability and, yes, love before time runs out on her. But she skitters pretty damn close to the edge in dealing with her rising gambling debts, de facto prostitution, and deepening drug addiction. There’s even an episode that looks to the modern like something very close to insider trading. Wharton is, of course, a greater writer than, say, a Jim Thompson or a David Goodis, but somehow I think their seedy hustlers and last-chance hoodlums might recognize a kindred spirit in her work.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

Cover of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

Before there was a musical! Before there was a mystery section in most bookstores! Before the title itself evoked visions of a volume big enough to keep your door against the strongest breezes of spring! Before any of that, there was a cat-and-mouse tale about a thief named Valjean and a cop named Javert who wouldn’t leave him alone. I read somewhere recently that at least 25 percent of Victor Hugo’s epic consists of digressions and essays on subjects that are irrelevant to the plot. True, but so what? Hugo, who was a contemporary of Dickens and Tolstoy, was also a great storyteller, and what’s at the heart of this novel is a great crime story.

Bonus detail I only recently learned: both Valjean and Javert are thought to be based on the same real-life individual: Eugene Francois Vidocq, a French criminal turned criminalist, who is also considered by many to be the world’s first private detective and also inspired characters from Balzac, Poe and, yes, Arthur Conan Doyle.

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird

Don’t even try to get out of it, okay? Yes, it’s a coming-of-age story. Yes, it’s about the American South and racism. Yes, it won the Pulitzer Prize, was instantly a monster bestseller, and is enshrined as a mid-20th-century classic and on respectable English class reading lists all over the world. But it’s not much of a novel without the story of an African-American man falsely accused of rape providing gravity at its center.

Want to see what would happen if it wasn’t there? Read Go Set A Watchman, written before Mockingbird but published just a few years after Lee’s death. Most reviewers fixated on the unsympathetic (some would say more honest) portrait of Atticus Finch as a main problem in the book. But the absence of a compelling crime narrative may have been the more fatal flaw.

American Pastoral by Philip Roth

Cover of American Pastoral by Philip Roth

This last pick was a tough one because it came to a choice between Roth’s 1997 novel and Billy Bathgate by E.L. Doctorow. Both are seminal works by masters of the late-20th-century American novel. For a while, I was giving the edge to Bathgate, a rocketing tale of a 15-year-old boy from the Bronx who winds up falling under the sway of the true-life gangster Dutch Schultz. The book opens with a chapter that any crime novelist would have literally killed someone to have written: A precise and lyrical description of Schultz’s men fitting a lieutenant named Bo Weinberg with a pair of cement overshoes and tossing him into the East River. But in the end, Roth’s novel may be the larger, darker, and more encompassing work. The story of what should have been a wonderful American undone by a kidnapping, a bombing of a post office, and a daughter’s betrayal. But it’s much more than that. Just read it, and you’ll see. When Roth died earlier this year, I saw a number of critics dismiss his work as retrograde, anti-feminist, and myopic. I do not believe most of them could have read this novel and still said that.

Read an excerpt from Peter Blauner’s latest, Sunrise Highway!

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Comments

  1. J. L. Abramo

    TERRIFIC PIECE. It is harder to find classic literature WITHOUT a crime element. I have always argued the down side of being labeled a ‘genre fiction’ writer. For those interested, here, from 2012, is my answer to a common question: http://jlabramo.blogspot.com/2012/. Thanks, Peter, for your article.

  2. David Winn

    Pale Fire, Nabokov; Cousin Bette, Balzac; Night of the Hunter, Grubb; Gods Without Men, Kunzru. In each of these novels crime and the mystery of human motivation to transgress combine a kind of insight into human will and the essential irrationality of desire.

  3. John Smith

    I’ve only read “The House Of Mirth,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and one or two stories by Flannery O’Connor….

  4. Catherine Myers

    Would love to read this book

  5. Karen Mikusak

    Would love to win!

  6. Susanne Troop

    This sounds great!

  7. Elena Y.

    “Sunrise Highway” seems an interesting read! Thanks for the chance =)

  8. Marjorie Manharth

    Oh, yikes! Another whole list of must-reads! Thank you.

  9. Elena

    “Sunrise Highway” seems an interesting read! Thanks for the chance =)

  10. Carolyn

    What a great list of books! I wouldn’t have considered a few of them to have a criminal element in the story line. Interesting!

  11. Michael Carter

    Please enter me in this sweepstakes.
    Thanks!

  12. Susan T.

    I’ve read only four of these. I’ll have to look up the rest!

  13. Natalie

    I can’t wait to read this!

  14. Lisa Murray

    Would love to read !

  15. Anne

    Love all of these. Especially Dreiser. Would enjoy your novel.

  16. Pearl

    Now this is exceptional. I would look forward to this book.

  17. Jackie Mungle

    I would love to win, thank you for a chance.

  18. carloshmarlo

    Oh man, so many classics that I haven’t read yet. I’d better get busy! Thanks for the chance to win Sunrise Highway!!

  19. pat murphy

    Hope to win .

  20. dbranigan

    I’ve read most of these, but just added a couple to my to-read list as I have been adding some classic reads that were overlooked by me back in the day. Thanks for the list.

  21. Mary Gilles

    I definitely need to broaden my definition of “crime literature.” I’m starting with the recommendations. Would also love to read Sunrise Highway.

  22. kkp

    Thanks for a discussion and list of new books (to me) to read.

  23. Lori P

    What an interesting list, of which I’ve read about half. Trollope’s “The Way We Live Now” and all manner of Dicken’s classics would be worthy additions.

  24. Michelle

    Got my attention! Would love a copy!

  25. teresa sopher

    I really enjoyed your list…

  26. Jeana

    Thank you for the opportunity to win.

  27. Shirley Evans

    My favorite, mysteries and crime. Thanks for the giveaway opportunity.

  28. lasvegasnv

    lots of books

  29. Desmond Warzel

    Count me in, please!

  30. Lois olshan

    Looks like an exciting, read!

  31. Janet Gould

    All great books.

  32. Laurent Latulippe

    Good list of books.

  33. Susan Morris

    I’ll have to take a second look at a few of these books. A couple will surely be added to my “must read” list.

  34. Katrina Yurenka

    Sunrise Highway sounds like a good introduction to Peter Blauner.

  35. Karen Minter

    The book sounds intriguing and a must-read for fans of mystery and suspense!

  36. techeditor

    There are other examples, too, such as (in my opinion) books written by Tana French and John Hart.

  37. Saundra K. Warren

    going on my TBR list!!!

  38. Rena

    These are great books and I can’t wait to read Sunrise Highway.

  39. Adrien Toro

    To Kill a Mockingbird is fantastic. I found American Pastoral difficult but more than worthwhile. I wish I could say that I have read all of these, I can’t but I’m working on it! Sunrise Highway looks like a good one.

  40. Pat Murphy

    I’ve read “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Crime and Punishment” but could use some lighter crime reading. Count me in.

  41. katevocke

    Sunrise Highway sounds great! Thanks for the chance!

  42. downeaster

    I enjoyed his previous novel so looking forward to this one

  43. Valerie Wiesner

    I would really love to read this book.

  44. Kathy Kimbro

    I am always looking for a new favorite author. Please enter me in the contest. Thanks

  45. L

    Some classics and a few I hadn’t heard of. More to read. Would love to read Sunrise Highway, too!

  46. Deb Philippon

    To Kill A Mockingbird was the big inspiration for me as a reader when I first started reading adult books. Wish me luck!

  47. Sally Schmidt

    Food for thought and a great list to read. I read An American Tragedy in high school and have reread it several times.

  48. Moyra Tarling

    I very much enjoyed Mr. Blauner’s comments on each of the books he chose… Must check out a couple that sounded intriguing – House of Mirth and American Pastoral Would love to win a book… Can never have enough!!!

  49. Margot Core

    So many crimes so little time! Thank you, a very interesting essay.

    • Margot Core

      PS: Peter, ‘Slow Motion Riot’ is one of the best books I have ever read, seriously.

  50. Esther Whatley

    Great article. Will add some of these to my TBR list. Would also love to read Sunrise Highway.

  51. Margit Curtright

    Thanks!

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