Crime Stories Read over the Break

Crime Novels Set or Written in the 1930s

Recommendations from the SMSA Mystery & Crime Book Club

Each month the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts Library runs a Mystery and Crime Book Club where each member reads a book of their own choosing within an agreed sub-genre or theme.  For January, we shared the books we read over the holidays.  Here are some of the recommendations:


Tattoo by Manuel Vazquez Montalban
Tattoo (1975) is the second book in the Pepe Carvalho Mystery series by Spanish author Manuel Vazquez Montalban, and the first one translated into English. His first book, I Killed Kennedy (1972), has not been translated, so you can only start with Tattoo.  Manuel Vazquez Montalban was a prolific poet, journalist, essayist and writer in Spain.  He was well regarded and celebrated.  His novels featured 50 year old gastronome-detective Pepe Carvalho and delved into the many facets of Spanish life, from the communist movement in Spain to corruption of the police and politicians.  Tattoo is about the discovery of a drowned man floating in the ocean and the search for his identity.  His face has been destroyed and the only thing that can help to identify him is the tattoo on his shoulder that reads ‘Born to raise Hell in Hell.’ 

Manuel Vazquez Montalban died in Bangkok, Thailand in 2003 on his way back from a speaking tour in Australia.


A Private Disgrace: Lizzie Borden by Daylight by Victoria Lincoln
A true crime story, A Private Disgrace: Lizzie Borden (reprinted 1989) received an Edgar as the best non-fiction crime book of 1967 from the Mystery Writers of America.  Lizzie Borden was tried and acquitted in the 1892 axe murders of her father and stepmother in Fall Rivers, Massachusetts in the USA.  The case caught the imagination of the public and was memorialized in a popular skipping-rope rhyme:

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one.

Borden chose to remain a resident of Fall River for the rest of her life, facing ostracism and speculation.  Victoria Lincoln was born and raised in Fall River in the early 1900s and understood the social milieu in which these incidents took place. She offers a unique perspective to the Lizzie Borden case and decided to write about it many years later, even though many books, articles and essays had been written on the subject.

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Blood and Judgement by Michael Gilbert
In Blood and Judgement (1959), the London police are called in when a woman's partially buried body is found near the reservoir. This murder victim is the wife of a criminal who has escaped from prison. The ex-convict is suspected of the murder. According to crime writer Martin Edwards who wrote an essay on Michael Gilbert, “He introduced Sergeant Patrick Petrella, son of an Englishwoman and a senior Spanish detective. Petrella’s first book appearance was in Blood and Judgment, a police procedural which opens with the discovery of a woman’s body on Bonfire Night.” British writer Michael Gilbert had a very long a productive career.  He practiced as a lawyer in London and published his first novel in 1946 and his last one in 1999.  He died in 2006 at the age of 93.  He was a founder-member of the British Crime Writers’ Association.

Ian Rankin
Two novels from Ian Rankin were recommended. The eighth Inspector Rebus novel, Black and Blue (1997) explores the impact of the North Sea oil rigs and ‘industry’ on Aberdeen and Glasgow, and the 16th Inspector Rebus novel, The Naming of the DeadThe Naming of the Dead is set against the backdrop of a G8 meeting in July 2005 in Edinburgh.

Live by Night by Dennis Lehane
The latest Dennis Lehane, Live by Night (2012), is set in Boston and Florida in the 1920s.  Prohibition has made organised crime an industry and Lehane brings it all to life.  I think Lehane is one of the best crime writers alive.  He always makes his subject matter riveting, complex and with many shades of gray.  I am looking forward to getting this out of the library.


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Death of a Dissenter by Lynton Lamb
Born as a son of an English Reverend in India, Lynton Lamb grew up in London and studied art.  He was primarily an illustrator who designed stamps, decorations for the Orient Liner and the binding for the bible used at the Queen’s coronation.  He is the author of British children’s classic The Railway Children and wrote the Inspector Charles Glover detective stories between 1969 and 1974.  Death of a Dissenter (1969) was his debut, and is about a quaint English village where the rector of the village parish is the prime suspect.  It is described as light, humorous and full of provincial English.

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The Notting Hill Mysteries by Anabel Donald
The Notting Hill Mysteries is a series of five crime novels featuring London-based freelance researcher and occasional private investigator Alex Tanner.  Alex lives in the Ladbrooke Grove end of Notting Hill. Not the fashionable bit but the end near what was once known as Rillington Place.  All five books are set her and have a strong connection to the London borough.  Alex’s story starts with An Uncommon Murder (1992).  Set in 1990, Alex investigates the decades –old unsolved murder of Lord Sherwin. Alex’s story continues in In at the Deep End (1995) where she looks into the strange goings-on at Rissington Academy, an exclusive boarding school, where a student has drowned.  The third book in the series is The Glass Ceiling, Alex receives a letter from a ‘Ms X’ which lists the names of four famous feminists and has an X next to the name of the one who has recently died.  She races against time to try and stop the death of the remaining three. The Loop sends Alex backwards and forwards across the Atlantic in search of a missing young man. On an assignment in Chicago a beautiful young model begs Alex to find her missing lover. The trail leads Alex from Chicago back to England.  As usual there is more to it than the plot. Destroy Unopened is the final novel in the series and starts with a recently widowed woman bringing Kate an envelope marked "Destroy Unopened" which contains letters indicating a long-term relationship between a woman and a married man.  These letters are in some way connected to the killing of small blonde women that is happening in Notting Hill.  Kate tries to unravel it all.  

Book to Die For – Edited by John Connolly and Declan Burke
This is a collection of over 120 essays by current crime authors about their favourite crime novel.  Some of the pairings include: Eddie Muller on The Big Heat by William P. McGivern; Mark Billingham on The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett; Megan Abbott on In a Lonely Place, by Dorothy B. Hughes; Laura Lippman on Love’s Lovely Counterfeit, by James M. Cainby; James W. Hall on LaBrava by Elmore Leonard; Val McDermid on On Beulah Height, by Reginald Hill.  The essays are chronological, so you can read the history and development of crime fiction over the last 200 years.  The novels written about are mainly American and British, so it is by no means definitive, but it is a fascinating read.  As a bonus, there is also a short paragraph about the writer of each essay.


Bonus comment
Each year World of Books sell over 4 million used books online. Started in the UK, eight years ago, World of Books purchased unsold inventory of used books from UK charity shops and reselling them online, originally through online sites through, but now also from the World of Books website  Books are bought in bulk, paying by tonnage rather than paying for individual titles. Then, using custom-designed software, each title is evaluated for saleability and set selling prices accordingly.  In 2010 alone the business recycled 26 million books.  Check it out. They deliver worldwide.

Next month the sub-genre or theme is Partners in Crime.