So, this is my attempt at a list of the 10 best crime fiction writers. Let me begin with one simple caveat – this is my list today. It will almost certainly be different next year - just because there are so many great writers that I haven’t got to yet. I’m thinking of Ross MacDonald and Richard Price and Chester Himes.
And I’ve focused on writers from the last 50 years or so – simply because I struggle with writers from the too-distant past. The failing is mine but there’s no sense pretending that Raymond Chandler/Dashell Hammett/James Cain provoke the same kind of response in me that Burke or Bruen or Crais do. I’m not sure if it’s the language or the manners or the fact that rock’n’roll hadn’t been invented …but something gets in the way.
Robert Crais #10
LA Requiem is widely recognised as Robert Crais’s best book, but I don’t get it…it feels like a good fit with the other books in the Elvis Cole/Joe Pike series. So, a really good book. But it gets talked about as if it stands apart, as if Crais finally hit the vein, moved from skinpopping to the big bang, figured out how to bring on the full headlong rush - it was fine.
The Two Minute Rule is Crais’ best book. And it isn’t a Cole/Pike book. The premise is brutal – Max Holman has been locked up for a decade and the night before his release his son, a cop, is shot dead.
Richie Holman and three other cops, off duty and parked under an LA overpass sharing a six pack, are blown up by a lone gunman with a 12-guage. And the LA Police don’t even know Richie had a father – under FATHER on his application, Max’s son has written, UNKNOWN. And what Crais does when Max learns this is beautiful – Holman isn’t surprised or disappointed or angry…he’s just embarrassed. He knows that he’s earned every bit of it, that he’s made his bed and now it’s burning, that you always have to cover the vig, pay the juice, doesn’t matter who’s running the game - Vinnie the Foot or Mohammad Vishnu Buddha Christ - it’s the bet plus 10…and don’t you forget it. (By the way, 10% is what separates a business from an addiction. )
The beauty of the book is that it’s only when you’re done that you realise most of the character arc happens before page 1. The man who walks into the grey is different than the one who walks out. The young Max Holman’s match flamed first strike every time - he was drawing smoke before he knew he wanted one. This was a guy who’s best thought was his second one, but he never took the time. Now, every step is weighted down with second thoughts, every pocket’s full of them, front, back and breast. But through it all he’s a stand-up guy…
I love that phrase – stand-up guy. It’s old fashioned, from another time, sandlot ball, 12 cent comics, and roll your owns, but the phrase perfectly captures the concept - it should be timeless. It assumes so little – you’re just a guy. Not a man, certainly not a gentleman, just one of the guys. But you stand-up. Always. You do not lie down, you do not duck and cover, you do not look away - when the wind starts to blow and the water starts to rise – when all the chips get pushed to the center - you stand up. It is completely without pretension. It seems to ask so little. Just stand-up. But we all know what it means – that you will stand until you can’t. That in some rare moments being a stand-up guy asks of you every single thing you have. Stand-up isn’t easy, it’s just simple. (I don’t think I’ve ever called somebody a stand-up guy – it felt like I had to be looking out from under a fedora brim through a thin stream of cigarette smoke – but I’ve wanted to…my dad might have. Or maybe it only happened in the books. I hope not.)
Anyway, through it all Max Holman is a stand-up guy. He swallows every last scrap of pain and exhales a father’s love and obligation. Too little, too late – if you leave a son absolutely no room to be proud of you, if you give them the chance to write your name and they write UNKNOWN, you’ve done some work. You’ve leaned hard into the door to get it closed…and more than once. And if you step away from the grey walls the day after he’s died, there’s not much left but regret and obligation. You go after the killer.
That’s all there is left to do – you’ve already missed the chance to do something that counts. And here again, Crais, either by plan or instinct, is inspired – Max Holman never once voices his big regret. There is never a moment when Holman gives any hint that maybe if he had been free, if he had been a father, that he could have kept his son alive. That regret is completely unspoken. It takes a great deal of respect for your readers to let them write that part of the story themselves.
Max’s last best hope is that he hasn’t marked his son. The scene where he stands at the door to Richie’s memorial service, wearing his son’s jacket because he doesn’t own one of his own, and has to turn away thinking, hoping, pleading to God, that
My son is not like me.
is a moment like few I’ve read. It’s heartbreaking. I couldn’t have imagined this character, the mix of self-loathing and sacrifice required to think those words, but 90 pages into this book, he’s real. Crais never allows him to say a word or make a move that doesn’t feel right.
Now don’t get me wrong, The Two-Minute Rule isn’t Mystic River, it doesn’t have the sweep, the scope, the ambition or the artistry but Crais does something simple and beautiful – he writes a book about right and wrong that feels real and human and maybe even possible.
PS. Robert Crais is the first practitioner of “bro lit” on the list – Cole and Pike are classic examples of the type…it’s all about how no emotion is too important to be left unsaid. Spoiler alert: Dave and Clete are partners but Burke doesn’t write bro lit.
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I am an ecologist, conservation biologist and writer. I’m working on my 11th novel. The third, LONG TRAIN HOME was published by Level Best Books in the spring of 2022 and the sixth, BOOM BOOM'S LAST CALL, will release in the spring of 2023. Originally from Ottawa, Ontario I work at the University of New Brunswick and live with my wife Kim in Saint John, New Brunswick.
#6 James Crumley (Top 10 Crime Fiction Writer Series)
#7 - Don Winslow
(Top 10 Crime Fiction Writer Series)
#8 Dennis Lehane - (Top 10 Crime Fiction Writer Series)
#9 Michael Connolly
(Top 10 Crime Fiction Writer Series)
#10 Robert Crais - (Top 10 Crime Fiction Writer Series)
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