10 swinging sixties crime novels you may enjoy
Here is my personal top ten selection of 1960s crime and thriller novels, listed – as judges sometimes say – in no particular order.
By Peter Bartram
Author Editor Journalist
1. Victor Canning: Doubled in Diamonds. Canning was a star crime writer in the ’60s and in Rex Carver he created one of the best wise-cracking British private detectives ever. The four Carver novels are narrated in the first person. In this, the second in the series, Carver lands in trouble when he takes on a seemingly trouble-free case to track down a man who’s just inherited money. Canning’s Carver series was a big influence on me when I came to create the Colin Crampton mysteries.
2. Agatha Christie: A Caribbean Mystery. I may be cheating a bit here: although Christie penned this Miss Marple cozy mystery in 1964 she doesn’t explicitly say when it’s set although the descriptions infer it’s contemporary. Miss Marple moves outside her comfort zone of St Mary Mead to take on a murder case while on an exotic holiday. The TV version of this with Joan Hickson and Donald Pleasance captures great early ’60s atmosphere.
3. Len Deighton: The Ipcress File. You could call this a spy novel but the hero, Harry Palmer, takes on a whole regiment of criminals and secret agents as he pursues his quarry – Bluejay. Nothing is as it seems, especially when Palmer comes across the secret Ipcress file. The film version with Michael Caine was an iconic ’60s movie.
4. Desmond Bagley: Running Blind. Bagley was another top performer during the ’60s producing a string of excellent crime novels including The Freedom Trap and The Spoilers. Running Blind predates Icelandic noir by decades. The book has hero Alan Stewart and girlfriend Elin Ragnarsdottir running round the glacier-scarred country with a weird device the Russians desperately want to capture. Pacey first-person narrative.
5. Alistair Maclean: Puppet on a Chain. MacLean is best known for his set piece war novels such as The Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare. Puppet on a Chain is set mostly in ’60s Amsterdam. Interpol narcotics investigator Paul Sherman is on the trail of a vicious drugs ring. But though Sherman is a wise-cracker in the noir tradition, he’s also behind the curve in the investigation. As a result one of his two sexy assistants is topped and he only saves the other and cracks the case in a thrilling denouement.
6. Ed McBain: The Empty Hours. McBain was in his pomp during the ’60s writing the gritty contemporary cop tales in his US-based 87th Precinct series. The Empty Hours is one of the best – essentially a collection of three stories of cop life in the precinct woven together into a tightly written narrative.
7. Ross Macdonald. Black Money. Many speak of Macdonald as the true heir of Raymond Chandler. And Macdonald was at his peak during the ’60s turning out a string of his hard-boiled Lew Archer crime mysteries. The understated writing sparkles with a sardonic wit. In Black Money, Archer is on the trail of the wealthy and violent Francis Martel and looks into a suicide that was probably murder.
8. Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö: The Laughing Policeman. This woman (Sjöwall) and man (Wahlöö) pair were early entrants into the Nordic noir field with this contemporary cop mystery published in 1968. Detective Beck investigates what lies behind the machine-gun slaughter of eight people on a bus and discovers a link to a previous crime.
9. John le Carré: The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. This is the ’60s spy thriller which set the benchmark for all the others. Probably le Carré’s shortest book, but none the worse for that. The plot is assembled with machine-tool precision and every twist comes as a shock both to the reader and to the tragic anti-hero Alec Leamas – played brilliantly in the film version by Richard Burton.
10. Frederick Forsyth: The Day of the Jackal. Set at the height of the Organisation de l’Armée Secrète (OAS) terror in Paris in 1962, the plot concerns a hired assassin’s attempt to kill President General de Gaulle. The book still reads as a taught cat-and-mouse game between the assassin and the cops charged with thwarting his threat. But, for Forsyth, it was downhill all the way after this superb debut.