Topping my list of the best detective novels I’ve read are three books written as one-off mysteries by authors whose oeuvres span a range of very different kinds of literary work.
Jerzy Kosinski’s Pinball was published in 1982, when his career already had gone into serious decline: He was hounded by critics and dubious investigative journalists tried—without luck—to expose him as a literary fraud, until he finally committed suicide. Yet Pinball remains his most ambitious novel and, unlike the typical Kosinski solitary outsider story, features two outsiders. Both are musicians: Domostroy is a failed has-been who lives in an abandoned ballroom in Bronx; Goddard is a superstar rocker whose real identity is not known. Enter sexpot Andrea, who has all of Domostroy’s LPs and appears to be a fan. What she really wants is his help in exposing the secretive Goddard.
Double roles: The Calcutta Chromosome by Ghosh (left) and Tough Guys Don’t Dance by Mailer are great mystery novels. Santosh Harhare / Hindustan Times and Random House / Bloomberg
There are eerie echoes of real life events here: Kosinski lived on Manhattan’s 57th Street and John Lennon had just been assassinated outside his home on 72nd Street. But this mission to assist a stalker gives the burnt-out Domostroy’s life a new purpose, although as he nears the end of his detective work, things take a sinister turn.
The thoroughly hard-boiled Tough Guys Don’t Dance isn’t listed among Norman Mailer’s masterpieces either. The protagonist Tim Madden is a writer and bourbon alcoholic, who wakes up one morning a couple of weeks after his wife has dumped him and can’t remember much about the night before. The passenger seat of his Porsche is covered in blood. Did he murder his wife? In his dope stash he finds a chopped-off head. From there on the fast-paced plot becomes one desperate man’s reconstruction of a past he has lost and his entire future hinges on that amateur detective work (incidentally, 24 years earlier, the slightly misogynistic Mailer had himself nearly stabbed his then wife to death after a party; they were later divorced).
The most recent novel on my list is Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome and although it won the Arthur C Clarke Award for science fiction, I’d rather look at it as a fantastic detective novel with elements of Gothic horror. Murugan is a US-based expert on Sir Ronald Ross, the scientist who received the Nobel Prize for his work on malaria. While researching Ross’ life in India in the mid-1990s, Murugan goes missing. It turns out that he was on to a far greater mystery than the one solved by Ross at his Calcutta laboratory. In fact, Ross may have been duped by a strange society that misdirected him and planted clues before his nose at crucial moments, all of which the scientist was too blind to notice. Did Murugan’s detective work lead him into the clutches of the same secret society that manipulated Ross a hundred years before? Or had Murugan simply gone insane? As the events in this examination of colonial-era Western scientific work versus “native knowledge” unfold, it’s as if time itself is collapsing around the reader.
What these novels (listed above merely in order of publication date) have in common are their intricate jigsaw-puzzle constructions. The reader races on, chased by that vertigo-like fear that if he doesn’t discover the missing piece he’ll be hurled into a nightmare. Secondly, all of them take on important themes: Kosinski considered the contrast between high art’s exclusivity versus low art’s popularity, and also reality versus fiction; Mailer looked at the human mind and its eventual degeneration; and Ghosh reveals an entirely alternative way to understand the mass of accumulated historical fact so that we can better decode the past. Thirdly, they all are infused with a deeply melancholic nostalgia—for New York nightscapes, for picturesque Provincetown in the dreary winter off-season, or for Kolkata with its rambling, spooky mansions. And last but not least, they have cool titles.
You are all welcome to disagree with my list, and email me your own. It would be my great pleasure to then revisit this listing business in a future column. There’ll even be a random prize draw and one contributor will get a free copy of my forthcoming cop novel Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan. Sorry if the prize seems cheap, but it’s all I can afford.
Zac O’Yeah is a Bangalore-based writer of crime fiction.
Write to Zac at email@example.com