Looking for complex and/or smart detective fiction

Hello Fellow Dopers,

I’ll keep this post rather brief. I tend to read all types of novels, I particularly enjoy ‘metafiction’ and ‘postmodern’ fiction (the only thing ‘postmodern’ I like!), but in general I am looking for just good, contemporary (1960ish onward) literature.

I’ve recently developed an interest in detective fiction, it is not a completely new interest, but this time I can’t get enough. I’m currently obsessing over Japanese detective fiction, because I’m also interested in Japanese culture. In any case, I want to ask, which detective or police or general whodunnit novel would you recommend?

I only have a few qualifications: I’m not generally interested in books that make good materials for movies. I would like a complex or really thoughtful murder-mystery. It need not be ‘high’ art, but different from the typical ‘airport’ bookstore novels.

If it can be experimental, good. If it has lots of characters, great. More than anything I like them to be ambitious and just really smart. Last caveat, though, if possible I also like them to be relatively contemporary, that is, 60’s-70’s onward.

Finally, if there is just one that is SO darn good, that any of the above stipulations don’t prevent for a recommendation, I’ll take it too - but it has to be fantastic, not terribly predictable.

So - what do you recommend?

Many thanks,

Cartesian Rationalist

Random P.S: I keep trying to get people to read this FANATSTIC ‘postmodern’, or just ambitious novel, that I read recently, it’s not well known, sadly. It rivals the best of Pynchon or Wallace, maybe even better, I exaggerate not, I just wish this book would get people’s attention more. It’s called* Novel Explosives* by Jim Gauer, WOW, what a book.

No spoilers in the article.

I like your taste! I’ve got one solid rec and three stretches.

  1. Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders might fit the bill. It’s somewhat ambitious structurally in that it has a book-within-a-book structure. The outer book is contemporary; the inner one is a classic murder mystery set in 1950s Britain. A spoiler-free review here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/dec/10/magpie-murder-anthony-horowitz-review . I thought it was smart while also being fun. The Audible audiobook was nicely executed – different narrators for the different stories.

  2. If you want something that’s not exactly a murder mystery – more of a hard-boiled sci-fi conspiracy thriller with strong Pynchonian elements of wackiness and paranoia – you might consider Jim Knipfel’s The Buzzing. (I only picked it up because Pynchon blurbed it; you can find other works he blurbed here: https://www.newtonvillebooks.com/anthSelections/24_stace.pdf)

  3. China Mieville’s The City and the City is a police procedural set in … well, I hate to spoil it. It’s definitely experimental in terms of its setting, but Mieville is also a really strong genre writer (he mostly does fantasy and horror), so the plot is good, too. I do see it is being adapted by the BBC as a miniseries…

  4. Matt Ruff is someone who straddles the literary and genre worlds, like Mieville. His The Mirage is an alternate-universe police/security procedural (think Fatherland) in a world where the script of the September 11, 2001 attack is flipped: Christian terrorists from a fractured America attack a symbol of the Arab world’s power and prestige. Not exactly what you’re looking for, but smart and well-executed as experimental genre writing. (His more recent pastiche of H.P. Lovecraft, Lovecraft Country, is even better, but also even less like what you asked for.)

I will check out the Gauer, by the way. Thanks! It looks cool.

Hey! I was Ellroy’s EDITOR on that novel! One of the Central Avenue jazz clubs in it is named after me.

I’m currently reading the early novels of another of my authors, K.C. Constantine. Western PA setting, great reading on the ethnic characters, deeply human. Best is The Man Who Liked Slow Tomatoes.

Also highly recommend Peter Dickinson, recently deceased British mystery author. Bizarre, highly intellectual. Look for his first (1968) novel The Glass-Sided Ants’ Nest, and The Poison Oracle (1974), both of which are included in HRF Keating’s 100 Best Mystery Novels. You can also read his last four adult books, which I edited!

I read a lot of mysteries, but I would not say our tastes are likely to be incredibly similar. So take these with a grain of salt. While I wouldn’t consider any of these experimental, they are all smart.
In the Woods, by Tana French. Compelling, maddening, and depressing in turns.

The Return of Captain John Emmett, by Elizabeth Speller. Really beautiful and affecting.

Thus Was Adonis Murdered, by Sarah Caudwell. Very funny and clever.

The Various Haunts of Men, by Susan Hill. Surprising and clever.

Dissolution, by C.J. Sansom. Strong writing and excellent characterization.

Sarah Caudwell is very good. Try some Ruth Rendell, too…A Judgment in Stone (1977) is marvelous.

I forgot a Scandinavian entry:

The Indian Bride, by Karin Fossum. Don’t read if you’re feeling anything but chipper. It’s a kick in the face.

I was gonna recommend this one. It’s definitely one of his best works IMO–very smart, very metafictional.

Three more, all pretty genre-specific:

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Michael Chabon, is set in the Jewish resettlement camp of Sitka, Alaska–which IIRC was an actual historical proposal. I don’t remember the mystery so well as the setting. Chabon is a damn fine writer.

And the one I just read is Gnomon, by Nick Harkaway. In a dystopian (utopian?) future in which a nonsentient AI tracks everyone in England constantly, nearly eliminating crime, a citizen dies while undergoing a harmless mindreading interrogation. A detective is assigned to the case, starts to “read” the interrogation records, and then everything goes completely bonkers.

It took me a long time to read this one–the structure is a little like Cloud Atlas–and by the end I’m still not 100% certain I understand what happened. But it’s sat with me, and the longer it sits with me the more thrilled I am by it.

And finally: Too Like the Lightning. Set 500 years in the future, a story told by an archvillain in the cadence and language of an 18th-century novel, with a world nearly unrecognizable, a detective investigates a series of suspicious vehicular deaths. If you want dense, intellectual stuff, this book written by a Harvard-educated professor of philosophy is gonna be your jam. Nominated for the Hugo, IIRC.

Then is it safe to assume that you already know way more about it than I do, and it’s pointless to mention Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X?

And when you said “complex and/or smart detective fiction,” the title that leapt to mind was The Name of the Rose—but you’re probably already aware of that, too.

And, this may not be at all what you’re looking for (certainly not if you want something serious or highbrow), but I thought of Jasper Fforde’s “Nursery Crimes” novels: The Big Over Easy and The Fourth Bear

First off, let me echo the recommendation of City and the City. Miéville has written books in so many different genres, and this one was for his mother, because she loved Swedish detective mysteries. But the premise is so brilliant, that it works a Speculative Fiction as well.

As for the OP, John Galligan has written a number of “Fly Fishing Mysteries”, but his first book (which I haven’t read) was Red Sky, Red Dragonfly, a Japanese mystery.

My current favorite was a recommendation from my brilliant grown daughter, who doesn’t usually like detective fiction.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is the first in the Cormoran Strike trilogy by Robert Galbraith (who’s actually JK Rowling… but you’d never guess, it’s got so much more depth of character than the HP books). I have no time for reading, but I’m on my second read through these books. Oh, the audiobooks are well-done, too.

In fact, if anyone can clue me in on a book/series with this much characterization, and, well, fun… post it here!

Any of Boris Akunin’s Erast Fandorin mysteries. Fandorin is a sort of Tsarist Russian cross between Bond and Holmes, except that Akunin has terrific fun playing with all sorts of tropes common to the genre: one is set on board an ocean liner and looks at Agatha Christie stories, another is set among ninjas in Meiji era Yokohama, and plays with Ian Fleming. Smart, but never too clever for their own good, and they don’t let the meta-fiction get in the way of an excellent hero, strong plotting, and terrific research. They’re about the most entertaining way to be literate there is.

Nick Harkaway is great. Angelmaker is what Neal Stephenson would write if he remembered to be entertaining and have proper endings. Also it has clockwork robot bees.

Motherless Brooklyn.

ETA: Gun, with Occasional Music, although this is more of a riff on the Detective Genre. It’s one of my favorite books, though. By the same author.

Many years ago I took a detective fiction class at university. One of the books we read was When we were orphans by Ishiguro seems to check off a lot of your boxes (and it’s really good as well.)

Tres cool.

Those really are a couple of the greatest 20th century mysteries. Dickinson’s first half-dozen novels were so overwhelmingly awesome that even though he won all the awards, he should be 500 times as famous as he is. The first postmodern mystery author, too.

There obviously can’t be many on that level. A personal favorite is William Marshall’s Yellowthread Street series, set in Hong Kong before it was handed back to China. Skulduggery has the greatest set-up of any mystery. A corpse is found floating in the harbor. During the autopsy it’s found that the head is sown onto the body. But it’s not the body’s head…

Lawrence Block does the best plotting in the business. Even his lighter books are built like a Lego magic trick where a box of seemingly miscellaneous pieces miraculously turn into a finished skyscraper, with every block necessary and none unaccounted for.

For what it’s worth, one of my main reactions to The City and the City was the sense that Mieville knew the brilliance of the setting and so realised that much of the plot could otherwise play out as a deliberately fairly bog standard police procedural. There are certainly elements of that plot that are non-standard, but they’re the ones that arise directly from the premise.
The BBC version is pretty good, but makes a couple of changes, most of which tend to nudge it towards a more generic version of the plot.

I’d go for either of David Peace’s series:

Red Riding Quartet - set in Britain, based around the Yorkshire Ripper but so much more

Tokyo Trilogy - immediate post-WW2 Tokyo, wrapped around historical killings. Surreal and painful.
PS - just scrolled down the Wikipedia page. The long-awaited third Tokyo book is out!!! Hot damn!

My first thought was the Burke series by Andrew Vachss.

Double dog on “Motherless Brooklyn.” It’s original and well-written.

Caleb Karr’s “The Alienist” is quite good, though it’s mainstream and has been serialized.

Off the beaten path, “The Intuitionist” by Colson Whitehead features a detective-type woman who investigates elevator mysteries. It’s very difficult to explain, it’s a smart and thoroughly original novel.

For police detective fiction I suggest the novels by Michael Connelly, Jo Nesbo, Henning Mankell, and Arnaldur Indridason.

As mentioned by others, I can also recommend The Magpie Murders and The City and the City, as well as the novels by Andrew Vachss.

These writers are outside your time constraints, but Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, and Rex Stout are worth reading.