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5 Great International Crime Novels - Literary

5 International Crime Novels with Literary Flair

Ernest Hemingway, Albert Camus, Paul Bowles, Patricia Highsmith and Gregory W. Beaubien contribute to the genre

Nov. 2, 2021

International crime novels offer twice the excitement: Readers get vicarious thrills from witnessing criminal behavior while also escaping to faraway places. Add romance and sex, and the pleasure mounts.

Of course, crime novels also have a reputation for being gripping and fast-paced yet artless, the reading equivalent of junk food that tastes good but has no nutritional value. But some international crime novels are also well written and stand up as literature, offering not just action and suspense but also insight into the human condition and the times in which they’re set or published.

In order of their publication dates, here are our top-five international, literary crime novels (click a cover to buy the book on Amazon):

To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway

To Have and Have Not, by Ernest Hemingway (1937)

“In the cockpit the inflated faces of the dead men were shiny under the light, lacquered brown where the blood had dried. There were empty .45 caliber shells in the cockpit around the dead and the Thompson gun in the stern where Harry had put it down.”

Known for his literary fiction set in Europe, such as The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway took a different tack with his only crime novel, To Have and Have Not. The book’s protagonist, Harry Morgan, an honest boat captain who becomes financially desperate during the Great Depression, is drawn into murder when he starts smuggling run and people from Cuba to Key West, Fla. Along the way, Morgan, a married man with three daughters, has a love affair and encounters a sordid subculture of rich, dissipated yachtsmen (the “haves” of the book’s title). To Have and Have Not was adapted into a 1944 movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, but the director, Howard Hawks, deliberately made his film unfaithful to the book.

The Stranger by Albert Camus

The Stranger, by Albert Camus (1942)

“It seemed to me as if the sky split open from one end to the other to rain down fire. My whole being tensed and I squeezed my hand around the revolver.”

Set in French-occupied Algeria before World War II, Camus’ existential classic is the story of Meursault, an apathetic office clerk whose moral emptiness leads him to commit murder. He feels no emotion when his mother dies, and seems to react only to bright lights and the intense North African sunshine that dizzy and disorient him. Meursault’s other stimulus is Marie (“I wanted her so bad when I saw her in that pretty red-and-white striped dress and leather sandals. You could make out the shape of her firm breasts ...”). After Meursault’s lowlife friend Raymond is arrested for assaulting his mistress, they encounter a group of men at the beach, including the mistress’s brother. Raymond strikes the man, who then slashes Raymond with a knife. Meursault shoots the man dead—not to defend Raymond, he says, but because the heat and the glare of the sun that reflects off the man’s knife have blinded and confused him. A film adaptation of The Stranger was released in 1968.

Let It Come Down by Paul Bowles

Let It Come Down, by Paul Bowles (1952)

“He had put the point of the nail as far into Thami’s ear as he could. He raised his right arm and hit the head of the nail with all his might … He laid the hammer down, and felt of the nail-head, level with the soft lobe of the ear.”

Set in Tangier, Morocco after World War II, Paul Bowles’s second novel joins the existential crime genre started by The Stranger. The dreary life of Nelson Dyar, an American bank clerk from New York, takes a dark turn after his old friend Wilcox lures him to the foreign port city. Wilcox runs a mysterious agency and has promised Dyar a job in Tangier. But after Dyar arrives in the hillside town of white cube houses overlooking the confluence of the Atlantic and Mediterranean, Wilcox keeps him waiting—and sinister clues swirl. Dyar is introduced to Tangier’s international society, a mix of Arab natives and decadent Europeans. He smokes hashish and experiences violent dreams. Wilcox eventually gives him an assignment to smuggle money, leading Dyar to madness and murder. Film rights for Let It Come Down were acquired several decades ago, but the book has yet to be adapted into a movie.

The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith (1955)

“Tom glanced behind him and saw the man coming out of the Green Cage, heading his way. Tom walked faster. There was no doubt the man was after him.”

Set in the 1950s Italy, this gripping psychological thriller touches nerves with its themes of class envy, deception and the illusory nature of appearances. Tom Ripley, a cultured but poor young man from New York, is hired by a local shipping magnate to travel to Italy and convince the man’s wayward son to return home. Once there, Ripley befriends Dickie Greenleaf, the playboy heir to his father’s shipping fortune. But Ripley clings too closely to the new pal he idolizes, and to the privileged lifestyle he covets but can’t afford. They argue. Ripley kills Dickie and then assumes his identity. The book was made into a popular 1999 film starring Matt Damon, Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow. Unlike Paltrow’s smart, glamorous character, in the novel Marge is frumpy and dull-witted. Thus she’s less sympathetic as her fiancé Dickie disappears and she finds only the cunning, social-climbing Ripley in his place.

Shadows the Sizes of Cities by Gregory W Beaubien

Shadows the Sizes of Cities, by Gregory W. Beaubien (2014) 

“Before I could think the switchblade was out of my pocket and I was sliding back the safety with my thumb. I pushed the release. The blade snapped out …”

Set in the pre-internet era of 1994 and mostly in Morocco—with flashbacks to Madrid, Spain; Amsterdam, Holland; and Chicago, U.S.A.—this visually evocative psychological thriller combines sex, violence and literary writing. Will Clark, an American newspaper writer, is mugged and assaulted on a dark Amsterdam street. Soon afterwards, he learns he has lost his job back in Chicago. Later, after he has joined three acquaintances in Spain and they’ve traveled south to Morocco, a hashish purchase goes bad. Will kills three dealers to protect the women in his group. He becomes a fugitive in the foreign country, even as he searches for Stacey Snow, an elusive blonde backpacker with whom he has fallen in love. (“Stacey had opened the French doors to the little balcony and was standing naked in silhouette against the light from the street. I could see the graceful curves of her hips and breasts in sharp outline, the firm muscles of her thighs and a fluff of hair between her legs.”) As Will plunges farther into the country and deeper into danger, we learn that his fateful encounter with the hashish dealers might not have occurred by chance. Like The Stanger and Let It Come Down before it, Shadows the Sizes of Cities is an existential noir that seduces the reader with atmosphere. The book has yet to be turned into a movie.

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