The best books of back country crime fiction

Speer Morgan Author Of The Freshour Cylinders
By Speer Morgan

The Books I Picked & Why

Winter's Bone

By Daniel Woodrell

Book cover of Winter's Bone

Why this book?

Winter’s Bone is the best back country crime fiction of this century and one of the best of all time. People know Woodrell mostly through the film versions of his novels, for example, the movie based on this novel, starring Jennifer Lawrence. Winter’s Bone shows not just mastery of the form but freshness and realism of place, language, and behavior. Few books capture the Ozark region, as well as this one, does. At the heart of it is a paradox: While the story is utterly dark in tone—noirest of the noir—the depiction of what the sixteen-year-old female protagonist must live through just to prevent her family’s house from being sold—is somehow oddly hopeful about this otherwise bedeviled place and culture. Cursed by poverty, a drug epidemic, and abusive paternalism, there is at the same time a quite real strength hiding in Ozark culture, manifest in its humanity, particularly in the women of the region. 

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Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West

By Cormac McCarthy

Book cover of Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West

Why this book?

I love Blood Meridian because if there ever is a good movie based on it, that movie will be an impossible tour de forceLike many of America’s great literary novels, it is at once broad, articulate, complex, and stylistically excessive, falling in places almost into trancelike madness. Like Moby Dick, Absolam, Absolam, and Gravity’s Rainbow, it also concerns a key theme in American history, in this case the unrelenting and shared violence of the “settlement” of the West. Blood Meridian makes no effort to arouse empathy and is unapologetically baroque, even florid in style. There are no pure heroes or villains, but a set of characters based on the historical John Joel Glanton gang, whose scalp hunting in Indian Territory and nihilistic brutality in the deeper West and finally Mexico waxes apocalyptic. McCarthy appears to be making not just historic but metaphysical commentary.    

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The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton

By Jane Smiley

Book cover of The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton

Why this book?

This is a historical saga, but it becomes a crime novel because of what its highly articulate 20-year-old heroine Lidie must deal with in 1850s bleeding Kansas, when she goes on the hunt for her abolitionist husband’s murderer. Back country America can sometimes be a place most torn apart by historical change, with the quarter-century ravaging of Missouri and Kansas over the conflict of slavery. I especially love Smiley’s realism of place—the intimate, vivid detail of pre-Civil War river travel, St. Louis, Kansas City, and finally Bleeding Kansas. She never avoids contradiction. By allowing the paradoxes of history and place, as well as character, she can sometimes be shocking. No one is either purely good or bad, not the Free Staters, not the Border Ruffians. It is a fantastically real story set at a key historical moment in the heart of the country. 

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All the King's Men

By Robert Penn Warren

Book cover of All the King's Men

Why this book?

Warren is so well known as a literary critic that this fast-moving, brilliant novel is sometimes overlooked, despite winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1947. It is set in the American South, by implication Louisiana in the 1920s and 30s, with central character Willy Stark based on the historical populist politician Governor Huey P. Long. A framed tale, it moves between 1922 and 1939, told by cynical educated “upper-class” public relations and newspaperman Jack Burden. It is deeply relevant to recent American politics, with politician-of-the-people Stark in fact being an unfalteringly manipulative, corrupt, and personally cruel pragmatist, and his supporters and promoters hiding in what they imagine to be their own highly bred class innocence. The story is suspenseful, in places deeply lyrical, with a theme of history being a curse, inevitably rolling downhill.

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Pop. 1280

By Jim Thompson

Book cover of Pop. 1280

Why this book?

Set in Potts County, Texas, around 1910, this is a down-and-dirty noir novel. It works for me a little better than his The Grifters, though, because it has more tonal variety, with moments of near farce rather than the continuous despairing sociopathy of his full-bore hard-boiled characters. It unapologetically shows the racism and bigotry of historic American back country. Its first-person narrator is a seemingly jovial small-town sheriff who plays dumb while he takes bribes and keeps several moment-to-moment cons running within his small community. One of the amusing things about this utterly hard-boiled character is that the reader almost wants to take his side as his scams begin to close in around him, which makes him one of the few Thompson characters with the unlikely “charm” of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley. This is Thompson’s most literary novel, despite the pulp personality.

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