The best books of back country crime fiction

Why am I passionate about this?

One of my first vivid memories, growing up in Fort Smith, across the river from Oklahoma, is standing with my kindergarten class looking at Belle Starr’s sidesaddle and derringer and being both puzzled and intrigued by the museum lady volunteer’s apparent pride in this outlaw. Weren’t outlaws the “bad guys”? My hometown, being on the border of “lawless” Indian Territory, was just one example of the border nature of this whole nation. We were the nation where self-creation, often lawless and chaotic, was a point of fascination. That museum lady’s admiration of a lawless, self-defining woman was quite natural, as I believe is my ongoing fascination with the dark secrets hidden in the history of localities.

I wrote...

The Freshour Cylinders

By Speer Morgan,

Book cover of The Freshour Cylinders

What is my book about?

This suspenseful literary mystery takes us back to the historical events surrounding the mid-1930s discovery of the Spiro Mound, the most important pre-Columbian temple mound ever found in North America.  Weaving history with a compelling story of murder and greed, Morgan gives us an engrossing, sexy, and suspenseful read. 

The Freshour Cylinders won the American Book Award and Foreword Magazine’s Silver Award for Fiction.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Winter's Bone

Speer Morgan Why did I love 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. 

By Daniel Woodrell,

Why should I read it?

9 authors picked Winter's Bone as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is a fiercely original tale of love, heartbreak and resilience in the lonely wastes of the American Midwest. The last time Ree saw her father, he didn't bring food or money but promised he'd be back soon with a paper sack of cash and a truckload of delights. Since he left, she's had to look after her mother - sedated and losing her looks - and her two younger brothers. Ree hopes the boys won't turn out like the others in the Ozark mountains - hard and mean before they've learnt to shave. One cold winter's day, Ree discovers…

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

Speer Morgan Why did I love 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.    

By Cormac McCarthy,

Why should I read it?

14 authors picked Blood Meridian as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy is an epic novel of the violence and depravity that attended America's westward expansion, brilliantly subverting the conventions of the Western novel and the mythology of the Wild West. Based on historical events that took place on the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s, it traces the fortunes of the Kid, a fourteen-year-old Tennessean who stumbles into a nightmarish world where Indians are being murdered and the market for their scalps is thriving.

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

Speer Morgan Why did I love 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. 

By Jane Smiley,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Lidie joins the pioneering Westward migration into America's heartland. It is harsher, more violent and more disorientating then Lidie could ever have imagined. They find themselves on a faultline - forces crash against each other, soon to erupt into the he American Civil War.

Book cover of All the King's Men

Speer Morgan Why did I love 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.

By Robert Penn Warren,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked All the King's Men as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 16.

What is this book about?

Willie Stark's obsession with political power leads to the ultimate corruption of his gubernatorial administration.

Book cover of Pop. 1280

Speer Morgan Why did I love 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.

By Jim Thompson,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Pop. 1280 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A classic crime novel from 'the best suspense writer going, bar none' New York Times

Nick Corey likes being the high sheriff of Potts County. But Nick has a few problems that he needs to deal with: like his loveless marriage, the pimps who torment him, the honest man who is running against him in the upcoming elections and the women who adore him.

And it turns out that Nick isn't anything like as amiable, easy-going or as slow as he seems. He's as sly, brutal and corrupt as they come.

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Book cover of The Spanish Diplomat's Secret

Nev March Author Of The Spanish Diplomat's Secret

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author History lover Scriptwriter Reader Nature lover

Nev's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

An entertaining mystery on a 1894 trans-Atlantic steamship with an varied array of suspects, and a detective who must solve his case in six days to prevent international conflict.

Retired from the British Indian army, Captain Jim is taking his wife Diana to Liverpool from New York, when their pleasant cruise turns deadly. Just hours after meeting him, a foreign diplomat is brutally murdered onboard their ship. Captain Jim must find the killer before they dock in six days, or there could be war! Aboard the beleaguered luxury liner are a thousand suspects, but no witnesses to the locked-cabin crime.

Fortunately, his wife Diana knows her way around first-class accommodations and Gilded Age society. But something has been troubling her, too, something she won’t tell him. Together, using tricks gleaned from their favorite fictional sleuth, Sherlock Holmes, Captain Jim, and Diana must learn why one man’s life came to a murderous end.

By Nev March,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Spanish Diplomat's Secret as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In The Spanish Diplomat's Secret, award-winning author Nev March explores the vivid nineteenth-century world of the transatlantic voyage, one passenger’s secret at a time.

Captain Jim Agnihotri and his wife Lady Diana Framji are embarking to England in the summer of 1894. Jim is hopeful the cruise will help Diana open up to him. Something is troubling her, and Jim is concerned.

On their first evening, Jim meets an intriguing Spaniard, a fellow soldier with whom he finds an instant kinship. But within twenty-four hours, Don Juan Nepomuceno is murdered, his body discovered shortly after he asks rather urgently to…

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