Mystery readers and television fans alike will be familiar with Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin. He’s best known for his series of novels featuring the hard-drinking, music-loving Detective Inspector John Rebus, which were adapted for television in the early 2000s, starring first John Hannah and then Ken Stott. His most recent book, The Impossible Dead, is in stores now. Rankin tore himself away from work on his latest novel to share with Chatelaine readers his top five favourite books. And while some are mysteries — not surprising — the others may be a bit of a revelation!
1. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark, $14.
This short novel truly is greater than the sum of its parts. It manages to be fluent yet complex, funny yet harrowing, and I seem to enjoy it more with every re-reading. It takes place in an Edinburgh girls’ school of the 1930s, and explores the relationship between a charismatic teacher and her impressionable girls. Is Miss Brodie the hero or the villain of the piece? The reader must decide.
2. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson, $12.
Another Edinburgh writer, but this time exploring the darker side of human nature in 19th-century London as the respectable Dr Jekyll creates a potion which releases the beast within. Is it about the malign effects of narcotics, or the war within us between intellect and instinct? This is another short book that packs a powerful punch.
3. A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell $23.
I’m cheating here, because this is a 12-novel sequence about a character called Nick Jenkins. We follow him from schooldays into adulthood, and from the absurdity of WWII to success as a novelist and the wackiness of the 1960s. The books are packed with incidents, fantastic characters, shrewd insights and poetic writing. Volume 3, ‘The Acceptance World,’ is possibly my favourite.
4. The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler, $18.
This is crime fiction of the highest order, as private eye Philip Marlowe, a knight errant in modern-day Los Angeles, attempts to save the damsel and slay the dragon. The damsel, however, may not be what she seems, and the mobsters who have their talons in her don’t want Marlowe to succeed. Chandler’s prose style is intoxicating and his jokes sharp — even if he never does explain who killed the chauffeur!
5. Roseanna, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, $16.
Scandinavian crime fiction seems to be everywhere these days, but Sjowall and Wahloo created the template back in the 1960s. The wife-and-husband team wrote 10 novels featuring police detective Martin Beck and his team, using the series to explore the changing face of Swedish society. The books are gripping, nuanced and filled with a gallery of central characters we come to care about very much. This was the first in the series, and one of the best.