The Cartography of Crime

In a noir novel, the cityscape is as crucial as the crime spree, and investigators like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade are our sleep-deprived, chain-smoking, gin-soaked tour guides. The following books render their city’s cartography through the cadences of detective fiction, sketching blood-spattered maps of the world’s mean streets. As Philip Marlowe described Los Angeles in The Long Goodbye, “A city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness. It all depends on where you sit . . .”

Lush Life by Richard Price

As much a study of urban sociology as a police procedural, Lush Life grapples with cultural conflict on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Cops, sweatshop laborers, Orthodox rabbis, pseudo-bohemians, and housing-project kids all simmer together in a Bloomberg-era stew. Eric Cash, a bartender with fading screenwriting aspirations, witnesses a murder and soon becomes the prime suspect. The plot unfolds through the switching perspectives of Cash and investigating officer Matty Clark. Price presents a split-screen view of the neighborhood, from Cash’s admiration of “the claustrophobic gauge of the canyonlike street with their hanging garden of ancient fire escapes” to Clark’s matter-of-fact assessment of the blocks on his patrol: “falafel joint, jazz joint, gyro joint, corner. Schoolyard, crêperie, realtor, corner. Tenement, tenement, tenement museum, corner.”

Nineteen Seventy-Four by David Peace

In Peace’s debut novel, Edward Dunford, a crime correspondent for the Yorkshire Post, investigates a string of child murders. Dunford’s digging leads him through the bleak, postindustrial hamlets of West Yorkshire County, “a damp prison” with an atmosphere like the inside of a “fat belly of a whale, the sky the color of its grey flesh.” The author offers no respite from or redemption within the oppressive gloom. His staccato, rat-a-tat sentences only serve to punctuate the memorable descriptions of grim Yorkshire County, and the corruption Dunford uncovers has spread into every corner of society.

Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra

Chandra’s volume is an epic whodunit, a sprawling, nearly thousand-page saga depicting the colorful, crowded “labyrinth of hovels and homes” of Mumbai. Sartaj Singh, the city’s lone Sikh police inspector, receives a tip leading to Ganesh Gaitonde, the notorious leader of a national crime syndicate. Holed up in his fortress, Gaitonde tells Singh his life story through the building’s intercom. Chandra follows Gaitonde and Singh’s intertwined narratives in the shadow of the metropolis’s “long toothed silhouette,” pulling the reader down the “tunnel-like streets” of the city’s slums. Chandra’s prose is positively flowery for a noir novel, a mixture of English, Hindi, and Bombay slang (translated in the glossary). As one hoodlum remarks to Gaitonde, “You have to grow up in this Mumbai to know how it works.”

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Larsson’s posthumously published Nordic noir focuses on journalist Mikael Blomkvist and twenty-four-year-old hacker Lisbeth Salander. They investigate the disappearance of aging magnate Henrik Vanger’s grandniece in the 1960s on the northern island of Hedeby. During the search, Blomkvist and Salander uncover corporate malfeasance, incest, Nazism, domestic violence, and a sadistic serial killer. Larsson’s Stockholm, with its orderly, litter-free streets, makes the crimes seem all the more lurid. Though the prose sometimes tends toward hackneyed genre cliché, at its best Larsson’s novel deftly uncovers a brutal underworld in a country most Americans know for its affordable, hard-to-assemble furniture.

Margaret Eby is a New York–based writer and a student in New York University’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism program.