Before I get to the book recommendations, a special treat. I present five authors who are tougher, meaner, badder, and cooler than the tough guys they write about.
Read about 'em and weep. Or just run away.
Okay, now to the books.
I'm going with my very favorite author, Alan Furst. Not really a crime novelist, he writes historical spy novels, all set in the years leading up to World War II. They are beautifully written and you can't help but sink into the murky world that his characters live in. And the best thing is, the main characters are not traditional spies, mostly they find themselves in situations where they have to choose between Right and, well, those dang Nazis.
What makes his books so good? The characters, simply drawn but flawd, funny, and very lifelike; the plots, which twist and turn the way life in the late 1930s must have; the settings--Paris, Prague, Warsaw... everywhere you'd want to be; and his research, which is meticulous and fascinating.
All of his books are great, but if I had to choose two I'd go with The World at Night and Red Gold. Both are set in Paris (like my own novel) and both feature Jean Casson, a film producer.
A wonderful book by Simon Winchester called The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of The Oxford English Dictionary.
Did I say Dictionary? Actually, yes. But don't worry, the book is so well-written and focuses on the murder, insanity etc stuff plenty. Trust me on this, it's a great book. The author is Simon Winchester, and if you read this you'll be pining for him to write more.