Sunday, January 09, 2011

Twenty Mysteries You Must Read Before You Die

As promised, here is the list of TWENTY MYSTERIES YOU MUST READ BEFORE YOU DIE, as Declan Hughes and I decided to call it when we first set about compiling it.  This isn't quite the same list, as Declan and I inevitably disagreed on certain books, so when we present the list together publicly it tends to be a compromise arrangement with each of us sacrificing a couple of titles.  Nevertheless, there is no disagreement between us about the first ten books, while the second ten is more personal to me, with a couple of exceptions.  With luck, this list will form the basis of book club discussions on my forum, Twitter, Facebook, etc.  We'll keep you notified.  At the very least, it will provide you with some fine reading, and some enjoyable nights in your favorite chair . . .

1.THE GLASS KEY-DASHIELL HAMMETT (1931). Also RED HARVEST (1929), where the western becomes the PI novel, and THE MALTESE FALCON (1931) 

2.THE LONG GOODBYE-Raymond Chandler (1953), the most nuanced of his books, closely followed by FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (1940) and THE BIG SLEEP (1939) 

3.THE CHILL-Ross Macdonald(1964). Often regarded, unfairly, as being in Chandler's shadow, this novel has one of the greatest twists in mystery fiction. Also THE DOOMSTERS(1958), THE UNDERGROUND MAN (1971), SLEEPING BEAUTY (1973),  THE GOODBYE LOOK (1969), and THE GALTON CASE (1959)

4.DEEP WATER-Patricia Highsmith (1957). She has a grim view of the human condition, and this is quite, quite chilling. Also THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY(1955) 

5.THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE-George V.Higgins (1972). Greatest dialogue ever in a crime novel. See also Robert B.Parker and Dennis Lehane. For those interested in the art of writing, Higgins's book ON WRITING (1990) is worth hunting down.

6.THE TIN ROOF BLOWDOWN-James Lee Burke (2007). The greatest living mystery writer tackles post-Katrina New Orleans. Genius. Any of the Robicheaux books are worth reading, although the first in the series, THE NEON RAIN (1987) is actually untypical of what follows, and one could argue that Burke really finds his feet with the second book, HEAVEN'S PRISONERS (1988).  Also BLACK CHERRY BLUES (1989), DIXIE CITY JAM (1994) and THE GLASS RAINBOW (2010)

7.THE LECTER TRILOGY-Thomas Harris. RED DRAGON (1981),SILENCE OF THE LAMBS(1988), HANNIBAL(1999). Ignore HANNIBAL RISING. It's awful, and is basically a novelization of a film script.  While HANNIBAL received some terrible reviews, and its ending was particularly lambasted, there is an internal logic to the first three novels that makes the ending of HANNIBAL inevitable.  I'm quite happy to discuss this in a bar, as long as someone buys me drinks first.

8.STRANGER IN MY GRAVE-Margaret Millar (1960). Wife of Ross Macdonald, and unfairly neglected. Brilliant on women, and the class divide.  Also BEAST IN VIEW (1966).

9.LET'S HEAR IT FOR THE DEAF MAN-Ed McBain (1972). The father of the modern police procedural, with half a century of 87th Precinct Books.  Without him, there would have been no HILL STREET BLUES, and arguably no HOMICIDE or THE WIRE.  The mid-period novels (1960-1980) are probably the best, including FUZZ (1968), BLOOD RELATIVES (1975). 

10.THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD-Agatha Christie (1926). Another great 'twist' novel, and one that raises fascinating questions about the relationship between detective and criminal, a question that finds its ultimate answer in the Poirot book intended for posthumous publication, CURTAIN (1975)

11. THE NAME OF THE ROSE 1980) by Umberto Eco. Arguably his only readable novel, and certainly his most enjoyable, and that includes the pseuds' fave, FOUCAULT'S PENDULUM

12. MORALITY PLAY ( 1995) by Barry Unsworth. A group of travelling players investigate a murder, and inadvertently invent the modern theatre. 

13. THE BLACK ECHO (1992) by Michael Connelly. Still one of the greatest mystery debuts of all time, and the first glimpse of Detective Harry Bosch. Also THE CONCRETE BLONDE (1994) and THE LAST COYOTE (1995)

14. THE CRYING OF LOT 49 (1966) by Thomas Pynchon. The Californian crime novel's postmodern re-imagining as absurdist conspiracy thriller. 

15. THE BIG BLOWDOWN (1999) by George Pelecanos. The first of the DC Quartet from a modern master, set in post-WWII Washington. Also KING SUCKERMAN (1997), THE SWEET FOREVER (1998) and SHAME THE DEVIL (2000).

16. WHAT THE DEAD KNOW (2007) by Laura Lippman. Her finest novel; one of a pair of missing girls reappears after 30 years.

17. HAWKSMOOR (1985)  by Peter Ackroyd. Twin narratives link 20th century child-killings with a Satanic 17th century architect. Quite chilling, and you'll never quite view the city of London in the same way again.

18. FAST ONE (1932) by Paul Cain. Landmark hard-boiled novel by an almost forgotten master of the genre.

19. MIAMI BLUES (1984) by Charles Willeford. If Beckett had written a hard-boiled novel about a cop trying to find his missing gun...

20. THE LAST GOOD KISS (1978) by James Crumley. The first great post-Vietnam mystery novel by the late Crumley, a writer held in much esteem and affection by his fellow mystery writers.

Take Ten

Ten 'Getting To Know You' Questions from the recent edition of Ireland's RTE Guide.  Death and Jam will be the title of my autobiography . . .


What is your earliest childhood memory?


We lived with my grandparents, who had the downstairs rooms while my parents and I lived upstairs.  I can remember sitting on my grandparents’ kitchen floor as a very small boy, surrounded by homemade jam that I’d smeared everywhere after opening one of their cupboards.  And I don’t even like jam.  I think I was just being willfully destructive.  I can also remember our dog being run over by the binmen, and my grandfather dying.  Death and jam: those are my childhood memories.

Who was your first pin-up?


I suspect that it was Elisabeth Sladen, who played Sarah Jane Smith in Doctor Who.  (“Mummy, the lady makes me feel funny.”)  Actually, she still looks pretty good now, and she’s 62, which I find hard to believe.  She’s kept her dignity as well: Katy Manning, who played her predecessor, Jo Grant, was once photographed naked with a Dalek for a magazine called Girl Illustrated.  It was probably neck-and-neck between Elisabeth and “Wuthering Heights”-era Kate Bush.  I’m not sure what I would have done if they’d both started fighting over me.  Expired, probably.

Which of your peers do you most admire, and why?


I’m not sure that he’s my peer as he’s both older than me, and far better at what he does, but James Lee Burke was one of the writers who made me want to write mysteries.  He’s the greatest living mystery writer, bar none.  Jack Nicholson once said of Marlon Brando that, when he dies, everybody else moves up one.  Burke is our Brando.

What would you be doing with your life if you hadn’t chosen this career path?

Initially, I wanted to be a vet, but I suspect that I’d just read too many James Herriot books, and I didn’t really want to spend my afternoons with my forearm buried in a cow.  I’d probably still be a journalist, which would be no bad thing, except possibly for journalism.

Can you reveal one of your guilty pleasures?


You know, I’ve reached the age where I’m beginning to doubt the whole concept of ‘guilty pleasures’, aside from maybe touching farm animals inappropriately.  Still, given the fact that I’m pretty careful about exercising regularly, it would probably be a warm cinnamon bun in Simon’s Place at the George’s Street Arcade in Dublin. I live in fear of Gary Ranford, the guy who trains me, passing by while I’m stuffing my face, and shaking his head in disappointment.

Who would like to see cast in the movie of your life?


I’d like to see Colin Firth, but they’d probably cast Steve Buscemi.   As long as it’s somebody thin . . .

Who are you following on Twitter?


I’m a recent convert to Twitter, but I’m a big fan of Phill Jupitus.  I’m currently reading his book on being a DJ, Hello, Nantwich, which is almost as enjoyable as Dave Fanning’s autobiography, which I really liked.  His continued enthusiasm for music is very lovely indeed.

What’s the first thing you would buy if you won the Lottery?


I have an old Ford Mustang that I don’t really get to drive very much, as I don’t have off-street parking, so I’d buy a garage closer to my house.  I’d also buy one very expensive piece of art, and then worry about someone stealing it.

What would you pack for your desert island?


An iPod, a solar charger, the complete works of P.G. Wodehouse, and Jennie, my other half, although I suspect she’d brain me with a coconut before one week was out.  I’m not very keen on the whole desert island business because I’m not very good at lounging around.  I suspect that I’d get a bit bored, and a bit annoying.

What’s at the top of your ‘things to do before I die’ list?


Not die.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

On James Lee Burke

I recently contributed the introduction to the lovely Scorpion Press limited edition of The Glass Rainbow by James Lee Burke, and thought people might like to read it.   After all, it's James Lee Burke...

For many of my generation of mystery writers, James Lee Burke is the greatest living author in our field, and one of the most accomplished literary stylists in modern American letters.  For better or worse, I would not be writing without his influence, and all that I have written, I have written in his shadow.  To borrow a phrase used by Jack Nicholson of Marlon Brando: “When he dies, everybody else moves up one.”

            Burke’s preeminence is due, in no small part, to the manner in which he came to the mystery novel.  Before publishing, in 1987,  The Neon Rain, the first book to feature the recurring character of Dave Robicheaux, he had read little in the genre, the work of Raymond Chandler and James Crumley apart, so he approached the task of writing a mystery largely freed from any obligation to the perceived requisites.  The books that have emerged in the decades since are, in a sense, only incidentally mysteries: they are, first and foremost, literate, literary, socially engaged novels.  To read them is to encounter a great novelist applying his gifts to a sometimes underrated  form, reinventing and reinvigorating it by his presence.

            On this basis alone, he deserves his place in our Pantheon, but underlying the elegance and beauty of his prose, and an engagement with the natural world that is virtually unrivalled in modern fiction, is a profound moral sensibility, one that is informed by Burke’s own personal struggles and convictions.  Burke is a liberal (that much abused word, utilised as an insult by those who least understand its meaning) in the classic Steinbeck/ Dorothy Day mode, with a passionate hatred of social injustice, and a hardwired instinct to take the side of the weak and the powerless.  As a consequence, compassion and empathy infuse his work, while his political and social commentary, although consistent, is carefully, and subtly, couched.  For example, references to the war in Vietnam in the novels, a defining moment in Robicheaux’s past, act not only as markers to that period but as metaphors for later, dirtier conflicts, particularly those in Central America in the 1980s and early 1990s. 

            Equally, Burke has made no secret of his own demons: his early difficulties with alcohol, his frustration at being out of print for most of his thirties while struggling to raise a family, and the resulting bitterness that almost tipped him into nihilism.  His salvation was no simple matter.  Strengthened by the love and support of his wife, Pearl, he attained sobriety through the 12-step program, and rediscovered his childhood Catholicism.  He also found himself published again when The Lost Get-Back Boogie, which had been under submission for nine years, and had been rejected more than a hundred times, was finally published by the Louisiana University Press in 1986. 

            Knowing something of Burke himself better enables us to understand how his greatest literary creation came into being.  Dave Robicheaux is a complex character, both humane in his judgements, and intensely, movingly human in his failings.  His intolerance of wickedness can, at times, make him seem as stern as the God of the Old Testament, but this, I suspect, is a reflection of Burke’s own belief that there are no little evils: sins, both major and minor, mortal and venial, are born of the same mother, and great wrongs grow from small seeds.  As Victor Hugo once wrote, “Men become accustomed to poison by degrees”; or, as Burke himself has put it, rather more wittily, “Give the Devil an air-conditioner, and you’ll never get him out of the office.”

            Yet an intolerance for evil is not the same as an unwillingness to forgive sins.  Robicheaux, like his creator, is too aware of his own frailties to pass sentence rashly upon others, and, similarly, Burke is too nuanced a writer to allow Robicheaux to carry the sole moral authority in his books.  Clete Purcel, his former partner, is given crucial opportunities to question Robicheaux’s occasional inflexibility, and similar criticism is permitted to be leveled at Robicheaux by the women who love and respect him.  But it is also those closest to him who recognise that the person who is hardest on Robicheaux is Robicheaux himself, and such intense self-criticism, if left unchecked, can itself become a form of vanity. 

            Ultimately, what Robicheaux and those who act alongside him understand is the truth of the words of their creator’s namesake, the Irish writer and philosopher Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”  To stand by while others suffer is to be complicit in their sufferings; to attempt to bring those sufferings to an end, and thus remove a little of the evil from the world, even at great cost to oneself, is an act of empathy and justice that, if one believes in God, brings us closer to the Divine and, even if one does not believe, makes one a better person for the effort. 

            The Robicheaux novels are one of the crowning glories of mystery fiction, and The Glass Rainbow is a worthy addition to their number.  Long may Burke continue to write, for I’m in no hurry to move up that one place . . .