“Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Guest Post: Russel D. McLean’s Top 10 Crime Novels

So Declan Burke has foolishly agreed to let me set up camp here at CAP for one day during my inaugural, recession-beating “blog tour” (i.e., I couldn’t afford flights to do a physical one) for the US release of THE LOST SISTER. But as I explained to Dec, I didn’t want to make the whole tour about “me me me” because I’d very quickly run out of things to say. And I don’t want to be constantly shilling the book (although the whole point of this tour is to get spread the word – so if you’re in the US you can go buy a startlingly nice hardback from those fine people at St Martin’s, and if you’re in the UK the book’s in handsome paperback from the lovely chaps at Five Leaves Publications). So Dec suggested I could talk about other people’s books.
  “How about,” he said, “One of those top ten crime fiction lists? The books you love?”
  Which sounded a great idea in principle. Except for the fact I had far more than I wanted to talk about and every time I started writing one book down, another popped in my head. So what I’m saying is, perhaps the number 2 and number 1 slots aside, this list is always in flux, but I composed it using the novels that had made me fall in love with the genre or that I just keep coming back to. The ones that made me look at the genre with fresh eyes or that people tell me I won’t shut up about.
  Some of the choices might be predictable (despite some folks’ moaning, there’s a very good reason why certain texts should be considered classics – they’re just bloody good, end of discussion) and some texts people will wonder why I excluded but in the end you have to compose these lists based on how you feel. And while some of the books may have people raising eyebrows, in one or another they had a huge effect on me when I read them… they evoke certain times and places in my reading life.
  So here it is: Ten Books that have had an effect upon your humble guest blogger’s writing and reading practices:

10) ONE FINE DAY IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT by Christopher Brookyre.
Brookmyre’s epic and gut-bustingly funny standalone novel is at once funny, brutal and unsettling in a way only Brookmyre seems to be able to manage. Think Die Hard. On an oil rig in the middle of the north sea. Only instead of John McClane, we’ve got Scotland’s answer to Bill Hicks. And instead of a corporate party we’ve got a Glaswegian school reunion. It’s a blisteringly funny book and you’ll never look at action movies the same way again once you’ve finished it. This was one of the first crime novels I read (other than Anthony Horrowitz’s Diamon Brother’s books when I was a nipper) that made me realized you could do comedy and crime together. And its one of the few books to raphsodize over Die Hard 2 and its wonky Bullet Deadliness Quotient. That’s gotta be worth something, right?

9) RIDING THE RAP by Elmore Leonard.
Yeah, there’s a lot of other Leonards that are, perhaps, considered more classic, but this is the one that burned its way into my teenage brain. I first read it laid up with a fever, and when I was better I came right back to it to see if I’d maybe just imagined how damn good it was. I hadn’t. Written during the period where Leonard seemed the coolest writer on the planet, it also features one of my favorite psychopaths Bobby Deo. The scene where Deo practices his draw so he can take on Raylan Givens in a gun battle is a classic piece of dramatic misdirection and a scene that still remains in my head decades later.

8) THE HACKMAN BLUES by Ken Bruen.
So many people choose THE GUARDS as their favourite Bruen, but this one spoke to me with an immediacy I hadn’t encountered before in a UK-based novel. Controversial on its release, with a heart of darkness I’d never really encountered before, especially from a novel set in the UK, I’d say THE HACKMAN BLUES is required reading for anyone interested in Brit noir (and yes, Bruen’s Irish, but the novel’s set in London, so there: it counts as a UK novel due to setting)

7) DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS by Walter Mosely.
Mosely is a writer who just pulls me in every damn time. His debut novel is not just a damn good crime novel, but also an evocation of a place I could never have known. It’s a testament to Mosely’s skill that he makes the black LA of the 1940’s feel utterly universal. I’ve used this book now a couple of times with reader’s groups and every time the discussion flows about moral choice, about class, about prejudice and so much more.

6) IN THE ELECTRIC MIST WITH CONFEDERATE DEAD by James Lee Burke.
ELECTRIC MIST (as we shall shorten the title to) was the book that made me fall in love with Burke’s lyrical prose. With its hints of the supernatural, there’s an air of slight surrealism to the novel that serves perfectly well to highlight the flaws in the fascinating detective Robichaux. Not everyone digs Burke, some citing his literary style as being a bit too full-on, but if you only try one I’d usually say ELECTRIC MIST is the way to go.

5) SLAYGROUND by Richard Stark.
Again, as with Leonard, there are probably better Stark novels, but I’m going for the ones that affected me here, and this is the first Stark I remember reading. Set entirely in a fairground, this finds professional thief Parker using his environment to his advantage when a job goes wrong and he finds himself trapped in the fair being chased by cops and gangsters. Like all Stark novels, this is the closest we get to an action movie on the page. It’s tight, controlled and really rather inventive.

4) A DANCE AT THE SLAUGTERHOUSE by Lawrence Block.
Matt Scudder has remained a constant in my life since I started reading crime fiction (even though there are a few that fall short of excellent, he hits better than any other series protagonist I’ve read). It’s hard to choose just one of these novels, but DANCE AT THE SLAUGHTERHOUSE was one of the first books that really kicked me in the head, both with its perfect prose and its dark plot. For me, Scudder provides the link between the old school of hardboiled eyes and the new. He’s the point where the genre regained a sense of realism from the two-fisted adventure stories it had started to become mired in.

3) THE BLACK DAHLIA by James Ellroy.
A lot of people go for LA CONFIDENTIAL, and while it’s an amazing book, THE BLACK DAHLIA’s where my dad started me on Ellroy and where I tend to direct newcomers to the man. The hallmarks of Ellroy’s distinctive style are all in place here, and the story is a blistering and brutal evocation of time and place that leaves it marks long after you close that final page. An incredible and deeply personal novel. Just, please, for the love of God don’t watch the movie, which seems to become an unintentional black comedy thanks to the increasingly bizarre directorial decisions of Brian De Palma.

2) THE MALTESE FALCON by Dashiell Hammett.
Still stands up amazingly well to the test of time despite the impersonal distance of the prose from the characters’ internal states. Seriously, takes a bit of getting used to when you’re so used to being close to characters’ motivations and thoughts. But it’s a tight, brilliantly controlled novel with a brilliant central character. Required reading for anyone who even thinks about writing a private eye novel.

1) THE BIG SLEEP by Raymond Chandler.
Yes, yes, I know, *yawn*, predictable choice, but the fact remains that I can’t get enough of Chandler’s writing. His control of dialogue, his brilliantly witty metaphors, all of that stuff that seems so clich├ęd now would never have become so without Chandler getting in there first. THE BIG SLEEP is just a damn perfect novel and while Chandler maybe couldn’t rein in his plots (who did kill the chauffeur?) he more than makes it up for that with his cast of characters and, of course, Marlowe, one of the finest PIs ever to walk the mean streets. Without him, I think many of today’s crime fiction protagonists would never have come to be.

Russel D McLean’s THE LOST SISTER is published by St Martin’s Press.

22 comments:

Paul D. Brazill said...

I've read more than half of them, which is unusual for me. Good to see the Brookmyre in there.

Russel said...

Cheers, Paul

Its not the most obscure of lists but then I'm not sure these things have to be. All of these books, in one way or another, shaped my reading and they're books I come back to again and again.

I'd fully say you should read any of the ones you haven't already.

Paul D. Brazill said...

The Ken Bruen book looks like my sort of thing. Very much so.

I put the CB book in a list I did recently for the Mulholland Books blog http://www.mulhollandbooks.com/2011/02/22/ten-crime-books-to-help-cure-your-hangover/#more-792

Russel said...

THE HACKMAN BLUES in simply incredible. Love it, love it, love it.

And, yes, ONE FINE DAY is still my ultimate pick-me-up book. If I have a cold or just can't concentrate, it tends to be the book that gets me right back on track.

Jay Stringer said...

Great books on that list. Also, may i say, it's a great booksellers list. Every book on that list could be picked up as someone's first book by an author and it would hook them.

For instance, my fave Ellroy is easily WHITE JAZZ. But asking someone to read that without having first read NOWHERE, CONFIDENTIAL and -to an extent- DAHLIA would be to lose the reader.

A top writer and a top hand seller!

Russel said...

Hi Jay

My bookseller tendencies are showing? Very likely. I just love to talk books though as most people can attest. The list could really have gone on forever but I chose books that were quite personal to me in some way even if I don't talk about why precisely.

I think DAHLIA's the perfect intro to Ellroy for the uninitiated, no questions.

Dana King said...

Leonard's Raylan Givens novels 9PRONTO, RIDING THE RAP) are much underrated. Maybe they aren't as good as some of the better known books, but they're gems in their own right.

It's also nice to see INTO THE ELECTRIC MIST get some love. Possibly my favorite Burke novel, and the Tommy Lee Jones movie was good, as well, though it sank like a stone on release (if it even was released.)

I need to read more Mosely, Stark, and Ellroy. Any list that doesn't have Chandler and Hammett at or near the top is automatically suspect.

Paul D. Brazill said...

Pronto is my favourite Elmore Leonard book, Dana. Riding The Rap is pretty splendid,too.

Russel said...

Dana - and of course the Givens novels are now doing pretty well with their TV adaptations. It was cool to see the Bobby Deo skit truncated on the show. The ELECTRIC MIST movie was so close, but it fell short for the sames reasons as HEAVENS PRISONERS did: the movie skipped the truly interesting parts that make the character truly stand out. Mind you for such an apparently troubled production it was amazing that it came anything close to coherent.

Mosely is just one of the finest writers you'll ever read, period. He's the perfect case for my argument about how crime fiction both entertains and still does everything literary fiction can do.

Stark is just so effortlessly slick, every novel a well oiled machine - ruthless and efficient just like their central character.

And Ellroy, well, he walks perfectly the fine line between brilliance and insanity. He's also one of those writers you just have to go see give a performance. And truly, performance is the word.

Paul - RIDING THE RAP mostly sticks in my mind for that one scene which just blindsided me. So much so that I had to read it twice at the time. PRONTO is very good, too, of course. Hell, there are very few bad Leonards, in my opinion (although I seem to get into heated debates about MAXIMUM BOB a lot)

Donna said...

That's my very favourite Brookmyre - it's absolutely hilarious and just plain good fun.

And THE HACKMAN BLUES is one of my favourite Bruen's - from it's blistering first line right to the end.

Ken said...

Russel, you star.
Thank you so very much.
The maestro Ray Banks did an incredible intro to HB.
Ah Sweet Jesus, if only I were as good as Ray wrote.
The novel is dear to me heart as how often do you get a chance to be banned?
Plus, our beloved, sorely missed David Thompson was due to publish it this Jan.
Russell, The Good Son would be on my list
and if they ever do best comic mystery, Donna goes on there, Twice
best
Ken

Declan Burke said...

Crumbs! Even Ken Bruen's commenting on this one ...

Cheers, Dec

Russel said...

Donna - there's just something infectious about ONE FINE DAY. The simple pleasure of the premise and the sheer insanity of the execution. As to HACKMAN BLUES...

Ken - Bless ya sir, for checking in on this post and your kind words.

HACKMAN BLUES is one of those books that just blew me away upon reading both with its stylistic and thematic approaches. And, as Donna says, there's *that* first line... the one that just suckered me right in...

lil Gluckstern said...

I love your list, and I actually have read most of them. I'm glad to see James Lee Burke on it. He always draws me in with his lush prose, and always interesting characters. Have to find The Hack man Blues, and I will definitely checkout you book. Nice blog.

Russel said...

Hi Lil

Burke is often under-rated by those who can't see past a certain style of writing. But if you ask me the man's a near genius.

As Ken pointed out, David Thompson was due to republish HACKMAN BLUES for BFP. I don't know what the situation is now with that following David's passing last year, but if you can track down a copy even secondhand, its more than worthwhile. Just... yes, brilliant stuff.

And of course I do hope you enjoy me own wee scribblings when you get your hands on them.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Burke is the only author on this list I haven’t read, but the observation that he sometimes underrated surprised me. I can’t think of any crime writer more lavishly praised for his prose style.

Good observation on Slayground. That might not be the best Stark, but it may be the most inventive book by one of our most inventive crime writers. (My own favorite Richard Stark is The Score, a.k.a. Killtown.)
======================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
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Spartacusthedog said...

I am binging on Chandler right now. I loved this quote from Goldfish.

‎"I had a couple of short drinks and stuffed a pipe and sat down to interview my brains. "

Made me smile out loud.

Anonymous said...

Aye, Russel, and your wee book is nae shite.

-- Zesty Provoker

seana said...

It's a great list, Russel, and a great list doesn't have to be novel. In fact, it probably largely shouldn't be. Half the fun is identifying one's own favorites in it.

I've only read some of the authors, and none of these particular titles. But from the little I do know, I heartily concur.

Russel said...

Peter - I think Burke radically divides people based on his very literary style. Certain folks I know think he's too dense, too literary etc, and I can see where they're coming from. But what's unique about Burke is that he makes that style - in the Robichaux books - integral to the soul of the character. The voice is absolutely pitch-perfect in the way it speaks to character. I love it.

And Slayground is such a perfectly formed little premise. They made a British movie of it, I believe. I have it on my Lovefilm subscription but am a little worried to move it up the list. Of course it can't be as bad an adaptation as PAYBACK.

Spartacusthedog - The line I most often quote is actually from FAREWELL MY LOVELY: "It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick through a stained glass window."

Zesty - Grand to hear it! Thank you!

Seana - all lists are personal when it comes to art and entertainment. But all of these had a big impact on the way in which I read. They're all excellent novels and well worth a peek.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Russel, you'll know that few authors have been more oddly served by movies than Westlake was. Christopher Lambert, Martin Lawrence and Robert freaking Reford as Dortmunder? Jim Brown and Anna Karina as Parker? And the odd assortment of named under which Parker and Dortmunder have been disguised. Payback us not the worst of it.

Here’s an acid-tipped commentary on Slayground.

Cullen Gallagher said...

Slayground! That was the first Stark book I read, and still one of my favorites.