Praise for Declan Burke: “Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “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.

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.

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.

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 clichéd 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.