Thursday, February 5, 2009

My Twenty-five

Since this meme is going around the blogosphere, I thought I’d answer, too. I did the short list over on Patti Abbott’s blog but here’s the deluxe expanded edition.

Dennis Lehane - The single most important reason I am now interested in writing and reading crime fiction is his 2001 book Mystic River. I heard him on NPR and the book sounded fascinating. It friggin' blew me away. The power, the majesty, the intimacy of pain, all in one book. Immediately, I sought other Lehane books and read the first Kenzie/Gennaro book A Drink Before the War. Having read very little crime fiction since the last Hardy Boys book, I had no idea that crime fiction could be so real and profound. That's pretty much all she wrote. I was hooked.

George Pelecanos - After I discovered Lehane, I wanted to discover some of his crime fiction brothers. Pelecanos was the first guy I came across and his first Derek Strange book, Right as Rain, found its way into my cassette player (the audio book). If Lehane hadn't hooked me, Pelecanos would have. He was the string on which was fastened the hook that brought me into the crime fiction world. The three Strange present-day books were magnificent but it was Hard Revolution and Drama City and solidified Pelecanos' must-read statue in my mind. I strive to be as effortless as he.

Charles Ardai – Once I landed in the crime fiction world, it was only a matter of time before I found Hard Case Crime. I knew the reputations of Block, McBain, and others published by Hard Case Crime but only from a distance. Again, my eyes were opened by Ardai’s two books under his pen name, Richard Aleas, that drew me in. Little Girl Lost and The Songs of Innocence are tragically brilliant. The lead character could be me (John Blake is not a brawny guy with a gun but a frail guy with glasses). The influence Ardai has on me right now is the main reason why I see my second novel as a tragedy rather than a light-hearted affair.

David McCullough – As a trained historian, I cringe at the ignorance Jay Leno finds during his Jaywalking segments. I want people to know how exciting history really is. It’s about people who make decisions and we all have to live with the results. McCullough (and Joseph Ellis, to name another) writes books that read like novels. You know Truman is going to win the Democratic nomination in 1934 (how else does he become senator and VP and president) but McCullough makes you wonder. This book influenced me so much that my first novel features Harry Truman as the main character. This is history in the guise of novel writing.

Stephen King – simply one of the greatest storytellers America has ever produced. What I really liked about King, from the beginning, is the realness he infuses in his work. Characters don’t sit and talk about the “hometown baseball team” while drinking a soda, they talk about the Red Sox while drinking Dr. Pepper. His ability to make things real made the supernatural believable.

James M. Cain – after I read the first two pages of The Postman Always Rings Twice and realized he set up the entire novel in two pages, I knew I was writing too many words. But I can’t emulate Cain. I’m a flowery wordie. I love long sentences and words. But I just love Cain’s style.

Ken Bruen – ditto the Cain comment. So, so easy to read; so very difficult to emulate. So, I stopped trying. Now, I just revel in his poetic prose.

Michael Chabon – Speaking of flowery writers, Chabon is a modern word Picasso. This is a guy who just loves what words can do and how they can be arranged and rearranged. And he’s a comic book/SF/mystery geek, just like me. What’s not to like?

Dan Simmons – I just finished reading Hyperion and it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. Mind-expanding in its scope and ancient in its storytelling style, Simmons writes some of the more gorgeous prose out there. And his career has demonstrated that he will write what he wants to write, marketers be damned. That’s the kind of career I want.

Charles Dickens – Come on, who in the English-speaking world can’t learn from or be influenced by Dickens. The man is a master at description the way Miles Davis is a master of silence. You read any single description of any character in any book and that person walks off the page, shakes your hand, or steals your wallet. The fact that he wrote the most nostalgic Christmas book published to date—one I never tired of reading and re-reading—says more about Dickens’ style and imagination than anything else.

Arthur Conan Doyle – If the Hardy Boys and the Three Investigators were my first foray into crime fiction, Doyle’s stories are where I made my home. Doyle’s ability to evoke a time I never lived in so completely is a remarkable feat. That 56 of the 60 stories in the canon are *short* stories is even more amazing. Holmes and Watson are like old friends, no matter what story you pick up and read. The structure of each story is perfect: set up, investigation, solution. That Doyle was able to do it over and over and it never got tired is a mark of genius.

That’s eleven. After this, the list is just authors I like an whose books surprised me.

12. J. D. Robb – Naked in Death (so this is romantic suspense; not bad at all)
13. Wade Miller – Branded Woman (to show that women can be strong and vulnerable at the same time; and how about that last sentence?)
14. Don Winslow – The Dawn Patrol (quite simply the most entertaining book of 2008)
15. Christa Faust – Money Shot (taking me out of my comfort zone with great relish)
16. Robert Caro – Master of the Senate (this is what in-depth, engrossing history is like)
17. Mark Pendergrast – Uncommon Grounds (the history of the world via coffee)
18. Don Westlake – Somebody Owes Me Money (so this is what humorous crime fiction is)
19. Duane Swiercznski – Severance Package (so this is what it’s like to write a new-pulp novel with a pace so fast it leaves you breathless)
20. J. K. Rowling – Harry Potter books (completely engrossing with enough emotional content to shed tears)
21. Megan Abbott – Die a Little (to prove that slow-burn fiction can still be published and be as good as the fast-paced, shoot’em ups)
22. Timothy Zahn – The Thrawn Trilogy (Star Wars) (all the magic of the first trilogy about characters (Luke, Han, Leia, etc.) we actually care about)
23. Anthony Bourdain – Kitchen Confidential (for making me realize I should never eat fish on Monday)
24. David Brooks – Bobos in Paradise (for helping me to identify who and what I am)
25. Carlos Ruiz Zafon – The Shadow of the Wind (for showing me how good and profound great literature can be)