(Introductory notes: my series Comics: A Beginner’s Guide seemed to go over quite well, as far as I can tell. It occurred to me that there were two other areas where I have sometimes been asked for guidance and recommendations – the other is SF writing, coming soon. My tastes are very much for tough American crime, and my interest is that of someone who mostly reads literary fiction, so I’m looking for the same sort of interest and stimulation and entertainment I get there, rather than clever mysteries – though some of the writers I’ll mention do provide that.)
If I were looking to recommend one contemporary crime writer to someone who was only interested in mainstream literary values, I’d go for James Lee Burke. His descriptive prose is of the highest order – especially on the swamplands around New Orleans, the plants and water and animals and weather. He leans rather towards the pathetic fallacy at times, but that’s fine with me. He’s also one of the most serious crime writers ever in thematic terms: lots of unflinching and honest examination of good and evil, race, sex, money, power, politics, crime, law and so on. His sense of evil is particularly powerful, virtually Biblical in conception at times – he reminds me more of Cormac McCarthy than any other writer. Indeed, McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men has much in common with Burke’s novels, not least for the scariness of the central villain.
Vachss is a unique writer. Most of his novels centre on a man named Burke, someone far enough beyond the underworld that they don’t know he exists. He makes a living ripping off child porn fans and wannabe mercenaries, and will take a PIish case if it grabs his interest: basically this means if it involves abuse of children. Vachss himself is a lawyer specialising in such cases, a recognised expert on the subject, and his all-encompassing hatred and understanding of abusers makes for often heavy going. He also understands the victims, the effects it has one them. He’s not remotely part of the legal establishment, with no interest in convicting people – he wouldn’t consider getting someone arrested instead of killing them. Obviously many crime writers hate their villains, but none of them despise them like Vachss does.
McBain, writing under that name and Evan Hunter (which he changed his name to in 1952, from Salvatore Lombino), is the only writer by whom I have read over a hundred books, and that is likely to remain true for a long time, maybe permanently. And I’ve not read any by five of his other pseudonyms, nor any of his poetry, plays, autobiographies, children’s books or screenplays (I have seen a few, notably The Birds). He was crazily productive: 25 books and some stories from 1956-1959 was his peak.
He’s best known for his 87th Precinct stories, 57 books spanning almost 50 years, though Detective Steve Carella and his fellow detectives in an analogue of NYC don’t age at that pace. These defined the police procedural, and are the model for most modern police TV shows, to one degree or another. They are short on heroics and car chases and genius detectives, long on professional cops doing their jobs, interviewing and following up leads. They are elevated well above the routine by his superb use of and descriptions of weather, and crackling and convincing dialogue, vital in the long interviews. He also reproduces documentation regularly.
I like a good series character in my crime fiction, and no one has offered us more of these than Block, and they cover a range of styles.
Matthew Scudder (16 novels) is a private eye in NYC, whose best friend is a hardened criminal. The novels vary in tone and story, some tough to the point of brutality, but morality is always complex, and Scudder being a recovering alcoholic plays a big part. These are worth reading in order, mostly, because the character does develop (including getting married, eventually).
Bernie Rhodenbarr (10 novels) is a professional burglar who also runs a bookshop.
I like a writer who defies real comparison with anyone else in their genre. The closest to Jim Thompson would be Dostoyevsky, I think, except Thompson is far bleaker, far more negative about human nature. He’s also a stranger and more experimental writer. This is particularly surprising, given that his work was published far from any locus of critical acclaim: he wrote for crime pulps, and for cheap paperback novel publication.
You may have seen one or two films of his work: The Grifters was a fine adaptation of one of his last really strong works (his great years run from the start of the ’50s to the mid-’60s), whereas both versions of The Getaway graft on a lame happy ending. The actual ending is the most scary and depressing piece of writing I’ve ever read, creating a caged existence of constant terror.
In the last episode of Series 2, Astrophysicist Michael Williams joins Mark Sinker and Elisha Sessions to talk about “The Forgotten Enemy”, written by Arthur C. Clarke in 1949. It’s about comfy isolation, radio static, and forces larger than oneself. Elisha reads the story at the front of the programme; music is “Speculative Reminiscing” by Low Res, “Permafrost” by Magazine, and “From My Window I Can See A Mountain in Snow” by Tisane feat. Kevin.
Produced by Elisha Sessions