The Grifters – Jim Thompson’s The Grifters is not really a thriller as such, it’s more of a drama set amongst criminals. It concerns Roy Dillon, a young con-man, and the emotional triangle between him, his mother, and his girlfriend, both of whom like the con. The thing that makes it so compelling is that Roy, for all his faults, is likeable and he is genuinely torn between life as a con-artist and a life as an ordinary, law-abiding citizen and is torn between his mother and his girlfriend. And the suspense is cranked up and amplified by this simple set-up. The Grifters also has one of the great femme fatales in Lilly Dillon, Roy’s mother, who is a truly venal, grasping creature and yet utterly human. The ending, which Lilly instigates, is truly great. It elevates what is already a fine novel into something far superior. It is somehow both ice-cold and heartbreaking. It encapsulates Jim Thompson’s brilliant aphorism: Life’s a bucket of shit with a barbed wire handle
Here’s a continuation of the list of my favourite crime novels. Here’s part one if you haven’t read that
6) The Daughter of Time – Josephine Tey’s novel is a superb example of the art of storytelling. It’s a murder mystery without a physical corpse (the murder concerned is historical). It pretty much takes place in one room, a hospital room, where a bedridden detective attempts to prove that Richard III didn’t murder the princes, with the aid of a few friends. It shouldn’t work at all. In fact, the difficult premise alone would be enough to finish off all but the best writers – I can think of but a handful of writers who could pull off the trick that Tey works so brilliantly here. If you haven’t read it before do so immediately. It is so persuasive a piece of fiction that it will make you rethink Richard III’s legacy, or at least look into the history further via Google!
7) The Talented Mr Ripley – Apparently Nobel Laureate VS Naipaul has such deductive powers that he can immediately tell the difference between male and female prose. If Mr Ripley wasn’t such a well known work, and Patricia Highsmith wasn’t such a well known novelist, I wonder if he could really divine gender from Highsmith’s ice-cold, spare prose and its brilliant exploration of the mind of the sociopathic Tom Ripley. Somehow I doubt it. Highsmith shares Jim Thompson’s ability to make you empathise and root for somebody who you would cross the street to avoid if you met them in real life. Brilliant stuff.
8 The Big Blowdown – George Pelecanos’ melodrama (the first of the Washington DC quartet) is slam-bang, warp-speed noir. But it’s done with such lightness of touch that you don’t even realise that it’s a noir until the very end. It takes the old film-noir staple of the cowardly friend on the rise through the criminal ranks and the courageous friend on the fall and spins it on its head. It is effortlessly brilliant and the pace never flags. If you want to learn how to write modern, pared-to-the-bone crime fiction, and you’re not sure how to do it, then start reading Pelecanos as soon as possible.
9) Point Blank (or The Hunter) – Last year, whilst having a day off work through illness, I stayed in bed and tried to read John Hawkes’ The Beetle Leg. I realised that this ‘Existential/Surrealist Western’ was in fact simply a dull, lifeless, but beautifully written load of nothing. I put it down, unfinished, and picked up Richard Stark’s Point Blank. I finished Stark’s novel in one very long sitting (despite having previously read it, years ago). The reason for this is that Stark (aka Donald Westlake) can tell a story and Hawkes can’t (though, to be fair to Hawkes, he isn’t much interested in storytelling). The pace is jet-fuelled, the prose is spare and the dialogue cracking. The protagonist, Parker, is a murderous scumbag and yet we find ourselves rooting for him. The set-up is simple and yet beautifully done.
10) The Getaway – I’ve written about it before, so I won’t go into that much detail, but Jim Thompson’s The Getaway is both a fast moving action thriller and a haunting noir. It carries off both tasks with aplomb and gives the reader a thrilling ride that also stays with them long after they’ve finished the final page. If you haven’t read it by now then it’s the perfect way to get into Thompson’s work.
I think I’ll continue this list into a top thirty as I’m rather enjoying it, but I’ll do it on a book-by-book basis, rather than as lists of five.
I’m always intrigued to find out what makes my (alas, very few) readers and blog readers tick. And as I like to think that we all got into crime fiction because one novel crept through and somehow twisted our young psyches, I’m interested to find out what that novel was and why it had the effect that it did. I’ll kick this list off then…
The book which made me an avid reader of crime fiction was Elmore Leonard’s LaBrava, and I was fifteen. The reason I picked it up was because it had a glowing review on the cover by Stephen King, who at that time was my favourite writer (if the guy had written a laundry list I would have read it). I bought LaBrava, took it home and devoured it in one sitting, which meant that I was late for school the next day (because I stayed up until the early hours of the morning). I enjoyed it so much that I bought another four second-hand Leonard’s the next week. Slowly, but surely, Stephen King’s recommendation meant that he slipped down the league of my favourite writers as I replaced him with Leonard, early James Ellroy and found a couple of ancient and tattered Jim Thompson novels (slightly duff ones though – Texas By The Tail being one of them). The book that really made me want to write crime fiction was the Jim Thompson omnibus, which was published by Picador in 1995. As much as I’d enjoyed Texas By The Tail (though it’s a slightly crappy Thompson, to be honest), the reason I bought the omnibus was because of the introduction by Tim Willocks, whose Green River Rising I had only just recently read. It was enough for me to buy it and race through the four mind-blowing novels within. The Getaway, The Grifters, The Killer Inside Me and Pop 1280 were unlike anything else that I’d read – they blew me away by making me root for their depraved protagonists – and the endings were simply astonishing. After reading Thompson everything felt different, like a whole new world had been opened up to me. I started writing short stories, or devised novel plots (all of them rubbish), with a noir sensibility. And I started seriously ploughing through the work of other noir and hardboiled writers. I had several false starts with novels, but eventually, after reading more Thompson, I went back to my past, borrowed from it, and devised a novel that I thought Thompson himself might have devised if he’d come from the north of England and had a gambling addiction, which pretty much leads me here…
Anyway, readers and writers, post in the comments box below and let me know who it was that turned you into crime fiction fiends? Who knows, we might all pick up a recommendation or two and read something that blows us away.
Georges Simenon: His most famous creation is the gruff, persistent and wonderfully likeable police detective Maigret – and for those novels alone his entrance into the crime fiction pantheon would be secure. But in addition to his Maigret mysteries (which are a lot less cosy than their reputation might lead you to believe), he also wrote some utterly brilliant noir fiction, or as he put it roman durs. Dirty Snow (aka The Stain in the Snow), The Strangers in the House and The Man Who Watched Trains Go By are utterly superb, cold-hearted fiction, and must have had an impact on that other great French crime novelist Jean-Patrick Manchette. His prose was tight, but densely layered, and his storytelling immaculate. He could tell a complex story in less than 150 pages and not leave the reader feeling in any way cheated – a skill most writers would kill for.
Jim Thompson: Despite what some people might think, Jim Thompson didn’t invent noir fiction, but he sure as hell mastered the art. Plenty of writers got in before Thompson (James M Cain, Cornell Woolrich and, only just, David Goodis, being among the main players) but, at his best, Thompson somehow made the style his own. His worldview was darker than Cain’s, his prose was sparer and his plots less ludicrous than those of Woolrich, and his range was wider than the very narrow territory that Goodis generally ploughed. His best novels are like a surge of amphetamine to the brain; providing the kind of rush that few other authors are capable of: The Getaway, The Killer Inside Me, The Grifters and Pop 1280 move so quickly that the bitter, haunting endings seem all the more potent, staying with you a lot longer than it takes to read them.
Raymond Chandler: Some of his plots can be a little scruffy (dead chauffeur, anybody?), but his best novels make you forget about all that. Farewell, My Lovely and The Long Goodbye are as good as anything you’ll find anywhere else in crime fiction, and Chandler created a character in Philip Marlowe who is as memorable as anything in any kind of fiction. Marlowe is the perfect blend of hard-boiled quips, bitter philosophy, toughness and compassion. When you add in the fact that Chandler wrote some of the best prose of the twentieth century and his style is still aped by crime fiction writers to this day, what you have is one of the most influential writers of all-time. Few writers can evoke a sense of place or personality the way Chandler could and even fewer had his facility with simile and metaphor. Whenever I’ve suffered a few bad books in a row, I pick up a Chandler again and remind myself just how it should be done.
Dashiell Hammett: A brilliant crime novelist who, along with Hemingway, pretty much put the Henry James school of flowery prose to bed for good. His clean, spare camera-eye prose and superb sense of pacing made him the best of his day, and he’s still among the greats to this day. His short stories, mostly featuring the Continental Op, are excellent but the novels, oh wow, the novels (with one exception) are brilliant: Red Harvest, The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key are among the greatest crime novels ever written with The Thin Man only a tad behind. The one duffer in his back catalogue The Dain Curse is still decent, but it doesn’t scale the same heights as the rest of his work. If you haven’t read any Hammett please do so immediately.
James Ellroy: He can often come across in interviews as a complete ballbag but there’s no doubting his brilliance. For the LA Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz) alone he would be guaranteed immortality as a writer, but then he wrote the Underworld USA trilogy (American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand and Blood’s A Rover). His short, punchy sentences (particularly in the later works) can take some getting used to, but his sense of pacing is among the best and there are few better writers of action around (try the prologue of Blood’s A Rover if you don’t believe me), added to which his ability to handle plot strands is unparallelled. His worldview is wonderfully grim and if you have the stomach for it I can’t recommend his novels highly enough. However, I have one caveat; his short stories are shit (as is his recent memoir The Hilliker Curse), so avoid those like the plague.
Elmore Leonard: Leonard is the reason I got into crime fiction in the first place, so his place on my list was always guaranteed. Few writers on the planet can write dialogue like this guy, and even fewer writers can make characters stand out with such spare descriptions – his harder than hard-boiled prose makes Hammett look as flowery as Henry James in comparison. The fact that Leonard makes it seem so simple is a testament to his brilliance; writing this spare can come off as childish in the wrong hands. He has written a few less than brilliant novels (especially recently), but novels like LaBrava, Stick, $WAG, Rum Punch and 52 Stick-Up are a good indication of just how good the crime genre can get.
Derek Raymond: It is only in recent years that Derek Raymond has received the credit that has been due to him for a long time – as one of the finest British writers of crime fiction ever. His ‘Factory’ novels (He Died With His Eyes Open, The Devil’s Home On Leave, How The Dead Live and I Was Dora Suarez) are up there with the best of any crime fiction, never mind the British stuff. The narrator is damaged, mostly by the murder of his child by his mentally ill wife and by the job itself, but at the beginning of the series has some hope for humanity, as the series winds on this hope turns to bitterness and open clashes with his superiors, some of which are hysterically funny (Raymond was a fine writer of dialogue). By the time the last novel came along, the notorious Dora Suarez, the narrator barely cares about anything but providing justice for the victim. Raymond’s prose was often superb, his musings on modern life were equally sound and few writers wrote pub scenes with half as much life as he does. He edges Ted Lewis as my favourite British crime writer by the thickness of a paperback page!
Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake): The early Stark novels are magnificent stuff. His hero, Parker, is low-life scum. and yet Stark manages the difficult task of making him seem likeable, of making him worthy of carrying an entire series of novels. The recent resurrection of Parker was less successful, in my humble opinion, because his rough edges and his nastiness appear to have been smoothed away ever so slightly, but the early novels are slam-bang entertainment which few other authors are even capable of. Once you pick up a Stark novel I defy you to try and put it down. And writing as Donald Westlake; well, the Dortmunder novels aren’t too shabby either!
Lawrence Block: Few writers are able to straddle the many branches of crime fiction the way that Block does. My personal faves are the brilliant Bernie Rhodenbarr series of novels (wonderful humorous crime creations each and every one of them) and the Matt Scudder series which, like Derek Raymond’s ‘Factory’ novels, charts the changes in the character as the series progresses. His novel Small Town is also a fine crime thriller and one of the few literary responses I can think of that directly deals with the effects of 9/11. A fantastic writer.
There are plenty of other crime fiction writers who I love (far more than I can list here), but I’m simply listing the ones who really take me there – the ones who’ve somehow shaped my own writing and appreciation of the art of crime fiction.
People often mistake noir fiction for hard-boiled fiction, and it’s an easy mistake to make for the uninitiated – as they both travel similar territory. The difference, as always, is how they travel it. The ten commandments below will help you avoid making that mistake in future. Let’s just say that Jim Thompson, James M. Cain, David Goodis and James Ellroy are noir whilst Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard and Richard Stark are hard-boiled. All will be explained below:
1) Your main characters do not have to be likeable: In fact, if you want to be ultra-purist about it your main characters should not be likeable. David Goodis’ characters rarely broach anything even approaching likeability: wretched and whiny and too full of self-doubt and self-pity to ever rise above the gutter they are lying in. One of the best reviews (not actually written, sadly) of my book describes Kandinsky (ostensibly the main character of The Gamblers) as ‘the lesser of many cunts’. You have no idea how pleased that made me. You can empathise with the main characters, or even understand, but you don’t have to like them. This rule can be broken, obviously, and works well to ironic effect.
2) They are doomed: Any noir worth its salt knows that the main characters are doomed from the very beginning. They may survive at the end but they should still be doomed – damned by the very flaws that got them into their mess in the first place. No matter how clever a character thinks he is (and the main characters in noir are nearly always men) he will always be tripped up by his own greed, pride, self-pity and venality. If your main character survives at the end, or has a glimmer of hope, it ain’t noir, it’s hard-boiled. If it has to be summed up in a sentence then this encapsulates it perfectly: Life’s shit and then you die.
3) It doesn’t have to be a thriller: Noir fiction doesn’t have to be a thriller. The fact that more than 90% of noir are thrillers is neither here nor there, they don’t have to be. David Goodis’ The Blonde on the Street Corner is pure noir (the lead character is a truly pathetic self-pitying loser, who might have something approaching a life if he wasn’t so willing to give up when things get tough); his moment with the titular blonde at the end might have been a defining moment in any other novel but in this one it’s just simply another moment on the slide to damnation.
4) It should be a one-off (at the very most two): If you’re writing a series of novels then it ain’t noir it’s hard-boiled. See Commandment 2 for the reason why.
5) It should trawl the gutter: Noir isn’t about sparkly fucking vampires or boy wizards and it sure as hell isn’t a Cozy mystery. Noir protagonists are often ordinary, though deeply flawed, people, but the situations they are in are usually extraordinary and usually stretch them to breaking point, or break them completely. The only way to do that is to send them trawling around the gutter. Indebted to loan sharks; addicted to substances or gambling; in love with the wrong woman; or loving the right woman, but being too weak to leave the wrong woman (or alternatively, to change his ways). In many cases noir is just the stuff of real life but with a better plotline.
6) Irony: Noir endings don’t have to be ironic, but it helps. The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity and The Getaway are classic examples of the ironic ending. The main characters get what they wanted only to find that this is what will destroy them. Leading nicely on to…
7) Sometimes what you want is not what you need: Often, a good noir will have the main protagonists chasing a dream (be it money, woman, power, or some other vain hope) only to find that once they have it it brings them little comfort, or leads to their damnation. If they’re still alive at the end, and if they’re halfway smart, they may realise this.
8 Nothing is ever what it seems: The sweet-natured girl with pretty smile; the best friend you’ve known for years; the decent dim-witted sheriff/police officer; the scarlet harlot; all will probably have a skeleton in the closet – watch out for ‘em!
9) It won’t be pretty: Noir isn’t for the faint of heart. Often, a decent character (they do exist in noir) will do a bad thing for a good reason and it will lead to more bad things and inevitably to their destruction/damnation. Watching this unfold won’t be pretty and may lead to frustration for readers. It’s the main reason why noir doesn’t sell as well as hard-boiled fiction. The hard-boiled hero/heroine can ride off into the sunset with their beloved – the noir protagonist never will. Get used to it!
10) A good enough writer can bend or break most (but not all) of these commandments! If you’re a reader of these rule breakers then I congratulate you, as you’re probably reading a stone-cold classic!
Suggested reading for those unfamiliar with noir (you lucky things, you have it all to look forward to): The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, The Getaway, The Killer Inside Me, Shoot The Piano Player and The LA Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz).