Friday, November 3, 2017

Murder X 5 – 5+ Crime Novel Gift Ideas

With Thanksgiving coming up in the USA – please take the chance to give us five titles or criminally good books you think would make great gifts…and tell us for whom they’d be suitable.

by Paul D. Marks

Only five? There’s so damn many good mystery-crime books out there cutting a list down to five is, well, criminal. I also run the risk of being repetitive since I’ve probably mentioned some of these books here in the context of other questions. For this week’s question I’ll stick just to crime/mystery novels. And my tastes probably tend to run to darker, harder-edged stories.

The Poet: Michael Connelly is probably best known for the Bosch books. And I’m among Bosch’s fans. But I’d have to say my favorite Connelly book is the stand-alone The Poet (1996), though Jack McEvoy, the main character does appear in other books. The story follows reporter McEvoy as he investigates a string of cop suicides, including his own brother’s and ends up going down a hellish spiral into a world of pedophiles. It also introduces FBI agent Rachel Walling, who shows up in other Connelly novels. The Poet is dark and unsettling, but I think the reason I like it so much is that it is so well plotted, with a lot of twists and turns, and that it really keeps you on edge the whole time. I think this story is for anyone who likes a good crime yarn, but it’s not for the squeamish.

Tapping the Source: These days Kem Nunn is arguably better known as the co-creator of the TV series John from Cincinnati, as well as a writer on Sons of Anarchy and Deadwood. But he’s also the author of, I believe, six novels. Tapping the Source (1984) is his first and is something special. If it’s not the novel that invented the “surf noir” genre it’s certainly an early and foundational entry. This is not the Beach Boys’ version of sun, sand, surf and surfer girls, but a much darker vision of life on SoCal’s storied beaches. Ike Tucker, an aimless young man, treks to Huntington Beach (a.k.a. ‘Surf City’) to find his missing and possibly dead sister. There he gets hooked up with bikers, sex and drugs. No Gidgets or Moondoggie’s here. And Ike will be lucky if he gets out alive. I like this one so much that I looked into acquiring the film rights. Unfortunately they were already taken. Now, if whoever has them these days would just make the damn movie already. Tapping is good for anyone who loves surf, sun and murder.

Down There (a.k.a. Shoot the Piano Player): David Goodis has been called the “poet of the losers” and his stories of people on the skids certainly bear that out. I came to Goodis through the movies, which is how I’ve come to several writers and/or novels. I’m a fan of the Bogie-Bacall movie Dark Passage, so after having seen it a couple of times I decided to check out the David Goodis novel it was based on. I liked it enough that I began to read pretty much anything of Goodis I could get my hands on, but this was before he came into vogue again so mostly I had to pick up very scarred paperbacks (many, though not all of his books were only published in paperback), and I devoured his whole oeuvre. And, though I liked pretty much everything to one degree or another, Down There (1956) really stood out for me. It’s the story of a World War II vet, a former member the elite Merrill’s Marauders who, for a variety of reasons, is down on his luck—way down. Francois Truffaut made the book into a movie called Shoot the Piano Player which, to be honest, I don’t like very much, but that’s why the title of the book was changed from Down There and is probably better known today as Shoot the Piano Player. I think it would be good for fans of classic noir, old movie buffs, and others.

Mallory’s Oracle: NYPD detective Kathy Mallory is a hard-as-nails cop and not just because of her bright red nail polish. Even her creator, Carol O’Connell, describes Mallory as a “sociopath”. Mallory’s Oracle (1994) is the first in the Mallory series and probably the best place to start. I’ve talked with people about Mallory and recommended the Mallory books to several people over the years. And it seems people either love or hate Mallory. I’m in the former category. I love her no-nonsense, doesn’t suffer BS approach to her job. Nothing, including the law, will stand in her way. Not that I’d necessarily like to be friends with her if she suddenly came alive and jumped off the page. I think the Mallory books would be good for someone who likes solid crime stories, strong female characters and doesn’t mind one that’s a sociopath…

Devil in a Blue Dress: Pretty much anyone who knows me knows I have a thing for L.A., past and present. LA history. LA culture. And novels and movies set in the City of the Angels. Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress (1990), the first Easy Rawlins novel, hits all those bullet points. And, much as I Iike Easy, I really dig his psychopath friend, Mouse. Not someone you want to get on the wrong side of but certainly someone you’d want to have your back when the you-know-what hits the fan. (I wonder how Mouse and Mallory would hit it off?) Devil in a Blue Dress, and the other Easy novels, would be good for LA history buffs, noir fans, general mystery fans.

The Big Nowhere: James Ellroy’s The Big Nowhere (1988) is the second of his LA Quartet books [the others are The Black Dahlia (1987), L.A. Confidential (1990) and White Jazz (1992) ]. All are good, but if I had to pick one as a fave it would be The Big Nowhere. To try to describe Ellroy’s fever dream style is an exercise in futility. The story is set in LA in the 50s right after WWII. In part, it follows Sheriff’s deputy Danny Upshaw through the investigation of a series of mutilation crimes and exposes corruption and hypocrisy amid the “red scare” . I used to go to many Ellroy book events and signings and he truly is the Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction. At one event he even had a band with him. He’s a trip. His writing is a trip. His books are a trip. They would be good for anyone who’s into new noir with a retro setting, LA history buffs and the usual suspects.

The Grifters: Since math has always been a weak subject for me—you should have seen me trying to do diving physics…—I guess I’m doing more than five books here. Jim Thompson’s The Grifters (1963) is a good book and an even better movie. If you like people living on the down low, if you like con artists, and if you like the grift, this is the book for you. It would be good for fans of Jim Thompson (how’s that for stating the obvious?), noir fans, hardboiled mystery readers.

Bonus Round #1: White Heat / Vortex / LA Late @ Night (uh, all by me): Well, since I’m not
above a little BSP I couldn’t very well leave out this trio. White Heat is a noir detective thriller set during the Rodney King riots. Vortex is about a soldier returning from Afghanistan and finding more trouble in LA than in the war. LA Late @ Night is a collection of five of my previously published stories. And all three would be good for everyone! Well, anyone who likes hardboiled, noir and detective fiction.

Bonus Round #2: As many of you know, I have a thing for both Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald. I think they’re in spheres by themselves, especially Chandler, but Macdonald too. I don’t think you could go wrong with any of Chandler’s or books—because he’s just such a damn good writer. And Macdonald blows me away with his explorations into the psychological aspects of crime and stories that boomerang back on the characters—the past always comes back to haunt them. I like pretty much everything by both of them, but if I had to pick I think I’d choose The Long
Goodbye (1953) for Chandler and The Chill (1964—a good year for the Beatles too!) or The Galton Case (1959) for Macdonald. These books would be good for pretty much anyone interested in mysteries and the crime fiction genre, but especially as an intro to a young or new reader of mysteries. And as an introduction to classic mystery and detective fiction.

What about you? What books would you recommend as gifts for the people in your life?


And now for the usual BSP:

Please check out the interview Laura Brennan, writer, producer and consultant, did with me for her podcast, where we talk about everything from Raymond Chandler and John Fante to the time I pulled a gun on the LAPD and lived to tell about it. Find it here:


GBPool said...

I have been delving into the past as well, looking for some gems and found a batch written by one guy about a hundred years ago... Seriously. E. Phillips Oppenheim wrote mysteries and spy novels. The quality, the characters, the stories still hold up and I am captivated. He was beyond prolific so I have over a hundred books and short stories to read and enjoy. Maybe I like these because they were written before anybody else did stuff like this. He was one of the first and one of the best. He makes me want to write good, solid stories, not just slash and burn and rough language. Anybody can do that. Give me a great story.

Anonymous said...

All good picks, and have read all except Ken Nunn...That will change real soon!!
Ross MacDonald, and Lew Archer, was one of my early introductions to crime, noir and mystery.
James Ellroy, man in his own class of writing and books. Can never go wrong. I have Perfidia lined up for late fall reading. Not for my NOOK, but the big ass hard back!!

Larry W. Chavis said...

I am a loyal Harry Bosch fan, but THE POET is my favorite Michael Connelly book. Some good choices in this list.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Gayle. I’m not familiar with Oppenheim. I’ll have to look him. And I agree with you about a great story.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Anonymous. I think Macdonald and Chandler both are good introductions to crime writing. And with Perfidia Ellroy seems to be back in form. Hope you like the Nunn book. His other books are hit and miss for me, but Tapping the Source is really good.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Larry. And great minds think alike ;-) .

Anonymous said...

This is a great list, Paul. I’m not familiar with Nunn, Goodis, or Oppenheim. My TBR list now stretches from here to eternity! I love Michael Connelly, but The Poet is my least favorite of his oeuvre (I love to use that word). I read another story about a pedophile shortly before The Poet and I vowed to avoid anything with that story line in the future.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Maggie. I've heard from people on both sides of the Poet fence. Some love it, others not so much. But I think it's a really well done book. And Goodis and Nunn might not be to everyone's taste. I'd be curious what you think if you decide to read them.

J. L. Abramo said...


Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks for the suggestions, Joe. Those are definitely below my radar, but I'll look them up. Always looking for some new (to me) writers.