Friday, December 14, 2018

Classic Year-End Reads

Okay, let’s have it, your end-of-year reading recommends. 

by Paul D. Marks

To be honest, I never like answering questions like this. The main reason, as I believe I’ve mentioned before, is because if I recommend a contemporary’s book – or several contemporaries’ books – inevitably other people will be left out. And since I know a lot of contemporary writers I always feel bad recommending someone’s book but not someone else’s. I may even like the left out book but just forgot to include it or I may not have read it – or I may not have liked it. So why go there? I’m not a critic who works critiquing books. So, instead I think I’ll just recommend some classics and older books that I like.

If I mention Raymond Chandler or Alexandre Dumas, who lived a couple hundred or so years ago, I don’t think anyone can feel left out or hurt that I didn’t mention their current book. I’ve probably mentioned all of these before in one form or another but they’re worth another mention, another look and for those who aren’t familiar with them a first-time experience. Most are in the crime field, but several aren’t. And a couple are semi-contemporary, though not in the crime field so I don’t feel bad including them.

And, there’s always an exception to every rule: Broken Windows. I guess that’s contemporary since it came out a few weeks ago. See the review excerpts in the BSP at the end of this post and maybe give it a shot.

My favorites in the crime genre are Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald and James Ellroy. Chandler for his elegant descriptions, metaphors, characters, depiction of the mean streets and his ville fatale relationship with Los Angeles, will always be on top, MacDonald with his psychological insights and Ellroy with his corrupt and sultry grittiness.

The Big Sleep (1939), by Raymond Chandler. This is the book/story that really turned me onto crime fiction. Whatever issues it might have, it’s still a wonderful piece of writing. My mom had a two volume Treasury of Great Mysteries with a very sinister cover of a mysterious cloaked man that was half on one volume, half on the other. I saw that book on her shelf for years until one day I finally decided to crack it open, starting with The Big Sleep. I’ve been hooked on crime ever since.

Pretty much all Chandler would be on my list. I don’t think you could go wrong with any of his books – because he’s just such a damn good writer. But if I had to pick a favorite I think I’d choose The Long Goodbye (1953), though I’m not sure it would be the best introduction him. Better to start at the beginning. 

The Chill (1964) – Ross Macdonald. This is the story that turned me onto him. A book club sent me a three-novel anthology of his books (The Chill, The Galton Case and Black Money – all good) by mistake. I wasn’t about to spend money to return it, that was on them. So I read it and was hooked on Ross M. He 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 him and Chandler. And, at the moment,  I’m rereading the Zebra Striped Hearse.

Both Chandler and Macdonald 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.
The L.A. Quartet (The Black Dahlia, 1987; The Big Nowhere, 1988; L.A. Confidential, 1990; White Jazz, 1992) by James Ellroy. 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.

Down There (a.k.a. Shoot the Piano Player) (1956) by David Goodis. 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 really stood out for me. It’s the story of a World War II vet, a former member of 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.

Ask the Dust (1939) – by John Fante. A must read for any writers living in Los Angeles. If for nothing else but to marvel at how someone could still eke out a living writing short stories. It’s also a must read for anyone interested in L.A. The setting is Los Angeles in the 1930s, in the “shabby town,” of Bunker Hill in Chandler’s words. I discovered Fante and this book before the new surge of interest in him and was so impressed that I wrote to him at his home. Unfortunately he was already so sick by then that I didn’t hear back, or maybe I wouldn’t have anyway after some of the things I’ve heard about him.

Monte Walsh (1963) – by Jack Schaefer & The Shootist (1975) by Glendon Swarthout. I put these two westerns together because they’re both about men who’ve outlived their time – and time is passing or has passed them by. This is a theme I enjoy reading about and write about often myself.

The Grifters (1963) by Jim Thompson. 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.

Devil in a Blue Dress (1990) by Walter Mosley. The book that introduced Easy Rawlins. That’s enough.

Double Indemnity (published in a magazine 1936) / The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934). Classics that made even better movies than the books.

The Razor’s Edge (1944) by W. Somerset Maugham. My favorite book of any genre. A book which is, at the risk of sounding corny, about a man seeking the meaning of life. But a book that I could relate to on many levels and which deeply affected my life in many ways, Larry Darrell’s disillusionment after the war (WWI), and his search for peace and meaning in life.

The Count of Monte Cristo (1844) by Alexandre Dumas (père): The ultimate revenge novel needs no description. But I believe this is what led to the saying “revenge is a dish best served cold”. I love revenge stories and this is the Big Daddy of them all. And the way Edmond Dantes gets revenge on his nemeses is clever, brilliant and very satisfying and revenge is so satisfying, served cold or otherwise.

The Tartar Steppe (1940) by Dino Buzzati. A novel about waiting for something momentous to happen that never happens – waiting and waiting and waiting, like so many of us do. And no, it’s not about waiting for your clams in some snobby restaurant so you can put tartar sauce on them. And no, it’s not about waiting for some guy name Godot. A soldier is posted at the Tartar Steppe, hoping to be called on to show his courage and bravery in the glory of battle. Time slips by – he grows old – and the wished for attack is always just beyond the horizon.

World’s Fair (1985) by E.L. Doctorow (or maybe I should leave the periods out of his initials…). Probably my favorite coming of age story about a boy growing up around the time of the 1939 World’s Fair.

Chronicles Vol. 1 (2004) by Bob Dylan. Dylan talking about, uh, Dylan. Fascinating. Wish he’d come out with Vol. 2 already.

High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic (2017) by Glenn Frankel. I’m fascinated by the Blacklist and that era. And this is a good look at it via the making of a one particular movie. But, because of the people involved, it covers much more than just that movie. I knew one of the Hollywood Ten somewhat and found it very interesting talking to him and getting a first-hand account of those years.

The Waste Land (1922) a poem by TS Eliot that shouldn’t be forgotten.

What are your choices?


Happy Holidays to everyone!


And now for the usual BSP:

Holiday shopping? Consider Broken Windows for the mystery fans on your list. H

Here’s a small sampling of some of the great reviews:

Kristin Centorcelli, Criminal Element

"Although it’s set in 1994, it’s eerie how timely this story is. There’s an undeniable feeling of unease that threads through the narrative, which virtually oozes with the grit, glitz, and attitude of L.A. in the ‘90s. I’m an ecstatic new fan of Duke’s."

"Duke and company practically beg for their own TV show."

John Dwaine McKenna, Mysterious Book Report:

"This electrifying novel will jolt your sensibilities, stir your conscience and give every reader plenty of ammunition for the next mixed group where the I [immigration] -word is spoken!"

Betty Webb, Mystery Scene Magazine:

"Broken Windows is extraordinary."

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Jacqueline Seewald said...


A great listing of books mystery readers should have in their library. Wishing you much success with your latest mystery novel!

Paul D. Marks said...

Thank you, Jacqueline. And Happy Holidays to you!

Art Taylor said...

You can't go wrong with the classics! :-)

Paul D. Marks said...

Definitely safer, Art ;-) .

Rick Robinson said...

I'd forgotten that Doctorow, which I read years ago. I agree with the rest, of course, especially, Chandler, though I could see Hammett in there too. That last Ross McDonald I read was Herse. Happy holidays!

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks for your comment, Rick. I should have put Hammett in, too. That would have been a good one.

Susan C Shea said...

Your pucks are always so different from mine and challenge me to read more male PIs! Thanks, and happy holidays, Paul!

Susan C Shea said...

"Picks" but I bet you knew that.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks for your comment, Susan. Yes, my pucks are very different :-) . And yes, I did figure out what you meant. But I think that's what makes it interesting. We all have different tastes and from seeing each other's tastes we get exposed to things we might not normally look at, which is great.

Lawrence Maddox said...

Somehow, having Fante and Dumas in the same list makes perfect sense. Nicely done Paul!