Friday, September 15, 2023

Time to Be Inspired, by Josh Stallings

Q: Are there crime fiction books so good you hold on to them and re-read them? Name a few classics and inspirations.

A: I evolve year to year not only as a writer but also as a reader. That’s true for most of us. As a teenager I attached my identity to the bands I listened to, books I read, movies I dug. It was a way to connect with like minds. I wore tight pants, long scarves, platform shoes, a leather jacket. 6’4” and skinny, I must have looked a sight, but I was a walking billboard to attract my people. 

We listened to Bowie, Velvet Underground, Eno, Queen. We read Hunter S. Thompson, Edward Albee, we did scenes from Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter. I read S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, but doubt I told anyone. I loved Cotton Comes To Harlem and Superfly. As an adult I find Curtis Mayfield’s classic Superfly soundtrack holds up better than the film. 

At sixteen I moved to LA. I was alone a lot and Raymond Chandler kept me company. I slowly discovered what I personally loved to read. Hard Boiled Crime consumed me for a long time. Here are a few writers that gave me a good grounding in the field:

Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye is my favorite, but you can’t go wrong reading anything he wrote.

Charles Willeford, the Hoke Moseley series is gritty brilliance. Miami Blues is worth more than a few reads.

James Crumley, is the poet laureate of brutally self effacing hard boiled crime. Dancing Bear remains my favorite, and has the best last paragraph of any book I’ve ever read. 

Andrew Vachss, the Burke series introduced me to the possibilities of what a crime family of choice could look like, that and Bullmastiffs. He wrote about the pain of childhood abuse and the need for avenging knights in tarnished armor. Flood is the first in the series and the place to start.

James Lee Burke has published twenty-three Dave Robicheaux books. The first, Neon Rain is amazing, as are all that follow. Dave and Clete Purcel are opposites in some ways, but maybe more, they are two sides of a tarnished and pitted coin. They give Burke a chance to examine morality from two perspectives. Dave who does hard violent things to set the world right, but suffers guilt and spiritual pain for having done them. Clete acts to protect those he loves and if he feels any guilt, he drowns it in whisky. 

If you dig your crime fiction Hard Boiled these five writers will give you a grounding in the sub-genre. They did for me.

My evolution as a reader is taking me farther away from crime fiction. Don’t get me wrong I still read a ton of crime books. Just finished the amazing Naomi Hirahara’s Evergreen. A brilliant, tough LA novel that we all need to read.

I recently read Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy. WOW! She is a bloody master of style and form. The three books are set in the same time and have many crossover characters, but each book feels stylistically entirely different. She has her characters drive the prose. I find writers working in speculative and sci-fi are freer from tropes and reader’s structural expectations; this is exciting as a reader and maybe impossible as a writer. All writing is a high-wire act, but Atwood walked over the Grand Canyon without a net or a wire. Moments in it took my breath away. 

A well written book will entertain. A brilliantly written one inspires.

Which books inspires you? Your list will be different from every other writer or reader’s.

What book am I waiting for today? 

Lou Berney’s A Dark Ride, out 9/19. Lou is one of my favorite authors, his work is full of thrills and chills and buckets of heart. He creates people you will not forget. Where ever he’s going in this new novel, I’m buckled up and ready to go. 


Catriona McPherson said...

I've got Naomi's on the TBR - but I'm short the last of Atwood's trilogy - thanks, Josh!

Susan C Shea said...

I also just finished EVERGREEN. Naomi Hirahara's novels about Aki Ito's life after "internment" (prison for people who haven't committed a crime?) are unique. It's the quiet voice that Naomi bings to her protagonist, a young woman who is deferential culturally but has an inner core of tenacity and loyalty. Aki can describe the indignities, the biases, the psychological stresses of her fellow Japanese Americans in post WWII from deep inside their experiences. I've never read quieter crime novels, but nevertheless stick with me.

Josh Stallings said...

CM, My brother turned me onto the trilogy, Atwood is fast becoming one of my favorite writers. So damn talented.

SS, What perfect way to describe EVERGREEN. Quietly powerful.