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Howard Chaykin’s Guide To Crime Fiction: Part Four – The Others

This time I’m covering other genres, the outliers, and the oops, I slipped on this one or that one.

I’m sure there are authors missing from this list, as there were in the others. Patience.

 

ALAN FURST

  • THE POLISH OFFICER

I was introduced to Alan Furst by my third wife, who wanted to option what he claims as his second novel, DARK STAR. It blew me away, and I found everything he’d written to date, and have continued to read everything.

He never mentions the half dozen or so novels that precede NIGHT SOLDIERS, the book that cemented his eminent position as the master of historical espionage fiction. A good choice, because they run from oddly okay to absolutely lousy.

That said, I regard him as a singular giant, a guy who can make me smell, hear and taste via his mastery of description in prose. I am an unabashed fan.

I indicate what he regards as his third novel, THE POLISH OFFICER, as a great place to start, then read everything…well. everything after NIGHT SOLDIERS.

 

JOHN LAWTON

  • BLACKOUT
  • THEN WE TAKE BERLIN

The two titles here are starter kits for the Lawton’s two franchises—The Frederick Troy novels, about the black sheep son of a Russian émigré family who becomes a cop, in cases that are tangential or lateral to major events in Britain from the late 1930s to the mid 1960s, and the Joe Wilderness novels, about a cockney wiseguy who gets hung up with the CIA in post war Europe.

Everything he’s written has delighted me as a reader, with the exception of SWEET SUNDAY, a standalone that did nothing for me.

Maddeningly, for me at least, the Troy novels have not been written in consecutive order. No matter. The books are wonderful—funny, sexy and violent.

Like Furst, he writes great fucking. Unlike Furst, who’s not a series guy, Lawton has created a phenomenal and rich supporting cast for his novels.

He’s a guy who should be a marquee name.

 

SIMON MAWER

  • TRAPEZE
  • TIGHTROPE

I’ve read others in his catalogue, but these two are the ones that I fancy the most. They operate in a similar world and worldview to that of Furst (and yes, you will notice Furst is a standard for judgment here and there for me), with a female protagonist, detailing her experiences during and after the Second World War.

Not a genre author, per se, but worth a look.

I rather liked THE GLASS ROOM as well.

 

JOSEPH KANON

  • THE GOOD GERMAN
  • STARDUST

Kanon’s another guy whose first novel did little for me, but I came back, and I’m glad I did. Everything since the PRODIGAL SPY has been a winner.

Great period detail, well made characters, and no screaming anachronisms to drive me nuts. Again, always on my preorder list.

 

PHILIP KERR

  • MARCH VIOLETS

It’s these and the other BERNIE GUNTHER novels that I recommend. His other novels have never had any real appeal to me.

I loved the original trilogy, which were basically Chandleresque private eye stories—but his decision to continue with the character, through and after the second world war, deepens and enriches the character and the world.

Skeptical and not as cynical as the character thinks he is, I’m really impressed by Kerr’s creation of so complex a survivor.

 

MICHAEL CHABON

  • THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY
  • THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN’S UNION
  • MOONGLOW

Chabon is a serious comic book fan, and I approached THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY, his fiction about the origins of the comic book business with trepidation, only to discover he gets the world he depicts in a way that no one had ever done before.

In his review of Chabon’s book of essays, MAPS & LEGENDS, the currently dead John Leonard remarked, and I paraphrase, that he’d rather read Chabon than the work of those he writes about here.

Hey, sniffy, but I got name checked by John Leonard.

 

GLEN DAVID GOLD

  • CARTER BEATS THE DEVIL
  • SUNNYSIDE

Glen Gold is a comic book fan, like Chabon, who introduced me, first to his work through a New York Times review of CARTER BEATS THE DEVIL, then in person.

I’m a huge fan of both novels, both deeply researched period pieces, drenched in a kind of romantic detachment. I’m also fond of Glen as a pal.

His piece for Playboy, about the dark underbelly of original comic book art collecting, is a must.

 

LARRY McMURTRY

  • LONESOME DOVE
  • THE SIN KILLER
  • PRETTY BOY FLOYD

I’ve never met the man, but my fantasy of McMurtry is of a dour and sharp-eyed old guy who takes no bullshit from anyone.

I read LONESOME DOVE on my first trip on the Eurostar between London and Paris, and cried most of the way.

I’m still working my way through his catalogue, taking my time with what has been, from word one, a true reader’s joy.

 

GORE VIDAL

  • BURR
  • LINCOLN
  • 1876

I unabashedly adore all of Vidal’s American historicals. My favorites are Burr and 1876, and then I start thinking about EMPIRE and HOLLYWOOD.

There’s a gap between BURR and LINCOLN, and to an odd and perhaps personally obsessive degree, I’ve always figured Kurt Andersen’s HEYDAY was a perfect fit and a perfect bridge.

I’m a big fan of his essays as well, and for the record MYRA BRECKINRIDGE leaves me cold. I feel about it the same way I regard David Lynch’s work–it’s nowhere nearly as transgressive as it thinks it is, except in Ohio, maybe.

 

GEORGE MACDONALD FRASER

  • THE FLASHMAN NOVELS
  • MISTER AMERICAN

Fraser’s FLASHMAN novels are the perfect antidote to Hollywood’s depiction of do or die heroism, with a hero who is a lecher, a cad, a bounder, an immensely dislikeable coward—and a perfectly refreshing counterbalance to all that glory of war bullshit.

Alan Bates, who plays the villain in the only film version, should have been cast as Flashman, as opposed to the then still callow Malcolm McDowell.

Today, I think of Michael Fassbinder, who’d be a pretty good choice to play the lead in MISTER AMERICAN, a standalone counter western.

Rescue these wonderful historicals from incipient obscurity, please.

 

BERNARD CORNWELL

  • AGINCOURT
  • THE SHARPE NOVELS
  • THE UHTRED NOVELS
  • THE WINTER KING TRILOGY

I’ve been aware of Cornwell forever, since the SHARPE TV movies—none of which, I have to say, encouraged me to read his stuff. Add to that his prolific output, and once I’d decided to give him a try, I had nowhere to start.

On the recommendation of a fellow passenger on a flight, I picked up the then new to the shelves AGINCOURT-and I’ve been hooked ever since. Color, action, character violence and consequences—in several series, which grow better and frankly more profane as they go on.

I haven’t read his contemporary thrillers…but, I suspect, sooner or later.

 

SIMON SCARROW

  • THE EAGLES OF THE EMPIRE NOVELS

A recent addition to my reading list, with much thanks to Jack LasCamela. His work is very much in the Cornwell vein, carving out a piece of the Roman conquest of Britain as his landscape.

I’m five novels into this series, and taking my time, thanks very much.

 

DEWEY LAMBDIN

  • THE ALLAN LEWRIE NOVELS

I don’t recall who recommended the ALLAN LEWRIE novels-it might have been Michael Kaluta. At any rate, I’ve read every one of the twenty five novels so far published, and looking forward to whatever Lambdin’s got coming next.

Not to be reductive, but Allan Lewrie, Lambdin’s naval hero, is what might happen if Cornwell and Fraser set out to recreate Horatio Hornblower, with size eleven clay feet.

The novels, which cover the period from just before the American Revolution into the Napoleonic Wars(so far), are vastly entertaining.

 

EUGENE IZZI

  • INVASIONS
  • THE PRIME ROLL
  • KING OF THE HUSTLERS

Eugene Izzi was a serious contender for the hardboiled hall of fame, when he died, mysteriously, hanging from a window of a building in Chicago. Rumors swirled that he’d been murdered by members of the Posse Comitatus, which he’d been researching for a novel.

He’s likely best remembered for the circumstances of his death, which is unfortunate, because he produced a steady stream of genuinely gripping hardboiled narratives, solidly readable. My only caveat about his stuff is the complete and total dearth of humor.

Still, an unjustly neglected modern hardboiled guy.

 

JAMES CRUMLEY

  • THE WRONG CASE
  • THE LAST GOOD KISS

Crumley is one of those guys who sits on the fence between regional literary and crime fiction. It was next to impossible to think of Milo Milodragovitch looking like anyone but Crumley himself, while CW Sughrue was Mr. Green Jeans as played by James Cromwell.

The work is dark, skeptical and insightful—infused with an understanding of alcoholism that feels like firsthand knowledge.

 

SCOTT PHILLIPS

  • THE ICE HARVEST
  • COTTONWOOD
  • THE ADJUSTMENT

Phillips is an unalloyed pleasure to read. He handles contemporary sleaze in THE ICE HARVEST with the same skillful aplomb he brings to the western in COTTONWOOD.

He’s doing for Wichita what Elmore Leonard did for Chicago…or maybe it isn’t for, but to.

 

JOE R. LANSDALE

  • COLD IN JULY
  • EDGE OF DARKWATER
  • THE THICKET

Two confessions. One, Lansdale is the only writer of horror who has actually scared the shit out of me.

Two, his HAP & LEONARD series, which by all lights should be a favorite of mine, remains inaccessible and unreadable for me—despite how much I dug the fuck out of the television series, which deserved more seasons and attention.

Needless to say, this is, I gather, a minority opinion.

That said, his standalones, his horror, his crime, and his historicals, are pretty fucking amazing.

 

MARY DORIA RUSSELL

  • DOC
  • EPITAPH

I know nothing about Mary Doria Russell, but I will say here and now, these two novels are among the best westerns I’ve ever read. Each is equipped with a specific voice, separate and distinct from the other.

Doc is elegiac and beautiful, while Epitaph tells the story of the Earps, Holliday and the Clantons from the perspective of the women in their lives.

They are genuinely beautiful novels.

 

Again, enjoy—and tell me who you dig—as it should be clear by now, I’m open to suggestions.

As ever, I remain,

Howard Victor Chaykin – a prince

 

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Regan MacArthur

    December 11, 2018 at 2:16 pm

    All right, I’ll take the challenge. I recommend The Name of the Game is Death by Dan J. Marlowe, a novel narrated by the sort of professional heister that Westlake’s Parker would be willing to work with a second time. I’d put this book somewhere near James M. Cain and Marc Behm on the book shelf. It is definitely worth your time.

    Before I go, I want to say thanks for doing these essays. (Have you read the sequel to Power of the Dog? Holy shit, what a book!) Your suggestions are sure to be keeping me busy for quite a while.
    All best,
    Regan MacArthur

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