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Howard Chaykin’s Guide To Crime Fiction: Part Three – The Moderns

Forgive me if there are some obvious names on the list. We live in a profoundly culturally amnesiac universe, where the most amazing and beautiful work slips through the cracks for any number of reasons, all the fucking time.

So, in keeping with my often stated commitment to separate “favorite” from “best,” let’s just say these are the writers who grabbed me, often from word one, and have remained influential in my life, both professional and personal—since I’m a constant reader, too.

 

RICHARD PRICE

  • THE WANDERERS
  • CLOCKERS
  • LUSH LIFE

Like Elmore Leonard, Richard Price is in a class by himself. Not literally or exclusively a crime writer, the influences that flow back and forth between him and the world of hardboiled fiction cannot be overstated.

Again, like Leonard, no one writes character revealing dialogue as perfectly as Price. In his character’s voices, choices and speech patterns, I can identify neighborhoods, social and economic circumstances—everything.

And then there’s his screen work—MAD DOG AND GLORY, an okay movie but well worth the time. Now, SEA OF LOVE—this is a great crime picture, with a restrained performance from Al Pacino, and career best work from Ellen Barkin.

He’s a year my senior, as I recall, Bronx rather than Brooklyn, but I hear my life in his prose.

 

JAMES ELLROY

  • SILENT TERROR (AKA KILLER ON THE ROAD)
  • THE BLACK DAHLIA
  • THE BIG NOWHERE
  • AMERICAN TABLOID

When I was introduced to the work of Jim Thompson, it was pointed out in a review of his career, which I allude to in my entry about him, that he was capable of producing some the best and some of the worst prose in crime fiction in the same book.

This might apply to Ellroy as well, whose earlier novels are tight and beautifully structured, and then begin to sprawl in all directions. Note that I’ve listed THE BIG NOWHERE, as opposed to LA CONFIDENTIAL here. I consider this book the masterpiece of his LA QUARTET—which then gets fucked with by the swirling, apparently unedited mess that is WHITE JAZZ.

And then, inexplicably, he returns to form with AMERICAN TABLOID—to be followed, once again, by a stream of, at least from my perspective, nearly unreadable unedited material.

So, a giant, yes—but read selectively.

 

STEPHEN HUNTER

  • POINT OF IMPACT
  • DIRTY WHITE BOYS
  • BLACK LIGHT

For quite some time, Hunter was the gold standard of American thriller writers—a Tom Clancy or Robert Ludlum who could actually write, and write well, as opposed to type enough dreck to lay waste to forests.

The three books referenced above form a curious and well made trilogy, in which the second and third books can be read in either order.

POINT OF IMPACT remains one of the best thrillers I have ever read—a textbook in relentless pacing, breakneck narrative, and some of the best buried exposition I’ve ever experienced. He is clearly a fanatical structuralist, as evinced by, as I recall, five plot points buried in the first one 135 pages of the novel, which he pays off in the last 100 pages beautifully.

I’ve read everything, but I’m a completist. He’s gone off the rails of late, but almost everything he’s published, including his film criticism from his onetime day job, is worth reading.

 

LEE CHILD

  • KILLING FLOOR

I list only one novel, his first, for the simple reason that if you dig it, you’ll read everything, and if you don’t you won’t.

I regard Child as one of the premier writers of thrillers at work today. He is amazingly consistent, publishing a book a year for nearly two decades now.

About one third of the REACHER novels are second rate, but that said, they remain readable. I know for a fact that he is regarded in some fan quarters as a hack. This is, to use a technical term, utter bullshit.

Child is an Englishman, who writes in a completely convincing American vernacular that reads as if written by a son of the Midwest who’s moved to the east coast to make his fortune.

He writes action and violence extraordinarily well, as well as location—setting the adventures of his giant-sized hero in milieus that are utterly convincing.

 

THOMAS PERRY

  • THE BUTCHER’S BOY
  • METZGER’S DOG
  • VANISHING ACT

Perry’s earlier novels frequently read as if he’s looking for a series franchise. THE BUTCHER’S BOY generated two sequels, both extraordinary…and METZGER’S DOG begs to be made into a big budget comic crime caper film with big consequences.

He is the living master of the novel of pursuit—and he finds that series franchise in the JANE WHITEFIELD novels, the first of which, VANISHING ACT, sets the tone for the rest of the series.

He writes action beautifully, and like Child has an uncanny ability to set his scenes, in his case, frequently in cities I know well, and can recognize immediately.

I’ve read everything—and he remains a regular on my preorder list.

 

GEORGE PELECANOS

  • A FIRING OFFENSE
  • KING SUCKERMAN
  • THE SWEET FOREVER

Pelecanos has carved out a curious niche—the relationship between the black and Greek communities of Washington, DC, his home town. His first novel, A FIRING OFFENSE, introduces NICK STEFANOS, who almost qualifies as the anti Matt Scudder. Read, and you’ll see what I mean.

I read everything(shocking, I know). I love the Stefanos, DC Quartet, and the Derek Strange novels, as well as most of the standalones…but remained underwhelmed by the Spero Lucas novels, which seem to be his tribute to the Travis McGee books, which I’m on record as regarding as a decades long snorefest.

KING SUCKERMAN is the book I recommend to newcomers as an introduction.

And finally, if you’re a fan of THE WIRE, take note—the tone and sensibility of all five seasons of that series, which I regard as the best television series ever made, borrows enormously from Pelecanos and his ethos. Trust me on this.

 

DENNIS LEHANE

  • DARKNESS, TAKE MY HAND
  • GONE BABY, GONE
  • MYSTIC RIVER
  • THE GIVEN DAY

I read his first novel, A DRINK BEFORE THE WAR, and wasn’t caught, so I can’t tell you why I read his second, DARKNESS, TAKE MY HAND…which blew me away.

Another guy who owns his hometown, in his case Boston, Mass. The Kenzie/Gennaro novels are a beautiful and brilliant reinvention of Hammett’s Nick & Nora Charles franchise, not cute in any way but filled with modern neuroses–and more than well made.

MYSTIC RIVER is a beautifully written stand alone, and THE GIVEN DAY reveals him as a terrific historical novelist.

I love this guy’s stuff.

 

MEGAN ABBOTT

  • QUEENPIN
  • THE SONG IS YOU
  • BURY ME DEEP
  • DARE ME
  • GIVE ME YOUR HAND

In Megan Abbott’s case, I came for the period material and stayed for the women in conflict with their own worlds and with each other work. Her earlier novels are all committed and very entertaining period stuff, with badassed female protagonists in narrative that felt completely convincing and anachronism free.

It seems to me these early novels owe a bit to Ellroy, and I mean this in the best way…and then she steps out with DARE ME, and finds a contemporary theme and runs with it.

I’m reading GIVE ME YOUR HAND right now, and digging the living fuck out of it.

She’s staffing on HBO’S THE DEUCE, and seems to me a perfect fit for that depiction of 1970’s New York City in all its sleazy glory—seen, for those who’ve watched it, from a perspective equally balanced between the men and women of the narrative.

Read her entire body of work—you’ll thank me for pointing out a truly idiosyncratic voice, who still meets every standard of great genre writing.

 

LOREN ESTLEMAN

  • THE ROCKY MOUNTAIN MOTION PICTURE COMPANY
  • BLOODY SEASON
  • THE ADVENTURES OF JOHNNY VERMILION
  • WHISKEY RIVER
  • JITTERBUG

Estleman is the joker in the deck here. I’m not sure it’s still around, but he used to have a colophon on his stuff, a headshot bifurcated, one side a Stetson and handlebar mustache, the other a fedora—indicating a narrative that met at the intersection of western and hardboiled crime fiction.

I have no interest in his private eye stuff—not personal, I’m just not a fan of the genre once we move past Chandler—but his westerns as crime fiction are pretty damned swell.

BLOODY SEASON, his take on the OK Corral shootout, leaves me seeing the Earps as America’s first organized crime family.

His DETROIT novels are nicely made, as well.

Not the marquee name that some of the others on this list might be, but a terrific novelist, and well worth a visit.

DON WINSLOW

  • THE NEAL CAREY NOVELS
  • THE POWER OF THE DOG

THE POWER OF THE DOG is an epic novel, and easily the best crime novel of 2005, and should have been Winslow’s break out book. That came later with SAVAGES, a good novel, but not in the class of that earlier book.

The Neal Carey novels are earlier works, four of the five of which are charming and terrific.

As with most of those on these lists, I’ve read everything—and everything he’s written is worth reading.

But man, THE POWER OF THE DOG…

 

JOHN SANDFORD

  • THE PREY NOVELS
  • THE VIRGIL FLOWERS NOVELS

There are twenty eight novels in the PREY series, the adventures of a Minnesota cop who rises through the ranks and changes careers in the course of the series.

The first ten or so are fine, B level stuff…then, in a novel whose title escapes me, in which he introduces a female assassin named Claire Winkler, he suddenly becomes a new and better writer. The plots sharpen, the characterization tightens, and there’s an element of dark comedy that deepens everything. Characters grow, change, age, leave, return and die.

The Virgil Flowers novels are lighter, and usually funnier, but still bloody and action packed. On NPR a few years back, Sandford publicly stated that CHUCK LOGAN(more on him below) was delivering the first drafts of these books.

For the record, I read the Preys. I listen to the Flowers.

Both series are on my pre-order list-KINDLE and AUDIBLE respectively.

 

CHUCK LOGAN

  • THE PRICE OF BLOOD
  • THE BIG LAW

I read Logan’s first book and was underwhelmed, so I can’t say why I picked up the second, THE PRICE OF BLOOD, and loved it. He’s got a great franchise series in the Brokers, a husband and wife who are both deeply damaged goods who are as far from a meet cute couple as you can find.

Dark, and smart, he’s got a great sense of place, with strong action writing, too. A regional guy, Minnesota like Sandford. For reasons which remain a mystery to me, he’s never achieved name status and traction.

Highly recommended.

 

Next time, a final list of the historical fiction, as well as a few favorite outliers, and a couple of names that slipped my mind when the first three lists were compiled.

Enjoy!

As ever, I remain,

Howard Victor Chaykin – a prince

 

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