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Howard Chaykin’s Guide To Crime Fiction: Part Two – The Midcentury Masters

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.

 

ELMORE LEONARD

EVERYTHING. REALLY.
INCLUDING THE WESTERNS. REALLY.
I’M NOT KIDDING HERE.

AKA “Dutch” Leonard. along with a number of those listed below, died a grandmaster. No one deserves this accolade more. Character, characterization, dialogue, narrative propulsion. He was astonishing. His weakest stuff remains superior to most other writer’s top shelf.

I have favorites, of course, but once I start listing them, it gets out of hand. Just start at the very beginning.

Lots of movie adaptations, all too many misbegotten misunderstandings of what he did and did well.

JUSTIFIED might be the closest to a transliteration of his narrative ethos into another medium.

Trust me on this.

 

ED MCBAIN AKA EVAN HUNTER

THE 87TH PRECINCT NOVELS

McBain is the crime fiction pseudonym of Evan Hunter, which is in turn the legally adopted name of a lifelong New Yorker of deeply Italian extraction.

And in that regard, you won’t find a better portrayal of mid 20th century New York City than the 87th Precinct novels, despite the fact that they take place in a city called ISOLA…it’s still NYC.

Furthermore, in those fifty novels, a reader can see a burgeoning talent become a master, as the books go from twice a year, pulpy paperback originals to deeply enriched novels of character, inventing along the way the ensemble crime procedural, growing longer and more ambitious, but never bloated.

 

DONALD WESTLAKE

  • THE PARKER NOVELS (as RICHARD STARK)
  • THE DORTMUNDER NOVELS
  • GOD SAVE THE MARK
  • THE GETAWAY CAR

Westlake is another novelist about whom I remain a completist. New unpublished material occasionally surfaces, and it gets acquired.

Insanely prolific, Westlake had a share of pseudonyms, to avoid apparently competing with himself. The Parker novels are all plot, no character, caper books that are tight and relentless in their momentum. Read Darwyn Cooke’s adaptations, if you’d like–I certainly have–but get the novels, too.

In the course of writing what was supposed to be a Parker novel, Westlake invents the comic crime novel, with THE HOT ROCK, the first in a series of laugh out loud comic caper novels that have been so badly filmed as to make a corpse weep.

I include GOD SAVE THE MARK here because it continues to make me laugh just thinking about it. And THE GETAWAY CAR is a collection of essays, criticism and speeches—a must read.

And then there’s the screenplays for THE GRIFTERS, and THE STEPFATHER.

What’s not to love?

 

LAWRENCE BLOCK

  • THE MATT SCUDDER NOVELS
  • THE BERNIE RHODENBARR NOVELS
  • SMALL TOWN

Like McBain and Westlake before him, Block worked at the Scott Meredith Agency as a young man. The two series I mention above, the Scudders and the Rhodenbarrs, are a perfect example of this brilliant writer’s versatility.

Both series’ depict a New York City that I recognize without a moment’s hesitation…one dark, bleak and unrelenting, the other sunlit, charming and raffish.

We met a few decades ago, through mutual friends. I’m certain he doesn’t remember me, but even then, he was a writer whose work I admired. Another guy whose complete catalogue is part of my experience.

The Liam Neeson starring adaptation of A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES a few years back deserved a wider audience.

 

WILLIAM KENNEDY

  • IRONWEED
  • ROSCOE
  • LEGS

Like John O’Hara on the first list, Kennedy isn’t a crime novelist, as much as a literary son of Albany who writes, with a wonderful detachment, about crime and corruption as the human condition.

In my experience, he’s never written a book that wasn’t top notch.

 

GEORGE V. HIGGINS

  • THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE
  • THE DIGGER’S GAME

No less than Elmore Leonard regards Higgins as a great writer of dialogue and characterization, and he’s got that right. Higgins, to my mind, is the writer that Jim Thompson might have been had he been able to slow down, and maybe spend a semester at the New School in a creative writing course.

Nobody wrote or writes lowlifes like Higgins…and as someone who has been sniffily dismissed by some comics shmuck as a writer of “…Public transportation dialogue…” I shudder to think what those sensitive ears would do once exposed to George Higgins.

 

GREGORY MCDONALD

  • THE FLETCH NOVELS
  • FLYNN

Not be a relativist, but McDonald is not in the class of the authors on this list that precede him, but his light touch, strong sense of plot, and comic sensibility go a long way to making him worth more than a cursory look.

A deft and witty writer who died way too young—whose work promised much more to come.

 

MARC BEHM

  • EYE OF THE BEHOLDER
  • QUEEN OF THE NIGHT
  • THE ICE MAIDEN

Behm is virtually unknown in the states, having expatriated to Paris after the war. He’s written other novels, none as good as the three listed here.

The first is a lunatic crime novel, the second is Nazi softcore porn, and the third is a comic novel, almost in the vein of Thorne Smith, on the exigencies and complications of living as a vampire in mid 1970s Manhattan—a city, for the record, he had not visited since 1946.

His shit is, to put it mildly, completely bug fuck.

An acquired taste, certainly, but hey, all you’ve got to lose is a few hours.

 

JEROME CHARYN

  • THE ISAAC QUARTET

Last, but miles away from the least…Charyn is giant, a literary novelist whose foray into crime fiction, THE ISAAC QUARTET, remains among the most hallucinatory genre novels I’ve ever read.

I had the distinct and delicious pleasure of interviewing him for the late Lou Stathis’ REFLEX MAGAZINE, and it was an effort on my part to avoid fanboy gush.

Again, like Marc Behm, an acquired taste—but for me, Charyn remains a hugely influential novelist, certainly, for a specific example, on TIME(SQUARED).

More to come, with a list of the Modern Masters…

..And then, a compendium of the rest of the stuff that’s kept me interested as a constant reader for six decades and counting.

Enjoy!

As ever, I remain,

Howard Victor Chaykin – a prince

 

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