Glancing over the crime novels on my bookshelves, I notice several books that influenced me in deep ways as a writer, and a couple that especially impressed me with their vividness and energy, particularly in the opening pages.
Eight Million Ways to Die
This fifth book in Block’s Matthew Scudder series had a major impact in several ways: It showed how a place (New York City) could effectively become a character in a crime series; it showed how a protagonist could change and develop over the arc of a series, rather than remaining static; and it proved that character development could be at least as important as plot, a lesson I have taken to heart. It ends on a surprisingly personal and moving note.
The George Smiley Series
As Block did, Le Carré made the character of his protagonist the true center of his series, and I appreciate the way he moved away from a typical hard-drinking, wise-cracking, bare-knuckles kind of crime novel protagonist to create a completely different—and compelling—sort of hero.
This nonfiction book by the creator of The Wire (one of the two greatest TV crime series) was hugely helpful in my writing because it showed how “homicide detective” is a real career embodied by real people. It does a great job of answering a couple questions I’ve tried to answer in my books: What’s it like to work such an incredibly strange gig every day, and how does it affect you as a human being?
If the Internet can be believed, this 1988 novel was Leonard’s own favorite of his books. It’s particularly memorable for the classic first chapter, which very effectively (and humorously) juxtaposes the bizarre extremes of a career that deals with crime and the humdrum ordinariness of its daily grind.
Beat the Reaper
We know we’re dealing with a very different kind of protagonist from the first paragraph, when a mugger presses a gun against the base of our antihero’s skull and he observes that, “It actually feels sort of good, in an accu-pressure kind of way.” This 2009 debut impressed me with its originality, its humor, and its crackling, zingy energy.
Featured photo of Gabriel Cohen: Alchetron