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Ten Books, Plus a Few More

Jul 05, 2011 in Guest Posts, Writing

I’m dreadful at lists. I know it’s something that boys are supposed to be good at — semi-autistically drawn toward, even — but I’m hopeless at remembering what I ought to put in and always too aware of what I’m leaving out. It’s like colors. Does anyone have a favorite color after the age of about twelve? I don’t. There are *types* of colors I like, and a revolving cast of hues that most often please my eye, but I can’t just say “Blue. Oh, and purple”. Similarly I keep making playlists in iTunes, and then spend half my time skipping over songs or wishing I’d included others. It’s the same with books and films. I recall one deeply embarrassing occasion in Hollywood about fifteen years ago, after my agent secured me a sit-down with someone really very senior in a studio. I should have turned up with a list of projects I wanted to pitch. I didn’t. I should have come across as a go-getting man of action. I probably instead came across as sleepy, or hungover. I should at least have been able to respond perkily to the woman’s inquiry as to my favorite movies, but I suspect I left her office having given the impression that I’d never actually seen any films at all. It was a waste of a meeting, and I apologize to all those writers who would have made a far better job of it.

Oh well. Here’s a list of ten books which I’ve loved and still loved, and which have made a significant difference to my life and work…

THE TALISMAN – Stephen King & Peter Straub
This has to come first, as I probably wouldn’t be a writer without it. I’d tinkered with prose a few times as a teenager but to no great effect, and it was eventually reading THE TALISMAN that made me think “See, *that’s* what I want to do. Make up stuff and see what happens next.” It was pure luck I happened to read this novel at all, the result of a drunken deal in a pub with my friend Howard if he’d in turn read LUCKY JIM. THE TALISMAN flicked a switch in me. I was on a theatrical tour at the time and I spent the rest of it reading every single thing of King’s I could lay my hands on. At the end of the tour I wrote my first story, THE MAN WHO DREW CATS, and I’ve had no desire to do any other job since. I would like to return to this more sense-of-wonder style of storytelling, however, and I hope that’s beginning to happen now… (I’d like to slip in an honorable mention for Peter Straub’s GHOST STORY here, one of the great supernatural novels from horror’s key modern stylist. See? I’m already not doing the list thing properly).

LUCKY JIM – Kingsley Amis
This was the first ‘literary’ — as opposed to science fiction — novel that really resonated with me. It was a little dated even when I read it back in the 1970s (a small tale of love, politics and repressed fury in a provincial English university during the 1960s) but it remains the finest example of Kingsley Amis’s genius with language. There are phrases from this book that still pop into my head thirty years later, and it permanently affected my sense of humour — especially when relishing the fierce joy that occasionally comes from irritation and impotent anger (both of which feature in any author’s life from time to time). It also has one of the most charming endings of any book I’ve ever read: it takes my heart and throws it up into blue sky on an arc so straight and true that it never comes down.

A STAINED WHITE RADIANCE – James Lee Burke
I’d never even heard of the guy, but bought this book on the strength of the cover from the mid-1990s Arrow edition. Once I’d finished it I went right back to the beginning of the series and read them in order. I still fall upon a new one with a bark of happy joy. Burke’s ability to bond muscular action with lyric prose and evocative back story (the three pillars of truly great mystery fiction) is unique, and the relationship between Robicheaux and Clete Purcel is a masterclass in buddy interaction. I’d give a lot to be able to forget all these book (many of which I’ve read two or three times), and go back to the beginning afresh…

THE MIST – Stephen King
THE TALISMAN may be the big, rambling masterwork (along with THE STAND, and IT), but THE MIST is my favourite of all King’s work. Normal people are established in King’s addictive, easy-going prose; a strange event takes place; and then he tells us What Happens Next, It’s utter, compelling genius, the platonic ideal of story-telling.

MONEY – Martin Amis
No-one uses English with quite the belligerent precision of Martin Amis (well, except his dad, and Brett Easton Ellis from time to time). I’m not talking about the self-indulgent acres of puffed-up meanderings so beloved of Great American Writers (and Great English Ones too). I mean breath-takingly acute observation and description, nailed to your mind with humour and locked dead-on to a particular milieu. The artifice of Martin’s novels can be trying, and they’re patchy in terms of the reading experience, but they’re always rewarding. MONEY is the very best. LONDON FIELDS is next. If you’re feeling brave, also try the extraordinary earlier novel, DEAD BABIES. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

THE BLACK DAHLIA – James Ellroy
I’m not saying this is his best book — AMERICAN TABLOID probably wins that, though of course the LA QUARTET is stupendous — but it was the first I read, and the one that opened up Ellroy’s sparkling nightscapes of gleeful obsession. I don’t — and couldn’t — write like him (his facility with vertiginous detail is simply beyond my tiny brain), but his all-bets-are-off helter-skelter fascination with the darkest shadows of human nature has always struck a chord.

THE KILLER INSIDE ME – Jim Thompson
Jim Thompson should be compulsory reading for everyone. Though set in recognizable locales and in some ways of their period, his stories seem to exist outside the confines of time and space. Much as King is able at his best to tell pure story, Thompson presents pure plot, human interaction taken at some kind of super-distilled base level — while still evoking very credible people. THE KILLER INSIDE ME is the best evocation of a deranged mind, ever. There are many other superb novels, including a few which wander off into some strange, slipstream territories toward the end. Not a word is wasted in any of them. I always re-read a Thompson when I realise my current book needs some cutting down.

THE LIVING CITY – Frank Lloyd Wright
Possibly a curious choice, but this is one of the earliest books I can remember reading (or at least looking through, as I was pretty young at the time). I own a first edition now and still leaf through it from time to time, absorbing the calm, sane music of Wright’s vision, like some comforting late 1960s picture of The Future. He’s the Bach of buildings, and his exploration of domestic architecture and social space has been a sizeable influence on my life. Someone even pointed out to me recently that virtually every novel I’ve written has featured either an architectural conceit or at least a consideration of the human condition within both geographical and cultural space. That makes the books sound a whole lot more dull and pretentious than I hope they are, but it’s probably true.

THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES – Ray Bradbury
I’ve inherited little of Bradbury’s style, at least in my current writing — his boyish lyricism just doesn’t suit the thriller genre — but he was definitely one of the writers to make me realise how beautiful words could be when conjured with skill and affection and exuberance, and how close prose can be to music. It’s hard to pick a favourite (it would equally well have been SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, I SING THE BODY ELECTRIC or a number of others), but the lyric melancholy of the stories in CHRONICLES has definitely been an influence, and it’s a voice that can hold a tune when it comes to mystery stories. When it comes to short stories I should definitely mention Ramsey Campbell, too — perhaps the DARK FEASTS collection — for his chill, very English nuggets of eeriness and unease.

THE NIGHT PEOPLE – Jack Finney
Finney is best-known for THE INVASION OF THE BODYSNATCHERS and his time-travelling classic TIME AND AGAIN. This novella has no genre or otherwordly elements, however, but is perhaps the finest and most direct example of his distinctively unshowy and conversational style. It deals with the low key night-time adventures of four bored New Yorkers, recounted in a clear first-person voice that had a great influence on me at the time. It was, as a matter of fact, the last book read before embarking on my own first novel, ONLY FORWARD.

There’s probably another twenty or thirty books I could have mentioned, and I should definitely have gone to more trouble to include a couple of obscure or hard-to-read novels in order to make me sound more sophisticated. Well, I didn’t. As far as I’m concerned, the job of a novelist is to disappear for most of time, to make their work as easy to absorb as possible and only poke their head above the parapet if by doing so their adding to the experience of the story. All of the above writers meet these requirements in spades.

Michael Marshall Smith is a screenwriter and the internationally bestselling author of The Intruders and the acclaimed trilogy of Straw Men, The Upright Man, and Blood of Angels. He lives in London.

Mulholland Books will publish three books by Michael Marshall Smith, the first of which will be called Murder Road.

[What’s your top ten? Let us know in the comments!]

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5 Responses »

  1. THE THIRD POLICEMAN, Flann O’Brien
    THE LONG GOODBYE, Raymond Chandler
    CATCH-22, Joseph Heller
    THE POWER BROKER, Robert A. Caro
    GRAVITY’S RAINBOW, Thomas Pynchon
    HIGH RISE, J.G. Ballard
    THE PUBLIC BURNING, Robert Coover
    JAMES JOYCE, Richard Ellmann
    THE CHILD IN TIME, Ian McEwan
    INDEPENDENCE DAY, Richard Ford

  2. CINNAMON SKIN, John D MacDonald
    PENNIES ON A DEAD WOMAN’S EYES, Marcia Muller
    FLOOD, Andrew Vachss
    DOPE, Sara Gran
    DIE A LITTLE, Megan Abbott
    CORRIDO, Mandy Kiefetz
    EXIT MUSIC, Ian Rankin
    THE BEDLAM BOYS, Bonnie Morse
    NAILS, Peter Bowen
    SAVAGES, Don Winslow

  3. Some good picks on that list. Others I’ll have to put on my wish list–if they’re not there already. As for my own list, the heat has sapped the energy to cook one up today.

  4. My Top Ten Gateway Books:
    A Drink Before The War by Dennis Lehane
    The Fortress Of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
    Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
    The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac
    The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
    City Of Glass by Paul Auster
    Zodiac by Robert Graysmith
    The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
    The Most Beautiful Woman In Town by Charles Bukowski
    361 By Donald E. Westlake

  5. 1. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
    2. The Mistress of Silence by Jacqueline Harpmann
    3. The Long Walk by Stephen King (I’ve read it about twenty times. It still gives me chills and becomes more relevant with every reading.)
    4. Drowned World by J.G. Ballard
    5. Spares by Michael Marshall Smith
    6. Enduring Love by Ian McEwan
    7. Children of Men by P.D. James
    8. It by Stephen King
    9. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
    10. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night time by Mark Haddon

    Just realised that most of these are sci-fi/speculative fiction.

    But there are literally thousands I could place on this list.

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