So long, Elmore

Elmore Leonard died today.

This was the man who, in 1986, when I was fourteen, broke my crime fiction cherry with LaBrava. Joe, the ex-secret service agent, Jean, the faded movie star, the Miami backdrop – I loved every second and devoured it in one sitting.

I was late for school the next day due to that damn book, because I stayed up until the early hours of the morning reading it. And although my tardiness resulted in the threat of detention I couldn’t really hold it against the writer – he’d given me far too much enjoyment. In fact, I enjoyed LaBrava so much that I bought another four second-hand Elmore Leonard’s the next week – $wag, Stick, Glitz and Cat Chaser – and devoured every one of them.

Over the years I read more Elmore Leonard, a lot more, but kind of took his books for granted, too. They were always a pleasure to read (even the lesser ones), but for some reason, I would go long periods without reading him again. And for the life of me, I’m not sure why, because every time I did there would be the many pleasures of superb dialogue, sparely drawn yet fully rendered characters, controlled storytelling, and a great sense of humour (even when things got grim).

But it’s impossible to take him for granted any more because he’s gone and there’ll be no more trawls through the underworld with blue-collar crims and cops, all of who possessed the kind of patter that made you want to share a beer with them.

And that’s damn shame. My thoughts go out to his family.

So, I’m going to dig out an old copy of LaBrava, turn off the TV, sit back, listen to Maurice Zola spout off about Joe LaBrava’s photographs and let the story take hold.

So long, Elmore.

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Why did you become a crime fiction reader/writer?

I’m always intrigued to find out what makes my (alas, very few) readers and blog readers tick. And as I like to think that we all got into crime fiction because one novel crept through and somehow twisted our young psyches, I’m interested to find out what that novel was and why it had the effect that it did. I’ll kick this list off then…

The book which made me an avid reader of crime fiction was Elmore Leonard’s LaBrava, and I was fifteen. The reason I picked it up was because it had a glowing review on the cover by Stephen King, who at that time was my favourite writer (if the guy had written a laundry list I would have read it). I bought LaBrava, took it home and devoured it in one sitting, which meant that I was late for school the next day (because I stayed up until the early hours of the morning). I enjoyed it so much that I bought another four second-hand Leonard’s the next week. Slowly, but surely, Stephen King’s recommendation meant that he slipped down the league of my favourite writers as I replaced him with Leonard, early James Ellroy and found a couple of ancient and tattered Jim Thompson novels (slightly duff ones though – Texas By The Tail being one of them). The book that really made me want to write crime fiction was the Jim Thompson omnibus, which was published by Picador in 1995. As much as I’d enjoyed Texas By The Tail (though it’s a slightly crappy Thompson, to be honest), the reason I bought the omnibus was because of the introduction by Tim Willocks, whose Green River Rising I had only just recently read. It was enough for me to buy it and race through the four mind-blowing novels within. The Getaway, The Grifters, The Killer Inside Me and Pop 1280 were unlike anything else that I’d read – they blew me away by making me root for their depraved protagonists – and the endings were simply astonishing. After reading Thompson everything felt different, like a whole new world had been opened up to me. I started writing short stories, or devised novel plots (all of them rubbish), with a noir sensibility. And I started seriously ploughing through the work of other noir and hardboiled writers. I had several false starts with novels, but eventually, after reading more Thompson, I went back to my past, borrowed from it, and devised a novel that I thought Thompson himself might have devised if he’d come from the north of England and had a gambling addiction, which pretty much leads me here…

Anyway, readers and writers, post in the comments box below and let me know who it was that turned you into crime fiction fiends? Who knows, we might all pick up a recommendation or two and read something that blows us away.

My all-time favourite crime fiction writers (in no particular order):

Georges Simenon: His most famous creation is the gruff, persistent and wonderfully likeable police detective Maigret – and for those novels alone his entrance into the crime fiction pantheon would be secure. But in addition to his Maigret mysteries (which are a lot less cosy than their reputation might lead you to believe), he also wrote some utterly brilliant noir fiction, or as he put it roman durs. Dirty Snow (aka The Stain in the Snow), The Strangers in the House and The Man Who Watched Trains Go By are utterly superb, cold-hearted fiction, and must have had an impact on that other great French crime novelist Jean-Patrick Manchette. His prose was tight, but densely layered, and his storytelling immaculate. He could tell a complex story in less than 150 pages and not leave the reader feeling in any way cheated – a skill most writers would kill for.

Jim Thompson: Despite what some people might think, Jim Thompson didn’t invent noir fiction, but he sure as hell mastered the art. Plenty of writers got in before Thompson (James M Cain, Cornell Woolrich and, only just, David Goodis, being among the main players) but, at his best, Thompson somehow made the style his own. His worldview was darker than Cain’s, his prose was sparer and his plots less ludicrous than those of Woolrich, and his range was wider than the very narrow territory that Goodis generally ploughed. His best novels are like a surge of amphetamine to the brain; providing the kind of rush that few other authors are capable of: The Getaway, The Killer Inside Me, The Grifters and Pop 1280 move so quickly that the bitter, haunting endings seem all the more potent, staying with you a lot longer than it takes to read them.

Raymond Chandler: Some of his plots can be a little scruffy (dead chauffeur, anybody?), but his best novels make you forget about all that. Farewell, My Lovely and The Long Goodbye are as good as anything you’ll find anywhere else in crime fiction, and Chandler created a character in Philip Marlowe who is as memorable as anything in any kind of fiction. Marlowe is the perfect blend of hard-boiled quips, bitter philosophy, toughness and compassion. When you add in the fact that Chandler wrote some of the best prose of the twentieth century and his style is still aped by crime fiction writers to this day, what you have is one of the most influential writers of all-time. Few writers can evoke a sense of place or personality the way Chandler could and even fewer had his facility with simile and metaphor. Whenever I’ve suffered a few bad books in a row, I pick up a Chandler again and remind myself just how it should be done.

Dashiell Hammett: A brilliant crime novelist who, along with Hemingway, pretty much put the Henry James school of flowery prose to bed for good. His clean, spare camera-eye prose and superb sense of pacing made him the best of his day, and he’s still among the greats to this day. His short stories, mostly featuring the Continental Op, are excellent but the novels, oh wow, the novels (with one exception) are brilliant: Red Harvest, The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key are among the greatest crime novels ever written with The Thin Man only a tad behind. The one duffer in his back catalogue The Dain Curse is still decent, but it doesn’t scale the same heights as the rest of his work. If you haven’t read any Hammett please do so immediately.

James Ellroy: He can often come across in interviews as a complete ballbag but there’s no doubting his brilliance. For the LA Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz) alone he would be guaranteed immortality as a writer, but then he wrote the Underworld USA trilogy (American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand and Blood’s A Rover). His short, punchy sentences (particularly in the later works) can take some getting used to, but his sense of pacing is among the best and there are few better writers of action around (try the prologue of Blood’s A Rover if you don’t believe me), added to which his ability to handle plot strands is unparallelled. His worldview is wonderfully grim and if you have the stomach for it I can’t recommend his novels highly enough. However, I have one caveat; his short stories are shit (as is his recent memoir The Hilliker Curse), so avoid those like the plague.

Elmore Leonard: Leonard is the reason I got into crime fiction in the first place, so his place on my list was always guaranteed. Few writers on the planet can write dialogue like this guy, and even fewer writers can make characters stand out with such spare descriptions – his harder than hard-boiled prose makes Hammett look as flowery as Henry James in comparison. The fact that Leonard makes it seem so simple is a testament to his brilliance; writing this spare can come off as childish in the wrong hands. He has written a few less than brilliant novels (especially recently), but novels like LaBrava, Stick, $WAG, Rum Punch and 52 Stick-Up are a good indication of just how good the crime genre can get.

Derek Raymond: It is only in recent years that Derek Raymond has received the credit that has been due to him for a long time – as one of the finest British writers of crime fiction ever. His ‘Factory’ novels (He Died With His Eyes Open, The Devil’s Home On Leave, How The Dead Live and I Was Dora Suarez) are up there with the best of any  crime fiction, never mind the British stuff. The narrator is damaged, mostly by the murder of his child by his mentally ill wife and by the job itself, but at the beginning of the series has some hope for humanity, as the series winds on this hope turns to bitterness and open clashes with his superiors, some of which are hysterically funny (Raymond was a fine writer of dialogue). By the time the last novel came along, the notorious Dora Suarez, the narrator barely cares about anything but providing justice for the victim. Raymond’s prose was often superb, his musings on modern life were equally sound and few writers wrote pub scenes with half as much life as he does. He edges Ted Lewis as my favourite British crime writer by the thickness of a paperback page!

Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake): The early Stark novels are magnificent stuff. His hero, Parker, is low-life scum. and yet Stark manages the difficult task of making him seem likeable, of making him worthy of carrying an entire series of novels. The recent resurrection of Parker was less successful, in my humble opinion, because his rough edges and his nastiness appear to have been smoothed away ever so slightly, but the early novels are slam-bang entertainment which few other authors are even capable of. Once you pick up a Stark novel I defy you to try and put it down. And writing as Donald Westlake; well, the Dortmunder novels aren’t too shabby either!

Lawrence Block: Few writers are able to straddle the many branches of crime fiction the way that Block does. My personal faves are the brilliant Bernie Rhodenbarr series of novels (wonderful humorous crime creations each and every one of them) and the Matt Scudder series which, like Derek Raymond’s ‘Factory’ novels, charts the changes in the character as the series progresses. His novel Small Town is also a fine crime thriller and one of the few literary responses I can think of that directly deals with the effects of 9/11. A fantastic writer.

There are plenty of other crime fiction writers who I love (far more than I can list here), but I’m simply listing the ones who really take me there – the ones who’ve somehow shaped my own writing and appreciation of the art of crime fiction.