Monday, July 26, 2010

My Five

O.k., after giving this a lot of thought and hearing what you all had to say, I've put together my list. I have to admit that between Michael and Jeremy, my list was created. Michael reminded me that this is a fluid idea. In two days...or ten minutes even, it could be different. And Jeremy said, "these are the books that just thinking about them makes me want to run to my library and reread them." That's what this question presents. Why do I read it? What do I think is great about it and will hook others as well.

For me PERSONALLY that isn't the older stuff. In all honesty if all there was was the likes of Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe, I'd lose interest quickly. Even folks like Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald and that ilk. Now, before anyone puts a hit out on me. I'm not saying they aren't important to the genre. But they aren't what keep ME reading in the genre. They've all contributed to what crime fiction is today and all have excellent qualities. But those aren't the books I'd give someone else to represent what I think is great. And they AREN'T what I give other people or recommend to other people to share what I think is great.

So, these books are all books that I keep an extra loaner copy of when people ask me for something in the genre to read. These are all books I offer up when someone asks for a recommendation.

1. I already mentioned L.A. REQUIEM. First of all, Crais broke rules. He did what people told him he wasn't allowed to do in his effort to tell the story. He believed that book could end his career, but the story came first. See? Even the writers are criminal in this realm! And on top of that, I so very much appreciate humor in my stories. Granted not everyone is capable of the level of humor of a Crais or a Johnson and they compensate in other ways. But when I look at what separates the good from the great in my eyes, intelligent humor is a determining factor. I also mentioned before that character is huge for me and no one tops Crais for character in my book. Even the minor characters elicit passion in the readers.

2. As I've listened to people respond to this, a number of folks have mentioned Dennis Lehane, and I'm in full agreement, but my title choice is going to be different. SHUTTER ISLAND is the one on my list. And I've always thought the reactions to this book are interesting. Most folks either love it or hate and few fall in the middle. For me, I think it is genius and again, reflects an important part of what is great about this genre. This book challenged me more than most do. It is incredibly cerebral and I think it added another dimension to crime fiction. Not to mention I think it's a great example of Lehane's willingness to push the boundaries.

3. Timothy Hallinan's BREATHING WATER. This is the book that is most likely to change and only because I think the new one THE QUEEN OF PATPONG is going to take its place. When I encourage people to read something in the genre, this is often a go-to book for me. When people read it, they love it. There are a lot of writers who create good dialogue. Hallinan treats it as an art form. The characters are rich and dimensional but what takes them even further are the relationships between them, whether it be a family relationship, an friendship, or a protagonist-antagonist relationship. The other thing I think Tim's books (either of them) does is begin to reflect the far-reach of this genre. This isn't a genre confined to the U.S. and the U.K. It's more far-reaching and universal than that.

O.k., here's where it really started to get hard. I still have gads of elements I want represented in my five choices. What books are best going to encapsulate the largest number of those? Grrrr....

4. James Lee Burke's LAST CAR TO ELYSIAN FIELDS. James Lee Burke could make a 7-11 come to life on the page. His sense of place is unparalleled. He's a master with tone and pacing. He brings to life the simple (and complex) inconsistencies in man. JLB proves that crime fiction is an art. After Crais pulled me into the genre, Burke was one of the first authors I read. And after I finished my first James Lee Burke, which happened to be CIMARRON ROSE, not even a Robicheaux, I just read book after book.

When you get to the last one, it's a bear because you now have to pick from the list that still exists. You have to choose just one and leave off the others you so want to represent. I think that says a lot about the genre. If it was easy to boil down into 5 then there's no real substance. O.k., so I finally decided on

5. Louise Penny's THE BRUTAL TELLING. I love her range of character, definitely her humor. I appreciate that she's a female writing a male protagonist. I appreciate that she pulls in elements of the characters that aren't stereotypical. The males aren't constantly oozing testosterone, the females aren't squeamish about insects or something equally absurd. Human nature is a focal point of every novel. I easily relate to the themes of all the novels, but THE BRUTAL TELLING had the strongest effect on me.

So, what did I bite the bullet and not list above (is this cheating?)? Alafair Burke's 212. As Jeremy said, her novels are ones that make me want to run to the library and reread them. Although I have them all here and wouldn't need to go anywhere. She's a prime example of art imitating life. And people who think pop culture should be left out of novels are ridiculous in my opinion. Art reflects life. That's how we've learned about cultures and people and time periods. Every book that has stood the test of time reflects the time it was written in. That doesn't take away its universal meaning. Also on my list would be Charlie Huston's THE ART OF ERASING ALL SIGNS OF DEATH. Huston is another one who pushes the limits and challenges the rules and comes up with amazing stuff. Don Winslow. I think part of the reason I left him off is because I couldn't decide between POWER OF THE DOG and THE GENTLEMEN'S HOUR or THE DAWN PATROL. How do you pick just one of them? Ken Bruen, like Winslow, hard to pick just one and I definitely haven't read everything from him, yet. But from what I have, it would probably be THE DRAMATIST. Craig Johnson. I still call KINDNESS GOES UNPUNISHED my favorite; he is a big reason I love crime fiction. I have never recommended him to someone else and not had them devour every book in the series. Gar Anthony Haywood's CEMETERY ROAD. Probably the biggest reason I didn't include him was because that's all I've read so far. I want to read a little more, but he made a huge impression on me as reader in his range. He's amazing. And the one that was probably hardest for me to leave off was Craig McDonald's TOROS AND TORSOS. How McDonald weaves all the elements of this novel together is awe-inspiring. If you notice a pattern with my choices, these folks push the envelope of the "rules" of the genre. They aren't afraid to experiment and stick their toes over the line. McDonald is definitely one of those rebels.

And one I left off because I don't feel I would need to give it to anyone. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is still my favorite crime novel of all time. And yes, TKAM is as much a crime novel as anything else on this list.

I don't even pretend that I've read a lot of what this genre has to offer. But based on what I have read and what's affected and changed me most as a reader. This was the result. If I answered the same question next week, it might be completely different.

O.k., you can start throwing things now.

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Dorte H July 26, 2010 at 10:19 AM  

Oh, no matter how many crime novels you read, there will always be so many more you have not read!!!

Well, I know I don´t read enough North American books, but four out of five writers I haven´t read? I have read two of Louise Penny´s books, but though they are excellent in many ways, they won´t be on my top-five. I can´t help feeling Armand Gamache is too saintly, and that is just not my taste (probably not even in real life).

Naomi Johnson July 26, 2010 at 10:45 AM  

I couldn't begin to get a list down to just five. But if I could, I'm sure Burke, Bruen and Crais would all be on it.

Jen Forbus July 26, 2010 at 10:50 AM  

You are absolutely right, Dorte! There will always be more and for that we are so very, very thankful.

However, if I ever run into a person like Gamache, I'm snatching him up as fast as is humanly possible!

Naomi, it was painful to only have five, but since I don't REALLY have to have only five, that eases things considerably! I recommend and loan and give so many books to people that hook them in crime fiction...

JournoMich July 26, 2010 at 3:11 PM  

What a fantastic list! I loved 'Shutter Island' and Hallinan's first book 'A Nail Through the Heart.' Another of his is sitting on my TBR shelf. There's no beating Burke for down and dirty atmosphere...And Penny is one of my all-time favorite authors! Sounds like we have good taste in common. :) And thanks for the new recommendations.


Julie P. July 26, 2010 at 6:37 PM  

You are amazing! I never could have come up with a list like this. I realized how few of these books I've read (like 2...) and just can't get over how many great books must be out there that I'm missing out on.

Jen Forbus July 26, 2010 at 8:33 PM  

Julie, did you see my link for the free Kindle version of Tim Hallinan's A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART? I really think you'd love his work. If you didn't get it, let me know and I'll send it to you. This little exercise here is helping me get your list together. It's the same thing as with this one. I can get about 8 and then I panic because I only have a couple slots left and what do I choose to fill those slots?

Michele, are we kindred spirits? :-) I love your taste in books, girl!

Anonymous July 26, 2010 at 9:04 PM  

Jen - thanks for all your hard work on behalf of us readers. Louise Penny has a blog - do you want to tell her she's on your list? I think she'd like to hear about it.

kathy d. July 27, 2010 at 4:12 AM  

Gee, I don't think my top 5 or 10 would be quite the same as this list, but this post is so well-written and convincing, that I am persuaded to try some of the books listed.

And I really do appreciate the writing and thought that went into this as in all of your posts.

So now I have to push the envelope and try some new authors and titles. (So I'll take notes.)

I guess I'm one of the people who didn't like "Shutter Island," but thought "Mystic River" was brilliant as a psychological study of three friends and the deep pain of grief and what it can drive someone to do.

I do agree that pop culture or whatever culture a writer wants to put into a book is fine. One can just choose other books; there's so much to read now.

But the TBR pile is sure growing now--or the TBordered from the library reserve section as I'm frugal and save my book budget for international mysteries which my library either doesn't get for a decade or gets one copy and makes it noncirculating.

Anonymous July 29, 2010 at 2:28 PM  

I have read 2 out of the 5. I am a huge fan of JLB. I like Denis Lehane a lot also, but Shutter Island did not do it for me. It was one of the first books I listened to rather than read, so perhaps that may have influenced my thinking. I will hopefully get to the other writers very soon.


Shane Gericke July 31, 2010 at 3:43 PM  

Terrific list, Jen, as usual when you write. My random thoughts ...

I need to read Shutter Island again. I remember it fondly, but it's been awhile. Lehane is brilliant.

Crais is, too. His sense of character, particular when Joe Pike is in the picture, is terrific. I just finished The Forgotten Man and marveled at its power.

My favorite Bruen is Once Were Cops. It's fooking brilliant--two cops, each a sociopath, one on NYPD, one in Ireland. There's a cop exchange program, each moves to the other's beat for a time, and ... well, if you know Bruen's work, you know you're in for a great time. But this was sensational.

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