I would like to define pure reading pleasure for the Dear Reader. No, it’s not the high brows like William Gaddis, Don De Lillo (with the exception of Libra 1988) or for that matter Michel Tournier or even Louis de Bernieres whom I bloody detest.
Nor is it the pretty good page turners scribed by John Grisham who I quite enjoy. More along the lines of Elmore Leonard (his first four in particular), Jim Thompson, James Ellroy and Charles Williams. I should also throw in Marc Behm for his brilliant three novellas found in the now rare Zhomba Black Box set and the perennially brilliant PI Cliff Hardy series written by tubbyland’s very own Peter Corris.
And just to show what a smart arse I could be, let’s include another three US writers James Crumley (whom I traded books with), Newton Thornburg and Barry Gifford (who I traded favourite songs with – recall the mechanics Sparky and Buddy discussing their twelve favourite songs of all times, while working on Sailor’s junker in Wild at Heart). The cover below comes from the short story which introduced Sailor and Lula before he hit the big time with David Lynch’s film. Try one of Gifford’s lesser known novels with the delightful title Port Tropique.
(Behm: The Eye of the Beholder, The Ice Maiden @ The Queen of the Night.)
The list is endless, very hardboiled and noirish and very few of these titles have been turned into decent movies with the exception of The Getaway (Thompson), The Grifters (Thompson), The Killer Inside Me (Thompson again – both the Betrand Tavernier version Coup de Torchon with Phillipe Noiret set in Mali, and the recent Michael Winterbottom remake with Casey Affleck which is also pretty good). Finally, we come to The Friends of Eddy Coyle which was adapted from the first novel by George V Higgins which starred Robert Mitchum and the very bald Peter Boyle.
Anecdote break: After being released from prison for marijuana possession, a reporter asked Mitchum what it was like in the Big House. The laconic reply: “Just like Palm Springs, but without the riff-raff”.
(And your mid-term homework here which requires you to hit a number of links as they have been chosen with care.)
No, for that tropical island sojourn with one’s favourite reads, I would choose around ten George V Higgins novels, simply because I revel in dialogue. And Higgin’s had a pitch-perfect grasp of the argot of the Boston Massachussetts Irish/ Wasp/Italian milieu. Scumbags, working class Joes, loan sharks, political fixers, showboating pols, honest and less-than-honest criminals, Catholic priests, mob types and their bosses, slumlords, counsellors, prosecutors and the judiciary. The majority have some redeeming qualities and all are fun to follow as they gab their way thru their fictional vale of tears. Plotting their futures (crime and bringing perps to justice), yakking about problems with their wives/gfs, health issues, what to order on the menu, etc.
In his professional life, Higgins worked his way up thru the ranks of the Organised Crime and Criminal Division in Boston, wrote for newspapers, lectured in creative writing and had his own legal practice where he defended both G. Gordon Liddy of Watergate fame as well as Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver. He unfortunately died in 1999 and now the majority of his titles are being rereleased.
(Unfortunately, the above covers are from recent reprints but one, so something is lost.)
According to Higgins:
Dialogue is character and character is plot.
Nowhere is this more evident than in his third novel Cogan’s Trade (1974). Markie Trattman runs a high stakes card game for the Mob. Previously, Markie arranged to get his own game knocked over, and despite a bit of post-robbery bragging, got away with it. Johnny Squirrel Amato, fresh out of the slam for a bank robbery, thinks it might be a good idea to knock over Trattman’s game a second time, based on the reasoning that he will be home and hosed, while Markie will end up in the trunk at the airport. Then Amato recruits Russell and Frankie a couple of grubby ex Vietnam tunnel rats to do the heavy lifting.
While things don’t go as planned, it makes for beyond-hilarious reading, especially Frankie’s account of his recent dog napping business. First you steal all your dogs, going for mutts with high resale, to be sold out of state. Then you feed all your dogs hot tomato soup laced with a few litres of mineral oil. The dogs then screw up their noses and destroy a perfectly good lawn, and then you give them each some phenobarb and lay them out like cord wood in the back of the car and head off inter-state into a major rain storm. Quite naturally, the dogs wake up and respond according, with piss and excrement sluicing around the cabin, turning their profit making venture into a journey into hell. And that’s just the beginning of their criminal farce.
Dialogue within dialogue which introduces you to other characters, anecdotes which provide rounded characterisations, plus a lot of conversational digressions which add to plot and context. Higgins is positively dazzling and with a great dash of humour. His Boston landscape of politics, cops and criminals, with its wide cast of characters, cover about a dozen novels. (I’m less than entranced with the other ten or so he wrote, but have read them and still found a number of guilty pleasures.)
In addition to the above titles, I also recommend The Patriot Game, Outlaws, and especially The Diggers Game where he began building the foundations of his Boston fictionscape.
Forget all those glossy rubbish novels by Scandinavian writers which presently pollute bookshops, libraries and TV mini-series. Garbage of the first order, but that’s a post for another day.