What sort of (fiction) writing do you come back to year after year, knowing you won’t be disappointed? Here’s my list.
This is a love story of sorts. If you’ve followed my blog over the years you’ll get that I’m a lover of literature which is a challenging and bewildering thing to be at times. The world is full of beautiful works, literary paramours to seduce you and take your attention. You’re spoiled for choice.
And you can’t love ‘em all; there’s only so much time in the day/week/year/life. Have to be selective with your affection.
Let’s talk fiction here. Like real world love, love of literature is anchored on fidelity. For an individual writer, one book may steal your heart but the other works don’t keep the flame alive. But after a while you have a stable of literary paramours who continue to please and rarely, if ever, let you down. The same can’t be said for many other things you treasure. Some movie-makers can do it. Some musicians, but often great first albums are followed by lame ones. Strange analogy perhaps but sometimes I turn a startlingly beautiful piece of wood and wish I had the rest of the branch.
I read to learn and understand but also to escape. The literary version of being able to retreat into the dark warmth of a movie theatre, where you “suspend your disbelief” as they say and disappear into another world free of the mad presidents, eco-disasters and unfathomable cruelty that dominates our world picture much of the time.
My stable of the faithful isn’t huge but they are a powerful force in my emotional life. Sorry, you’re dying to know who – so here we go. And remember this is fiction; there are equally authors on the non-fiction side – Jared Diamond, Colin Thubron, Robert Winston, Anthony Beevor spring to mind – who I can count on, but their output is much smaller. I’ve also parked from this discussion a number of novellists whose work I like as much as the authors that follow but whose output is also smaller without the familiarity in most cases of a connecting set of characters: Robert Ford, Scott Turow – I’ll blog on his latest one shortly, it’s superb – Billie Letts, Wally Lamb.
Let’s start with James Lee Burke, the redoubtable, Montana-based US author whose first book was rejected 111 times over nine years(!) He’s now 81 and written 36 novels. His latest, Robicheaux, named after the character who appears in most (20) of them, I’ve just started. Most years he punches out one maybe two novels; I’ve been following Dave Robicheaux, a flawed, tormented but ultimately highly principled cop in Louisiana, through his whole adult life. I feel I know him like a troubled distant relative.
More on Dave (and James Lee) in a moment. Next is almost everyone’s pop-thriller darling, Lee Child, whose character through all his novels is the massive ex-Military Policeman Jack Reacher, machine-like in his methods but with a heart and a conscience. An utter unattached loner whose more or less aimless wanderings lead him into all manner of tricky situations.
Robert Crais is next. His guy is Elvis Cole, a private detective that Crais weaves great plots around set in LA.
Then there’s Walter Mosley, whose main lead guy is Ezekiel (“Easy”) Rawlins, an African-American who works as a private eye in post-WW2 LA.
And I go right back to the father of them all, whose prose has probably never been bettered: the great Raymond Chandler, and his PI, Philip Marlowe. I started reading Chandler more than 40 years ago and the prose still stacks up today, though he’s been long gone (and his output was nothing like the astonishing opus of Burke and Child).
You might find my love of these authors and their narrow (to be fair) genre explained by early influences. First TV programme I recall seeing as a kid (when we got our first black and white set in the 1960s) was The Lone Ranger. And I teethed as an adolescent reader on Edgar Rice Burroughs stories of Tarzan and Virginian gentleman John Carter (of the Mars series) – quintessentially upright dudes both, who could also duke it out if they had to.
Why I’ve kept the faith with the above authors – all Americans you may note, though Child is a Brit who calls the US home – is that they’re been true to me. I’ve grown old with them. The characters in the novels are righteous men – I know, I’m missing a woman PI for the collection, you’re right – who wage a moral battle on behalf of me, the reader. It’s not fairy tale stuff – these guys are all in their own way flawed and/or troubled (Cole comes closest to being “normal”) but that’s half the attraction. You feel and grieve with them. Short-term they may lose the odd battle; but you hold out that in the long term they’ll prevail and the bad guys won’t. I warm too to their essential compassion for those who struggle, are less well off or are disadvantaged.
There is an interesting pattern to these books too that must give budding emulators a clue to how to do it. Their lives aren’t perfect; if they were, maybe we’d lose interest. They themselves certainly aren’t super-heroes (though Reacher is something of a one-man army); there’s a notable pattern of a potent sidekick and essential character foil being present. Remember Tonto? Sancho Panza? Robicheaux has the equally flawed but similarly principled Clete Purcell at his side (or nearby) to help carry the fight – and Purcell is formidable. So is Cole’s partner, the taciturn, shadowy Joe Pike – Reacher’s equal in a scrap I would imagine. Easy Rawlins has Raymond “Mouse” Alexander – controversially psychopathic at times but utterly true to Easy. It’s a convenient and reassuring literary device – the equivalent of the Seventh Cavalry in old westerns or what the Romans termed a deus ex machina. Works for me.
Women feature in these men’s lives and they are at times as heroic as our leads. Robicheaux’s third wife Molly, whose death in a car accident he mourns in the latest novel, for example. The women in Easy’s life too.
These writers have other heroes: Burke has Hackberry Holland, a lawyer, Mosley has another PI Leonid McGill; Crais has Pike take the lead in some novels. Cole’s cat is prominent; Robicheaux’s three-legged raccoon. I kid you not. Quirky.
Every year while these guys are alive and writing, they bring a welcome, dependable treat in the form of their latest novel. In time, they may cease writing and I’ll lament the end of a life together but that’s life. Others may elbow their way into that limited stable of paramours; which is something else to look forward to.