Thursday, May 13, 2010

That One Book

I was asked recently to suggest one book students at Pomfret School, where I work, should, in my opinion, read before entering college. (I offered Great Expectations.) The question got me thinking about what I would say to a mystery writer about to embark on his or her own crime-writing career. Then I read Vicki’s excellent and thought-provoking post “A Study of The Girl Who Played with Fire. What Makes a Good Book?” The combination of the question and Vicki’s post led me to this week’s entry.

I would like to suggest that The Big Sleep (1939) is the one crime-fiction novel I believe any crime writer should read before starting his/her crime-fiction journey, and I say that in large part for the same reasons Vicki recommends Stieg Larsson’s novel.

Chandler’s work emerged after Dashiell Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon (1930). But he took Hammett’s cue and wrote a page-turning crime novel in which, I would argue, the plot is so convoluted it becomes secondary to the characters. On the heels of Agatha Christie, whose plots were airtight because she wrote her novels in reverse order (last chapter first, etc), Chandler’s plot is about as linear as a series of figure 8s.

Yet the novel is wonderful and is so in large part because Chandler introduced us to Philip Marlowe. I won’t delve into a description of Marlowe. Most readers of this blog know all about him already, and those who have seen shades of him in many of our contemporary works. I teach The Big Sleep to teenagers who know cell phones more than they know saps, yet almost to a student, they embrace the book. That speaks well of Philip Marlowe’s (and Chandler’s) sustainability.

Raymond Chandler deviated from the plot-driven works of the 1920s to create a unique character that changed the landscape of our genre. And he did it by breaking all the rules associated with the crime fiction of his period: his plot seemed to circle and spiral endlessly, and Chandler’s reliance on coincidence is huge (a similarity to a point Vicki made in regarding Larrson’s novel). After all, who can forget the line “Fate stage managed the whole thing”?

The Big Sleep may not even be Chandler’s best, but it was his first. Thus, I offer it here as my must-read because it changed the way writers thought about crime fiction. No longer plot-driven, crime novels of the 1930s to present became more and more books about people, books about life, in essence literature—a large debt owed to Chandler.

I’d love to hear what my Type M colleagues list as their single must-read novels for any aspiring crime writer.


Vicki Delany said...

I came to reading crime (and thus to writing it) listening to an interview with Sara Paretsky on CBC radio many years ago. She had just published the first VI novel and said she wrote it because she was sick of the number of mystery books in which you knew woman was evil because she had sex. And I realized this could be a sub-genre I would like. I got the book, loved it, and never stopped reading crime since. So I can say that Sara Paretsy changed my life.

Rick Blechta said...

For me, it was Rex Stout. I believe the first Nero Wolfe book I read was Fer-de-Lance or it might have been Some Buried Caesar. Anyway, I found all the goings on in that Brownstone, and especially Archie Goodwin's narration, to be really quite enjoyable.

But that's a tough question to answer! I could go on to easily list another dozen books.

Sara Paretsky didn't change MY life, though.

Really funny coincidence? I actually met Rex Stout when I was around 7 or 8, according to my mother. He lived in Brewster, NY. We lived in Mamaroneck and were in Brewster to visit friends. They introduced us to their neighbour. Sadly, I have NO memory of this event. I was probably on drugs at the time*.

*Just kidding...

Donis Casey said...

The book that did it for me was Josephine Tey's Daughter of Time. It is just a little book, in which her recurring character Scotland yard Inspector Alan Grant is confined to a hospital bed after breaking his back. A friend brings him a portrait of Richard II, a notoriously evil character in history, but Grant, who is a genius at reading a person's character from his appearance, thinks the guy has been ill done-by and sets out to prove him innocent of the evil deeds history ascribes to him. How he goes about it, and the evidence he presents in the end, has actually changed people's minds about accepted history.

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