My Top Ten
Here is a list of ten of my favourite books, take time to read my short reviews and maybe read them for yourself.
Knots & Crosses
Creator of the Rebus series of novels Rankin is arguably Britain’s number one crime writer.
I have been reading Rebus novels for over twenty-five years and this, the first in the series, still stands out as one of the best.
In John Rebus, Rankin has created the perfect series cop, a deeply tormented and flawed character who you can all at once like and despair of in equal measures.
The book starts with the brutal abduction and murder of two young girls, and continues to build tension as a third goes missing, with everyone fearing that she will meet the same fate.
The case ends up on the desk of Detective Sergeant John Rebus, who is smoking and drinking too much and has just seen his own young daughter spirited away South by his disenchanted wife.
And then the messages begin to arrive. Knotted string and matchstick crosses apparently sent by a killer who is taunting Rebus with pieces of a puzzle only he would appear to be able to unravel.
Crais is the creator of one of my favourite series detectives in smart talking and lovable rogue Elvis Cole who, with his faithful friend and co-conspirator Joe Pike, attempts to take on every bad guy who comes to his attention. In Free Fall Cole's inability to say no to a pretty face inevitably gets him into trouble.
As for being a pretty face, Jennifer Sheridan qualifies with ease, and when she persuades Cole that her fiancé Mark Thurman, a highly decorated LA cop with an elite plainclothes unit, is in deep trouble, Cole becomes easily convinced that only he can get Thurman out of the wealth of trouble he finds himself in.
After accepting Sheridan as a client, Cole and Pike are plunged into a world of criminal gangs, corrupt cops and conspiracies of silence. Soon they are running not just from LA’s criminal underworld but also the cops whose job it is to protect society from those very people they are trying to hunt down.
A rip roaring read.
Hail, Hail the Gang's All Here
A master of the series cop story is Ed McBain aka Evan Hunter.
My first exposure to McBain came in the form of the 87th Precinct series of police thrillers featuring Detective Steve Carella and a regular crew of criminal investigators.
Later made into a highly successful television series these stories entertained many cop book fans for over twenty years.
In this particular rendition, Carella investigates the murder of a nude dancer, a crime that which triggers a chain of violent events.
A Moveable Feast
Whilst you will see that it is clear that my heart lies with crime thrillers, one of my all-time favourite writers is Ernest Hemingway. His tight and understated style of writing is a pleasure to read and his sheer breadth of subject matter makes his novels stories that can be read and re-read many times.
In A Movable Feast Hemingway moves away from pure fiction, albeit sometimes fiction based on fact, and recounts his life as an aspiring and struggling author living in 1920’s Paris.
Published in 1964, three years after Hemingway’s suicide, the book was actually written 1958 and 1960 and this memoir is a lively and witty account of his life as he looks back not only on his younger self, but also the other writers of the time, such as James Joyce, Wyndam Lewis and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
The book is highly entertaining and easily read, and truly captures the Bohemian existence of Hemingway and his fellow writers who emersed themselves into Parisian life, whilst struggling to make a living as they both learnt and honed their craft.
The Buenos Aires Quintet
Manual Váquez Montalbán
It is a sad fact that those of us whose first language is English, often ignore and therefore miss out on, many great authors whose first language is not our own. In this regard it must be remembered that not all books that are not in the English language are to be avoided.
What a disaster it would have been for me personally, had I not become aware of Catalan writer Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, and in particular his series of novels featuring 50-year-old gastronome-detective Pepe Carvalho and his close troop of slightly odd friends.
Fortunately, a number of these novels have been translated into English so I did not need to learn Catalan in order to be thrilled by and laugh along with, Montalbán’s string of great characters.
In this particular outing, when Pepe Carvalho’s uncle asks him to find his son Raúl in Buenos Aires, Pepe is at first reluctant. But family is family, and soon Carvalho is in Buenos Aires, getting more caught up in Argentina’s troubled past than is good for anybody.
If you read this, I am convinced you will wish to read more.
One difficult decision that a reader often has to make when a novel is turned into a movie, is which to do first? Read the book or watch the film?
In most instances the book coming first option will win out, with the reader then watching the film and trying to decide if it lives up to the written alternative. Most times the book wins out.
Back in 1972 I went to the cinema and watched what still to this day remains one of my top five films, The Godfather. A year later, as I lay in a hospital bed recovering from an emergency appendectomy, I read the novel of the same name, by Mario Puzo.
Of course, I knew what was going to happen but somehow that did not matter as Puzo’s storytelling and descriptive writing gripped me. In the end I think I would call it a draw between Brando and Puzo.
Wind in the Willows
It’s not often that the first book you might read remains a personal favourite, but in the case of this book that is the case for me.
Just about the first, full length book I read as a child of maybe seven or eight was Wind in the Willows featuring such heavy-weight heroes as Ratty, Mr. Toad, Mole and Badger.
First published in 1908 Wind in the Willows is a book by British novelist Keneth Grahame. As befits a book aimed at a younger audience, it is an easy and entertaining read that moves smoothly between being both slow-moving and fast-paced as it details the adventures of several animal friends and arch enemies living in a pastoral version of Edwardian England.
I have re-read the book several times over the years and although meant for a younger audience, it remains a cracking read for people of any age.
The Deep Blue Goodbye
John D MacDonald
By now you will have guessed that I am a lover of the series crime novel and in John D MacDonald you have the doyen of the genre.
The Deep Blue Goodbye introduces readers to Travis McGee, and is the first of twenty-one novels featuring this modern-day knight in shining armour who lives a seemingly idyllic life aboard the Busted Flush, a houseboat he won in a poker game, and is moored on slip F-18 at the Bahia Mar Marina in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
The early chapters set out who exactly MacGee is and as a reader, we learn that he is a bachelor, a man who can equally be friends with ladies as well as have a passion for them. He is shown to be a man of high principles, although these principles are somewhat at the mercy of his uncertain emotional condition. Coupled with his often-changing personal circumstances, in McGee's own words, "Some of them I'll bend way, way, over, but not break.".
If you like the idea of living a life with no restrictions and taking on whatever challenges take your fancy without fear or favour, then you’ll love Travis MacGee.
Once again, we have a book that became a film, only this time the book wins out by miles!
Published in 1985 and written by an ex-cop, The Choirboys tells the story of a police patrol squad belonging to the LA Police, as they attempt to stay sane in an insane world.
The Choirboys are five sets of partners on the night-watch, all men of varying temperaments and backgrounds, but they are joined together by the job.
As they battle the many challenges brought their way as police officers, they seek to wind down by spending their pre-dawn hours in MacArthur Park throwing themselves full on in relaxing drink and sex sessions they call "choir practice".
This book is a story of men endangered ultimately not by the violence of their jobs but by their choice of off-duty entertainment.
At the same time the story is both darkly funny and terrifying, and this is as chillingly authentic as only a veteran police officer could make it. I still laugh out loud when I think about it. If you read it, I dare you not to laugh at the antics of such characters as Roscoe Rules who, as one of the central characters became the originator of the personal descriptor “scrote”.
Robert B Parker
Here we go again, another crime series writer. But this is one with a difference.
For me Robert B Parker stands head and shoulders above his peers when it comes to writing a series of novels featuring the same central characters. If John D MacDonald started it all then Robert B Parker refines it and takes it up a notch.
During his life Parker wrote three crime series featuring three very different central characters, Jesse Stone, Sunny Randell and Spenser, respectively an alcoholic police chief with a difficult love life, a very troubled female PI with an equally difficult private life, and a wise cracking Boston former boxer turned PI with very close criminal connections.
I could have chosen any number of Parker’s books as my favourite but I finally decided upon the first one to feature former LA homicide detective Jesse Stone, who has a penchant for drinking.
In this story he really begins to hit the bottle after he discovers his wife, actress Jenn Stone, is having an affair with her agent. They divorce and after his drinking leads to his termination from the LAPD he decides to get as far away from his now ex-wife as possible. Despite showing up to the job interview intoxicated, he is hired as chief of police for the small town of Paradise, Massachusetts, primarily as the corrupt Board of Selectmen chair, Hasty Hathaway, is looking for a lush that he can push around. They get more than they bargain for in Stone and this novel sets the tone for more to follow.
If you do read the Jesse Stone novels please also take time to catch the made for TV films of the series starring Tom Selleck in the central role. They are one of the very few attempts to bring a successful novel to the small screen that have succeeded.