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Howard Chaykin’s Guide To Crime Fiction: Part One – The Old Masters

Forgive me if there are some obvious names on the list. We live in a profoundly culturally amnesiac universe, where the most amazing and beautiful work slips through the cracks for any number of reasons, all the fucking time.

So, in keeping with my often stated commitment to separate “favorite” from “best,” let’s just say these are the writers who grabbed me, often from word one, and have remained influential in my life, both professional and personal—since I’m a constant reader, too.

 

JAMES M. CAIN

  • THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE
  • DOUBLE INDEMNITY

Both are terrific movies, and both are wonderful novels, salacious by the standards of the time they were published, and still with sleaziness that’s a bit discomfiting.

I’m a big fan of the rest of his output,too, for the record.

 

PAUL CAIN

  • FAST ONE

No relation, and it’s FAST ONE, not THE FAST ONE. As far as I know, only one novel and a few short stories from him, and I know nothing about him. That said, this novel is terrific.

 

DASHIELL HAMMETT

  • THE GLASS KEY
  • THE BIG KNOCKOVER

Read everything—but these two are my all time favorites. Fan of MILLER’S CROSSING, are you? That movie conflates these two novels. Trust me on this.

 

RAYMOND CHANDLER

  • THE LONG GOODBYE
  • TROUBLE IS MY BUSINESS

As per Hammett, read everything—but this penultimate novel captures everything he had to say in his previous books-and the collection of short stories from which he developed three novels is an education in itself.

 

REX STOUT

  • THE LEAGUE OF FRIGHTENED MEN
  • THREE AT WOLFE’S DOOR
  • THE DOORBELL RANG

After becoming independently wealthy from his creation of the school banking system, Stout developed this series, which ran for forty years of consistent whodunits—which combined the British cozy in plot with the American hardboiled in narrative. Easy to dismiss as hackwork—rather simply consistent and consistently good for the entire series.

 

DOROTHY SAYERS

  • THE NINE TAILORS
  • HAVE HIS CARCASE
  • BUSMAN’S HONEYMOON

A British academic and, apropos of one of the books mentioned above, a typical anti-Semite of her time, culture and class. That said, all the PETER WHIMSEY novels are worth reading.

 

HORACE MCCOY

  • THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY?
  • KISS TOMORROW GOODBYE

A terrific hardboiled man, a BLACK MASK boy with feet in both fiction and Hollywood screenwriting.

 

W.R. BURNETT

  • LITTLE CAESAR
  • HIGH SIERRA
  • THE ASPHALT JUNGLE

Another nearly forgotten giant of the hardboiled novel, now mostly recalled by dint of the Hollywood film adaptations of his fiction.

 

JOHN O’HARA

  • APPOINTMENT IN SAMARRA
  • BUTTERFIELD 8
  • PAL JOEY
  • THE GIBBSVILLE STORIES

Not a hardboiled writer in the traditional sense, but no less a literary light than Lawrence Block regards him as his favorite writer. It’s his early stuff that works best for me…his later novels become bloated and overwritten.

 

DAVID GOODIS

  • THE MOON IN THE GUTTER
  • DOWN THERE

What I know about this guy makes him sound like a serious mess. Unlike most of the guys who wrote crime fiction in his time, he went down, starting in the slicks and ending up in the pulps.

 

CHESTER HIMES

  • BLIND MAN WITH A PISTOL
  • A RAGE IN HARLEM
  • IF HE HOLLERS LET HIM GO
  • LONELY CRUSADE

Read the crime in Harlem novels, but don’t skip the social realism fiction, which represent his true nature as an avowed critic of the United States in the 1940s and 1950s.

 

JIM THOMPSON

  • POP 1280
  • THE KILLER INSIDE ME
  • THE GETAWAY
  • THE GRIFTERS

In the course of any given single, not terribly long novel, Thompson could and did deliver some of the best and some of the worst prose in the genre, occasionally barely pages apart.

Plenty to work from here—next, Part Two—The Midcentury Masters.

As ever, I remain,

Howard Victor Chaykin – a prince

 

 

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