Monday, May 21, 2007

You’re Still the One, Part I

Tomorrow, May 22, will mark The Rap Sheet’s official first birthday. It was just 12 months ago that I launched this blog, hoping it would prove entertaining and perhaps enlightening, and sure that it would be slow to attract a readership. You can judge for yourself on those first two counts; but I was wrong about the last one. Last month, The Rap Sheet counted its 1,000th post and 100,000th visit. That’s a hell of a lot faster than I had expected to clock such statistics. We must be doing something right.

Rather than wait until Tuesday to begin celebrating, we’re going to start today. I considered a number of ways to commemorate The Rap Sheet’s first birthday, but settled on one that I thought would, again, be both entertaining and enlightening. I recently invited scores of crime novelists, critics, and bloggers from all over the world to answer a not-so-simple question: What one crime, mystery, or thriller novel do you think has been most unjustly overlooked, criminally forgotten, or underappreciated over the years? Within the first day, I had 30 responses, and by yesterday, I’d received 100, from writers as diverse as Michael Connelly, Laura Lippman, Ian Rankin, Michael Marshall, Rhys Bowen, Peter Temple, Zoë Sharp, Lee Child, Gary Phillips, Sarah Weinman, Barry Eisler, Sara Paretsky, and Declan Hughes. Most of the works they selected were familiar; others were published long ago, and are out of print, but apparently worth tracking down.

Rather than gather all of these into one humongous post, I’ve decided to run the responses on this page over the rest of this week. The first batch appears below, with more to come later today.

I want to thank every generous soul who participated in this survey. I’d also like to invite any notable writers or critics I somehow overlooked, but who are just now reading The Rap Sheet, to e-mail me with their nominations of the most-overlooked or underappreciated crime novel ever. I’ll add them to my mix.

But enough introduction. Let’s get on with the book picks.

George Pelecanos, author of The Night Gardener and Hard Revolution:

Hard Rain Falling (1966), by Don Carpenter. “A stunning, brutally honest entry in the social realist school of crime fiction. Carpenter’s first novel, out of print but easily found, is on par with Edward Bunker’s Little Boy Blue in its shocking depiction of juvenile delinquency and the human cost of incarceration. The best book I read this year, hands down.”

M.J. Rose, author of The Reincarnationist and The Venus Fix:

“I have the perfect book. Literary fiction/murder/suspense. I guess I’d call it a classic Gothic. Gramercy Park, by Paula Cohen. Published in 2002. I’ve been ‘hand-yelling’ it since I read it this winter. (That’s what I call the way I hand sell. I yell about the book on my blog.) I loved this book. In the tradition of Rebecca.

Steve Hockensmith, author of Holmes on the Range and On the Wrong Track:

The Doorbell Rang (1965), by Rex Stout. “Rex Stout was no underdog. He was one of the top dogs of the genre, in his day, and his Nero Wolfe series is still remembered fondly by fans around the world (including me). What’s often forgotten, though, is that Wolfe didn’t just lock horns with the usual assortment of killers and master criminals. In 1965, he took on J. Edgar Hoover. In The Doorbell Rang, Wolfe and wisecracking sidekick Archie Goodwin are hired to help a socialite who’s being harassed by G-men. Her crime: distributing copies of The FBI Nobody Knows, a real-life book that exposed the agency’s abuses of power and undermining of civil liberties. In the end, Archie and Wolfe turn the tables on the feds, blackmailing them with proof of their dirty dealings, and Hoover himself comes to New York to demand a face-to-face meeting. Wolfe’s response when the FBI bigwig rings the doorbell: ‘I have nothing for him. Let him get a sore finger.’ It’s equivalent to Spenser or Elvis Cole giving the finger to Alberto Gonzales, and it ought to be remembered ... and maybe even emulated.”

Jiro Kimura, blogger, The Gumshoe Site:

Dover Beach (1987), by Richard Bowker. “The novel, set in Boston after a nuclear war with Britain in the near future, features Walter Sands, a young man who chooses to become a private eye--the only P.I. in Boston--after reading a lot of private-eye novels. This is more of private-eye fiction than science fiction. P.I. fiction fans might like this novel, but it has been ignored by many mystery readers, maybe because it has been categorized as science fiction. Recently, I found out that it was nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award, sponsored by the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society, for distinguished science fiction published in paperback original form in the United States.”

Robert Ferrigno, author of Prayers for the Assassin and Scavenger Hunt:

Stone City (1990), by Mitchell Smith, is a true buried treasure. Long out of print, it’s an unremittingly grim story set in an unnamed Midwestern prison, where a former history professor has been sentenced for killing a girl while driving drunk. Fun does not ensue. It is by turns a sociological study of inmate dynamics, an ass-clenching thriller, and a powerful morality play. Guilt ridden and in full survival mode, the former professor is forced by the prison authorities to try and solve a series of inmate murders, a task which forces him to navigate scenes of harrowing violence, and passionate, shank-wielding lovers. The political maneuvering of the various prison gangs and warlords puts any of the State Department’s soft-shoe diplomats to shame. An unrelentingly honest and powerful work of fiction whose coda should be illumination through pain. When published, the reviewer for Library Journal called it ‘a fine novel with strong best-seller potential.’ Right. It sank like an anvil.

Stone City has been out of print since about 1991 but is still available used from Amazon and other outlets. I believe Busted Flush Press, a small outfit in Houston, Texas, run by David Thompson of Murder by the Book, is planning to reprint it any time now.”

Paul Johnston, author of The Death List and The Golden Silence:

“I nominate Nicholas Freeling and Gun Before Butter [1982]--crazy title, pretty crazy novel. Although the Dutch Inspector Van der Valk became a popular star on British TV in the ’70s, the novels are much darker and harder to follow--the latter especially, as Freeling had a style that’s sometimes hard to penetrate. He was also a professional chef. Not exactly your typical crime writer, and one who would be lucky to get a contract these days, more’s the pity.”

Gar Anthony Haywood, author of Firecracker and All the Lucky Ones Are Dead:

“While it hasn’t exactly flown completely under the radar of public attention, I don’t think Lawrence Block’s Eight Million Ways to Die [1982] has received anywhere near the credit it deserves for turning the P.I. subgenre on its head. Until I stumbled upon the book way back in the early ’80s, I had never read a crime novel with a P.I. in the lead that was written so close to the bone and, far more importantly, was so utterly devoid of the macho-man posturing that had forever been a fixture of the form. Matthew Scudder was a revelation, and I believe we have he and Larry Block to thank for the more serious, realistic, and introspective turn the P.I. novel has taken ever since the publication of Eight Million Ways to Die.

Charles Ardai, publisher of Hard Case Crime books and author (as Richard Aleas) of Songs of Innocence:

“My nomination for underappreciated novel is The Red Right Hand [1978], by Joel Townsley Rogers. It has become something of a cult favorite among the cognoscenti over the past few decades, but the average reader has still never heard of it or of its author. And it’s one of the few books that literally left me breathless when I turned the last page. A brilliant, borderline-insane stew of logic and illogic, Swiss-watch plot construction and bald-faced coincidence, and delicious, bone-cracking suspense, The Red Right Hand is sui generis. If you’re a traveler, you have to visit Paris once in your life; if you’re a gourmand, you have to taste black truffles; and if you’re a mystery reader, you have to read The Red Right Hand. It’s an experience not to be missed.”

Megan Abbott, film historian, author of The Song Is You, and periodic contributor to The Rap Sheet:

“That rare novel that works as harrowing thriller and razor-sharp political allegory, Stona Fitch’s Senseless (2001) tells the story of Eliott Gast, an American economist, kidnapped by anti-globalization terrorists whose particular brand of torture is as creative as it is horrifying. Holding your breath throughout this slim volume, you find yourself clinging to the spaces in between the scenes of almost unspeakably grisly (yet pointed) violence--and in those spaces you find gorgeously rendered reveries from Gast’s past, lush memory fugues that provide canny parallels to Gast’s wretched present. Not to be missed.”

Peter Guttridge, crime-fiction critic (The Observer), film critic (Shots), and author of the Nick Madrid series (Cast Adrift):

The Deadly Percheron (1946), by John Franklin Bardin. “It’s almost 30 years to the day that I read this in a Penguin omnibus of four Bardin novels edited by the late great Julian Symons. It was the weirdest crime novel I’d come across. I reread it last year when it was reissued with an introduction by Jonathan “Motherless Brooklyn” Lethem. It’s STILL the weirdest crime novel I’ve come across. It starts with a man with a scarlet hibiscus in his hair telling a psychiatrist that a leprechaun gives him instructions and asking if he is mad. What follows is a murder mystery, a bit of a love story, and an hallucination where memory and madness clash. A one-off.”


Anonymous said...

The British producer Stephen Woolley has been trying to get a film of "The Deadly Percheron" off the ground since the Stone Age; at one time there was talk of Neil Jordan directing it. Has yet to happen. The Red Right Hand was published long before 1978 (my paperback of it is from the early '60s); 1948 sounds about right. That's also a book people have talked about filming since it was published, with no particular forward movement.

Ray Banks said...

Definitely an excellent choice in SENSELESS. Stona Fitch is one of the best unsung writers around at the moment, and the book is a masterclass in precise, evocative prose.

I do believe some talented chaps are making a movie of it, too...

Unknown said...

SENSELESS is a top pick, along with Ferrigno's nomination of STONE CITY--hands down, best prison novel ever. (And also one of the few 400 plus page novels I've really enjoyed.) I also like Charles's pick: THE RED RIGHT HAND. Freakin' weird (yet satisfying) book with a voice that still feels fresh after all these years.

And thanks to Jiro, I just ordered a copy of DOVER BEACH. The premise alone is fantastic.

Anonymous said...

Senseless had the indignity of coming out two weeks after 9/11 when people weren't exactly sapping up books about Americans being torturd by terrorists (it also had the indignity of having a terrible cover, but that's another story) but I've always loved it and, as I recall, named it one of the best books of the year in a newspaper somewhere in America. And that Stona was in in Scruffy the Cat makes it all the more cool. (His first book was actually quite good, too: Stragies for Success -- not a mystery, but a good early 90s anti-yuppie angst novel)

Rosemary Harris said...

This was a great idea. Look forward to reading the rest of them.