Favorite Books

I have lots of favorite books, in the crime genre and elsewhere. Here are a few of them, in no particular order, and with no particular claim to greatness. I just liked them and think you might. Some of these are obscure and deserve to be read more; several have been unjustly overshadowed by the movies made from them.

The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon
See the excellent movie with Laurence Harvey and Frank Sinatra, but read the book, too– it’s a classic, still chilling and all too convincing. Condon was a very interesting writer with broad interests and a sharp, intelligent style.

Drink to Yesterday by Manning Coles
The now largely forgotten Manning Coles (joint pseudonym for two British civil servants) wrote espionage novels in the forties and fifties. This is the first one, and it’s a terrific account of two British spies in Germany during the First World War and the enormous personal cost paid by those who commit to the shadow world of espionage.

The Searchers by Alan LeMay
Everyone’s seen the movie and no one remembers the book (or the author). Alan LeMay wrote westerns back in the fifties, and he deserves to be remembered for this one, which is leaner, harsher, more beautiful and more heartbreaking than the movie. A great book, unjustly forgotten. Look for it at your local library.

Uncle Target by Gavin Lyall
Harry Maxim is an SAS officer stuck in a make-work staff job at 10 Downing Street to keep him out of trouble. But when the new state-of-the-art British battle tank is hijacked by Jordanian army mutineers, Maxim is the only man who can go and get it back. One of the best thrillers I know of just from the point of view of creating and maintaining suspense, full of military know-how but never swamped by it. A mission-impossible type of story with a feel of authenticity and hard-edged realism, both in the hardware and in the psychology and ethos of the professional soldier as well.

Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household
A British gentleman hunter who strays too close to Hitler’s lodge in the Alps, gun in hand, is beaten up by storm troopers and left for dead. He survives, crawls away from the burial party coming back to finish him off, and is off on a long journey home, pursued by Nazi agents all the way. The premise may be contrived, but the result is a great hunting yarn, from the point of view of the prey, culminating in a deadly cat-and-mouse game in the English countryside. A classic against-all-odds survival story.

Dead Calm by Charles Williams
Yes, this is the book they made the movie from. Charles Williams wrote noir pulp classics, sea stories, and suspense novels with sailing themes. This is maybe his best. What do you do if you’re trapped on a sailboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with a maniac on board? This one will make you think twice about that sailing vacation. An overlooked classic.

Hombre by Elmore Leonard
That’s right, Elmore Leonard. He wrote westerns for years before he broke out as a crime novelist. They made this one into a movie with Paul Newman, but the book is better. Read it to find out what it takes to earn the name Hombre. Elmore Leonard got to the heart of the matter in this one.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John LeCarré
LeCarré’s best, and the best fictional rendering of the great Cambridge spy scandal. Smiley has to find the Soviet mole at the heart of British intelligence; this is not a whodunnit but a “who is it?” Finding the answer takes Smiley a long way, geographically and otherwise. Complex in plot, emotion and psychology, just a great novel.

Marine at War by Russell Davis
One of the best books I know of about war from the point of view of the private soldier. There are a lot of war memoirs; this one is unusually stark and honest. (“I was wounded twice, cited for bravery once, and two times I was too frightened to do the job to which I was assigned.”) Russell Davis served with the Marines on Peleliu and Okinawa, and then twenty years later wrote about it for his sons: “It is very hard for a father not to make himself seem braver and wiser to his sons than he really was.” A great book for its understated but brutal truthfulness.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence
A strange and compelling book, the wartime memoirs of “Lawrence of Arabia”. There are several versions of the text, as Lawrence re-wrote it and edited multiple editions after losing the original manuscript (an unimaginable catastrophe for any author). The book has been severely criticized as history by all parties involved; just forget the polemics and read it as an epic novel, absolutely unlike any other war memoir you’ve ever read. Whatever else he was, Lawrence was a brilliant writer.

In other languages
I’ve spent my life learning other languages. My reward was to discover a lot of great books I might not have heard of. If you can read these in the original, great. If not, I’ve listed translations of which I’m aware. Hey, it’s not that hard to pick up a reading knowledge of another language! Next time you need a new hobby, put a few months into learning a language and broaden your reading horizons.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
OK, it’s old hat now and everyone’s read it for their comparative lit course and the author was a creaky old left-wing friend of Fidel, but still. This is a great book of world literature, the original text of magic realism and a hell of a yarn. If by some chance you haven’t read it, check it out. Forget the politics, suspend your disbelief and just enjoy the ride.

El Camino by Miguel Delibes
A wonderful coming-of-age novel about boys in an impoverished mountain town in Spain just after the civil war. Daniel’s parents have scrimped and saved for him to go to the city to continue his schooling, but he doesn’t want to leave; what more could there be to life than what he has here with his friends? Innocence and its end, life in a nutshell from one of Spain’s greatest twentieth century writers.

L’Été meurtrier by Sébastian Japrisot
(translated as One Deadly Summer)
Japrisot was one of France’s greatest crime writers, and this is his best book. A completely compelling account of the genesis of a murder, from its roots in an earlier crime to the malevolent manipulation which triggers it. Masterfully plotted, inexorable and utterly logical, but with more than one surprise along the way. A portrait of family dysfunction and despair in the Provence tourists don’t see. Tragedy in the high Greek tradition.