I have lots of favorite writers. Here I’ll concentrate on some who might be less well known:
He invented the modern spy novel, moving away from melodrama and into the world of jealously guarded industrial processes, patiently cultivated informants, tangled bureaucratic thickets. He showed us that espionage is often concerned with the mundane. The mundane, however, is never dull, not with the scent of violence hanging faintly in the air.
Among other way stations in an eventful life, Household worked in banking in Latin America and in military intelligence in the Middle East. He wrote intrigue/espionage, set in a variety of countries, often involving a fugitive on the run, living off the landscape and by his wits. His Rogue Male (see my Favorite Books) is a supreme classic of the thriller genre. Nobody ever wrote better about the the desperation of the hunted, or had a better feel for the earth and how we use it.
How do you categorize what Thomas wrote? He started out writing about a couple of ex-CIA officers who open a bar in Washington D.C. and find it tough to stay out of the espionage business. He also wrote about a professional go-between (the guy you call to handle the exchange of the ransom money), political fixers, burned-out reporters, corrupt labor union officials, con artists, you name it. His books usually revolved around political dirty tricks, a topic he was familiar with from his work as a journalist and campaign manager. Nobody has ever made profound political cynicism more entertaining. His style is highly polished and economical, his dialogue spare and sharp and very funny. One of the few authors I re-read repeatedly, as each book is a jewel.
Lyall was a former RAF pilot who wrote suspense fiction from the sixties through the nineties. He reached the height of his powers with the Major Maxim series, which features a maverick British Army officer seconded to 10 Downing Street who sorts out the messes the PM gets into. This usually means he does the things the PM can never admit to, and no one will ever thank him for. Maxim is a great character and this is one of the best military/espionage series ever written. See Uncle Target in my Favorite Books.
My personal favorite of the Golden Age British women mystery writers. Starting more or less as a Sayers imitator in a fairly frivolous vein, as she matured she produced increasingly stylish, original, occasionally darker mysteries featuring aristocrat Albert Campion and his ex-burglar sidekick Magersfontein Lugg. She wrote interestingly about a changing Britain from the twenties to the sixties.
Ed Dee is a former NYPD detective who writes cop novels (much more than just “police procedurals”) set in the Big Apple. His Ryan and Gregory books give a great picture of how cops work and the toll it takes. A quiet, competent stylist.
Some time in the early eighties I ran across a book called The Rose of Tibet, a fabulous, exotic thriller about a young Englishman venturing into Tibet just before the Chinese invasion. That got me hooked on Lionel Davidson’s smart, original suspense novels. Davidson’s plots ranged from murder mysteries to scientific thrillers; his settings covered just about every continent. The style was always intelligent and original.
Outside the Crime Ghetto:
O’Brian toiled in obscurity until he was in his seventies, when his Aubrey-Maturin novels were finally discovered and made him rich and famous at last. Some critic called those books “the best historical novels ever written”; you can argue that all day, but they’re at least in the running. What they are in essence is a continuous twenty-volume novel, a massive epic of love and war featuring two officers in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, with all of their personal and professional vicissitudes, a portrayal of the society of their times and the broadening world, and all the seafaring lore you could ask for. It’s hard to describe the appeal to the uninitiated– you just have to pick one up and become enchanted by O’Brian’s language, insight and storytelling virtues.
One of the great English stylists, all the more amazing as English was his third language. Yeah, I know, he had no sense of humor and didn’t understand women. (He was a sea captain, what do you expect?) But he understood men and why they do the things they do and where the world was going, and he set it all down in English like nobody’s written since.
Erich Maria Remarque
Everyone knows All Quiet on the Western Front, but outside of Germany few seem to be aware of Remarque’s other books. His books about Berlin life in the twenties are terrific (The Way Back, Three Comrades, The Black Obelisk). Remarque, who fled the Nazis in the thirties and lived abroad for the rest of his life, wrote with quiet outrage, compassion, decency and even humor about the benighted Germany of the first half of the twentieth century.