27 July 2006

Guilty Pleasures Week: Books

I have pretty respectable taste in books. (Personally, I think my taste is brilliant, but I would since I’m the one selecting and reading them, right?) I can hold my own against most lit-snobs. In fact, I have to admit I’m a bit of a lit-snob myself, more so after working in a bookstore for two years. I’d rather read Tim Sandlin than John Grisham, Flannery O’Connor before Danielle Steel, T. Coraghessan Boyle over Stephen King. I love language as much as story, and it sends a little shiver down my spine when the two come together on the page.

But sometimes I don’t want to read a great novel. My head’s too tired, too fried to fully enjoy a great sentence, to absorb and get lost in a wonderful story. And that’s when I turn to my literary guilty pleasure: mysteries. They’re quick, and reading them relaxes me when I’m in the midst of a heavy workload, when I don’t have the energy for literature. OM also read mysteries, and I always enjoyed swapping books with him and talking about what we’d read.

Following are some of my favorite mystery and crime novelists.

The Four Noirs
Maybe you haven’t read anything by the quartet who rules the noir shelves — Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, and Raymond Chandler — but you’ve probably seen the movies based on their novels and short stories — The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man (Hammett), Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Mildred Pierce (Cain), The Getaway and The Grifters (Thompson), The Big Sleep and Farewell My Lovely (Chandler). Even if you’ve seen the movies a dozen times, you should read the books. They’re great. I have most everything these four wrote, and I don’t think I’ve ever been disappointed.

Lawrence Block: Matthew Scudder series
My favorite boy French turned me onto the mystery genre in December 1992, when I was home for a week with a nasty flu (originally self-diagnosed as my stomach’s rebellion over a dinner of nachos, salsa, and a well-bourboned tumbler of eggnog, but that’s another tale for another day). He brought me a stack of Lawrence Block paperbacks, the first six Matthew Scudders, I believe. I read all six in two days. And was instantly hooked. I’ve enjoyed Scudder’s character development throughout the twenty-some odd years of books, and I’m still reading the Scudder series. I haven’t read much from his other series, except for his new Hitman series. French likes the Burglar Who series. Block’s a good read.

Robert Crais: Elvis Cole series
This Robert Crais series was the second one to hook me, a few months after I started reading Block. Elvis Cole is my kind of man: tall with dark hair and one helluva smart-ass mouth. (God, I love smart-ass men.) He’s good to his one-eyed cat, the women he loves, and his partner — the cool, cold Joe Pike. He’s smart, he’s wily, he’s a PI in L.A. A lot of humor is mixed in with the terrible deeds and body piles. One of the better written series in the mystery section. Crais' standalone books are good, too. Hostage, recently starring Bruce Willis, was based on a Crais novel (he may have written the screenplay, too).

Elmore Leonard
You gotta love Elmore Leonard. He brings crime novels to a new level. He’s been at it for fifty years, and he just gets better. Leonard’s oeuvre is another one mined by Hollywood, some of which have made great films (Soderbergh’s Out of Sight is my favorite Leonard book-cum-movie). Jackie Brown, The Big Bounce, and Get Shorty are just some of the movies made from Leonard's novels. Last year’s The Hot Kid may be my favorite Leonard novel; I loved his tale of gangsters in Oklahoma and Kansas City during the 1930s, and couldn’t wait to talk to OM about it. Damn, I miss OM.

And my true guilty reading pleasure
Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series. These I feel guilty reading. I think French first introduced me to this series. Light, silly, fluffy, and very formulaic. But I have a soft spot for klutzes, so I stayed interested for a while. These books are about the length of a good plane ride, and I’ve read many crammed in a Delta coach seat. OM and I used to share this series and talk about them, but we both started getting bored by the sixth or seventh book. We kept plowing through, though. I haven’t read a Stephanie Plum since OM passed away last summer. Don’t think I will again; they remind me of him too much and the writing isn’t good enough to read through that.

Wonder what guilty literary confessions Haahnster's Hallucinations will have for us today …?

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At 7/27/2006 07:28:00 AM, Blogger Marni said...

I can honestly say I have never read any of these authors. I'll check 'em out though - I'm a sucker for a good read.

You should try the Prey series from John Sandford. His detective is Lucas Davenport and he is wonderful. Lucas investigates serial murders and sometimes becomes the target himself. He is a scared fella - physically and emoitionally - and what woman can't fall for that?

At 7/27/2006 07:29:00 AM, Blogger Marni said...

I meant scarred -- not scared. Who wants a chicken for a detective!?!

At 7/27/2006 08:35:00 AM, Blogger patrick said...

you turned me on to earl emerson. i like his stuff a lot.

At 7/27/2006 08:37:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love good mysteries, but have never read any of those...I like the good English mystery..
P.D.James, Elizabeth George, Dorothy Sayers. Civilized murders.... But I will pick up something off your list, just wish I read a little faster

At 7/27/2006 08:37:00 AM, Anonymous HollyC said...

That was me, I haven't had my coffee yet, and I left out my I.D.

At 7/27/2006 08:41:00 AM, Blogger Scrivener said...

First off, I almost think there can be no such thing as a guilty pleasure for books. Even reading a crappy book is not a bad thing. Reading narrative is good. Especially if you're often reading really good lit, then reading some not-so-good books is not something to feel even the teensiest amount of guilt over.

And secondly I absolutely cannot believe that you included, even in passing, Raymond Chandler under the category of "guilty pleasures." Raymond Chandler is not a crappy writer at all. The Big Sleep and Maltese Falcon are both fantastic modernist literature that I would teach in a heartbeat. Just because those books are fun to read and fantastic stories doesn't mean they aren't Great Literature. From what I know of the other people on your list, they aren't bad at al either, but I firmly reject any suggestion that Raymond Chandler is anything less than a respectable artist.

At 7/27/2006 08:51:00 AM, Blogger Beth said...

MARNI: I recommend all the books I listed. Mom's reading a John Sandford book now; maybe I'll borrow it this weekend.

PATRICK: I haven't check on Earl Emerson lately. Must hit Chapter 11 this weekend.

ANON HOLLYC: I've never read many of the English mysteries; Francesco likes the ones you've listed.

SCRIVENER: I felt bad listing the Four Noirs as guilty pleasures. I think they're all amazing writers. But I wanted to get in a plug for them, in case someone's never read them. As far as crime novels go, my favorite author is Patricia Highsmith, but I couldn't list her as a guilty pleasure. The Tom Ripley series and Strangers on a Train are brilliant; highly recommend you read them this week if you've missed them.

At 7/27/2006 10:00:00 AM, Blogger Old Lady said...

Robert Ludlum can be a good mystery read though the general genre is espionage.

At 7/27/2006 01:43:00 PM, Blogger barista brat said...

mystery is a genre i've never gotten into - not that i've tried.

i agree with scrivener about reading not really being a guilty pleasure. that said - there are some books i enjoy reading that i won't willingly own up to.

such as the shopaholic series, or any of the jane green novels. but you didn't hear that from me.

At 7/27/2006 03:41:00 PM, Blogger Beth said...

OLD LADY: My dad loved Ludlum. I don't think I've ever read his books.

BRAT: I'll keep the Shopaholic and Jane Greens between us girls. If you want to read some really great crime novels, pick up Patricia Highsmith, particularly the Tom Ripley series and Strangers on a Train; Gore Vidal claims she's the best American writer of the 20th century.

At 7/27/2006 08:59:00 PM, Blogger Dale said...

I used to love Lawrence Sanders but now only read encylcopedias.

At 7/27/2006 09:10:00 PM, Blogger Beth said...

You and your brainiacness, Dale. Isn't it awkward carring the encyclopedia on the train?

At 7/27/2006 10:28:00 PM, Anonymous mark said...

Shoutout for Michael Connelly and Andrew Vacchs.

At 7/27/2006 10:29:00 PM, Blogger Dale said...

I tear out one page at a time and then tape it back in when I get home. Did you get my email?

At 7/27/2006 10:43:00 PM, Blogger Beth said...

Quite efficient. But don't you get pissed when the taped pages don't line up? I got your e-mail; have I mentioned lately how much I love this blog?

At 7/27/2006 11:10:00 PM, Blogger Anomie-Atlanta said...

I'm a total lit-snob.

But, hidden in the back of my closet are the following:
1. Stuart Woods "Palindrome"
2. The Complete Works of Jan Karon

Hey, sometimes your brain needs a break! :)

At 7/27/2006 11:34:00 PM, Blogger Writeprocrastinator said...

How could reading Hammett, Crais and Evanovich, be a guilty pleasure? Great list.

Doug Richardson wrote the screenplay for "Hostage" and I understand the movie is different from the film.

Where is the fluff? All these books are substantial, even the Stephanie Plum series is about the empowerment of women. Where is the book that you should feel guilty about reading?

I was expecting some Sydney Sheldon or Jackie Collins tripe.

At 7/28/2006 01:05:00 AM, Blogger Beth said...

ANOMIE-ATLANTA: I, too, have read some Stuart Woods. Is it required of us Atlantans, like the quarterly meal at The Varsity and a movie a year at the Fox?

WRITE PROCRASTINATOR: I see the Stephanie Plum series as a guilty pleasure because it's too formulaic. The rest of the authors are listed are brilliant and I don't really consider them below par. I just wanted to plug my favorite mystery writers.


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