What I Read – Part 2: American Crime Writers
Although I’m terrified that reading someone else’s mystery style will seep into mine, I do read some American crime when I’m working, because that’s so different to what I do that there’s no danger of it influencing me.
Perhaps the best of them is Stanley Ellin, who wrote three masterpieces – STRONGHOLD, VERY OLD MONEY, and MIRROR, MIRROR ON THE WALL. STRONGHOLD is the story of how an isolated Quaker community deals with being taken over by a psychopath. VERY OLD MONEY concerns an aspiring writer and his wife who take jobs as servants with a very rich family in New York. The details of how the house is run shouldn’t be the least bit interesting, but I found myself gripped from the start. MIRROR, MIRROR is just weird, but beautifully constructed.
Another fine writer, whose books are not so much mysteries as thrillers, is Ross Thomas. His plots are very complicated, very fast and probably wouldn’t hold up to detailed examination, but they carry you along like no one else’s. And he has the ability to give the reader a compete biography of a character in a couple of hundred words (that shouldn’t work, by the way, but it does).
Finally, there’s Ed McBain. His real name was Evan Hunter, and he wrote serious novels including the very famous BLACKBOARD JUNGLE. He started writing the 87th Precinct novels for relaxation, and his original plan was to produce twenty-six of them – each starting with a different letter of the alphabet, and then blow the precinct up. That never happened, of course, and he wrote a lot more of the series. Actually, I’m not that fond of the 87th Precinct books – I find them a little formulaic – but I’m a big fan of his Matthew Hope series. They’re a bit like the Ross Thomas books in a way – the plot often isn’t that great, but he takes you into another world, which is reward enough in itself.