Don Winslow's had a busy summer. His prequel to Savages, The Kings of Cool, published last month, and the Oliver Stone-directed film based on Savages just hit theaters. He found time to share his top 5 favorite crime novels with PW.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George Higgins
The Friends of Eddie Coyle is the most realistic crime novel ever written, perfectly catching the world of small-time New England criminals without ever lapsing into either romanticism or bathos. The dialogue is perfect, the characters are spot on, the locations are so specific and beautifully rendered.
This was a groundbreaking novel - showing us the inside life of crime through the eyes of the criminal. (The Godfather, of course, came out in 1969 and did the same thing, but in a much more romantic, neo-Shakespearian way.) There’s nothing romantic about Eddie Coyle. You really get to know Eddie and the guys he does business with. (The ‘Friends’ in the title becomes bitterly ironic at the end.) You see how brutally the Feds deal with a snitch they have in a headlock. This novel shows you how it works.
I’m a New England guy myself so I could relate to the culture. I remember reading the book when it came out in 1971 and thinking, ‘Wow – this is the real deal.’ Its one of the books that inspired me to become a ‘crime writer’, although Higgins himself rejected that term.
The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
Chandler called it his best book, and who am I to disagree? (I was on a panel with Michael Connolly when someone in the audience asked ‘What’s the best private eye novel ever written?’ Michael and I answered simultaneously, ‘The Long Goodbye’ then looked down the table at each other and smiled.) The sheer beauty of the prose alone would qualify it as a great book, (“A city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness. It all depends on where you sit and what your own private score is. I didn't have one. I didn't care. I finished the drink and went to bed.”) but then there’s the command of the genre, the graceful manipulation of the plot and the perfectly drawn characters – Terry Lennox, Roger and Eileen Wade, Menny Menendez. . . .
And then there’s Marlowe, the perfect noir hero - the classic tough guy, wise-cracking detective with the soft heart and a hunger for the truth. In Marlowe, Chandler set the bar for the rest of us (we owe our livings to him) and also set a standard as to who this hero should be: “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean.” I have the quote taped on my desk.
The Guards by Ken Bruen
Bruen is a pure writer. (In the interest of full disclosure, I nominated this book for an Edgar Award, and Ken and I subsequently became friends.) His prose edges on poetry. This book takes you into a world – Galway – through the eyes of disgraced cop Jack Taylor. Taylor is my kind of character – on the edge, a little lost, working the corners of the plate. The Guards (The title refers to the Irish police force – the Garda) is sad, funny, tough, violent and ultimately redemptive. It starts with the classic noir moment of a beautiful woman walking into a bar and asking a favor (Say ‘Marlowe’ somebody) and then moves from there. It’s a terrific story, but it’s the writing that gets you. No one does dialogue better, but that prose – oh my god, that prose. It sings.
L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy
I’m not the first to say that The Big Dog picked up where Chandler left off, but. . .The Big Dog picked up where Chandler left off. Ellroy owns L.A. of the 1950’s, and L.A. Confidential is the third in his ‘LA Quartet’ series. I loved The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere and White Jazz, but L.A. Confidential is my favorite. The characters – Exley, White and Vincennes – are so real, so finely drawn, such bundles of internal conflict. What Ellroy captures – maybe even more than Chandler – is the corruption – in the city, on the police force, inside people’s souls. And the down-and–dirty politics within the police force and the city of Los Angeles create a complexity that only a master writer can handle. The book is about more than just crime – it’s about prejudice, class, money and power.
I vividly remember reading this book when I was trying to become a crime writer and thinking, “This is how it’s done, this is what I want to be.”
Laguna Heat by T. Jefferson Parker
"A perfect morning in a city of perfect mornings; an artist would have worked, a god would have rested.”
I mean, come on - if I gets any better than the opening sentence of Laguna Heat, I haven’t seen it.
This is the novel that busts California noir out of the confines of Los Angeles – indeed, its lead character, detective Tom Shepard, leaves L.A. to try to rebuild his life in Laguna, and in the process of solving a murder, has to confront his own past. Parker captures a time and a place with such precision, grace and beauty.
I love Laguna Beach and write about Laguna Beach, but Jeff got there first and did it best. I read the book before I ever saw Laguna, and when I finally got there, it was perfectly familiar to me from Jeff’s writing. I was so excited – ‘This is where Laguna Heat happened!’