In November 2009, my wife gave birth to our first child. At the time, I was working on a book which I was planning on handing in three months hence. I didn’t actually finish until the following October, and for most of that time I was writing for between twelve and fourteen hours a day. It was not fun for anyone. I can count the combined number of restaurants my wife and I ate at and movies we saw in 2010 on one hand — but I filled three pocket-sized notebooks keeping track of the books I read. Most of those were mysteries, with authors from the UK (Ian Rankin, Colin Dexter, P.D. James) and Scandinavia (Sjowall & Wahloo, Jo Nesbo, Hakan Nesser) especially well represented. It was two American writers — and their very American main characters — that I’ll remember the most:
The Parker novels of Richard Stark. Fifteen years ago, I got turned on to Parker after a thread-pulling expedition led me from Jim Thompson’s nihilistic noir to the 1990 film adaptation of The Grifters to screenwriter/novelist Donald Westlake to Westlake’s pseudonym Richard Stark to Stark’s Slayground, a dimestore shiv of a book about what happens when corrupt cops tip off the mob about a car accident in which an incompetent wheelman flips a getaway car next to an amusement park called Fun Island. (Hint: Master thief/antihero extraordinaire Parker survives; lots of other people die.) Then, earlier this year, I chanced upon Darwyn Cooke’s The Hunter, a brilliantly disturbing graphic novelization of Parker’s debut. Four weeks later, the combination of a Kindle and my deadline-induced insomnia had led to my tearing through another ten books in the Parker canon.
Stephen King once said reading the Parker novels was like getting a PhD in crime. John Banville called Parker “the perfection of that existential man whose earliest models we met in Nietzsche and Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky.” For me, he was the most enjoyable way to spend those dozens of nights when I was too tired to write and too anxious to sleep.
The Nero Wolfe novels of Rex Stout. In October, I was telling a friend about my recent Parker obsession when he asked me if I was a Rex Stout fan. On the surface, his question made no sense: Parker is lean, instinctive, dangerous, alluring; Wolfe is obese, erudite, possibly alcoholic and obsessed with orchids. Parker has no real home and at one point had reconstructive plastic surgery to disguise himself; Wolfe almost never leaves his Manhattan brownstone and delights in outsmarting cops. Parker is a stone-cold killer; Wolfe is a genius detective. They’re both awesome. My friend told me to start with Fer-de-Lance, Stout’s first Wolfe book. I took his advice, if only because I had no other idea about how to start a series that includes something like 80 novels and novellas.
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