I was thinking last night (hold the sarcasm) about books which have influenced me over the years, in terms of my writing style. While there are several which I've liked and have gone on to read again a time or two, there are a few which I've read at least five or six times. Their voice, consequently, has had a profound effect on the manner in which I approach my writing. The list below is my top five- for now.
1. The Black Dahlia- Big book for me. Huge. So many times before Dahlia, I'd picked up a James Ellroy book in the bookstore, looked at his picture with those geeky spectacles and said "what the fuck could this guy possibly know about crime writing?" Then a few years ago my wife and I were getting ready to drive back to Kansas for Christmas. I saw the audiobook for Dahlia and thought what the hell, I'd give it a shot. We ended up listening to it on the way back and I was stunned. I still can't put my finger on what "it" is, but for me The Black Dahlia, and most Ellroy writing, has "it" in spades.
Since The Black Dahlia I've become an unabashed lover of Ellroy's writing and have gone on to read and re-read most of his work several times. Dahlia started it off for me and at any given time I would probably rate The Black Dahlia, LA Confidential or American Tabloid as my all time favorite read.
2. Double Indemnity- A stalwart book from a man I consider the definitive noir stylist. While many mention The Postman Always Rings Twice when referencing Cain, for me it's always been Double Indemnity. What is it about Cain? I think it's relateability. Often times in Cain's work, it's just some average chump who happens to fall for some lusty broad, who in turn brings said chump to their knees- a scenario any hot blooded male with lead in his pencil can relate to.
Ultimately, though, what I see in Cain's work is balls: Read what he wrote and then compare the sheer boldness of his themes, not only to his own time period, but also to our own times. The guy took mondo chances with his subject matter and his narrative voice was never forgiving. He pointed his pen in one direction and said, "stop me if you fucking can." Balls.
3. Horseman Pass By- Larry McMurtry is as far from being a hardboiled crime writer as you can get. But, he does have a knack for creating characters you can't help but love, whether you want to or not. One of the main characters, Hud, is a man who would fit into any crime story from any time period: A manipulative, self-serving asshole who's good with the ladies, bad with his family and through it all you find yourself admiring him for his charisma and charm- he's simply the man you'll never be. And I'll admit, having come from the desolate plains of Kansas, I can relate to the depressing, rural strides of life in this book.
4. To The White Sea- James Dickey was a major poet and one of the biggest liars who ever lived. He could also write some extremely surreal stuff, with his best known work being Deliverance- no slouch in its own right. To The White Sea is a viscerally poetic and dark story which takes place during WWII and though you may not get it the first time around, due to some heavy symbolism, I would ask you to give it another chance. For me it's one of those books I read and then shrugged my shoulders at- a little too flowery for my taste. Then I found myself thinking about it for days afterward. So I read it again. And again.
If you take a chance on this book, I think you'll agree its main character, Muldrow, is someone you'll never forget. The trek he embarks on is harrowing, and his persona is that of a man whose perserverance and hate never once falter. The ending is extraordinary.
5. The Day Of The Jackal- Forsythe tends to run hot and cold with his writing. Jackal almost starts out cold, but once you get past the first fifty pages or so of backstory, Jackal is a bored out, eight cylinder turbo charged beast which moves at a blistering pace. And because of the detail Forsythe applies, which surprisingly does not drag the story down, a burgeoning writer can learn a lot about character development (not to mention fake ID's, disguises, firearms and seduction of both the female and male variety).