Killer Year–The Class of 2007

December 6, 2006, 10:12 am
Filed under: Killer Year Members, Marc Lecard

Is there a single book that triggered you as a writer, that got you interested in writing crime fiction, as opposed to merely reading it all the time to the detriment of the rest of your life?

For me that book was George V. Higgins’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle.

The book came out in 1972. I read a lot of crime fiction in high school and college, but all the best work seemed (to me, then) to have been done already. Contemporary American crime writers still seemed to be toiling in the long shadow of the hard-boiled writers of the twenties and thirties. I loved Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, but their America belonged to a romantic prewar past. I hadn’t discovered Jim Thompson yet—that came in the 1980s with the great Black Lizard reissues of his work. Elmore Leonard’s marvelous crime novels were still in my future.

I read a lot of British crime and suspense writers—Julian Symons, the spy novels of Eric Ambler, the “entertainments” of Graham Greene—but was left pretty cold by the Agatha Christie school of mystery fiction, what have come to be called cozies. Stateside, I felt that Hammett and Chandler had used up and preempted the private eye novel (I know, I know. But this is what I thought at the time).

Someone should write a crime novel about criminals, I thought, and leave the cops and PIs out of it.

Turns out someone had.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle hit me with the force of revelation. It read as if someone had miked every hood in Boston and used the transcripts to generate pure arias of working-class criminal talk.

First, the book was almost all dialogue. There was only minimal description and scene setting. And the voices sounded like real people talking, contemporary American speech.

The lopsided ratio of dialogue to exposition made the book seem almost like an experimental novel, almost a kind of poetry. It cleaned out the inside of my head pretty thoroughly.

There was no one I knew of in contemporary crime fiction that had Higgins’ ear for speech. Until I got my hands on Elmore Leonard’s books a few years later there was nowhere I could go to satisfy the itch for dialogue that felt and sounded like something you would hear actual people say, especially if they were actual people heavily invested in scamming, stealing and killing.

(If you’ve ever tried to read transcripts of people talking, say transcripts of wiretaps, you know that what Higgins has done is to create equivalent structures that are more real than reality, that make you hear the patterns and forms of actual talk in a new way. But, damn, it sure sounded real to me.)

The stuff I ended up writing myself is not much like Higgins, owing a lot more to Donald Westlake and Carl Hiaasen. Elmore Leonard showed how to take an ear for criminal talk like Higgins’ and combine it with an eye for criminal habitat and a mind for realistic criminal plotting, all underlaid with a fundamental, sardonic humor. His novels are a school in how to draw character and appearance by the way people talk.

But it was reading The Friends of Eddie Coyle that cleared all the crap out of my head and kicked it down to the curb, so that everything that came after had a nice clean place to live. It made me think it was both worthwhile and possible to write crime fiction.

I suspect that for many writers the process was more cumulative, that there was no single book that broke them from the past and pointed them in a new direction. But has anyone had a similar experience?

Marc Lecard

VINNIE’S HEAD St. Martin’s Minotaur March 2007


5 Comments so far
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For me it was James Lee Burke’s DIXIE CITY JAM, which I read in 1994.

Comment by Patrick Shawn Bagley

John Sandford’s Prey series. I realized that I wanted to try my hand after I plowed through his books. A complete inspiration.

Comment by killeryear

This is a tough question, one I’ve ruminated on at intervals all day. And I don’t really have an answer. As a kid, I read most of the Nero Wolfe canon, as well as most of the John D. MacDonald canon. Very different kinds of books. As I got older I branched out in all kinds of directions, but no one book or writer in crime fiction stands out for me.

One big inspiration now is John Straley, but I discovered him after I’d already started down the crime fiction path. In high school, I read Lawrence Block’s “Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print,” but while he fueled my desire to write, I was years away from actually trying a crime story when I read that.

The book that serves to inspire the most as a writer, which made me want to write novels the most when I first read it, was One Hundred Years of Solitude. Just thinking about it fills me with the urge to write, crime fiction or any kind of fiction. As I Lay Dying did the same for me.

And so many others, really, once I start thinking about it. Let’s face it. I love books. (Heh, does that surprise you?!)

Comment by Bill Cameron

I grew up in the 80s, so for me it was Stephen King and Dean Koontz. Horror writers, obviously. King’s The Shining, The Dead Zone, The Stand. Koontz’s Lightning and Watchers. My tastes have changed drastically, and though I still like some of King’s 80s masterpieces, I’m not thrilled by Koontz anymore (he’s sort of a formula writer, but when you’re a ten-year-old reader, all formulas seem brilliantly fresh). Nowadays I’d have to list dozens of inspirations, but the guy who turned me on to crime fiction more than anyone else was James Ellory, no doubt about it.

Comment by Derek Nikitas

Somebody Owes Me Money by Donald Westlake. I was twelve when I read it, serialized in Playboy. I remember the story but not the photos, believe it or not.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle has been in my library since I was about seventeen. And I am ashamed to admit that I have never read it. I’ve come close many times, but never got there. Don’t know why.

One day I’ll read it.

Comment by Rob Gregory Browne

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