Parts of this have been excerpted from "Recommended Reading: Just the Vachss, Ma'am," originally published in COMBO magazine, July 1996, and from "I Love You Like Crazy," originally published in Black Book Magazine, Fall 1999; both are written by Andrew Vachss.
When you think about it, the whole idea of "reviewing" books is stupid. There are thousands of books published every month. A select few (and I mean just that ... they are selected) actually get reviewed. And those "reviews" aren't exactly the literary equivalent of Consumer Reports, okay?
For me, it's the same as the difference between music and musicians. Notes are like words: a deck of cards, limited as stand-alones, gaining their power only from how they're played, from their sequence and intensity.
Professional writing (or music, or art, or...) is not the "meritocracy" so beloved of those who believe their opinions should be the shepherd's crook, guiding the flock. That's just one piece of nonsense piled on top of another. And it's a steaming pile, if you get my drift.
The essential conceit is that the sheep will be so in awe of the shepherd's insightful, articulate opinions that they will go where they're herded. Or that the sheep are too lazy to make up their own minds. That's why some mopes believe only the self-selected few can decide what's real noir.
So ... no "reviews" from me. Anyway, if I wrote a mini-essay on each writer, I'd be excluding too many from an already-truncated list. So I'll provide the map; you find the treasure. Anything written by any of the following writers will sing to you, I promise. Sure, not every one of you will bond to all the writers I list. But if you don't find at least a few who will become your lifelong favorites among the following, then one of us is a stone chump.
To make it easy for you to start, I'm listing a representative title for each author. Not necessarily my favorite, but a fair showcase for their work. Try something radical ... be your own reviewer. —Andrew Vachss
Click here to hear Andrew Vachss answer the question,
"What do you like to read, and who do you like to read?"
(MP3 audio file - 2M)
Click here if you want to know what Andrew Vachss thinks about "noir."
Click the button for book jackets, author photos, novel excerpts, and more.
Some of the following books are hard to find. First ask your local independent bookstore. Failing that, you might have luck searching them out at Abebooks.
Harold Adams (The Ditched Blonde)
His Carl Wilcox is a Midwest Depression-era Marlow, with a much deeper social-commentary bite.
Ellis Amdur (Dueling with O-sensei: Grappling with the Myth of the Warrior-Sage)
Brilliantly-rendered, extraordinarily courageous, and a clear challenge to would-be warriors to become their envisioned selves.
Robert Edmond Alter (Swamp Sister)
Plot, character, and interstitial tissue.
Ruby P. Andrew (Child Sexual Abuse and the State: Applying Critical Outsider Methodologies to Legislative Policymaking)
<available free, as either download or browser-open pdf> "Scholastic" writing is often acknowledged as influential, but rarely noted as compelling. Here's a classic example of how fine writing transcends genre — you can read this for either content or composition, and add to your knowledge base of either in the process.
Frank R. Ascione, Ph.D. (Children and Animals: Exploring the Roots of Kindness and Cruelty)
"I believe this book conclusively makes the case for sharing of reports between child protective and animal protective agencies." Read the entirety of Andrew Vachss' foreword by clicking here.
Paul Bishop: (Lie Catchers)
In an era where the overwhelming majority of crime writers "research" their reality, there's an occasional for-real, street-level pro willing to share deep secrets. Pick up a copy, see if I'm lying.
Michael A. Black (A Killing Frost)
Don't let anyone tell you "they're not writing traditional PI novels anymore." Here's the proof.
Tony Black (Gutted)
Powerful, focused, and intense ... and then it gets better. Get your money down early on this young man — he's dead serious and deadly accurate.
Ken Bruen (Calibre)
This guy watched—and waited— a long time, then dropped the hammer. One of the few in the game who doesn't think "noir" is French for "pastiche," and Old School as a .600 Nitro Express.
Frances Hodgson Burnett (A Little Princess)
<Available free, as either download or browser-open pdf> A young teen fights against being made over in the image of her oppressive guardian and, in the process, creates her own strict codes of behavior.
Tim Cahill (Buried Dreams)
If you want the reality behind all the John Wayne Gacy stories, here's where to go.
Paul Cain (Fast One)
The cleanest, most skeletal crime prose anyone ever wrote.
Robert Campbell (In La-La Land We Trust)
A modern master of shadow–reality.
Tom Carhart (The Offering)
The definitive ground–zero book on Vietnam, brilliantly rendered, empathy-evoking, and ringing with truth.
(All I Have Is Blue, "The Vibration of the U.S.S. Chickasaw Nation")
A magnificent stylist with a sweet, hard-core soul.
Carroll John Daly (The Snarl of the Beast)
Father of the modern hard–boiled detective novel.
Charles de Lint (Jack the Giant Killer)
The finest fabulist alive, with an unshakable moral underpinning.
Charles Dickens (David Copperfield)
<Available free, as either download or browser-open pdf> An orphaned boy flees his abusive stepfather, then slowly realizes that becoming a man requires him to do more just run away.
Wayne D. Dundee (The Name is Hannibal)
If you liked Mickey, you'll love Big Wayne.
Barry Eisler (Graveyard of Memories)
Here's your proof that the best way to "research" any genre is to live it. Pick up any "Rain" and tell me I'm wrong!
Louise Erdrich (The Round House)
A storyteller's beautifully-woven narrative of justice and injustice.
Maggie Estep (Soft Maniacs)
She fan–dances with words, and you'll be enthralled.
Brian Evenson (Father of Lies)
If you think "fiction" can't tell the truth, think again. Hard.
Robert Ferrigno (Scavenger Hunt)
Hardboiled, hard-edged, hard truthed, and brilliantly written. This is one guy you'll be thanking me for telling you about for years.
Gillian Freeman (The Leader)
A brilliantly–evoked warning, unheeded.
Keith Gilyard (Let's Flip the Script)
One of America's most powerful poets gives us a brilliant, evocative discourse on language itself ... the politics of literary colonialism. And if you haven't read I Figure, you'll never know what "for real" really means.
David Goodis (Street of No Return)
An obsessed genius who didn't last long, but he could put Jim Thompson on the trailer anytime he wanted.
Joe Gores (Cases)
A pro in every sense of the word; a multifaceted diamond of a storyteller. If you want to learn how to write, this is one guy you have to read.
Alan Grant (Shadow of the Bat)
Fearless, inventive, and evocative.
Martha Grimes (Hotel Paradise)
A prose-poet of unparalleled incandescence.
Adam Hall (Quiller: Salamander)
Who produced some of the most compelling and human books in the entire espionage genre.
Dashiell Hammett (The Glass Key)
True father of the Black Mask Boys.
Olaf Havnes ("Dog Boy," Malurt Heter Stjernen)
Until Olaf's work is translated into other languages, the world outside Norway will never experience the beauty and power of his work. Plans are underway for publication in Germany. And when his books are finally in English, you'll all have to acknowledge that "I told you so."
David Hechler (The Battle and the Backlash)
This is the real deal, genuine journalism (see Cyber-Chumps piece).
Mark Hennessy (Cue The Bedlam)
A collection of poetry that vibrates like a body punch—you'll feel it long after you're done reading. And you'll be back again, because there's magic here — for those who have what it takes to go the distance.
Michael Herr (Walter Winchell)
A brilliant piece of "fictional–fact."
Carl Hiaasen (Skin Tight)
The most viciously hilarious environmental activist on the planet, a brilliant one–of–a–kind crime writer–cum–journalist with a vital mission.
Richard Hoffman (Half the House)
A warrior-poet's voice of the purest power, carrying the banner of The Children of the Secret against all enemies.
Jonathan Kellerman (Monster)
There's a place deeper than "realistic." It's called "real." A new genre: author as expert witness, and dynamite as both.
Gerald Kersh (Night and the City)
Who found the flowers in Hell.
Daniel Keyes (The Minds of Billy Milligan)
A journalist''s look at a phenomenon repeatedly abused by trash TV and two–bit movies. A must for criminologists.
Joe R. Lansdale (Savage Season, Mucho Mojo)
Master of an absolutely unique combo–genre. Impossible to describe and harder to imitate.
Robert M. Lindner (Rebel Without A Cause)
A seminal work, using classic techniques to unravel the mystery of a psychopath.
Eddie Little (Steel Toes)
If you ever wondered why "reform schools" produce the most dedicated criminals, look no further.
Dick Lochte (The Neon Smile)
Pick your genre—police procedure, PI, whodunit, serial killer—this guy can do them all. And all in the same book.
Peter Lovesey (Diamond Solitaire)
Classy, self–assured, and delicately–rendered UK series.
Bracken MacLeod (Mountain Home)
Next time some fool gleefully announces "Small Press is dead," tell him to read this stunning debut, a cut–to–the–bone novel that credibly interweaves the 180° range of the human spirit and the 180° of darkness below it. The colorless evil always pushing against that micro–crust from below, while the colorless evil above is drilling for the soothing oil every psychopath seeks. A magical book, a reflective mirror of truth ... and what that costs.
Marc "Animal" MacYoung (Violence, Blunders, and Fractured Jaws: Advanced Awareness Techniques and Street Etiquette)
The blues tell the truth; this guy teaches it. This book isn't about mystical insight; it's about saving your life — for real. And here's what the legendary street warrior has to say about teaching children: "I believe in violence toward adults, but children are off limits. Hitting kids is no fun; they can't hit back. Hmmm, maybe that explains why kids are the targets of violence."
Ian McBryde (The Adoption Order)
Well past stunning, this is shards of broken glass forced to glitter brilliantly in darkness by a poet's heart and a criminal's hand. No superlative would do it justice.
Note: (Equatorial)A prior collection, this one could just have easily been listed under True Blues, a brilliant collection of brutally–insightful short poems, also available as a spoken–word CD.
Alice Miller (Paths of Life)
To any soldier in the war against child abuse, Alice Miller is a legendary figure.
Rex Miller (Chaingang)
A raging, over–the–top beast driven by complex subtext.
Judith Moore (Fat Girl: A True Story)
Fat Girl is a black diamond, revealing its hard brilliance only when you accept its invitation to descend into the soul of the loneliest little girl in the world...
Tony Monchinski (Eden)
Joe Lansdale once told me, "Charles de Lint is the only writer who could make me read about faeries." Put me down for the same my brother's having—only make mine Tony Monchinski and zombies.
David Morrell (Fireflies)
The surest bet there is in the action–adventure game.
Walter Mosley (RL's Dream)
A brilliant tsunami, razor–edged and driven by love.
Willard Motley (Knock On Any Door)
If you think "fiction" can't be the truth, or you have even a passing interest in the reality of Chicago for Post–War "juvenile delinquents," read this for the answer(s) to both.
Zak Mucha (Heavyweight Champion of Nothing)
What you're getting here is hint of what's to come. And come hard!
Patrick T. Murphy (Wasted: The Plight of America's Unwanted Children)
The hard truth, from a frontline veteran of the war to protect children. Must reading for anyone who seeks the reality, not the rhetoric, of the "childcare" system in America.
Jack Olsen (The Misbegotten Son)
The undisputed King of True–Crime, and one of the last great investigative reporters to walk this earth. Add "master storyteller" to that and you still haven't even approached Jack's immortal body of work. I'm not sure anyone ever will.
George Pelecanos (Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go)
This guy can take you out with either hand, and uses them both on everything he touches.
Charles Perry (Portrait of a Young Man Drowning)
An amazing work, by a genius who died before he could add to it.
Nicholas Pileggi (Wiseguy)
The most knowledgeable reporter on organized crime in America. Ever. A true master of his craft. Yeah, I know, you saw Goodfellas. Read the original and then you'll recognize the real thing in action. Believe it or not, Casino started as a book, too.
Mike Ripley (Angel City)
Sardonic, entertaining, and sometimes downright hilarious crime–writing with a distinctive UK slant.
Floyd Salas (Tattoo the Wicked Cross)
Author of a genuine American classic.
Max Salt (Worlds Apart)
Hardcore knowledge woven deftly through non–linear plotting plus the ability to shift "voice" throughout puts the "Shailene" series on a "read one and you're hooked" level.
John M. Seryak (Dear Teacher, If You Only Knew)
A collection of letters that shriek with truth and pain, written by (now-adult) victims of child abuse.
Doug Setter (One Less Victim)
A tightly–presented, straight–spoken analysis of victimology, coupled with practical advice on self–defense. If you want to cut down the odds of you or a loved one becoming a statistic, this is an investment you should make.
Iceberg Slim (Pimp: The Story of My Life)
Raw, innovative, and ringing with blue truth.
Vern E. Smith (The Jones Men)
The definitive Detroit underbelly novel.
Ian Spiegelman (Everyone's Burning)
Illuminates a subculture so dedicated to anesthetics that it seeks pain to see if they really work. Ugly truth, beautifully written.
Steve Sundberg (Street Logic)
The (straight) answer to any fool who says you can't use "fiction" to tell the truth. Proof that before you can pass it on, you have to pass through it. A beautiful tightrope walk over a true hell on earth ... a tightrope you can't walk with your eyes closed.
Tim Tate (Child Pornography: An Investigation)
A factually–dense and ultimately terrifying presentation of an all–too–real evil.
Rod Thorp (The Detective)
Simultaneously meticulous, relentless, and rich.
Marilyn Van Derbur (Miss America By Day)
The incredible journey of a true warrior woman, who is a "model" in every sense of the word. An inspiration not just to incest victims, but to self–publishers everywhere.
John Westermann (Exit Wounds)
Makes Wambaugh look like yesterday.
Les Whitten (The Lost Disciple)
A "historical" novel that should be in classrooms.
Harry Whittington (Web of Murder)
Probably the best plotter of all the Gold Medal–era guys.
Chet Williamson (Ash Wednesday)
A writer's writer, deft, impassioned, and pure.
Charles Willeford (Cockfighter)
A master craftsman, who teaches writing as he entertains.
F. Paul Wilson (Panacea)
If you want a a course in creative writing, just pick up one of F. Paul's books. Any of his books. Always delivers, always on time, and always leaves his mark.