15 Favorite Novels Challenge

July 4th, 2017 by Max Allan Collins

My writer pal Raymond Benson posted one of those “make a list” challenges, in which the premise is to enumerate your favorite fifteen novels, alphabetically arranged by author. I’ll take an annotated swing.

Every one of these books represents an author whose work I admire (and collect). I make no apology for the authors who don’t appear here, Hemingway and Fitzgerald for example, whose work I also like but would never describe as “favorites.” Decades ago, a teacher at the University of Iowa who I found patronizing told me once that anyone who had never read Proust was an uneducated lout. That has kept me Proust-free in my lifetime, unapologetically.

1. The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain. Cain’s novel is where I learned how dialogue can drive a narrative, and also how a crime novel about two terrible people can work as a love story. Without this, no Gun Grazy or Bonnie & Clyde, not to mention a third or so of all Gold Medal paperbacks. “I kissed her. Her eyes were shining up at me like two blue stars. It was like being in church.”

2. Farewell, My Lovely, Raymond Chandler. This is where it all came together for Chandler – a plot that actually works (unlike the shambling wonder that is The Big Sleep), filled with hardboiled poetry and a cast of memorable grotesques with Marlowe at his wise-ass best. “I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.”

3. Evil Under the Sun, Agatha Christie. Christie was such a underrated writer. The idea that she wrote mere puzzles is more a reflection on a reader’s lack of insight than any deficiency in the work of this tough-minded, tricky writer. She wrote excellent dialogue, playwright that she was, and remains the gold standard of mystery fiction. “The sun shines. The sea is blue. But you forget…there is evil everywhere under the sun.”

4. Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons. I love this little book, with its vivid characters, running gags and self-serving protagonist, who views the rustic relatives she’s sponging off as a fix-‘er-up project. The original BBC adaptation with Alistair Sim is woefully absent on home video since an early VHS release. “I saw something nasty in the woodshed.”

5. Dr. No, Ian Fleming. I got into Fleming when he was marketed as a British Spillane, and thought his books were terrific. I still do, most of them anyway, and this is a fine example. From Russia with Love is arguably better, this one is pure Bond at his undiluted best. “What’s your name?” “Bond. James Bond.”

6. The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett. My favorite book. Hammett defines and perfects the private eye novel, and walks away, undefeated. “He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him see the works.”

7. The Southpaw, Mark Harris. Harris is somewhat forgotten, but he’s a wonderful, adventurous novelist. I am not a big baseball fan, but the four Henry Wiggen novels (Bang the Drum, Slowly is the most celebrated) use a first-person voice as American as Huck Finn and Philip Marlowe. “First off I must tell you something about myself, Henry Wiggen, and where I was born and my folks.”

8. The Bad Seed, William March. I have called March a coherent Faulkner, and I stand by that. If you’re familiar with the Mommy movies, you know how highly I regard his sad story of the mother of a monster. “It seemed to her suddenly that violence was an inescapable factor of the heart, perhaps the most important factor of all – an ineradicable thing that lay, like a bad seed, behind kindness, behind compassion, behind the embrace of love itself.”

9. Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, Horace McCoy. For a novel so little discussed, it could hardly be more influential – Jim Thompson comes from this ambitious first-person account of a brilliant psychopath, one of the most ambitious noir novels of the formative era. “I squeezed the trigger and the bullet hit him in the left eye and a drop of fluid squirted and the eyelid fell over the hole as a window shade falls over a pane of darkness.”

10. Prince of Foxes, Samuel Shellabarger. Shellabarger, once hugely popular, now unjustly forgotten, wrote sprawling novels wherein a swashbuckling fictional character was woven into a well-researched historical fabric. He was as much an influence on me as Hammett, Chandler, Cain and Spillane. “It illustrates the adage that the deeper the dung, the richer the rose. Who remembers the dung when the rose has blossomed?”

11. One Lonely Night, Mickey Spillane. The wildest and craziest of the early Mike Hammer novels also happens to be the first I read (at age thirteen). I have never been right-in-the-head since. “Nobody ever walked across the bridge, not on a night like this.”

12. Too Many Cooks, Rex Stout. Picking one Nero Wolfe novel is tough – I often cite the hardboiled Golden Spider as a particular favorite. But this is a delightful one, with Stout’s humanely leftist leanings coming through as well as his humor via Archie Goodwin and first-rate mystery plotting (an area in which he didn’t always excel). “Nothing is simpler than to kill a man; the difficulties arise in attempting to avoid the consequences.”

13. Pop. 1280, Jim Thompson. I discovered Thompson in high school and remember reading this in study hall. The psychotic sociopath as narrator/protagonist hit me hard, and played a role in the shaping of Quarry, although my guy is neither psycho nor sociopath, despite the opinion of some. “I’d been chasing females all my life, not paying no mind to the fact that whatever’s got tail at one end has teeth at the other, and now I was getting chomped.”

14. The Caine Mutiny, Herman Wouk. I love Wouk’s work and consider him underrated and unfairly dismissed. I tried to pay tribute in Red Sky in Morning, which will soon be reprinted by Brash Books under my preferred title, USS Powderkeg under my own name (not “Patrick Culhane”). Wouk, still around at 100, is a wonderful storyteller, and few writers have ever created a more memorable character than Captain Queeq. “Life is a dream, a little more coherent than most.”

15. Rambling Rose, Calder Willingham. Willingham was one of my first non-mystery-writer enthusiasms. This is a lovely book, but I like virtually everything of his, from End as a Man to Eternal Fire. He wrote about sex in a way that was at once playful and dead serious. He was one of the great screenwriters, too (Paths of Glory, The Graduate, Little Big Man, Rambling Rose). “I will call her Rose. On a broiling August afternoon in 1935 when I was close to thirteen years of age, a big towheaded girl came to our house with dusty shoes, runs in her stockings and a twinkle in her cornflower eyes.”

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The IMDB entry on Quarry is worth a look.

Here’s a write-up on Hard Case Crime and its move into comics with some nice (if brief) mentions of me and Ms. Tree.

Finally, here’s a nice little bit about the Spillane centenary from the great Rap Sheet.

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2 Responses to “15 Favorite Novels Challenge”

  1. Thomas Zappe says:

    Hello, Max. I’m dusting off my copy of FLYING BLIND in preparation for this Sunday’s History Channel program on Amelia Earhart. If you can watch it, I’m sure we would all be interested in your reaction.

  2. I absolutely adore Prince of Foxes. That’s a wonderfully written novel that people don’t talk about nearly enough.

    Great list. I always enjoy these, but especially when annotated.

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