Over at The Kill Zone today, James Scott Bell blogged about his influences in his writing, and he reeled off an impressive list of authors and how each one affected him. While commenting on his piece, it occurred to me to think about that subject and who my influences were.
As I wrote in Jim’s blog, the first real novel I ever read (or can remember reading) was Moby-Dick. Naturally, we all had to read it in school and we trudged through it as best we could, but something about that book stayed with me, so about a year later, I reread it on my own. I then realized for the first time what could be done with a story, how it can be taken to the farthest reaches of the human experience, how incredible it was that someone could open with something so deceptively simple as “Call me Ishmael” and then follow those three little words with one of the most powerful tales ever conceived.
Anyway, being as young as I was, I’m sure I missed a lot of what Herman Melville was trying to say, but I got enough to fuel my desire to read more. I read other novels of his, but of course, none of them measured up to Moby-Dick.
So I read a few more books and pretty soon I started seeing James Michener’s Hawaii in everyone’s hands. I went ahead and read it and was astounded by the scope of the tale, from the actual formation of the island chain itself up to the tangled politics of statehood. Again, I read several other Michener novels, and while a couple of them were excellent, Hawaii remained at the top of the heap.
Ayn Rand showed me how personal one’s writing could become as The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged insinuated themselves into my being. To this day, I curse the Hollywood powers that cast Gary Cooper as Howard Roark, because Cooper clearly did not get the character at all. His key scene at the end, a very long courtroom speech (which Rand insisted go into the movie word for word as a condition of her signing the rights deal) was completely out of his range and he just did not understand anything Roark was saying. It was a good thing I’d read the book first.
Love Rand or hate her,Â The Fountainhead is still a great novel and a milestone in storytelling.
My father read a couple of Mike Hammer novels by Mickey Spillane, so I got them as hand-me-downs. Spillane’s visceral, in-your-face style proved to be the other side of the hardboiled coin from Raymond Chandler’s cool detachment. They could take a routine plot and spin it so you would think the story has never been told before. And in doing so, Spillane’s New York and Chandler’s LA burst off the pages at me in ways I will never forget.
I discovered Jim Thompson almost by accident. I read an article about a movie that Anjelica Huston was going to make called The Grifters, based on Thompson’s 1963 novel. Huston said that the novel was a page-turner, with dark and desperate characters. Somewhere in this article, I believe, was the first time I’d ever hear the word “noir” applied to novels. They said the movie, despite being shot in color, was a perfect example of film noir, and that Thompson’s book was an equally perfect example of noir fiction. Being an aficionado of film noir, I rushed out to buy the book, fortunate that Black Lizard had re-released the work of a bunch of the old noir authors. Of course, The Grifters was great, both the novel and the movie, and I loaded up on Thompson immediately afterward. No one, and I mean no one, has ever penetrated the inner workings of the criminal mind as thoroughly as Jim Thompson.
Well, naturally, from there it was only a short hop over to David Goodis, Charles Willeford, Lawrence Block, and Gil Brewer. Noir city, baby.
Somewhere in there, James Ellroy drifted into my sights. I read his LA Quartet and saw how highly stylish and rhythmic an author could be without ever losing control of the story, keeping the reader’s eyes glued to the page. I still look forward to every Ellroy novel.
There have been many others, of course, like Elmore Leonard, Donald Westlake, and Andrew Vachss, but you know, this blog has to end sometime, so I guess it’ll be now.