When it comes to recommendations, I believe in two things: first, try to suggest great books that are overlooked or misunderstood; second, pay it forward. I remember just as keenly who recommended these books to me as I do the books themselves.
Cutter and Bone
By Newton Thornburg
(recommended by Tom Wickersham)
A California hippie/nihilist mystery set in 1970 Santa Barbara. Rather than explain how sharp, how funny, how energizing the writing is, I will simply give you the first sentence: “It was not the first time Richard Bone had shaved with a Lady Remington, nor did he expect it to be the last.” Think Inherent Vice meets Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas.
The Car Thief
By Theodore Weesner
(recommended by Stewart O’Nan)
I’m cheating, because Stewart recommended Weesner’s other great novel, The True Detective. When Weesner recently died, I noted the New York Times obituary gave special mention to his coming-of-age novel, The Car Thief. This was one of the most finely written, heartfelt, gut-wrenching stories of adolescent delinquency I’ve ever read. It’s about a white teenage boy in 1960s Detroit, who eponymously steals cars, gets caught, tries to do good, fails, and slowly claws his way out. Crystalline writing on crime and young love.2 .
Breaking & Entering
By Joy Williams
(recommended by Elliott Holt, Ron Carlson & Rebecca Fitting)
Where to start? If you want something slow and sexy, and bizarrely funny, and also somewhat sick and degrading, read Joy Williams’s early novel about a criminal husband and wife who break into vacation houses throughout the Florida Keys. This book gets my award for #1 Driftiest Crime Novel. There is little suspense, but instead a kind of queer anticipatory doom that keeps you gnashing your teeth, trembling, and turning the pages. Think Twin Peaks if the show had stayed good.
By Thomas Harris
(recommended by Michael Koryta first, and nearly every crime novelist I’ve met since)
If you read one thriller, make it this one. The film adaptations don’t come close to the experience of reading Red Dragon. On the level of entertainment, no novel approaches its measure of thrill, beauty, terror, and intellectual satisfaction. On the level of craft, it’s without peer. Red Dragon is one of the exceedingly rare thrillers that you can read multiple times, and every time it will jolt you anew.4 .
By James Dickey
(old hardcover given to me by my first boss, George Witte)
George knew what he was doing, which was sending me down a path of transcendent darkness. Dickey, even more so. As with some of these others, forget the serviceable but derivative film. Deliverance is still, after nearly fifty years, probably the best written, most emotionally centered thriller in existence. Dickey was, believe it or not, the Poet Laureate of America when he wrote this stunning, divisive, and yes gorgeously written novel. In this last year of cultural and political upheaval, I thought back again and again to Dickey’s masterpiece and how it predicted the violent split between town and country, haves and have-nots, and rooted this violence not in American mythical landscape, but in the dusky landscape of the human soul.