Author Alex Gilly has joined us on the blog today to talk about the writers who have inspired him throughout his life. Read more below, and order your copy of his newest thriller Death Rattle, now available wherever books are sold!
Reading got me into writing. As a kid and an adolescent, I would fall under an author’s spell, and then it would seem to me that that writer was more like a sorcerer than a normal person who sat at a desk all day writing one sentence and then another. There had to be magic involved.
Grown up, I yearned to cast spells like that, so I set out to learn how to write a novel. Turns out, it’s by sitting at a desk every morning and writing one sentence and then another.
And yet. Even now, the reader in me still believes in magic. When I find a new author to love, it’s not hard to imagine them in a wizard’s hat, pockets full of magic dust. I turn the pages and ask myself, “How do they do that?”
Below is a list of five writers who bewitched me at various stages of my life. It’s not a complete list and there’ll be more to come. But these writers all enchanted my reading life enough to make me want to write.
1) Jean-Michel Charlier and Jean Giraud
My family moved countries a lot when I was a kid and my French mother wanted me to learn French so she used to give me bandes dessinées, French comic books like Tintin and Asterix. These BDs come in series, so if you get hooked on one, you’re in luck because there are usually dozens more. At around 12 years of age, I discovered Blueberry, written by Jean-Michel Charlier and illustrated by Jean Giraud.
Mike Blueberry is a tough guy with a Belmondo nose who roams the United States still reeling from the Civil War drinking whiskey, playing his bugle and fighting injustice wherever he finds it. He’s an ally to Native Americans, African Americans and women, in a wild west dominated by white men with guns. Thinking about it now, Blueberry is a kind of precursor to Lee Childs’ Jack Reacher. He’s got the same scrappy wanderer energy: a free-roaming ex-army loner who gets into scrapes, fights bad guys and defends the defenseless.
Just a word on this whole comics vs. graphic novel thing. If you’re not into comics, call it a graphic novel. I’ve never been convinced of the distinction between the two anyway. And if you think you’re not into graphic novels, let Blueberry be the one to change your mind.
2) Agatha Christie
I became a loyal subject to the Queen of Crime at around 14 years of age. Poirot surely is a contender for the greatest sleuth in crime writing. In an Agatha Christie story, pretty much every character has both the motive and the means to be the killer — what better way to keep readers hooked than to make everyone a suspect! And unless you can tell me otherwise, it was Agatha Christie who invented the big reveal parties at the end of crime novels, when the sleuth gathers everyone in a room and methodically re-creates the crime before revealing the killer. It might seem a bit camp and theatrical now, but it’s become a standard set-piece of the genre. The recent movie Knives Out had great fun with it.
3) Ed McBain
I found McBain on my Dad’s shelves. The Penguin Crime paperbacks from the 1970s and early 80s. I still remember the covers vividly: the lowercase sans-serif font, the dirty black-and-white photos of New York, sometimes with a colored graphic of a syringe or a revolver superimposed over it, the hard titles like Cop Hater and Lady Killer.
After Christie’s cozy English villages, it was a thrill to discover the mean streets of the 87th Precinct. It made me feel a lot more grown up than I was, which was 15 years old. McBain also made me wise to the importance of creating a compelling villain. The Deaf Man is one of the greatest villains of crime writing, no question.
4) Carl Hiaasen
If I’m remembering this right, I found Hiaasen because one day I finished reading everything Elmore Leonard had ever written and I was craving more and then I saw a cover of a Hiaasen book with a Leonard blurb on it. Or maybe someone said if you like Leonard, you’ll like Hiaasen. Either way, for me one led into the other. Which is not to say they’re the same. Elmore Leonard is funny, but he’s funny in a cool, wry way. Hiaasen is laugh-out-loud-on-a-crowded-train funny. He showed me crime writing could be absurd and riotous. He also introduced me to weird America. I can’t remember which book it was in — I read pretty much his whole life’s work in a frenzy, starting a new one the minute I’d finished the last one — but there was one story involving a lustful dolphin and one of those wheel locks people used to put on their steering wheels that I’ve never forgotten.
5) Georges Simenon
I own a 28-volume omnibus edition of the works of Simenon the spines of which, when you line up the books in order, spell ‘Le Monde de Simenon’. If you’re going to get addicted to something, you like to keep an eye on your supply. I’m up to the first ‘O’ so there’s no need to re-up yet.
Simenon is my current addiction. There’s an aphorism that when ugly buildings get old enough, people start thinking of them as beautiful. The same thing happens with genre writers. I was at a dinner party once and the lady next to me asked me what I did and when I told her I wrote crime fiction she said, “I never read crime novels.” Then, perhaps sensing she might have caused offense (she hadn’t), she asked me what crime novels I suggest she read. When I said Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett she said, “Oh, I’ve read them.” Chandler and Hammett were considered pulp in their day. They only got elevated to the status of ‘proper’ writers later. Simenon is a bit like that. He produced books at an astonishing rate, pumping them out in weeks rather than months. You’d think someone who wrote that quickly would produce cardboard characters, barely more than sketches. Not Simenon. I’m not the first to say this, but is there a sharper observer of human character in crime writing than Georges Simenon? He is the master wizard to whom all we apprentices must pay our dues.
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