Five books for those who love Crime, Thrillers, Sci-fi and Comedy

Written by Tony Frame.

Finding new writers and books that appeal to your own preference can be difficult sometimes. There’s so much content out there that it can be tricky to find works that excel above the rest and fit in with the criteria that you’re looking for in a book.

Over the years I’ve read numerous books from various different writers and there’s been a good bunch of novels that have stuck with me since first reading them. They’re so good that every so often I will re-read them because there’s something in the writing that just makes it feel like I am discovering them all over again.

I’ve picked five such books from my collection that I think will appeal to some of you out there. They vary in genre, from Science fiction, to Crime and Thrillers, to semi auto-biographical accounts told in fictional form. I’ve included extracts and left out all the spoilers, so hopefully there’ll be one book here that whets your appetite and makes you seek it out!

Leviathan, by Paul Auster (1992)

I’m a huge fan of Paul Auster’s work and have a good number of his novels, some of which I’ve read three or four times. There’s not one novel of his that I would class as his best (a lot of them are excellent in different ways) but this is certainly one of my favourites. Classed as a Crime novel it certainly falls into the Mystery / Thriller genre as well.

The story unravels with writer Peter Aaron as he reads a story in the newspaper about a man who was building a bomb and accidentally blew himself up. It turns out that the man in question was an old friend of his, someone whom he hadn’t seen in a long time. The FBI then turn up at Peter’s home and question him, and it’s after this that he starts to commit everything from memory onto paper, and so he begins writing the tale of how he met his friend, the bomber, Benjamin Sachs.

What I love about the novel is the world it takes you into; it immerses you into a New York that has a dream-like quality about it, with tempestuous friendships and secret relationships that have an undertone of danger about them. You already know how it ends for Benjamin Sachs, so the mystery of how his demise comes about is always simmering away under the surface of the plot.

Various covers of the novel and Paul Auster (middle) in what looks like Central Park.

Extract from Leviathan:

As chance would have it, an immense storm blew in from the Midwest on Friday night, and by Saturday morning a foot and a half of snow had fallen on the city. The reasonable thing would have been to get in touch with the woman who had called me, but I had stupidly forgotten to ask for her number, and when I still hadn’t heard from her by one o’clock, I figured I should get myself downtown as quickly as possible.

I bundled up in my overcoat and galoshes, stuck the manuscript of my most recent story into one of the coat pockets, and then tramped out onto Riverside Drive, heading toward the subway station at 116th Street and Broadway. The sky was beginning to clear by then, but the streets and sidewalks were still clogged with snow, and there was scarcely any traffic. A few cars and trucks had been abandoned in tall drifts by the curb, and every now and then a lone vehicle would come inching down the street, skidding out of control whenever the driver tried to stop for a red light.

I normally would have enjoyed this mayhem, but the weather was too fierce that day for me to lift my nose out of my scarf. The temperature had been falling steadily since sunrise, and by now the air was bitter, with wild surges of wind blowing off the Hudson, enormous gusts that literally pushed my body up the street. I was half-numb by the time I reached the subway station, but in spite of everything, it appeared that the trains were still running. This surprised me, and as I walked down the stairs and bought my token, I assumed that meant the reading was on after all.

I made it to Nashe’s Tavern at ten past two. The place was open, but once my eyes adjusted to the darkness inside, I saw that no one was there. A bartender in a white apron stood behind the bar, methodically drying shot-glass with a red towel. He was a hefty man, of about forty, and he studied me carefully as I approached, almost as if he regretted this interruption of his solitude.

‘Isn’t there supposed to be a reading here in about twenty minutes?’ I asked. The moment the words left my mouth, I felt like a fool for saying them.

‘It was canceled,’ the bartender said. ‘With all that slop out there today, there wouldn’t have been much point to it. Poetry’s a beautiful thing, but it’s hardly worth freezing your ass off for.’

I sat down on one of the barstools and ordered a bourbon. I was still shivering from my walk in the snow, and I wanted to warm my innards before I ventured out again.

Helix, by Eric Brown (2007)

‘This is the rediscovery of wonder.’ – Stephen Baxter.

That quote by Stephen Baxter is on the cover of the paperback I’ve got and it summarises Helix up in a nutshell. I can’t remember how I came upon this novel; I’ve got a vague memory that it’s one of those random books I picked up when I was browsing in a bookstore and I was immediately drawn in by the clearness of the prose, and the way it beautifully described vast landscapes and complex technologies with such simplicity that made it very easy and relaxing to read.

I think a lot of sci-fi novels can get bogged down on explaining the tech and the worlds with too much unnecessary detail that you can get bored quite quickly, but with Helix it’s almost the opposite; the characters and plot become the primary focus, with everything else coming secondary.

There’s just the right amount of description about the fantastic worlds and landscapes you and the characters are seeing that it lets your imagination fill in the rest when needed. You don’t need a thesaurus at hand nor do you have to re-read a paragraph to understand what is being explained. Like all good writing it flows effortlessly off the page and the voice of the writer makes it feel like you’re in his head, hearing his thoughts. That is a skill and a half in itself, and it’s something that Eric Brown does exceptionally well.

The crux of the story is a tale of survival which jumps between a couple of different points of view (from various characters) throughout. When a colony vessel carrying four-thousand cryogenically frozen humans leaves a dying Earth, and crashes on the planet Helix, it’s up to the six awakened ship members to find a habitable world on the spiral planet for the rest of their sleeping human cargo. Humanity’s destiny rests with them and them alone!

Helix front and back covers and its writer, Eric Brown.

Extract from Helix:

He walked through the starship graveyard to the edge of the sea. Light-headed, trying not to dwell on Chrissie’s lack of response, he looked over his garden, row upon row of peas and beans and potato plants, their lush foliage incongruous amid the rearing shapes of a dozen derelict shuttles and decommissioned tugs. Despite their dilapidated and broken-backed condition, there was something almost proud and defiant about these ships. They spoke of a time when humankind had not been afraid to explore, when the planet could sustain the luxury of space flight, before the cutbacks and the withdrawal of the moon and Mars colonies.

He passed between the two towering solid fuel boosters that formed the entrance to the graveyard, paused and took in the scene before him. The sea lapped listlessly at the scorching sands of the beach, but he saw only Chrissie’s face in his mind’s eye.

Thirty years ago Hendry had lived with his parents in the Melbourne suburb of Edithvale, now submerged twenty miles out to sea. This was as close to the stamping ground of his youth as he had been able to get, and the fact had disturbed him on his return in ’90. He had known, intellectually, that Australia like every other landmass had been pared down little by little and reshaped by the creeping tides, but that the ocean had swallowed his childhood home he found inconceviable and shocking.

So he’d set up a base in the old starship graveyard, and started a garden, along with a dozen other like-minded lost souls, who over the following years had either died or moved away, driven by the encroaching sea or the increasing heat.

Gates of Eden, by Ethan Coen (1998)

It was a complete fluke that I discovered one half of the Coen brothers had written this short story collection. I was watching the television one November evening (in 1998) and switched the channel over to some book review programme where a dramatisation of one of the stories was playing – it was a black and white noir setting in an office, with stark shadows and venetian blinds. A gruff voiceover was talking about some dame inquiring about his investigation services.

There was something in the writing and the language that caught my attention. It was then revealed that the dramatisation was an extract from ‘A Fever in the Blood.’ The reviewers went on to talk about it and the other stories in Gates of Eden (they were all praising the writing) and so I put it on my Christmas list, and on Christmas day I was gifted it and thus began my love affair with the book which I’ve read numerous times since.

Like a lot of the Coen brothers’ movies, the stories in Gates of Eden are filled with whacky and interesting characters and great dialogue, and there’s also some poignant moments as well that leave you thinking about afterwards. Most of the stories are in the crime genre, although there are a few that fall into a more personal, reminiscent style of fiction.

Some favourites of mine are: Destiny – in which a boxer moonlights as a private detective. Cosa Minapolidan chronicles the life of an up and coming gangster and has some funny, laugh-out-loud moments. A Morty Story is an interesting little family tale, and Johnnie Ga-Botz goes to places you won’t believe, with fast and witty hard-boiled dialogue that really jumps out of the page. And then there’s the titular Gates of Eden itself; featuring a captivating and slightly deranged main character whose life as a weights and measures enforcement officer draws you in from the outset.

Gates of Eden covers, and writer Ethan Coen.

Extract from Gates of Eden (from the story Destiny):

It was hot in my parked Volkswagen. The car door burned when I tried to rest my elbow in the open window, so I sat with my hands moldering in my lap and felt my armpits turning slick.

I was parked on the street behind the Valley View, which was in fact in the Valley, not above it, and therefore had no view. My street was perpendicular to the motel’s arcade of rooms. At midday the lot was empty.

The first car to pull in was a late-model Cadillac Sedan De Ville. Its air conditioner, I deduced, was going full bore, for the woman who stepped out was wearing a knee-length fur. She was tall – taller than Benny – and in her mid-forties, with dark glasses, rouged cheekbones, and a pruny mouth. She wore heels and tight pants that made her wriggle down the walkway like a small hoofed animal trying to shake a bur off its hindquarters. She held a key with a big plastic tag up by one ear and a purse in the other hand, and gave them both short, vicious wags for balance as she hastened toward a room, sneering at nothing in particular. She didn’t look back at the Caddy’s driver, who followed.

Lou Argo was fiftyish. Even from a distance I could tell that he’d had virulent acne as an adolescent, or else small-pox, or came from a neighbourhood where the toughs fought with knitting needles. I eased the focus ring on the Nikon to where things swam to crisp and started snapping. I got Mrs. Benedeck walking, I framed over and got her walking with Lou Argo walking behind, I got her hunched with her key at a door

The Rum Diary, by Hunter S. Thompson (1998)

According to Wikipedia we have Johnny Depp to thank for this coming to publication. It was written in the early ’60s, and although Thompson had submitted it for publication back then, he gave up after a number of rejections and moved on to other works…got involved with politics, done drugs, drank lots. It was only after Depp discovered the novel amongst the myriad of Thomspon’s papers in the late ’90s that it was subsequently published.

Based on Thompson’s own experiences, the story follows journalist Paul Kemp and his adventures in Puerto Rico writing for a local newspaper. The locals think the paper and its writers are communists so there’s always an element of danger in the air, of being beaten to death by an angry mob. And then there’s the drinking; mostly rum, and lots of it, amidst tales of backhanded deals and meetings with corrupt politicians and public officials. There are poignant moments too, of course, with one man’s musings over his future and of getting old.

It’s a book that takes you on vacation as soon as you pick it up; transporting you to the white sanded beaches and palm trees in its moments of calm, but amidst this utopia there is a craziness and danger lurking in the air, and there’s a feeling that all hell could break loose at any given time.

The Rum Diary various covers, and Hunter S. Thompson.

Extract from The Rum Diary:

One Saturday in late March, when the tourist season was almost over and the merchants were bracing themselves for the muggy low-profit summer, Sala had an assignment to go down to Fajardo, on the eastern tip of the island, and take some pictures of a new hotel that was going up on a hill overlooking the harbor. Lotterman thought the News could strike a cheerful note by pointing out that things were going to be even better next season.

I decided to go along for the ride. Ever since I’d come to San Juan I’d been meaning to get out on the island, but without a car it was impossible. My furthest penetration had been to Yeamon’s, about twenty miles out, and Fajardo was twice as far in the same direction. We decided to get some rum and stop by his place on the way back, hoping to get there just as he paddled in fro the reef with a bulging sack of lobsters. “He’s probably damn good at it by now,” I said. “God knows what he’s living on – they must have a steady diet of lobster and chicken.”

“Hell,” Sala remarked, “chicken’s expensive.

I laughed. “Not out there. He shoots them with a speargun.”

“God almighty!” Sala exclaimed. “That’s voodoo country – they’ll murder him, sure as hell!”

I shrugged. I’d assumed from the very beginning that Yeamon would sooner or later be killed – by somebody or some fearless mob, for some reason or other, it seemed inevitable. There was a time I had been the same way. I wanted it all and I wanted it fast and no obstacle was big enough to put me off. Since then I had learned that some things were bigger than they look from a distance, and now I was not so sure anymore just what I was going to get or even what I deserved. I was not proud of what I had learned but I never doubted it was worth knowing. Yeamon would either learn the same things, or he would certainly be croaked.

This is what I told myself on those hot afternoons in San Juan when I was thirty years old and my shirt stuck damply to my back and I felt myself on that big and lonely hump, with my hardnose years behind me and all the rest downhill. They were eerie days, and my fatalistic view of Yeamon was not so much conviction as necessity, because if I granted him even the slightest optimism I would have to admit a lot of unhappy things about myself.

Hollywood, by Charles Bukowski (1989)

I’m a huge fan of Bukowski’s work, although, some of his content will not fit in with the politically-correct woke crowd and hardcore feminists nowadays. I will acknowledge that Women can come across as a vulgar account of one man’s debauchery and womanising, and that it does teeter on the realms of being a pornographic journal. However, Post Office will always be one of my favourite novels of all time (I must have read it over six times now) and Ham and Rye would be up there next to it.

Hollywood is the one we’re talking about here – it’s the one novel of his that would appeal to most readers. It’s a fictionalized version of his experiences on the production of Barfly (1987) – a film starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway. The film is based upon Bukowski’s writings and takes inspiration from his novels such as Factotum and Post Office.

Like most of Bukowski’s work, the writing in Hollywood feels like an honest account of what happened during that time. Don’t be fooled by the guise of ‘this is a fictionalised account’ as I think that was just for the publisher to cover their asses from being sued by the famous people talked about in the book. Hence why the majority of the names in the book have been changed. For example; the character in the book called Jack Bledsoe is basically Mickey Rourke, and so on.

Hollywood starts with Bukowski writing the script and follows the whole production, from start to finish, with many ups and downs and drinking in-between. Along the way Bukowski gives his thoughts on meeting some of Tinseltown’s top players then; people like Dennis Hopper and Sean Penn, David Lynch and Isabella Rossellini.

There’s very few novels like Hollywood (about Hollywood) around; even though Bukowski was a very acclaimed and esteemed writer back then, he always kept his distance from the establishment, and didn’t compromise his opinion nor his writing to fit with anyone’s agenda, no matter who they were. It’s definitely up there with his best work.

The great thing (like most of his writing) is that there’s a good deal of humour in the book. It’s the humour that makes Bukowski’s novels what they are. Not all laughs will be the same though; some laughs are cynical at the absurdity of society’s rules and the lives people lead and the conformity that is rife in the world. And other laughs are simply because something is funny, or so ludicrous that you cannot do anything but laugh. In Hollywood, there’s many laughs.

A couple of different covers of Hollywood and Bukowski smoking a cigarette.

Extract from Hollywood:

3 or 4 days later Jon was on the phone.

“Jack Bledsoe has read the screenplay and he likes it, he wants to act in it. I’ve been trying to get him to come see you but he claims he doesn’t want to be overwhelmed by you. He says you must come see him.”

“Will that overwhelm him less?”

“I guess that’s what he thinks.”

“You think he can play the part?”

“Oh yes, he’s from the streets! He once sold chestnuts in the streets! He’s from New York!”

“I’ve seen some of his films…”

“Well, what do you think?”

“Maybe…Listen, he’s got to stop smiling all the time when he doesn’t know what else to do. And he’s got to stop beating refrigerators with his fists. And he’s got to stop that New York strut where they walk like they’ve got a banana up their ass.”

“He used to be a boxer, this Jack Bledsoe…”

“Shit, we all used to be boxers…”

“He can do the part, trust me…”

“Jon, he can’t be New York. This main character is a California boy, California boys are laid back, in the woodwork. They don’t come rushing out, they cool it and figure their next move. Less panic. And under all this, they have the ability to kill. But they don’t blow a lot of smoke first.”

“You tell him this…”

All right, when and where?”

Let me know what you think of these books if you have read them. And drop your own recommendations below – it’s always good to see what other people are reading!

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