24 June 2009 0 Comments

My 5 favorite novels

My second Palestinian crime novel A Grave in Gaza (UK title: The Saladin Murders) is just now published in Holland. The Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant asked me to contribute a list of my five favorite books, or at least those which’ve had the biggest impact on me as a writer. Here’s what I wrote:

Let It Come Down – Paul Bowles

Writers look for resonance. You might say Bowles has us with his title alone, which resonates with doom even before he writes his first sentence. (It’s drawn from “MacBeth.” When the murderers come upon Banquo, he says that it looks like there’ll be rain. The murderer lifts his knife and says: “Let it come down.” Then he kills him.) But with this novel about Morocco, as in his more famous Algerian novel “The Sheltering Sky”, Bowles was even more resonant. When writing, he would often travel through North Africa. Each day, he would incorporate something into his writing that had actually happened during the previous day’s journey. Working in the Middle East, I often follow that technique, adding details from yesterday’s stroll through the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem or a refugee camp in Bethlehem.

The Long Goodbye – Raymond Chandler

This is the novel that Chandler labored over longest and thought his best. He was right. It exposes a deep emotional side to his great detective creation Philip Marlowe. Chandler was the greatest stylist of Twentieth Century American fiction. Try this image, when a beautiful woman has just walked into a bar full of men and everyone falls silent to look at her: “It was like just after the conductor taps on his music stand and raises his arms and holds them poised.” Chandler inspires me to make every image in my book as good as that.

The King Must Die – Mary Renault

I was heading for Jordan to cover the dieing days of King Hussein a decade ago. I happened to pick up a used copy of this book — the title seemed appropriate. But as I waited in a rainy Amman winter for the poor old monarch to die, I discovered that Renault had a capacity to describe the classical world as though she had lived through that era. Her novels are the best portrayal of homosexual love and of the great values of Greece in literature anywhere.

The Cold Six Thousand – James Ellroy

I love to see real characters from Hollywood and Washington turn up in Ellroy’s terse, hip, hardboiled poetic fiction. This story of CIA/FBI renegades in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination is perfect. I saw Ellroy read years ago in New York and he blew me away. If you can find a better opening paragraph to a chapter than this one, let me know: “Heat. Bugs. Bullshit.” Dig it.

The Power and the Glory – Graham Greene

Greene went to Mexico to research a travel book, but he showed that journalistic research can turn into literature of great spirituality with this story of a drunken priest on the run. I try to remember that as I flick through my old reporter’s notebooks for new ideas for my novels. Greene’s is such a powerful examination of the loss of belief that it captivates even a non-Catholic, non-believer like me. The scene where the priest steals a hunk of meat from a stray dog is astonishing. The priest starts to beat the dog: “She just had to endure, her eyes yellow and scared and malevolent shining back at him between the blows.” Like Mexico under dictatorship. Like the priest before a disapproving God.

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