Greg Iles is the best-selling author of the Natchez Burning trilogy, set in Natchez, Mississippi, and featuring prosecutor-turned-mayor Penn Cage. In Cemetery Road, Iles' new thriller, a celebrated journalist probes a murder in his Mississippi hometown.
All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren (1946).
A political novel written by a poet whose pitiless insight into human fallibility penetrates MRI-deep. Inspired by the surreal saga of Louisiana politician Huey Long, All the King's Men is more relevant today than the year it was written. Some passages are as fine as any in American literature.
A Women in Berlin (2005).
Written by a female journalist living in Red Army–occupied Berlin and rediscovered and republished anonymously years later, this diary remains one of history's most harrowing documents of human depravity. The author's frank description of all she did to survive will take your breath away — and make you understand how lucky you are if you've been untouched by war.
The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris (1988).
Lambs proves "genre" authors can be every bit as observant and insightful as literary giants. Of a female hostage in a pit: "...in the absolute dark, she could hear the tiny clicks her eyes made when she blinked." Try it sometime. Harris knows of what he writes, at every level.
Different Seasons by Stephen King (1982).
This four-novella collection, which includes the stories adapted as The Shawshank Redemption and Stand by Me, ended debate over whether King was "a horror writer." His ability to reincarnate our childhood experiences remains unmatched, and without apparent effort he drops us into the shoes of an unjustly convicted prisoner. Like all great illusionists, King makes magic look easy; it's not.
Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow (1987).
No one has done first-person-present narration better. From the first line ("This is how I always start: I am the prosecutor") to the last ("Everlasting hope"), Turow guides us through the maze of a marriage on the rocks, all the while concealing the killer standing right in front of us.
John Prine Beyond Words by John Prine (2017).
Great song lyrics are as valid a part of American literature as any novel. Read this songbook and you'll understand why one U.S. poet laureate said of John Prine: "He did a better job of holding up the mirror of art to the '60s and '70s than any of our official literary poets."