Novelist, memoirist, and short-story writer Chris Offutt is the author of Kentucky Straight, The Good Brother, and Country Dark. His new novel, The Killing Hills, follows a military detective as he pursues a murder case in his native eastern Kentucky.
Dead City by Shane Stevens (1973).
Most gangster narratives feature the people on top trying to hold on to power. Dead City is about a journeyman hitman on the way out and a young fellow trying to break into the hitman racket. Great dialogue and very funny at times. This is a book that deserves to be back in print. Buy it here.
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin (2010).
Another favorite, Franklin's novel offers deep, honest characterizations of Southern people without the all-too-standard judgment and exotification. These small-town Mississippians go about their days in a direct fashion: running errands, talking to one another, solving a murder along the way. Franklin's prose style is just as direct and beautiful. Buy it here.
The Harlem Detective Series by Chester Himes (1957–83).
The nine books of the Harlem Detective Series, which began with A Rage in Harlem and concluded with Plan B, were a great influence on me — unpredictable events, funny, brutal, and real. There is great compassion in the depiction of tough people in hard situations. Himes wrote from deep within an urban culture that's mysterious to outsiders — and what they think they know is wrong. Buy it here.
Laidlaw by William McIlvanney (1977).
This is the first book by the father of "Tartan Noir." I've read it so often that I tried to follow Laidlaw's structure in my own work. I failed, of course. But I learned from McIlvanney to show a world without explaining. What he did for Glasgow in the '70s I attempted with eastern Kentucky today. Buy it here.
Death's Dark Abyss by Massimo Carlotto (2004).
My favorite book by one of my top five living writers. Any one of Carlotto's novels is like a gateway drug to the rest. I've read and reread them all. His understanding of the so-called criminal mind is the best in literature. Buy it here.
The Marseilles Trilogy by Jean-Claude Izzo (1995–98).
Jean-Claude Izzo's only three novels, Total Chaos, Chourmo, and Solea are remarkable for their narratives, their pace, and the Marseilles native's deftness with sociopolitical commentary. The prose has a remarkable lyric quality that comes through in translation. But it's also worth learning French to read the original. Buy it here.
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