I find that, as a reader, I approach books in different ways. Some titles I hope will be edifying, such as philosophy and self-help books. Volumes of poetry and studies of a painter’s work may lift my spirit. Sometimes, I read non-fiction as research for my crime novels, delving into forensic medicine, autopsies and poisons.
I tend to base my library requests on book reviews and works praised in author interviews. There’s always the drawback, when reading in my chosen writing genre of Crime, that I’ll be less likely to enjoy the ride than look for ways that it could be improved.
There aren’t many authors whose work blows me away every time, making me thrilled when I see that they’ve got a new book being published, keeping me alert for its UK publication date, so that I can be first in the queue to request it at the library. When I’ve got my hands on it, I’m voracious!
One such author is James Lee Burke, whose 400-500 page novels I usually read in a few days, but then I’ve been a fan of his 22 Dave Robicheaux detective novels since the first title, The Neon Rain was published in 1987. After so long together, I’ve invested in his protagonist’s story arc, even wondering about how he’s getting on from time to time, which proves how real he is to me.
Reading a new Robicheaux story is like meeting up with an old friend—and it’s not always good news—Burke’s protagonist is a deeply flawed man, which he realises himself, and it makes him all the more compelling. I’m currently 50 pages from finishing the latest story New Iberia Blues, already having mournful feelings that I won’t be able to find anything as good to read next.
In the Crime genre, the only other author I know of who portrays such a conflicted hero is Jo Nesbø whose Harry Hole is self-destructive, determined and excruciating to keep company with—which again makes the books unputdownable. There’s definitely an element of “What’s the idiot going to do next?”, that keeps me reading on.
It’s a key element of story-telling, that we care what happens to the main characters. Their story becomes our story—their truth becomes ours—a merging occurs. From the time of the caveman telling tales around a fire to people reading e-books on smartphones and Kindles, the narrator needs to create that empathy.
In historical fiction, I’m transfixed by the dilemmas that C. J. Samson’s Tudor era lawyer Matthew Shardlake faces.
Shardlake is one of the most likeable fictional characters ever created, and one who lives on his wits and cunning in what were incredibly dangerous times politically—with heads rolling off the Royal chopping block—and, where a man could be stabbed to death by the henchman of a courtier as he walks along a darkened street.
What these three protagonists share is that they walk a fine line between normality and oblivion. They all want to make things right in society, but the evil forces they oppose threaten to corrupt and destroy them. They’re living on the edge. As Friedrich Nietzsche warned:
Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.
As a reader, I stand alongside them, glad that I’m not them, but eager to know how they’ll survive.
Whose books can’t you put down?
Which characters have you bonded with?