I did a lot of reading this summer—and here I’m going to list some of my favorites. There’s kind of a theme to this one—I went on a noir/hardboiled bender this summer. Nonetheless, of all the books I read (and haven’t already written about)—these books are ones that I can recommend in the best faith.
5. The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett
Dashiell Hammett, creator of hardboiled detective Sam Spade, also created Nick and Nora Charles, the husband-and-wife detective duo played by William Powell and Myrna Loy in The Thin Man’s 1934 film adaptation. It’s a solid mystery novel, but Nick and Nora’s likeability and affable relationship is the real treat here (with the exception of a scene where Nick has to punch Nora in the face so that he can take a gunman’s bullet—a bizarre sequence, and one of the few blemishes in this book). It’s fun, entertaining, and written as sparsely and featuring as much alcohol as any Hemingway novel. It’s clear in this novel why Dashiell Hammett, who wrote very few books, had such an influence on the detective genre. He was simply the best of his time, laying the foundation for greater works by Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain.
4. The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
It’s a shame that The Stars My Destination nor its author, Alfred Bester, is well-known, because this novel ranks with the best of science fiction. While most science fiction from the 50s and 60s is awfully dated, this novel feels considerably current today. In a future where people can teleport anywhere by “Jaunting” (with the exception of teleportation through space), spaceman Gully Foyle is left for dead by the starship Vorga. His quest for revenge leads him in a journey across the solar system. And while the book is pretty good as science fiction goes, the climax is astounding. Playing like a fusion of Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, and Douglas Adams, this book will please anyone who is a fan of satirical science fiction.
3. The High Window and The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler
This spot is a two-for-one deal, considering both books are quick reads and part of the same series. Sequels to Raymond Chandler’s initial private detective Philip Marlowe adventures The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely, The High Window and The Lady in the Lake are solid mysteries in their own right. Chandler’s nostalgic prose evokes the imagery of Faulkner paired with the sparse, noir cheekiness of Hammett. Marlowe’s voice is so realized it’s like Humphrey Bogart is telling you the story himself. While The High Window is definitely the weaker entry, it possesses gem-like lines such as “From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.” Plus, The High Window acknowledges and mocks the tropes of the mystery genre, best summarized when someone asks Marlowe if he’s going to use his “remorseless flow of logic and intuition and all that rot” to solve the mystery in the final scene. Marlowe replies that yes, he would
“[put] it all together in a neat pattern, [sneak] in an odd bit [he] had on [his] hip here and there, [analyze] the motives and characters and make them out to be quite different from what anybody—or [himself] for that matter—thought them to be up to this golden moment—and finally [make] a sort of world-weary pounce on the least promising suspect” (138-139, The High Window).
It’s this kind of self-awareness that distinguishes Chandler from other mystery writers and makes him a literary treasure. The Lady in the Lake comes close to measuring up to The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely, as Marlowe investigates the disappearances of two wives—a rich one and a poor one, traveling to a mountain resort town reminiscent of Big Bear or Idyllwild. Classic works by a classic author.
2. On Writing by Stephen King
This book functions as a personal memoir by Stephen King and also a Strunk and White 2.0 for aspiring creative writers. It’s written with sincerity and passion, and even if you aren’t interested in creative writing or you aren’t a Stephen King fan, it’s still worth reading. It’s an important book and glimpse into the mind of the Charles Dickens of our time.
1. 1. Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain
I’ll understand if you aren’t familiar with this book, but it was one of the most pleasant surprises of my summer reading. James M. Cain wrote Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, two brisk thrillers about men persuaded by women to murder their husbands. There aren’t any murders in Mildred Pierce (though there is in the 1945 film version—a great movie, but with a slightly different plot).
To put it simply, Mildred Pierce is a modern-day Madame Bovary. It’s the story of a woman who kicks out her philandering husband only to realize that she has to provide for her two daughters—the tomboyish Ray, and the manipulative, spoiled, and Machiavellian Veda. First she tries to woo a lawyer—for money. When that doesn’t pan out, she looks for a job, but with zero work experience, Mildred is turned away everywhere she goes. Her ambition for her daughters and pride for her status fuels a very-real drama of a woman driven to succeed, but at what cost?
Cain’s scenes and dialogue are colorful and shocking. His characters are deliciously memorable—the calculating lawyer Wally Burgan, the initially-charming gigolo Monty Beragon, the frightening Italian music teacher—it’s unbelievable that this book is not required reading.
One of the most striking dialogues is between Mildred and the music teacher, Mr. Treviso, concerning Veda’s true nature.
“She’s a wonderful girl.” [Mildred]
“No—is a wonderful singer.” [Mr. Treviso]
As she looked at him, hurt and puzzled, Mr. Treviso stepped nearer, to make his meaning clear. “Da girl is lousy. She is a bitch. Da singer—is not.”
It’s this kind of family saga, where something horrible happens just as things are starting to look better, that accurately portrays the struggles of day-to-day life. You may never meet people like Monty and Mr. Treviso, but struggling to pay the mortgage is a theme that is as timeless as ever. Just as there are bad parents, there are also bad children. Mildred Pierce is shocking, but in a way that comments on social conventions of status and living outside our means. It’s the story of a wealthy family that lost everything—the story of Wuthering Heights, The Sound and the Fury, and also Arrested Development. In these trying economic times, it’s the story of many of our lives, too. We are all Mildred, blindly working desperately for a future that may not come to pass.
So–on that sobering note–did you read anything mind-blowing this summer? Comment below!