Mike Tharp: J.D. Salinger and other favorites

January 30, 2010 

Two events happened this week to make me think of books.

They're never far from mind -- I read two or three a week.

But these events reminded me what an impact books can make on our lives.

The first event was the death of J.D. Salinger at 91. His novel, "Catcher in the Rye," has sold 60 million copies since it was published in 1951. Every generation since then has read it.

Jack Haskins, our Old Trainer, e-mailed that when he read it as a teenager, the experience was "electrifying." Same for me and millions of others.

The second event was that Dr. Don Ball brought by a copy of his book, "Follow the Bouncing Ball," self-published in 2008. The Catheys Valley resident tells his life story, and I can't wait to read it. He served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II and nearly ditched his plane in the North Atlantic.

Thanks, Don.

So, thinking of books, in no special order, here are some of my favorite authors. If they share one common trait, it's that you want to re-read them. I've stuck to contemporary writers of fiction and excluded such icons as Faulkner, Steinbeck, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, since you already know a lot about them.

John le Carre: His George Smiley spy novels rank with Graham Greene's "entertainments" as tours de force into the mindset of espionage. Many times, when confounded and confused by life's problems, I'll pick up one of his novels again and settle into a Zen state of being manipulated by a master storyteller. Both he and Greene deserve a Nobel Prize for Literature, but neither will ever sway the Swedish judges.

Michael Connelly: A onetime L.A. Times cop-shop reporter, he's spawned a devoted following with his intensely driven novels about LAPD homicide detective Harry Bosch. Unlike so many of today's novelists, Connelly specializes in emotionally true plots and characters. His novels could be called "whydunnits" since they reveal so much inner motivation. He's the one author I'll buy new, since I can't wait to dissolve inside the pages.

Elmore Leonard: He writes dialogue and eight-word descriptions that make you feel as if you're watching a movie. And it's no accident that many of his crime novels have been made into films.

Martin Cruz Smith: His Arkady Renko novels provide spare, bleak points of view for his Russian investigator. You're transported from Moscow to the hold of a Soviet fishing trawler in the Arctic Sea to the radioactive ruins of Chernobyl. Arkady's existential anguish is balanced by his dry wit.

Donald Westlake: He died last year, but not before writing dozens of comic "caper" novels, including thrillers under the pseudonym of Richard Stark. He captures the absurdity of the criminal mind and makes you smile with his plays on words and outrageous but credible characters.

Robert B. Parker: He died earlier this year, after memorializing in 40 or more novels a one-name Boston private eye named Spenser. His amour in the books, Susan Silverman, once called him "a big John Keats." And he is. I read Spenser novels like eating M & Ms.

Elmer Kelton: He also died last year. The former Texas editor of "Sheep and Goat Management" wrote a series of westerns that are the fictional equivalent of a John Ford/John Wayne film.

Henning Mankell: A Swede whose Kurt Wallander novels pit a small-town cop against an array of international events that somehow find their way to Ystad. We learn about globalization through crimes committed in rural Sweden.

Donna Leon: Guido Brunetti is her Venice-based police investigator. Like Mankell, the policeman often finds himself in the throes of international crimes. Brunetti is as single-minded as Harry Bosch, but Leon always finds ways to take him home to his professor wife, Paola, and their two kids. I always make spaghetti when I read her books.

Pete Dexter: Another former newspaperman has written a half-dozen gems. His range of plot is wide and deep, and his understanding of human nature makes you feel as if you're eavesdropping on an internal monologue.

James Preston Girard: Still another one-time newsie -- we worked together in Topeka. He's only written two novels that I've read, both set in Wichita, but they blew me away with their lean style and psychological insights.

David Lindsey: An elegant stylist whose police procedurals focus on Houston and Stuart Haydon, a rich, literate police investigator whose cases often intersect with Latin America. A recurring theme is deviant sex crimes. Maybe the city's humidity does that to folks.

Ed McBain: Also wrote under the name Evan Hunter ("Blackboard Jungle" was his most famous). His 87th Precinct novels about a tight-knit group of NYPD cops tell you more about the city than "Seinfeld" or "Sex in the City" could ever hope to do. McBain was among the first to be unashamedly politically incorrect.

Seicho Matsumoto: Inspector Imanishi's cases in Japan have been translated by my friend, Beth Cary. They show us dimensions of the country much deeper and darker than sushi or hot springs. The inspector's Confucian commitment to justice rivals that of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe.

Robert Harris: His "Enigma" described better than any factual history how a bunch of weird Brit geniuses cracked the Third Reich's ultra-secret code. He's gone on to pen several other absorbing historical novels.

Ian Rankin: John Rebus is a Scottish Harry Bosch. Or the other way round. Both have to deal with death and drink, and Rebus lurches his way through murder investigations the way Sebastian Dangerfield lunged through Dublin in the 1955 classic, "The Ginger Man."

Joseph Wambaugh: A former LAPD police officer, Wambaugh recreates cop culture and language better than any living novelist. Writing for four decades, he can still bring it in his latest books.

Laura Lippman: Tess Monaghan is her character, a former reporter-turned-private eye. The author's sense of place makes Baltimore and environs appear on the page as pungent as crab cakes and chowder. And Tess ain't above breaking a few laws to solve her cases.

John Fowles: The best writer in this group. You're familiar with "The French Lieutenant's Woman" and maybe "The Magus," but a slim volume, "The Ebony Tower," pushes the outer limits of the English language by uncovering its many Indo-Euro roots. Magical is not too strong a word to describe his novels.

All these novelists write for grownups. They deeply understand human nature. Their plots may verge on the bizarre, but they always tap into the DNA that motivates human behavior.

Their gifts of style, plot, characterization and description embroider the emotional truths about human beings in believable thought and action.

When I read them, it's like getting into your workout shorts and T-shirt in the summer or a pair of flannel sweats in the winter. You sit with a cup of green tea or a glass of red wine and escape into a parallel universe.

One you believe can happen.

That's the power of a novel.

Few of the latest generation's crop of novelists do it for me. I hope that somebody will step up, turn off the irony and snark and write like the writers mentioned here.

Because we all need books -- books that tell us good stories.

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or mtharp@mercedsun-star.com.

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