OVER on that Facebook place, I was challenged by pal Richard Bruce to come up with seven books that influenced me.
My regular reader – she’s a nice woman – will know that I’ve been influenced very much by Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels and the western ‘SHANE’. She also knows that one of my favourite books is TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and in the past I have praised Dennis Lehane’s MYSTIC RIVER.
I decided to find other titles for this list – books that I enjoyed, have read more than once, and that I still own.
First up was William Goldman’s debut novel THE TEMPLE OF GOLD.
Written in the late 50s, this is a funny and tragic coming of age story.
Goldman’s narrative style is so wonderful, his dialogue so easy to read – he’s an Oscar winning screenwriter, remember – that whenever I return to it, and I’ve done so many times, I’m filled with admiration and, yes, envy.
Again, my regular reader will know that when I’m pressed to name my favourite film, my mind instantly turns to ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’, which Goldman wrote.
And just recently I was talking to crime writer and Carry on Sleuthing alum Michael J. Malone about Goldman’s other works and I heartily recommend ‘Marathon Man’, ‘Control’ and ‘Brothers’ as incredible thrillers.
CASTLE KEEP by William Eastlake was a book I discovered in my teens. In fact, I believe this and TEMPLE OF GOLD were in the same bundle given to me by my nana (Yeah, go ahead, yukk it up, I called my gran my nana. Get over it).
It’s an anti-war novel about a disparate group of US soldiers occupying a chateau in the Ardennes on the eve of the Battle of the Bulge. Eastlake himself was in the US Army and fought at the Bulge, so there is a sense of truth underlining every crazy episode in the novel. It’s told from numerous viewpoints, each new chapter a different character talking in first person. What?! You can’t do that! But he did and it works. Sure, it’s rambling and unstructured but the characters are so well drawn, so varied, the dialogue so weird, wonderful and witty, the incidents wacky and, ultimately, tragic. It’s funny. It’s profane. It’s moving.
I would imagine very few of you have read the book, but you may have seen the 1969 film, directed by Sidney J. Pollack, starring Burt Lancaster and Peter Falk. It’s an unusual war film, couldn’t be anything but considering the source, but it failed to capture the anarchy of the novel.
There was more war and tragedy in John Prebble’s CULLODEN.
Frankly, I could have picked any one of his books. His LION IN THE NORTH is a fabulous whirlwind ride through Scottish history. His book on travelling round Scotland has never been bettered. His account of the Highland Clearances is white hot with rage. Then there are his accounts of the highland regiment mutinies, the Darien Disaster and the bloody events of Glencoe. All absolutely terrific.
But I chose this one. It is wonderfully written, immaculately researched. It is fascinating and moving. It’s one of the best historical accounts ever published, as far as I’m concerned.
Packed with detail and told with the mind of an historian but the heart of a storyteller, it’s a dense read but a rewarding one. The battle was not simply a case of the Scots against the English. It was also brother to brother, father to son. The aftermath was brutal and bloody and it echoes through the centuries.
The battlefield is one of the most potently atmospheric sites I’ve visited and can only be profaned by the new housing schemes already agreed and the proposed holiday camp. We must protect it.
THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE by Evan Hunter was, like most of these books, one I read in my teens. I was already a fan of Ed McBain and didn’t know that the authors were one and the same. And neither of them was his real name. It was, in fact, Salvatore Albert Lombino.
This book and the subsequent film with Glenn Ford, Sidney Poitier and Vic Morrow were controversial in their day. It kicked off the mini-genre of troubled school movies. The very title entered into the modern day lexicon. Is it slightly dated? Yes, but that’s not a bad thing. The language, considered shocking then, is tame now. But it still packs a punch and established Hunter/McBain, or any of his many pseudonyms, as a force to be reckoned with.
RED FILE FOR CALLAN by James Mitchell brought me back to the chilly, homegrown espionage landscape of the 60s and 70s.
I was a huge fan of the TV series, which ran from 1967 to 1972 and made Edward Woodward a household name. And, frankly, fantastic actor though he was, he was never better than this haunted, complex killer for HMG.
And who can forget the melancholy theme, a guitar melody with a bare light bulb swinging in front of a brick wall?
The book was based on James Mitchell’s own TV play ‘A Magnum For Schneider’, which introduced us to David Callan. It was so successful a series followed. It also later formed the basis for the 1974 big screen spin-off. I have three further titles in the series – Russian Roulette, which Russell Hunter once told me he wished would be filmed because it had a belter of a role for Lonely (the character he played), Smear Job and Death and Bright Water. And Callan’s influence on me? If you’ve read the Davie McCall novels, you’ll see them. Both characters are flawed, loners who are part of worlds they don’t really want to be, but their skills find them trapped.
I found Ray Bradbury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES in the library at secondary school. I liked it so much I bought my own copy. At the time I was reading a lot of horror and a few bits of science fiction. I mean, a LOT of horror. Dracula, Robert Bloch, those Pan compendiums, the Alfred Hitchcock collections, plus all sorts of things I wouldn’t go near today. This book, though, is more than horror, or fantasy. It’s a right of passage. It’s about family. It’s a look at small town life. It’s a yearning for lost youth. And it’s both poetic and creepy in equal measure. I love it.
It was also filmed, back in the 80s. Produced by Kirk Douglas’s other son Peter (the man himself was an executive producer), it was a very decent stab at bringing Bradbury to life but lacked the magic of the printed page, despite Bradbury himself providing the screenplay, although British writer John Mortimer was called in for rewrites.
It boasted a fine score by James Horner, who replaced French composer Georges Delerue. I have the rejected score in my collection but not the Horner one, which is a shame.
My final pick was a difficult choice. The more I thought, the more titles I came up with. Next week I could probably come up with seven new ones. Anyway, I have plumped for this from John Wyndham (real name John Wyndham Lucas Parkes Beynon. Need a helluva big cover for that) I’ve read a number of his books and I could have gone for any one – Day of the Triffids, Kraken Wakes, Midwich Cuckoos, Chocky, the Trouble With Lichen. But I chose THE CHRYSALIDS. I really can’t explain why. Perhaps in the current political climate it resonated. Nowadays this tale of a post nuclear world peopled with religious zealots eager to root out deviations and abominations would be called YA. Perhaps not. Triffids has been filmed a few times for screen and TV. Midwich became Village of the Damned in 1960 and spawned a sequel, Children of the Damned in 1964. ‘Village’ was remade in 1994 by John Carpenter, but not very satisfactorily. Chocky was turned into a children’s drama. It’s time someone turned their attention to the Chrysalids. It would make a great film. All I can say is that Wyndham remains one of the UK’s foremost science fiction writers.
So there we are. Seven books over seven days. And I’ve already thought of seven more…