Malcolm Mackay is often described as a master of tartan noir, which is true enough. But it would be unfair to label him only as a Scottish crime writer, since he so fully inhabits the minds of his characters in his incomparable Glasgow trilogy that their fears and ambitions become universal. His latest book, Saviors (Mulholland), is two novels in one volume and features Darian Ross, a private eye blessed with the luck of the Scottish, which in Mackay’s world is a lot more mixed than the Irish brand. Who can resist a writer who describes the owner of a car-hire firm as “round-faced, jaundiced, like someone had stuffed too much mince into a yellow stocking, with a long scraggly goatee beard that looked like a kid had pinned the tail on the entirely wrong donkey”? Mackay, 37 years old, was born in Stornoway, on Scotland’s Isle of Lewis, where he still lives. Here, the author selects his favorite crime novels.
The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas
It’s hard to know how exactly to categorize this book now. Any novel that hinges on a crime is crime fiction, but it feels too vague to simply call it classic crime. Man wrongly thrown into jail escapes prison and embarks on needlessly convoluted revenge scheme. It’s an epic, rather silly thriller. In my teens I fell into a book lull, reading nothing for years. This was the novel that pulled me out of it, set me back on the road of obsessive reading. It’s not, in many ways, a great novel. There are a couple of hundred pages of filler in the middle a brutal editor could have a field day with. The ending is a surrender to schmaltz. Nevertheless, it is great fun—and that’s a hard trick to pull off—and nostalgia will always have me defend it.
Red Harvest, by Dashiell Hammett
An obvious choice for a crime writer. Hard to read something like this and not be influenced by it. A master at work:
Play with murder enough and it gets you one of two ways. It makes you sick, or you get to like it.
The Continental Op, seeking justice. What Hammett does brilliantly is make you question how far a good person should go in the pursuit of that justice. The private detective is supposed to help put people in prison, not lead them to their graves. How pure does our justice have to be? Do the ends justify the means? What motivates a person to step beyond the moral bounds the rest of us are held by? These are among the questions that crime writers have to ask, and each reader will have his or her own answer. This book, perhaps more than any other, made me want to tackle those questions myself.
Pop. 1280, by Jim Thompson
Few novels better prove the maxim that a protagonist doesn’t have to be likable, just interesting. Sheriff Nick Corey is a consummate liar, a killer. He’s not a man to root for, but Thompson’s skill is in making us want more of him. Give the bad guy his comeuppance in the end, but delay that end a little longer because Corey’s funny, smart, interesting:
“I ain’t saying you’re a liar, because that wouldn’t be polite. But I’ll tell you this, ma’am. If I loved liars, I’d hug you to death.”
Thompson was bold. The challenge of having a truly terrible person as your centerpiece is to never turn readers off so much that you lose them. You have to fascinate them. Pull them into the darkest minds and hold them there. My books have always tried to do that, and maybe no writer taught me more about it than Jim Thompson.