Gregory McDonald has been dead for less than three years, yet already he seems in danger of being forgotten. A Google search turns up no recent chatter about his novels, and very little since his productive life as a writer came to an end in the late 1990s.

Aside from occasional late-night cable screenings of Fletch, a 1985 Universal Pictures movie starring Chevy Chase, McDonald’s most intriguing character also seems to be fading from American popular culture.

That’s a damn shame because McDonald was a gifted storyteller who peopled his crisply-written, very funny mysteries with irresistibly quirky characters. And behind the humor, he had some serious things to say about a host of American institutions from organized religion to the press.

Emily St. John Mandel’s follow up to Last Night In Montreal is really starting to pick up some advance steam among the independent booksellers, and her growing fan base. I stumbled on her debut a while back and have been a big fan ever since. The Singer’s Gun is a decidedly more adult affair, and in a way signals a writer who is growing up, or in this case, coming out into the light.  Everything about this story is non-linear, which confirms what I already knew: that kind of storytelling not only works, but is something that can sell.  We’re treated to a pulp flashback and flash-forward as Mandel introduces us to a half dozen characters right out of the gate, and she hints at something bad, like a subtle kind of noir, which isn’t ashamed of it’s pulp origins. Mandel is flexing her cinematic influences (the rights to this should be scooped up) and her love of someone like Jim Thompson.

In her first book she really made the skin stand up on my neck with a kind of Twilight Zone feel to the situations she created, which is effectively haunting to say the least. Anton, and Aria, the brother sister team of thieves in The Singer’s Gun seem dead set on breaking the rules, and if no one finds out, they haven’t done anything wrong, or so they think.  These two perfectly-drawn sad sacks are selling fake passports, and Anton extends his thievery to a college degree from Harvard, which sets him on the path towards Elena, a meek and wafer-like secretary who eventually comes into his world when they are thrown together in an office building in Manhattan. Aria turns up once in a while, as the narrative jumps around, comfortably, (she’s like a pebble in Anton’s shoe) from the past to the future, each sequence an important piece of the whole, but you don’t know it at the time. We’re treated to wonderfully vibrant scenes in Italy, which are just amazing, really striking a sense of place; Mandel captures what it’s like to be an American traveling in that area, and what it’s like when you go south of Naples.  Between Anton and Aria, and Elena, we get into the minds of people who don’t really know who they are, who they want to be, and by the time we get to the island of Ischia off the coast of Italy, we’re watching these characters figure it all out, slowly, and sometimes, they never really seem to get it right.

Anton is on the run from Aria, well, he’s doing one last job for her, and it needs to be done while he’s on his honeymoon, in Italy. He’s marrying a woman who doesn’t want to be married, and they’ve postponed their wedding a number of times. Elena is on the run from a special agent, who wants to get Aria behind bars, this agent, is quickly and efficiently rendered, and poignant, as she is missing her own daughter. In both books, Mandel writes about parenthood with striking fluency, and what it feels like to be abandoned, or forgotten about by someone who is supposed to love you, either a wife or child, or distracted husband.  Earlier sections of this story take place in an office building which is frighteningly accurate.  This part of the story reminded me so much of a great little book called Waste by Eugene Marten. There is a kind of wild desperation, a sense of death and almost morgue like atmosphere, which is impossible to write unless you’ve worked in a place like that.

It’s hard not to run out into the street and tell everyone I know about this book, Emily is such a great writer, really operating at a high rate of speed, and she’s only in her early thirties. The book is published by Unbridled Books, a great independent press everyone should check out. -JR

Jason Chambers: The Three Guys first came across Roger Smith about a year ago, prior to the release of his first novel Mixed Blood. Read the whole conversation, where we all were in agreement, surprisingly enough, about the merits of his writing and this great book, loving the raw violence of the Capetown setting, and throwing around phrases such as “cinematic”, “great genre writing” and, memorably, “ghetto cozy”. Here’s what RS had to say about the books that hooked him:

Mixed Blood picadorlorezRoger Smith: I was reading American crime fiction long before I started shaving, but it was a book by Richard Stark (the pseudonym of Donald E. Westlake) that really turned my head: The Hunter /AKA Point Blank(1964). I still have it, a dog-eared little paperback with a plain silver cover sporting a bullet hole and a one-liner: a novel of violence. A tight piece of gutter existentialism – lean as a Brazilian supermodel – it follows Parker (no first name, no morals, precious little backstory) an ex-con out of prison and out for revenge. A sawed-off shotgun of a book.

My next major influence was Elmore Leonard, whose slangy, street-smart parables have been imitated by many – including Quentin Tarantino – but never equaled. The world of fiction would have been immeasurably poorer without his incredible input, and he continues to produce brilliant novels well into his eighties. It’s tough to pick out one Leonard, but I think Glitz (1985) ushered in more than a decade of classics. It is Leonard at his best: a multi-viewpoint narrative that moves like hell. Great dialogue (of course), a tough-but-vulnerable hero, a sick and nasty villain, with a good-looking woman thrown in. Is there anybody out there who wouldn’t kill to be able to write as effortlessly as this?

No crime collection is complete without Patricia Highsmith’s five Tom Ripley books (spanning 1955 – 1991) featuring the most seductive anti-hero series fiction has ever produced, starting with The Talented Mr Ripley. Forget about the limp movie version, and read this deadpan amorality tale from the fabulously understated Highsmith. Young Tom, struggling to make a living in NYC, is chosen by the wealthy Herbert Greenleaf to retrieve his son, Dickie, from Italy. Ripley insinuates himself into Dickie’s world and soon finds that his passion for a lifestyle of wealth and sophistication is something to kill for. Over the next thirty-six years Tom (married to the inscrutable Heloise) funds a life of bourgeoisie privilege in the French countryside with art forgery, blackmail and murder.

wake up dead lo rezWhenever anybody trots out the old saw that protagonists have to be sympathetic, I point them in the direction of Jim Thompson’s string of dark and subversive novels. My favorite is The Killer Inside Me (1952). The unreliable narrator, Lou Ford, is a small-town sheriff who appears to be a dumb, sweet, hayseed: “I’ve stood looking nice and friendly and stupid, like I wouldn’t piss if my pants were on fire. And all the time I’m laughing myself sick inside. Just watching the people.” Ford is a cunning, complex, madman, who plays cat and mouse with the world, fighting a nearly-constant urge to act violently, an urge Ford describes as the sickness. A Thompson classic. His characters sure as hell aren’t nice, but they’re damned interesting.

BIO: Roger Smith was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and now lives in Cape Town. His debut thriller, Mixed Blood, was published in March 2009 and will be released in paperback by Picador Crime in December. His second book, Wake Up Dead (Henry Holt & Co), is coming in February 2010. The movie version of Mixed Blood is in development – scheduled to start shooting in Cape Town in late 2010 – starring Samuel L. Jackson, with Phillip Noyce directing.