I’ve been reading crime now for the last few months. What attracts me to crime? Mostly its the momentum – pages turn themselves. Commercially, the genre is blue chip. There’s always a couple in the top ten. The content travels well into other media and territories. A top crime writer is a stallion/lead mare if you like to work in stable metaphors (or stables for that matter). A good crime premise needs no explanation to a jaded bookseller seeking to pay escalating rent – because it will sell.

I started with Larson (Millenium trilogy), moved to Chandler (The Big Sleep) , tried a couple of Peter Temples (The Broken Shore, Truth) then a couple of T. Jefferson Parkers (Silent Joe, Storm Runners).

Next was Tom Franklin (Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter) I’m currently reading Quintin Jardine and Marele Day.

Of this lot, its really a question for me of who can be compared to Chandler without wilting like stir fried greens. Chandler writes like
his life depended on it, and from what I understand from his biography, it did. A broken oil man, damaged by corporate life and its associated anaesthetics, he turned to pulp fiction before throwing the pulp away and finding something better inside. As a result, he sets a narrative design like a rat trap that never fails to grab you – with language and mood that linger long after you’ve forgotten what happened. For a lesson in tough, character revealing dialogue, go no further. Want quotes? Go read it.

Under the pressure of this comparison, even though they were all good, especially Silent Joe
and The Broken Shore., and Larson (all for different reasons, try reading them for yourself) Tom Franklin came out as most satisfactory. The surprising thing about Franklin is his focus on innocence, how it matters, how it survives and redeems experience. The general pattern of the genre seems to run the other way, so that appealed to me, as did the very truly carved characters, characters with baggage that scrapes along behind them, leaks out in conversation, betrays them at every turn. In a way, this reminded me of Ray Carver and Rick Bass. Franklin has bled a little more for his story I think, like Chandler, like Carver has dug a little deeper, and the result is very satisfying.

Got a crime book recommendation? Let me know.

Book Review

Open House Volume 3
By Sheridan Voysey
Publication Details

As the title suggests, Open House Volume 3 is the latest, but hopefully not the last in a collection of edited interviews conducted by Sheridan Voysey, the host of the radio show of the same name on 103.2FM on Sunday nights in Sydney.

Voysey’s sonorous name hints at the fact that he has the right kind of tonsils for radio, and whenever I’ve tuned into the show I’ve not been disappointed. To me he sounds a bit like a kindly headmaster that nobody ever finds ruffled. Its a soothing sound, a kind of steady hum – one you’d hope for from a psychiatrist or a counsellor if you had voices in your head. In this respect, Voysey seems perfectly suited to the medium of late night talk back radio.

The transition of a live radio experience to written form is surprisingly successful. Voysey’s radio voice becomes a writer’s voice of some resonance – and the thought that goes into his questions and retorts becomes more obvious in print, perhaps because the hypnotic intonations are absent, or more likely because he is also a genuine thinker. In this respect, the nearest comparisons to Voysey are, off the top of my head, Caroline Jones, Peter Thompson, and to some extent Andrew Denton. As a media performer and interviewer I think he can be listed alongside these names without discomfort. Having said that, he’s also unique in his ability to draw his guests into the questions of faith and spirituality in a way that doesn’t either promote or surrender his self evident christian beliefs, or demean the reality of his guest’s experience. That’s a pretty fine line to walk, and I’m pretty hard pressed to think of anyone else doing it so well. Actually, the only person I can think of is C.S.Lewis and he died quite a while ago.

Like all very good interviewers, Voysey has the ability to gently shuck the truth out of his guests like some shuck the meat from oysters. Its not an easy task-one that takes patient research, an eye for connecting history with what he sees in front of him, and an intuitive understanding of how and how far to push a particular line. Bryce Courtenay, who is no push over, betrays this skill at the end of his interview with “You ask such lovely questions”. To me, Voysey’s knack is to ask the right questions for the right guests at the right moments. The result is a book full of very compelling, often unadorned autobiography that offers readers a lot of pithy insights and food for reflection about whether they might want to live a little larger themselves.

I enjoyed all the interviews. Each of the guests has a big story to share, from a range of contexts. But several stood out to me because of my own interest in writing. These were the film maker Ralph Winter and the authors Bryce Courtenay and Marilynne Robinson.

Winter, who produces large budget Hollywood films (including X-Men II) really manages to condense the simple elements of what makes a good story- a hero and a journey. He quotes a mentor who told him, in respect to stories and film “If you want to send a message, use Western Union”.

Courtenay expresses a similar idea in defining his career: “Well, always a storyteller, Sheridan. Writing was just a medium.”

Robinson, whose career as a novelist is the antithesis of Courtenay’s prolific output (three novels in around thirty years) says. “Well, I just write what I want to write. And I write sort of under the cover of darkness-nobody knows what I am doing until its done. But if I’d told people I was writing a book about a minister dying in Iowa in 1956…you know that is the most unsaleable book that you could possibly imagine.”

Each of these nuggets of wisdom kind of jumped out at me as answers to questions I had rolling about in my brain about writing. I’m quite grateful I was able to find them in the one book. In a way, that is probably the best recommendation I could make. Its that kind of book – broad and teaming with ideas – a well realised snapshot of what life looks like right now through twenty different pairs of eyes. It serves up twenty slices of life. Twenty real life stories – each matching Winter’s definition of what he seeks in narrative.

“For me, the story has got to be a hero who is compelling, so compelling that I can’t stop turning the pages wanting to find out more about who this man or woman is, what they believe, what they value and why they’re doing the things they’re doing.”