Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Seth Mnookin

By posted at 7:00 am on December 17, 2010 5

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In November 2009, my wife gave birth to our first child. At the time, I was working on a book which I was planning on handing in three months hence. I didn’t actually finish until the following October, and for most of that time I was writing for between twelve and fourteen hours a day. It was not fun for anyone. I can count the combined number of restaurants my wife and I ate at and movies we saw in 2010 on one hand — but I filled three pocket-sized notebooks keeping track of the books I read. Most of those were mysteries, with authors from the UK (Ian Rankin, Colin Dexter, P.D. James) and Scandinavia (Sjowall & Wahloo, Jo Nesbo, Hakan Nesser) especially well represented. It was two American writers — and their very American main characters — that I’ll remember the most:

covercoverThe Parker novels of Richard Stark. Fifteen years ago, I got turned on to Parker after a thread-pulling expedition led me from Jim Thompson’s nihilistic noir to the 1990 film adaptation of The Grifters to screenwriter/novelist Donald Westlake to Westlake’s pseudonym Richard Stark to Stark’s Slayground, a dimestore shiv of a book about what happens when corrupt cops tip off the mob about a car accident in which an incompetent wheelman flips a getaway car next to an amusement park called Fun Island. (Hint: Master thief/antihero extraordinaire Parker survives; lots of other people die.) Then, earlier this year, I chanced upon Darwyn Cooke’s The Hunter, a brilliantly disturbing graphic novelization of Parker’s debut. Four weeks later, the combination of a Kindle and my deadline-induced insomnia had led to my tearing through another ten books in the Parker canon.

Stephen King once said reading the Parker novels was like getting a PhD in crime. John Banville called Parker “the perfection of that existential man whose earliest models we met in Nietzsche and Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky.” For me, he was the most enjoyable way to spend those dozens of nights when I was too tired to write and too anxious to sleep.

coverThe Nero Wolfe novels of Rex Stout. In October, I was telling a friend about my recent Parker obsession when he asked me if I was a Rex Stout fan. On the surface, his question made no sense: Parker is lean, instinctive, dangerous, alluring; Wolfe is obese, erudite, possibly alcoholic and obsessed with orchids. Parker has no real home and at one point had reconstructive plastic surgery to disguise himself; Wolfe almost never leaves his Manhattan brownstone and delights in outsmarting cops. Parker is a stone-cold killer; Wolfe is a genius detective. They’re both awesome. My friend told me to start with Fer-de-Lance, Stout’s first Wolfe book. I took his advice, if only because I had no other idea about how to start a series that includes something like 80 novels and novellas.

More from a Year in Reading 2010

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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5 Responses to “A Year in Reading: Seth Mnookin”

  1. Levi Stahl
    at 9:28 am on December 17, 2010

    I fell under Nero Wolfe’s spell last year for the first time, drawn in by the two-in-one reissues that Bantam was publishing–but, frustratingly, they seem to have stopped. They published five two-in-ones, but they haven’t brought out a new one for at least a season, maybe two, now. I think I’m going to have to break down and buy the nasty little mass market paperbacks instead!

    (And Parker . . . oh, I envy you if you’ve only read 11–you’ve got a lot more heists to go. I read 21 of them the year i first encountered him, and would have gone all the way through all 24 if those last few had been easier to track down.)

  2. Carol
    at 10:56 am on December 17, 2010

    And if you want to wallow in Wolfe-related information of all types, stop by The Wolfe Pack’s 1,000 + page site: http://www.nerowolfe.org. And if you are in the NY metro area, stop by one of our bi-monthly book discussions.

  3. The year in reading: My noir nights
    at 3:54 pm on December 17, 2010

    […] My piece ran today — it’s a (very) brief essay about my love for Richard Stark’s Parker novels and Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books*. (For a wonderful introduction to Stark, check out The Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson’s obit/essay on Donald Westlake. Stark was one of Westlake’s many pseudonyms.) There are lots of other great “Year in Reading” essays as well, ranging from Joanna Smith Rakoff to the booming-voiced Richard Nash to The Hours author Michael Cunningham to Allegra Goodman, whose remarkable book Intuition was another one of my favorite reads of ’10. […]

  4. Rick
    at 7:01 pm on December 17, 2010

    You mentioned Parker as compared to Wolfe. Don’t forget about Archie Goodwin!

  5. Tony Renner
    at 8:45 pm on December 28, 2010

    I went on a Parker and Nero Wolfe reading spree this year, too. I didn’t make it completely through either canon — about halfway on both — but I’ve got 2011 ahead of me!

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