By Max Allan Collins
As a published writer, the question I get even more often that the venerable (and stultifying) "Where do you get your ideas?" is the one posed above.
Readers always want to know who you read, for reasons I've never quite figured out. Of course they mean currently publishing writers, and I suspect there's a kind of wish that their personal list will match mine, and everybody will be able to bask in a glow of vindication for sharing such great taste in literature.
But I read almost nobody who's current. I have a few friends whose work I keep up with, and thank God they are very good - among these are Ed Gorman, John Lutz, and Bob Randisi (there are others) - but mostly I avoid everybody else. Occasionally I serve on a committee for the Mystery Writers of America or the Private Eye Writers of America, and plow through a current stack of novels. Now and then some author gets so popular I have to break down and read a book or two to see what the fuss is about. But that's marketing, not entertainment.
There's a basic "busman's holiday" reasoning behind this. If I'm working on a suspense novel all day, why should I relax by reading...a suspense novel? A guy who works at the ice cream shop doesn't go home and say to his significant other, "Let's go out for hot fudge sundaes!" Actually, that's a bad example, because I would probably do exactly that, and plenty of drunks have sought (though rarely kept) jobs as bartenders.
Let's start over. Here's the real reason: all other writers fall into the following categories: worse than me, so why should I put myself through it; as good as me, so why should I bother; and better than me, and, well, screw those guys.
You might rightly ask, can't you learn from these new, superior writers? But another major factor here is that I have a pretty good ear, and have a tendency to mimic. Early in my career, when I was moving from fan to pro, I was still reading a lot of crime fiction. I was working on a book called Blood Money while reading a book by George V. Higgins, The Friends of Eddie Coyle. And suddenly all of my dialogue started to sound like George V. Higgins.
Through all these years, there have of course been exceptions - yes, I've read Parker and Coben and even Ellroy, just not everything. And I continued to follow the writers who had influenced me prior to my turning pro. I read every 87th Precinct novel by Ed McBain until the end just a few years ago. I kept up with Donald E. Westlake and was giddy when he started writing his Richard Stark "Parker" novels again, which had inspired my Nolan series. And on the rare occasions that Mickey Spillane graced us with a new book, I was first in line.
Perhaps oddly, I love to go to movies by whoever is hot in the mystery field - a Gresham or Lehane or Connelly-derived film, I'm there, man. Can't explain it. Like red hair, it just happens (to steal from Chandler).
And that brings us to the real point. If I'm going to steal from anybody, let it be those I grew up on. I still re-read Dashiell Hammett. No one has written a better tough detective story than The Maltese Falcon, and no one ever will. I love to read Doyle's Holmes stories, which remain as fresh and crisp as, well, Hammett. Chandler is the guy who taught me both first-person and to bring a sense of poetry. From Spillane I learned the value of putting sex and violence and emotion into my prose, and no one ever wrote better action scenes or more noir-ishly evocative description.
I can re-read the best of James M. Cain again and again. Even lesser Cain is worthwhile (I'm proud to have played a role in getting his unpublished novels into print, first with Otto Penzler at Mysterious Press and now - with the forthcoming The Cocktail Waitress - with Charles Ardai at Hard Case Crime). I was one of the first to write about Jim Thompson - a monograph that Ed Gorman and I did at the start of the '80s helped spark the Thompson revival. And I can never get enough of Horace McCoy's Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye.
Not just tough stuff, either. I am a big Agatha Christie fan, Poirot and Marple both. I have been through the Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin books (novels and novella collections) four or five times. I've read every Perry Mason by Erle Stanley Gardner, and there's a bunch of them.
Stealing from these masters - well, let's call it being influenced - is safe. Because these are the writers who shaped me. There were others in the genre, plenty of them - Ennis Willie, W.R. Burnett, Chester Himes, Ian Fleming, Mike Roscoe, Roy Huggins, Ted Lewis, Richard S. Prather, and many more - and these, too, I revisit. I have mainstream favorites that I re-read, though my favorites are a quirky lot - Calder Willingham, Mark Harris, William March, and my mentor at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, Dick Yates. Another teacher at the University of Iowa told me a writer who has never read Proust is worthless, so I have never read Proust, just to spite him. He probably never read Hammett.
So if you're wondering what (or who) I'm reading, if it isn't research for the next Nate Heller novel, it's likely one of my teachers (but not the Proust guy). As for people who started writing professionally after I did, I wish them well - within reason - and hope some of them are influenced by me.
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