Any voracious reader seeks a comfortable balance between the fresh and the familiar. Ask yourself: How many books by authors you have never previously sampled can you consume in a row before you feel compelled to pick up a title by somebody whose writing you’ve relished in the past?
The answer, of course, depends greatly on the quality of those books. Even then, though, the draw of the dependable is near-gravitational. Falling back on known storytellers at least increases the odds that, when a person sits down before a work of 200, 300 or more pages, he or she will wish to finish it, rather than drop-kick it into the next county.
My list of “old reliables”—novelists who almost never disappoint—used to be longer, before the deaths in recent years of Stuart M. Kaminsky (author of the Toby Peters historical mysteries), Gregory Mcdonald (who gave us the Fletch series) and Donald E. Westlake. But I can still turn to works by the following five authors.
Max Allan Collins: Collins has demonstrated proficiency in multiple arenas—writing original novels, penning film novelizations, composing comic books, scripting audio dramas and completing the late Mickey Spillane’s unfinished fiction. I favor Collins’ series starring Nate Heller, who began as a petty peeper confronting gangsters in 1920s Chicago, but has somehow lived long enough to own a prosperous investigative agency. These well-researched yarns place Heller in the muddled middle of famous historical cases, from the Lindbergh baby kidnapping (Stolen Away, 1991) to the disappearance of Amelia Earhart (Flying Blind, 1998) and Los Angeles’ notorious Black Dahlia murder (Angel in Black, 2001). The series’ 13th installment—Bye Bye, Baby, in which Heller probes Marilyn Monroe’s 1962 “suicide”—is scheduled for release in August.
Loren D. Estleman: While he’s also made a name for himself writing westerns, Estleman’s biggest claim to fame is Amos Walker. Introduced in Motor City Blue (1980), loner Walker is a Detroit private eye quite content with being a politically incorrect, hard-boiled and grouchy throwback. And at least he gets the job done, subduing crooks and killers with his rapier wit and rougher knuckles. These books aren’t for everyone, but they deserve applause for their tight plotting and wonderfully cynical prose, and Estleman’s love of Detroit shines through each chapter. The 20th and most recent Walker novel was last year’s The Left-Handed Dollar.
Erle Stanley Gardner: Yes, I know: he’s dead. But Gardner was one of the most prolific of the old-time American pulpsters, and wrote enough books and short stories to spread out over a lifetime. He’s best remembered for his more than 80 novels featuring L.A. criminal defense attorney Perry Mason. The early entries in that series (which began with 1933’s The Case of the Velvet Claws) are the best, casting Mason as something of a hard-knuckled advocate, ready to put his career and freedom from custody on the line in order to protect his clients. But while Gardner cooked up plenty of action in those books, along with incredibly complicated plots, he never told readers much about Mason, secretary Della Street or private eye Paul Drake.
More interesting in terms of character development is Gardner’s other prominent series, built around a “brainy little runt” of a private eye, Donald Lam, and his overweight and splenetic boss (later partner), Bertha Cool. Over the course of 29 books, starting with The Bigger They Come (1939), that mismatched pair never ceased to entertain, whether they were cooking up cons to capture killers, or bickering over expense reports.
Peter Lovesey: This UK author started out in the 1970s, producing thoughtful mystery/thrillers about Sergeant Cribb, a Victorian-era copper mixed up in oddball crimes involving such things as sporting events, spiritualism and public executions; the best of those might be Waxwork (1978). However, Lovesey has turned in recent years to devising classic puzzle stories headlined by Peter Diamond, an overweight, middle-aged, widowed and imperious police inspector who tackles multiple crimes at a time in the unusually cultured mean streets of Bath, England. It’s a delight just to watch Diamond bumble around in very human fashion, frustrated by his limitations. Stagestruck, the 11th entry in the Diamond series, is slated for a June U.S. release.
Edward Marston: Wales-born Marston (né Keith Miles) has done a merry dance through Britain’s timeline, concocting mystery series rooted in several periods. His most lighthearted books—a 16-novel run beginning with The Queen’s Head (1988)—feature an eccentric, trouble-attracting Elizabethan theater troupe managed by the resourceful Nicholas Bracewell. But more current are his stories about mid-19th-century Inspector Robert Colbeck of London’s Metropolitan Police, who’s establishing a career as “the Railway Detective,” a master at solving crimes occurring on and around the UK’s extensive Victorian system of trains. Marston not only gets his historical atmospherics right, but he has an understated sense of humor, his plots are carefully crafted and if his players were more full of character, they’d burst their buttons. His eighth Colbeck adventure, Blood on the Line, is due out in the States in August.
So those are my “old reliables.” Anybody else want to offer suggestions?