Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Guest Article: Adam Christopher on "Books Without Robots"

I don't think that I could have had two weeks' worth of guest posts without hosting Mr Adam Christopher - friend and debut author with Angry Robot in the very near future. I was one of the privileged beta readers of Empire State, and know how much of it has been influenced by great noir novels, so I invited Adam to talk about five of his favourite non-genre books.

I'm afraid to admit, my friends, that I am something of a genre snob. There, I've said it.

But, actually, it's not intentional. Far from it. It just happens that I like robots and monsters and spaceships and ghosts and superheroes and stuff like that, and there is more stuff like that than I’ll ever be able to read in a lifetime. It’s a hard life.

That’s not to say I’m averse to books without robots, or BWR, as we shall call them. While I’ve not yet read The Count of Monte Cristo, The Catcher in the Rye, or The Grapes of Wrath, they’re all sitting on my shelf, waiting. And, despite my protests, there are a whole bunch of BWR that have been a strong influence on me as a writer, and which I count among my favourite novels ever.

1. THE BIG SLEEP by Raymond Chandler

The Big Sleep was one of those real revelations for me. I have a feeling that I’d always meant to read Chandler, but only got around to it in 2009 when I grabbed a fancy – but cheap – leather-bound edition of The Big Sleep from a sinking bookshop to take with me on a long flight to San Francisco. I was aware that San Francisco was a haunt of another of the noir greats, Dashiell Hammett, so it seemed like an appropriate choice.

And I was flabbergasted. I still am. When I finished the book I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t the kind of novel that was taught in high school… but then remembering my own miserable English education which put me off a number of classics for life, perhaps it’s a good thing that noir isn’t taken as seriously as Shakespeare or Hardy. I still think the opening paragraph is the greatest thing written in English:

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

Don’t believe me? Read that passage out aloud.

From that book, the seeds of my own novel Empire State were sown… or at least a few noir-ish ideas began percolating through the vague notion of a story that I had already been toying with.


From the origins of detective noir to the latest modern iteration, McBride’s Frank Sinatra in a Blender is violent, gruesome, black and about as far away from The Big Sleep as you can get, while still clearly being its literary descendent. It’s noir and as hardboiled as you can get – McBride’s prose has the same rhythm and poetry of the originals of the genre, and, as with The Big Sleep, you know you’re in for something special right from the opening lines. Actually, you know you’re in for something special right from the title.

3. DOG ON IT by Spencer Quinn

Canine noir is so a genre – Dog On It is the first of a series of detective novels told from a dog’s point of view. I’m totally serious – Chet is our narrator, and while he may be unreliable (he’s a dog), he’s pretty observant and hugely entertaining. And reasonable forgetful. This book caught my eye thanks to a blurb from Stephen King, and just in time, as the fourth book in the series is out in October.

Seriously, it’s a detective novel, told by a dog. By. A. Dog. It’s also great.

4. The SHERLOCK HOLMES stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sticking with detectives of one sort of another, I’m cheating a little here as the adventures of Sherlock Holmes aren’t novels (even the four longer stories are more like novellas), they’re short stories. But they’re important to me because they were the first “old” things I read, back when I was about ten. My abiding memory of the first reading (and I don’t remember what story it was) is a disbelief that they were written so long ago – to a child, this was a pretty major stuff. While I still love Sherlock Holmes, the character, these days I’m more interested in new interpretations of the character, as in the Robert Downey Jnr movies or anthologies like Shadows Over Baker Street (which pits Holmes against Cthulhu and other Lovecraftian nasties). See? Back to genre I go…

5. FIGHT CLUB by Chuck Palahniuk

Fight Club is one of those books that, as a writer, frustrates me intensely. It’s a great book. It’s a wonderful book. But it’s also a book that makes me green with envy. How did he write it? What makes it work? More importantly, what makes it work in the way it does? I only read this recently, although the film has been one of my favourites for nearly ten years now. But the book… it’s short, and the writing appears to be simple, but after each chapter I’d put it down and shake my head and try to understand what was going on between the lines that made it so damn good.

I can’t really explain it. Fight Club has that X-factor, that indefinable something that is going on underneath and around and over and between the text that just activates something in my brain. It’s that X-factor that makes some books a sensation. It’s also that X-factor that, I think, you’ve either got or you haven’t. Woe is me!

Thank you, Adam!

Readers, how about telling Adam about the non-genre novels that YOU think have the X-factor?


  1. Chandler's style was completely novel at the time he wrote it. So many hack novelists tried to copy him (and poorly), that some of it comes off as cliche today. While the noir-ish tone might seem trite now, Chandler invented it. It was completely off the wall when he did.