James Naughtie is the host of Radio 4’s Bookclub, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this month
At the best of times, my piles of books are intimidating. They spill off the shelves, and rise in wobbly towers in the corners of every room. There is always something to be read – the next Bookclub choice, a new novel that’s causing a stir, a biography that has been unopened for too long – but sometimes there’s a temptation to ignore them all. Put aside that dystopian tale of gloom – another one! – or that miserable account of growing up a lonely child, and turn to some old favourites. I have a stack of authors, and their battered paperbacks, that are guaranteed to lift my spirits. I can pick them up, confident of escape.
My main guilty pleasure is crime. Lots of it. There are green Penguins everywhere, and I never tire of some of the old masters of the thriller – detective stories from the golden age, gritty contemporaries of the Rankin-McDermid school, American street thrillers. But of them all, my secret delight is Ed McBain.
For anyone who hasn’t read one of the 87th Precinct stories, let me explain. McBain – Evan Hunter was his real name – wrote more than 50 short novels featuring the cops of one district in an imaginary city called Isola, which sounds, smells and breathes like New York. They’re a wonderful crew, often tormented by their nemesis, the Deaf Man, who is to our hero, Detective Steve Carella, what Moriarty was to Sherlock Holmes. Try Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here! or Eight Black Horses.
A tattered McBain is always somewhere nearby, and they’re small enough to slip into a pocket. I love them. And there is another American writer – introduced to me by a friend who said (accurately) that he was a cross between William Faulkner and Raymond Chandler. If you don’t know his name, you should: James Lee Burke.
Burke has two territories, both shimmering with an atmosphere of violence and wild passion, and with landscapes that are unforgettable. There’s the Louisiana bayou in the Mississippi delta and the bare mountains of Montana. Burke writes like a dream, and if you enjoy the sultry low life of the New Orleans underworld or the contemporary Wild West, you’ll be hooked. Reading In the Moon of Red Ponies again the other week, I realised how few writers can produce such consistently vigorous prose and such a stream of memorable characters. Burke is one of the greats.
Having confessed my addiction to crime, I should also admit that a good spy story will always have me hooked. There is a lot of rubbish around, of course, and I’ve lost count of the number of writers trailed as “the new le Carré” whose books have quickly ended up in the local charity shop. But now and again a real original pops up.
I found one last month – Beside the Syrian Sea, by James Wolff. His name is a pseudonym, for reasons that most readers will guess is connected to his job, because this is an account of a hostage-taking in the Middle East and the efforts of a renegade MI5 officer to rescue his father, and it trembles with realistic detail. I know we’ll hear more of him.
Violence and deceit, of course, can become a little wearying. And when I need to laugh, I reach – with utter confidence – for PG Wodehouse (in the wonderful Everyman hardback edition). Put The Code of the Woosters by the bedside and I am a happy man. Take me to Blandings Castle, where the Empress snuffles contentedly in her sty, and the cares of the world seem to pass away.
These are the writers who can help me escape. But when I’m trying to avoid that pile of serious new novels, I need some gritty non-fiction, too. And when I want to throw myself at a biographer, I turn, again and again, to Robert A Caro. His masterly The Years of Lyndon Johnson has still to be completed – although he’s now in his 80s, he says, boldly, that the fifth and final volume may take him another five years to complete – and anyone who has more than a passing interest in America should read Master of the Senate or The Passage of Power.
One last secret. I know nothing about sailing, and relatively little of military history. But when I first encountered the novels of Patrick O’Brian I knew I would have to read them all. I never get on a plane without one, happy to take to sea in a ship of the line in the Napoleonic wars. The Aubrey-Maturin series – nearly two dozen books like The Yellow Admiral and Blue at the Mizzen – is a masterpiece, full stop.
Put it away! There’s work to be done. I have to read that grim-looking novel at the top of the pile, about… But I know where to turn if I can’t bear it.