The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V Higgins (Shane's book 35, 2011)

"Hey Foss," the prosecutor said, taking Clark by the arm, "of course it changes. Don't take it so hard. Some of us die, the rest of us get older, new guys come along, old guys disappear. It changes everyday."

[amtap book:isbn=031242969X]

The Friends of Eddie Coyle is another classic of the hardboiled crime genre but while The Hunter is the equivalent of the Hollywood action thriller, this is the precursor to something more realistic, such as The Wire. The characters here, whether crooks, cops or lawyers, are just doing their jobs as best they can.

In his introduction Dennis Lehane - a novelist and one of the writers for The Wire - describes the book as "the game-changing crime novel of the last 50 years". He notes that the book is almost all dialogue and praises Higgins' ear for real speech.

The plot concerns Eddie Coyle, a smalltime crook in Boston, who is facing jail time for his part in a robbery. In an attempt to avoid prison, Coyle begins feeding information to the police. He doesn't think he's giving them anything important but, unknown to him, someone else is feeding better information and Coyle could end up taking the blame.

It's fairly clear early on how the book is going to end but that isn't the point. What makes this book so good is Higgins's evocation of character and place. He wrote this while working as an attorney in Boston and his knowledge of the system comes through in the tangible authenticity of the dialogue and the setting.

Higgins does so much of his storytelling through speech that the story takes on a hazy, vague quality at times. It adds to the unsettling feel of scenes such as the bank robberies carried out by the gang that Coyle is supplying with weapons. The cold precision of the robbers and the business-like capitulation of the bank staff is brilliantly rendered.

As with The Hunter, it's clear to see how influential this book has been. However, while that book has been so thoroughly imitated that it feels like an imitation itself, there is a quality in The Friends of Eddie Coyle that is very hard to imitate. Indeed, Lehane's introduction says that even Higgins could not manage to imitate this book with any success.

It still feels fresh and it's a thoroughly engaging read.

The Hunter (aka Point Blank) by Richard Stark (Shane's book 34, 2011)

This is considered a classic of hardboiled crime fiction. It's also the only book that I've continued to search for after I bought a copy. That's because it took me a long time to realise that The Hunter and Point Blank, two much-recommended crime novels, were in fact the same book. There are also three film versions: Point Blank, Full Contact and Payback. [amtap book:isbn=0749079614]

Published in 1962, the book is the first in a series of more than 20 novels about Parker, a professional crook. Its author, Donald Westlake wrote more than 100 novels under many pseudonyms. The Parker novels were all written as Richard Stark. In summary, both the novel and its author go by many different names.

In The Hunter, Parker is just out of prison and is determined to get revenge on his ex-wife and his former partners in crime, whose treachery put him in jail. Parker is a single-minded and ruthless hunter. When he discovers that one of his former partners is being protected by the mob, he decides to take on the mob too.

The writing is taut and simple. Westlake doesn't linger too much on descriptions or the inner life of his characters as he propels the action relentlessly forward. It's easy to see why the story has tempted so many filmmakers - at times it almost reads like a film script.

The story was probably not that original even when it was written but frequent imitation, by the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Elmore Leonard, does diminish its impact somewhat. At times it feels cosy and familiar rather than the thrilling journey into the underworld that it once might have been.

Parker is a classic example of the indomitable hero. That he will succeed in his revenge mission is not really in doubt at any stage, which robs the story of some tension. Westlake makes up for that with some memorable action scenes and a clever structure that begins in the midst of Parker's search for revenge and then occasionally flashes back to earlier events.

This is worth reading if you're a fan of classic crime fiction. It's enjoyable but probably lacks the impact that it had when it was first published.

The Lime Twig by John Hawkes (Shane's book 17, 2011)

Lost in the Funhouse marked the beginning of a small exploration of experimental and post-modern fiction. I followed it with The Lime Twig, the sixth novel by John Hawkes, which seems not to be very well known, from what I can tell. It's obscurity is undeserved. [amtap book:isbn=0811200655]

Hawkes' was clear about his approach to fiction: "I began to write fiction on the assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting and theme, and having once abandoned these familiar ways of thinking about fiction, totality of vision or structure was really all that remained."There is a plot here - and character, setting and theme, for that matter - but Hawkes blurs and smears them with woozy, dreamlike writing. The result is a little like James M Cain or Jim Thompson seen through a broken mirror. There's a nightmarish, feverish quality to the book.

Hawkes' publishers, fearing the readers wouldn't have a clue what he was on about, insisted that the author make things clearer. He responded by inserting news reports from sports journalist Sidney Slyter at the beginning of each chapter. To anyone who has read, say, Gravity's Rainbow, this feels like unnecessary handholding and by comparison Hawkes' narrative feels like a masterpiece of clarity.

Gravity's Rainbow had not been written at this point, to be fair, but Ulysses had so you'd think Hawkes' publishers would have been a little more understanding. In any case, the Slyter sections, though they do feel a little like those 'previously on…' montages that preface TV shows, increase the postmodern quotient considerably.

Set in England shortly after the Second World War, The Lime Twig is the story of a horse-racing scam fronted by William Hencher, a small-time criminal who is involved with a more serious gang of crooks. Hencher rents a room from Michael and Margaret Banks and he draws them into the scheme. Needless to say, things go bad very quickly and soon get worse.

How bad things get is not always clear. Hawkes leaves out a lot of the key developments of the plot, leaving the reader to piece things together. That only adds to the nightmare quality of the piece. Reading it is a strange experience. Hawkes writes in an allusive, poetic fashion, which at times serves to distance the reader from the narrative. At other times events in the novel seem to come sharply - and brutally - into focus.

Something about this novel isn't entirely successful but I can't quite put my finger on what. I think that Sidney Slyter's interventions serve to make The Lime Twig, well, slighter. Even so, it's still an engaging and intriguing book.

Angels by Denis Johnson (Shane's book 15, 2011)

"It was around nine-thirty, there was a chill in the air, the wind was gentle now, and he was moving inside it like the light of love, ringing without sound, giving himself up to every vibration, totally alive inside of a crime."

[amtap book:isbn=0099440830]

Angels, Denis Johnson's first novel, is a dark and affecting story, populated with characters that are easy to dislike but difficult to avoid empathising with.

The novel opens with Jamie meeting Bill on a Greyhound bus. He's a smalltime crook with little going for him and she has left her husband, taking her two children with her. He is unable to resist falling back into crime; she fantasises about killing one of the children The two of them are soon bound together.

What follows is gloomy and often harrowing but Johnson balances the tone perfectly. He doesn't make the characters so repellant that you can't stay with them but nor does he try to convince you that they deserve your sympathy.

The writing is frequently brilliant with a tinge of oddness, as with the quote above. There's the odd clanger: "…he could feel the sinuses at the back of his nose opening up." (Oh, those sinuses!) But generally the writing is great.

It feels inevitable from very early on that things won't end well and, rather than manifest itself in tension or dread, that feeling is one of sadness. It's a moving book.

It's the third of Johnson's novels that I've read. It's better than Nobody Move but not as impressive as Tree of Life, which takes on a more ambitious task and succeeds. Nevertheless, I'd recommended it.

The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey (Shane's book 13, 2011)

Though the 'Golden Age' of crime fiction is generally considered to have ended with the Second World War, this novel, published in 1948, is very much in the golden age tradition. It's a mystery that centres on a country house, features a host of upper and upper-middle class characters and, despite some devious criminality, order is restored at the end. [amtap book:isbn=0099536838]

I find golden age crime novels comforting in a funny sort of way. They are more like puzzles than novels and, as with any genre fiction, the adherence to a template offers a reassuring familiarity. The Franchise Affair is considered one of the classics of its kind so everything should have been in place for an enjoyable read.The 'affair' in question concerns Betty Kane, a young woman who, after several days missing, goes to the police and says she was held hostage and beaten by the owners of The Franchise, a remote country house. Kane describes several features of the house in remarkable detail and the case against the owners, Marion Sharpe and her mother, looks iron-clad but they protest their innocence. Marion turns to a local solicitor, Robert Blair, for help.

The solution to the mystery is arrived at fairly early on and Blair spends the rest of the book trying to find the proof he needs. The story plods along without ever being either dull or absorbing. There are no real twists, just a few gentle curves. It's all perfectly pleasant but little more.

Tey's writing serves her purpose well. She's concise, witty and her characters have a degree of individuality about them, while all feeling slightly familiar. She builds up a charming picture of sedate country life that is slowly beginning to face modernity and a busier, noisier existence.

The most interesting thing for me was the class snobbery running through the book. Tey's characters are divided into decent and not so decent types, with the more upper class ones falling into the former category. Aside from a couple of 'salt of the earth' common types, the lower class characters are generally brash or dishonest.

Marion goes to Robert, who is a family solicitor, rather than the local criminal lawyer because the latter is "not my sort". There are also suggestions that Kane's background explains her behaviour. It's all very subtle and probably subconscious onand, from this vantage point, it seems silly rather than offensive.

This is a pleasant enough book but I'm not sure that its status as a classic is merited. If you want to read a golden age classic, I'd recommend Trent's Last Case or The Moving Toyshop ahead of this.