Black Friday by David Goodis - This is one of the first truly hard-boiled crime novels I ever read. It's a slender, nasty little story about a two-bit crook, named Hart, who falls in with a family of criminals after stumbling across one of their victims. Early on, Hart has to fight his way out of a jam, and in the process kicks one of his assailants in the groin. He kicks him so hard that he shatter's the guy pelvis, and the guy later dies. As a young kid reading that, I realized that this book could go anywhere and do anything. And the point of view wasn't going to suddenly switch to a noble policeman. I like noble policemen, mind you, but sometimes they're just not around when you need them. Goodis -- who also wrote the novels Dark Passage and Down There, the latter of which was later filmed as Shoot the Piano Player** -- knew that as well as anybody. Chandler and MacDonald could keep their "knights errant"; Goodis was interested in the poor saps that Marlowe and McGee had to wade through to get to the end of their quest.
A Hell of a Woman by Jim Thompson - Thompson enjoyed a brief resurgance in popularity in the 1980s and 90s, due in large part, I believe, to Stephen Frears's film version of his novel The Grifters (with a screenplay by, not coincidentally, Donald E. Westlake). As a result, a lot of people seem to know Thompson's famous novel The Killer Inside Me. That's a fine book, but my favorite by Thompson is this one. The story is a typical one for this sort of thing: it involves a salesman/con-man, named Dillon, who is willing to take out a couple of people if it means a big payday. Okay, fine, but what I remember most about this novel is the last couple of pages, in which Thompson shows us Dillon's disintegrating psyche in one long, almost Joycean paragraph. We see what Dillon thinks he's thinking, and what's actually going on inside his head, almost at the same time. Also, at the end, does Dillon do what I think he does...?
The Shark-Infested Custard by Charles Willeford - This novel, Willeford's last, is a masterpiece of tone. In the same casual, disenterested pitch that Willeford uses to describe a character driving home from work, he will use to describe that man committing murder. Essentially a series of connected short-stories, The Shark-Infested Custard relates the day-to-day lives of a group of fun-loving, middle-aged businessmen who occasionally find themselves needing to commit crimes in order to get a bit of money, get out of a jam, get laid, whatever. None of it matters to any of them, and in stripping his prose of any description that might imply judgement, Willeford comes awfully close to writing a kind of existential horror novel. This one's really brilliant. Read it.
Told you this was going to be half-assed! Anyway, I gotta go help the wife with groceries. But seriously, read The Shark-Infested Custard.
*Or should it be "Supers Bowl"?
**And despite the fact that the film is considered a classic of world cinema and bears the stamp of Francois Truffaut, and despite the fact that Goodis's novel is now all but forgotten, the book is still better than the film. And I like the film.