What's Your Comfort?

Every day the excellent House Next Door provides a series of links for essays, pictures, and articles that deal mostly with film, but sometimes cover other areas of interest. Yesterday I found this cool article from the UK Telegraph listing 50 Crime Writers to Read before You Die. The article reminded me of something I had been meaning to write about for some time: namely those authors or genres that provide us with comfort. Coming across the above link seemed too much like divine providence to pass up the chance to crow about a genre that has in recent years provided me with no end of "comfort."

Fill in the blank: "When I need a little pick-me-up I turn to __________."

I've heard a hundred different variations of the preceding sentence. Shakespeare, Dickinson, Stephen King...everyone has something they turn to when they need a break from whatever is stressing them in life, the universe, and everything. Recently after dealing for about two and a half hours with my son's refusal to go back to sleep I had an irresistible urge to sit downstairs on my couch with a copy of Charles Dickens' Pickwick Papers. For two hours I completely forgot about the screaming, the crying, the lack of sleep as I read about the various misadventures of Mr. Pickwick and his merry band.

Excepting the above instance, my "comfort" doesn't align itself with a particular writer but instead with an entire genre. And that's the "crime" or "mystery" novel. From as far back as Arthur Conan Doyle to as recent as Dennis LeHane. When I was laid up after donating a kidney to my brother in 2006 it was Ed McBain and the 87th Precinct series that kept the pain and discomfort to a minimum (the painkillers didn't hurt, either). I keep piles of Agatha Christie and John D. MacDonald books around for trips to the beach, long train rides and quick business trips. Over the past few years Hard Case Crime has dedicated itself to renewing the fervor for the "hardboiled" crime subgenre by re-releasing lost classics as well as publishing new works by modern masters in the old style. Perhaps the biggest coup was The Colorado Kid, written by Stephen King especially for the series:

It's hard to readily explain what it is about the crime novel and the ongoing crime series that appeals so much to me. I think part of it is the same thing that draws people to the fantasy series of Robert Jordan and Terry Goodkind - the chance to revisit a world we've come to know and love, and to stop by our favorite characters to see how they've been doing. I know that upon opening up a Parker or a Dortmunder novel by Donald Westlake (or his alter ego Richard Stark) that I'm coming across a compelling, complex character that inhabits a mirror image our own world - maybe the dirt's got more of a gloss to it, maybe the women are all full-figured, but it's a world I instantly recognize and relate to on a level that feels almost primal. Looking up from reading feels like coming up for air, only to want to immediately drown yourself again.

So check out the link above and discover some great writers. There's often a misconception that "genre" writers can't write, which frankly is ridiculous. Writers like McBain (who I keep coming back to because he's one of my favorites) tap into a poetry and language that is concrete and smeared lipstick, back alleys and fire escapes. It's a poetry and language I find myself coming back to time and time again.