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It is astonishing to realise that Ross Macdonald’s series of books featuring P.I. Lew Archer (two of which were made into the Paul Newman Harper movies) began life 70 years ago. There is a freshness and modern relevance in his work that you just don’t find in the novels of his contemporaries – including Chandler and Hammett.
If Macdonald is the summit of the shamus, Patricia Highsmith is the highest peak of psychological suspense, whether in her best known novels such as Strangers on a Train or her unjustly lesser-known works, such as the superb, Mexican-set thriller, A Game for the Living.
From the stunning cinematography to the haunting theme, Chinatown is hard to beat, and even boasts the creepy presence of the man who invented the Private Eye movie, John Huston.
Out of the Past is a prime example of romantic, doomed existentialism, as is Sweet Smell of Success, with Sidney’s smug code for the completion of a successful crime, “The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river”, one of film noir’s most memorable lines.
But perhaps best of all is René Clément’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s masterpiece, with Alain Delon playing Tom Ripley in Plein Soleil (Purple Noon in English) – oh, that ending!
... TV DRAMAS
The Sopranos and The Wire created the template for the contemporary crime saga. Breaking Bad broke ground with its superb character development and insanely good plotting. And Life on Mars was memorable for its humour and humanity.
But if I had to choose one show, it would be season one of True Detective. Everything about it felt epic, from the extraordinary six minute, single take, tracking shot in episode four to the dual themes of darkness and redemption and the relationship between Rust and Hart – best of enemies, worst of friends. Amazing.
... FICTIONAL KILLERS
Firstly, I personally prefer killers who remain safely fictional. Secondly, as much as I love Anthony Hopkins and Mads Mikkelsen as actors, I can’t get my head around Hannibal Lecter being this loveable, charismatic killer everyone wants to hang with – probably because I was never a fan of either fava beans or Chianti.
So, if you have to buddy up with a killer, you better find one who’s fun to be around. Enter the perfect insane killer companion: Emilio Largo from Ian Fleming’s Thunderball. He has a cool eyepatch, a girlfriend called Domino, a villa in Nassau and spends his days tooling around in a souped-up super yacht called the Disco Volante – what’s not to like? Plus if you hang with him long enough, you’ll end up meeting James Bond… or at least Austin Powers.
... FICTIONAL DETECTIVES
Special agents Dana Scully (X-Files), Clarice Starling (The Silence of the Lambs) and Dale Cooper (Twin Peaks) are all top-drawer, kick-ass investigators – but they also all work for the Bureau – not my favourite outfit (J Edgar was a nasty character in my novel, Fever City).
So I’m going for an old-fashioned, independent detective, Hercule Poirot: a brilliant mind, a seeker of truth and justice, and an amusing and generous companion. He is also that most undervalued of persons at the moment: a European resident of the UK. I can only imagine how hurt he would have been by the Brexit vote. Mon Dieu, even his little grey cells would short-circuit trying to understand that mess.
If Monsieur Poirot were to be deported back to Belgium, I’d choose The Dude from The Big Lebowski – provided that someone would promise to rescue me after three days in his company. Nothing much would get solved with the Dude around, but at least there’d be good music, plenty of bowling and more White Russians than you could shake a Persian rug at.
... MURDER WEAPONS
I was about seven years old when I heard my mother cry out in shock, and then, inexplicably, start laughing. I ran into the lounge room just in time to see the already familiar figure of Alfred Hitchcock intoning his farewells on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The TV episode in question was called Lamb to the Slaughter and was written by Roald Dahl. There may possibly be a better murder weapon in crime fiction, but there has never been a better means of disposing of one.
... DEATH SCENES
The best death scene I can recall is actually a near miss: the almost assassination of President Charles de Gaulle in The Day of the Jackal. It is as if all of Frederick Forsyth’s brilliant attention to the minutiae of French life and society has been in service to this one, brilliant scene.
Twitter is great if you’re just starting out writing: it not only offers you direct insight into what agents and editors are currently looking for, it also affords an opportunity to interact with other crime writers – who tend to be a pretty congenial bunch. Just don’t forget to mute the accounts of Donald Trump, Morrissey and Katie Hopkins first.
... WRITING TIPS
Never Plan Your Books. A crime novel is an investigation; a search for meaning and truth – and that search begins with the writer. Never be afraid to stumble along in the dark, follow red herrings, or get cold sweats when you run into a dead-end alley. So what if sometimes you’ll find yourself contemplating arson with your very own manuscript? The chills and thrills you’ll get flying blind will translate into your work – and remember: if something doesn’t make sense, you can always fix it in the end! It’s called cheating and no one’s ever going to catch you as long as you wear gloves, cover your tracks, and avoid using your credit card close to the crime scene.
... WRITING SNACKS
Snacks are indispensable as I tend to forget to eat lunch when I’m writing. In summer, it’s unsalted cashews and rosé. In winter, Russian Earl Grey tea and dark chocolate. Life is too short and your editor isn’t going to be kind to you, so pamper yourself a little!
About TIM BAKER
Born in Sydney, Tim Baker has lived in Rome, Madrid and Paris and currently lives in the South of France with his wife, their son, and two rescue animals, a dog and a cat. His debut novel, the neo-noir thriller, Fever City, was shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger award and Highly Commended for the CWA Debut Dagger award, and was also nominated for The Private Eye Writers of America’s Shamus award for best first novel. He was named as an 'Author to Watch More Closely in the Future' by J Kingston Pierce in Kirkus Reviews.
Find Tim Baker on Twitter - @TimBakerWrites
About CITY WITHOUT STARS
In Ciudad Real, Mexico, a deadly war between rival cartels is erupting, and hundreds of female sweat-shop workers are being murdered. As his police superiors start shutting down his investigation, Fuentes suspects most of his colleagues are on the payroll of narco kingpin, El Santo. Meanwhile, despairing union activist, Pilar, decides to take social justice into her own hands. But if she wants to stop the killings, she’s going to have to ignore all her instincts and accept the help of Fuentes. When the name of Mexico’s saintly orphan rescuer, Padre Márcio, keeps resurfacing, Pilar and Fuentes begin to realise how deep the cover-up goes.
City Without Stars was published by Faber & Faber on 11 January 2018.
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