“Steve Mosby has become one of a handful of writers who make me excited about crime fiction.” – Val McDermid
Steve Mosby has described his writing as “dark, cruel, emotional” – so what do his bookshelves look like? Quite lovely actually. Below, Steve introduces us to his bookscape. And if you’re stuck for some reading over Christmas, check out the ten titles that rock his world. If you haven’t tried one of Steve’s books before, prepare to get hooked – as critic Matthew Lewin said in the Guardian “Cancel all other engagements for the day.” …
My bookshelves are awkward and haphazard. We seem to have an awkward and haphazard house – a grumbly one that doesn’t lend itself well to being redesigned or having new things added – so books often end up piled on tables, or stuffed away in cabinets. Basically, I have two main bookcases and several boxes. There’s not enough room to fit anything else in, and yet somehow whatever I buy goes somewhere. The bookcases, though, are where it’s at. The contents undergo a kind of natural selection over time.
When you asked me to talk about them, I thought I’d pick ten books from those shelves that mean something to me, and that I’ve loved. Across the whole of my life, and in some kind of order. Of course, ten books is far too few. So I’ve cheated a little and added in a few others under each selection. Sometimes the connection is obvious, others times perhaps not, but the additional titles all tie in for me in some way – either thematically or, in a High Fidelity kind of way, autobiographically.
So. Starting from the beginning…
1. Haunted House, by Jan Pienkowski
The children’s pop-up classic: the first book I can really remember reading. I still have the same copy, and it’s in pretty good condition, all things considered. The book is so much fun, and so beautifully produced, that I hope my own son will be playing with it in a few years. My favourite was always the ghost that appears in the bed. Pure magic.
See also: The Many Mice of Mr Brice, by Theo LeSieg; The Wump World, by Bill Peet.
2. Power of Three, Diana Wynne Jones
For me, there is no better children’s writer than Jones. I find it hard to pick a favourite, but Power of Three pinches it. As a kid, I was totally absorbed by the story of the moor with its three warring peoples, the children with their collars and gifts, the giants, the terrifying, shape-shifting Dorig – and the way it all unfolds and gives you exactly what you want. I read it again recently and was just as entranced, this time also by how wonderful and astute a prose-stylist she is.
See also: The Stainless Steel Rat, by Harry Harrison; Galactic Warlord, by Douglas Hill; I Am The Cheese, by Robert Cormier.
3. Watchers, by Dean R Koontz
One of the first books I read that made me really want to be a writer. I discovered Koontz on a very dull, rained-in holiday with my parents, and read several of his novels in a week. Watchers remains my favourite. A genetically-engineered golden retriever finds its way into the lives of a couple. Unfortunately for them, the dog is being hunted by the other half of the military experiment that created it: the malformed and vicious, yet somehow pitiful, ‘Outsider’. It’s a perfect example of a high-concept techno-horror that doesn’t sacrifice heart for pace. You’re rooting for the characters within pages. By the end, you’re terrified for them.
See also: The Descent, by Jeff Long; Jurassic Park, by Michael Crichton.
4. Cabal, by Clive Barker
I have signed copies of Barker’s Books of Blood that I probably value more, but Cabal is my favourite of his novels. Falsely convinced by his psychiatrist that he’s a serial killer, Boone takes refuge amongst the Nightbreed, the undead inhabitants of a mythical refuge below a cemetery. In doing so, he brings them the attention of the police and the real murderer – and ultimately war with humanity. What strikes me most here is Barker’s reversal of the familiar. In another novel, the Nightbreed would be monsters, the bad guys. Here, the monsters are beautiful and mysterious, and it’s humanity, attacking the ‘other’, that is demonised and terrifying. Violent, vivid and unforgettable.
See also: Exquisite Corpse, by Poppy Z Brite; Slob, by Rex Miller; Slights, by Kaaron Warren.
5. Only Forward, by Michael Marshall Smith
I think Spares is his best novel – and I have a copy of More Tomorrow, his collected short stories, that is worth a fair bit of money – but Only Forward will always have first place in my heart. My parents picked it up on holiday, didn’t like it and passed it to me. Well, I liked it. I loved it. It starts off as a kind of cyber-noir, with a Chandler-esque P.I. character searching for a missing person in a strange, futuristic city. But it grows darker, changing gradually into something much quieter, more human, more moving. Initially, it promises an action climax. Instead, it delivers something far more satisfying. A modern classic in any genre.
See also: Vurt, by Jeff Noon; Word Made Flesh, by Jack O’Connell; The Marriage of Sticks, by Jonathan Carroll.
6. Green River Rising, by Tim Willocks
Hands down, the best thriller I’ve ever read. Dr Ray Klein is serving the final hours of his sentence when a riot breaks out in Green River State Penitentiary. At first, fixated on freedom, he’s determined to wait it out quietly in his cell, but then he learns a group of prisoners is planning to break into the infirmary and kill his patients. It’s a tense and brutal page-turner, but also philosophical, deeply emotional and lyrically written. You fall in love with these characters, and you’re there with them every step of the way.
See also: First Blood, by David Morrell; God Is A Bullet, by Boston Teran.
7. Birdman, by Mo Hayder
Still one of the most startling serial killer thrillers out there, and the introduction of Jack Caffery, one of the more interesting policemen in modern crime fiction. Women’s bodies are being found with live finches sewn into their chests; a killer is on the loose; a cop is haunted by the past. It sounded formulaic even back then, but Hayder made it feel fresh, and the book moves into an astonishingly dark and vicious final third. Anyone who picks this up expecting a fun, easy read is likely to come away stung. But it earns its realistic, uncompromising violence and never feels anything other than morally repelled by the ugliness of it.
See also: The End of Alice, by A M Holmes; The Girl Next Door, by Jack Ketchum; The Cutting Room, by Louise Welsh; The Devil’s Staircase, by Helen Fitzgerald.
8. Breakheart Hill, by Thomas H Cook
A more gentle crime novel at first glance, as a man looks back over the years to the fate of a girl on the titular hill. As with all Cook’s novels, though, the lack of overt physical violence is more than compensated for by the emotional kind. Guilt and regret permeate every beautifully-written page; secrets and truths are painstakingly revealed. It all leads to one of the most audacious and effective twists I’ve ever read. As a writer, I’m in awe of Breakheart Hill on so many levels, but its structure most of all. I look at it and think: “How would I have started writing it? How would I have planned this?” It genuinely seems impossible. It’s too intricate: too clever and organic.
See also: Being Dead, by Jim Crace; The Affirmation, by Christopher Priest; House of Leaves, by Mark Z Danielewski.
9. The Pledge, by Friedrich Durrenmatt
First published in 1958, this slim novel was billed as a kind of “anti-detective novel”. It’s a simple and familiar story: a little girl is found murdered, and a detective becomes haunted by the promise he makes to her mother to find the killer. But it drives him, ultimately, to insanity. In this book, many of the tropes of crime fiction are present, but skewed off-centre. Chance and luck are central to real-life police work, but anathema to plotted fiction. Durrenmatt plays with conventions and undermines and discards much of what we expect from a crime novel, and yet the novel remains quietly satisfying – philosophically bleak and devastating.
See also: Tarantula, by Thierry Jonquet; Falling Angel, by William Hjortsberg; The City & The City, by China Mieville.
10. The Silent Land, by Graham Joyce
The last book I read. A young couple on a skiing holiday are caught in an avalanche, then return to their village to find everyone else has disappeared and they are unable to leave. If the premise sounds obvious – did they really survive? – then Joyce disposes of that within the first few chapters, and what we have here is a beautifully rendered depiction of a loving relationship in extreme circumstances, leading to a surprising and intensely moving ending. Joyce is a superb novelist, hugely adept at blending magic in with the everyday, and this might well be his best book yet.
See also: The Language of Dying, by Sarah Pinborough; Black River, by Melanie Tem; The Brief History of the Dead, by Kevin Brockmeier.
Steve Mosby lives and works in Leeds. He is the author of five books: Still Bleeding (2009); Cry for Help (2008); The 50/50 Killer (2007); The Cutting Crew (2005); and The Third Person (2003). His website is The Left Room. His latest book, Black Flowers, is out in 2011.