The best literary novels that taught me valuable lessons to use as a crime writer

Who am I?

I was an English major in college and my dream was to write the Great American Novel. My literary heroes were writers like Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Jean Rhys, Margaret Drabble, Truman Capote, and Norman Mailer. They “taught” me how to write. About a dozen years ago, I concentrated on writing crime novels, like Swann’s Last Song and Second Story Man, both of which were nominated for Shamus Awards (Second Story Man won the Beverly Hills Book Award.) I'm a magazine journalist and write nonfiction books, screenplays, plays, and book reviews. I teach writing here in New York City, and I’m on the Board of PrisonWrites and the New York Writers Workshop.

I wrote...

Man on the Run

By Charles Salzberg,

Book cover of Man on the Run

What is my book about?

Master burglar Francis Hoyt dodges another legal bullet by taking advantage of lax security allowing him to brazenly walk out of the courthouse where he’s waiting to be arraigned for possession of stolen property. He must now decide what he’s going to do with the rest of his life, as he tries to stay one step ahead of the law. He winds up on the West Coast where he learns Dakota Richards, a young, female true crime podcaster is planning a series on his life of crime. Meanwhile, he’s approached by a shady lawyer who wants to hire him to knock over a “mob bank”. Eventually, the podcast and the heist intersect putting both Hoyt and Richards in a dangerously precarious situation.

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The books I picked & why


By Vladimir Nabokov,

Book cover of Lolita

Why did I love this book?

Lolita isn’t usually thought of as a crime novel but it is.

Thirty-seven-year-old Humbert Humbert stalks 12-year-old Lolita, then breaks all kinds of laws, moral, ethical, and legal, as he transports her across state lines.

The first time I read Lolita, I was dazzled by Nabokov’s stunning use of language—and remember, English was not his native tongue—word-play, and his ability to create full-blooded characters that leap off the page.

Nabokov pulls off this morally compromised tale with wit and humor, while dealing with the serious topic of pedophilia.

Reading Lolita gave me license to create morally challenged characters like Francis Hoyt, one of the protagonists in my novels.

Nabokov proved you don’t have to like, admire, or even feel a kinship with a character, so long as that character is interesting and compelling enough that readers are fascinated about him or her without being turned off.

By Vladimir Nabokov,

Why should I read it?

9 authors picked Lolita as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of my tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.'

Humbert Humbert is a middle-aged, frustrated college professor. In love with his landlady's twelve-year-old daughter Lolita, he'll do anything to possess her. Unable and unwilling to stop himself, he is prepared to commit any crime to get what he wants.

Is he in love or insane? A silver-tongued poet or a pervert? A tortured soul or a monster? Or is he all…

Seize the Day

By Saul Bellow,

Book cover of Seize the Day

Why did I love this book?

I grew up on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. We lived above an all-purpose drugstore that included two aisles of paperback books.

Almost every day after school, that store became my own personal library. If were attracted by a particular title or cover, it would wind up in my to-buy list.

Seize the Day was one of those books. The protagonist is the hapless Tommy Wilhelm, a small-time loser who spends his life trying to impress his big-shot father (think Willie Loman only less successful).

Desperately trying to make something of himself that his father can be proud of, Wilhelm gets involved with conman father figure Tamkin.

What impressed me most was Bellow’s ability to create a living, breathing, deeply flawed character that you’re actually rooting for.

What makes characters like Wilhelm compelling is not only the constant struggle to survive in a world that seems to be stacked against them. Bellow recreates the world of the Upper West Side so painstakingly that it becomes another character in the book.

From Bellow I not only learned how to build a character from the inside-out, but how important geography is in a novel.

By Saul Bellow,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Seize the Day as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“What makes all of this so remarkable is not merely Bellow’s eye and ear for vital detail. Nor is it his talent for exposing the innards of character in a paragraph, a sentence, a phrase. It is Bellow’s vision, his uncanny ability to seize the moment and to see beyond it.” –Chicago Sun-Times

A Penguin Classic

Fading charmer Tommy Wilhelm has reached his day of reckoning and is scared. In his forties, he still retains a boyish impetuousness that has brought him to the brink of chaos: He is separated from his wife and children, at odds with his vain,…

Portnoy's Complaint

By Philip Roth,

Book cover of Portnoy's Complaint

Why did I love this book?

Portnoy’s Complaint is really just a long, drawn-out, hilarious, often shocking monologue which would seem an unlikely model for a crime writer.

After all, masturbation is hardly a criminal offense—at least not yet. But Roth brings so much to the table in terms of creating character through voice.

I tend to write in the first-person and reading Roth is a master class in the use of the first person.

In my book, for instance, the story is told through the eyes of three different characters. The challenge was to create three, distinct voices, all of whom have to move the action forward.

For me, Roth’s Alexander Portnoy is a perfect example of how important it is to have a compelling voice tell your story.

By Philip Roth,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked Portnoy's Complaint as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'The most outrageously funny book about sex written' Guardian

Portnoy's Complaint n. [after Alexander Portnoy (1933-)]:A disorder in which strongly-felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature.

Portnoy's Complaint tells the tale of young Jewish lawyer Alexander Portnoy and his scandalous sexual confessions to his psychiatrist.

As narrated by Portnoy, he takes the reader on a journey through his childhood to adolescence to present day while articulating his sexual desire, frustration and neurosis in shockingly candid ways.

Hysterically funny and daringly intimate, Portnoy's Complaint was an immediate bestseller upon its publication…

The Naked and the Dead

By Norman Mailer,

Book cover of The Naked and the Dead

Why did I love this book?

I first read The Naked and the Dead in a college course covering modern American fiction after World War II.

It was Mailer’s first novel and is recognized as one of the best novels to come out of a writer’s own war experiences (amazingly, Red Badge of Courage, was written by Stephen Crane, without benefit of ever experiencing war first-hand).

You’d think it would have little influence for a crime writer but it does. If you haven’t read the book and intend to, it’s time for a spoiler alert.

One of the main characters is Lt. Hearn, but halfway through the novel, Mailer does the unthinkable. He kills off one of his main characters.

Why in the world would Mailer do something like this? The answer, of course, is that he was mimicking the war experience.

War is unpredictable, especially in terms of who lives and who dies. The lesson I took from this was shocking death, was to examine the life and death powers a writer can wield. 

We can manipulate the reader (in a good way, I think) and doing the unexpected, like killing off a major character, keeps the reader off-balance.

Life is messy, as is good art, in my opinion. Mailer taught me a valuable lesson. When things are going too well, or the plot becomes predictable, it’s a good idea to throw a hand grenade into the scene, to keep the reader on his or her toes.  

By Norman Mailer,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Naked and the Dead as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Hailed as one of the finest novels to come out of the Second World War, The Naked and the Dead received unprecedented critical acclaim upon its publication and has since enjoyed a long and well-deserved tenure in the American canon. This fiftieth anniversary edition features a new introduction created especially for the occasion by Norman Mailer.

Written in gritty, journalistic detail, the story follows a platoon of Marines who are stationed on the Japanese-held island of Anopopei. Composed in 1948 with the wisdom of a man twice Mailer's age and the raw courage of the young man he was, The…


By Ron Hansen,

Book cover of Desperadoes

Why did I love this book?

Like many of us, I’m fascinated by the Old West (maybe it’s all those cowboy shows and movies I watched as a kid).

The novel follows legendary Dalton Brothers gang (related to the Younger brothers who ran with Jesse and Frank James). I stumbled across Desperadoes, which artfully co-mingles truth and fiction.

Hansen uses the conceit of having a novel told in the form of a fictional memoir, written in 1937 by 65-year-old Emmett Dalton, the last surviving member of the infamous gang.

Hansen centers his action around the gang’s plot to rob two banks in Coffeyville, Kansas, and it’s a master class in the art of blending fact and fiction.

It’s something I’ve tried to do in my book, which incorporates into the plot an actual plot to knock over a “mob bank,” backed by a real-life New England mob boss.

By Ron Hansen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Desperadoes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

At age 65, Emmett Dalton, the sole survivor of the infamous Dalton gang makes a living by selling his outrageous adventure stories to Hollywood. Desperadoes details his memories of the murders, bootlegging and thievery he and his posse committed. The grit and excitement of these violent times are expertly evoked by the sharp pen and authentic voice of HarperCollins' bestselling author Ron Hansen.

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