Thursday, October 26, 2017

Books That Captured The Imagination

In honor of National Book Month, I'd thought it would be fun to think back on the books that first sparked my imagination--the stories that pulled me in and remember the authors who bear some responsibility for my writing today. (God have mercy on their souls)

I've always been a reader. My taste and preferences may have shifted over the years, but I really can't recall a time when I wasn't reading something for pleasure. My college years were a low point because all the "boring required reading" took time away from "the good stuff." But, my first reading memories were back in junior high school, when I found science fiction.

Arthur C. Clarke, H.G Wells, Issac Asimov, and Ray Bradbury created entire worlds I could climb into, with fantastic creatures and futuristic machines that threatened to control all mankind. It was all pretty heady stuff for an adolescent geeky kid. War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Sands of Mars, I Robot, Fahrenheit 451, Something Wicked this Way Comes, and The Illustrated Man were standouts from those days.

These futuristic stories came to me during the peak of the Gemini and Apollo space programs. (Ask your parents if this reference pre-dates you) Watching real-life manned space flights and witnessing man's first steps on the moon made the outer space stories feel less science fiction and more science fact. I was hooked.

Soon after, I included classic horror into my reading addiction. I can say it was an addiction, even in those early days, because I remember grabbing a book and getting lost in it during any free time I had. I knew I was helpless over my addiction when I was waiting for the bus after school. I was deep into Bram Stoker's Dracula and at some dramatic point in the book, the school bells sounded, and I jumped and slid off the wall I was sitting on. Stoker, Shelly, and Poe were a gateway drug to Jay Anson, Thomas Harris, Ann Rice, and Stephen King.

I still dive into horror and fantasy on occasion, but at some point, mainstream fiction became my primary reading preference. It started with Ian Flemming and the James Bond adventures. What kid doesn't imagine playing that role? Supplemented with Ken Follett's Eye of the Needle, Fredrick Forsyth's Day of the Jackal, my reading list was filled with fast-paced, high-stakes adventures in exotic locations.

I'm not sure when I turned to crime--I mean--turned to reading crime fiction. I remember reading Micky Spillane and Raymond Chandler when something resonated, deep in my brain. The free-wheeling private investigator, the guy who tracked down a Maltese Falcon, or got justice for the little guy, was a man you could count on to do the right thing, no matter the personal sacrifice. Elmore Leonard's dialogue blew me away,  Walter Mosley's gritty urban basement clubs and after hours dive bars explored post-war race relations as Easy Rawlins searched for a missing woman. Although, more recently, Danny Gardner's Negro and an Ofay blew the doors off urban-noir and took it to a higher level. Check that one out when you get a chance.

I worked in the California prison system for nearly three decades. The stories there propelled me into the true crime and procedural genre titles. In Cold Blood, The Black Dahlia, Helter Skelter, and the Onion Field gave a backstory to the day-to-day prison drama I saw. The Onion Field Killer and the Hillside Strangler were on my caseload for a time and these books provided a peek into another dimension of the convicts I saw on the prison yard. Additional clues into what made them "tick."

Procedurals with a tight edge remain my drug of choice. Jeffery Deaver, Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, couldn't write fast enough, so I decided to start writing my own. I attended a session at a Mystery Writers Conference and Michael Connelly's advice was simply, "Write the books you'd want to read." And three published books in, I'm having a blast. I haven't stopped reading, now that I'm writing. I'm probably reading even more than ever. There are more new faces; debut authors, incredibly brilliant women writers, and persons of color in the crime writing world, and it makes it a better, richer place. I love nothing more than picking up a new book and getting caught up in a fresh character and unique plot.  I'm enjoying the work of some really sharp, talented writers, and I'm glad to be a part of this community. And it's a great time to be a reader.

How about you? What books have been an influence on you?  Happy reading!

James L'Etoile has twenty-nine years of law enforcement experience in prisons and jails across the country. An experienced associate warden in a maximum security prison, chief of institution operations, hostage negotiator, and director of parole, James is the author of At What Cost, Bury the Past and Little River. You can find out more at


Peter Hogenkamp said...

Great post. I would throw Frank Hebert's Dune into the SF titles, and all of Alistair MacLean's books into the the thriller class. I have Danny Gardner's book loaded and ready to go on my Kindle.

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