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Roger Smith: 5 Titles that have influenced me.

The Ripliadthe series of five Tom Ripley novels by Patricia Highsmith: The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) Ripley Under Ground (1970), Ripley’s Game (1974), The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980) & Ripley Under Water (1991)

I love dark protagonists in crime novels. I love writing them and I love reading them. My favorite is the amoral Tom Ripley—Highsmith’s most famous character—an urbane American expatriate living an ultra-bourgeoisie life in France. Devoted to his wife, he’s an epicurean and an aesthete. And a killer. In the course of the series Ripley murders eight people and watches two others drown. He also causes the suicides of three friends. What makes the books so compelling for me is the cool, matter-of-fact attitude toward murder and mayhem which Ripley and Highsmith maintain. Tom Ripley is never brought to justice and is burdened by no long-term guilt over these deaths. He does what he does to protect himself, his home, his friends and business associates. Any man would do the same. Wouldn’t he?

The Long Goodbye – (1973) Directed by Robert Altman

Altman transplants Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlow from the early 50s to the early 70s, to a Los Angeles in the time of Watergate and radical feminism, a time when John Wayne America was getting its butt kicked in Vietnam. The earlier movie Marlowes (Bogart, Robert Mitchum, Robert Montgomery, Dick Powell), relics of a more self-confident era, spit out Chandler’s hardboiled one-liners in terse, tough-guy, voice overs. In a bold and ingenious piece of atypical casting, Altman has Elliot Gould play Phillip Marlowe as a loser who spews meandering dialogue throughout as a bemused commentary to himself.

People who were excited by Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 Inherent Vice (I wasn’t one of them) and applauded the writer’s fresh and daring spin on the old noir tropes, should revisit Altman’s gem.

The King of Comedy (1982) Directed by Martin Scorsese

If you enjoy movies with likeable protagonists, where even the most wayward find redemption, surf away to the Disney Chanel. This sadly underrated Scorsese, the third in a loose trilogy of De Niro-fueled fantasy-paranoia pieces (the others being Taxi Driver and Raging Bull) is an uncomfortable movie, kinda like wearing a hair shirt for a couple of hours. But it’s worth every minute, proving to me that characters don’t need to be nice, but they sure as hell need to be interesting. And this is no mumblecore, crowdfunded cheapie, this is big-time, glossy, Hollywood filmmaking, with a powerhouse director and a then (where did you go Bobby De Niro?) powerhouse star.

De Niro plays the obsessive, wildly untalented Rupert Pupkin, a wannabe Vegas-style comedian. His fantasies are fuelled by Marsha, a talk-show groupie (brilliantly played by Sandra Bernhard) who hatches a crazy plan to kidnap the Johnny Carson-like talk-show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis in a terrific straight role). I rate De Niro’s performance as Pupkin as his finest.

Saturday by Ian McEwan (2005)

This novel, which charts a single day in the life of English neurosurgeon Henry Perowne (Saturday 15 February 2003, when hundreds of thousands of marchers are gathering in London to protest against Tony Blair’s support for the American invasion of Iraq) has enough incident to rival an episode of 24: a plummeting plane, a car crash, a break-in, a tumble downstairs, lifesaving surgery.

What interests me most about the book is how McEwan uses suspense: he can teach so-called genre writers a thing or two about ratcheting up the tension. At moments of peak intensity McEwan slows time down—a form of torture that readers enjoy despite themselves. And the opening of Saturday keeps the reader jangled for nearly forty pages, wondering along with Perowne, if an airplane descending on London has become a terrorist missile. Later in the book the brain surgery Perowne performs on a small girl is enough to get the palms sweating and even a game of squash between Perowne and a colleague keeps you on the edge of your seat. Of this technique McEwan says: “A high-value, rich experience, can mean that two seconds are worth 1,200 words.”

Breaking Bad

Over the last five years watching the metamorphosis of mild-mannered chemistry teacher Walter White—a brilliant performance by Brian Cranston—from cancer-suffering family man to Mephistophelean meth cooker and ruthless killer has been breathtaking. Just when I thought the creators of this writer-driven series may cop-out and hit the “redemption” button, they have pushed White (and me) deeper into darkness. The final eight episodes are on AMC in August and Cranston has promised that the ending will be “a roller coaster ride to hell.” For once I believe the hype.

Roger Smith’s latest crime novel, Sacrifices, will be out soon. He is the author of the thrillers Capture, Dust Devils, Wake Up Dead, Mixed Blood and the novella, Ishmael Toffee. He’s also written a horror novel, Vile Blood, under the pen-name, Max Wilde. His books have been published in seven languages. You can learn more about him at  www.rogersmithbooks.com