70 The Murders In The Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe (1841)
OK – this is really just a long short story but its impact on novel writing is immense. It is arguably the first detective story. Its detective, Dupin, is the role model for all those rational observer-interpreters who followed whether it be Sherlock Holmes or Poirot. It is a classic locked room mystery – creating that sub-genre of crime fiction with the opening shot in the field. The narrator is a Watson cum Hastings figure and the police are bumbling idiots when compared to The Detective. The denouement has the detective demonstrating his brilliant deductive method only after revealing the “guilty” party. So many traditions set in place by this one tale. A truly original work.
69 Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)
A children’s book but with some very adult nuances. The morally ambiguous character of Long John Silver is one of the finest creations in literature. His willingness to bend with the wind, to lead when it suits him or follow when it doesn’t, and looking out for number one may be the result of Stevenson falling in love with his own creation and not wanting him to face the justice he richly deserves – and would normally receive in the black and white world of children’s books. But it is a realistic portrait of a rounded human being with both good and bad in him. This makes it all the better as an instructive lesson for children that adults will prove a very unreliable moral compass. All this in a rollicking good yarn that cracks along from one adventure to another.
68 Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)
The subject matter is deeply controversial. Written in the first person from the perspective of a paedophile, its narrator therefore makes excuses and provides self-justification for his actions. By doing this, we are given insight into the mind of the man in a most disturbing way. It also runs the risk of appearing pornographic in that the narrator describes the girl who is the object of his desire in a highly sexualised way. And true to the narrator’s distorted mindset, he has the child eventually “seduce” the man, consistent with the way that such abusers refuse to take responsibility for their actions. For this alone it would be a brilliant work of fiction, but it does so in a novel that is virtuoso in its use of language to pun and create comic effects in a manner that might be traced back to James Joyce.
67 The Day of The Triffids by John Wyndham (1951)
Wyndham wrote a number of post-apocalyptic science fiction novels, focussing on the efforts of small groups of survivors to combat the threat that has overwhelmed the rest of humanity. Clearly it owes much to Wells’ War of The Worlds in both theme and approach. It is also “of its time” – written during the Cold War when the threat of Soviet attack was felt to be credible and imminent. What sets this apart is the imagination – the carnivorous mobile plants should be laughable but their menace is real and palpable. So they have become prototypes for any number of monsters in subsequent sci-fi and horror genre stories – even in Doctor Who. The central protagonist is also more than a mere Bulldog Drummond, firm-jawed cardboard cutout hero, which lends greater depth to the story and engages me more as a reader through the empathy it creates. It makes being a one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind seem to be a very dangerous and lonely experience.
66 The Spy Who Came in From The Cold by John Le Carre (1963)
Another Cold War novel but this one dealing with the espionage world in realistic way that shows the amorality necessary to be effective in this world. There are more twists to this story and in the way that the reader’s sympathy is flipped from one person to another. There are no clear cut good guys or bad guys. Both sides do what is expedient. Truth is a casualty. Loyalty is bought. Personal interest outweighs principles. Through this early novel, Le Carre’s long-running character Smiley moves, the more effective because he does not let his emotions get in the way of his clear thinking that will serve him well in many subsequent novels. In its downbeat portrayal of this murky world, it provides an antidote and alternative approach to James Bond that will be much imitated.
65 The Outsider by Albert Camus (1942)
Regarded as a classic of existentialism, Camus, always rejected this interpretation. He said that it was about how society expects people to conform to certain conventions and, when they do not, it cannot understand them and misinterprets them because it views them through the prism of its own expectations. Thus, a man who fails to demonstrate the outward signs of grief at his mother’s funeral is thought to be an inhuman monster and therefore is punished without mercy when he commits a crime. It is difficult to engage with the central character precisely because he is, by conventional standards, indifferent to the feelings of others, which makes him unsympathetic. It is only by prolonged exposure to his mind, through the book, that the reader is drawn into an understanding of him and his way of thinking and being. But it is never an easy read.
64 The Periodic Table by Primo Levi (1975)
A fictionalised autobiographical collection of short stories, each self-contained but all following a chronological narrative arc of the central character’s life, growing up as a Jew in Italy and training to be a chemist in the run up to and during the Second World War, when he was a member of the partisans fighting the Germans as an occupying force and was captured and sent to Auschwitz. The author has set himself the formidable task of relating each story in the sequence to a chemical element and to characteristics ascribed to that element. Brilliantly conceived and executed, this artificial constraint becomes the springboard which launches the imaginative leaps of the author. One can read it for signs of his future depression and death – officially recorded as suicide though some have expressed doubts about this finding – but to me it feels full of life.
63 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick (1968)
Another take on the post-apocalyptic world, this time involving androids – somewhere between robots and real people/animals. At one level it is a straight adventure story or thriller in a sci-fi setting – will the central character be able to track down and “retire” the group of androids he is seeking or will they get him. It could just as easily have been a western on that basis. But there is more to it than that. The androids lack empathy but don’t want to die – the reader starts to question the moral premise of the central character’s occupation. And so does he. Which is where the fun for this reader really starts. It poses more philosophical questions than it answers but, I think, asserts that these may be essentially unanswerable.
62 The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)
This is simply harrowing to read. The unremitting struggle of a poor family in the Depression of 1930s is almost unbearable. They suffer and have almost no hope. Its realism is its key strength. The reader feels everything that this one small family group goes through, even down to their loss of faith in the human spirit. There is no doubt that this was Steinbeck’s intention. He wanted to shame the people who prospered on the back of the suffering of the poor. Not an easy message to put across in the USA and especially not when it was very fresh in people’s minds. Politically motivated? Maybe but more, I would say, motivated by a humane nature appalled at what he had witnessed.
61 Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
This book spawned a whole genre of horror stories few of which approach the philosophical questions that Shelley does, albeit through a gothic lens and a romantic/enlightenment belief in the progress of science (carried out responsibly). I have always seen the villain of this piece as Victor Frankenstein who creates the “monster” – let’s call him that for clarity’s sake. He does this then takes no responsibility – the abdication of science’s role in progress according to the enlightenment view. His creation is traumatised by this rejection by his creator and goes off the rails. The “monster” is clearly a medical marvel – if not aesthetically so – and learns quickly, going from a dumb creature at his creation to an articulate man through self-study in a matter of months. He, rightly in my opinion, holds his creator responsible for his suffering and sets out to punish him. The result is a psychologically more complex novel than the host of imitators that came along after her. Shelley even writes one of the first “open or ambiguous endings” which would pave the way for sequels rather than tying up the story neatly as was customary at the time – so another innovation much imitated thereafter.