Guest Post: Douglas Skelton – Serial Heroes
I live in the mostly unfashionable area of North Lanarkshire in Scotland. Surrounded by Glasgow (Aye Write), Edinburgh (the International Book Festival) and Stirling (Bloody Scotland) it is hard to see why authors would venture into the ‘Badlands’ of Airdrie, Motherwell Coatbridge and Bellshill – but they do!
North Lanarkshire hosts a cultural festival each October: Encounters and the magnificent organisation team encourage some amazing talent to visit our libraries and town halls. In 2015 I was thrilled to meet Paul Finch, Elizabeth Haynes and Douglas Skelton (while sadly missing Simon Toyne and Mason Cross when family responsibilities could not be shirked).
It was during Douglas Skelton’s Encounter that the idea for this feature was sparked.
Douglas was talking about the books he likes to read and he mentioned Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct stories. My ears pricked up – I loved those books but seldom find other people who read them too…which just seems ridiculous given how good they are!
I often ask authors which books they find inspiring or what books influenced their writing but I never ask them which ongoing series they love to read. Personally I love an ongoing story – it stems from reading Spider-man comics as a kid (a story 50+ years in the telling and still going on). I always look for the next Rebus novel, the new Logan McRae or another Jack Reacher book – surely authors must also have their favourite collections too?
Well there was only one way I was going to find out. I contacted 5 authors and asked if they would like to write a short piece about the crime/thriller series that they love to read. Each person I had asked kindly agreed and (even better) they all picked a different series – phew!
Over the next few days I will introduce my guests and let them talk about the series close to their heart but it is only right that Mr Skelton kicks things off – it WAS his idea.
I was in my teens when I picked up my first 87th Precinct novel by Ed McBain. Sufficient water has run under the bridge since then to refloat the Titanic so I can’t say with any certainty which one it was – possibly ‘Give the Boys a Great Big Hand’ – but I know I was immediately hooked.
I loved the no-nonsense storytelling with occasional lapses into poetry as he described his city. I loved the humour. I loved the ensemble of characters. I loved the fact that even characters who appear for only a page or two seemed to spring into life ready-made. I loved the occasionally staccato dialogue in interviews.
Now, years later, I love their brevity. No fat here. No padding. It’s SAS crime writing at its finest – get in, get the job done, get out again.
And his city. Isola. It doesn’t actually exist but boy, does it step off the page along with the bulls in the detective squad. You can hear the roar of the traffic, smell the petrol fumes, hear the grey waters of the Harb lapping on the docks. It’s a cliché to say that the setting is a character in a novel but these books prove there is truth in it. You believe this place is real. And that, my friend, is an achievement. I’ve read some books set in actual cities that don’t seem as real.
I’ve read and reread every one of the titles in the series, 51 in all. I still have most of them, in paperback and hardback, although I lost some when my home was flooded a few years ago. I generally go back to them before I begin a new novel, just to touch base, just to see if some of the magic will rub off.
McBain also wrote more ‘literary’ novels as Evan Hunter and some pulp as Richard Marston, although his real name was Salvatore Albert Lombino.
He wrote a slew of other novels as McBain, some good, some not so much, but it’s the 87th Precinct books that have become my touchstone, my inspiration, the books I wish I could’ve written had I been able.
He died ten years ago this year but his novels remain alive.
Douglas can be found online at: http://www.douglasskelton.com/
He also has his own Amazon page where you can find his novels and true crime books: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Douglas-Skelton/e/B001K7TR10/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1450140528&sr=8-2-ent