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Guest: Author Keith Dixon talks about his 5 favorite books

About Keith Dixon:

Keith Dixon was born in Yorkshire and grew up in the Midlands. He’s been writing since he was thirteen years old in a number of different genres: thriller, espionage, science fiction, literary. Two-time winner of the Chanticleer Reviews CLUE First in Category award for Private Eye/Noir novel, he’s the author of ten books in the Sam Dyke Investigations series and two other non-crime works, as well as two collections of blog posts on the craft of writing. His new series of Paul Storey Thrillers began in 2016.

When he’s not writing he enjoys reading, learning the guitar, watching movies and binge-inhaling great TV series. He’s currently resident in France.

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My five favourite books

Whenever you start writing a new book you can feel a need to bolster your courage by looking at some of the books you’ve admired, if only to hope that some of their quality rubs off on you. F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example, used to read Dickens before starting a book, though I would have found it hard to identify any Dickens influence in his work!

So, here are some of the books I return to before starting a new novel. I don’t necessarily read them all through again – I know them pretty well – but I read snatches of them, sometimes whole chapters, to hear the rhythms in my head, or to see how a character is introduced, or to understand how people, or buildings, or landscape are described. Then I hope it rubs off!

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

I came to Gatsby in my late teens and loved it immediately. It’s a compact book, but its meanings spread wider than its slimness would suggest because it’s dense with imagery and implications. There are images in the book that have stayed with me for decades (for instance a building looking like a slice of wedding cake, or the pack of muscle in Tom Buchanan’s shoulder), and the writing illuminates the well-defined characters. For a book published in 1925, its critique of the wealthy classes was something of a rarity – especially coming from someone who lived amongst them – and it’s still pretty powerful.

Plus, it has a surprise ending! It has made me constantly aware of the power of good writing that isn’t necessarily poetic, but uses imagery to create an effect in the reader’s mind. It makes me want to up my game constantly, and to write better.

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

This was a book that helped define the 1960s. Published in 1961, roughly the same time as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, it used war as a critique of American society. Like Cuckoo’s Nest it questioned our understanding of sanity in the modern world. It turned everything on its head, so that the entrepreneur, Milo Minderbinder, feels it’s perfectly okay to hire German pilots to bomb the US airbase on the Mediterranean island where the story is set. Likewise, the hero, Yossarian, is more afraid of his own superior officers than the Germans, feeling that they’re the ones out to get him. The book is constructed on a series of contradictions, and even when we think we know what’s coming next (e.g. we anticipate the arrest of one of the characters for rape … but someone else is arrested instead) the book turns our expectations on their head. It was a lesson to me about how you can structure scenes and chapters to have an effect, and not just rely on a straightforward storyline.

I’ve forgotten to say it’s outstandingly funny, and I like the idea of humour coming out of difficult or even tragic moments.

Slaughterhouse 5 – Kurt Vonnegut

This is a science-fiction novel that goes back and forth in time, and here and there in space. It’s Vonnegut’s attempt to come to terms with his own experience in World War II – a second generation German, fighting for the Americans, captured in Germany and imprisoned in a slaughterhouse in Dresden, which is then bombed by American planes … the ironies are compounded! 

What I like about the book is taking an unexpected genre to say something serious about politics and war and the fate of humanity. Much science-fiction does this, but Vonnegut was amongst the first to be overt about it, and the result was a massive best-seller and a Hollywood film. He showed, as if it needed saying, that you don’t have to write a ‘serious’ novel to have something to say about how society operates. I’ve become more aware of that potential in my own later books, though I try not to be preachy about it!

Glitz – Elmore Leonard

I wanted to include an Elmore Leonard book because for many years he’s been my role-model in terms of how to construct a story dependent on character. His people are real people, and re-reading his books recently – after a gap of over 20 years – I was surprised to see again how good he was at creating the relationships between his characters. They fight and they argue, but they have real human feelings that aren’t manipulated to further the plot. 

I also like the fact that his books don’t always include crime fighters – often the main characters are from the wrong side of the tracks, or at least straddle them! In many of my own books I go into the head of the bad guy or gal so we can see what’s driving them—they’re often fun to write. Leonard’s Glitz is a good example of getting into the character from the first line: “The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming.” You’re straight into the action, and on Vincent’s side!

The Broken Shore – Peter Temple

Many of the writers I admire are excellent at writing dialogue. I think Peter Temple is the best. His books take no prisoners – you have to keep up. Not that they’re hard to follow, but he doesn’t have his characters explain things to each other, not themselves, their motivation, or their actions. Mostly they know each other, so they’re talking to friends or colleagues and are familiar with each other’s intellect, background and knowledge … and we’re just listening in and have to make sense of it as best we can.

The Broken Shore is set in Australia and follows a policeman as he unpicks a long-forgotten crime. The dialogue is terse, often bitter, and the action when it arrives is the same—it comes at you from the side, like a car-crash, and is the more shocking because of it. It won literary prizes in Australia because of the quality of the writing. In my own work I try to bear in mind that same spareness and not have my characters explain themselves too much.

I May Kill You by Keith Dixon

Serial killers are secretive animals. They keep their deeds to themselves and hope never to be found.

But there’s a new man in town—a killer who warns people in advance he’s going to kill them, then does it, in a variety of unusual, even bizarre, ways.

Ex-policeman Ben Buckland wants to catch this man not because he’s on the list … but because his 15-year-old daughter is. And that’s just not fair.

Especially when the killer has sent out warnings to several hundred people …

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