In Timothy Hallinan’s Crashed,
lead character Junior Bender is a burglar-turned-private investigator; and, as
he explains, a pre-burgler’s life includes ample reading. In this essay, the
beloved character shares five books that changed his life.
Five Books That Changed My Life, and Not Necessarily for the
By Junior Bender
People don't generally think of burglars as big readers, or
maybe it's just that people don't think of burglars at all until their jewelry
is missing. But every burglar, at some
stage of his or her life, was a pre-burglar, and reading is one of the things
I was an apprentice crook who was about to drop out of
college when a professor took me aside to recommend a novel: William Gaddis's The
Recognitions. Nine hundred pages of
brilliance, a story perfect for the America of the 1950s, which was when it
came out and sank like a stone. It's
about the difference between forgery and the real thing, on all levels and
pretty well across the breadth of life. The hero, Wyatt Gwyon, is a painter who
forges masterpieces, and Gaddis uses that character's life to explore much of
the spectrum of Western art and its relationship to the twin gods of religion
and commerce. I used the novel for years
as a guide to other reading, everything from Flemish painting to religious
history to the Jewish diaspora to the sociology of Greenwich Village.
The Recognitions really supplanted my college
education, and I've read it three times since.
One of my favorite lines is in that book, and I refer to it in the
second story Timothy Hallinan wrote about me, Little Elvises. The line
is about a character called Otto. Otto is a
fake. He pretends to be a writer but he’s not. He pretends to be an
intellectual but he’s not. He’s a counterfeit.
Otto thinks only about forging the next moment, so he’ll continue to be
accepted as Otto.
But one sentence haunts him: All of a
sudden, somebody asks you to pay in gold, and you can't.
That sentence haunts me as much as it does Otto.
I spent a lot of time on that book, so here, in brief, are
four others that changed this burglar's life.
Anthony Trollope's six-volume masterpiece The Pallisers because
it presents a love story that lasts fifty years, beginning with an
unaffectionate but financially necessary arranged marriage that grows richer
and deeper in sentiment every year, and is persuasive throughout. Randall Jarrell's Pictures From An
Institution and Richard Russo's The Straight Man because they
present university life as it is—rich and fraudulent, dry and romantic, a
collision between youthful aspiration and mature disillusionment, and often
hilariously funny. Dostoevsky's Crime
and Punishment because, from a criminal's perspective, it's the ultimate
cautionary tale. If you haven't got an
exit plan, don't pick up that ax.
Hallinan asked me to include the writing of Hammett and
Chandler because they invented the private-eye genre and James Lee Burke, Sue
Grafton, Ross Thomas, Walter Moseley, and fifty others for taking it so far,
because without them I wouldn't be sitting here, writing to you. He told me to do it, so I did. It's amazing, when you think about it:
characters are so much more interesting than writers, but writers can
still push us around.