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Michael Connelly's Top Ten List
1. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925). Perhaps the most searching fable of the American Dream ever written, this glittering novel of the Jazz Age paints an unforgettable portrait of its day — the flappers, the bootleg gin, the careless, giddy wealth. Self-made millionaire Jay Gatsby, determined to win back the heart of the girl he loved and lost, emerges as an emblem for romantic yearning, and the novel’s narrator, Nick Carroway, brilliantly illuminates the post–World War I end to American innocence.
2. The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West (1939). Hollywood is not alluring in this savage, apocalyptic novel about fame and its perversions. Painter Tod Hackett comes to Hollywood to design sets and find success. Instead, he finds a population of the physically and psychically maimed crouching at the edges of the film industry, desperately believing that only luck and time separate them from stardom. At the end, their disappointment explodes into violence and Tod sums up his despair with his single great painting: The Burning of Los Angeles.
3. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960). Tomboy Scout and her brother Jem are the children of the profoundly decent widower Atticus Finch, a small-town Alabama lawyer defending a black man accused of raping a white woman. Although Tom Robinson’s trial is the centerpiece of this Pulitzer Prize–winning novel —raising profound questions of race and conscience —this is, at heart, a tale about the fears and mysteries of growing up, as the children learn about bravery, empathy, and societal expectations through a series of evocative set pieces that conjure the Depression-era South.
4. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (1962). In Ken Kesey’s first novel, the insane asylum becomes an allegory for the larger world as the patients are roused from their lethargy by the arrival of Randall Patrick McMurphy, a genial, larger than life con man who fakes insanity to get out of a ninety-day prison sentence. By the time McMurphy learns that he is now under the cruel control of Nurse Ratched and the asylum, he has already set the wheels of rebellion in motion. Narrated by Chief Broom Bromden, an Indian who has not spoken in so long he is believed to be deaf and mute, McMurphy’s rebellion is a spectacular foretelling of what the 1960s were to bring.
5. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1962). After flying forty-eight missions, Yossarian, a bomber pilot in World War II, is going crazy trying to find an excuse to be grounded. But the military has a catch, Catch 22, which states, (a) a sane man must fight, unless (b) he can prove he is insane, in which case (a) must apply —for what sane person doesn’t want to avoid fighting? This novel is a congery of appallingly funny, logical, logistical, and mortal horrors. It defined the cultural moment of the 1960s, when black humor became America’s pop idiom.
6. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway (1940). Hemingway’s ambivalence toward war —its nobility and its pointlessness —are delineated in this account of Robert Jordan, an idealistic American professor who enlists with the antifascist forces in the Spanish Civil War. Jordan’s idealism is quickly tested by the bloody reality of combat and the cynical pragmatism of his comrades.
7. The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler (1953). Chandler’s sardonic and chivalric gumshoe Philip Marlowe winds up in jail when he refuses to betray a client to the Los Angeles police investigating the murder of a wealthy woman. Marlowe’s incorruptibility and concentration on the case are challenged even more when the obsessively independent private eye falls in love, apparently for the first time, with a different rich and sexy woman. She proposes marriage, but he puts her off, claiming he feels “like a pearl onion on a banana split” among her set.
8. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969). Part science fiction, part war story, this is the story of Billy Pilgrim, a former World War II prisoner of war who survived the firebombing of Dresden, as did Vonnegut himself. Abducted by visitors from the planet Trafalmadore, Pilgrim comes “unstuck in time” and is thus able to revisit key points in his life and even his future. Written at the height of the Vietnam War, this muscular satire reveals the absurdity and brutality of modern war.
9. The Public Burning by Robert Coover (1976). It is 1953 and Russian spies are everywhere, according to Fightin’ Joe McCarthy. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg are scheduled to fry in the electric chair in Times Square, and Uncle Sam has delegated Vice President Richard Nixon (who narrates much of the story) to ensure that the show goes off. Coover is a master of lingos, from Uncle Sam’s Davy Crockett yawps to Nixon’s resentful Rotarian tones. Oddly, Tricky Dick comes off as a rather endearing soul, a 1950s Everyman helplessly folded, spindled, and mutilated in Coover’s funhouse mirrors.
10. Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain (1941). After shedding her philandering, unemployed husband, Mildred Pierce works menial jobs to support her two children before discovering a gift for making and selling pies in Depression-era California. She’s a strong woman with two fatal flaws —an attraction to weak men and blind devotion to her monstrously selfish daughter Veda. These weaknesses join to form a perfect storm of betrayal and murder in this hard-boiled tale.