Nicolás Obregón's upcoming book, Blue Light Yokohama, tells the story of a murder so disurbing that it drove its first investigator to suicide. From Raymond Chandler to Anthony Burgess, the author picks the five books that most influenced him.
Farewell, My Love
When Raymond Chandler is called to mind, people often point to his unique use of description — he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food, etc. I understand why it gets so much attention, after all, when prose can be described as ‘Chandleresque,’ it makes sense. But I think the fact that his writing is so witty can actually mask its real underlying quality and the less obvious similes can be overlooked. There’s a simple genius to gun barrels being likened to the mouth of 2nd Street Bridge, or the eyes of a woman compared to strange sins. But as a kid, what I really fell in love with were his quieter, more reflective passages — particularly those blunt yet melancholic monographs of Los Angeles:
‘When I got home I mixed a stiff one and stood by the open window in the living room and sipped it and listened to the groundswell of traffic on Laurel Canyon Boulevard and looked at the glare of the big angry city hanging over the shoulder of the hills through which the boulevard had been cut. Far off the banshee wail of police or fire sirens rose and fell, never for very long completely silent. Twenty four hours a day somebody is running, somebody else is trying to catch him. Out there in the night of a thousand crimes, people were dying, being maimed, cut by flying glass, crushed against steering wheels or under heavy tires. People were being beaten, robbed, strangled, raped, and murdered. People were hungry, sick; bored, desperate with loneliness or remorse or fear, angry, cruel, feverish, shaken by sobs. A city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness. It all depends on where you sit and what your own private score is. I didn't have one. I didn't care. I finished the drink and went to bed.’
Picking just one title is no easy task but, for me, when it comes to the mystery genre, Farewell, My Lovely is the classic of classics — seediness, seduction, scores — it’s all there. If the planet were suddenly doomed tomorrow and little time capsules were sent into space to preserve human culture, this book would get my vote for the one marked crime fiction.
In Cold Blood
One of the most influential books of my life, without a doubt. The genesis of my own novel centres on a real-life family murder (though it remains unsolved almost twenty years on) and while mine is purely fiction, the idea of creative non-fiction and the handling of real events through story-telling has always fascinated me. Whenever I return to Capote’s masterpiece, the prose is so carefully put-together, so exquisite, that I find myself forgetting real people died. Upon its release, much was made of Capote’s blending of truth and writing flair (I believe he called it ‘faction’) but today readers are no strangers to the genre of narrative history. Yet In Cold Blood stands apart, to this day.
To borrow Kate Colquhoun’s description, it’s a book ‘much-copied, rarely bettered.’
A Clockwork Orange
‘Dystopian’ and ‘nightmarish’ are often the words applied to Burgess’s’ masterwork. (Also the more tiresome term ‘controversial’ — an empty word if ever there was one). Yet reading this as a teenager, what really bewitched me was the allure of the protagonist, Alex. Immediately, he’s charming and cheerful, yet he quickly he reveals himself as, first a bully, then a violent rapist with no sense of human empathy. He is absolutely free of responsibility and, as such, a fascinating narrator, telling us all the while he is our faithful friend and brother. Even the opening sentence conveys the unsettling mixture of dread and excitement in peering into Alex’s world — What’s it going to be then, eh? — as though he and his Droogs are some kind of retro-futuristic urban pirates. Of course, there’s also the joyous originality of Burgess’s’ language to be savoured:
‘But poor old Dim kept looking up at the stars and planets and the Luna with his rot wide open like a kid who'd never viddied any such thing before, and he said: "What's on them, I wonder. What would be up there on things like that?" I nudged him hard, saying: "Come, gloopy bastard as thou art. Think thou not on them. There'll be life like down here most likely, with some getting knifed and others doing the knifing.’
While set in a city of fictional streets and housing blocks, Burgess has ultimately created one of the visceral, compelling and unsettling meditations on law, punishment and free will available in print today. Alex never gives us easy answers. But nor does he shy away from what he is. For my money, the finest anti-hero ever committed to paper.
One Hundred Years of Solitude
Mark Twain once described classic books as those which people praise but don’t read. Yet in Márquez lies one of the clearest rebuttals to Twain’s quip; he is that rare breed of author who is universally loved by readers and critics alike. Even the President of Colombia called Márquez "the greatest Colombian who ever lived.”
Not for nothing does One Hundred Years of Solitude take its place amongst the finest and most important works of literature of the 20th Century. I think my reaction was the same as that of so many who first pick up this book. Like nothing I had read before, I was mesmerised by Márquez’s ability to intermingle the mundane and the magical, every line of prose cutting and at once beautiful, every other line surreal but also somehow still firmly-rooted to reality. Consider the way he describes a priest collecting for the construction of a church:
'He went everywhere begging alms with a copper dish. They gave him a large amount, but he wanted more, because the church had to have a bell that would raise the drowned up to the surface of the water. He pleaded so much that he lost his voice. His bones began to fill with words.'
I find myself constantly re-reading lines, losing myself in the language, completely enamoured in the mysticism of Macondo, the fictional town where the novel takes place. A shining exemplar of the grandiosity of story-telling, Márquez weaves so much into this world — family, solitude, war, love, spirituality, politics, Latin America, humanity itself — by the time you get to the end, you can scarcely believe it’s over. But long after it is, the words of Márquez will fill your bones.
In The Miso Soup
By Ryu Murakami
A terrifying and beautifully-written book about a tourist guide, Kenji, who is contracted by Frank, a strange American with plastic in his face, to show him a good time in Tokyo’s sex scene. Kenji is disturbed by Frank from the off, wondering if he’s responsible for the gruesome murder reported in the news. I think The Guardian described it as ‘like script notes for American Psycho — the Holiday Abroad,’ but while the two books do share some themes, I think they’re very different experiences. It’s true that In the Miso Soup does have shocking grotesquerie on the page, but it’s also a philosophical book, funny, contemplative, quickly addictive, lonely. In Frank, I feel Murakami has created one of the greatest antagonists in fiction. And for all of his exploits and disturbing traits, what’s really so unsettling and compelling about this book is that, ultimately, Kenji tries to understand him.
Find out more about the author
Setagaya ward, Tokyo
Inspector Kosuke Iwata, newly transferred to Tokyo's homicide department, is assigned a new partner and a secondhand case.
Blunt, hard as nails and shunned by her colleagues, Assistant Inspector Noriko Sakai is a partner Iwata decides it would be unwise to cross.
A case that's complicated - a family of four murdered in their own home by a killer who then ate ice cream, surfed the web and painted a hideous black sun on the bedroom ceiling before he left in broad daylight. A case that so haunted the original investigator that he threw himself off the city's famous Rainbow Bridge.
Carrying his own secret torment, Iwata is no stranger to pain. He senses the trauma behind the killer's brutal actions. Yet his progress is thwarted in the unlikeliest of places.
Fearing corruption among his fellow officers, tracking a killer he's sure is only just beginning and trying to put his own shattered life back together, Iwata knows time is running out before he's taken off the case or there are more killings . . .
Blue Light Yokohama is crime fiction at its very best - gripping, haunting, atmospheric and utterly captivating.
Praise for Blue Light Yokahama
'Obregón is a bright, sophisticated new voice in crime fiction: his writing sings at you, reverberates, makes you consider more than just the urgent clamour of his novel's well-hewn murder plot. In Inspector Iwata, he has created a quiet, troubled hero whom readers will be sure to follow from one disturbing, atmospheric story to the next' Benjamin Wood, author of The Ecliptic