Okay, where were we? 1980 or so. I am again trying to read the Lord of the Rings. This time it sticks. Though I still find it a bit slow, I'm beginning to enjoy it and make my way through all three volumes. This is where Jimmy Buffet comes in. My best friend in my last couple of years of high school was a guy named Barry Wofford. Barry was very into photography and movies, so he and I ended up going to the see a lot of movies. Barry was also a fan of Jimmy Buffet, and was constantly playing Buffet's songs on his car stereo as we wandered around as teenagers will. One of those songs, called “Incommunicado', has a line that goes, “Travis McGee's still in Cedar Key, That's what John MacDonald said,”. Hearing that line I had some vague recollection that Travis McGee was a character in a series of books that all had a color used in the title.
On my next trip to the local library (which was just a couple of weeks after finishing LotR) I checked the fiction aisle for John D. MacDonald and found several of the books. I picked one at random, A Tan and Sandy Silence. That book blew me away. It handled violence in a brutal and realistic way, nothing like the swashbuckling adventures I'd been reading, and it contained quite a bit of sex, though not really graphic. Still, this was strong stuff. I ended up reading The Deep Blue Goodbye, One Fearful Yellow Eye, and Bright Orange for the Shroud in rapid succession. I was hooked. Only a few weeks after reading the Lord of the Rings, I had been shanghaied into the world of crime fiction. I wouldn't look back for close to two decades.
Much as I had sought out other sword & sorcery writers after discovering Conan, I started looking for writers who were working in the same vein as MacDonald. On the library shelves I found Dasheill Hammett (The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man), Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye) and Ross MacDonald (The Drowning Pool, Sleeping Beauty).
In the bookstores I discovered Robert B. Parker, Lawrence Block, Mickey Spillane, James Crumly, Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller, Bill Pronzini, Robert Randisi, and later Andrew Vachss, James Ellroy, Robert Crais, and a host of other hardboiled writers. Just as I had once immersed myself in sword & sorcery novels, I now ate, slept, and breathed hardboiled crime fiction.
Over the years I also started reading other kinds of mystery fiction, form classic whodunits to historicals to so called Dark Suspense. I read true crime, followed famous criminal cases and became obsessed with that father of detectives, Sherlock Holmes. (More on him another time.)
Now lets jump ahead to 1998. I've been reading crime fiction for about 20 years now. It's pretty much my only genre reading. I don't even visit the SF/Fantasy section of the bookstore. By this point I've also started reading tons of non fiction, mostly history and biography. So one day I'm wandering through the Borders Bookstore in Atlanta and the cover of a trade paperback on an end cap catches my eye. The cover shows a man in black armor, holding a massive ax and being menaced by some sort of demons. On a whim I pick up the book. It's called The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend, by someone named David Gemmell. To this day I can't tell you exactly why I bought the book. Maybe I was just in the mood for something different. Maybe something in me just responded to the image. In any event, I did buy it and read it, and then sought out more books by Gemmell. He reminded me of Robert E. Howard I think. The forcefulness of his prose and the direct nature of his hero. Like Conan, Druss tended to solve most problems by bowling them over and chopping them to bits.
Reading Gemmell led to me going back and re-reading the sword & sorcery books I'd read as a kid. I'm still at it. These days I read in many genres, and many non fiction subjects. But I still have a soft spot for tough guy heroes whether they carry swords or guns. I should mention in closing that David Gemmell died this year. He had a lot of health problems and he fought them bravely for a long time. I wish now I had written to him and thanked him for bringing me back to the fantasy genre. Too late now, but I'll say it here. Thanks, David. I owe you one.