Kristen Lepionka: five books that influenced my writing
The best writing advice I’ve ever gotten is “read as much as you can.” It’s only through reading that we can figure out what we like, what we don’t like, what’s been done before, and what hasn’t. So in that way, every book I’ve read has influenced my writing to some extent. But the following titles have done the lion’s share of getting my imagination going when I wrote my debut novel, The Last Place You Look.
The Girls are Missing by Caroline Crane
I got my hands on this at a garage sale back when I was a kid and way too young to be reading such things, but, here we are. It’s the story of Joyce, a housewife in 1980s upstate New York during a spree of serial killings of teenaged girls. When a body is found near her daughter’s favorite area of the woods, Joyce’s quiet life is suddenly anything but. This book scared the crap out of me when I first read it, and a recent second read proves it’s still just as scary. There’s something extra creepy about a brutal crime set against an idyllic, seemingly innocent backdrop, right?
Darkness, Take My Hand by Dennis Lehane
Many fictional PI characters have a similar origin story: ex-cops who were fired for insubordination. One thing I love about Lehane’s Patrick Kenzie/Angie Gennaro series is that this pair of private investigators didn’t start out that way. It requires a certain type of person to want to be a police officer, even an insubordinate one. My protagonist, Roxane Weary, would never be able to hack it as a cop–but that doesn’t mean she isn’t an outstanding detective, because she is. Kenzie and Gennaro are, too. In Darkness, Take My Hand, we see them battling a serial killer with ties to their childhood. I also enjoy this book for the contrast of pitch-black subject matter against Kenzie’s sense of humor.
Paper Doll by Robert B. Parker
The Spenser novels have been a huge influence on me, in terms of the iconic private eye series, the snappy dialogue, and the way supporting characters make up Spenser’s wider universe in a very natural way. But this list would be pretty boring if it was made up of 100% Robert B. Parker books, so I’ll cap it at this one. Paper Doll follows Spenser as he investigates the violent bludgeoning death of a prominent socialite. I loved this one because it’s a great example of a huge bomb of a clue lying in plain sight for most of the book.
B is for Burglar by Sue Grafton
A master-class in plotting, this book features the most exquisite twists at just the right moment. Trailblazing lady PI Kinsey Millhone is hired to locate a woman who went on vacation to Florida and never returned – but the investigation soon widens to include a recent fire and supposedly accidental death in the missing woman’s neighborhood. My copy of B is for Burglar is spectacularly dog-eared and highlighted from studying how Grafton weaved the story together. And like the aforementioned Spenser series, the Kinsey Millhone books have all served as an inspiration to me.
Lush Life by Richard Price
This one’s a crime novel, not a mystery – and really, it classifies as literary fiction too. Richard Price writes the best cops and characterization I’ve ever read. Small moments between people that feel so real, you could almost swear he’s just transcribing actual conversations. Lush Life shows us the far-reaching effects of a mugging gone wrong in a still-gentrifying Manhattan neighborhood and it unfolds through three distinct viewpoints: a bartender who witnesses the event; a local teen who didn’t think anybody would get hurt; and a cop who investigates the crime.
With my debut novel coming out this year, I’m still reading a lot. More now than ever, probably. That’s one of the best parts of being a writer – we get the best kind of work to take home with us.