Paul Torday's Desert Island Books

Paul Torday's Desert Island Books

Anna Karenina
by Leo Tolstoy

Not a very original choice: but this book remains one of the most complete novels I have ever read. It has such a range of characters, any one of whom is complex and big enough to fill an entire novel on his or her own. There is Anna herself, of course; her venal brother Oblonsky; her tortured husband Karenin; her noble lover Vronsky, and of course the central figure of Levin. The book is full of unforgettable scenes: Levin and Kitty skating on the ice at the Zoological Gardens; the train journey to St Petersburg through winter storms when Vronsky and Anna fall in love. It is a book that will bear re-reading time and time again.

The Long Goodbye
by Raymond Chandler

There have been plenty of imitators but nobody else has quite captured that mix of cynicism and romanticism that are the defining characteristics of Chandler’s private eye, Philip Marlowe. And plenty of action too: Chandler once wrote, "When in doubt have a guy come through the door with a gun in his hand.” The Long Goodbye has men coming through the door with a gun in their hand, drunken authors, tough Mexican heroin smugglers and cynical LA cops. It is a page-turner that is at times almost lyrical, an odd but compelling combination. It also has the best description you will ever find of sitting in a bar while the barman opens it up and mixes the first drinks of the day. If you can read that without wanting to make yourself a dry martini, you have more willpower than I have.

The Three Hostages
by John Buchan

This novel, one of five that Buchan wrote featuring Richard Hannay as the hero, doesn’t get mentioned as often as Greenmantle or The 39 Steps. I rate it as Buchan at his best. An improbable plot (involving kidnapping, hypnotism and Irish mysticism) is redeemed by great writing. Buchan’s descriptions of spring coming to the Cotswolds, or a hot summer’s day in the Highlands, are of the highest quality. And he is such a great storyteller you forgive him his somewhat unlikely female characters: the narrative carries you along and is as fresh today as when it was written 90 years ago.

Salmon Fishing
by Hugh Falkus

There have been many (some would say too many) books written about salmon fishing. I’ve never come across one as engrossing as this book, which is a classic. It is an absorbing mixture of natural history, and practical advice. It can also magically transport the reader in his imagination to a pool somewhere, where a salmon is hanging behind a stone, or swimming up a glide. I used it as a reference when writing my first novel Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. I haven’t read it since. So it would probably be at the top of the pile on my desert island, which I hope will be located close to a migratory route for salmon.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
by John Le Carré

John Le Carré was not the first writer to explore the possibilities of a spy thriller as a framework for a literary novel. That distinction might belong to Graham Greene, or perhaps even Joseph Conrad. But Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was an important moment in post-war English literature: a story of betrayal that is also a commentary on a country that had lost its way in the post-war world, looking backwards to an imperial past it could not recover. This is another author who has had many imitators, but whose lapidary prose and ability to convince the reader in the authenticity of the secret world he describes, have so far remained unrivalled.

Gaudy Night
by Dorothy Sayers

If you haven’t read the earlier Lord Peter Wimsey books chronicling his long drawn-out love affair with Harriet Vane, it doesn’t matter: this book stands alone as a classic 1930’s detective story of the highest quality, which is also a great romance. It recreates the atmosphere of Oxford University between the wars, while at the same time developing a sense of menace, as sinister goings on at the fictional Shrewsbury College are resolved by Harriet Vane, assisted by her lover Lord Peter. An excellent period piece.

The Cruel Sea
by Nicholas Monsarrat

Of all the novels I have read dealing with the Second Wold War, this for me is the most vivid. It is the story of the Compass Rose, a corvette escort on Atlantic Convoy duty, and of her captain and crew. The author draws on his personal experience, and it must have been a painful book to write. He has a gift for entering the lives of the crew members, whether from the back streets of Liverpool, or flats in Mayfair. The accounts of war at sea have surely never been bettered.


Light Shining in the Forest by Paul Torday is out now, published by Orion. Read our interview between Torday and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen screenwriter Simon Beaufoy.