Seven By Five by H.E.Bates
England's most underrated story-teller. His early admirers compared him to Chekov and Maupassant, and in his best work – this is a selection – the comparison holds. Appointed writer to Bomber Command during the Second World War, it is strange for him to have fallen so completely from view. Perhaps he writes too plainly, or the tales he tells are too ordinary. I urge you to rediscover him.
The Last Time I saw Paris by Elliot Paul
An American journalist in Paris in the 1930's, living in the Latin Quarter among the poor and the desperate, Paul creates a healthy antidote to the privileged and self-regarding focus of Hemingway's Moveable Feast. Paul's writing conjures a world which was quickly destroyed upon his departure. Published in 1942, the final chapters are sadness itself. Paul himself returned to New York and devoted himself to hard-boiled crime. Clever man.
Among Friends by M.F.K. Fisher
The world's greatest food writer (not to be confused with the current concoction of self-regarding recipe-compilers). This is M.F.K. Fisher's memoir of her Quaker upbringing in Southern California amid Edenic river-bottoms and orange groves long before Southern California became Southern California. Memoir writing at its best – little misery (all endured), no pleading, and everything measured out to perfection. She later moved to medieval France and devoted herself to gastronomy. Start here. But continue into the food.
Child Of God by Cormac McCarthy
Written long before the critical success of the Cities of the Plain trilogy, this short novel about a hillbilly serial killer and necrophiliac with paedophile tendencies is a perfectly paced and structured tale of violence, tenderness and endless revelation (always shown and never told) and without a single wasted word or slack phrase. A great argument for the short over the long. McCarthy is a considerable stylist and story-teller and this is his finest short work – a life in full and a universe in its entirety in only two hours.
Night Falls On Ardnamurchan by Alasdair Maclean
The death of a crofting community as told through the author's father's simple journals. A tragedy to equal the better-known tale of St. Kilda, this hardly-noticed loss was a play in a hundred small and inconsequential-seeming acts – all leading to a single, inevitable and unavoidable conclusion. Maclean's unsentimental narration of those events is superbly fitted to the personal story he tells, and has hardly been improved upon in the quarter century of similar tales told since. Every ten years or so this book struggles back briefly into print.
In The Electric Mist With Confederate Dead by James Lee Burke
To be honest, any of Burke's novels (apart from A Stained White Radiance) would fill this spot. Each has been a treasure to be saved for precious holidays or long flights. Mist shows Burke at his lyrical and narrative best - and so what if the plots occasionally become too complicated for their own good? It still surprises people to see me put a crime writer in my top five. Shame.
Letters To Monica by Philip Larkin
When I was a student, I occasionally met Larkin – his librarian's office was close to where I 'worked' – and yet I knew nothing of him, nor made any effort to do so. These letters are a true revelation – revealing a man and a woman (and their times) otherwise hidden and content with their privacy and the security and comfort of knowing each other so completely. It is a great love story (otherwise to be avoided, or at least mistrusted when told after the event) – one to be savoured fully in all its slow and close unravellings and diversions. In almost every other instance, I am content to know the writer though his work alone, but reading these letters I proved myself wrong.
The Monster's Lament by Robert Edric is published by Doubleday.