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Underrated novels

Hunt these down

Underrated novels

Making a new literary purchase is not always straightforward. There are the ‘award-winners’, but who knows if a handful of judges have the same reading tastes as you? Then there are ‘customers also bought…’ sections on websites, but do you really want to be making a purchase based on what could have been a panic-buy gift for somebody’s great aunt Mildred? And friends’ suggestions can prove fruitful, but not if your pal’s library consists of battered copies of Bravo Two Zero and Angels & Demons. So ShortList has done the hard work and tracked down 10 novels that are unquestionably worth your time. All underrated, all under-read, all by authors that could become your new favourite.

1. From The City, From The Plough by Alexander Baron (1948)

For fans of: Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes

This often-overlooked Second World War novel was written by a former infantryman, and follows a fictional British battalion as they train towards entering the war, specifically during D-Day’s heroic-but-costly Normandy landings in 1944. Authentic, harrowing and without sentiment or Hollywood-esque happy endings, it surpasses almost all other fictional accounts of war.

FYI: This is the first of a trilogy of war novels, the second and third being There’s No Home and The Human Kind.

2. He Died With His Eyes Open by Derek Raymond (1984)

For fans of: The Red Riding Quartet by David Peace

Described variously as the “godfather of the new UK crime novel”, “a writer obsessed with the skull under the skin” and as “standing alone in contemporary crime fiction”, Raymond is credited with starting British noir. This, the first in the ‘Factory’ quintet of novels set in London, follows an unnamed detective drawn into a murder case where the only evidence is a set of cassettes recorded by the victim. Raymond takes you to dark and uncomfortable places — the fourth book of the series, I Was Dora Suarez, reportedly made the publisher vomit on his desk — as the antihero detective starts to make the same mistakes as the victim.

FYI: James Sallis, author of Drive, the novel on which Ryan Gosling’s recent film is based, is a huge fan of Raymond, and said of the author’s books: “They remain strange things. Unremittingly bleak, brimming with gruesome physical detail, awash with despair.”

3. War Reporting For Cowards by Chris Ayres (2005)

For fans of: Generation Kill by Evan Wright

The true story of a 27-year-old Times reporter sent to cover the start of the Iraq war in 2003 is everything Wright’s war reporting is not: full of nagging self-doubt, hypochondria and, eventually, brazen cowardice during his nine days as an ‘embed’ with the US Marines at the frontline. But it’s his honesty and wit when describing the hours of tedium interspersed with pure terror that wins you over.

FYI: Chapter six, Ayres’ account of being in New York during 9/11, is unexpectedly shocking.

4. Skippy Dies by Paul Murray (2010)

For fans of: A Confederacy Of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

After being longlisted for 2010’s Man Booker Prize, this may not qualify as being a book you’ve never heard of, but it certainly deserves a wider readership. It charts the life of 14-year-old Skippy Juster who, as the title reveals, dies in the opening chapter after choking on a doughnut. Murray has captured teenage boys’ vernacular so expertly it’ll whisk you back to your own acne-ridden days of awkwardly attempting to ‘chat’ to girls.

FYI: Read it quickly — Michael Collins director Neil Jordan’s big-screen adaptation arrives next year.

5. Clockers by Richard Price (1992)

For fans of: Last Exit To Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr

Before penning scripts for The Wire, Price was an underrated US author and screenwriter releasing quietly acclaimed novels. If you’re still mourning The Wire’s death, it’s worth hunting down this epic 1992 work. Following the intertwining stories of detective Rocco Klein and drug dealer Strike, Price exhibits the sprawling plotlines and characters — while introducing the concept of dealers’ ‘corners’ — on which the show prided itself.

FYI: The Wire creator David Simon has said that it was Clockers that inspired him to write the series.

6. Lean On Pete by Willy Vlautin (2010)

For fans of: The Catcher In The Rye by JD Salinger

A teenage boy struggling with his insecurities? Check. Who then goes on the run? Check. With a lame racehorse called Pete? Er… Vlautin’s third novel follows 15-year-old Charley Thompson as his life slowly falls to pieces after he and his father move to a new town. Vlautin skilfully puts you inside Charley’s head, but be warned: you’ll likely find yourself explaining how you’ve “just got something in my eye” in response to questioning while reading.

FYI: You can download free audio story A Motorcycle For A Horse by Vlautin, featuring several characters from Lean On Pete, at

7. Disturbing The Peace by Richard Yates (1975)

For fans of: Tender Is The Night by F Scott Fitzgerald

After a hard day at the office, there’s nothing better than fixing an old fashioned and unwinding with a book that charts a 36-year-old advertising executive’s mental breakdown following years of booze, adultery and overwork… On second thoughts, maybe best to pour that cocktail down the sink. It’s not an easy read — in fact, don’t even break the spine if you’ve had a day that isn’t anything less than joy-filled — but Yates, who’s been described as “too little appreciated” by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Ford, writes expertly, creating a novel that grips surprisingly tightly, despite the bleak subject matter.

FYI: The plot of Disturbing The Peace mirrors the author’s own life. Revolutionary Road author Yates — who has also been credited as a big influence on Mad Men — suffered his first mental breakdown in 1960 following years of heavy drinking.

8. The Bayou Trilogy by Daniel Woodrell (1986-92)

For fans of: No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

Despite rising to (slight) prominence following the recent adaptation of his book Winter’s Bone, Woodrell remains one of the US’s best-kept secrets. This trilogy follows boxer-turned-detective Rene Shade doggedly pursuing murders across a fictional Louisiana town (sample line regarding Lunch Pumphrey, one of the books’ many memorably-named killers: “His fondest memories were of watching puppies and calves being born on the farm back home, and of the ferocious and sweet vibrations that hummed through his arms and legs, his brain and vital organs, the first time he’d killed a man.”) And if you need any more convincing, it was chosen by Barack Obama this year as part of his summer reading list.

FYI: Woodrell has said that the third book, The Ones You Do, holds a special importance, as Shade’s largely absent dad John X is described exactly like his own father.

9. Pop 1280 by Jim Thompson (1964)

For fans of: Double Indemnity by James M Cain

As with many of history’s most acclaimed writers, Thompson’s work was underappreciated until his death in 1977. Since then, his back catalogue has found a new audience. Pop 1280 is narrated by Nick Corey, an amoral husband who despises his wife, and who also happens to be sheriff of a small US town in the early 1900s. It’s dark and nasty, but what’s most surprising is the humour that comes from Corey’s memorable ‘dumb-ass’ narration.

FYI: If you enjoy the book, look out for its only film adaptation: 1981’s French language Coup De Torchon.

10. The Guards by Ken Bruen (2001)

For fans of: LA Confidential by James Ellroy

This is what you’d get if Ellroy had grown up in Galway surrounded by creamy pints of Guinness chased by double Bushmills. Irish writer Bruen’s first Jack Taylor novel follows the disgraced former policeman as he stumbles from pint to murder investigation to brawl to graveyard. A bleak examination of loneliness, with flashes of black humour, Bruen is a master of sparse, ultra-minimalist prose.

FYI: Many of Bruen’s influences shine through via quotes in the book, from Elmore Leonard’s Be Cool to George Pelecanos’s The Sweet Forever. All are worth tracking down too.