Doug Skelton.
Doug Skelton.

The Good Books, Douglas Skelton: ‘Mystic River is masterful, I wish I could write like Dennis Lehane’

The Glasgow author on returning to the books he read as a youngster and the influence of Ed McBain on his writing.


The first book I remember reading:

It has to be Two Doggie Tales. It’s the only book by Enid Blyton I ever read – the Famous Five and Secret Seven seemed to pass me by. I do wonder if that was the source of my love of dogs.

A book I recommend to everyone:

Mystic River by Dennis Lehane. For me it is just about as perfect as you can get. Along with LA Confidential, the film version is one of the best book to screen adaptations ever (both by screenwriter Brian Helgeland), and I recall that a critic rather airily dismissed the book as pulp. I disagree. The characters, setting, themes, plot haunted me long after I closed the book. It’s a masterclass in writing and not just crime fiction. There are truths here, and ghosts of regret for mistakes past and present.

The best three books I have read in the last year:

Dennis Lehane and Small Mercies. It was a welcome return to top form for him with a tale of one woman’s search for the truth about her daughter’s disappearance in 1970s Boston. His dialogue is wonderful, his writing style evocative of time and place. It’s hugely entertaining but, like Mystic River, stayed with me for some time. I wish I could write like him.

True Grit by Charles Portis is a western – I do love a western – but perhaps unlike any others I would have read at the time by the likes of Louis L’Amour or JT Edson. His dialogue, much of it lifted piecemeal for the two film adaptations, is so rich and rewarding. Even though heavily stylised, it gives me a sense of the real west. And the characters! Rooster Cogburn, the grizzled, one-eyed US marshall, is masterful, as is Mattie Ross, the spirited teenager who hires him to track down the man who murdered her father. 

Dr Syn by Russell Thorndyke. Subtitled A Tale of Romney Marsh, this was a book I first discovered in East Kilbride Library and I was so swept up in the storytelling that I devoured the remainder of the series. Yes, it’s dated now, but on re-reading I marvelled at the stylised speech, as with True Grit, and the careful creation of atmosphere. Once more I felt the marsh mists enveloping me and heard the thunder of hooves as The Scarecrow’s riders went about their moonlight trade. Marvelous stuff.

A book I didn’t finish:

There are books that have taken me perhaps two or three attempts to get through – Shogun by James Clavell, for instance – but that was not a reflection of its quality but more on my state of mind at the time. When I did finally read it, I was swept up by it and was sorry when I reached the final page.

An author who has inspired me:

As a teenager I discovered the 87th Precinct novels of Ed McBain and I suppose he, above all, made me want to write. Originally these were designed as pulp novels, slim throwaway reads, but there was a texture to the writing and the characterisation that made them stand out above all others and gave them longevity. He conjured up the image of a city in prose that has never been bettered and taught me that setting is as much a character, and as vital, to a story as the protagonists and antagonists. I think my choices above show that this is important to me.

My favourite place to read:

Anywhere I can find the time, really. If I have a choice, it’s in the sitting room, with some music on and the dog and cat up on the couch with me.

Douglas Skelton, The Hollow Tree (Birlinn) can be bought here. Douglas Skelton was born in Glasgow. He has been a bank clerk, tax officer, taxi driver (for two days), wine waiter (for two hours), journalist and investigator.


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