Sunday, July 8, 2012

The best non-James Patteron, James Patterson-like books

I have a man crush on James Patterson.  Not because he’s super-talented but because he isn’t.  Sure, compared to the average person, he’s James Joyce, but compared to Stephen King, he’s Jimmy from 9th-grade remedial English.

Here’s the thing, though:  I always finish his books.  No matter how silly the plots (“dopey” is King’s apt description), laughable the dialogue (“We’re right on your sorry mythical ass”), or jaw-dropping the twists (maybe I’m wrong but doesn’t the villain die, like, twice in London Bridges?), I always finish the books—which cannot be said for Stephen King’s cinderblocks.

So if you can’t wait out that month or two before Patterson’s next book comes out, take a gander at this list.  Each of these 6 stories shares basic Pattersonisms—wall-to-wall action squeezed into bite-sized chapters—that we’ve all come to know and love.

1.         The Postman Always Rings Twice—James M. Cain’s 1934 potboiler makes even the most succinct Patterson novel read like Remembrance of Things Past.  How streamlined is Postman?  Boy meets girl on page 1; by page 10, they’re planning to kill the girl’s husband. 

2.         The Running Man—Before Stephen King began in midlife to contemplate his navel, he was writing action stories, and this novel of a homicidal game show is one of his best.  Imagine The Hunger Games if it’d only left the kiddie sandbox and force-fed a sumo helping of kick ass.

3.        The Boys from Brazil—Ira Levin is most known for Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, but this lesser-known work is a gem.  What starts off as a standard Nazis-planning-some-bad-shit plot slowly shifts into something altogether bizarre with a most satisfying and ironic climax.

4.         And Then There Were None—Agatha Christie’s most famous work and deservedly so.  Everything is sacrificed to the plot and pace.  Long descriptions, deep characters, normal human behavior, logic, gravity.  What replaces them is ceaseless momentum.  Imagine sprinting on a hamster wheel—one studded with knives and cyanide tablets.

5.         The 39 Steps—John Buchan’s 1915 thriller about a lone man against a vast conspiracy is the ancestor to today’s thrillers, the Cro-Magnon to the Homo Sapiens Pattersonus.  Indeed, the story is sillier than anything Patterson has come up with.  How does our imprisoned hero get of his cell?  By finding dynamite in a drawer, of course! 

6.         The Jazz Cage—Ray Chen Smith’s . . . okay, okay, I’m a schmuck.  I wrote this.  A mob bounty hunter is hired to track down two runaway slaves during the Roaring Twenties, sixty years after the South had won the Civil War.  Think of it as Uncle Tom’s Cabin meets The Untouchables, and if that ain't worth the price of a bag of Fritos, I don't know what is.


  1. OK, I now have a summer reading list! Thanks for a great post!

  2. Fantastic list! Thanks for letting me know about it! Time for me to try some of these.

  3. So you compare your book to those by James Patterson...I wonder, do you mean the books she writes with others, or the ones he writes himself...there is a difference...Nevertheless, I'm taking your challenge...

  4. Thanks for the comments.


    Well, I should clarify and say I mean his Alex Cross books. And the only thing my book shares with the Cross books is they're both action-packed and have very short chapters. P's not the greatest writer, but how he structures his books is something to be admired. I remember reading Kiss the Girls and being dazzled by how he worked the first 14 chapters. It was constant suspense and one cliffhanger after another. I don't know of any other popular novelist who writes quite like he does.

  5. "... and if that ain't worth the price of a Big Mac, I don't know what is."

    That was hilarious!

  6. My hatred of James Patterson knows no bounds. Since he does not actually write his books (yeah, yeah, he generally creates a 60 or 70 page outline, blah, blah, blah) I'm insulted at how he treats writing and even fiction in general.

    He's clearly in for the money (what $80 million in 2011?) and I can see other writers trying to get a chunk of that by producing novels that are structured the same way he instructs other authors who do the lions share of the writing.

    But at what point do you think you've sold your soul? Sure he'll be remembered for putting out 200 books a year, making a shit load of money, but he'll never be remembered in the same breath as Stephen King (who for all his faults is a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist compared to stuff Patterson vomits out of mouth) or anyone else. At least King has a chance to be still read a hundred years from now, while Patterson's books will be used to start fires in a barbeque pit.

    I get the fact that people like what people like, but reading is such a joy, I'm curious why certain readers praise Patterson while ignoring writers who are a galaxy-sized-way better.

    Should reading be a chore? No, of course not, which is why I would never recommend James Joyce. But it should, at times, be challenging. Patterson challenges no reader, and even gives us the middle finger when he counts his millions.

    He is destructive element with in fiction and its sad that while you make fun of him and his ludicrous plots, you seem to want to emulate them as well.

  7. Whoa, that was one passionate reply! I agree with some of your points, but I wouldn't take everything so seriously. He's a popular novelist, not Osama Bin Laden.

    Of course, James Patterson is not a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, but that's the beauty of it. He doesn't have great concepts (unless you count making his hero a black detective instead of a white one), he is not a great wordsmith, yet millions of people like his books. Of course, a lot of it is marketing, but a lot of it are the stories themselves, esp. his ability to create and sustain tension. Look at Along Came a Spider and Kiss the Girls (no, they don't have cowriters) and see how excitement is maintained throughout the entire story. Trust me, there's more than meets the eye.

  8. He never wrote those as well. Until it became publicly known he had co-authors, all of his books were ghost written (I spent the last 25 years in the book business, by the way). Once it got out, then he began including the co-authors on the books.

    What he was able to do -which I do give him credit for- was able to fill in a gap in the mystery genre that got too clever for itself. Whodunits have been a staple for generations, but to keep its readers guessing, authors were forced to really come up with interesting plots. While Agatha Christie remains the best author of the genre outside of Arthur Conan Doyle, her books sometimes got bogged down in too many red-herrings.

    Publisher's soon found that the audiences intelligence level was dropping, and they were demanding less and less complex mysteries and more and more lighter fair, such as cooking, dog care, cat care, knitting, baby sitting mysteries -add what ever else you can think of, just make sure they're silly fun and about as tough as a TV Guide Crossword Puzzle (5 Across: CBS show The Big Bang __). Stories where the killer was making careless mistakes, a slip-of-the-tongue here, dropping a piece of damning evidence there. It was designed so the reader could figure it before the detective.

    Patricia Cornwell, who can be credited with creating the procedural style that became so popular under Patterson, has already fallen into this trap. Her mysteries are barely that, and even 5 year-old's were figuring out whodunit on page 20.

    Wilkie Collins is considered the grandfather of mystery fiction, with his 1860 novel The Woman in White considered the best example of how to structure a whodunit. Today, its considered out of style.

    But Patterson, and the writers who flesh out his outlines, forgoes all logic and any sense of mystery in favor of over the top dialogue, pacing designed for ADD crowd and flair over substance and style.

    Yes those page, page and half chapters are designed to keep you going, but have you noticed the large font style used as well? It's like a large print book without being a large print book. And trust me, Patterson knows what his fanbase demographic is, and exploits that with one ridiculous novel after another, with each blurb on the book being the same: "The worst killer Alex Cross has ever met." Or what ever other character he uses. They follow the same dull template.

    Have you seen the trailer for "Alex Cross," the third attempt at bringing his work to the screen after 2 disappointing outings in 97 and 01? Not only have they got Tyler Perry taking over for the brilliant Morgan Freeman (who must've been slumming or they paid him a hell of a lot of money), but the plot looks like every episode of the CSI franchise, every NCIS franchise and every Criminal Minds episode that have airing on CBS for the last 12 years.

    There is nothing new here. Just safe, predictable clap trap designed to mollify an audience, because the studios and now book publishing care about one thing: Profit above all else.

    Risk is not the name of the game here.

  9. Really interesting posts, thank you. One of his co-authors is a talented Swedish crime writer called Liza Marklund. I wondered if anyone had read the Patterson/Marklund novel? The comment about "Jimmy from ninth-grade remedial English" is classic by the way and right on the button.

    1. No, I haven't read any of the Marklund novels. I think I'll try one of them out and not necessarily where she's cowriting with Patterson. ;)