Charlie Higson: Fleming’s books are insanely readable

Charlie Higson recalls how he got into American crime novels and praises Ian Flemming for mastering the plot-based action-adventure genre.

Comedian and author Charlie Higson found fame writing and performing with Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse in The Fast Show. He’s also written 17 novels, including seven about James Bond’s schooldays at Eton.

The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake

I was 14 when I read this, and living a very conventional life near Sevenoaks, Kent. My father would commute off to work in the City with a bowler hat, like in a classic Monty Python sketch. We lived in the countryside, and I had a rather solitary existence, walking through the woods with the dogs the whole time. I read and wrote a huge amount. I loved books that took me out of my rather mundane life into different worlds. Gormenghast is so perfectly described—a vast Gothic castle in which there are so many characters that teenagers identified with, such as the disaffected Steerpike. The perfect fantasy novel.

Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson

A fellow student at the University of East Anglia switched me on to American crime novels, a genre I’d previously looked down on. I’m not interested in detective stories where you try to work out whodunnit by following lots of clues—I like to get inside the mind of the killer and, in this sinister work about a small-town sheriff, you do just that.

Jim Thompson is the greatest of them all when it comes to darkness. He had a very troubled life and was an alcoholic—yet he was also a very fine writer. I don’t think anyone before or since has written so well about the effect of the fragmented mind.

From Russia with Love by Ian Fleming

It was a great privilege to write about James Bond’s teen years in my Young Bond series. This is the first Bond novel I ever read and it’s an excellent starting point. Fleming’s books are insanely readable and, after I read this one, I did that obsessively male thing where I went back to the very first—Casino Royale—and worked my way through the whole sequence in the correct order. Fleming wrote the template for plot-based action-adventures.