I've always led a life lived in haste. I write fast and I read fast; my reading is either new New Zealand books or things I pick at second-hand bookstores and op shops; and I go through them pretty quickly. Last week I got through a collection of profiles by Alistair Cooke, Six Men (published in 1977), very quickly indeed, because I only read one of his profiles from start to finish, of Charlie Chaplin. They were good friends for a while and Chaplin even agreed to act as best man at Cooke's wedding. Chaplain jilted Cooke at the altar, which is to say he didn't bother to show up, neither did he ever bother to explain his absence. Cooke portrays the great comic as an occasional bore of the first order, when the conversation, or rather Chaplin's monologue, turned to politics. It's a very affectionate and intimate profile, though. Cooke's mandarin style includes two words I was very pleased to learn – "philippic" and "tocsin".
The book I read before that was composed so entirely of monosyllables that it did without apostrophes so as to split words in half: The Old Man and the Sea (1951) by Ernest Hemingway. I like parables – the old man catches a giant marlin but returns to shore with a giant skeleton - although it's a shame the book is so humourless.
Certainly Hemingway was in possession of genius and so, too, surely, is Australian writer Tim Winton. His collection of short stories The Turning (2004) is a complete knock-out and the best thing I read all summer. He writes vivid, lyrical depictions of place, right next to the flat dialogue of his working-class characters.
One story has a shark attack and Winton slips it in, in the middle of a sentence, without warning, almost casually. Patricia Highsmith does something similar with the killings she writes about with such evil pleasure in her 1957 novel Deep Water, which I re-read this summer. She's the best crime writer ever. She almost always writes from the killer's point of view - sometimes sympathetically.
I wonder whether I might do the same thing here and there in my new book of true-crime stories, Missing Persons. It's very satisfying to loathe and denounce people convicted of heinous crimes but no one is any one thing. An evil or debauched person is ordinary most of the time. People are complicated, even the worst of us.
Missing Persons by Steve Braunias (HarperCollins, $35) is out now.
Steve Braunias will also appear at the Auckland Writers Festival: writersfestival.co.nz/programmes/event/pathologies-melinek-braunias/1389830/