“Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Event: Louise Phillips’ Crime Writing Course at the Irish Writers’ Centre

A last shout for Louise Phillips’ (right) crime writing course at the Irish Writers’ Centre, which begins on February 5th. To wit:
This course covers many elements of successful crime writing – creating tension, pace, memorable characters, effective dialogue, plot and a gripping page-turning story.
  Over ten weeks, workshop exercises and editorial critique will sharpen your fictional voice. Since commencing workshops, two of Louise’s students have achieved publishing deals and another two are signed with agents.
  If you’re looking to start or finish your crime novel, this course will get you closer to the finish line.
  Louise Phillips is the bestselling author of psychological crime thrillers, Red Ribbons, The Doll’s House (Winner of the Irish Crime Fiction Book of the Year) and Last Kiss.
  Contact the Irish Writers Centre at 19 Parnell Square, Dublin 1.
  For all the details, clickety-click here

Friday, January 30, 2015

Event: The Guardian Book Club Hosts John Banville on Philip Marlowe

John Banville – aka Benjamin Black, aka Benny Blanco – takes part in a Guardian Book Club discussion on his ‘resurrection’ of Raymond Chandler’s private eye Philip Marlowe in London next Thursday, February 5th. To wit:
“Maybe it was time I forgot about Nico Peterson, and his sister, and the Cahuilla Club, and Clare Cavendish. Clare? The rest would be easy to put out of my mind, but not the black-eyed blonde . . .”
  John Banville resurrected Raymond Chandler’s private detective, Philip Marlowe, for his 2014 novel The Black-Eyed Blonde. Set in Los Angeles, in the early 1950s, it begins with a visit from a beautiful, elegant heiress, Clare Cavendish, in search of her former lover. All of the essential noir elements are here - a murder, the powerful family with hidden secrets, the sleezy bars and mean streets of LA, and at its centre Chandler’s wisecracking and world-weary sleuth.
  Banville will talk to John Mullan about writing his own Philip Marlowe mystery, the genius of Raymond Chandler and the enduring appeal of one of the most iconic private detectives in crime fiction.
  For all the details, clickety-click here

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Republished: ODD MAN OUT by F.L. Green

Originally published in 1945, F.L. Green’s superb Belfast-set thriller ODD MAN OUT will soon be republished by Valancourt Books, with an introduction from Adrian McKinty. To wit:
An Irish Republican Army plot goes horribly wrong when its leader, Johnny Murtah, kills an innocent man and is himself gravely wounded. As the police close in on Johnny, his compatriots must make a daring bid to rescue him. But they are not the only ones in pursuit: an impoverished artist, a saintly priest, a sleazy informer, and a beautiful young woman all have their own reasons to be desperate to find him. Meanwhile Johnny wanders the streets injured and alone, trapped in a delirious nightmare, surrounded on all sides by betrayal and faced with the realization that he may die that night with the stain of murder on his soul. The action unfolds over eight hours of a cold Belfast night, with the suspense building towards an explosive conclusion.
  Both a critical success and a bestseller, F. L. Green’s masterful thriller Odd Man Out (1945) is best known today as the basis for the classic 1947 film adaptation directed by Carol Reed and starring James Mason. This edition, the first in over 30 years, features a new introduction by Adrian McKinty.
  As it happens, Adrian McKinty’s contribution to DOWN THESE GREEN STREETS (2011), which focused on Northern Ireland’s early contribution to Irish crime writing, was titled ‘Odd Men Out’, in which he touches briefly on ODD MAN OUT, describing it as a Dante-esque descent into a surrealist hell. Poor old Belfast, eh? Always the bitter word, etc. ...

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

One to Watch: THE NIGHT GAME by Frank Golden

Poet, painter and filmmaker Frank Golden adds yet another string to his rather impressive bow with the forthcoming publication of his psychological thriller THE NIGHT GAME (Salmon Poetry). To wit:
In her late thirties Mary lives in her childhood home - a rambling brownstone on New York’s Lower East Side. Returning from work Mary’s thoughts are on a therapy session from earlier that day, and on the group meeting she will attend later in the week. One of the other members of the group is Vincent, with whom she has had a transgressive sexual history. Mary, un-nerved by a series of threatening phone calls and what she believes is evidence of a stalker, makes contact with Sarah, one of her oldest friends. Sarah offers to move in with Mary until the situation is resolved. When Vincent moves in as well things complicate and degrade. Unnervingly dark, THE NIGHT GAME offers up psychological intrigue and emotional depth that make it a compelling read.
  THE NIGHT GAME will be published on May 28th, although Frank will launch the book at the Ennis Book Club Festival on March 6th.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Pre-Publication: A SONG OF SHADOWS by John Connolly

A new Charlie Parker novel tends to be one of the highlights of my reading year, but John Connolly’s forthcoming A SONG OF SHADOWS (Hodder & Stoughton) promises to deliver even more bang for buck than usual. Quoth the blurb elves:
Grievously wounded private detective Charlie Parker investigates a case that has its origins in a Nazi concentration camp during the Second World War.
  Recovering from a near-fatal shooting, and tormented by memories of a world beyond this one, Parker has retreated to the small Maine town of Boreas to recover. There he befriends a widow named Ruth Winter and her young daughter, Amanda. But Ruth has her secrets. She is hiding from the past, and the forces that threaten her have their origins in the Second World War, in a town called Lubsko and a concentration camp unlike any other. Old atrocities are about to be unearthed, and old sinners will kill to hide their sins. Now Parker is about to risk his life to defend a woman he barely knows, one who fears him almost as much as she fears those who are coming for her.
  His enemies believe him to be vulnerable. Fearful. Isolated.
  But they are wrong. Parker is far from afraid, and far from alone.
  For something is emerging from the shadows ...
  A SONG OF SHADOWS will be published on April 9th.
  Incidentally, the image above is one of a series from Mexican graphic artist Humberto Cadena, who has created a whole gallery of heroes and villains from Charlie Parker’s world. For more, clickety-click here
  Finally, yet more good news for Connolly fans: John is currently preparing a second volume of NOCTURNES, which will include his Edgar- and Anthony Award-winning short story, ‘The Caxton Lending Library and Book Depository’. The collection should appear in September. For lots more news from John, including a US reissue of the entire Charlie Parker series, clickety-click here

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Publication: THE WATCHED by Casey Hill

THE WATCHED (Simon & Schuster) is the fourth novel from wife-and-husband writing team Casey Hill to feature forensic investigator Reilly Steel. While the previous novels have been set in Ireland, Reilly returns home to the US for THE WATCHED. Quoth the blurb elves:
Quantico-trained forensic investigator Reilly Steel is back in the country of her birth. Unsure about both her future and her position within the Dublin police force, Reilly hopes that a relaxing stay at the Florida beach home of her old FBI mentor Daniel Forrest will help get her thoughts together. When Daniel’s son, policeman Todd Forrest, is called to the scene of a gruesome murder where the body of a beautiful woman has literally been torn in two, he is stopped in his tracks. Not just because of the grotesque and theatrical nature of the crime but because he recognizes the victim as Daniel’s goddaughter. In an attempt to find swift resolution on her old friend’s behalf, Reilly finds herself drawn into the investigation. And when another disturbing murder occurs soon after, Reilly can’t help but feel that she has come across something like this before. But where? The answer becomes apparent at a third crime scene - the killer is visually re-enacting some of the most famous murder scenes in screen history and posting his ‘work’ online for his followers and the whole world to see. Will the investigative team be able to find the murderer before his thirst for ‘screen immortality’ drives him to kill again? And will Reilly’s brief hiatus in the US force her into a decision about her future in Dublin, and the unfinished business she has there?
  For more on Casey Hill, clickety-click here

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Publication: GHOST FLIGHT by Mel Healy

GHOST FLIGHT is the latest offering in Mel Healy’s Moss Reid series, which concerns itself with “a gastronomic private eye whose main patch is around the Stoneybatter and Smithfield districts of Dublin.” To wit:
2008: The Irish economy is about to go belly up, and three Irish businessmen disappear in a light aircraft off the west coast of Ireland. There is no mayday message. No wreckage, no bodies, nothing.
  Six years later, Niamh McElhinney bumps into one of the missing men in the south of France. Then she, too, goes missing. Time to call Wilde & Reid Investigations …
  Stoneybatter private eye Moss Reid is back, in his most complicated case to date, as a slow journey down the Canal du Midi turns into a nightmare race to find a faceless killer.
  GHOST FLIGHT is the third in Irish writer Mel Healy’s series involving Moss Reid, the Dublin PI whose priorities in life are to “eat, drink and investigate – in that order”.
  For more on Mel Healy and Moss Reid, clickety-click here

Friday, January 23, 2015

One to Watch: ONLY WE KNOW by Karen Perry

The writing partnership Karen Perry (right) hit the ground running last year with a terrific debut psychological thriller, THE BOY THAT NEVER WAS, so I’m very much looking forward to seeing what they do with their follow-up offering, ONLY WE KNOW (Penguin). Quoth the blurb elves:
Kenya, 1982. The relentless sun beats down on the Maasai Mara. Three children, Nick, Luke and Katie, bored and hot, go down to the river alone. But when their innocent game by the banks of the river goes horribly wrong, their lives are changed forever and they are eternally bound by a shocking and suffocating secret.
  Dublin, 2013. Their secret is buried, but not forgotten, and when Luke goes missing in violent circumstances it becomes clear that their childhood mistakes have come back to haunt them . . .
  ONLY WE KNOW will be published on June 4.

Publications: Irish Crime Fiction 2015

Herewith be a brief list of Irish crime fiction titles to be published in 2015, a list I’ll be updating on a regular basis throughout the year. To wit:

GUN STREET GIRL by Adrian McKinty (January 8)

TAKEN FOR DEAD by Graham Masterton (February 12)

THE DEFENCE by Steve Cavanagh (March 12)

A SONG OF SHADOWS by John Connolly (April 9)
KILLING WAYS by Alex Barclay (April 9)
THE ORGANISED CRIMINAL by Jarlath Gregory (April 9)

THE NIGHT GAME by Frank Golden (May 28)
BARLOW BY THE BOOK by John McAllister (May TBC)

FREEDOM’S CHILD by Jax Miller (June 2)
ONLY WE KNOW by Karen Perry (June 4)
AFTER THE FIRE by Jane Casey (June 18)
THE SILENT DEAD by Claire McGowan (June 18)
ALOYSIUS TEMPO by Jason Johnson (June 25)
THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND by Stuart Neville (June 26)

GREEN HELL by Ken Bruen (July 7)

PRESERVE THE DEAD by Brian McGilloway (August 6)
A BEAUTIFUL DEATH by Louise Phillips (August TBC)

A DEADLY GAMBLE by Pat Mullan (September TBC)

EVEN THE DEAD by Benjamin Black (October 15)
WHITEWATER CHURCH by Andrea Carter (October TBC)

ARE YOU WATCHING ME? by Sinead Crowley (date TBC)

  If you’re an Irish crime writer with a book on the way, please feel free to drop me a line (including details on dates, publisher, etc.) if you’d like to be included in the ongoing updates.

  NB: Publication dates are given according to Amazon UK, and are subject to change.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

News: Stuart Neville and Jane Casey Shortlisted for Edgar Awards

It’s a hearty CAP Towers congratulations to Stuart Neville and Jane Casey, both of whom were nominated for Edgar awards when the shortlists were announced early today, January 21st. Stuart’s THE FINAL SILENCE was nominated in the Best Novel category, while Jane’s THE STRANGER YOU KNOW was nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award. To wit:
Best Novel
This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash (HarperCollins Publishers – William Morrow)
Wolf by Mo Hayder (Grove/Atlantic – Atlantic Monthly Press)
Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King (Simon & Schuster – Scribner)
The Final Silence by Stuart Neville (Soho Press)
Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin (Hachette Book Group – Little, Brown)
Coptown by Karin Slaughter (Penguin Randomhouse – Delacorte Press)

Mary Higgins Clark
A Dark and Twisted Tide by Sharon Bolton (Minotaur Books)
The Stranger You Know by Jane Casey (Minotaur Books)
Invisible City by Julia Dahl (Minotaur Books)
Summer of the Dead by Julia Keller (Minotaur Books)
The Black Hour by Lori Rader-Day (Prometheus Books – Seventh Street Books)
  For the full run-down of all Edgar categories and nominees, clickety-click here

Review: GUN STREET GIRL by Adrian McKinty

The latest Irish Times crime fiction column includes a review of Adrian McKinty’s current offering, GUN STREET GIRL (Serpent’s Tail). It runs a lot like this:
The fourth in Adrian McKinty’s award-winning series of police procedurals featuring Sean Duffy, a Catholic detective serving in the RUC during the 1980s, Gun Street Girl (Serpent’s Tail, €19.40), opens in 1985, as the news of the impending Anglo-Irish Agreement sends Northern Ireland into a turmoil of strikes, riots and violence. “How can you investigate a murder in a time of incipient civil war?” Duffy wonders as he attends the scene of what appears to be a professional double-killing of ‘civilians’. That conundrum is quickly left behind as Duffy finds himself investigating the possibility that the murders are connected to the theft of Javelin missile systems from the Shorts manufacturing plant, which may well implicate rogue members of an American secret service. The claustrophobic tension of the previous novels is replaced here by a surprisingly jocular tone, as Duffy resorts to absurdist humour in order to preserve his sanity in an increasingly bleak Northern Ireland. “Out here,” Duffy tells us, “on the edge of the dying British Empire, farce is the only mode of narrative discourse that makes any sense at all.” Gun Street Girl may well be a comically implausible tale, but its roots in historical fact renders it a superb satire of its time and place. ~ Declan Burke
  For the rest of the column, which includes reviews of the latest books from Colette McBeth, Antonio Hodgson and Dana King, clickety-click here

Monday, January 19, 2015

Local Heroes: Philip Davison

We’re all familiar with the huge strides taken by Irish crime fiction over the past decade or so, but there were quite a few Irish authors writing crime / mystery / thriller novels before it was fashionable and / or (koff) profitable.
  Philip Davison (author, playwright and screenwriter, and currently a member of Aosdána) is one of them, possibly overlooked in terms of his contribution to Irish crime writing because the hero of his four spy novels, Harry Fielding, was an ‘understrapper’ for MI5.
  Davison published four novels with Fielding as his protagonist: THE CROOKED MAN (1997), MCKENZIE’S FRIEND (2000), THE LONG SUIT (2003) and A BURNABLE TOWN (2006). The reviews, such as those below for MCKENZIE’S FRIEND, were rather impressive:
“Chilly, elegant and disconcertingly comic. Rather like a collaboration between two notable Green(e)s – Graham and Henry – and quite safely described as original.” ~ Literary Review

“Davison shares Beckett’s knack for making the down-at-the-heel appear surreal.” ~ Times Literary Supplement
  THE LONG SUIT, meanwhile, was compared with John le Carré, Len Deighton and that man Graham Greene again. You get the picture: we’re in the realm of the literary spy thriller. THE LONG SUIT opens thusly:
“I had my own troubles, some of which I had addressed. When they lifted me my plan had been to go to ground, let time pass and be vigilant. Like a Druid, I had come to count nights instead of days. I watched Clements talking to somebody at the end of the corridor. He was loud, but I couldn’t make out the words. The lower jaw seemed to have just the one spring action. He was like a thirsty dog drinking from a water pistol …”
  For more on Philip Davison, clickety-click here

UPDATE: Mel Healy has a very nice appraisal of Philip Davison’s style (along with a tangent or two about his food consumption) over here

Saturday, January 17, 2015

One To Watch: THE DEFENCE by Steve Cavanagh

Steve Cavanagh’s ‘The Grey’ is one of the most impressive of the offerings in BELFAST NOIR, the new short story collection edited by Stuart Neville and Adrian McKinty, and it augurs well for THE DEFENCE (Orion), Steve’s debut novel, which will be published next March. Quoth the blurb elves:
The truth has no place in a courtroom. The truth doesn’t matter in a trial. The only thing that matters is what the prosecution can prove. Eddie Flynn used to be a con artist. Then he became a lawyer. Turned out the two weren’t that different. It’s been over a year since Eddie vowed never to set foot in a courtroom again. But now he doesn’t have a choice. Olek Volchek, the infamous head of the Russian mafia in New York, has strapped a bomb to Eddie's back and kidnapped his ten-year-old daughter Amy. Eddie only has 48 hours to defend Volchek in an impossible murder trial - and win - if wants to save his daughter. Under the scrutiny of the media and the FBI, Eddie must use his razor-sharp wit and every con-artist trick in the book to defend his ‘client’ and ensure Amy's safety. With the timer on his back ticking away, can Eddie convince the jury of the impossible? Lose this case and he loses everything.
  For more on Steve Cavanagh, clickety-click here

Thursday, January 15, 2015

One to Watch: JOHN LE CARRE: THE BIOGRAPHY by Adam Sisman

It won’t be published until October, unfortunately, but I’m very much looking forward to Adam Sisman’s biography of John le Carré, which will be published by Bloomsbury. To wit:
John le Carré is still at the top, more than half a century after The Spy Who Came in from the Cold became a worldwide bestseller. From his bleak childhood - the departure of his mother when he was five was followed by ‘sixteen hugless years’ in the dubious care of his father, a serial-seducer and con-man - through recruitment by both MI5 and MI6, to his emergence as the master of the espionage novel, le Carré has repeatedly quarried his life for his fiction. Millions of readers are hungry to know the truth about him. Written with exclusive access to le Carré himself, to his private archive and to many of the people closest to him, this is a major biography of one of the most important novelists alive today.
  I like the idea of the book promoting le Carré as ‘one of the most important novelists alive today’. All too often, when talking about le Carré, you hear that he’s a wonderful spy novelist, very likely the best of his kind and the man who spun literature from the Cold War conflict, but that the quality of his books has suffered in the Brave New post-Wall World. Stuff and nonsense, of course. As much as I love the Cold War novels, they were set during a period that to a large extent (and understandably so) characterised by a black-and-white, us-vs-them perspective. The latter work is far more fascinating, I think, ‘rooted’ as they are in the fertile but shifting sands of fluid conflicts, unlikely alliances and moral relativism.
  As for the idea that le Carré is a great spy novelist: he is, of course, but leaving at that is equivalent to saying that James Joyce was a dab hand at writing about Dublin, or METAMORPHOSIS is the finest possible example of a novel about bugs.
  As it happens, I’ve been on a bit of a le Carré binge this January: so far I’ve read OUR GAME, CALL FOR THE DEAD and SINGLE AND SINGLE. CALL FOR THE DEAD (1961) is a little out of place, of course, given that proceeds as far more a traditional investigation than le Carré would offer in later years (poignant to realise that the first character ever introduced in a le Carré novel, even before George Smiley puts in an appearance, is the perennially elusive Lady Ann Sercomb), but OUR GAME (1995) and SINGLE AND SINGLE (1999) both offer characters who are singularly and even self-destructively obsessed with achieving one good thing in a breathtakingly bleak and cynical world, despite their own awareness of how Pyrrhic their achievement might be. If fiction has more or better to offer than that particular kind of story, I really don’t know what it is. It helps, of course, that when it comes to the idea that character is mystery (to paraphrase John Connolly), le Carré delivers more value per line than any other writer I know.
  Here endeth my two cents. JOHN LE CARRE: THE BIOGRAPHY by Adam Sisman is published on October 22nd.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

One To Watch: FREEDOM’S CHILD by Jax Miller

American-born, Irish-based, Jax Miller (aka Áine Ó Domhnaill) publishes her debut thriller, FREEDOM’S CHILD (Crown), later this year – although it’s fair to say that Jax / Áine has already had a rather storied publishing history. Quoth the blurb elves:
Freedom Oliver has plenty of secrets. She lives in a small Oregon town where no one knows much about her. They know she works at the local biker bar; they know she gets arrested for public drunkenness almost every night; they know she’s brash, funny, and fearless.
  What they don’t know is that Freedom Oliver is a fake name. They don’t know that she was arrested for killing her husband, a cop, twenty years ago. They don’t know she put her two kids up for adoption. They don’t know that she’s now in witness protection, regretting ever making a deal with the feds, missing her children with a heartache so strong it makes her ill.
  Her troubled past comes roaring back to her when she learns that her daughter—whom she only knew for two minutes, seventeen seconds before they took her away—has gone missing, possibly kidnapped. Freedom gets on a motorcycle, and heads for Kentucky, where her daughter was raised. No longer protected by the government, she is targeted and tracked by her husband’s sadistic family, who are eager to make Freedom pay for his death.
  Written with a ferocious wit and a breakneck pace, FREEDOM’S CHILD is about a woman who risks everything to make amends for a past that haunts her still.
  FREEDOM’S CHILD is published in June.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

News: Irish Crime Fiction at Trinity College

There’s a fascinating course on Irish crime fiction being taught in Trinity College these days, under the aegis of Professor Chris Morash and Dr Brian Cliff, titled – with breathtaking simplicity – ‘Irish Crime Fiction’. To wit:
“‘The detective novel’, wrote Walter Benjamin, ‘has become an instrument of social criticism’. This new co-taught seminar will explore perhaps the fastest-growing area of contemporary Irish literature, the Irish crime novel, considering its roots, its emphasis on crisis and change in a society, and its ability to distil and magnify a society’s obsessions. For these reasons, studies of Irish crime fiction are on the cusp of becoming a key strand in the study of contemporary Irish culture, here and abroad.”
  Authors under scrutiny include John Connolly, Declan Hughes, Tana French, Arlene Hunt, Benjamin Black, Eoin McNamee and Stuart Neville, with DOWN THESE GREEN STREETS playing its humble part as one of the establishing texts.
  For more, clickety-click here

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Publication: TAKEN FOR DEAD by Graham Masterton

Graham Masterton’s popular series featuring Cork-based garda detective Katie Maguire goes from strength to strength. The fourth in the series, TAKEN FOR DEAD (Head of Zeus), will be published on February 12th:
It is a sunny Saturday in county Cork, and an Irish wedding is in full swing. Drunk uncles are toasting the bride. The Ceilidh band have played for hours. But the cutting of the cake will bring the wedding to a horrifying end. For there, grinning gruesomely up from the bottom tier, is the severed head of the local baker. Katie Maguire, of the Irish Garda, does not have any leads - until another local businessman goes missing in horrific circumstances. The murders appear to link to The Kings of Erin, a terrifying gang of torturers and extortionists. But these are dangerous men. And they will stop at nothing to throw Katie off the trail ...
  For more on the Katie Maguire novels, clickety-click here

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Publication: THE LOST AND THE BLIND by Declan Burke

You’ll forgive me, I hope, for reminding you (yet again) that my latest tome, THE LOST AND THE BLIND (Severn House) will be published at the end of December. The book will be my sixth novel, and because I was aiming to achieve something a little bit different this time out, I haven’t been as unsure of a book since I published my first, EIGHTBALL BOOGIE, all the way back in 2003. The blurb runs thusly:
The elderly Gerhard Uxkull was either senile or desperate for attention. Why else would he concoct a tale of Nazi atrocity on the remote island of Delphi, off the coast of Donegal? And why now, sixty years after the event, just when Irish-American billionaire Shay Govern has tendered for a prospecting licence for gold in Lough Swilly?
  Journalist Tom Noone doesn’t want to know. With his young daughter Emily to provide for, and a ghost-writing commission on Shay Govern’s autobiography to deliver, the timing is wrong. Besides, can it be mere coincidence that Uxkull’s tale bears a strong resemblance to the debut thriller by legendary spy novelist Sebastian Devereaux, the reclusive English author who’s spent the past fifty years holed up on Delphi?
  But when a body is discovered drowned, Tom and Emily find themselves running for their lives in pursuit of the truth that is their only hope of survival …
  So there you have it. I’ve loved spy thrillers ever since I was a kid; and THE LOST AND THE BLIND is my homage to the spy novel. I’m nervous about it, as I’ve said, but I’m heartened too by the early word – here, here and here – which has been, much to my surprise, very positive.
  If the festive spirit moves you to share this post with your friends and family – or anyone you know who likes a spy thriller – I would be, as always, very grateful indeed.
  In the meantime, a very Happy Christmas to you all, and I hope it’s a peaceful and prosperous New Year for all of us. I’ll leave you with this year’s (largely phonetic) missive from CAP Towers to Lapland, with the fervent hope that ‘Santy’ brings you everything your heart desires …

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Reviews: Grisham, Fyfield, Hiekkapelto, Higashino

The coalmining communities of the Appalachian Mountains provide the setting for John Grisham’s Gray Mountain (Hodder & Stoughton, €19.99), a legal thriller that opens ten days after Lehman Brothers folds. The financial meltdown that follows has a knock-on effect in the legal world, as Samantha Kofer, a third-year associate with New York’s largest law firm, finds herself one of many lawyers who have been downsized out of their comfortable lifestyles. Scrabbling for any kind of work that might keep her ticking over until the world sets itself to rights again, Samantha takes a position with the Mountain Legal Aid Clinic in the small town of Brady, Virginia. Anticipating something of a cosy but boring ‘furlough’, Samantha is shocked to discover a world of poverty, brutality and corruption, and an entirely legal scandal that goes to the very heart of American politics. Grisham is a former lawyer and politician, and one who remains heavily involved in the Innocence Project in the United States, and Gray Mountain has the feel of a very personal project. The story lacerates ‘Big Law’ while celebrating the non-profit legal aid organisations, who make the most of their limited resources in their fight on behalf of the sick and dying miners who are victims of the politically connected coal companies, while also detailing the environmental disaster of strip-mining in the Appalachians. The daughter of two very different kinds of lawyer, Samantha is already deliciously cynical about the legal process when we first meet her, but Grisham deftly blends her professional awakening to the ugly truths of the American legal system into Samantha’s complex personal development. It’s a stirring tale, despite the occasional didactic digressions into a whole raft of issues – black lung disease, meth addiction, political apathy – bedevilling the Appalachian communities.
  In Casting the First Stone (Sphere, €20.50), Frances Fyfield brings together two heroines from previous novels. Diana Porteous, widow and art collector, is introduced to Sarah Fortune, the sister of Diana’s agent, and together they hatch a plot to recover paintings stolen from an old woman by her son. As befits a story that revolves around an unusual art heist, however, the plot – or many sub-plots, to be precise – isn’t really the most important aspect here. Fyfield is more concerned with mood, tone and texture, and the story is less a straightforward narrative than it is a collection of pen portraits, as Fyfield offers intriguing psychological profiles of a host of fascinating characters, from plucky young boys to grizzled ex-policemen and avaricious capitalists. There’s an ethereal quality to the prose that seems to flit back and forth between dream and nightmare, reflecting the sharp contrast between the settings of the wild coastline of Diana’s home and the bustle of the London she is forced to visit in pursuit of justice. At the heart of the story lies Diana’s quest for a sense of identity, of belonging: the widow still in mourning for her beloved husband rather poignantly collects a particular kind of painting, the unsigned and unattributed art that would otherwise languish unloved in someone’s cellar or attic.
  Identity is also key to Kati Hiekkapelto’s The Hummingbird (Arcadia Books, €13.40), the Finnish author’s promising debut novel. Born in Serbia, of Hungarian ethnicity, Anna Fekete’s experience as an outsider growing up in Finland gives her an unusual insight into the immigrant mind-set when she becomes a detective in the Finnish police service. Her first day on the job is something of a baptism of fire: a jogger is shot to death on the outskirts of the city, while Anna and her colleagues also receive a desperate call from a young Kurdish woman who believes she is about to be murdered by her family in an ‘honour killing’. The twin investigations provide The Hummingbird with its narrative spine, but much of the story, which is translated by David Hackston, is engaged in exploring what it means to be Finnish, a place where ‘people were expected to unflaggingly present a play directed by market forces, a performance called Western civilisation.’ The plot isn’t entirely convincing as it arrives at its conclusion, but for the most part Hiekkapelto provides an unsentimental account of Finnish society and its cultural traditions, in particular the Finnish obsession with hunting and guns, which means that, in theory, virtually anyone could be the killer on the rampage.
  Malice (Little, Brown, €18.75) by Japanese author Keigo Higashino revolves around an investigation into the murder of best-selling novelist Kunihiko Hidaka. Police detective Kaga is initially stumped by what appears to be a classic ‘locked room’ mystery, but soon comes to suspect Hidaka’s best friend, children’s author Osama Nonoguchi, when he discovers notebooks in Nonoguchi’s apartment which suggest that Nonoguchi was in fact the ghost-writer of Hidaka’s novels. Translated by Alexander O. Smith, and delivered in a crisp, clinical style (the story proceeds by way of written accounts delivered by the main players), Malice offers an unusual take on the traditional police procedural while also functioning as a critique of the crime novel, as the business of writing becomes the art of murder. In this it parallels Higashino’s English-language debut, The Devotion of Suspect X (2011), although Malice is more playful and inventive (and blackly humorous) when it comes to reworking the genre’s staples and conventions. As much a psychological thriller as it is a police procedural, Malice is rooted in a search for identity, albeit one in which Higashino invests the conceit of the ambiguous narrator with an notable complexity. The result is that the novel represents another bold statement of intent, and while Higashino isn’t exactly reinventing the crime novel, Malice is a superb example of how flexible the genre’s parameters can be. ~ Declan Burke

  This column was first published in the Irish Times.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Feature: The Best Books of 2014

’Tis the season to be jolly, the herald angels sing, deck the halls with boughs of frankincense and myrrh, tra-la-la-la, etc. Ho yes! It’s that time of year again, when we check our lists (twice) and decide which books have been naughty or nice over the previous twelve months. My choice of the nice ones, in the order I read them, runs thusly:

Blue is the Night, Eoin McNamee
Blue is the Night is the final novel in a loose trilogy that began in 2001 with The Blue Tango (which was longlisted for the Booker Prize) and continued with Orchid Blue in 2010. The trilogy is woven around Sir Lancelot Curran, whose career took him from lawyer to judge and on to Attorney General and Member of Parliament, but Blue is the Night investigates the brutal murder of Curran’s daughter, Patricia, outside their home in Whiteabbey in 1952. It focuses on Lance Curran’s wife, Doris, and his right-hand man and political fixer, Harry Ferguson. The book is by no means a straightforward crime fiction investigation, however: on one level the novel is about the timelessness of evil and how it reappears in different guises in all cultures throughout history. McNamee refers to the ‘ancient malice’ represented by the mummy Takabuti that Ferguson sees in a Belfast museum, and the novel also stretches back in time to late Victorian London, and Jack the Ripper. It’s a superb novel in its own right, but also a terrific conclusion to the ‘Blue trilogy’, in which McNamee explores the concept of noir as being a kind of Calvinist idea of pre-determination – that what happens to you is destined to happen, that there’s a hand on the scales and all you can do is rage against it.

The Missing File, DA Mishani
Set in the small Israeli city of Holon on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, D.A. Mishani’s debut The Missing File begins with the mother of a young boy reporting his disappearance to Inspector Avraham Avraham. Perplexed but initially unconcerned – children are never kidnapped or killed in Israel, Avraham tells us – the inspector only belatedly swings into action, by which time the reader has already encountered the boy’s sinister neighbour, Ze’ev, an English teacher and frustrated author who craves the inspiration that will spark his writing to life. D.A. Mishani is a crime writer and scholar in his native Israel, and here he blends a subversive take on the standard police procedural with ruminations on the crime novel itself, cross-referencing the work of Agatha Christie and Stieg Larsson with that of Kafka and Dostoevsky, and advancing Avraham’s theory as to why there are no detective novels in Hebrew. The well-meaning but hapless Avraham is a delightful creation, particularly as Steven Cohen’s translation is strewn with Avraham’s humorously morose observations on the human condition. With its finely crafted plot constantly confounding expectations, The Missing File marks D.A Mishani out as a writer to watch.

Unravelling Oliver, Liz Nugent
Liz Nugent’s Unravelling Oliver opens with Dublin-based writer Oliver Ryan viciously beating his wife Alice. The assault is described in the first person by Oliver himself, but Oliver’s is only one of a number of first-person accounts on offer here, each one a piece of the jigsaw that gradually assembles itself into portrait of a pathetic young boy who grew up to become a monster who writes best-selling children’s books. The reader is given no framing device relating to who might have collated the various accounts, or why, but the narrative gambit pays off handsomely. Oliver Ryan may be a vain, shallow and ultimately violent sociopath, but his story grows more compelling and nuanced the more we learn about him and the factors that influenced the man he would become, some of which were set in train even before he was born. More an investigation into psychology than a conventional crime thriller, Unravelling Oliver is a formidable debut and a deserved winner of this year’s crime fiction gong at the Irish Book Awards.

The Black Eyed Blonde, Benjamin Black
Benjamin Black (aka John Banville) resurrects Philip Marlowe again in The Black-Eyed Blonde, a novel that finds Marlowe still trying to come to terms with the events of The Long Goodbye. Indeed, the tone falls somewhere between the bitter defeatism of Chandler’s The Long Goodbye and that of Robert Altman’s 1973 film of the same name, a movie disliked by many Chandler fans for its portrayal of Marlowe as a hapless klutz who understands that he is, ultimately, powerless when trapped in a vice constructed of money and power. In The Black-Eyed Blonde, Black acknowledges the general thesis of Chandler’s novel, with Marlowe increasingly aware that he has outlived his time and his code, and wondering if he shouldn’t fold his tent in Los Angeles and move to Paris to become a rich woman’s husband. I liked it a lot, and I hope there’ll be more Marlowe novels from Benny Blanco.

Irène, Pierre Lamaitre
Pierre Lamaitre’s Alex (2013) garnered rave reviews last year, not least for the way Lamaitre reworked the tropes of the conventional serial killer novel to create a clever police procedural which worked as a superb thriller even as it confounded readers’ expectations of the genre. The follow-up, Irène, is equally clever, as the diminutive Parisian detective Camille Verhoeven is initially confronted with a murder scene so horrific it puts him in mind of Goya’s ‘Saturn Devouring his Son’. Were Verhoeven the son of an author rather than a painter, he might have recalibrated his instincts: it soon emerges that the carnage is a note-perfect homage to the double murder carried out by Patrick Bateman in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. Pitting his wits against a killer the media quickly dubs ‘The Novelist’, Verhoeven – who is distinctly unimpressed by the crime fiction genre – uncovers a series of murders which mirror killings detailed in classic crime novels by James Ellroy, John D. MacDonald and William McIlvanney. Just as the reader begins to suspect that the novel is a macabre compilation of the genre’s ‘greatest hits’, however, Lemaitre pulls a switch that forces the reader to reassess everything that has gone before. Translated by Frank Wynne, Irène builds on the considerable promise of Alex and confirms Camille Verhoeven as one of the most intriguing protagonists to emerge in the crime genre in recent years.

The Wolf in Winter, John Connolly
John Connolly blends his usual tropes of the classic private investigator and a gothic flavouring with a simmering rage at the way in which modern American treats its economically disenfranchised. The twelfth of John Connolly’s novels to feature the haunted private eye Charlie Parker, The Wolf in Winter begins with the disappearance of a homeless man, who was himself trying to track down his disappeared daughter. Parker’s investigations take him to the town of Prosperous, an ostensibly civilised and modern community, but one which harbours dark secrets inextricably bound up in its shadowy origins. Arguably the best Charlie Parker tale to date. (And while we’re on the subject of John Connolly, the collection of short stories called ‘Death Sentences’ edited by Otto Penzler includes John’s Anthony Award-winning short story ‘The Caxton Lending Library & Book Depository’).

The Boy That Never Was, Karen Perry
‘Karen Perry’ is a pseudonym for a new writing partnership composed of author Karen Gillece and poet Paul Perry. The story opens with a prologue set in Tangier in 2005, where the readers learns that one of the central protagonists, Harry, is guilty of negligence in the death, during an earthquake, of his young son Dillon. The story then moves to Dublin five years later, when Harry believes he sees his missing son during an anti-government demonstration on O’Connell Street. When he fails to convince the Gardai that Dillon is alive and well, Harry confesses all to his wife, Robin, which is when we start to realise that Harry has a history of obsession and instability, and that Robin also has secrets she needs to conceal. This is by no means the first time we’ve encountered the unreliable narrator – it’s a staple of the crime / mystery genre – but The Boy That Never Was goes one better by giving us a pair of devious narrators, neither of whom we can trust very much. The result is an impressive debut that is equally adept at blending thriller and mystery into an absorbing psychological study.

The Tailor of Panama, John le Carré
Not a book that was first published in 2014, of course, but the best book I read all year.

The Avenue of the Giants, Marc Dugain
Marc Dugain’s The Avenue of the Giants offers an unusual take on a genre tradition, that of the sociopathic serial killer. Set in California in the late 1960s and based on the life of Ed Kemper, aka ‘the Co-Ed Killer’ (whom Dugain acknowledges in his Author’s Note), the story switches between third- and first-person voices, as convicted killer Al Kenner writes an autobiographical account of a trail of destruction that began when, as a disaffected teenager, Kenner murdered his grandparents. It’s an unusual account, not least because Kenner claims that his literary influences include Dostoevsky and Raymond Carver, with the result that the story unfolds in a style of downbeat realism that grows increasingly unsettling and claustrophobic the more Kenner reveals of his prosaically literal mind-set. There are echoes of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me in Kenner’s ability to fool those closest to him with his gee-shucks public persona, which allows the charming but manipulative killer to exploit the virtues of peace and love espoused by his hippy victims.

The Silkworm, Robert Galbraith
Set in London during the bleak winter of 2010, The Silkworm is a sequel to The Cuckoo’s Calling, and again features the private detective and war veteran Cormoran Strike. Strike is intrigued when he is approached by Leonora Quine, who wants him to find her missing husband, the author and former enfant terrible, Owen Quine. Soon, however, Strike discovers that Quine has gone to ground because he has written a slanderous novel, titled Bombyx Mori – which translates as The Silkworm – in which vicious pen-portraits of his wife, editor, publisher, agent and peers are easily identifiable to anyone in the publishing industry. It’s a fine sequel; if Robert Galbraith / JK Rowling is in the crime-writing game for the long haul, this reader will be very pleased indeed.

Young Philby, Robert Littell
The exploits of Adrian Russell ‘Kim’ Philby have been picked over many times, but Robert Littell’s Young Philby takes an intriguing approach to exploring the motivations of the notorious British spy, who defected to the Soviet Union when his cover was finally blown in 1963. The novel begins with a Prologue in 1938, with a Russian ‘handler’ of Philby being interrogated in a Moscow prison, before going back to 1933, and Philby’s arrival in Vienna as Fascism begins to take hold in Austria. Essentially a series of portraits of Philby offered by those he worked with, the story comprises fictionalised encounters between, among others, Philby and his first wife Litzi Friedman, Guy Burgess, Teodor Maly, who first recruited Philby in London, and Evelyn Sinclair, the secretary who recorded conversations at the heart of the British secret service. This last account is the most fascinating of a beautifully detailed mosaic, offering as it does a revolutionary theory on Philby’s career and activities. In re-imagining one of the most familiar figures of the Cold War landscape, Robert Littell has given us a spy thriller of the very highest order.

Perfidia, James Ellroy
Some readers, myself included, might have preferred to meet James Ellroy’s iconic characters in a state of grace, in order to better appreciate their fall. It wasn’t to be, but Perfidia was still one of the best crime novels of the year. It opens in Los Angeles in December 1941, with young LAPD detective Dudley Smith investigating what appears to be a ritual suicide by a Japanese-American family. Expecting a quick result, Smith is confounded with the Japanese navy bombs Pearl Harbour and turns his open-and-shut case into a political time-bomb. Dense, incident-packed, irreverent and intense, it is – for good or ill – vintage Ellroy.

The Surfacing, Cormac James
Cork author Cormac James’ second novel begins in the Arctic Circle in 1850, when we find ourselves aboard the stout ship The Impetus, under the command of Captain Myers and his second-in-command Lieutenant Morgan, as they go in search of the Franklin expedition, which went missing some years previously during a bid to discover the fabled Northwest Passage. The all-male environment aboard The Impetus – now trapped in the shifting ice – is disrupted by a stowaway, Kitty, who is pregnant with Morgan’s child. It’s a fabulously detailed tale, both in its historical research and its depiction of the savagely harsh landscape, but despite the apparent ‘Boys’ Adventure’ nature of the tale, it’s very much a tender, intimate novel about one man’s horror and joy and the prospect of becoming a father. The announcement two months ago by the Canadian government that they had located the wrecks of the Franklin Expedition puts the efforts of the characters here into some perspective, and amplifies the magnificent futility of their epic journey. Superb.

The Monogram Murders, Sophie Hannah
Sophie Hannah ‘resurrects’ Agatha Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot for The Monogram Murders, which is set in 1929. When a terrified young woman called Jennie blunders into a London coffee shop and sits at Poirot’s table, however, his famous little grey cells are energised by Jennie’s bizarre story of her impending murder – and her assertion that nothing must be done to stop it, because only then will justice be done. Enter Edward Catchpool of Scotland Yard, a police detective who stands in for Poirot’s regular sounding-board Arthur Hastings, to narrate the story of Poirot’s latest investigation. It centres on a triple killing at the Bloxham Hotel, in which two women and a man are discovered identically murdered in three separate rooms, each with a monogrammed cufflink in their mouths. Sophie Hannah provides a double function in The Monogram Murders: The story is told in Agatha Christie’s style, but it also partly serves as a critique of Christie’s style and methods. ‘I must say,’ Catchpool observes, ‘I did not and never would understand why he required such a sizeable audience. It was not a theatrical production. When I solved a crime … I simply presented my conclusions to my boss and then arrested the miscreant in question.’ All told, it’s a terrific piece of literary ventriloquism.

Us, David Nicholls
Us is David Nicholls’ fourth novel, and probably his most entertaining. As the story begins, Douglas Petersen appears to be suffering the reverse of the conventional male mid-life crisis. A pedantic biochemist contemplating the imminent departure of his teenage son Albie from the family nest, Douglas is – according to the rules of fiction, at least – a prime candidate to be eyeing up a Maserati and tumbling into an ill-advised affair with a woman half his age. As it happens, Douglas rather likes bumbling along in his comfortable, suburban existence, and is very much looking forward to ‘growing old and dying together’ with his wife, Connie. “Douglas,” says Connie, “who in their right mind would look forward to that?” The truth of it is that, now their son is reared and on his way to university, Connie is thinking of leaving Douglas. With a typically old-fashioned ‘grand tour’ of Europe’s galleries and museums already planned, Douglas hopes that the family’s final holiday together will reignite old passions for love, art and life itself – but once they get on the road, things very quickly go from bad to worse. Us is very much an escape, a laugh, a comfort and a thrill, but it is above all a thought-provoking meditation on how very fragile are the ties that bind.

The Burning Room, Michael Connelly
The shot was fired a decade ago but Orlando Merced, a mariachi band member, has only now succumbed to his injuries, which means Harry Bosch has a very unusual ‘open-unsolved’ (aka ‘cold case’) investigation to pursue in The Burning Room, Michael Connelly’s 17th novel to feature the veteran LAPD detective. Bosch, already on borrowed time as a working detective courtesy of the DROP programme, is less than a year from retirement as the story opens, but he has lost none of his edge. What appears at first glance to be a depressingly routine drive-by shooting develops, largely due to Bosch’s instincts, into a complex tale of jealousy, arson, robbery and politically motivated murder, as Connelly, in a story that wears its Raymond Chandler influences lightly, links the street-level crimes of Los Angeles with the city’s highest seats of power. Bosch, teamed here with impressive new recruit Lucy Soto, goes about his work with the same quality of unobtrusive directness that Connelly brings to his prose, the deceptively understated approach disguising a pacy, powerful investigation that yields results when least expected.

Tabula Rasa, Ruth Downie
Set in Roman Britain as the natives’ festival of Samain approaches, Tabula Rasa is Ruth Downie’s sixth novel to feature medicus Gaius Petreius Ruso, who is currently serving with the Twentieth Legion as they build Hadrian’s Wall. When rumours begin to circulate that a dead body has been dumped under the rubble packed into the wall, and the young boy responsible for circulating the rumour goes missing, the already tense relationship between the Romans and the native Britons erupts into hostilities. Ruso’s investigation, which he hopes will defuse the situation, is deftly crafted by Downie, but Tabula Rasa offers far more than the mystery genre’s conventions transplanted to Roman-era Britain. Equally fascinating are the contemporary parallels to be found in the Roman experience of conquering and occupying a foreign territory: their ignorance of the local language and customs, the blinkered arrogance of military power, and the nerve-shredding presence of constant threat.

  So there it is. It’s a busy-busy time right now around CAP Towers, so if you don’t hear from us between now and the holidays, have a terrific Christmas and a peaceful and prosperous New Year. See you on the other side …