Editor’s note: Over the last six months, Declan Burke, Irish author of the novel The Big O (Hag’s Head Press), has grilled crime writers from both sides of the Atlantic for his animated blog, Crime Always Pays. Since, as the old saying goes, “turnabout is fair play,” we decided it was time that Burke took a big gulp of his own medicine. So we put the very same queries to him that he’s been nailing other authors on for all this time. He was glad to play along, acknowledging, “You got me, bang to rights.” – J. Kingston Pierce, The Rap Sheet
Yep, it’s rubber-hose time, folks: a rapid-fire Q&A for those shifty-looking usual suspects ...
What crime novel would you most like to have written?
The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler. “I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it.” Life-changing moments are few and far between, and it’s even rarer that you appreciate them as such at the time. Reading the first paragraph of The Big Sleep was one of those moments; I honestly did know that nothing would ever be the same again. I rate Chandler as Hemingway with a sense of humor. If I can sneak in a second, it’d be any of Elmore Leonard’s novels, preferably Get Shorty. Hell, why not sneak in a third? Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. And Alistair McLean’s When Eight Bells Toll. Is that five? No? OK, The Wild Life of Sailor and Lula, by Barry Gifford.
Who do you read for guilty pleasures?
It’s not so much “who” as “what”--I love classic kids’ novels. My favorite novel of all time, actually, my Desert Island novel, would have to be--appropriately enough--Peter Pan. It’s a work of genius, written by a man at the very peak of his powers. The whimsical tone is perfectly pitched and disguises what is quite often a dark and profound story. I also love Treasure Island, Watership Down, and The Wind in the Willows. My wife and I are expecting our first baby next spring, and already I’m all a-quiver with excitement at the prospect of re-reading all those stories out loud in the years to come. I’ve got quite a mini-library of kids’ classics just waiting to go.
Most satisfying writing moment?
I’d written a couple of drafts of my first novel, Eightball Boogie , which is about a private eye operating in Ireland’s northwest, when I first stumbled across Ken Bruen’s The Guards. I was devastated--not only had this Bruen bloke got there first, with the kind of story I couldn’t imagine anyone else trying, he’d done it with the kind of style I couldn’t even dream of pulling off. Fast-forward about three years, when Lilliput [Press] have agreed to publish Eightball Boogie, and I’ve just finished another of the Jack Taylor series. I put it down wondering what Ken Bruen might make of Eightball, if he ever read it, and two days later Lilliput forwarded me the blurb Ken had written for it, in which he declared me “the future of Irish crime fiction.” I thought my head would explode. Sadly it didn’t, and it’s been all downhill since then.
The best Irish crime novel is ...?
I’m going to offer a few options, if I may. Patrick McCabe might flinch if described as a crime writer, but his novel The Butcher Boy is a fabulous story very much in the mold of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. Similarly, I don’t know if John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things qualifies as a crime novel, but it’s a stunning piece of work, a virtuoso example of what John Gardner once called the “vivid, continuous dream” of fiction. The best this year, so far, I think, is a tie between Gerard Donovan’s Julius Winsome and Brian McGilloway’s Borderlands; and Adrian McKinty’s Dead I May Well Be took Irish crime fiction onto another level a couple of years back (even though McKinty, the thieving Norn Iron bugger, stole a title I’d intended using for myself). I think the softest spot in my heart in terms of Irish crime fiction, though, is Quinn, by Seamus Smyth, which was way too far ahead of its time when it was first published. Someone should pick up it again, it’s in the same league as Paul Cain’s Fast One. Does Charles Ardai read The Rap Sheet?
What Irish crime novel would make a great movie?
I’d LOVE to see Jack Taylor up on the big screen, I think he’d be on a par with my favorite movie private eye, Elliott Gould playing Marlowe in The Long Goodbye. The Book of Lost Things will make a great movie, it was signed up earlier this year, as will Derek Landy’s Skulduggery Pleasant. I’d love to see someone with a flair for lateral thinking take on Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, and ditto for John Banville’s The Untouchable. For a classic private-eye movie, though, a producer could do a hell of a lot worse than take a look at Vincent Banville’s canon of work, and preferably [1995’s] Death the Pale Rider.
Worst/best thing about being a writer?
There’s no worst thing about being a writer--the only problem I have is finding a few hours every day, which isn’t easy when you’re a freelance writer. Other than that, it’s all jam. It’s fantastic, of course, when someone tells you they like your book, that they’ll be telling their friends and family. But by a mile the best thing about writing is the physical process of putting one word in front of the other, and watching a story come alive, seeing characters flesh out before your eyes. Being honest, I started out as a teenager wanting to be a writer, because I thought it had to be the best job ever (I still feel that way). A few years later, I narrowed that ambition down to having one book published. Now that I have two books out there, I don’t want to be a writer as much as I want to write. If God was to appear tomorrow and offer me three hours writing a day for the rest of my life, with the kicker being that none of it would ever see a bookshelf, I’d gladly take him up on it.
Why does John Banville use a pseudonym for writing crime?
It’s very possible his publishers believed a crime-reading audience wouldn’t buy anything by “John Banville,” given that Banville’s novels aren’t overly endowed with pace, plot, and action. Two-thirds of the way through The Book of Evidence, in which the narrator is on the run after committing a murder, Banville has him say: “The least I had expected from the enormities of which I was guilty was that they would change my life ... that there would be a constant succession of heart-stopping events, of alarms and sudden frights and hairsbreadth escapes.” There isn’t, sadly--Banville’s too austere for such frippery, although he’s not above mocking the reader who might expect it. Mind you, I’m very probably wrong--as Declan Hughes pointed out recently, Banville is an admirer of Donald Westlake, so it’s possible he’s paying homage, and not only to Westlake but to Kingsley Amis, Cecil Day Lewis, et al.
The pitch for your next novel is ...?
Jack’s got nothing to lose. Honey’s got it all to live for. A pregnant woman, a dying man, a stolen gun ... and the placid Greek islands lying out there in the sun, just ripe for the picking.
Who are you reading right now?
Right now it’s David Goodis’ The Wounded and the Slain, courtesy of Hard Case Crime, and Daily Life in Palestine at the Time of Christ, by Henri Daniel-Rops. I’ve just finished Gil Brewer’s The Vengeful Virgin (bit of a Hard Case Crime kick going on at the moment) and Allan Guthrie’s Two-Way Split, both of which were brilliant. In the TBR pile is Tana French’s In the Woods, Ross Macdonald’s The Moving Target, Nick Stone’s King of Swords, Declan Hughes’ The Colour of Blood, Benjamin Black’s Christine Falls, and Peter Rabe’s The Out Is Death. Oh, and Colin Bateman’s I Predict a Riot. Bateman is a riot. He never disappoints.
The three best words to describe your own writing are ...?
Emperor’s. New. Clothes.
Declan Burke’s The Big O fits all wonky table-legs or your money back, guaranteed.
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “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.