Last week the Sons of Spade were gracious enough to host a Q&A with CAP Grand Vizier Declan Burke (right), simply but elegantly titled ‘Q&A with Declan Burke’. The sordid results come below …
Q: What makes your P.I. Harry Rigby different from other fictional private eyes?
A: I could be literal and say he’s the only one from Sligo, Ireland … This is actually a difficult question for me to answer, because of the way Harry originated, which was as an exercise in style. I never had any intention of writing a full novel – I started out writing a chapter in which a PI meets a potential client for the first time, just to have fun with it. Harry’s a PI who is aware of all the tropes, he’s a fan of the hardboiled movies and books – so while he’s a PI, he’s also aware of fiction’s PI heritage, Marlowe, Archer, et al. It says something that my favourite PI movie isn’t THE BIG SLEEP, it’s Robert Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE. Which is a roundabout way of saying Harry Rigby is different because he’s so knowingly similar to all his fictional predecessors. Except for the fact that he’s from Sligo …
Q: What are your thoughts on the psycho sidekick in PI novels?
A: I guess if it’s done well then it’s valid, and if it’s not, it’s a cliché. I take every character on its own merits. My instinct is that it could work well as a one-off, if the protagonist has a pyscho sidekick foisted on him, but that it wouldn’t make any sense, if you want your stories to have any kind of realism, for a PI – someone who earns their living through stealth and subterfuge – to associate with a psychotic person for too long. They’d attract too much notice. It’d be like hunting tiger with a hippo in tow.
Q: What would a soundtrack to your novels sound like?
A: Pretty bleak, probably, although it’d depend on the circumstances – if your protagonist found him or herself in a karaoke bar, say, then the clientele is highly unlikely to be belting out Leonard Cohen songs (although I like the idea, now that I think of it). In general, there’s quite a bit of fatalism in my stories, so the soundtrack would ideally be composed of artists such as The Tindersticks, Leonard Cohen, Antony and the Johnsons, Radiohead, Townes Van Zandt, Jacques Brel … melancholy stuff, glimmerings of hope in the darkness, that kind of thing. Mind you, I have Abba in my car stereo at the moment …
Q: Has your writing changed much since the first novel?
A: I’m probably more aware at this stage of how bad a line is when I write it, but as for my ability to improve that line … I don’t know. No, probably. In saying that, I’m interested in writing in different kinds of styles, so it’s hard to judge. EIGHTBALL BOOGIE (the first Harry Rigby novel) was a homage to Chandler, and was written in that kind of style. THE BIG O was styled as a homage to two American writers I read for pure, unadulterated pleasure – Elmore Leonard and Barry Gifford. And, once I finish the sequel to THE BIG O, I have a story bubbling away on the back-burner that’s heavily influenced by some of my favourite writers from the ’40s and ’50s – David Goodis, Gil Brewer. That probably sounds as if I’m spending all my time ripping off other writers, but that’s only partially true – it’s early days in my writing yet, and I’m happy enough to learn whatever craft I can from studying the writers I like. I don’t have the time to go copying out their novels, the way Hemingway did, so this is the next best thing. That’s my excuse, anyway.
Q: Do you do a lot of research?
A: It depends on the story, really. I wrote a book set on the south coast of Crete that involved a hell of a lot of research – I probably spent longer reading up on the various subjects that went into the story than I did writing it. For the most part, though, my stories aren’t all that high concept. They’re fairly stripped-back, character-based tales about ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances, so they don’t need a lot of research. In saying that, I’m generally very particular about detail – I can be quite disappointed if I come across a glaringly wrong detail when I’m reading, it can ruin a story for me. So I try to get it as realistic as possible within the parameters of the story.
Q: What’s next for you and Harry?
A: I’ve written a follow-up to EIGHTBALL BOOGIE, in which Harry witnesses a suicide and is then asked by the dead man’s mother to investigate the reasons why a seemingly happy, well-adjusted person would kill himself. At the moment, though, Harry has retreated to the snug of The Cellars bar and is enjoying some quiet drinking time, because the emphasis is on THE BIG O and its sequel, both of which have been signed up by Harcourt in the US – THE BIG O will be published in the US in Fall ’08.
Q: Do you have any favourite Sons of Spade yourself?
A: I certainly don’t mean any disrespect to any of the names on this fine site, and I appreciate that it sounds a bit old-fashioned, but for me there’s only one son of Spade, and that’s Marlowe – everyone else is competing to be nephews, grand-nieces, etc. I say that in full awareness of Chandler’s flaws in terms of plotting, and all the other flaws attributed to him. But I think what Chandler achieved with Marlowe goes beyond his ability in terms of style. Yes, he was reacting to Hammett, but I think Chandler shaped the paradigm of the private eye to the extent that everyone since has been writing according to his rules – obeying them, bending them, breaking them, parodying them. When you look at the non-crime fiction writers who dabbled as a once-off because they believed the form was worth exploring – Norman Mailer, say, or Hank Bukowski, Ray Bradbury, Jonathan Lethem – the model they reshape is Chandler’s.
Q: In the last century we’ve seen new waves of PI-writers, first influenced by Hammett, then Chandler, Macdonald, Parker, later Lehane. Who do you think will influence the coming generation and in what way?
A: I’m going to sound biased here because he’s Irish, and because I know the guy personally, but I think Ken Bruen [right] will exert a massive influence on the next generation of PI writers. His Jack Taylor series is genuinely breaking new ground, given that it’s a post-modern appraisal of the notion of the PI and the PI novel – Bruen has gone beyond the conventional three-act investigation of a crime, gone beyond the protagonist as a righter of wrongs, a man or woman who uncovers dirty deeds and precipitates a satisfactory resolution. In Taylor’s world, everyone is equally culpable, and Bruen has inverted the focus of his PI’s gaze so that it’s himself he’s investigating, his morality, the part that he plays in creating the kind of world where good, bad and indifferent all jostle for pre-eminence. What Bruen is doing for crime fiction right now is akin to what Camus and Sartre, in their different ways, did for philosophy sixty or seventy years ago – although a more appropriate, Irish, reference would be that of Samuel Beckett.
Q: Ed Lynskey, writer of the Frank Johnson novels, came up with this question: “Would you have the patience and grit to work as a PI?”
A: Definitely not. The reality of PI work is bone-numbing drudgery spent checking facts and figures, and endless hours wasted in surveillance, more often than not with no positive result. The wastage of time would drive me insane in a week. I’m also quite a private person. The notion of prying into other people’s lives – knowing that your prying will very probably have a devastating effect on their lives – offends my sense of mutual respect. In other words, if I don’t pry into your life, and you don’t pry into mine, all will be well. Of course, that’s the diametric opposite of the dynamic that propels the PI narrative …
Q: Is it absolutely essential your writing is published, and why?
A: No, and for two reasons: One, there’s far too much rubbish on the shelves already. Two, I need to write every bit as much as I like to write, and I’ll keep on writing long after it’s decided that I’m no longer worth publishing.
“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.