With his acclaimed ‘Dead’ trilogy now complete, where to now for one of crime fiction’s most thoughtful practitioners, Adrian McKinty? Eh? EH?
Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for Michael Forsythe. Released in mass-market paperback in December, THE BLOOMSDAY DEAD (first published in March 2007; to be released in pback on June 12) sounded the death knell for Adrian McKinty’s ‘Dead’ trilogy, which began in 2003 with DEAD I WELL MAY BE.
For the most part concerned with the indestructible Forsythe’s run-ins with the Irish mob in America, the trilogy offers an irresistible blend of the thriller genre’s traditional hi-octane action and quip-happy protagonist, albeit filtered through the mind of an unusually cerebral and literary-minded thug. Bloomsday, of course, is celebrated on June 16, the day on which James Joyce’s ULYSSES is set. THE BLOOMSDAY DEAD, which gently riffs on ULYSSES throughout, finds Michael Forsythe back on Irish soil for the first time in over a decade, with outstanding accounts due to be settled in blood.
Born and raised in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland, McKinty today lives in Colorado, married with a young family and writing very much in the American idiom.
DB: Does it make any sense for Irish readers to claim you as an Irish crime writer?
AMcK: “Yeah, that’s interesting isn’t it. My models were all American writers from the ’30s, Chandler, Hammett, James Cain, and later Jim Thompson, but the world I grew up in, Carrickfergus in the ’70s and ’80s, is so rich with incident and detail that I think every book I write has a bit of that in it. I remember the Hunger Strikes and [the] Enniskillen and Omagh [bombings] like they were yesterday, and the Ulster vernacular and black humour has fortunately dripped deep into my soul. Every time an editor asks me to remove the words craic, sheugh, shite and eggy, I know I’m still operating from an Irish standpoint.”
DB: Why are Irish crime fiction writers starting to pop up now, all of a sudden?
AMcK: “It’s the economy and the culture, I think. Crime fiction thrives in an urban environment and expanding economies. Greed, money, power, betrayal – these are all touchstones – some would say clichés – of the genre. Ireland was largely stagnant economically from 1945 to1990 and only in the last decade have we had all of these juicy tropes working so well.”
Ken Bruen and John Connolly are long established as favourites with the American reading public, but both established their reputations by setting their novels in London and Maine, respectively. Adrian McKinty, despite setting his novels in the United States (with occasional jaunts to Central and South America), is one of a new breed of Irish crime writers (which he dubs, half-seriously, ‘the Celtic New Wave’) that includes Brian McGilloway, Gene Kerrigan, Tana French and Declan Hughes.
DB: Did you have a sense of yourself as a pioneer when setting out to write DEAD I WELL MAY BE?
AMcK: “No, Ken Bruen (right) was first. But I did think that Ireland was ready for this genre. Ireland punches above its weight in terms of literary culture and the fact that crime fiction was almost non-existent was a vacuum that needed to be filled. For years people thought of Ireland as a cross between ‘The Quiet Man’ and DUBLINERS. Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon etc. are geniuses, but they didn’t help give us a real picture of a country that is increasingly urban, diverse, young and exciting. Crime writers under forty are in touch with a culture and a society that the older generation, frankly, isn’t.”
DB: Michael Forsythe, on the other hand, is a veritable treasure chest of pop-culture references, asides and in-jokes, and it seemed like he could keep going indefinitely. What was the thinking behind ending the ‘Dead’ series?
AMcK: “I never wanted to do a series. It was 50/50 that I would kill Michael at the end of book one, and 60/40 that I would kill him at the end of book three. In fact, if the trilogy ever gets brought together in one volume, I think as an appendix I’ll give the alternative endings for books one and three. I don’t like characters that live in this world and somehow survive everything that’s thrown at them. Most of the hoods I grew up with in North Belfast are either in prison, on parole (i.e. retired) or dead. Fictional characters who take hit after hit in book after book and don’t have nervous breakdowns are hard to take, so Michael either had to die or I had to stop writing about him, or both.”
DB: How did it feel to wave him goodbye?
AMcK: “I was depressed. I knew I could do a couple more things with him. I lived in the East End of London for a year and I would have loved to have brought Michael into that environment. I even had a title picked out, ENGLAND, YOUR ENGLAND, which is a riff on that Orwell essay about nuns cycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist. But on reflection I knew I couldn’t sustain my interest in the concept for a whole book. So I suppose ultimately it was relief that I was done with him.”
DB: Is that how the process starts, with a setting? Or is it a face, a name, an incident – what?
AMcK: “With DEAD I WELL MAY BE, THE DEAD YARD and THE BLOOMSDAY DEAD, I wrote the last chapter first and worked backwards. I knew the place I wanted to end up and I just had to get there.”
DB: THE BLOOMSDAY DEAD is the most overt example, but your novels are littered with literary references. How do you respond to the notion that the vast majority of crime fiction is deliberately, and unnecessarily, dumbed down?
AMcK: “There’s no reason to dumb down anything, especially in Ireland, where people read a lot. I had an editor at Simon & Schuster who always said that we should write for the lowest common denominator, eliminating words and references that the ordinary Joe wouldn’t get. I’ve never understood that. If you miss a reference you generally just skip it and move on, or if you’re curious you look it up. If the LCD rule were true, no one would read Thomas Pynchon and he’s a bestseller.”
DB: What are the best and worst aspects of writing crime fiction?
AMcK: “The downside is that you usually always have to kill someone. I’d really like to do a crime book where no one dies. I used to play [the computer games] ‘Halo’ and ‘Doom’ and attempt to get through the levels just by running past the bad guys without killing anyone. It was fun. And I like that French movie ‘Pickpocket’, where no one dies, but it’s still a very tense and exciting movie. And the best aspect of crime writing? You get to kill people! It’s great.”
DB: Everyone writes with an invisible presence peering over their shoulder at the page. Who’s looking over Adrian McKinty’s shoulder?
AMcK: “I suppose it would be the Platonic ideal version of myself, a more hardworking, dedicated me urging me on.”
DB: Who’s the one person, dead or alive, you’d like to ring up and say, “Man, I just read your new book and it’s a hell of a read”?
AMcK: “There’s a lot. I’d love to call up Jim Thompson and say, “Jim, don’t listen to the critics, or your publishers, or your wife, you’re bloody brilliant.” I’d tell Scott Fitzgerald “Lay off the booze, mate. Fifty years from now all those bestseller types are going to be forgotten but you are going to be more famous than ever.” I just read a book about Cuba that blew my mind, by Reinaldo Arenas, but unfortunately he died of AIDS a few years ago, I would love to have met him. Still alive – if they’d take my call, I’d ring Thomas Pynchon, Salman Rushdie and Ken Bruen.”
DB: Is there any one book you can remember reading in your youth and thinking, “Yeah, I’d like to be a writer”? Or was it a more gradual process?
“No, it was much more a gradual process, although Chandler and Hemmingway did get me very excited about the possibilities of fiction.”
DB: Okay, then – pretend for one moment that you have to be another writer, and assume responsibility for his or her canon of work. Who would it be, and why?
AMcK: “Cormac McCarthy (right) is such a bad ass. He’s followed his own rules, virtually invented his own genre and especially in his early Tennessee work he showed us a whole rich, complex world of Irish rednecks living in the mountains – people the rest of the US look at with contempt. I like his Texas stuff too, and although I wouldn’t want to appropriate his entire canon, if someday I could write a book half as good as BLOOD MERIDIAN I’d die a happy man. Last year he went on Oprah, which took the edge off his hipness for me, but I think I can blank that from my mind.”
DB: You teach to earn a living, which – given that you have a young family – very probably involves huge sacrifice on your and their behalf. What are the moments when you feel that that sacrifice is worth it?
AMcK: “Working for a living and hanging out with the kids when I get back home means that I basically have to write at night. It’s a drag but when I think of Faulkner shovelling coal in a power station or Henry Miller picking cigarette butts off the ground, I realise that I’ve actually got it pretty easy.”
DB: Ever wonder what your kids will think if they ever read your books?
AMcK: “Oh my God, the kids are barred from even looking at the covers for at least ten years. Torture, murder and violent death won’t be good for anyone’s sleep.”
DB: Does a writer have any responsibility regarding the morality (or otherwise) of his or her characters?
AMcK: “No. As Sam Goldywn said, if you want to send a message, get Western Union. Oscar Wilde demolished the idea that art has to be moral or uplifting. It doesn’t, it just has to be good. I’m much more offended by bad writing than by characters who do bad things. I’m also offended by poor fact-checking. THE DA VINCI CODE is a great example of both problems: ‘He entered Westminster Abbey, a church redolent with history including the marriage of Lady Diana and Prince Charles.’”
DB: Picture the scenario: a publisher introduces a series in which contemporary writers rewrite the classics for a modern audience. What work would you choose, and why?
AMcK: “Is Bond a classic? I’d love to do a Bond. I’d also love to do a Sherlock Holmes. It would be great to make Holmes a villain. I imagine him in the ’30s thinking, ‘That Oswald Mosley [notorious British Nazi sympathiser in the 1930s] is a jolly good chap.’ Could be hilarious.”
DB: Finally, a word or two about the upcoming FIFTY GRAND. What’s the skinny?
AMcK: FIFTY GRAND came about from an eye-opening visit to Cuba. I went there primarily to see some literary sights connected with Ernest Hemingway (right), Jose Marti and Garcia Lorca but I very quickly got sucked into the landscape and culture. The place really gets into your blood and I found that I couldn’t shake it, so I went back for a longer deeper visit. All island peoples are unique in their own way and coming from Ireland - which has a big neighbour right next door too - I think I appreciated Cuba’s problems without excusing the current regime who seemed to have screwed up the country in a spectacular way. Once I had the context and the geography, the story just flowed from there. I live in the mountains of Colorado so I thought it might be fun to take a Cuban cop and throw him way out of context ten thousand feet up in the snow.”
Adrian McKinty’s FIFTY GRAND will be published by Holt later this year.
“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.