“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, October 11, 2008

Nice-Nice Baby

One of the many cool things about Wednesday night's Noir at the Bar at Fergie's in Philly (yep, I'm only a week in the States and already I've gone native) was meeting Scott Phillips (right). I didn't realise that at the time, because at that point I'd never come across Scott Phillips' novel THE ICE HARVEST. Greg Gillespie of Port Richmond Books came to Fergie's and brought a crew along, which was also very cool, and told me that THE ICE HARVEST was a terrific novel. Okay, I'm thinking, yeah, maybe it is, although I hate it when someone praises a book too highly - I think I have an in-built resistance to being snowed that way. Anyway, with Scott having made the effort to come along to Fergie's, I bought a copy and had him sign it. Back at the hotel that night, a little worse for wear, I flipped open the first page just to get a feel for it ... Sixty pages later it's 3am and I'm thinking, this is so good I don't want to finish it all in one go. Truly wonderful stuff, with a deliciously light and deadpan style, it's a marvellous character study. I highly recommend it. Apparently there's a movie of the novel, starring John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton, and I don't know how that one slipped under the radar ... But the best news I've heard all weekend is that there's a follow-up to THE ICE HARVEST, called THE WALKAWAY. Happy days, people.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Yo, We Be Trippin'

Hi-ho for the uneagerly awaited account of John and Dec's Most Excellent Adventure, aka the road-trip John McFetridge and Declan Burke are taking all the way from Toronto to the crazy mayhem that is Bouchercon 2008. I'll skip all the maudlin and sentimental stuff about how lovely John's family were when I got to meet them all on Saturday evening, pausing only to note that the ever-radiant Mrs McFetridge outdid herself with her gifts for the Princess Lilyput. Mind you, I really don't know if I should be inflicting a Blue Jays romper suit on a little girl, even if it does come in a fetching pink with blue trim ...
Anyhoos, upward and onward to Sleuth of Baker Street on Sunday afternoon (John pictured right, ravening hordes just out of picture), where J.D. and Marian proved perfect hosts. And so they should, having had loads of practice - they've been running the place for 26 years. The highlight of the gig was the guy who'd travelled all the way from Ottowa to see John, a rather impressive dedication to the cause. A reading was arranged, mainly to a group of students who weren't particularly interested in the books or their authors, but who had a school paper to write on book readings. Oh, the glamour of it all ... Afterwards J.D. took us out for a bite to eat and a few beers, and some intense speculation as to the real identity of Inger Ash Wolfe. What's that you say? You don't give a rat's ass either? Okay, moving swiftly on ...
Next up on the itinerary was Brattleboro, Vermont, which necessitated a long, long drive and no little shenanigans at the border crossing, when it was discovered that the Grand Viz's passport lacked some little doohickey that the post-9/11 paranoia had deemed essential. Between you and me, they don't do irony at the U.S. / Canada border crossing. God only knows how much fun it is at the U.S. / Mexico crossing ...
Manfully we ploughed on, overnighting in the delightful Herkimer. Is there a more poignant sight than a rain-drenched motel parking lot at 4.30am, as seen through jet-lagged eyes? No? Didn't think so. Actually, we weren't too far from Cooperstown, which might have made for a diverting couple of hours, but even it's closed at 4.30am. In fact, the only thing open for business was my pesky brain, which had me reading HITLER'S IRISHMEN in the bathroom until about 6am. Like, I know travel is supposed to broaden the mind, but, y'know ...
Happily, Mystery on Main Street in Brattleboro was a real tonic for this particular trooper. First there was the drive down through God's Country, which was just starting to flicker into a variegated blaze of reds, oranges, yellows and browns. The Mohawk Valley was particularly nice, and especially as McFetridge told me that the Native Americans who got kicked off the land all those hundreds of years ago are buying back the Mohawk Valley piece by piece, with money they've snaffled from the morons who frequent their reservation-based casino. Nice. Anyhoos, Brattleboro itself was beautiful - "A college town without the college," as Mystery on Main Street's David Lampe-Wilson it. David put on a very impressive spread for lunch, and a total of three people turned up for our reading, none of whom was working on a term paper. One of them, Michael, claims Kerry roots, and has just won a prize in the Alfred Hitchcock short story magazine. Which was nice. David reckoned that THE BIG O had hit the Top 5 in the bookstore's best-sellers list the previous week, on account of the impressive cover. Erm, okay, but what about the bit that comes between the covers?
A couple of cool things about Brattleboro. One, there's an outstanding warrant for the arrest of George Bush and Dick Cheney. Two, I spotted an LP (LP!) of Robert Frost reading his own poetry for seven dollars in the window of a shop next door to Mystery on Main Street. Seven dollars? Yoink! Finally, David Lampe-Wilson is a wonderfully genial host, and Mystery on Main Street is a fabulous bookstore. If you live anywhere near Vermont, do yourself a favour and check it out ...
So now it's Monday afternoon and we're heading for New York, and everything is going swimmingly until we miss a turn and get lost somewhere on the Upper East Side. Or thereabouts. "Look, it's New York," I told John, "there'll be another turn coming along fairly soon. Oh, there's one. Try that." Funnily enough, NY being laid out on a grid, it's pretty much impossible to get lost. Highlight of the first night was sneaking into Barnes & Noble near Columbus Circle and discovering THE BIG O bold as brass in the 'New Mystery' section, and only two copies left on the shelf. Yep, you're right, they probably only ordered three copies. Still, it was a nice buzz ...
Tuesday we scammed a free lunch from the folks at Harcourt, and went looking for Otto Penzler's Mysterious Bookstore.
We didn't find it. That grid malarkey is fine if you're in a car but hell on the feet. So we went to an Irish bar and got twisted, then went to see the new Coen Brothers movie back on Columbus Circle. Not great, is it? What was great was Central Park, where yours truly cut loose and went all uber-tourist on my own ass, complete with what seemed like a jug of Starbucks latte. Hell, when in Rome, drink Starbucks ... Oh, and it's true what they say about post-9/11 NY. The folk are so friendly it's like the start of a 1950s sci-fi movie about pod people. It's scary, but very nice.
Wednesday we headed for Philly, where Peter Rozovsky had organised a 'Noir at the Bar' at Fergie's. But I'll let Peter tell you about that one, and I'll get back to you tomorrow with some stultifying info about all the lovely people I've met at the Bouchercon in Baltimore. Peace, people.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Big Audio Dynamite

Those of you who have wondered exactly how dulcet the Grand Vizier’s tones are need wonder no longer. For lo! The Critical Mickster has done us proud, as always, and hoisted an audio interview on his interweb malarkey – scroll down about halfway, and it’s there on the right-hand side. Or just clickety-click on this … It’s been a while since Mick conducted the interview, but if memory serves I’m waffling on about why Ruth ‘Cuddly’ Dudley-Edwards (right) is so cuddly, why Gene Kerrigan is the master of gritty Irish noir, and why everything is so blummin’ wonderful in the wonderful world of Irish crime fiction. Yep, business as usual, then …

The Bateman Cometh

Yours truly has a piece in the current Crimespree Magazine about yon handsome devil Colin Bateman (right), and it runneth thusly:
No Man Left Behind: Colin Bateman’s DIVORCING JACK
I was upstairs with a girl I shouldn’t have been upstairs with when my wife whispered in my ear. ‘You have twenty-four hours to move out.’”
  Colin Bateman, Divorcing Jack
In the rush to celebrate John Connolly, Ken Bruen, Tana French, Declan Hughes and all the other leading lights of the current explosion in Irish crime fiction, one name is notable by its absence, in the U.S. at least.
  Colin Bateman (or simply ‘Bateman’, according to last year’s re-branding) didn’t kick-start the current vogue for Irish crime writing – Patrick McGinley published Bogmail back in 1978, for example, while crime novels by Vincent McDonnell, Bartholomew Gill, S.J. Michaels, Jim Lusby, Eugene McEldowney, Jack Holland and Peter Cunningham were all in print before Bateman’s debut, DIVORCING JACK, appeared in 1995.
  But what Bateman achieved with Divorcing Jack was phenomenal. Not only did he advance the notion that Irish crime fiction could be both popular and profitable, particularly when the movie of the same name, starring David Thewlis and Rachel Griffiths, appeared in 1998, he managed the nigh-impossible: a comedy crime narrative set in war-torn Belfast at the height of ‘the Troubles’.
  His hero – and I use the term loosely – is Dan Starkey, a cynical, wise-cracking alcoholic journalist who gets sucked into a murder mystery when a drunken encounter with a young woman, Margaret, comes to an abrupt end when Margaret is murdered. It’s not a unique set-up, and neither is Starkey a unique character. What made DIVORCING JACK such a trail-blazer was its backdrop, the meaner-than-mean streets of Belfast.
  McEldowney, Holland, Cunningham and Michaels had all set their crime narratives with ‘the Troubles’ for a backdrop, but Bateman was different.
  If this guy can generate a contemporary, relevant and – crucially – funny novel in that setting, thought a hundred wannabe writers, then what’s stopping me?
  That’s certainly the thought that occurred to me over and over again as I read it.
  Ireland, you see, takes its books very seriously. From an early age Irish writers are acutely aware of the burden of responsibility of living up to the legacy of Joyce, Beckett, Shaw, O’Casey, et al. For such a small country, Ireland has had a disproportionate number of Nobel Prize winners for literature. And for a young writer, that’s a hell of a Swedish monkey on your back.
  Colin Bateman offered a way out. DIVORCING JACK was rooted in Belfast the way Samson and Goliath are, those cranes that rear up out of the Harland and Wolff shipyards to tower above the city and testify to Belfast’s past as an industrial hub of the British Empire. Starkey, born, bred and buttered in Belfast, was nonetheless a creature of his time, aware of the potential for irony in the ongoing conflict, and – again, crucially – acutely aware of his cultural heritage as a reluctant private eye.
  He was quintessentially Irish in his attitudes, his dialogue and his predilection for gloom and despair. But he was fuelled and informed by the American crime novel and movie, particularly the pulp noir of Cain and Thompson, Chandler and Leonard.
  Bateman wasn’t simply mocking the prejudices of Belfast, or those of the stuffy literary set for whom a novel wasn’t a novel without at least one ineluctable modality to its name. He seemed to be mocking Irishness itself, that narcissistic and self-defeating sense of parochial self-importance that had hobbled and blinkered one generation after another.
  Some might argue that perhaps that attitude of self-celebration was a necessary reaction to centuries of colonial oppression. ‘The English gave us a language,’ ran the Irish saying, ‘and we gave them back a literature’. Of course, as is almost inevitably the case, the arrogance masked a debilitating inferiority complex.
  DIVORCING JACK struck a defiant note. It was Irish, certainly, and unmistakably and hilariously so; Dan Starkey is one of the great rebels of Irish writing. Intrinsic to his cultural hinterland, and yet wearing his country’s recent history like a hair-shirt, his is a prickly, goading, questioning voice. And the most important question is the implicit one, the question that informs the entire subtext of DIVORCING JACK: why did Irish crime writers take it as an article of faith that they weren’t good enough to compete on an international level?
  It should be noted too that DIVORCING JACK is a courageous novel. It’s a little easier now to poke fun at the tensions that caused the ‘the Troubles’, and at the paramilitaries on both sides who bombed and tortured an entire generation. But the novel appeared the year before the great watershed of the first IRA ceasefire of the interminably long ‘Peace Process’, at a time when irony was in very scare supply on the streets of Belfast.
  In doing so it blazed a wide trail down which many followed, among them your humble correspondent. DIVORCING JACK gave me the confidence to set EIGHTBALL BOOGIE, a Chandler homage, in a small Irish town, and to use the demilitarisation of Northern Ireland’s paramilitaries, and their diversification into more prosaic crime, as a backdrop.
  Colin Bateman has had a long and successful career in Ireland and the UK; excluding his YA novels, and his prolific output for TV, he has had 18 novels published. He failed to ‘take’ in the U.S. during the mid- to late-nineties, but perhaps the U.S. simply wasn’t ready then for an Irish blend of Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler and Carl Hiassen.
  He is long overdue a serious reappraisal. – Declan Burke


This article was first published in Crimespree Magazine.