“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.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Movies And Shakers

Irish movies are, for the most part, a load of pants. There are good reasons for this, not least of which is the all-important issue of finance, or lack thereof, but as often as not hamstrung from the off by scripts that are – there’s no gentle way of putting it – not good. In the past couple of weeks alone I’ve seen Situations Vacant and Happy Ever Afters, both of which appear to have been written by people who haven’t seen a movie since the mid-’70s.
  That said, this week sees released on DVD two Irish movies that at the very least tried to shake things up for the indigenous film industry, although I’ll allow that I’m biased towards Anton (2008) because I know one of the producers. Still, for a movie that was independently made, and for a budget of around €500,000, it’s a minor triumph. To wit:
Ireland, 1970s. Returning home to County Cavan after five years at sea, Anton O’Neill (Anthony Fox) finds himself sucked into the Troubles that have erupted across the border in Northern Ireland. A political innocent, he becomes a pawn in the hands of ruthless terrorists, all the while striving to stay one step ahead of the hardboiled Detective Lynch (Gerard McSorley). With a baby on the way, Anton has big decisions to make – but he’s quickly discovering that sometimes it’s the decisions that make you. Made on a miniscule budget, Anton at times displays the kind of naïveté that bedevils Anton himself, and some of the dialogue is unforgivably clunky. For all that, and particularly given its humble origins, the movie represents something of a call to arms to the indigenous film industry, especially in the context of the series of more lavishly funded and abysmally executed Irish movies we’ve been subjected to in the last couple of years. Vivid cinematography and strong performances in the key roles make for a compelling drama, with Fox (who also wrote the script) marking himself out as a name to watch.
  Re-released this week is Adam & Paul (2004), which may well be the best Irish movie ever made. To wit:
Lenny Abrahamson’s Adam & Paul is a rough diamond that follows ‘dying sick’ junkies Adam (Mark O’Halloran) and Paul (Tom Murphy) on their day-long purgatory through inner-city Dublin as they try to beg, borrow, scam or steal the money that will get them their next fix, with only an occasional toke to take the edge off. If that sounds like a bleak prospect, then be assured that script-writer O’Halloran has read and appreciated Beckett for his combination of black despair and blacker humour: rather than wait around for the elusive Godot, our latter-day Pozzo and Lucky tramp the streets in a Ulysses-style odyssey, encountering various friends, enemies and (for the most part) people who veer clear. Abrahamson makes wonderful use of Dublin’s grimmer environs, O’Halloran has a wonderful ear for vernacular dialogue, and the central roles are excellently played, with Murphy just about claiming the laurels. Hauntingly dark and frequently touching, Adam and Paul is also hilarious: when the pair mistake a Bulgarian (Caramitru) on a park bench for a Romanian refugee, the enraged Bulgarian denounces Dublin as ‘a shit-hole’ on the basis that the city is full of “maniacs, liars and fucking Romanians.” Assured and provocative, albeit indulgently sympathetic to its characters’ addiction, this as good a film as you’ll see all year.

Friday, December 4, 2009

“Ya Wanna Do It Here Or Down The Station, Punk?”: Brendan Garner

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?
SACRIFICE OF FOOLS by Ian McDonald. It’s a fascinating crime and science fiction crossover set in a futuristic Northern Ireland. Well, futuristic when it was written. We’ve caught up with it now. But even reading it today it can be very cool to see how many of McDonald’s ideas and predictions on Belfast society have come true. Only thing missing is the aliens ... so far.

What fictional character would you most like to have been?
Faust. I’d have driven a harder bargain, though.

Who do you read for guilty pleasures?
Conspiracy websites.

Most satisfying writing moment?
Starting a brand new project.

The best Irish crime novel is …?
That’s a tough one. There are so many. I’ll go with PRIEST by Ken Bruen, though I may change my mind when I read the next Jack Taylor. I hear it’s got some supernatural stuff in it ...

What Irish crime novel would make a great movie?
DEAD I WELL MAY BE by Adrian McKinty. I imagine the soundtrack would kick ass too.

Worst / best thing about being a writer?
The worst thing is that you can’t experience anything without wondering how you might use it in a piece of writing. The best thing is that it drives you to try new stuff because you need to have life experience before you can write what you know (to whatever degree you follow that idea).

The pitch for your next book is …?
I’ll work on that when it’s ready for submission.

Who are you reading right now?
John Connolly’s THE GATES. It’s class.

God appears and says you can only write OR read. Which would it be?
As long as he doesn’t make this crazy demand before I sell my soul to become an internationally acclaimed novelist, he won’t have enough clout to force a decision.

The three best words to describe your own writing are …?
Good aul craic.

Brendan Garner’s POSSESSION, OBSESSION AND A DIESEL COMPRESSION ENGINE is available now.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Irish Crime Novel Of The Year: And The Winner Is …

Last week I mentioned that I’d asked as many Irish crime writers as I know to vote on their favourite novel(s) of the year, in 1-2-3 order, with each first preference getting 10 points, second getting five points, and third preference getting one point. The results are as follows:
THE TWELVE by Stuart Neville (32)
THE LOVERS by John Connolly (21)
DARK TIMES IN THE CITY by Gene Kerrigan (17)
WINTERLAND by Alan Glynn (15)
ALL THE DEAD VOICES by Declan Hughes (15)
FIFTY GRAND by Adrian McKinty (11)
  Personally, I think all six are terrific novels, and I’m not just woofing: I think that any country, regardless of its size, should be proud of producing six novels of that quality (in any genre or none) in a given year. The bar has been well and truly raised, and it augurs well for 2010.
  One point I think worth making is that Alan Glynn’s WINTERLAND was published only three weeks ago, which meant that it was unfairly handicapped by time. Had it had a six-month run, as most of the other novels had, I believe it would have received more votes.
  It’s also worth mentioning that Stuart Neville is the only debutant author on the shortlist of six, which makes his win even more impressive. I say ‘impressive’ not because the poll was organised through Crime Always Pays, which makes it a small enough thing in itself, but because it was voted top of the pile by his peers, which – were it me – would give the gong a priceless value.
  Finally, there’s a prize going for those who guessed the right 1-2-3 order via the comment box on the post announcing the shortlist, and while no one got it exactly right, I believe that ‘Bill H’ and ‘Speccy’ came closest in that they both predicted THE TWELVE would win, and also mentioned THE LOVERS in their Top 3. If those folks want to drop me a line letting me know their address, some books will be in the post forthwith.
  Thanks to everyone who joined in the fun, and congratulations to Stuart Neville, a thoroughly well-deserved winner of the 2009 Irish Crime Novel of the Year.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Deadlier Than The Male

Yes, yes, 2009 was a terrific year for the Irish crime novel, blah-de-blah. But it was all a bit, well … blokey. Next year, the ladies are back with a vengeance – literally, in some cases. Arlene Hunt has just posted the very snazzy cover to her latest tome, BLOOD MONEY, in which Sarah Kenny and John Quigley of QuicK Investigations are back in business – albeit without the missing Sarah. Can John cope? Given the man’s previous form, I have my doubts, but all will be revealed on March 4th …
  Tana French is also back in the game next year, after a year out, with FAITHFUL PLACE. This one features Frank Mackey, the handler who ‘ran’ Cassie Maddox in THE LIKENESS, and is another sequel-of-sorts in the sense that it develops a relatively minor character from a previous novel into a main protagonist. “This one spins around family,” says Tana, “the way THE LIKENESS spun around identity.” Nice. The bad news? It isn’t due until July 13th … Boo.
  Aifric Campbell’s debut THE SEMANTICS OF MURDER was well received as a literary thriller when it appeared last year: “A storyteller of really immense gifts. She combines a unique sensibility with a prose of shimmering beauty,” said Joseph O’Connor. So hopes are high for the follow-up, THE LOSS ADJUSTOR, which arrives on February 25th. Details are still sketchy on the content, with Amazon’s book description contenting itself with, “Haunting and humane, THE LOSS ADJUSTOR speaks of grief, forgiveness and redemption.” Consider our breath well and truly bated …
  Busily beavering away over in Clare’s beautiful Burren, Cora Harrison appears to have grown an extra arm or three. Not only will she be publishing EYE OF THE LAW on March 25th, the latest in the Brehon series featuring the investigator Mara, she’ll also be publishing the YA novels I WAS JANE AUSTEN’S BEST FRIEND, also in March, and THE MONTGOMERY MURDER, in May. Crikey. That makes me feel like the laziest slacker in Christendom …
  There’s at least one debutant next year, when Niamh O’Connor publishes IF I NEVER SEE YOU AGAIN, a police procedural featuring Detective Inspector Jo Birmingham – although, to be strictly pedantic about it, O’Connor has published a number of true crime books to date. Will her day job as a crime reporter with the Sunday World give her a cutting edge when it comes to crime fic? Only time, that notoriously doity rat, will tell … IF I NEVER SEE YOU AGAIN appears on April 29th.
  Ava McCarthy debuted last year with THE INSIDER, and the follow-up, THE COURIER, again features that novel’s protagonist, feisty IT girl Harry Martinez. Last time out, Harry’s trials took her from Dublin to the Caribbean; this time she’s off to South Africa and the illegal diamond trade for her most audacious heist to date. THE COURIER delivers on April 15th …
  Another McCarthy, this one of the Ellen variety, publishes SILENT CROSSING on December 20th, a follow-up (but not a sequel) to 2008’s GUILT RIDDEN. Melanie is a woman with blood on her hands (literally, as she walks into a Garda Station) and a missing boyfriend. But the secrets of Raven House mean that nothing is as it first appears …
  Lastly, but by no means leastly, Alex Barclay returns to the fray with TAINTED, a follow-up to BLOOD RUNS COLD which features FBI agent Ren Bryce and is again set in Colorado. BLOOD RUNS COLD won the inaugural TV3 / Irish Book Awards crime fiction gong, so expectations are higher than usual. TAINTED hits a shelf near you in the near future, although confusion reigns as to exactly when: according to some sources it’s today, December 1st, but others are saying it’s as far away as next October. Can anyone out there clarify?

Monday, November 30, 2009

I’ve Seen The Future, Baby, It Is Murder …

For all my recent piffling about quitting as a writer, it was still something of a shock to see my picture in yesterday’s Sunday Times’ Culture section (Irish edition) with the caption ‘ex-novelist Burke’. Mind you, as my lovely wife pointed out, at least I’ll be able to show it to the grandkids to prove that I’m not some senile old fool when I wibble on about the halcyon days when I used to be a writer.
  I write theatre reviews for the Irish Culture section most weeks, and very enjoyable work it is too. The editor of the Culture section was kind enough to get in touch last week to say that he’d read the post on the blog about my quitting the writing game, and wondering if I’d be interested in turning it into an article. I didn’t want to write a me-me-me piece, even if my experience of the last few years was the hook, so I suggested we make it an article about how 2009 was an excellent year for the Irish crime novel, but that forces beyond the control of the writers could mean that the future isn’t as bright as it could or should be. Basically, I didn’t want the piece to read as a bilious case of sour grapes.
  The piece that appeared yesterday (no link) was pretty much the one I submitted, although it had been subbed to give it a punchier opening, and the last two paragraphs were gone, presumably because they were weak and sentimental and because I had already made the relevant point. (This, of course, is pertinent writing advice: perhaps if my books had had punchier openings and stronger endings, I wouldn’t be ‘ex-novelist Burke’.) Anyway, the piece as it appeared yesterday comes below, and – because I’m weak and sentimental – I’ve included the excised final paragraphs beneath. To wit:
This year has been a vintage one for the Irish crime novel, as writers tackle our post-boom neuroses. But it could become a high water mark, too, warns the retiring Declan Burke

Few literary agents come much bigger or more influential than Darley Anderson, and few have keener snouts for new talent. Twenty years ago, when he was getting his agency off the ground, he signed the unpublished Martina Cole and set about turning the thriller writer into a bestseller. Eleven years ago, he secured an advance of £350,000 for John Connolly’s debut novel, Every Dead Thing, the then 29-year-old Dublin crime writer having been rejected by half a dozen publishers before he approached Anderson. For reasons such as these, the publishing world listens when Anderson speaks.
  It’s especially depressing, therefore, to see what Anderson looks for in authors, which he outlined in candid terms to a publishing trade journal last month: plot first, characters second. “Good writing is the last thing,” said Anderson, “and we can work with authors on that.”
  The success of his stable of writers is testament to the wisdom of Anderson’s approach, but is formula is a depressing one for anyone who appreciates good crime writing. Plot and character are the staples of any good genre novel, but they are equally integral to movies, plays and even computer games. In reducing the crime novel to its most basic building blocks, and marginalising the author’s voice, Anderson is doing what the market requires. Artistry is an option extra that can be applied if and when necessary.
  Many in the new generation of Irish crime writers have taken a different tack. There is no school of Irish crime writing, but writers such as Gene Kerrigan, Alan Glynn, Declan Hughes and Stuart Neville have something in common in the way they have looked for cues to America, where noir novels take inspiration from the trinity of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, writers for whom matters of style were inextricably linked with matters of content. Their novels sold to a mass market but they also came to be recognised as works of art, and as having something to say about the societies in which they were set.
  In what may well come to be regarded as the watershed year for Irish crime fiction, Kerrigan, Hughes, Glynn and Neville this year published books that straddle the line between crime fiction ‘entertainments’, as Graham Greene referred to his crime narratives, and the social, or realist, novel. Political corruption, the fall-out from Northern Ireland’s Peace Process and the parlay of paramilitary gains into socially acceptable wealth were some of the themes explored. Angry, fresh and bracingly polemical, the novels are important contributions to our attempt to understand who we are and where we are going.
  They have a fair wind behind them. Writing about crime has become increasingly popular in Ireland over the last decade, and particularly in the last five years or so. The seismic shudders generated by the murder of Veronica Guerin shouldn’t be discounted, but the post-Troubles fall-out, the economic boom, an increasing urban anonymity and the commercial success of ‘chick lit’ have all contributed to a growing number of writers utilising crime narratives to tell their stories about modern Ireland.
  Connolly, who sets his supernatural thrillers in Maine, blazed a trail in the U.S. that Ken Bruen and Tana French have followed. There are movies being made from Irish crime novels, and awards are being won. Literary authors such as John Banville and Eoin McNamee write crime fiction under nom-de-plumes. All told, 2010 should be the year in which the Irish crime novel finally breaks out onto the international stage.
  If it does – and I hope it does – I won’t be along for the ride. Last month, and despite having two published novels under my belt (Eightball Boogie in 2003 and The Big O in 2007) I decided to hang up the gumshoes and abandon crime fiction. The problems of any struggling writer don’t amount to a hill of beans, but there can come a point, especially with a young family and a hefty mortgage, when the rational decision is to withdraw.
  For most aspiring writers, the business of writing involves working two to four hours per day, five or six days per week, all in the quixotic hope that someone, somewhere will like your book enough to pay you an advance that is enough, if you’re lucky, to pay two months’ worth of mortgage. Any business requires sacrifices to make it a success, but if you’re a writer, you’re asking others to make those sacrifices on your behalf, and that can come to seem wrongheaded, or worse, when you’re taking large chunks of time to write books that the market doesn’t want.
  Any sensible reflection on failure involves the realisation that, for one reason or another, one simply wasn’t up to delivering what was required. My problem, according to various rejection letters, was that my books aren’t big enough. By big, publishers mean books that will translate to an international audience and be easily adaptable for the movie screen. Ireland, in its post-Troubles, post-boom incarnation, is fertile ground for a writer, particularly given the prevalence of both blue- and white-collar crime, but the advice I’m being given is that Irish-set crime novels simply don’t have the appeal to cut it on the global stage.
  It’s not just me. In the last week alone I’ve had conversations with two well-respected and well-reviewed Irish crime writers, both of whom were pessimistic about their immediate futures because their books simply aren’t selling; one has already made the decision to stop writing. Their loss would not only impact on the potential of the Irish crime novel, it would raise a serious question mark as to whether the Irish crime novel can continue to generate the kind of momentum that would see it reach a tipping point of market acceptance.
  There are reasons for optimism. Hughes’s The Price of Blood was this year shortlisted for the Mystery Writers of America’s prestigious Edgar award in the U.S., while Kerrigan’s Dark Times in the City was nominated for the CWA Gold Dagger award in Britain. A fortnight ago, Neville’s debut The Twelve received top billing in the New York Times’ weekly review of crime fiction. Glynn’s recent release, Winterland, has been widely praised by reviewers.
  As any writer will tell you, however, you can’t eat good reviews. In any case, a review is just one person’s opinion. While Neville’s novel was recently praised by a South African reviewer for how it dealt with post-conflict politics, Hughes’s was given a negative verdict by a New Zealand reviewer on the basis that raking over the Troubles is in nobody’s interest. It’s telling, too, that Neville’s novel was published under its original title, The Ghosts of Belfast, in the U.S., but was rebranded for the British market because of perceived apathy or even antipathy to anything related to Northern Ireland.
  The next few years will be crucial for the development of the Irish crime novel. Are our stories big enough to compete on the international stage? Connolly sets novels in the U.S., and Bruen has recently taken to setting his standalone works in America too. Adrian McKinty’s most recent offering, Fifty Grand, was set in Cuba and Colorado, while Alex Barclay’s Blood Runs Cold, and her forthcoming Black Run, are also set in Colorado. French has proved that Irish-set crime novels can be both international best-sellers and award winners, but on current form she is very much the exception to the rule.
  Right now there is a very real danger that what appears to be the Irish crime novel’s annus mirabilis will in fact come to be seen as the high-water mark from which the tide rolled back, leaving some very fine writers high and dry.
  It’s a Catch-22 situation: to survive in the current publishing climate, Irish authors will have to write the big novels that publishers want; but doing so means they will no longer be writing the novels that made this year such a stand-out for the Irish crime novel. – Declan Burke
  So there you have it. Not just sour grapes, but dog-in-a-manger to boot.
  Finally, those excised concluding paragraphs in full:
  Not every author will change course or stop writing, of course. Many will persevere despite their economic circumstances and the lack of commercial success. Some will do so because they have no choice but to write the kind of novels they do. Personally, I hope they survive and thrive, because the realist literature being created by the new wave of Irish crime novelists is too important to be allowed wither away.
  That said, it would be a terrible pity if, having as a nation finally matured beyond Seamus Heaney’s “Whatever you say, say nothing” to broach the taboos that have historically blighted Irish society, we were to be left with “Whatever you say, keep it yourselves.”

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Nobody Move, This Is A Review: THE DARK PLACE By Sam Millar

Garbhan Downey gets in touch, not to promote his current tome, THE WAR OF THE BLUE ROSES, as you might expect, but to ask if I’d be interested in running a review of fellow Norn Ironer Sam Millar’s THE DARK PLACE. The answer is yes, and thank you kindly, sir, and the review runneth thusly:
THE DARK PLACE by Sam Millar (Brandon Press)

Little children look away now.
  There’s a tagline running across the back of Belfast writer Sam Millar’s new crime novel, THE DARK PLACE, which I really hope isn’t true. It reads: “While most writers sit in their study and make it up, Sam Millar has lived it ...” For no-one, but no-one, deserves the type of punishment Sam metes out to his detective hero Karl Kane in this darkest of tales.
  Kane is beaten to near-death twice, force-fed narcotics, raped by a crazed (and possibly venereal) vamp, cuckolded by at least one partner, and then blown up in an underground tunnel.
  The people around him don’t fare much better either – his daughter is kidnapped by a particularly monstrous serial killer, his father develops late-onset Alzheimer’s and his best friend gets his throat slit helping our man track down the villain ...
  But for all the gore, Millar is a riveting story-teller, leading the reader from crisis to catastrophe at a frenetic pace. And he skilfully punctures the darkness with moments of sharp humour too, getting great mileage out of Kane’s bawdy relationship with his new girlfriend. Indeed, the sarcastically suggestive pre-coital interchanges between Kane and Naomi are as highly charged as anything Chandler or Hammett ever scripted.
  Like Marlowe, Kane has a touch of the white knight about him, and his idealism – and refusal to do the wrong thing – saves the book from its occasional lurches into horror-schlock. Indeed, if the book has a failing, it is that Millar has an inclination to lay it on too thick.
  But then, what do I know? I sit in the study and make it up. Sam, I suspect, while he mightn’t have lived all of it, certainly has spent a lot more time in dark places than me.
  If ever a novel were aptly named. - Garbhan Downey

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The ‘Crime Always Pays’ Irish Crime Novel Of The Year: The Shortlist

A trumpet parp there, please, maestro …
  Last week (or maybe the week before) I posted about the inaugural but rather less than prestigious ‘Crime Always Pays’ Irish Crime Novel of the Year Award, which was, above all else, designed to remind people of how many excellent Irish crime novels were published in 2009. If memory serves (although more often than not, it stands and waits), the post involved detailing a forthcoming shortlist and what were in retrospect horribly complicated voting procedures. By which I mean, of course, that the voting would have been fairly straightforward, but the collating and counting would have been unnecessarily time-consuming for yours truly.
  Anyway, to cut a long story short, I cheated, and went with a system akin to that of the Professional Football Association’s ‘Player of the Year’ award, in which the players themselves vote on the best player. To that end, I contacted as many Irish crime writers as I know, and asked them to nominate their best Irish novels of the year, and preferably in the order of 1-2-3. Each ‘1’ vote gets 10 points, each ‘2’ vote gets five points, and a ‘3’ vote gets one point.
  The votes are still coming in, but already a pattern has emerged. It’s tight: to date only six novels have been nominated, and the one currently in first place has 32 points, while the one in sixth place has 16 points, a very narrow spread that confirms the quality of the books involved. So – if you’re an Irish crime writer who received a ‘voting’ email, and you haven’t yet voted, please crack on. I’ll be posting the results on this coming Friday, December 4th, and your vote – yes, YOURS! – could make all the difference.
  For the non-writers among you, I’d mentioned in the original post that whoever predicted the 1-2-3 in correct order would go into a hat for a draw for a bundle of rather fine Irish crime novels. The ‘shortlist’ – aka the list of six novels already nominated – runneth thusly, in alphabetical order (by author):
John Connolly – THE LOVERS
Alan Glynn – WINTERLAND
Declan Hughes – ALL THE DEAD VOICES
Gene Kerrigan – DARK TIMES IN THE CITY
Adrian McKinty – FIFTY GRAND
Stuart Neville – THE TWELVE
  If you want to be in with a chance of winning said bundle of novels, leave your 1-2-3 predictions in the comment box below before noon on Thursday, December 3rd. Et bon chance, mes amis …
  I haven’t voted myself, by the way, and won’t be, simply because I know a few of the Irish writers at this point, and there’s a very great danger I’d be biased in favour of those.
  One last thing: I didn’t say anything in the ‘voting’ email I sent out about writers being precluded from voting for themselves, on the basis that to do so would be to insult their intelligence. Happily, no one has voted for his or her own book. Frankly, I’m not surprised.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Pin ’Em Up, I Say – Pin ’Em Up!

I was pondering aloud on these pages last weekend about how best to ‘market’ Irish crime fiction, as is my wont, which was enough to get the inimitable Joe Long, Irish crime fic fan and bon viveur about NY town, tossing his two cents into the ring. To wit:
“I know how Irish crime writers can get Irish people to buy books. Just start an Irish crime writers calendar. Proceeds will go to charity. The more you show the more the calendars you will sell. The picture taken for each month would have copies of the respective author’s books covering – shall we say – strategic spots. Now, you would have to convince the female contingent to get on board, but a man with your charm should not have a problem. Obviously, you, Declan [Hughes], John [Connolly] and Brian [McGilloway] would have to be buried in months no one cares about. But Arlene Hunt and Alex Barclay – Christmas and Summer – there you go.”
  So there you have it: a sexy Irish crime writers calendar. Personally, I think you’d be quicker trying to sell sexy Irish crime writer colanders, but that’s just me. Any takers?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Gospel According To Genre

There was a good piece in Publishers Weekly titled ‘Breaking the Wall’, in which a variety of crime writers discuss what Michael Connelly describes as the ‘membrane’ (as opposed to ‘wall’) between genre and literary fiction. For my money, Tana French (right) nails it to the wall:
“When you’re working to make a sentence as perfect as it can be,” says French, “or to make a character real and vivid and three-dimensional, how and whether you do that isn’t dependent on where the book will be shelved.”
  Well said, that woman. Mind you, Tana is one of those writers for whom style appears to be every bit as important as plot or character. Could it be a coincidence that IN THE WOODS and THE LIKENESS are award-winning best-sellers? Erm, probably not …
  It’s also true that Ireland has its fair share of ‘literary crime fiction’: John Banville’s THE BOOK OF EVIDENCE and THE UNTOUCHABLE, Flann O’Brien’s THE THIRD POLICEMAN, Pat McCabe’s THE BUTCHER BOY, Eoin McNamee’s RESURRECTION MAN (and others), Brian Moore’s THE COLOUR OF BLOOD (and others), Liam O’Flaherty’s THE INFORMER and THE ASSASSIN, David Park’s THE TRUTH COMMISSIONER, Kevin Power’s BAD DAY IN BLACKROCK, Gerard Donovan’s JULIUS WINSOME, Edna O’Brien’s IN THE FOREST (and others) … It’s a long and noble tradition.
  Okay, your turn. Your favourite ‘literary crime fiction’ is ...

Monday, November 23, 2009

Oi, Kids – Go Play In The Traffic

It were all fields round here when I were a boy, and where it weren’t, we used to play football on the street, with special rules to allow for passing traffic. No one I knew was ever killed that way, and occasionally diving out of the way of juggernauts gave you a body swerve Georgie Best would’ve given his left liver for.
  All of which is a long-winded way of saying that kids are tougher than we think, and that the desire to protect kids (especially from themselves) has grown out of all proportion to the real dangers that exist. That’s a bit rich coming from someone who has adapted the last line of the Rock-a-Bye-Baby lullaby to ‘Down will come baby / Daddy break your fall,’ so thankfully John Connolly is on hand, courtesy of the Brisbane Times, to lend a bit of perspective to the debate, and particularly the part of the debate that centres on what kids should or shouldn’t be reading. In a piece titled, ‘Why It’s Good to Terrify Children’, JC ruminates thusly:
“Like a lot of boys, I was curious about the darkness, and I quite liked being scared a little, as long as I was in control of the medium.
  “I can’t ever remember closing a book because it frightened me, but there were a couple that I tended not to read when alone in the house, or when I was sitting up in bed at night. After all, I might have been adventurous when it came to my literary tastes, but I wasn’t stupid.
  “Recently I have been put in the unfamiliar position of having to defend my latest book, THE GATES, from accusations that it may be a bit frightening for younger readers who don’t get out enough …
  “When the Victorians bowdlerised the fables, removing much of the violence and peril, and indeed the punishments visited on the wrongdoers at the end, they took away their power and their purpose. Without terror they have no meaning.”
  The scariest book I read as a kid was the Illustrated Bible, especially the bit where Herod slaughtered all the babies. That and the crucifixion. When you’re a kid, and you realise that this is what they do to the good guy … that’s pretty damn scary.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Sharpest O’Toole In The Box

There was an interesting piece on Irish crime fiction from Fintan O’Toole (right) in yesterday’s Irish Times, in which he referenced Declan Hughes, Gene Kerrigan and Alan Glynn as exemplars of ‘the nearest thing we have to a realist literature adequate to capturing the nature of contemporary society …’. The gist runneth thusly:
“It is striking that the most successful Irish crime writer, John Connolly, who began his career just a decade ago, felt it necessary to set his books in the US and to insert himself directly into the American detective tradition. Connolly presumably decided that Ireland, even in the Celtic Tiger years, was not the place for crime fiction. Yet it is equally striking that in the last few years, Irish-set crime writing has not merely begun to blossom but has become arguably the nearest thing we have to a realist literature adequate to capturing the nature of contemporary society …
  “If that were the whole story, however, what we’d be getting now would be simply a local version of the established international genre. That we’re getting something rather more interesting than that is suggested by two intriguing ways in which the best writing is inflected by older Irish traditions …
  “In creating an Ireland with no faith in authority and no belief that the bad guys will be vanquished by naming their names, they get closer to reality than most literary fiction has managed.”
  The piece is short but it is wide-ranging enough to touch on the perversity of the Irish crime narrative, beginning with JM Synge’s play ‘The Playboy of the Western World’, in which the ‘murderer’ is not only discovered very early on in the story, but spends most of his time protesting his ‘guilt’, to no avail. In offering reasons for why the traditional crime novel didn’t find its place in Ireland until recently, however, O’Toole doesn’t mention the post-colonial Irish attitude summed up by Seamus Heaney’s phrase, “Whatever you say / Say nothing.” In Ireland, everyone loves to tell a story, but no one wants to be thought an informant. Hence the power of Liam O’Flaherty’s proto-noir THE INFORMER, a claustrophobic tale of treachery and insufferable guilt and the consequences of betrayal, a Greek tragedy set in Dublin’s red-light district and written in the brusque, staccato style that Dashiell Hammett would later pioneer in the U.S. (THE INFORMER was published in 1925).
  All in all, O’Toole’s is a thought-provoking piece, and could well prove a quantum leap in the ongoing struggle for the Irish crime novel to gain traction with the Irish reading public. Fintan O’Toole is one of the most clear-eyed observers among the Irish intelligentsia (he recently published SHIP OF FOOLS: HOW STUPIDITY AND CORRUPTION SANK THE CELTIC TIGER) and his tacit approval certainly won’t do Declan Hughes, Gene Kerrigan and Alan Glynn any harm.
  Naturally, given that the piece appeared shortly after yours truly went public with his decision to pack in the writing career, I’m a little sceptical about the prospects for the Irish crime novel. But it’s not just me: this week just gone by, I had conversations with two very fine Irish crime writers, both of whom were very pessimistic about the publishing industry in general, and Irish crime fiction in particular. Put bluntly, and despite high-profile awards and awards nominations for the likes of Connolly, Hughes, Ken Bruen, Tana French, Gene Kerrigan, Ruth Dudley Edwards and Brian McGilloway in recent years, Irish crime novels don’t sell, either in Ireland or (crucially) abroad. Without knowing exact figures, John Connolly is probably the exception to this rule, as he is to most rules - and apologies to any writer mentioned who is, in fact, rolling in dosh.
  Next year will see no less than three movies based on Ken Bruen novels hit the big screen, and – all going well – filming begin on Alan Glynn’s THE DARK FIELDS. On the surface, things appear to be going swimmingly for Irish crime writers, and it was heart-warming to see Stuart Neville’s THE GHOSTS OF BELFAST (aka THE TWELVE) get top billing in Marilyn Stasio’s NYT column last week. This year has been a terrific year for Irish crime writing: along with Connolly, Kerrigan, Glynn and Hughes, Fintan O’Toole could quite easily, given his terms of reference, have mentioned the likes of Adrian McKinty, Colin Bateman, Alex Barclay, Stuart Neville, Brian McGilloway, Ken Bruen, Ava McCarthy, Garbhan Downey and Sam Millar, and that’s in a year when we didn’t have any books from Arlene Hunt, Julie Parsons, Benjamin Black or Tana French. It was also the year when the Irish crime novel got its own category at the Irish Book Awards, with Alex Barclay the inaugural winner.
  All of which seems overwhelmingly positive, and a rising tide lifts all boats, but I can’t help wondering if Fintan O’Toole’s piece won’t come to be seen as the high-water mark of the Irish crime novel – usually, mainstream media picking up on a trend means sounding its death-knell. I certainly hope it doesn’t, because, leaving aside the fact that most of the writers mentioned above write well-written entertainments, they also write novels that are important in terms of our understanding of who we are and where we’re going. As Val McDermid says in today’s Sunday Independent:
“The crime novel really has become the state-of-the-nation fiction. There’s an Irish writer called Alan Glynn, who has just published a novel WINTERLAND … This is a book that speaks to absolutely now. Good writers – good crime writers in particular – have a knack of plugging into the zeitgeist.”
  As a writer, I’ve been hearing for some time now from editors and agents and publishers that what the industry wants is ‘big’ books – crime stories with an appeal broad enough to propel the book into the mainstream. CHILD 44 and THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO are good recent examples, and it’s possibly the case that Ireland, despite its potentially fertile setting for crime fiction (post-Troubles, post-economic boom) simply isn’t ‘big’ enough to capture the imagination of the reading public at large. That shouldn’t be the case, in theory at least, because, like politics, all good novels are local, and if there’s one thing Ireland is producing in these benighted times, it’s damn fine novels.
  The irony, of course, is that the best way for a country to break out of an economic slump is to start creating unique indigenous products for export, which is very much the case when it comes to most of the writers mentioned above. Has it come time for Irish crime writers to band together in a union, the better to lobby the government for investment to market their high quality exports abroad? A little investment, cleverly used, would go a long way, particularly in terms of impacting on the media. Or has the time finally come for an Irish crime writing association? Are such associations of any practical use? Or are there any other ideas out there in left field that might be beneficial?
  I know that there are plenty of Irish crime writers out there who ‘lurk’ on Crime Always Pays, and it’s your prerogative not to leave a comment, or get involved in any way, because the writing game is at heart a solitary business, and (speaking for myself, at least) joining gangs goes against the grain. But the times they are a-changing, folks, and what worked in the past just ain’t cutting it anymore. And it would be horrible, truly horrible, if we were to look back in five years time and concede that Fintan O’Toole’s piece in the Irish Times was a high-water mark, and that the tide has gone out, leaving some very fine boats stranded.
  The floor is open, people …

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Peck Of Pykled Pepper

Andrew Pepper isn’t Irish, nor does he set his novels in Ireland, but he does live in Belfast, and he’s a nice bloke, which is more than enough to qualify him for inclusion on these pages. The latest in his series of Pyke novels (which are set in historical London, and feature the Bow Street Runners, et al) is THE DETECTIVE BRANCH, which will be appearing on bookshelves near you next February. Quoth the blurb elves:
A robbery at a pawnbroker’s. Three people murdered. A headache for the new head of the Detective Branch ... Now part of the Metropolitan Police’s Detective Branch, Pyke must find the culprit and quickly, especially as the identity of one of the victims threatens to expose his own criminal past. A valuable religious artefact appears to have motivated the robbery but when the main suspect commits suicide in police custody, the investigation falters. A few months later, the rector of a wealthy parish is brutally murdered and the manhunt that follows seems to implicate an former prisoner, now looking for redemption. But Pyke’s suspicions take him in another direction and lead him to a dissolute former Catholic priest and rumours of Devil worshipping. And when a City Alderman dies in suspicious circumstances, the trail of blood leads first to a charismatic mesmerist and an alluring painter and then to the murders of two boys five years earlier. With time running out and the murderer threatening to kill again, Pyke must face up to forces within the police and the church who would rather the secrets of the past remained buried forever.
  So there you have it: an ambiguous noir anti-hero, a goodly chunk of history, some devil-worshipping priests and more murders than you could shake a thurible at. What’s not to like?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Sec’s Appeal: The Other John Waters Vs Secularism # 1,014

At the risk of oversimplifying John Waters’ most recent book, LAPSED AGNOSTIC, the Irish Times journalist found God through Alcoholics Anonymous, and then learned to justify an entire belief system by viewing it through the prism of his own experience.
  Now I’m delighted, for his sake, that John Waters managed to escape the demon booze, because you wouldn’t wish alcoholism on your worst enemy, but I really do wish that he’d stop trying to belittle those who have yet to share his epiphany by suggesting that they are somehow less human than he.
  He was at it again in today’s Irish Times, when he had this to say:
“Religion, rather than just another “category”, is the guiding hypothesis that makes sense of the whole, the public expression of the total dimension of human nature. No other channel has the capacity to convey the broadest truths about man’s nature and his relationship to the universe. Secularists do not like this characterisation of the situation, but it has long been obvious that they have nothing to offer society as an alternative source of ethics, meaning or hope.”
  Of the first part of his assertion, I’d suggest that science has not only “the capacity to convey the broadest truths about man’s nature and his relationship to the universe”, but is in fact the only rational approach to trying to understand the whys and wherefores of being alive.
  As for secularists having “nothing to offer society as an alternative source of ethics, meaning or hope”: leaving aside the basic human capacity to instinctively understand good from bad, and all that flows from that understanding, Waters fails to suggest how humanity managed to survive for the 100,000 years or so of its current incarnation (up to about 14,000-12,000 BC, when the first inklings of religion appear) without even a primitive system of ethics, meaning or hope to sustain it.
  Humans invented religion, the most perverse case of wishful thinking every visited on the race. And good for us, it’s a tribute to our imaginations and the brainy brains that got us this far in the struggle for survival. In the grand scheme of things, though, religion is Santa Claus for slow learners. Here endeth the sermon.

THE GHOSTS Of Christmas Presents

It’s been a terrific year for Stuart Neville. Superb reviews of his debut novel, THE TWELVE (aka THE GHOSTS OF BELFAST); interviewing James Ellroy at the Belfast Waterfront; and last weekend – in case you missed it – a lovely write up from Marilyn Stasio in the New York Times, in which TGOB was the lead review. All of which is very nice indeed, but then Stuart is a very nice bloke indeed, as you’ll see for yourself in this video interview with Keith Rawson. Roll it there, Collette …
  And while we’re on the subject of nice blokes, there was a marvellous turn-out for Alan Glynn’s WINTERLAND launch at Dubray Books last Tuesday night, which was cunningly timed to coincide with the official turning on of the Christmas lights on Grafton Street. Among the writerly types in attendance were Declan Hughes, Peter Murphy, Professor Ian Ross, Cormac Millar, Ava McCarthy, Critical Mick and John Boyne, and at least one Booker Prize winner, Anne Enright. Which goes to show how highly regarded Alan Glynn is across the writing spectrum, and deservedly so, because WINTERLAND is a wonderful novel.
  Anyway, you may well be wondering about Christmas gifts at this point. For the reader in your life, you could do a hell of a lot worse than give them THE GHOSTS OF BELFAST or WINTERLAND. Or, better still, both. They’re both beautifully written novels that are page-turning thrillers, but they also do what the best crime writing does: they remind us who we really are and how we live now.
  Incidentally, in a very good week for Irish writing, hearty congratulations to Colum McCann for scooping the National Book Award for LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN.
  Finally, and in contradiction to erroneous information provided here by yours truly, it appears that my latest opus, THE BIG EMPTY, has only gone out for consideration to publishers this week – last Monday, to be precise. I really should pay more attention to such things, but I was under the impression that the book was already under consideration. This is both good news and bad news: good in the sense that the book is still a live grenade, in a manner of speaking, and bad in the sense that the waiting begins all over again. And, given the fact that editors generally have an already existing pile of submissions to work their way through, and that it’s already more than halfway through November, there’s a good chance that we won’t hear how it’s faring until well into the New Year.
  It is, of course, the hope that kills you in the end, but as all three regular readers of this blog will know, I last week went public with my decision to quit writing. So I feel curiously detached from THE BIG EMPTY – although there’s a strong possibility that I feel that way because it’s by far my most personal piece of writing to date, and I’m simply steeling myself against the inevitable rejection letters (hey, not everyone’s going to like it, or love it enough to publish it; that’s just the way things work). Having said all that, I wouldn’t be human if I wasn’t feeling just the tiniest frisson of anticipation, or trepidation: in effect, I’ve submitted my baby to a beauty contest, and she’s now at the mercy of factors beyond my control, and depending on the kindness of strangers.
  As for the story, it’s a Harry Rigby private eye tale, a sequel to EIGHTBALL BOOGIE, of which the ever-generous Ken Bruen had this to say on its publication:
“I have seen the future of Irish crime fiction and it’s called Declan Burke. Here is talent writ large – mesmerizing, literate, smart and gripping. If there is such an animal as the literary crime novel, then this is it. But as a compelling crime novel, it is so far ahead of anything being produced, that at last my hopes for crime fiction are renewed. I can’t wait to read his next novel.”
  For what it’s worth, I think that THE BIG EMPTY is a better book than EIGHTBALL BOOGIE – but then, I would say that. The fact of the matter is that, when it comes to THE BIG EMPTY, my opinion no longer matters. To belabour the baby metaphor, I’ve done all I can to prepare her for the big, bad world, and can do nothing more to protect her from its harsh realities. All I can do is pray she gets a fair hearing and is treated kindly. Here’s hoping.
  If some kind soul does pick it up, then it would actually jibe quite well with last week’s decision, given that there are another two Harry Rigby novels already written, the rewriting / redrafting of which would allow me to keep my hand in at writing, without requiring the full-time commitment I’d have to make to write a new novel from scratch. In a perfect world, that would be the perfect scenario – although you don’t need me to tell you that neither you, I nor Harry Rigby lives in a perfect world. Anyway, upward and onward: bon voyage, THE BIG EMPTY, and a fair wind …

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Thierry Henry: My Two Francs

A terrific performance (what’s rare is wonderful) from the Irish football team in Paris last night wasn’t enough to see us qualify for next year’s World Cup, but in terms of people to blame, Thierry Henry is about fifteenth on the list.
  Yes, he blatantly handled the ball to set up Gallas for the French equaliser, but Ireland – had they the class – should have been 3-0 or 4-0 up on the night by then: Duff, Keane, Doyle and O’Shea all had chances that you’d expect a player of international quality to score. Then there’s the performance itself: had Trapattoni allowed / encouraged that kind of performance all through the qualifying series, there’s a decent chance Ireland wouldn’t have wound up in the play-offs in the first place. Finally, the hand-ball: did anyone else notice that Robbie Keane got pulled up four times – that’s four times – for hand-ball during the game, one of which was in the box as he tried to turn Gallas? Now, deliberate hand-ball is due a yellow card; Keane shouldn’t have been on the pitch by the end, had the ref been looking to stitch up Ireland at the behest of FIFA, as the more demented morons have been suggesting (he could also have easily given a penalty for Anelka’s dive, had he been so inclined).
  Anyway, the point about Keane and his multiple hand-balls: he cheated but we didn’t profit; Henry cheated and France profited. Where’s the moral high ground there?
  Oh, and while were banging on about hand-ball: anyone (yours truly included) who laughed themselves sick at Maradona’s ‘hand of God’ goal against England in 1986 has no right to (a) get up on their high horse about Henry or (b) join in the growing demand from the headbangers, including Liam Brady, calling for a replay. It was a game of football. We didn’t do enough to win it. Get over yourselves.
  Roll it there, Collette …

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The ‘Crime Always Pays’ Irish Crime Novel Of The Year Award

It’s getting to that time of the year again, when the ‘Best-of-Year’ selections are made, and Crime Always Pays has never been backward about clambering aboard a bandwagon. Yep, it’s the ‘Crime Always Pays’ Irish Novel of the Year Award, that somewhat-less-than-prestigious gong coveted by the very few and the ludicrously self-deluded.
  The usual hyperbole aside, 2009 was a terrific year for the Irish crime novel, and will, I’m pretty certain, be seen in retrospect as a watershed year in terms of quality. Everyone seemed to up their game, in some cases to a frighteningly good level (if you happen to be an aspiring Irish writer yourself), and the result was some excellent novels across the entire spectrum of the crime writing genre.
  What I’m doing today is mentioning some of said novels, to give you a flavour of what was published this year, and next week I’ll narrow it down to a shortlist, although hopefully you – yes, YOU! – will give me a gentle nudge in the right direction if I’ve left out a novel or two that you think is deserving of nomination. Next week, I’ll start a poll, although it won’t be a push-button poll, because otherwise The Dark Lord, aka John Connolly, will simply muster his massed forces and do a number on it. Instead, I’ll be asking people to state their top three nominations for Best Novel, with those who guess the right order of first, second and third going into the Christmas stocking for a draw. The prize will be a selection of the finest Irish crime novels of the year, and will be announced two weeks before Christmas, so that the package arrives in time for the festivities.
  Now, those novels. It being November, it’s only fair that the competition incorporates novels published from November 2008 to November 2009, which includes the following:
BLOOD RUNS COLD by Alex Barclay – winner of the Irish Book Awards inaugural Crime Fiction category
THE LOVERS by John Connolly – in my opinion, his finest Charlie Parker novel to date
MYSTERY MAN by Bateman – a ‘Richard & Judy’ pick this summer past
THE DAY OF THE JACK RUSSELL by Bateman – a better and funnier read than MYSTERY MAN, is my two cents
FIFTY GRAND by Adrian McKinty – an elegant, mature and (say it ain’t so, Joe!) emotionally literate thriller
DARK TIMES IN THE CITY by Gene Kerrigan – nominated for the CWA Golden Dagger
WINTERLAND by Alan Glynn – a superb conspiracy thriller, both contemporary and prescient in its depiction of modern Ireland
BLEED A RIVER DEEP by Brian McGilloway – Ireland’s Ian Rankin finds his groove
TOWER by Ken Bruen / Reed Farrel Coleman – an emotionally eviscerating tale of claustrophobia, tragic flaws and mutually assured destruction
ALL THE DEAD VOICES by Declan Hughes – the best novel yet from the bridesmaid perennially nominated for the ‘Best Novel’ Edgar
THE TWELVE by Stuart Neville – a raw, angry deconstruction of post-Troubles Northern Ireland
THE INSIDER by Ava McCarthy – high-concept thriller about high-finance shenanigans
  And they’re just the ones I’ve read. Novels I haven’t had the chance to read yet, unfortunately, include FAMILY LIFE by Paul Charles, LOCKDOWN by Sean Black, THE DARK PLACE by Sam Millar, ALL THE COLOURS OF THE TOWN by Liam McIlvanney, THE WAR OF THE BLUE ROSES by Garbhan Downey, THE THIRD PIG DETECTIVE AGENCY by Bob Burke, THE RULE BOOK by Rob Kitchin, and TEARS OF GOD by Christy Kenneally.
  So there you have it: the Irish crime novel, in a state of exceedingly rude health. Is there anyone I’ve missed? Do tell …

Sunday, November 15, 2009

On Pristine Keyboards and Subtle Fireworks

I mention in the post below that the business of being a writer involves, first and foremost, learning to make compromises with yourself. And despite the fact that I am, as all three regular readers will be aware, now an ex-writer, I’m finding it hard to kick the compromising habit. I’m also finding it very difficult to stop thinking about the book I was planning to write over the next year or so. As a compromise, I’m telling myself that instead of obsessing about one book in particular, I’m going to do a bit of noodling about writing and / or reading in general, to see if I can’t figure out where I’ve been going wrong all these years.
  First up, the pristine state of my keyboard. I get a new PC every three or four years, and it’s rare that I have to upgrade the keyboard between times. I’m wondering if that’s where I’m going wrong.
  I ‘learned’ to type years ago, and while I can touch-type, my error-rate is pretty high – I don’t know what my wpm is, but it’s probably around 30 words per minute. Now, the trouble with touch-typing is it’s exactly that – touch typing. You caress the keys, you persuade and fondle and nudge … in effect, you seduce the keyboard into giving up its goodies one word at a time.
  Which is all very good and well if you’re writing romantic fiction, I guess. But crime fiction? Man, you should be BASHING those keys, bam-bam-BAM!!! Here’s the GUY with the GUN and BANG-BANG, KISS-KISS!!! A quiet bit, THEN BAM-BANG-BASH-BOOM!!! Then another quiet bit, THEN WOP-BOP-A-LOO-BOP-A-WOP-BANG-BOOM!!!
  Now, I’m not advocating caps and a picket fence of exclamation marks. What I’m suggesting is that the words should come off like they’ve been punched into the page by someone who loves words and hates paper. Or, as I suggest below vis-à-vis James Ellroy, like they’ve been machine-gunned into a tombstone. When I read, I want to be ducking under ricochets and copping splinters and coughing up dust. I want the sky lit by tracer and Very lights exploding overhead and the ground underneath shaking from the intensity of the barrage.
  Me, I’m too subtle when I write – or, worse, I aim for subtle and end up stuck in the middle of No Man’s Land during a ceasefire, with everyone going, “Okay, but when’s the fireworks start?” Because everyone likes a good fireworks show. And ‘fireworks’ and ‘subtle’ are pretty much mutually exclusive.
  So – that’s the first thing to consider: how to achieve subtle fireworks, and in the process need to buy a new keyboard every six months or so.
  All suggestions will be gratefully accepted …

Saturday, November 14, 2009

On James Ellroy, Bad Dreams, Not Writing And Daughters

Russell McLean was thinking aloud on Twitter last week, wondering if he should have bought James Ellroy’s (right) BLOOD’S A ROVER, given that he was working on his own novel, and that it’s impossible to read Ellroy and not be influenced, as a writer, by the power of Ellroy’s ‘voice’. I could empathise, because I was (koff) ‘working’ on the second or third draft of my first book, EIGHTBALL BOOGIE, when I read my first Ellroy, LA CONFIDENTIAL.
  Now, I don’t know if this afflicts everyone writing their first novel, but at the time I wanted my book to be the best book ever written. In that context, reading LA CONFIDENTIAL was the worst possible thing I could have done; had I tossed a grenade into the m/s, I couldn’t have blown apart my own story more effectively. I was mesmerised. Not only did Ellroy pack more plot into a page than most writers get into a whole book, but it was the way he did it, with prose that was brutal and inventive and funny and angry and fresh; it combined the swaggering bravado of a Western gunslinger with the gravitas of an Old Testament prophet. Yes, the book was printed on paper, but I wouldn’t have been the slightest bit surprised to learn that Ellroy’s first draft had been machine-gunned into a tombstone.
  Naturally, deep despair for my own paltry effort followed swiftly. Once I crawled back out from under the bed, however, I decided that reading LA CONFIDENTIAL was the best thing I could have done. Given that I was never going to reach that level of excellence, I could just concentrate on making EIGHTBALL BOOGIE as good as it could be. Which was a huge relief at the time, and my first experience of how living with yourself as a writer involves, first and foremost, learning the art of compromise.
  It’s probably no coincidence that I went public with my decision to stop writing in the week after I met and interviewed James Ellroy. Now, said decision is a massive thing to me, and a tiny enough thing in the grand scheme, but I was overwhelmed by the response to the post on the blog – hopefully, if it achieves nothing else, said post will encourage other writers to gird their loins, grit their teeth and say, ‘Well, I’m not going to duck under like that sad sack of shit.” But it was, for me, the latest in a long line of compromises I’ve made with myself. I also think it was no coincidence that the decision came in the same week as I blogged about Darley Anderson’s profile in The Bookseller, and in the same week that I had a dream in which (I won’t bore you with too many details) I found myself on the edge of a cliff, with my father dangling from my hand and his weight already pulling me over the precipice; in the dream I was horribly ashamed when I said, distinctly, “Let go my hand,” and pulled mine from his, and turned my face away so I wouldn’t see him fall. I woke up terrified and horrified, but I suppose the salutary element of it all is that, just before I woke, I realised I had turned my face away towards where my wife and child were holding on to me.
  I’d been researching James Ellroy in the run-up to the interview, of course, which might have influenced the dream; how the man survived the various traumas and tragedies of his life is impressive enough, but that he has written wonderful books in the process almost defies belief. Maybe I’m reading too much into it (I don’t dream very often), but I think I was trying to warn myself that I don’t have the moral courage it takes to become a great writer; that, when it comes to writing, I’m happy to peer over the edge into the abyss without having what it takes to make the leap of faith required. There’s also the fact that you’re not taking that leap alone – you’re taking others with you, your wife and child, and asking them to have faith in your ability to fly.
  I should point out, by the way, in case anyone is wondering what the hell my wife is doing while I’m so busy working freelance that I haven’t time to write – she’s busier than I am, as it happens, and she’s also the main bread-winner in the family; freelance journalism, no matter how busy you are, is never going to sustain a family in Ireland 2009. My wife is and always has been hugely supportive of my writing; I’ve often wondered if I would have been half as useful to her had our positions been reversed. I’d like to think I would have been, but I really don’t know.
  Anyway, at one point in the interview, Ellroy asked me if I have kids, and we talked about daughters, because he has always wanted to have a daughter. He also talked about ‘yearning’, that all of his books, fiction and non-fiction, have the common theme of ‘yearning’; and while I didn’t realise it at the time, it did occur to me afterwards that, brilliant as they are, I wouldn’t swap all of James Ellroy’s books for what I have. And, if not writing is what it takes to keep what I have in the manner to which she is not only accustomed, but is the least she deserves, then that’s what it will take. The most frightening thing about it? The decision has made me happy.
  So – I met James Ellroy last Saturday. It went a little like this:

“If you’re asking me if I exploited my mother’s death for the sake of my career, then yes, I exploited my mother’s death.”
  James Ellroy does many things with his prose – slices ‘n’ dices, brutalises – but the one thing he does not do is mince words. On stage, as was the case last weekend at the Belfast Waterfront (during which he dedicated a reading from his current novel, ‘Blood’s a Rover’, to all the ‘perverts, peepers, panty-sniffers and pimps’ in the audience’), he is a force of nature who just about stops short of howling at the moon.
  In person, in a gothically dimmed and plush hotel suite earlier that evening, he is no less forthright in his opinions, although he is far from the intimidating ‘Demon Dog’ of American letters he is reputed to be. Thoughtful and considered in his responses, he is a careful listener and an elegant, erudite interviewee, regardless of how intrusive the questions may be.
  “Yes, I exploited my mother’s death,” is arguably the only answer Ellroy can give to that question. Jean Hilliker Ellroy was found murdered in 1958, when Ellroy was 10 years old. Unsurprisingly, the murder had a profound effect on him. He has spoken at length in interview about it, and written two books on the subject, the non-fiction ‘My Dark Places’ and the fiction ‘The Black Dahlia’.
  He’s not done yet, though. When I ask about the parallels between his troubled adolescence, when Ellroy was an out-of-control voyeur who would break-and-enter and ‘prowl’ strangers homes, and his vocation as a writer, which gives him license to snoop through strangers’ lives, he is candid in his answer.
  “The common denominator, I think, is exhibitionism,” he says. “And I’ve got a tremendous need to confess my life … Y’know, I realised only belatedly that my mother and I were a love story rather than a crime story. And it was then that I got the idea to write the memoir [to be published in 2010]. It’s about women and me and it’s called ‘The Hilliker Curse’.”
  The author of 15 novels and / or memoirs, and three collections of short stories, Ellroy is renowned for his clipped, staccato prose style and the hard, tough men who populate his tales. Yet he insists that ‘Blood’s a Rover’, the third part of the ‘Underworld USA’ trilogy following on from ‘American Tabloid’ and ‘The Cold Six Thousand’, is ‘a historical romance’.
  Set against the backdrop of the fall-out from the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, and with Richard Nixon in the White House, ‘Blood’s a Rover’ delivers yet more revisionism and behind-the-scenes political shenanigans involving a mix of real-life and fictional characters, including Nixon, FBI chief Edgar Hoover, and various Caribbean dictators. Its main characters are FBI agent Dwight Holly and Mob fixer Wayne Tedrow, both of whom return from ‘The Cold Six Thousand’, and Donald Crutchfield, a young peeper and pervert who becomes politicised when he discovers a shocking murder.
  “The kid [Crutchfield] is less experienced and brilliant than Wayne and Dwight are, but the kid is the one who is not essentially self-destructive, and who is indefatigable, resourceful, who is lucky, who is endlessly searching for love. And lucky.”
  Despite the apparently autobiographical aspect of Crutchfield (the character, whom Ellroy refers to affectionately as ‘the kid’ and ‘the lost boy’, spends much of the early part of the novel searching for his missing mother), the story comes to be dominated by two women: ‘Joan’ and ‘Karen’, both of whom are ciphers for real-life women Ellroy has loved and lost.
  “Yeah, there’s a real-life ‘Joan’. And the woman I’m with now, who is the love of my life, Erika-with-a-K, I call her ‘the Joan-slayer’. The greatest moment of the film for me, I mean the book, is where ‘Joan’ asks Dwight what he wants. And he says, ‘I want to fall. And I want you to catch me on the way down.’ And when Erika read that and got that, she owned me forever.”
  He is, he says, a happy man these days, a ‘fierce and vital’ 61-year-old.
  “I am happy, yeah. Erika’s a grand and wondrous woman and I’m happier than I’ve ever been. You know, I always wanted a daughter but it didn’t really hit me until my ’50s … I wanted to have a daughter with ‘Joan’, and it didn’t work out. And then I moved to LA and I met a very pregnant woman, and had an affair with her – she was the ‘Karen’ of the book. And it didn’t work out with her, either. But that was what life gave me, and I tried to honour both women with this book.”
  It is a fitting tribute, and a monumentally epic and elegant work of fiction besides. Almost shockingly, the thunder-blast of yearning testosterone that was motherless James Ellroy appears to have found comfort at last.
  “I’ve never gotten over sex,” he says, “I’ve never gotten over women. Women as saviours, women as redemption, women as sex-object and sex-symbol, especially when I’m having sex with them … But I mean, Erika has two daughters, they’re 11 and 13, and the courage of motherhood is astounding. I mean, my God. It’s an astonishing, astonishing level of courage, I can’t even conceive of it.”
  With ‘Blood’s a Rover’ and ‘The Hilliker Curse’, Ellroy appears to have finally put his mother’s ghost to rest. So what now?
  “For Act III,” he says, “I’m going to write big juicy historical love stories. I know what the next four are going to be, yeah. But what they’re about,” he says leaning in, “I’m keeping that under wraps, so this much is off the record …”

‘Blood’s a Rover’, the third part of the ‘Underworld USA’ trilogy, is published by Century.

This interview was first published in the Evening Herald

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Laddies Who Launch

’Tis the season to be merry, tra-la-la-la, etc. There will, no doubt, be a fair swally of dry sherries lowered in the wake of not one but two book launches next week, with merriment assured at the launch of THE DAY OF THE JACK RUSSELL, the latest offering from The Artist Formerly Known As Colin Bateman. I’m reliably informed that TAFKAP will be doing interpretive excerpts from Riverdance as part of the evening’s festivities at No Alibis (where else?) in Belfast, the shindig kicking off at 6pm next Monday evening, November 17th. I’ve just finished TAFKAP’S A-OK TDOTJR, and enjoyed it even more than MYSTERY MAN, the eponymous ‘hero’ of which returns to investigate The Case of the Cock-Headed Man. Having much more in common with THE MALTESE FALCON than THE DAY OF THE JACKAL, TDOTJR boasts a fabulous McGuffin and more red herrings than the McCarthy witch-hunt. Gerard Brennan has all the details, as always, over at CSNI
  That’s next Monday taken care of. Onwards then to Tuesday evening, November 17th, when Alan Glynn will be launching WINTERLAND at Dubray Books, Grafton Street, Dublin, with kick-off around 6.30pm. W (do single-title books qualify for abbreviation?) is a terrific novel, both contemporary and prescient, and a classic crime novel in the way it links conventional, street-level criminality to the highest echelons of business and politics. For more of the same, check out Declan Hughes, Gene Kerrigan and Stuart Neville, all three of whom have turned out excellent novels this year. As for WINTERLAND, I think it’s a superb piece of work, mature and elegant. In terms of its politicisation of criminality, it put me in mind of Liam O’Flaherty’s THE INFORMER and Chinatown. For what it’s worth, I really think this one is worth your time and money …
  Finally, a quick word of thanks to everyone who dropped by and left comments on the whinge-fest below, and also to everyone who linked to it, and got in touch by other means, and generally sympathised. Folks, it’s disappointing but life is otherwise good – it’s not a bad complaint for a freelancer in these straitened times to be so busy you can’t find time to write. Onward and upward …

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Woe Is Me, Etc: A Failing Writer Writes

It’s taken me a while, but I’ve started to realise that the thrust of Crime Always Pays has changed. Yes, it was always intended to be a blog in support of Irish crime writing and writers, but as all three regular readers will be aware, it also doubled as a platform for my own experience of being published. For the last while, though, it’s been more of a platform for my experience of not being published.
  In theory, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as the experience of not being published can just as easily be as interesting as that of being published (for the reader, if not the writer), depending on how well it’s written, not that I make any grand claims in that department.
  Anyway, for those of you who aren’t the three regular readers, the situation is as follows: I’ve had two books published to date, EIGHTBALL BOOGIE and THE BIG O, both of which were decently reviewed and both of which sold like cheese-graters at a leper convention. Which isn’t to complain too bitterly: neither book was a life-changing read, and I’ll always be delighted that I’ve had two books published, even if I never publish another. Right now, I have two more books out under consideration. One is a sequel to EIGHTBALL BOOGIE, the other is a standalone novel about a hospital porter who decides to blow up ‘his’ hospital. At least, I think they’re still under consideration: both have been abroad in the world for some months now, and for all I know, they’ve both been roundly rejected and my agent is simply sparing my feelings. Which might well be the case, he’s a nice bloke.
  Naturally, I’d like both books to be picked up, although I’d be more than happy if only one was published. Whatever reason(s) you have to write, the ultimate goal is to have the story published, so that the maximum possible number of readers get to read it. Hopefully, they’ll even like it. Hopefully, they’ll like it so much they’ll want to read more. And so I’ll get to write another book, etc.
  That’s the natural way of things, but lately I’ve started to hear a little voice in the back of my head suggesting that it might not be the best thing for me right now were either book to be published. That’s because, barring a miracle, what will happen is this: an offer will be made that will amount, in practical terms, to no more than a couple of months’ worth of mortgage payments. Following acceptance, edits and rewrites will follow (a good thing, by the way, because I like both stories and their characters, and I wouldn’t mind at all getting back into the stories, especially if doing so is going to improve them). Then the pre-publication promotion will begin, which is very time-consuming; then the publication promotion; and then the post-publication promotion. Most of this will be conducted via the web, given that I am (a) not wealthy enough nor remunerated enough to do it in person; (b) married with a small child, of whom I don’t see enough of as it is; (c) a freelance journalist who works a minimum of 70 hours per week at the job, and can’t afford to take time off, let alone spend good mortgage money on hauling my ass around the world at a time when house repossessions are starting to climb at an alarming rate back home.
  It really is becoming as stark as that. I decided over the weekend, after interviewing James Ellroy, that it is actually immoral of me to steal time to write fiction when I could be writing freelance material that will actually earn real money. And that’s not even factoring in the time I steal away from my family on the ‘writing’, a catch-all word which includes, these days, reading and blogging too. Someone who liked my books asked me over the weekend, rather facetiously, how come I haven’t sold a million books. I said, rather facetiously, that it was because no one put a million dollars worth of advertising spend behind them. It’s not quite that simple, of course, but there’s a significant element of truth in that.
  As it stands, and given the straitened economic circumstances we all live in, my priorities these days, in order of importance, are family, work and writing. There are, sadly, only 168 hours in any week, roughly a third of which are spent asleep. Factor in such necessities as eating and washing, etc., and that leaves me with about 100 hours to play with. Take away 70 of those hours for work, including the commute, and you’re left with roughly four hours a day for family, which includes basic chores and upkeep of house. That works out at about four hours per day, two in the morning and two in the evening, most of which I choose and prefer to waste in what I like to call ‘Lily-time’.
  I could sleep less than seven hours per night, of course, and frequently do. I could eat and wash less often. I could cut out the morning or evening hours with Lily, and let the house go to hell in a handcart. I could cut back on my work schedule and earn less money. With the time clawed back, I could write a new novel, in the quixotic hope that somewhere out there is an editor who (a) likes my stuff enough to take it forward and (b) has the juice to push it through all the way to publication, all of which would take roughly two years and earn me roughly three months’ worth of mortgage.
  I could do all that. Except, were this any other kind of business, I would be classified insane for even contemplating that kind of return on investment.
  I’d love to finish up with some kind of gloriously noble declaration about how writing isn’t just a business, it’s a vocation, a passion, an obsession, and come hell or high water, I’ll write the next novel and let the chips fall where they may, etc. But I can’t. Not only would such a decision be immoral, it would be foolhardy verging on insanity. Because the publishing business is a business, and I don’t have the time or the chops to make it work for me. Yes, I understand that making it in any business means making sacrifices, but in this particular business, what ‘making sacrifices’ actually means is asking others to make sacrifices on your behalf. Maybe if I was a genius I’d feel comfortable with that, or I simply wouldn’t care. But I’m not. The books I write are (at best) an enjoyable diversion, a pleasant waste of time. They’re not important enough, vital enough or relevant enough to be worth anyone else’s sacrifice, and while there was once a time when I was selfish and ruthless enough to not care about the sacrifices I was asking others to make on my behalf, that time is long gone, and good riddance.
  It’s possible, of course, that one of those books out under consideration might come good, and that an offer will be made that will earn me the kind of time I need to write over the next couple of years. Hey, in a theoretically infinite universe, anything is possible. But it’s unlikely, highly unlikely, and the longer said books spend under consideration, the less likely it becomes. It’s a great pity for me, because I do love to write, but needs must, and the most pressing need these days is the need to be practical. So be it.
  In the meantime, feel free, those of you who are struggling writers gasping for a few molecules of publicity oxygen, to get in touch with this blog. My admiration for your dedication increases by the day, and whatever little I can do to help, I’ll do.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Now That’s What I Call A Review: Ruth Dudley Edwards on THE TWELVE


Gosh, but that Ruth Dudley Edwards (right) keeps busy promoting Irish crime writing. One minute she’s schmoozing Gene Kerrigan in the Sunday Independent, the next she’s bigging-up Stuart Neville’s THE TWELVE over at Shots Mag. To wit:
“While THE TWELVE is taut and beautifully-written, it is not its success as a thriller that so impressed me. It is that it that after decades of painfully seeking to achieve an understanding of what went on during the Troubles, I am stunned to find a novel that reflects the extraordinary complexity of that period, that treats the various players without sentimentality but with deep understanding, and has empathy for the unfortunates caught up in something beyond their ability to control. The blurb provided by my friend Sean O’Callaghan, whose THE INFORMER described how he became caught up in the IRA as a teenager and later atoned for his crimes by becoming an unpaid agent of the Irish police, says simply: ‘Stuart Neville goes to the heart of the perversity of paramilitarism’. And so he does, in his unflinching depiction of how idealists and ideologues who see themselves as community defenders can turn into brutal, hypocritic persecutors of their own people as well as their traditional enemies. But he also goes to the heart of the murkiness of elements of counter-intelligence, the cynicism and narrow self-interest of some of our rulers, the rotten apples that can be found in an honourable police force, the supine nature of fellow-travellers, the moral ambivalence to be found among some clergy and much else … The themes Stuart Neville is addressing are among the greatest in literature: in his treatment of crime, cruelty, guilt, punishment, suffering and justice it is impossible not to be reminded of Dostoevsky.”
  Crumbs! The Big D-ski, no less. You heard the lady, folks. THE TWELVE is where it’s at, and if ‘Cuddly’ Dudley doesn’t convince you, let Adrian McKinty take a whirl. Those Christmas stockings ain’t gonna fill themselves, y’know …