“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.

Friday, June 19, 2009

“Whither The ATOM BOMB ANGEL?”: A Word Or Five From Peter James

I met with Peter James (right) at the Merrion Hotel last week, to interview him for the Sunday Independent, and a very pleasant lunch it was too. Beforehand, I was a little concerned he was one of these robo-writers – we all have our (koff) favourites – who write crime fiction because crime fiction readers are so dim they’ll read any old tat so long as there’s a corpse on every second page. As a matter of fact, Peter James was a charming interviewee – articulate, erudite, self-deprecating and charming, and passionate about the morality of crime fiction and a corresponding attention to detail.
  I don’t usually publish interview transcripts, but I had to leave out so much of the Peter James interview when I was writing it up for the Sunday Indo, and because I think Peter James has quite a lot of interesting things to say, I thought I’d put it up here. I’ve nipped and tucked here and there, but what appears below is roughly how it happened in real time. One other thing that’s delightful about Peter James as an interviewee – he needs very little prompting to get going. And once he gets going, he’s almost impossible to stop …
  I started by asking him about the first three novels he ever wrote, which he currently keeps out of print on the very noble principle that anyone who buys them won’t be getting their money’s worth. Will he ever make them available again, or can I just go ahead and steal the wonderful title, ATOM BOMB ANGEL?

“I think I might republish them some day, under ‘Vintage Cliché’, or something like that (laughs), with a warning on the front, ‘Read these at your own risk’. But I wrote those a long time ago. I’d always wanted to be a writer, this is going back to the ’70s, and I saw this article saying there was a shortage of spy thrillers. So I wrote this kind of pastiche, and to my amazement I got published. And then, to my amazement, it completely flopped (laughs). So I wrote two more … and they flopped too. I nearly gave up writing, I got very despondent.”
  “The real tipping point for me was when I was pouring my heart out to a friend of mine who was writing jacket blurb at Penguin. And I was saying, ‘How do earn a living at this?’ And she said, ‘Why are you writing spy thrillers?’ So I said, ‘Because I read somewhere there was a shortage.’ And she said, ‘You will not make money from writing something because you think it will pay. You have to write what you’re passionate about.’ That was the best advice I ever had. And around that time, the son of a very good friend was killed in an horrific car-crash. Afterwards, his parents started seeing a medium. Now, I’d always been interested in the paranormal, and they were absolutely convinced they were in touch with their son. Anyway, I went along to one of the séances, and decided that, whether or not they were in touch with him, they believe that. And I could see how people could take comfort in that. But then I thought, what if you went to a medium to contact your dead son, and discovered through the medium that he’d murdered his girlfriend?”
  “I’d always wanted to be a crime writer, right back when I was 12 and I read my first Sherlock Holmes story. And then I read Graham Greene’s BRIGHTON ROCK, and it just blew me away. Brighton was my home town … And I thought, One day I want to write a book that’s twenty percent as good as this. That was my dream. But I kept away from writing crime fiction for a long time, and then after POSSESSION I wrote a series of supernatural chillers, and I kept away from the [crime fiction] genre because of what I thought of as the very rigid conventions. You had to have a country house, with a library, and a dead body is discovered … Then I discovered the Americans. Elmore Leonard, Ed McBain, and a whole world opened up. And then, about eight years ago, Macmillan asked if I’d ever considered writing a crime novel. And I just said, ‘Yes!’”
  “I had a great relationship with the police at that point. I’d been setting books in Brighton, and I’d been out with the police a lot. And I’d met one guy about 14 years before, who was then a detective inspector in Brighton. I remember going to his office and there were about 20 boxes, big crates, piled up in there. And I said, ‘Are you moving?’ And he said, ‘No, these are my dead friends.’ And I thought, okay, I’ve found the only weirdo in the Brighton police force (laughs). But he then explained that he was in charge of cold cases. They weren’t called cold cases back then, that’s a relatively recent term, but he said, ‘Each one of these crates holds the principal case files in an unsolved murder. I’m the last chance the victim has for justice and the last chance the family has for closure.’ And I loved that rather caring, quiet man alone with these ghosts who were depending on him. In creating Roy Grace I drew heavily on that. And I became very friendly with this guy, and we’re great mates today, he then became detective chief superintendent, and he’s really the role model behind Roy Grace.”
  “I spent a lot of time thinking hard about what would make him different. I like Rebus, but I didn’t want to copy Rebus. And I decided to stay away from the drunk, cynical … you know, the clichés. And about two years before I created him, I got taken with a group from Sussex Police to an organisation called the Missing Persons’ Helpline, an open day run by a charity which basically helps the police look for missing people. And I discovered that over 230,000 are reported missing every year in the UK. Now, most of those turn up within 30 days, but if they don’t turn up in 30 days, they’re not going to turn up. And there are over 11,000 at any one time permanently missing. It’s roughly 60,000 in America, it’s the same, pro rata, all around the Western world. And that’s a kind of a similar situation to an unsolved murder. You have people left behind wondering, Where are they? Are they under Fred West’s toolshed? Are they down in some Austrian cellar? Have they run off with a lover? Have they had an accident and never been discovered? Were they kidnapped by some lunatic? Have they changed their identity? And what detectives do is, they solve puzzles. That’s really what major crime solving is about, putting together the pieces. And I thought it would be interesting to have a detective have a personal puzzle of his own, one he can’t solve. And that was when I decided that, when we first meet Roy Grace, which is in DEAD SIMPLE, he’s got a wife, Sandy, who he loved and adored, but who, when he came home nine years earlier on his 30th birthday, wasn’t there, and he hasn’t seen or heard from her since. And that dogs his life.”
  “In the last book, DEAD MAN’S FOOTSTEPS, a character, right at the end of the book, is on a beach in South America, and is chatting to the woman next to her, who tells her that her name is Sandy. Now, you don’t have to know who she is to read the book, but in DEAD TOMORROW, Roy has his new love, Cleo, and she’s now pregnant. So he’s ready to move on, but the shadow of Sandy is actually starting to lengthen … The book I’m working on now, the sixth one, some of it is set ten years back, when Roy is still with Sandy, so we’re seeing life from her perspective too.”
  “I get really angry at the snobbery against the crime fiction genre. I mean, look at Shakespeare. If Shakespeare was writing today, he’d be writing crime fiction. Most of his plays feature a crime, or a trial. Dickens’ last novel was a crime novel. Dostoevsky. But you had the chair of the Booker prize, three years ago, saying that hell would freeze over before crime fiction would get short-listed. Well, I’m sorry, but I think the crime novel is the way to examine the world in which we live. I go out with the police once a week, and they see stuff, that aspect of human nature, that you’re just not going to get at a Hampstead dinner party. The police see the world warts and all, every possible facet, and the insights into human nature they get, whether it’s arresting an armed robber, or going into some godawful sink estate apartment where there’s a domestic going on … I mean, the police look at the world with what I call a healthy cultural suspicion. You and I, if we were to walk down Grafton Street, and saw two guys looking into a shop window, we’d think, they’re wondering what to buy. A cop looks at them and thinks, Why are they standing there? Are they about to kick off? Rob the shop? Do a drug deal?”
  “There’s a pub [the Chief Super and I] go to, the same pub every time, the same table every time (laughs), and we sit down and I go through the planned storyline, and he gives me his input. And he reads every book as I’m writing it, I send him every 100 pages, and then we discuss the police aspects of it. What I need for a particular situation, what procedure I need to follow … I’ve also got a young copper now too, he’s 28, he does the same thing for me. So I get the younger perspective too, and from a street police officer as well as a chief super. So anything I want to find out, I can. For instance, in DEAD TOMORROW, a dredger pulls a dead body up off the seafloor. So I’m wondering, what would the police do in a situation like that? Well, a police diver would go down to try to find the place where the body came from. So I contacted the diving unit – I’m kind of fairly well known at this stage – and they said, Why don’t you come out with us and we’ll do an exercise for you. So we actually went out, with a dummy called Eric, which actually replicates the human body, and chucked Eric overboard and recovered him. So I spent the day with the diving unit. And similarly, with the dredging ship … So pretty much everything that the police do in my books, I have experienced first-hand – car chases, surveillance, helicopter pursuits, I’ve been on two or three of those. For me it’s really important to get the details right. I get very irritated when reading, or more often seeing on television, people who get the details wrong. The classic example is Frost. I think some of the public must think that the reason SOCO officers wear white suits is that they don’t want to get dirty attending a crime scene. Because they’re all wearing their protective suits, and along comes David Jason with his big brogues and clumps all over the crime scene. The early Rebus did it too. I mean, the reason the SOCOs wear those suits is so they do not contaminate the crime scene. The first police officer at a murder, or a rape scene, his first job is to seal it off, with one exit-entry point. And it doesn’t matter if he’s the most junior police officer in the entire force, he is empowered to prevent anybody, including the Chief Constable, through that tape if they’re not wearing protective clothing. And it’s not just being fussy about detail for its own sake. I think if you get it right, then the story tends to come out better as well.”
  “For me, I could never write something that I hadn’t checked out, and didn’t know was accurate. That’s not the way I want my books to be perceived. And I always find that when I do the research … For example, I went out on the dredger ship for DEAD TOMORROW because I’d never been on a dredger. I didn’t even know a dredger brought up gravel for commercial purposes, I thought they just cleared harbours. And out of that experience came the idea for having the ship’s engineer as the husband of Caitlin’s mother, and gradually the characters started to come together. I really do find that the research tends to inform the story in ways I never expect. For example, DEAD MAN’S FOOTSTEPS was about a guy who fakes his disappearance in the wake of 9/11, and while I was researching it I got friendly with two New York cops, who’d been first on the scene on 9/11. And they became quite major characters in the story. And likewise, for the character of Caitlin’s mum, I wanted to have her working in a debt collection agency, but I didn’t know what that actually entailed. So I contacted a debt collection agency, and as it turned out I had a fan who worked there … (laughs). I just thought that, at the moment, given that the world is in financial crisis, that that would be interesting work to be doing, but how does it work? And I ended up going there and spending a couple of days, and asking questions, and realising that, yes, you could actually steal money from a place like that, if you knew what you were doing. And that turned out to be a very important aspect of her character.”
  “Brighton’s great. I think a sense of place is as important as character. A lot of the great crime novels that I’ve admired, such as Rebus in Edinburgh, Hiaasen’s Miami, Ed McBain in New York, and so on, are very true to their setting. And Brighton for me is perfect. I was born in Brighton, and Brighton’s been known as the Crime Capital of England since 1934. It’s the favourite place to live in England for first division criminals. It goes right back to the razor gangs of the ’30s, protection rackets … It’s got a seaport either side, the largest number of antique shops in the UK, it’s got the racecourse … It’s always had a seedy reputation as a weekend resort. And it does have this undertow of violence. It doesn’t have the kind of inner-city gun violence but it does have endemic criminality. For nine years running it was the ‘injecting drugs death capital’ of the UK. We lost it last year to Liverpool, but we got it back this year.”
  “In terms of how I work … I think, as I was saying earlier, it comes back to the relevance of the good crime writer to the world we live in. But I also tend to take the theme that intrigues me at the time. DEAD MAN’S FOOTSTEPS is about a man who uses 9/11 as an opportunity to fake his own disappearance and get out of debt. My previous novel, NOT DEAD ENOUGH, was about identity theft, which is the fastest-growing crime in the Western world. And with this book, its genesis came one night when I was out a dinner, and this woman was talking to me and she said, ‘Do you know how much you’re worth in bits?’ I said, ‘In bits?’ And she said, ‘In body parts.’ And the answer is about a million dollars. She then started telling me about how, since transplant technology has improved, the number of organ donors has actually decreased. The big irony is that less people are dying in car accidents, because people are now wearing seat-belts. The perfect donor is someone who dies in a car accident by hitting his head off the steering-wheel, leaving the organs intact. Motorcycle accidents are another good source. And she’d been trying to make a documentary about the growth in black market human organs, and she’d tied up with Médecins Sans Frontières. And they discovered that in Colombia, in some areas, the Colombian mafia make more money out of human body parts than they do from drugs. They sent two reporters to Colombia to investigate, and they got murdered. So she was scared off it, but she had all this research, and she said it was mine if I wanted to use it. So I started researching it, and discovered that Manila, for example, in the Philippines, is known as ‘One-Kidney Island’. For forty-five thousand pounds, you can go on holiday and get a new kidney. The Chinese are shooting prisoners, and selling the cadavers for a million-plus to Korea and Taiwan, or they’re harvesting the parts themselves. Places like Romania feed this part of the world …”
  “Wherever I go, I’ll always try to meet police officers from around the world. And I had to go to Moscow last year, for my Russian publishers. I asked if there was any chance of meeting any Russian police officers, so they introduced me to the Chief of Police for Central Moscow (laughs). But I got on really well with him, I ended up going out to dinner with him and about 15 of his colleagues. And his office is full of animal heads, wild boars and what have you, and he has invited me to spend four days hunting with him, at the beginning of September! I just could not say no to that …”
  “I’ve just always been fascinated by human nature, and human beings and why they do the things they do. And the crime genre gives me the chance to explore that to its fullest extent. I’m writing now about a rapist who takes his victims’ shoes, but oddly enough, before I decided to make that the theme … I met and became quite friendly with the governor of our local prison, and he’s a moderniser. He’s quite controversial, because in his prison, sex offenders and paedophiles are not segregated from other prisoners. And his view is that it’s almost politically correct to regard these people as somehow worse. I mean, I’ve been burgled, and it took me years to get over the horrible feeling. So I know what he means when he says that other crimes can destroy people’s lives just as much as a paedophile can. And rape is really interesting … The average clear-up rate for major crimes in the UK is 34%, and for murder, it’s 98%. Very few murderers end up getting away with it, because so much in the way of resources are thrown at it, and because a lot of the time, unless it’s committed by the member of a gang, most murders are committed by a member of family, or the murderer can’t live it. There are a lot of issues that go with it. The clear-up rate for rape, on the other hand, is under 4%. And women who’ve been raped, their lives are destroyed. So I’ve been reading a lot about the psychology of rapists, and the psychology of what happens to the victim, and why people rape … So, with each book, I’m interested in taking an issue, or an area of crime, that impinges on society, hopefully without being didactic.”
  “I do plan my books – perhaps because of my background in film – in terms of the three-act structure. I always think of three high-points as the basic guts of the book. And I do plan the ending, I must know the ending. It might change when I get to it, but I do need to have a vanishing point. And I plan the first 20% quite carefully. But I love the magic that happens, and I’m sure you know what I mean, as a writer, when something pops up that wasn’t originally intended. My best time for writing is six o’clock in the evening, a vodka martini, put on some music, and get in the zone. And then blitz until about ten at night. And when a character appears, who was not there 10 seconds ago, then wow … But then, that happens to me in almost every book.”

  Peter James’s DEAD TOMORROW is published by Macmillan.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Buon Viaggio

Stick a fork in my skinny white ass, I’m done. At least, I’m done for the next 10 days – by the time you read this, I’ll be with the Lovely Ladies in Italy, first in Bergamo, for the wedding of the lovely Lisa Armstrong and the equally fragrant Michael Heraghty, and then on to Lake Garda (right) for a week. Looking forward to it …
  It’s been a busy, busy year – I really can’t remember the last time I looked forward to a holiday so much. The month I spent in the Greek islands with my brother, maybe, ‘researching’ a novel. If that novel is ever written, it’ll be about White Russians, and the entire soundtrack will be the Stones augmented by Don Henley’s The Boys of Summer.
  Met a guy on Ios during that holiday, actually. He walked into the Orange Bar barefoot, wearing a three-quarter length coat and white duck trousers, naked from the waist up, deeply tanned. He was rough around in the edges, and was the spitting image of El Dudalero Lebowski. That was the start of the White Russians, if memory serves. Anyway, I bought a round of Caucasians and brought one over to him. He just looked at me. I said, ‘Y’know, the Dude always drinks White Russians.’ He said, ‘Uh, sorry, man?’ I said, ‘The movie, The Big Lebowski.’ ‘Sorry, man, never heard of it.’ ‘You’ve never heard of The Big Lebowski?’ Cue shifty glance right and left. ‘I’ve, uh, had reason to be out of the jurisdiction for some time now.’
  Nice.
  So, Italy beckons, and I can’t wait – I’m already seeing long, lazy evenings on village squares drinking too much wine and eating too much pasta. Poor old Lily’s routine is about to be knocked into orbit … It’s the first proper holiday I’ve had in 12 months. The last holiday I had, I got stuck on a road-trip from Toronto to Baltimore with John McFetridge, who spent the entire nine days teaching me the rules of baseball. Or Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing. Or some such thing ... There were rules, I remember that much. So that doesn’t count.
  I’ve only ever been to Italy twice before, once to Sicily, the other time a stop-over at Milan airport, where I was accosted by an Alsatian sniffer dog and an armed cop, demanding to know what drugs I was smuggling, this at 8am, while I was hungover in the basement of hell, having flown out of Athens before dawn after a full night’s drinking with some Australian photographers. Sicily was nice, if I remember correctly … The best bit was when I discovered that ‘the bill’ in Italian is ‘il cunto’. I was storming into restaurants to pay for strangers’ meals after I heard that …
  Anyway, I’ll see you all back here some time near the end of the month. In the meantime, here’s Don Henley’s The Boys of Summer. Roll it there, Collette ...

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Running On Empty

Last week I rather rashly posted up the opening snippet from my work-in-progress, aka THE BIG EMPTY, which is a sequel to my very first novel, EIGHTBALL BOOGIE. It features Harry Rigby, erstwhile ‘research consultant’ and now, after serving the best part of five years in prison for manslaughter, a taxi-driver (not pictured, right), on the basis that killing your own brother is a pretty good way of making yourself the least private eye in town. Anyway, I said last week I’d post up the rest of the first chapter of THE BIG EMPTY, so here goes.

1.

At the inquest they reckoned Finn punched down through the Audi’s boot from nine floors up. The boot concertina’d, puncturing the petrol tank. Shearing metal sparked.
  Ka-boom …
  The explosion blasted out the Audi’s windows. Mine too, front and back, jolting the cab off its front wheels. The airbag absorbed most of the flying glass but it punched me in the chest so hard it damn near broke ribs.
  My fault, of course. I wasn’t tensed up expecting a guy to plummet nine floors into an Audi’s petrol tank. I was just sitting there smoking and tapping the steering-wheel to ABC, When Smokey Sings. Wondering if it wasn’t too late to swing around by The Cellars for a late one, maybe a game of pool.
  Then, ka-boomski, I was semi-conscious, pain grating down my left side. Maybe I even blacked out. The heat got me moving, reaching around the deflating airbag to turn the key in the ignition, rolling the cab back until it was out of range. Then I squeezed out from behind the airbag and staggered to the Audi.
  The heat was fierce but I was still half-dazed, so I dived in and grabbed his ankles. One of his moccasins slipped off as he came free and at first I thought I’d ripped him in half. Then I thought he’d dropped a dwarf on the Audi. Strange the things you think about when you’re trying not to think at all.
  I dragged him away from the flames. That left a trail of blood and frying flesh stuck to the tarmac. The smell set my guts heaving, a sickly-sweet stench of burning pork. Then I realised why he seemed so short.
  The impact had driven his head and shoulders back up into his torso. If you looked closely enough, there was still some remnant of what had once been his neck. But the head had smashed like pulpy melon.
  I rang it in while globs of grey matter spat and shrivelled on the Audi’s glowing metalwork.


How it began was a balmy night, twenty past ten, the caller ID flashing Finn-Finn-Finn. I put down the book, turned on the radio to check his mood.
  Not good. Tindersticks, Tiny Tears.
  I picked up anyway. ‘How goes it?’
  ‘Not bad. You busy?’
  ‘Nope.’
  ‘How’s the weather?’
  ‘Balmy. You off on holidays?’
  ‘Hoping to.’
  ‘For how long?’
  ‘Three weeks if I can do it.’
  ‘You deserve it, man. See you later.’
  ‘Sweet.’
  I rang Herb.
  ‘Yello.’
  ‘Finn was on.’
  ‘What’s he looking?’
  ‘Same as last time.’
  ‘Alright. Give me ten minutes.’
  ‘It’ll be that by the time I get there. Put the kettle on.’
  I switched off the cab’s light and eased out of the rank, turning right onto Wine Street towards the Strandhill Road. At the lights Tiny Tears segued into Take Me Out, Franz Ferdinand. He followed that with The Jam, Town Called Malice. By then I was turning off Strandhill up into Larkhill and zapping Herb’s gate.
  Finn played good music but you had to be in the mood. Some nights he went off on a jag: Cohen, Drake, Walker, Waits. Santa Claus with a straight razor in his mitt, black dogs howling down the moon. Spend long enough driving a cab listening to Finn, you’ll wind up with a Mohawk cruising underage whores, trying to think of a politician it’d be worth the bullet to plug.


Herb was out back in the greenhouse, his mop of curly red hair just visible above staked rows of green. I ambled on down.
  He looked to be receiving communion: hands together, palms up, a jagged leaf trapped between his thumbs. I waited as he drew his palms up along the length of the leaf in a delicate operation: too much pressure and the leaf breaks off, not enough and the oil stays put. Herb could’ve done it on the back of a jet-ski.
  When the leaf slid away, he began rubbing the heels of his palms together. A long brown needle appeared.
  ‘Finn’s same again,’ he said.
  ‘What about it?’
  ‘That’s three bags, right?’
  ‘Yep.’
  ‘He got three last month too.’
  Herb didn’t do half-measures. Primo bud, 50-gram bags: sweet as Bambi going down, a kick like Thumper dreaming snares.
  ‘He has his guy down in the college,’ I said.
  ‘Except now it’s May and the students are gone home. Who’s he dealing to, the janitors?’
  ‘Want me to have a word?’
  ‘Don’t make like it’s a big deal. Just suss him out.’
  ‘Can do.’
  We headed up to the house. I made the coffee. Herb built a jay, just the single brown needle in a couple of skins. He never touched the grass he sold on. That came in from Galway to be cut with the oregano he grew in the greenhouse alongside the tomatoes, chilies, red and green peppers. In among the legit flora was Herb’s homegrown, a cross-pollination it had taken him two years to get just right. It’d been worth the wait. If you ever see a levitating rhino, you’re smoking Herb’s brew. Or the rhino is.
  He sprawled in his Ezy-Chair flipping channels, the sound down. ‘How’re the idiots?’ he said, handing the joint across.
  Herb didn’t get out a lot. It wasn’t a phobia, he just didn’t like people. Herb’s credo: always assume everyone’s an idiot.
  He’d been a photographer once, a good one, hooked up with an agency. We’d been a team freelancing local news and syndicating to the nationals. I did the hack work while Herb combined shutterbug with digging up background material on the web.
  Then Herb got his face stove in. Someone had told someone else that Herb had a photograph the someone else wanted. I was the someone who’d done the telling. Inadvertently, as it happened. Not that the who mattered. The bruisers were still walking around, free to stove at will. Herb stayed home, his complexion pasty, skin doughy. The way it can get when most of both jaws and one cheekbone are underpinned by steel plate.
  They’d wrecked his computers too, his dark room, everything worth anything. So Herb had the house torched, cashed in the insurance. Moved out to Larkhill, installed security gates, CC cameras. Invested in a little grass. Now he was a local player, freelance, paying subs to the Morans and clearing two or three grand a month.
  Chickenfeed, for some. And Herb could’ve been doing treble that, multiples, if he’d gotten into coke and E, maybe even smack. But Herb liked it steady, sure and under the radar. The way he saw it, no cop was busting his hump for Public Enemy No # 1,027.
  The cab was an idea I’d picked up inside. A front to get him onto the Revenue’s books and keep them sweet. So no one got the urge to pick up the phone and ring the Criminal Assets Bureau, wondering how no-income Herb could afford a four-bed on its own grounds out in the burbs. The little tax he did pay he claimed back in VAT, running expenses, all that, with the bonus of the cab being good cover for punting deals on to his regulars.
  ‘Had a guy in the back earlier on,’ I said. ‘He reckoned he could get me a gun.’
  ‘You ask him if he could get you a gun?’
  ‘Nope.’
  ‘Fucking idiot. By the way.’ He fumbled with his cell phone, tossed it across. He’d called up a text message: Herbie – cn u remind Hry he has Ben’s PARENT-TEACHER mting tmoro 2pm? Ta, Dee.
  ‘Shit,’ I said.
  ‘Will you make it?’
  ‘Have to. Dee reckons she has a stock-take on at work.’
  ‘So when are you supposed to sleep?’
  ‘My zeds wouldn’t be one of Dee’s priorities, Herb.’
  He shrugged and switched off the TV. Turned on the stereo, tuned it to Finn. Nick Drake, Black Dog. One of Finn’s favourites. We listened in silence. Herb cracked first.
  ‘I got some Motown in there,’ he said, pointing at his CD rack. ‘I want you to bring it down to the docks, tie that part-time fucking philanthropist to his chair and tell him he’s getting no more score until I hear Smokey.’
  ‘Will do.’ I nodded at the TV. ‘Anything good on later?’
  ‘You coming back?’
  ‘Might as well stay up after I knock off. Want me to grab a DVD?’
  ‘Something black-and-white,’ he said. ‘The kind where they crack wise and smoke a lot.’


I swung around by Blockbusters and picked up Duck Soup, Groucho on the cover tipping ash off his cigar. By then the orange light was showing, so I crossed town to the all-night station on Pearse Road, filled up.
  It was better out in the suburbs, and it was mostly all suburbs, but the town was a heart-attack of concrete and chrome. Old streets, high and narrow, arteries that had thickened and gnarled so the traffic trickled or didn’t move at all. The light a frozen glare shot with greens and reds, blinking pink neon, fluorescent blues. Boom-boom blasting from rolled-down windows, the deep bass pulsing out muscles of sound.
  On a bad night it took fifteen minutes to crawl the two hundred yards along Castle Street into Grafton Street. The mob shuffling out of the chippers wore hoodies over baggy denims, the dragging hems frayed. Night of the Living McDead. The girls in cropped tops over bulging bellies with hipster jeans showcasing cheese-cutter thongs. In case someone might think they weren’t wearing any underwear at all, maybe.
  I skipped O’Connell Street, heading east along John Street, turning north down Adelaide and then west at the new bridge onto Lynn’s Dock, a grapefruit moon hanging low above the quays. Finn playing The Northern Pikes, Place That’s Insane. On along Ballast Quay to the docks proper, a spit of land jutting out into the sea, maybe forty acres of crumbling warehouse facing open water. Behind the warehouses lay a marshy jungle of weeds. Once in a while there was talk of turning it into a nature preserve, a bird sanctuary, but no one ever did anything about it. The birds came and went anyway.
  Down at the breakwater the Port Authority building was nine stories of black concrete, a finger flipping the bird to the town. Sligo’s Ozymandias, our monument to hubris, built back in the ’60s when Lemass had all boats on a rising tide and the docks were buzzing, a North Atlantic entry point for Polish coal, Norwegian pine, Jamaican sugar, Australian wool. Oil tankers moored down at the deepwater. Russians slipped ashore and never went to sea again. The first African, a Nigerian, was a celebrity. They called him Paddy Dubh and he never had to pay when he bought a pint of stout.
  Then the ’70s slithered in. Crude oil went through the roof. The coal stopped coming, then the sugar. The channel silted up. Paddy had to buy his own stout. Things got so bad the Industrial Development Authority had to buy the PA building and then lease back two of the nine stories to the Port Authority. Even that was a farce, the IDA loaning the PA the money to pay the lease.
  Then the ’80s, a good decade to be a weed or a rat. Everyone forgot about the docks, or tried to.
  Bob Hamilton came in like the cavalry. He’d pretty much dry-lined every last square inch of Thatcher’s London, and when they finally kicked out the Iron Lady, Big Bob took that as his cue. Came home in ’91, sniffed the wind. Liquidated every last asset of Hamilton Holdings and diversified into Irish real estate. Joined the Rotary Club, the Tennis Club and damn near every other club in town bar the Tuesday night chess in the Trades. Turned up on the board of the local IDA about four months before he bought up sixteen acres of docklands, which included the PA building and not a lot of anything else.
  A rumour went around that Big Bob was insider trading: investment on its way, a port rejuvenation, Bob all set to make a killing. No one believed it. Not the bit about insider trading; no one gave a Jap’s crap about that. It was the one about investment that got the lines all a-chortle over at the brew.
  The investment never did arrive, although there was a killing of sorts three years later when Bob’s brand new Beamer wound up in the deepwater late one January evening, Bob still at the wheel. Finn told me the official verdict was death by misadventure but the inquest failed to offer a satisfactory reason as to why the Beamer’s windows might have been open down at the deepwater late one January evening.
  There were few lights still working down at the docks. The quays lay open, no guard rail, the sheer drop interrupted only by rusting containers, trailers of mouldy timber, piles of abandoned scrap metal. I tooled along the quays in second gear, the tarmac pot-holed and cracked, verges crumbling. If you squinted, the road looked like a Curly Wurly. High weeds lined both sides of the road, clumping in the bricked-up doorways of the warehouses. The day had been hot and it was still warm, the acrid hum of melting tar thickening the air.
  I turned into the PA’s yard and saw a sleek maroon Saab gleaming under the single bare light over the door. Finn’s pirate station was a one-man show and DJs playing Leonard Cohen don’t get groupies since John Peel passed on, bless his cotton socks, so I crossed the yard in a wide arc and eased in behind Finn’s battered black Audi, parking tight to the wall.
  The Saab flashed me. I waited. Nothing else happened, so I got out and locked the car, strolled around to the PA’s door.
  The driver got out of the Saab and put a hand up, palm out. ‘Far enough, pal.’
  ‘How far wouldn’t be enough?’
  ‘Just about there.’
  He was built like an upside-down cello. A straight jab to the chin would need to set up base camp on his sternum before making its final assault. Out back a short ponytail compensated for the balding on top. He wore a white shirt, a thin black tie. Through the Saab’s open door I could see a black peaked cap on the passenger seat, its peak shiny patent leather.
  I pulled up six inches shy of where I guessed his swing would land. ‘I’m expected,’ I said.
  ‘Not by me you’re not.’
  ‘True.’
  The trouble there is, if one guy gets to thinking he can tell you what you can do, it’s only a matter of time before the rest start feeling the same. Then you’re on the skids. And I was already on the skids.
  ‘I’m going up,’ I said.
  ‘Fine by me, pal. Just not yet.’
  I craned my neck to glance straight up at the ninth floor, the window’s yellow glow. ‘He makes you wear a hat?’ I said.
  That didn’t work him at all. ‘You know what I like?’ he said. ‘Cars, threads and quim. This way, I get paid to drive and wear good suits.’
  ‘Two out of three ain’t bad.’
  ‘I make out.’ He up-jutted his chin. ‘Finn’s expecting you?’
  ‘Yep.’
  He looked meaningfully at the cab. ‘Something wrong with his Audi?’
  ‘Other than it’s not a Porsche?’
  ‘Too fucking right. Jimmy,’ he said then, by way of introduction.
  ‘Rigby.’
  He leaned in, sniffed the air, making a point of it, letting me know he’d marked my cards. ‘Stay useful, Rigby.’
  ‘I’ll try.’

  © Declan Burke, 2009

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Nobody Move, This Is A Review: THE LOVERS, THE TWELVE and ALL THE DEAD VOICES

The supernatural has always been a consistent element in John Connolly’s novels and short stories. This is particularly true of the Charlie Parker novels, in which Parker, a private investigator, finds himself drawn to manifestations of evil that luridly and unabashedly tap into the world’s folk narratives to prod at readers’ primal fears. It’s a clever piece of marketing, to blend two of literature’s best-selling genres, in crime fiction and horror, but it takes even cleverer writing to splice the genres convincingly. Connolly is by now the acknowledged master of the gothic noir.
  In recent years, the supernatural has become less and less a presence in Connolly’s novels, to the extent that last year’s The Reapers was a revenge tale with no supernatural aspects at all. The demons are back with a vengeance in his latest offering, however, as Charlie Parker investigates the circumstances of how his father, Will Parker, a well-respected and responsible policeman, came to shoot to death two teenagers in an apparently unprovoked attack, before turning his gun on himself and committing suicide.
  Charlie Parker is plagued by two kinds of demons in The Lovers. The first, the supernatural and more literal kind, have been sent to eliminate Parker at all costs, for fear of what, or whom, his investigations might eventually lead him to. The pair of demons, male and female, are eternal lovers who return to earth time and again, always finding one another, always engaged in their lethal trade.
  The second kind of demons are the metaphorical kind, as Parker comes to realise that he cannot outrun the horrors he has witnessed. The murder of his wife and daughter, Susan and Jennifer, has always been an integral part of the Parker psyche, but the tragedy plays a more powerful part in the backstory to The Lovers than usual, as Parker finds himself haunted by their shades. As rendered by Connolly, the characters are not ghosts, nor angels, nor undead, but creatures that seem to be entirely new in the realms of the supernatural. Without recourse to cliché or sentimentality, Connolly creates vivid characters in ‘Susan’ and ‘Jennifer’, in the process adding a layer of profundity to a page-turning thriller.
  But then The Lovers, for all that it appears to be an unconventional but genre-friendly take on the classic private eye story, eventually reveals itself to be a rather complex novel, and one that is deliciously ambitious in its exploration of the meanings behind big small words such as love, family, duty and blood. As all the classic literary private eyes eventually come to do, Charlie Parker spends the bulk of the novel investigating himself, in dogged pursuit of his own identity, as he tries to untangle decades of lies, half-truths and the well-meant obfuscations of his father’s former partners and friends. Connolly has penned some very fine novels over the last decade or so, but this is arguably his finest to date.
  Stuart Neville’s debut novel The Twelve also features supernatural elements. As it opens, we find ex-IRA killer Gerry Fegan plagued by the ghosts of those he murdered during ‘the Troubles’. The ghosts are demanding blood vengeance, but it’s not Fegan’s blood they want: it’s the blood of those who ordered the killings, those who used Fegan as a tool – albeit a willing tool – to achieve their sordid aims.
  Last year, in The Truth Commissioner, David Park introduced a fictional ‘truth and reconciliation’ process to the landscape of Northern Ireland’s post-Troubles fiction. That novel, and The Twelve, are attempts to deal with the consequences of the Peace Process, and particularly those elements of the Peace Process that attempt to gloss over the ugly truth of three decades of cold-blooded, sectarian murder. Neville’s novel posits Gerry Fegan as judge, jury and executioner of the men who orchestrated killing campaigns for personal gain, and gives a fictional voice to something crucial that has been sadly lacking in reality – a heartfelt, profound apology from the killers for all the agony inflicted on ordinary people.
  Gerry Fegan is an utterly compelling character, as chillingly ruthless as Richard Stark’s protagonist Parker, but driven by conscience and a desire to absolve himself of his sins by putting right his own small corner of the world, even if that means making the ultimate sacrifice. Stuart Neville’s novel deals in a very pragmatic way with contemporary issues, but he isn’t afraid to introduce some very old-fashioned concepts, not least of which are guilt, redemption and – potentially, at least – a spiritual salvation.
  The ghosts that haunt Fegan are another old-fashioned touch, but, as with John Connolly, Neville has the talent to believably blend the tropes of the crime novel and those of a horror, in the process creating a page-turning thriller akin to a collaboration between John Connolly and Stephen King. For all that the shadows of Fegan’s world are populated by ghosts, however, Neville never explicitly states that the supernatural is a reality. Fegan is the only character to see the ghosts, and as the novel progresses, it becomes more and more apparent that the ‘ghosts’ are in fact manifestations of Fegan’s guilt, a consequence of his internalising his conflicts.
  Whether or not Fegan and his ghosts come in time to be seen as a metaphor for Northern Ireland itself, as it internalises and represses its response to its sundering conflicts, remains to be seen. For now, The Twelve is a superb thriller, and one of the first great post-Troubles novels to emerge from Northern Ireland.
  The dead also play their part in Declan Hughes’s latest novel, All the Dead Voices. The fourth outing for Hughes’s Dublin-based private investigator Ed Loy, the novel peels back the skin of post-Celtic Tiger Ireland to reveal the festering corpse beneath.
  In terms of the great fictional private eyes, Ross Macdonald took up the baton from Raymond Chandler. Where Chandler deployed Philip Marlowe to investigate the culture and society of 1940’s California, Macdonald used Lew Archer as a means of investigating the family as the microcosmic society. Declan Hughes employs the Macdonald model to get at the truth of contemporary Ireland, as Ed Loy infiltrates families and uncovers their secrets, excavating skeletons and unravelling histories.
  In All the Dead Voices, Hughes’s most ambitious novel to date, the personal becomes political. When a fifteen-year-old murder case is re-opened, Loy is employed by the victim’s daughter to investigate the former suspects for the killing, a list that includes an ex-paramilitary, a property developer, and a psychotic gangland kingpin.
  There’s a wonderful immediacy to Hughes’s depiction of recession-hit Ireland, and not least because the novel feels at times as if it has been ripped from yesterday’s breathless newspaper headlines. Journalism, it is said, is the first draft of history, but the crime novel can often function as its second draft, given its obsession with diagnosing the world’s ills and exploring its taboos. Where Hughes excels, however, is his ability to position the reader at the nexus where crime meets civilised society.
  While Hughes appreciates the private eye’s heritage, and acknowledges the romantic notion of the cynical PI as a tarnished knight, he is also aware that the intimacy of the Dublin setting is paramount. Thus, when Loy meets with a former paramilitary, or a gangland boss, the detective is not descending into some kind of Dantaesque inferno, or tentatively engaging with criminality for the sake of a greater good. Loy, if not already on first-name terms with the criminal fraternity, generally knows a man who is, the implication being that Irish society at large has a familiarity with crime that doesn’t always manifest itself as contempt. As with Gene Kerrigan’s recent Dark Times in the City, and Alan Glynn’s forthcoming Winterland, Hughes’s novel subtly explores the extent to which, in Ireland, the supposedly exclusive worlds of crime, business and politics can very often be fluid concepts capable of overlap and lucrative cross-pollination, a place where the fingers that once fumbled in greasy tills are now twitching on triggers.
  Written in the laconic and staccato rhythms of the classic hard-boiled private eye novel, and featuring a cast of vividly drawn ne’er-do-wells and no little amount of pitch-black humour, All the Dead Voices is crucial reading for anyone who wishes to understand how modern Ireland works. – Declan Burke

  This review first appeared in the Sunday Independent

Monday, June 15, 2009

A Meaty Dish? Yep, It’s Irish Stu

Leaving aside for the moment the impact of his windswept and rugged features on the ladies of this parish, Dishy Stuart Neville’s debut THE TWELVE is kicking up quite a lot of dust at the moment, and quite rightly too, given that it is, if I may immodestly paraphrase from the review in last weekend’s Sunday Indo (see post below), “a superb thriller, and one of the first great post-Troubles novels to emerge from Northern Ireland.”
  Anyway, Stuart is being interviewed all over the place right now. To wit:
  Stuart tells The Observer’s Henry McDonald that, “I see this book primarily as a thriller with a paranormal element to it and one that explores the themes of Northern Ireland’s recent past.”
  My own fave, though, is Stuart’s response to the Book Depository’s Mark Thwaite when Mark asks, at the end of the interview, if there’s anything else Stuart would like to add. Quoth Stuart: “Keep buying books! The world economy is in a bad way, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the really valuable things. Books, whether highbrow or lowbrow, whether on paper or on an e-reader, are what made everything we have today possible.”
  Amen, brother …

Sunday, June 14, 2009

More Kicks Than Pricks

A good satirist is a thorn in the side of the status quo, although there’s as many kicks as there are pricks in Garbhan Downey’s latest offering, THE WAR OF THE BLUE ROSES, if Gerard Brennan’s hot-off-the-presses review is to believed. To wit:
“Downey employs a light-hearted and uncomplicated voice in the telling of this tale. Considering the intricacies of the plot, that’s probably a blessing. But what I found most intriguing is how he goes against a lot of the modern advice on writing crime fiction. He head-hops like a madman, sharing multiple character perspectives within paragraphs, and he has nothing against dialogue tagging or adverbs. These are the kind of things that would normally pull me out of the story and make me reach for my editing hat. But when Garbhan Downey does it, it’s okay. He’s that good.” – Gerard Brennan, CSNI
  For the rest of the review, clickety-click here.
  Meanwhile, THE WAR OF THE BLUE ROSES gets the power-point book trailer treatment over at Author Stream. The Big Question: What’s the skinny on whether book trailers are worth the effort? Anyone out there with compelling proof that they add to sales? I’m all ears ...