“Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The All-Ireland Hurling Final: A Special Post For Peter Rozovsky

RESULT: Kilkenny 2-22 : 0-23 Tipperary

This time last year, I was playing a very poor host to crime fiction’s very own Uncle Travelling Matt Fraggle, aka Peter Rozovsky (right), who was in town for the Books 2008 Festival. As part of his weekend, Peter wandered into town on the Sunday afternoon and discovered that there was some kind of match being played at Croke Park. He bought himself a ticket and toddled along, watched Kilkenny demolish Waterford in the All-Ireland hurling final, and pronounced himself fairly impressed with the experience.
  Now, the thing about last year’s hurling final is that Kilkenny put in a performance that was nigh-on pitch perfect, a display of total hurling that was unexpected even for a team that is regarded as one of the finest hurling outfits of all time, and akin, in football terms, to watching Real Madrid (Di Stefano, Eusebio, et al) beat Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 in the 1960 European Cup Final. So Peter got very lucky, and shouldn’t ever expect to see as fine a display again.
  Peter was also lucky to see Henry Shefflin in his prime. I’m too young to have seen the likes of greats such as Nicky Rackard, Christy Ring, John Doyle or Eddie Keher play, but Henry Shefflin belongs in the pantheon. Certainly he has the gifts, in hurling terms, of a Magic Johnson or a Maradona. Big and strong, brave and honest, he blends brute strength with the delicate touch of a brain surgeon, and has the work ethic of a red ant to boot. He is the complete hurler, and – though it breaks my heart to say it, given that I’m a Wexford man when it comes to hurling – it’s unlikely we’ll see his quality again. Mind you, Joe Canning might have something to say about that …
  Anyway, the pairing for tomorrow’s final – Kilkenny again, vs Tipperary – should make for a much better game, given that Tipp are unlikely to collapse the way Waterford did last year, and in fact should have beaten an admittedly under-strength Kilkenny in the League Final earlier this year. Two good, strong, tough, brave and very skilful teams – I’m already salivating at the prospect. As far as I can make out, the game will be webcast here, although I’m not sure if it’s going to be available worldwide – Peter, you may want to fiddle about with IP addresses and whatnot if you want to see it live.
  For those of you who know nothing about hurling, let me say that it’s similar to ice hockey in speed, skill and aggression, although hurlers play the game in the air as well as on the ground – they lift the ball, catch it in mid-flight, etc. It’s played on grass, on a pitch roughly the size of a gridiron, and it’s not unusual for a man to score from sixty, seventy or even eighty yards out the field. Other than helmets (which not everyone wears), the players wear no protection or armour; and they are amateur players who play the game to a professional standard with no other reward than pride in the jersey. There is for only very rare exceptions a system of transfer. You play for the county where you were born.
  We were watching some golf major on TV a few years ago, and Tiger Woods hit a three-iron to within three feet of the pin, stopping it dead bar the tiniest of back-spins. The crowd went ape. My father, an ex-hurler, said, ‘Aye, now let’s see him do it at full sprint, with some hairy redneck trying to take his head off.’ Which is, in essence, the appeal of hurling in a nutshell.
  In my never-humble opinion, hurling is the greatest game ever played. There is hurling, and there is everything else. The vid below is a decent introduction …

Friday, September 4, 2009

Alan Glynn: In Which Our Discontent Gets WINTERLAND

The worse things get here in Ireland – and the place is disintegrating by the day, with worse (Nama, the Lisbon referendum, the increasingly unfunny Tweedledum ‘n’ Tweedledee act that is the Fianna Fail / Green Party coalition) coming down the pike – the more appropriate becomes the title of Alan Glynn’s WINTERLAND. Contemporary and brutally relevant, it is set against a Dublin backdrop in which the worlds of crime, big business and politics collide, with Joe O’Schmoe (and his comely missus, Josephine) bearing the brunt of the fall-out, as always. WINTERLAND isn’t due out until November 5th, but the covers (UK above, US below) have appeared and the big-ups keeping on coming. To wit:
“Timely, topical, and thrilling.” – John Connolly

“A terrific read ... completely involving.” – George Pelecanos

“A dark and terrifying slice of Dublin noir. I loved it.” – RJ Ellory

“This is the colossus of Irish crime fiction. What MYSTIC RIVER did for Dennis Lehane, WINTERLAND should do for Alan Glynn. It is a noir masterpiece, the bar against which all future works will be judged.” – Ken Bruen
  And while we’re on the subject of Ken Bruen, Gerard Brennan has news over at CSNI about a forthcoming TV series based on the Jack Taylor novels. Clickety-click here for the inside skinny

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

How Timely It Was, How Timely

Three cheers, two stools and a resounding huzzah for James Kelman (right), who last week managed the not inconsiderable feat of uniting fans of Harry Potter and crime fiction. As far as I can make out, he was lamenting the decline a particular kind of indigenous Scottish writing, and unloaded all over crime fic and teenage wizards to illustrate his point.
  Predictably, the issue quickly became one of whether or not crime fiction is crap, and the extent to which the literary novelist has or has not crawled up the dead end of his or her fundament.
  At the risk of sounding churlish, it strikes me that crime fiction readers and writers are a little too quick to take offence whenever a ‘literary’ writer disses crime writing. I mean, imagine it in reverse: what would the reaction be in the literary world if Dan Brown or James Patterson offered the opinion that literary fiction is rubbish? Chuckles of disbelief, I’d imagine.
  Is it a confidence issue? Because to me there’s something immature about a response that basically consists of pointing a trembling finger and shrieking, ‘No, you’re crap!’
  Also last week, although I’d imagine the two events were unrelated, Lev Grossman had a superb piece in the Wall Street Journal on the second coming of plot in the contemporary novel, despite a century-long Modernist conspiracy to kill off the kind of good old-fashioned story-telling you only get in genre novels these days (if you haven’t read it, it’s well worth reading in full). Quoth Lev:
“Look at Cormac McCarthy, who for years appeared to be the oldest living Modernist in captivity, but who has inaugurated his late period with a serial-killer novel followed by a work of apocalyptic science fiction. Look at Thomas Pynchon—in INHERENT VICE he has swapped his usual cumbersome verbal calisthenics for the more manoeuvrable chassis of a hard-boiled detective novel.
  “This is the future of fiction. The novel is finally waking up from its 100-year carbonite nap. Old hierarchies of taste are collapsing. Genres are hybridizing. The balance of power is swinging from the writer back to the reader, and compromises with the public taste are being struck all over the place. Lyricism is on the wane, and suspense and humor and pacing are shedding their stigmas and taking their place as the core literary technologies of the 21st century.”
  You can add the name of William Boyd to those of McCarthy and Pynchon. Boyd’s RESTLESS, a literary spy thriller, won the Costa prize last year, and ORDINARY THUNDERSTORMS, his new one, should appeal to fans of David Goodis and his ilk, with a protagonist whose respectable life is turned upside down when he finds himself on the run, wanted for murder and pursued by a killer. Boyd has also won the Whitbread Prize, and been shortlisted for Booker and IMPAC prizes, so his literary credentials are impeccable. And, if ORDINARY THUNDERSTORMS is anything to go by, the man can tell a page-turning story. Mind you, he’s also a screenwriter and director, so maybe he has a different take on narrative and pacing than most literary novelists.
  But there’s the rub. Why does a story always have to have a beginning, middle and end? Aren’t people entitled to read a book for the beauty of its language, or the existential angst of its fragmented, non-linear narrative? The desire, or need, for a story to have a recognisable arc is in a microcosm as the same as wanting to believe that there is a meaning to life, the universe and everything. A comforting faith, certainly, but one that is at odds with the scientific truth that, at the quantum level, life is no more than chaos and chance. The hero who comes through his trials to earn a happy ending can be found in all the earliest mythologies, and remains the dominant paradigm, but the modern story that follows that kind of arc – whether it’s a crime fic, romance, sci-fi YA or literary novel – is just another kind of fairytale. And, in defence of even the most self-indulgent post-Modernist, it’s nice sometimes to read a story that isn’t a fairytale.
  The issue of quality, when it comes to the use of language, is also a live one. Most literary snobs I know tend to believe that crime fiction is written by illiterates clutching crayons in their sweaty fists – although, for that matter, most literary snobs tend not to have read very much crime fiction. It’s a hoary old conker, but it’s worth repeating: there are good and bad crime writers, just as there are interesting and boring literary writers. Some crime writers can craft as fine a line as the best literary writers; others are every bit as bad as the literary writer who confuses bad poetry with good prose. The essential difference, I think, is that even with a crime writer who is hopelessly hackneyed on a line-by-line basis, there’s generally enough story to carry the reader along, whereas reading a bad literary stylist can be a Sisyphean slog.
  But there are many literary writers who, though they can’t plot to save their lives, are worth reading for their prose alone. I defer to no one in believing that Elmore Leonard is one of the pre-eminent stylists (and storytellers) of his generation, and his dictum – if it sounds like writing, take it out – obviously works for him. But that’s a reductionist view of storytelling, and writing. Where’s the harm, once in a while, to break off from a story to savour a line or a paragraph, and re-read it for its craft, or its profundity, or for whatever reason you’re having yourself? Certainly that kind of writing is frowned upon in commercial fiction, where the rule of thumb is to immerse your reader in the story as quickly as possible, and do nothing that might prick the bubble of illusion. But, again, that kind of reading seems a little childish to me – the novel has the edge over movies, for example, precisely because it’s a two-way process in which the reader has to actively engage with the story, conspiring with the writer to create the images and pictures that float up off the page. Even while watching the best of movies, I never feel to urge to stop the film and rewind, the better to savour a particularly good scene. But I do get that urge, and regularly, when I’m reading a good book.
  I suppose all I’m doing here is repeating Raymond Chandler’s old saw, that there’s no kinds of books, just good and bad books. I loved John Banville’s THE INFINITIES, for example, but I’ve also been looking forward all year to Elmore Leonard’s ROAD DOGS and James Ellroy’s BLOOD’S A ROVER. Radically different kinds of stories, and storytelling, but I’m pretty sure that when I look back at the end of the year, I’ll have enjoyed all three on their own terms.
  Anyway, the point of all of this, I think, is express the wish that, the next time some uninformed snob unloads on crime fiction, the reaction from the crime fic community might be a little less Pavlovian; that the response would be to chuckle, perhaps even condescendingly, at the poor unfortunate who simply doesn’t understand, probably because he or she doesn’t read crime fiction. The crime genre may well be a relatively young one in terms of the evolution of the novel, but even at that we should be long past the phase in which throwing toys of out the pram, or huffing our way into hysterics, is considered an adequate response to criticism.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Toronto’s Lone Ranger; and OLD DOGS For A Hard Road

It’s over a year now since I read John McFetridge’s SWAP, the third in his oeuvre after the Toronto-set DIRTY SWEET and EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS IS NOWHERE. As with the previous two, SWAP sent me into a sweaty, teeth-grinding frenzy of green-eyed monsterdom, which is always a good sign. Ken Bruen likes it too. Quoth Ken’s blurb:
“SWAP is a stunning leap forward from an already fine author. This is John channelling Elmore Leonard at the height of his game and with dialogue Tarantino would kill for. A plot that moves like Pulp Fiction but with a nice Canadian slant that keeps it fresh and different. John’s creation of the African-American characters is like Sallis at his finest. With a wicked sense of humour that is irresistible, SWAP moves Canadian mystery right to the top.”
  SWAP is published today in Canada, although it won’t hit U.S. stores – as LET IT RIDE – until next February. For what it’s worth, and bearing in mind that yon McFetridge is a good mate of mine, my advice is not to wait: SWAP is as good as the noir novel gets.
  Meanwhile, and while we’re on the subject of Ken Bruen, I’m hearing a rumour that yet another of his novels, the Busted Flush TOWER collaboration with Reed Farrel Coleman, has been optioned for the big screen, this time by the team behind the Tom Cruise flick Valkyrie. Can anyone confirm?
  Meanwhile meanwhile, and while we’re on the subject of Busted Flush and bigging-up good mates, here’s the cover for Donna Moore’s forthcoming OLD DOGS. Is it just me, or is that cover a work of art?

Monday, August 31, 2009

A Lender Nor A Borrower Be

With all the reams dedicated to the pros and cons of Kindle, I’m sure someone else has covered this elsewhere, but if they have I haven’t come across it. Anyway, what I’m wondering is this: What’s going to happen to the borrowing and lending of books?
  As I understand it, you won’t be able – even if it were legal to do so – to zap your latest fave from one e-reader to another. And a lot of readers take great pleasure in not only recommending a new book, but also pressing it into the hands of family and friends with the breathless command to read it now, this very minute, lest the unfortunate ignorant should fall under a bus the following morning and die without knowing true joy.
  Personally, I want to staple such people’s eyes closed. But that’s just me. And lots of people love to lend and swap books, to the extent that there’s a thriving black market in swappable books out there.
  So what’ll happen if the e-readers ever tumble over the tipping point? You’ll hardly be in a position to lend your Kindle, will you? Kind of defeats the point of having one if you keep loaning it to people so they can read books on it. And what about second-hand bookstores? Will there be some electronic equivalent, whereby a Kindle user can download pre-loved books at a fraction of the Kindle price?
  I don’t have a Kindle, at least not yet, but if I do invest then the whole lending-borrowing thing won’t be an issue, because I hate lending books. In fact, I do it only on very rare occasions, with people I can trust, and those rare occasions are enough to remind me why I don’t lend books. Mainly, it’s because no one ever returns a borrowed book.
  There are subtle reasons for this. In some cases, the borrower starts to read the book, and doesn’t like it, and then can’t return it for fear of calling the lender’s taste into question. Or the opposite occurs, and the book is so terrific that the borrower simply can’t countenance the prospect of living without the book on his or her shelf. Or, worst of all, the book is so terrific that the borrower, without asking permission, lends it on to someone else, with rave reviews. And why wouldn’t they? If you don’t love the book enough to hoard it in the first place, why should you love it enough to want it back?
  No, as with money, the best thing with books is to be neither a lender nor a borrower. If you love books, truly love them, then you’ll end up losing good friends in the fall-out and end up like me, with so few friends that you end up blogging in a pathetic attempt to generate on-line relationships.
  And all that is without opening the can of worms as to why, when people are supposed to be your friends, and family, and know you better than you know yourself, etc., they insist on lending you books you wouldn’t read were they the only books left after a nuclear holocaust. And oh, the horror, the horror, of the book-shaped Christmas gift in its shiny wrapping …

Sunday, August 30, 2009

He’ll Be Having A Go At The Lilies Next

He pee’d off the literary crew when, on accepting the Booker Prize for THE SEA, he announced that it was ‘nice to see a work of art win for a change’. Then he got stuck into crime writing – allegedly. Yesterday, in a fine interview with Fiona McCann in the Irish Times, John Banville had a go at the webnauts. To wit:
Banville is full of opinions: on art, on sport, on working life, on the internet. “Most of the stuff that people churn out on the internet is rubbish. People should learn a little bit of reticence and not imagine that they have things to say.”
  Funnily enough, I read the interview on the Irish Times’ website, in which John Banville is, as Fiona McCann points out, ‘full of opinions’ …
  The interview, of course, was marking the publication of the latest Banville novel, THE INFINITIES, which I read a couple of weeks ago and thoroughly enjoyed. Told over the course of one day, as a family gathers about its dying pater familias, Adam Godley, the story is for the most part narrated by Hermes, the messenger of the Greek gods – although, as Hermes points out, the gods being a rather protean lot, the first-person narrative duties do tend to switch about. The tale is a gently meandering one of mortal and immortal failings and foibles, and love stories, and minor infidelities, and quantum physics. The characters are fragmentary, deliberately so, as Hermes wafts in and out of their lives, with the story as a whole offering an incomplete mosaic of a family trapped in the amber of one day. The language, the prose style, is beautifully rendered, even if there are sentences and even whole paragraphs that billow like glass overblown – although it should be said that almost every line is shot through with sly and self-mocking humour. At the risk of displaying an unseemly lack of reticence, I’d say it’s Banville’s most engaging book for some time, an arched eyebrow of a comic novel that seems to appreciate its place in the grand scheme of things, which is, I think, because of its admittedly enjoyable angsty self-awareness, on the lower slopes of the empyrean rather than in the pantheon itself.