“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, October 30, 2009

Fair Thee Well Then, ‘Good Writing’, I Hardly Knew Ye

Uber-agent Darley Anderson was profiled in The Bookseller last week, with this snippet appearing near the end of the piece:
What authors need
For fiction, he wants his agency to look for character first and plot second among the over 1,300 submissions it gets monthly. “Good writing is the last thing, and we can work with authors on that.”
  The first thing to say about that is Darley Anderson’s clients sell. Lee Child, Martina Cole, John Connolly … these are writers that any agent would be delighted to have on their books. The second thing is that, if Darley Anderson’s position in publishing’s pyramid is somewhere near the apex, yours truly is pretty much buried away in the rubble of said pyramid’s foundation. But a cat, as they say, can look at a king, and I hope you’ll pardon me if this cat looks askance at his particular king.
  When I read a novel by choice (as opposed to reading it for review, or as prep for an interview, say), I read it first and foremost for the quality of its writing. Two of Darley Anderson’s clients, John Connolly and Tana French, make a good case in point. Now, it’s worth say that ‘good writing’ takes many forms, whether that’s the prose poetry of Lawrence Durrell or the hardboiled staccato of James M Cain, the brutalised rhythms of James Ellroy’s recent work, the refined elegance of John Banville, or the heightened formality of Mary Renault. ‘Good writing’, for me, is writing that is persuasively authentic to the story it is telling. To paraphrase @allanguthrie’s tweet yesterday, plot and character are bound up in ‘good writing’.
  This notion that ‘good writing’ is somehow a decadent luxury, or an anachronistic optional extra, is an insidious one, and the phenomenal success of the likes of Dan Brown, John Grisham and (particularly) James Patterson suggests that it’s already too late to stamp it out. Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James M Cain weren’t just ‘good writers’, they were great writers for whom the medium was very much the message. When they employed a pared-back, direct style it wasn’t for fear that some feeble-minded reader might be jolted from his or her feverish page-turning, it was because the style created a mood and atmosphere vital to their stories.
  Anyone who has read either of my books (hi, Mum) will know that I’m unlikely to ever win a literary prize for the quality of my prose. So this isn’t me railing against market forces on behalf of my fragile, sensitive, elegant wordsmithery. What I’m railing against is the absurdly reductionist attitude that novels can be reduced to character and plot, (mangled metaphor ahoy) with ‘good writing’ finessed onto a framework once the meat and bones have been tossed into the pot. I mean no offence to screenwriters or graphic artists, or computer game programmers for that matter, when I say that a novel is not simply another mode of storytelling. The reductionism is the equivalent of eating a stew by picking out only the pieces of meat. It may be tasty, but it won’t be very satisfying in the long run. It won’t be very healthy, either.
  I’m offended, too, by the idea that the Darley Anderson agency ‘can work with authors on that’ when it comes to ‘good writing’. A good agent is a good editor, and I’ve been lucky enough to work with two good agent-editors to date. But editing is not writing. For that matter, plot and character (if I may belabour the ‘stew’ analogy one more time) have more to do with the preparation of ingredients than they have with actual writing. Good writing, for writers and readers alike, is an ineffable magic, or should be. A good writer is not simply a flesh-and-blood computer into which we feed ‘plot’ and ‘character’ and then print off the results.
  The Darley Anderson quote above was/is the single most depressing thing I’ve read in the two and a half years since I started this blog, and I include in that the email I received telling me that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt weren’t picking up the second book of the two-book deal they’d agreed on signing THE BIG O. A knock-back is one thing, and small enough beer in the grand scheme of things, and as often as not a matter of the opinion and taste of one person. On the other hand, the idea that Darley Anderson is making pots of money (for his agency and his writers, it must be said) according to a philosophy that explicitly states that ‘good writing’ is the least of his or his writers concerns, suggests that the race to the bottom just hit Mach speed.
  I love crime writing. It’s why I write crime novels, it’s why I run this blog. But no kind of writing can be reduced to plot and character without losing the unquantifiable essence of why we read.
  A couple of months ago, John Banville was pilloried at length by crime writers and readers for suggesting that he writes his Benjamin Black novels faster than he writes his John Banville novels. Banville’s slur, or so some suggested, was that crime novels didn’t require the same level of craft as his literary novels. Will those who pointed the finger at John Banville for denigrating crime writing now point the finger at Darley Anderson? Somehow I doubt it.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

“Ya Wanna Do It Here Or Down The Station, Punk?”: Mike Nicol

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?
James Ellroy’s LA CONFIDENTIAL.

What fictional character would you most like to have been?
Boone Daniels in Don Winslow’s THE DAWN PATROL because he’s such a damn good surfer.

Who do you read for guilty pleasures?
George V Higgins, Elmore Leonard, Don Winslow, Peter Temple, Ken Bruen, James Ellroy, Walter Mosley, Anthony Bourdain.

Most satisfying writing moment?
When the plot resolves itself unaided.

The best Irish crime novel is …?
You think I’m crazy, you think I’m gonna say anything other than THE BIG O?

What Irish crime novel would make a great movie?
Have to say THE TWELVE by Stuart Neville – partly because I read it recently, am still raving about it, and reckon it could be set in South Africa.

Worst / best thing about being a writer?
Worst – when I answer the phone after six hours work and the caller apologies for waking me up! Best – when I head off to the beach in the middle of the morning.

The pitch for your next book is …?
I need to paint the house, please buy my novel, PAYBACK.

Who are you reading right now?
SA writer called Andrew Brown whose book REFUGE contains one of the best sex scenes ever and a jail rape that out Bunkers Edward Bunker.

God appears and says you can only write OR read. Which would it be?
Read. I’m assuming that God would oblige and take away the obsession.

The three best words to describe your own writing are …?
Ever so cool.

Mike Nicol’s PAYBACK will be published in January by Old Street Publishing.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

EVERYBODY KNOWS That The Dice Are Loaded …

Get out the ceremonial kazoo, maestro: John McFetridge announces that the paperback of EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS IS NOWHERE will be published on November 1st, which is all kinds of good news. It’s not just that it’s a terrific novel, which it is; it’s that, for a quite a while, and for reasons bound up in the byzantine nature of the publishing industry, it looked as if the paperback of EKTIN wouldn’t appear at all. McFetridge is a mate of mine (although he wasn’t when I gave vent to the purple prose below), but leaving that aside, the paperback edition is a tiny triumph of quality over quantity, of good writing besting a system in which the dice are loaded in favour of the bottom line. Nice.
  John explains the tortuous route the paperback took to publication over at Do Some Damage; meanwhile, here’s the review I wrote, which somehow ended up, in its entirety, on the inside flap of the Canadian hardback edition of EKTIN, which was also nice. If you’re looking to pamper yourself this Christmas, reading-wise, then pick it up, and then DIRTY SWEET and SWAP too. Trust me, you’ll love yourself for it.
Easy now. This is the good stuff. Too much and you’ll be reeling around the room, blissed on the possibility of how good John McFetridge might get. Set in Toronto, EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS IS NOWHERE features an ensemble cast from both sides of the law, most of them spokes radiating out from Sharon, a single mother operating a low-level dope-growing operation. Gangs of Italians, South Asians and Angels, all grafting for a heavier slice of Toronto’s new prosperity; a Native American cop and his recently widowed partner investigating an apparent suicide while sitting on the powder keg of an internal affairs probe about to blow the Toronto force apart; Ray, a new face on the scene with an offer Sharon can’t refuse; Richard, the old flame now a power broker in the world of Canadian crime. A heady brew, but McFetridge marshals all the elements in a fluid tale that weaves in and out of various narratives in a manner akin to Elmore Leonard with a brevity of delivery that is almost an abbreviated form of style: “Canada, so generous to take them in. Thran’s father and his two uncles looking like scared refugees in front of the nice white people, got right to business doing exactly what they’d done back home. Pretty soon they had a nice little distribution network up and running. Didn’t even have to kill that many people.” But it’s the backdrop that makes the story. Toronto, much like the novel itself, is rapaciously ambitious, swaggeringly assured, brash beneath its cultured veneer, ripe with opportunity and tottering on the brink of anarchy. Sharon, her city and her country are in a state of flux that mirrors the ever-changing and ever-challenging nature of criminality itself, which the crime novel by necessity mirrors in its turn. For those with eyes to see, EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS IS NOWHERE is a shining moment of clarity in our confused grasping after some purpose in the chaos. – Declan Burke

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Gospel According To John

Oh, to have John Connolly’s air-miles. Last week JC (right) turned up at Ireland House, NYU, to give a talk on Irish crime writing. Seamus Scanlon was on hand to make feverish notes on behalf of Crime Always Pays, although he neglected to mention whether or not Irish crime writing’s Noo Yoik guardian angel, aka Joe Long, was in attendance. Mind you, I’m guessing trained polar bears wouldn’t have kept Joe out … Anyway, on with the review:

Last week, John Connolly gave an erudite and scholarly review of Irish crime fiction at NYU’s Glucksman Ireland House. Dr John Waters, Director of the Undergraduate and Graduate Irish Studies Programs at NYU, recounted how John attended a literature workshop at Ireland House a few years ago, and not only were the students impressed but he was himself, much to his surprise - by the level of John Connolly’s insight, intensity, intelligence and literary knowledge.
  Dr Waters acknowledged that crime fiction by Irish writers had been ignored within academe until very recently, and he included himself in this category, but he is impressed by its vivacity and power and stylistic exuberance.
  Dr Waters told an anecdote where, in typical Connolly style, John brought a box of his crime novels to the workshop. In subsequent weeks the faculty was slightly alarmed that students were neglecting prescribed texts and reading John Connolly. Eventually they were able to restore the balance!
  John Connolly then delivered an entertaining and cogent analysis of crime fiction - the essential elements, its history, why it was slow to develop in Ireland, why it flourished in the US, why his own sub-specialty of supernatural crime is marginalized by the crime fiction establishment, while crime fiction itself is marginalized by the mainstream critics and academics.
  Since the literary establishment’s dogma in Ireland even in the late 1990s was that Irish writers needed to engage in the Irish experience (whatever that was), it had no resonance for him – so setting books in Ireland or discussing Irish issues were not on his agenda, and as a result John Connolly was not on the literary radar.
  He picked Maine as the setting for his books because the place had an immediate resonance for him - it reminded him of Ireland in some senses, but it had sharper changes in seasons which he liked, nobody knew him, there was no constraints on subject, it had great landscapes and great bleakness, it was the home of strange characters, it had a long history (it was settled early) and it had a deeply ethereal dimension to it that he did not find elsewhere in the US.
  He outlined how the great crime fiction of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M Cain and Ross Macdonald was so masterful, impeccable and imbued with integrity that their literary credentials cannot be doubted.   He displays great humour but his work ethos and writing ethos are tight and steadfast with an almost blindside to any concerns once he is writing. On tour he is generous with fans and hosts. I saw him warmly greet the NYU bookselling staff on the night as well as warmly embrace Bonnie and Joe the owners of the now defunct Black Orchid bookshop. He even had a warm welcome for me, even though I was wearing sandals (it was balmy October night). He has a hang-up about sandals and cat detectives!
  He argued that crime fiction in the US is very strong because it is a logical extension of the essence of the frontiersman - essentially the Wild West motif. You cannot rely on the establishment to solve your problem – the law won’t rush to your defence – sometimes you have to rely on a lone man (usually flawed himself) to restore equilibrium and make sense of the world.
  As a general rule, the police and courts in the UK and Ireland are regarded as the de facto defenders of the common man – citizens tend to think that eventually the police and courts will do the right thing. This inner mindset (largely propaganda and largely incorrect) creates an inherent inertia which stymied the development of detective fiction in both countries. This mindset is deeper in Ireland. Another mitigating factor was that the rural ethos of Ireland prevented the development of noir or detective fiction because urban precincts are the natural backdrop where human interaction and conflict are a daily reality.
  The natural antipathy of the Irish literary world to those who did not engage in the meaning of Irishness (mentioned above) was also a major constraint.
  All of the above factors are changing. The first scholarly analysis of Irish crime fiction is in preparation and Ireland is morphing from the effects of globalization, urbanization, gangland crime, travel, economic progress and decline, isolation, corruption, clerical abuse and political abuse into a complex, ambiguous moral landscape that provides the flux and tension where crime fiction can develop.
  Although this is the first time I suspect that Maeve Binchy will ever be mentioned in this blog, John acknowledged that she and others demonstrated to UK publishers that Irish authors could sell significant numbers of books. (John and Maeve are probably Ireland’s two biggest selling authors.) But the current growth in Irish crime fiction is endangered because Irish people tend not to buy it (nor do the English) and authors cannot rely on US audiences alone. The number of indigenous readers has to increase to maintain the interest and viability of the genre.
  John’s delivery was animated but serious. He instils loyalty and enthusiasm for crime fiction. His favourite maxim from Salman Rushdie, that a writer is someone who finishes writing a book, is simple, but Connolly takes it seriously. With every book he writes (13 so far, 10 million copies sold in 28 languages) he still always falters between 20 and 40 thousand words, doubting his writing and its impact. He gets through it though, and that is good news for the rest of us.
  Thanks to Dr Eileen Reilly, Associate Director at Glucksman Ireland House, and Dr John Waters and all Ireland House staff, for inviting John to speak and welcoming us. - Seamus Scanlon

“Ya Wanna Do It Here Or Down The Station, Punk?”: Shane Hegarty

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?
Cormac McCarthy’s NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. Economical prose, gut-twisting narrative and no concession to the reader’s need for a satisfactory ending.

What fictional character would you most like to have been?
When I was young, I wanted to be Pete, the all-action one in The Three Investigators. In reality, I was Bob, with his glasses and dodgy legs.

Who do you read for guilty pleasures?
Not sure if it’s a guilty pleasure as such, but I’m rediscovering science fiction at the moment, old and new. Olaf Stapleton is linguistic LSD.

Most satisfying writing moment?
The purity and potential of the original idea. It’s downhill from there.

The best Irish crime novel is …?
THE THIRD POLICEMAN by Flann O’Brien, even if it’s a genre all of its own.

What Irish crime novel would make a great movie?
Gene Kerrigan’s DARK TIMES IN THE CITY, but it needs to be made now before Dublin shakes itself out of its current in-between existence.

Worst / best thing about being a writer?
The worst thing: it’s very bad for your back - I ended up in a CT scanner while writing this one. The best thing: the rare, but lovely, moments when you feel as if you’re writing well.

The pitch for your next book is …?
I’m still trying to figure that one out, but it may be fiction of some sort.

Who are you reading right now?
I’ve just picked up THE TURING TEST by Chris Beckett.

God appears and says you can only write OR read. Which would it be?
Read. At best, I could write one book every two years, but I could read a hell of a lot in that time.

The three best words to describe your own writing are …?
Ha ha. Interesting.

Shane Hegarty’s THE IRISH (AND OTHER FOREIGNERS) is published by Gill & Macmillan

Monday, October 26, 2009

Is This A Dagger I Don’t See Before Me?

Gosh, but it was a busy old weekend in the world of Irish crime fic letters. John Boyne and Stuart Neville commandeered an entire page in the Irish Times review section to write about Alan Glynn and James Ellroy, respectively (see below), and then Ruth ‘Cuddly’ Dudley Edwards (right) penned a billet doux to Gene Kerrigan, in the Sunday Independent. Gene, y’see, lost out in the Dagger awards, so Ruth (quite rightly) took umbrage, with the gist running thusly:
“As a long-time inhabitant of the crime-writing world, I can report that although his publishers force Gene to make an occasional public appearance, he is one of those self-effacing writers who clearly would rather die than go in for what we in the trade call BSP (blatant self-promotion). Think of the opposite of Jeffrey Archer and you’ve got some idea of Gene Kerrigan as a public figure. He answers questions, tells the truth and then goes home. Heaven forfend that he should hang around schmoozing, or recommending people to buy his books.”
  For the rest, clickety-click here
  Elsewhere in the Sunday Independent, Eilis O’Hanlon (aka one half of the pseudonym ‘Ingrid Black’), took issue with the phenomenon of Book Clubs. To wit:
“Getting beaten up, intellectually at least, is an integral part of the book club experience, as evidenced by the row which erupted last month in the pages of the Irish Times after poet Mary O’Donnell wrote a sniffy piece on “the horror of book clubs”, citing as Exhibit A one woman on The Tubridy Show book group who apparently said she didn’t like to be disturbed by her reading material.
  O’Donnell unwittingly reinforced the impression of the critics of book clubs as elitist snobs who don’t want the hoi polloi storming the gates of literature. She seemed to regard it as a badge of honour for certain writers to alienate readers, and to see the breach as the fault of those readers. That is giving writers too much reverence. Personal intent ceases to matter once the book leaves their hands. The finished work has to fight its own battles …”
  Stirring stuff on behalf of the Wine Clubs, but then O’Hanlon goes further:
“That the vast majority of book clubs are still dominated by women (up to 80 per cent, according to some estimates) is no coincidence. They remain important forums for female friendship and interaction. Fay Weldon’s LETTERS TO ALICE ON FIRST READING JANE AUSTEN is a key text in understanding how women have used books as emotional maps though difficult terrain in their lives.
  But there’s still a suspicion that book clubs, however admirable, have led to a homogenisation of fiction, with preference given to novels which can easily be broken down into their constituent elements, allowing a blander discussion of the various “issues”. Readers can breeze through, ticking off the boxes one by one. It doesn’t make for better books, but it certainly makes for better book club books.”
  So there you have it – book clubs are good for publishers, but bad for writers. Any takers?
  Finally, it matters not a whit in the grand scheme of Irish crime fic letters, but the Crime Always Pays blog passed the ‘200,000 page impressions (aka ‘hits’)’ mark at some point over the weekend, having taken two and half years to get here. Not really a moment for trumpet-blowing, it’s true, but I think I’ll allow myself a faint parp on the ceremonial kazoo all the same, and thank everyone (aka ‘all three regular readers’) who come back day after day to wade through the mindless wittering for the sake of the occasional nugget provided by better writers than I. Much obliged, folks.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Glynn Edge Of The Wedge

A couple of very nice reviews for Alan Glynn’s forthcoming WINTERLAND this weekend, with the Irish Independent proclaiming it, “A brilliant Dublin noir thriller by a writer with real international potential.” Nice. Not to be outdone, the Irish Times drafted in John Boyne to review WINTERLAND, who gave it the full half-page treatment and concluded thusly:
“WINTERLAND takes its place as the first contemporary Irish novel to explore the disastrous effects of the property boom and the damage it has done to countless Irish families. For that, and for this thrilling, brilliantly written novel, Alan Glynn deserves enormous praise.”
  Well said, that man, and I’d imagine that those reviews are only the start of something Very Big Indeed. Meanwhile, and staying with the Irish Times, Stuart Neville reviewed James Ellroy’s latest, BLOOD’S A ROVER, throwing caution to the wind in the process. To wit:
“It’s a rare writer who can tell a story of such emotional weight that genre becomes meaningless. That’s why James Ellroy is the best crime writer in the world.”
  So there you have it. “James Ellroy, the best crime writer in the world.” Any takers?