“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, November 7, 2009

Nobody Move, This Is A Review: WHAT THE DOG SAW by Malcolm Gladwell

I reviewed Malcolm Gladwell’s latest for the Sunday Business Post recently, and thoroughly enjoyed it. To wit:
A staff writer with the New Yorker since 1996, Malcolm Gladwell is best known on this side of the Atlantic for his influential books, THE TIPPING POINT (2000) and BLINK(2005).
  A compilation of essays and features taken from the New Yorker, WHAT THE DOG SAW showcases Gladwell’s ability to look at an issue - breast cancer, the Challenger disaster, the collapse of Enron - with an unusually sharp pair of fresh eyes, offering insights and conclusions that might appear at first counter-intuitive or simply perverse, but which then force the reader to reassess what he or she already knows, or thinks he or she knows.
  That’s a rare talent, and one that would, in itself, have made WHAT THE DOG SAW an interesting collection of writings.
  What Gladwell’s essays also offer, however, is the potential to change the way the reader thinks. Each piece is not only an exercise in seeing further or deeper into whatever topic happens to be under discussion, but an exercise in ways of seeing …
  For the rest, clickety-click here

“Ya Wanna Do It Here Or Down The Station, Punk?”: C.J. Box

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?
THE LAST GOOD KISS by James Crumley. I read it ages ago as a fledgling novelist and suddenly lights went on. I’ve talked to a surprising number of other writers over the years who’ve said the same thing.

What fictional character would you most like to have been?
Shane. As in the Jack Schaefer western novel.

Who do you read for guilty pleasures?
Thomas McGuane, Charlie Huston, John Sandford, Michael Connelly, Ken Bruen, Denise Mina, Megan Abbott. I’d also list Cormac McCarthy, but his writing makes me feel too guilty.

Most satisfying writing moment?
Starting the last third of the novel after everything else is in place and the horrifying and exhilarating sprint to the finish is about to begin.

The best Irish crime novel is …?
… an impossible question to answer. Books that have bowled me over include THE GUARDS by Ken Bruen and DEAD I WELL MAY BE by Adrian McKinty. I can’t wait to read THE BIG O, by some Burke fellow.

What Irish crime novel would make a great movie?
THE GUARDS, although I don’t know how the hell they’d make it. In order to get it right, all the movie-goers would have to agree to arrive drunk and continue to drink heavily (and quietly) throughout the film.

Worst / best thing about being a writer?
Best thing, seriously, is hearing from readers who claim that up until recently they were non-readers but now they’ve seen the light. Worst thing (or one of the worst) is when someone sidles up at a cocktail party and says, “If I had the time, I’d write a novel myself.” As if any writer HAS EVER HAD THE TIME.

The pitch for your next book is …?
“Imagine looking up at a wind turbine and seeing a body lashed to one of the enormous rotating blades…”

Who are you reading right now?
T. Jefferson Parker. He’s a friend and fly-fishing partner of mine, and his new one is fantastic.

God appears and says you can only write OR read. Which would it be?
Read. Although I’d be pretty put out about it.

The three best words to describe your own writing are …?
You are there.

CJ Box’s THREE WEEKS TO SAY GOODBYE is published on December 1

Friday, November 6, 2009

FIELDS Of Dreams

Good news for Alan Glynn, people – the movie based on his debut novel, DARK FIELDS, is up and running again. The project was to have starred Shia LaBeouf, but that didn’t happen after LaBeouf broke his arm, but now it’s green lights for filming to start next spring, with Bradley Cooper (The Hangover, The A-Team) playing the lead in a tale that is being described as ‘Fight Club meets The Game’. Nice. It’s a terrific novel, so do yourself a favour and check it out before it hits the silver screen …
  In other Glynn-related news, WINTERLAND gets its official launch on Tuesday, November 17th, at the Dubray Bookshop on Grafton Street, Dublin (kick-off 6.30pm). Lauded to the heavens by the likes of John Connolly, Ken Bruen, Val McDermid and George Pelecanos, WINTERLAND deserves all the plaudits going, and more. Mark it down in your diary now – this is one you’ll want to tell the grandkids about …

UPDATE: Laura Wilson reviews WINTERLAND in The Guardian. To wit:
“ … a heavyweight, grown-up thriller set in Dublin against a background of dirty politics and even dirtier business dealings … Emotionally truthful, with a plausible cast, and told in wonderfully fluent prose, WINTERLAND is a gripping tale of a world of greed and secrets.”

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

‘Good Writing’, Redux: Hooray For Hollywood

I posted last week about Darley Anderson’s comments on how ‘good writing’ was less important to his literary agency than character and plot when assessing writers, which prompted John McFetridge to weigh in thusly:
“Did we learn nothing from the movie business? Sure, the movies still make money, but almost every prize-winner, almost every movie for grown-ups, almost every movie with real people and not cartoons or cartoonish stories is based on a novel filled with ‘good writing’ because it turns out that’s the part you can’t ‘work with’, so you have to buy it somewhere else.”
  One of my paying gigs is as a movie reviewer, and one of the joys there is the fact that, when it comes to movies, no one – filmmakers, critics, the audience – discriminates against a movie on the basis of its genre. Two of the last three Best Picture Oscars, for example, have gone to crime flicks (The Departed and No Country for Old Men). If you check out the American Film Institute’s Top 10 Movies of All Time, the list runs like this:
Voted the number one movie was CITIZEN KANE, Orson Welles’ 1941 classic, which he directed, produced, wrote and starred in at the age of 25. The rest of the top ten, in order, are: CASABLANCA (#2), THE GODFATHER (#3), GONE WITH THE WIND (#4), LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (#5), THE WIZARD OF OZ (#6), THE GRADUATE (#7), ON THE WATERFRONT (#8), SCHINDLER’S LIST (#9) and SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (#10).
  Now, there’s a couple of things that need to be said about that list. (1) It’s an American list of movies. (2) Schindler’s List – wtf?
  That said, it’s interesting to note how many of the movies listed above are what the publishing industry would term ‘genre stories’ (this may have something to do with the fact that the movie industry, being rooted in the early 20th century, is a much more democratic form than the novel, which is 500 years old and rooted in a time when democracy was something the ancient Greeks once tried out). Crime, fantasy, romantic fiction, war – they deal in the kind of subject matter that does not routinely feature in the Booker Prize shortlist, say. Or, for that matter, win the Impac Prize, which is the most lucrative prize in publishing today.
  It’s also worth noting how many of the movies above are based on pre-existing stories – eight in total, seven novels and one play.
  I’m not going to make any grandiose claims on behalf of said novels (Darley Anderson would surely say that it was character and plot that made GONE WITH THE WIND or THE GODFATHER best-selling novels, for example, rather than ‘good writing’, and he would have a very good point). But, given that this is a crime fiction blog, let’s take The Godfather as a movie. It’s a superb character study, and has a great plot, drawing as it does on classical themes of guilt, loss, power (and its abuse) and redemption.
  Law Abiding Citizen is also a crime flick, a character study that trades in guilt, loss, power (and its abuse) and redemption. Released this year, it stars Jamie Foxx and Gerard Butler, and is so bad it’s probably toxic.
  What makes The Godfather a great movie and Law Abiding Citizen a terrible one? The latter has nothing like the quality of actor the former has, which is a significant handicap, although it’s fair to say that the likes of Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall and James Caan have starred in some turkeys. Neither is it as simple as saying that Francis Ford Coppola is a genius director, because – as the last two decades have proved – he’s patently not. I’d argue that it’s the blend of Coppola (as director and screenwriter) and Mario Puzo (as screenwriter) and the great Gordon Willis (cinematography) and William Reynolds’ and Peter Zinner’s editing, and Warren Clymer’s art direction, among others, who contributed to what was (eventually) regarded as a masterpiece. The Godfather isn’t simply a triumph of story, character and theme. In cinematic terms, it has a beautiful grammar, an unerring instinct for when less is more, for the visual ‘mot juste’, for the barely perceptible nuance that fuses story, character and theme into an indivisible whole.
  It’s the equivalent, in other words, of ‘good writing’.
  This isn’t just an exercise in aesthetics. The Godfather was just another movie when it was first released, and as I understand it, Coppola was none too pleased to be asked to direct a ‘mob movie’. But three decades and more later, The Godfather is recognised as a classic, and – finally, here’s the point – continues to sell. I have no idea of what its figures are like, but I’d imagine that Law Abiding Citizen is highly unlikely to cover its costs by this time next year, let alone be still selling on DVD (or whatever the format is) in 30 years time.
  The notion that ‘good writing’ is an optional extra that grows more redundant by the year is given the lie by the likes of The Godfather. The beautiful (and latest) re-issue of the Raymond Chandler novels earlier this year is another case in point. ‘Good writing’ endures. It requires investment, of course, but it’s an investment that delivers and continues to deliver. The pursuit of short-term gain (quantity over quality) that got the world’s economy into the mess it’s in today is mirrored in the attitude that sees ‘good writing’ as an optional extra, or the least of a writer’s concerns.
  ‘Good writing’ isn’t enough in itself, of course. The number of very fine novels that have fallen out of print, never to see a shelf again, doesn’t bear thinking about. But this is where crime writing has – or should have – the edge over its counterparts in the publishing industry. Yes, plot and character are vital, and its relevance to its time and place means that the best crime novels will always be relevant. Take all that and put it in the hands of a writer who instinctively understands ‘good writing’ and you have a gold mine that may never tap out.
  There’s a mate of mine, you may have heard of him, called Adrian McKinty. I told him recently that he was too good a writer to ever make it really big, that he’s cursed by his obsession with ‘good writing’. But even if McKinty never sells on a par with James Patterson or John Grisham, he knows in his heart and can take it to his grave that he’s a good writer. That’s a thing that used to matter. It still does, and it always will.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Woof! ’Tis A Dog, A ROVER And A Roving Newshound

It’s hi-ho for Belfast this coming weekend, to see / hear / watch Stuart Neville interview the Demon Dog, aka James Ellroy (right), in a gig sponsored by No Alibis. To wit:
No Alibis Bookstore is very pleased to announce that we will be hosting an event with none other than the Demon Dog of American crime fiction, James Ellroy, in early November to celebrate the release of the final book in his Underworld USA trilogy, BLOOD’S A ROVER. This event will be held in the Waterfront Hall, Belfast, on Saturday 7th November at 8:00PM. Tickets are now on sale, and are priced £12.
  There’s also a special screening of LA Confidential at the Queens’ Theatre at 2pm, for those interested.
  I’ll be interviewing James Ellroy myself over the weekend, shortly before Stuart gets his grubby mitts on the man, so that should be – said he, putting it mildly – interesting. If you’ve ever wanted to ask James Ellroy a question, just let me know what it is and I’ll pass it on and post the results here next week …

Monday, November 2, 2009

Killing For Kicks

I Q&A’d Mike Nicol (see below) last week, and Mike was kind enough to return the rubber-hose favour over at South Africa’s Crime Beat, with an excerpt running thusly:
Crime Beat: What’s the average kill count in your novels?
Declan Burke: Pretty low, I have to say. I’m not a fan of gratuitous murders, and I especially hate killing for the sake of advancing a plot, or to get rid of an inconvenient character, or to invoke some undeserved pathos. I think two people died violently in my first novel, EIGHTBALL BOOGIE, and none at all in the second, THE BIG O. Actually, THE BIG O was in part conceived as a fun exercise in how authentically I could write a crime novel without any killings and the bare minimum of violence. I had a friend who died young, and violently, so maybe that’s one reason I don’t take lethal violence lightly.
  That was a question that got me wondering: what’s an acceptable ‘kill count’ in a novel? Should I be killing off more people in my books? Are there people who put down books when they’ve finished, disappointed and muttering about the lack of corpses, the way some people complain about a lack of sex in a novel?
  There’s a character in a book that’s out with publishers for consideration right now (a Harry Rigby story, THE BIG EMPTY), and he’s a fairly repulsive character, and at one point I so badly wanted to kill him off – except it wasn’t absolutely necessary that he had to die. So, while the guy took a bit of beating, he got to live … Now I’m wondering if I shouldn’t have just gone ahead and slotted him.
  Maybe it’s because the story takes place in Sligo, in northwest Ireland, where a murder, or any kind of violent death, is still a very big deal, as it is anywhere else in Ireland. In that context, the context of the story and its setting, it’s hard to justify anything more than the absolute essential in terms of corpses. But there’s something more to it, too: the idea that, in a world where life gets cheaper by the day, and I include Ireland in that, there’s a kind of responsibility that goes with writing about violence and death. I definitely think that people (and I eventually come to think of characters as ‘people’) shouldn’t be slaughtered for the sake of ‘entertainment’ and vicarious thrills. As for the ‘torture porn’ that masquerades as some kind of social commentary, in which an author is so concerned about (say) the rape, torture and murder of women that he / she recounts said rape, torture and murder in intimate detail – I just don’t buy it, literally or figuratively.