“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, December 5, 2009

Movies And Shakers

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

Friday, December 4, 2009

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

Yep, it’s rubber-hose time, folks: a rapid-fire Q&A for those shifty-looking usual suspects ...

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

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

Who do you read for guilty pleasures?
Conspiracy websites.

Most satisfying writing moment?
Starting a brand new project.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 3, 2009

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

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

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Deadlier Than The Male

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

Monday, November 30, 2009

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

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

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

Sunday, November 29, 2009

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

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

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