Praise for Declan Burke: “Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “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.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Word Junkies; Or, The True Cost Of Writing

Like most people who are even semi-serious about the writing business, I try to write every day. That’s not always possible, what with pesky issues like the need to put food on the table and nappies on bums to deal with, and the even more pressing need of ensuring the mortgage gets paid so that your daughter doesn’t have to go live in an actual tree (right), but I generally get a couple of hours a day done, five or six days a week. Which is pretty poor going, especially as fulltime writers get to spend eight or ten hours at the desk every day, but needs must, and a couple of hours per day is usually enough to keep me ticking over and the bubble of whatever world I’m creating fully inflated.
  Taking a break of more than a day or two can be a dangerous business. It can be a good thing, in that it allows the mind to roam more freely, and you can start making connections that might not otherwise have occurred to you; it can also serve as a kind of damming process, behind which the story builds up, thus allowing you to burst back into a story bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.
  The danger, of course, is that spending even four or five days away from a story affords a perspective that can very easily prick that bubble. The old doubts about your ability have time to fester; you start to wonder if the story is actually all that believable; or, worse, if there’s really any point to writing it, no matter how believable it is, or enjoyable to write.
  The week just gone by, in which I took a break of six days from working on the current story, appears to have fatally holed it beneath the waterline. I still think it’d be fun to write, and I like the characters, by which I mean I find them interesting enough to follow through to find out where the story will take them; but the whole ‘what’s-the-point?’ black dog started howling out in the darkness.
  Worse, while slumped in a turkey-and-sherry-trifle coma in front of some rubbish TV, I started crunching numbers. Now, I earn a decent if not remarkable wage as a freelance writer. The hours are long, and the work itself is interesting, and the bills get paid and nappies get put on bums. All of which, especially in the current climate, is very good indeed.
  For some reason, though, I started wondering about how much, in terms of dollars and cents, I’ve invested to date in my writing ‘career’. Any aspiring writers out there might want to look away now.
  The nuts and bolts run thusly: I’ve had two books published, EIGHTBALL BOOGIE (2004) and THE BIG O (2007). I’m hopeful, although not hugely so, that I’ll have another book published this year, BAD FOR GOOD aka THE BABY KILLERS. (I’m not counting CRIME ALWAYS PAYS for the purpose of this little exercise, by the way, as that went straight to e-format - but feel free to have a squint, if you’re so inclined).
  Now, I started writing EIGHTBALL BOOGIE some time around 2000 or 2001. So let’s say, for a round figure, and taking a huge leap and presuming that I’ll have another book published in 2011, that by the end of this year I’ll have had three books published to show for 10 years work. (I’ve written other novels, there are three or four gathering dust on the shelf, but for now let’s just stick with published books).
  The rates for freelance journalism have changed over the last decade, not always upward, so it can be hard to put an hourly figure on earnings. These days I can write a feature in two hours and earn €200 (very rare), but my hourly rate, when I’m being honest with myself and factor in the daily commute, is usually closer to €20.
  Now let’s extrapolate, and apply that hourly rate to writing fiction. At two hours per day, five days per week, 48 weeks per year, at a rate of €20 per hour, that amounts to €9,600 per year ‘spent’ on writing fiction. Multiply that by the ten years I’ve been writing seriously, we’re looking at the guts of €100,000, or €33,000 per book published. And that’s presuming that I’ll have a book published in 2011, which is a pretty big presumption; if I don’t, we’re looking at each book I’ve published costing me €50,000. Meanwhile, the largest advance I’ve ever received is €10,500, a figure that’s roughly ten times what an author scrabbling around at my level is likely to receive if he or she is lucky enough to see a book land on a shelf.
  I should say, of course, that those hours I spend writing fiction tend to be in the 6am-8am or 9pm-11pm bracket, hours when I very probably wouldn’t be working at earning anyway. Still, it’s a sobering thought, that investing all that time and effort should end up costing you somewhere in the region of seventy grand.
  If this was any other kind of business, I’d have been declared forcibly bankrupt and / or certifiably insane a long, long time ago.
  Unfortunately, it’s not any other kind of business. It’s writing. And just like the degenerate gambler and / or junkie who keeps on borrowing to feed his habit, I’ll keep on pounding the keyboard. Not in the hope that, one day, I’ll hit big and earn enough to have made all those years financially worthwhile, because junkies don’t think like that. No, I’ll keep writing for the pure and simple buzz of seeing the words appear on the page. My words, my story, my dream made real.
  I’m not a moron, all evidence to the contrary. Unlike the average junkie, I won’t be doing anything that might impact on my ability to put nappies on bums. Those writing hours I do scrape together will remain in the 6am-8am or 9pm-11pm slots, and will be just about enough, hopefully, to keep me from turning into the psychopathic bear I become when I don’t get my two-hourly fix every day. If I do get another book published this year, that will be marvellous; if not, well, you write in order to write. Everything else to do with the publishing industry, with apologies to everyone involved, is just a necessary evil.
  So, my New Year Resolutions:
1 To write and not to count the cost.
2 Give up smoking.
3 Spend more time with Lily.
  Meanwhile, a happy and prosperous New Year to all of you good folks, and here’s hoping that 2011 is a better year than the annus horribilis gone before. Upward and onward, people …

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

God Bless Us, Every One!

Seasons greetings from snowy Enniskerry, folks, the picture right being the view from ye olde writing deske at CAP Towers at approximately 8am on December 22nd, and very peaceful it is too as we wind down for the year.
  It’s been an interesting twelve months here at CAP Towers, a very satisfying one, and as full of the kind of ups and downs that make life worth living as you (or I, to be precise) could wish for. I’ve done plenty of writing, had very little of it published, but that’s all part of the game; and besides, 2010 was the year when I finally, belatedly, remembered the reason I first started writing all those years ago: for the joy of putting words in their best order, a joy that is as simple as it is fiendishly complicated. Long may it continue.
  For what it’s worth, and because this is supposed to be an Irish Crime Fiction-related blog, the Crime Always Pays’ Top 10-ish Irish Crime Novels runs (trumpet parp, please, maestro) as follows:
ORCHID BLUE by Eoin McNamee
PEELER by Kevin McCarthy
THE BURNING by Jane Casey
THE WHISPERERS by John Connolly
COLLUSION by Stuart Neville
CITY OF LOST GIRLS by Declan Hughes
BLOOD MONEY by Arlene Hunt
DR YES by Colin Bateman
THE DOGS OF ROME by Conor Fitzgerald
FAITHFUL PLACE by Tana French
IF I NEVER SEE YOU AGAIN by Niamh O’Connor
THE RISING by Brian McGilloway
THE HOLY THIEF by William Ryan
  All told, it was yet another very fine year for Irish crime fiction, and again, long may it continue.
  Finally, I’m planning to take an extended break from blogging over the coming week or so, the better to plunge into the festivities and try to keep up with the irrepressible Lily, who, at two-and-a-half, has been in the semi-delirious throes of Santa-related anticipation for the best part of the last fortnight. So I’d like to take this opportunity to offer a heartfelt thanks to everyone who stopped by here during the year, and took the time to make my time worthwhile, and particularly those of you - you know who you are - who entered into the spirit of the thing by engaging with the topics, leaving comments, and abusing your not-always-entirely-genial host. I wish you all a very peaceful Christmas, and a happy and prosperous New Year. Or, as the Princess Lilyput very nearly blurts out in the vid below, God bless you, every one.
  Roll it there, Collette …

The Best Things In Life Are Free … Books

The good people at Quercus are offering three free copies of THREE SECONDS by Roslund and Hellström, said pair being a journalist and creator of Sweden’s number one cultural TV program, Kulterkanna, and an ex-criminal who founded a criminal rehabilitation program in Sweden, respectively. First, the blurb elves:
Piet Hoffman is the best undercover operative in the Swedish police force, but only one other man is even aware of his existence. When an amphetamine deal he is involved in goes badly wrong, he is faced with the hardest mission of his life: to infiltrate Sweden’s most infamous maximum security prison. Detective Inspector Ewert Grens is charged with investigating the drug-related killing. Unaware of Hoffman’s real identity, he believes himself to be on the trail of a dangerous psychopath. But he cannot escape the feeling that vital information pertaining to the case has been withheld or manipulated. Hoffman has his insurance: wiretap recordings that implicate some of Sweden’s most prominent politicians in a corrupt conspiracy. But in Ewert Grens the powers that be might just have found the perfect weapon to eliminate him ... Intelligent, gripping, brutal, THREE SECONDS is the latest thriller from Roslund and Hellström, the heirs apparent to Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell as masters of Scandinavian crime.
  To be in with a chance of winning a copy, just tell us what your fantasy crime-writing duo might be. James Ellroy and Janet Evanovich? John Connolly and Michael Connelly? Ken Bruen and Stieg Larsson? Elmore Leonard and Patricia Highsmith? Quirkiest, most apt or simply the funniest entries go into the hat, with bonus marks for a quick synopsis of your fantasy duo’s novel …
  Entries in the comment box below, please, and the closing date is noon, December 23rd. Please include an email contact address, using [at] rather than @ to confuse the spam-munchkins. Et bon chance, mes amis

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Nobody Move, This Is A Review: ORCHID BLUE by Eoin McNamee

Eoin McNamee has forged a career from novelistic reconstructions of true crimes. RESURRECTION MAN (1994) dealt with the Shankhill Butchers, THE BLUE TANGO (2001) was woven around the murder of 19-year-old Patricia Curran in 1952, THE ULTRAS (2004) concerned itself with the British undercover operative Robert Nairac, and 12:23. PARIS. 31st AUGUST 1997 (2007) with events surrounding the death of Princess Diana.
  ORCHID BLUE, McNamee’s latest offering, is something of a sequel to THE BLUE TANGO (2001). Set in Newry in 1961, it employs the murder of 19-year-old shop assistant Pearl Gamble, and the subsequent investigation, for its narrative arc. Robert McGladdery, who was seen dancing with Pearl on the night of her murder, is considered the main suspect, but Detective Eddie McCrink, a Newry native returning to home soil from London, discovers a very disturbing set of circumstances. Not only have the local police decided that McGladdery fits the bill as murderer, but McGladdery himself appears to welcome the notoriety. Most disturbing of all, however, is the man who presides over the court case when McGladdery is brought to trial. As the father of Patricia Curran, who was murdered in very similar circumstances ten years previously, Lord Justice Lance Curran should have disbarred himself as judge. McCrink quickly comes to understand that the ‘soft spoken and implacable’ Justice Curran has actively sought the position, and is determined that whoever murdered Pearl Gamble should hang. Moreover, it’s clear from the beginning of the novel that Justice Curran and the powers-that-be, including then Northern Ireland Secretary Brian Faulkner, want to see someone hanged for the murder.
  Lance Curran’s daughter Patricia was found savagely murdered on November 13th, 1952. She had suffered 37 separate stab wounds. Iain Gordon, an Englishman stationed at a nearby RAF base, was arrested, tried and convicted of her murder. The evidence was circumstantial, however, and Gordon was released on appeal a year after his conviction. The real killer of Patricia Curran was never caught. In ORCHID BLUE, McNamee delves back into ‘the Blue Tango’ case, exploring Patricia Curran’s family history, and suggesting that her killer was well known to her, and possibly a family member.
  Students of Irish history will know that Robert McGladdery was the last man to be hanged on Irish soil, a fact that infuses Orchid Blue with a noir-ish sense of fatalism and the inevitability of retribution. That retribution and State-sanctioned revenge are no kind of justice is one of McNamee’s themes here, however, and while the story is strained through an unmistakably noir filter, McNamee couches the tale in a form that is ancient and classical, with McGladdery pursued by Fate and its Furies and Justice Curran a shadowy Thanatos overseeing all.
  McGladdery, according to the novel at least, is the perfect patsy. He is something of an unknown presence in Newry, having returned to the town from London with notions above his station, yet lacking the substance to secure or keep a job. He is vain, fascinated with lurid novels, works out as a body-builder, and keeps less than salubrious company. Perhaps it was the case that McGladdery didn’t believe that the evidence was strong enough to convict him, but for most of the investigation he appeared to delight in the attention he received. The son of a single mother, Agnes, Robert was perhaps always operating at an attention deficit, given his mother’s predilection for hard drinking and one-night stands.
  McNamee has described the noir novel as a very ‘Calvinist’ kind of storytelling, with its undertones of implacable fate and predestination. What hope is there for a person if he or she has been fingered by fate before they’re even born? And what hope if the ultimate arbiter of justice - God, for the most part, although McNamee’s arbiter of justice in ORCHID BLUE is Justice Lance Curran - is already prejudiced against the person in the dock?
  The repressed sexuality of the times, and sexual hypocrisy in particular, is a strong secondary theme in ORCHID BLUE, as it was in THE BLUE TANGO. Given the context of 1961 Newry, there’s an element of character assassination that goes along with reports of Pearl Gamble’s last movements in ORCHID BLUE - the very fact that she was at a dance, runs the theory, is akin to her ‘asking for it’. This despite the fact that Pearl Gamble was not sexually assaulted prior to or after her murder. ‘Pearl had been stripped naked,’ writes McNamee, ‘but in the words of the lead detective John Speers, ‘it was a mercy she was not outraged.’’
  In terms of McGladdery, McNamee writes: ‘It was these materials that were found when the Newry police raided Robert’s house, leading to the rumours which swept the town concerning Robert’s sexual preferences.’
  A minor character in the novel, Margaret, the girlfriend of investigating detective Eddie McCrink, is a single woman of a certain age, and so must conduct her affair with McCrink in privacy, so as not to offend the town’s sensibilities.
  The relationship between Robert and his mother, Agnes, is also given a flavour of repressed sexuality:
‘Robert would watch Agnes at her dressing table getting ready to go out … He saw it on her clothes when she came home. The zips and fasteners strained at. A button missing. Fabric pulls and ladders in the stockings … She seemed ruined in an epic way, smelling of gin and smoke, sitting on the edge of his bed … She would stroke his face and murmur his name.’
  These are all echoes of similar themes explored in THE BLUE TANGO, when the investigation of the murder of Patricia Curran gets bogged down in her sexual exploits.
  McNamee’s preference for fictionalising true-life crimes has led to comparisons with David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet and the work of James Ellroy (McNamee twice references the infamous Black Dahlia case in ORCHID BLUE), although McNamee offers a more elegant, formal style of prose. Indeed, the style is often densely lyrical. Depending on your point of view, the brevity of the sentences and the dense lyricism can lend itself to poetry or the staccato rhythms of the classical noir novel.
  Relentlessly sinister in tone and poisonously claustrophobic, the novel is equally capable of almost unbearable poignancy, such as when the emotionally brutalised Robert McGladdery writes from his prison cell:
‘My mother Agnes McGladdery what can be said about her she done her best. I wish she’d stayed home nights when I was small the wind was loud in the slates it roared dear God it roared.’
  Knowing that the novel is based on a true-life murder and its investigation, it’s difficult to read the novel without wondering where the reportage ends and the fiction begins. McNamee’s research appears to be terrific, and the period detail is beautifully wrought, but you do start to wonder about the extent to which he is editorialising when he begins to write, for example, from Robert McGladdery’s point of view.
  That said, McNamee does not overly indulge in hindsight, or explore events in 1961 from a 21st century morality. It’s also true that what was immoral in 1961 - if McGladdery, for example, was being framed for a murder he did not commit - then such an act is equally immoral in 2010.
  All told, ORCHID BLUE is a powerful tour-de-force and probably McNamee’s finest novel to date. - Declan Burke

Sunday, December 19, 2010

GREEN STREETS, Green Light

You win some, you lose some. Sauntered down to the dentist yesterday, to pick up a prescription for an antibiotic for a gum infection, and wound up in the dentist’s chair for three hours getting a double root canal treatment (Part 1). Am I the only one who sits in the dentist’s chair and, despite his best efforts, can’t help but channel his inner Dustin Hoffman?
  In better news, I heard this week that GREEN STREETS (or DOWN THESE GREEN STREETS, to give it its full title) got the green light, and will be published in hardback by Liberties Press in March or April. As all three regular readers will be aware, GREEN STREETS is a collection of essays, interviews and short stories about the recent explosion in Irish crime writing, as written by the authors themselves. Contributors, in no particular order, include John Connolly, Colin Bateman, Tana French, Adrian McKinty, Declan Hughes, Niamh O’Connor, John Banville, Alan Glynn, Cora Harrison, Ken Bruen, Ingrid Black, Gene Kerrigan, Arlene Hunt, Brian McGilloway, Gerard Brennan, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Eoin McNamee, Cormac Millar, and many more. I’m biased, of course, but I think it’s a terrific collection. More of which anon …
  I also signed contracts that will see THE BIG O published in Italy next year, by Comma 22, a very funky publisher that also, in its wisdom, sees fit to publish Cormac Millar, who could very probably write novels in Italian rather than wait for them to be translated.
  A good week, then, all told, especially as I’ve been cracking on with a new story of my own that I’m not entirely sure about at all, which is generally a good sign. It started out as a YA novel but has since morphed into a Big O-style caper (albeit one with a 14-year-old heroine) with added Greek gods and monsters, and heavily influenced by some teenage favourites of my own, including THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY and THE PRINCESS BRIDE. And, I fear, a little too much by John Connolly’s THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS. Still, if you’re going to steal, steal big, right?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What’s Up, Docx?

Edward Docx (right) had a piece in Sunday’s Observer, in which he pointed out that Dan Brown and Stieg Larsson aren’t much cop when compared to literary geniuses. He won’t get much argument about that here, but Docx then went on to trash pretty much all genre fiction, and claim that literary fiction is innately superior to any other kind of fiction, but crime fiction in particular, on the basis that genre fiction is constrained by conventions that must be adhered to by the genre writer, whereas the literary writer is free to write whatever he or she likes.
  Predictably enough, the crime fic spectrum of the blogosphere is up in arms about Docx’s temerity in dissing crime fiction. And, as always, I can’t help but wonder if the virulent reaction to the piece isn’t ever so slightly coloured by some kind of inferiority complex. I mean, it’s not as if we haven’t heard variations on this theme countless times before, and yet every time some self-proclaimed literary writer mounts this particular hobby horse, the peasants are out en masse waving torches and pitchforks. Really, shouldn’t that sore spot, so often rubbed up the wrong way, have developed a callus at this stage?
  It’s only my opinion, of course, but I reckon the only reasonable response to Docx’s piece, and to the next one, and the one after that, etcetera, ad nauseam, is this:
*yawns*
*scratches oxter*
*wonders why literary writers get so het up about crime fiction if it’s so crap*
*thinks about boiling kettle*
*wonders why genre writers don’t get so het up about literary fiction, and if maybe it’s because they’re too busy writing*
*yawns*
*scratches oxter*

“Ya Wanna Do It Here Or Down The Station, Punk?”: RJ Ellory

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?
IN COLD BLOOD by Truman Capote. No doubt about it. And I know it’s not a ‘novel’ per se, but what the hell? That’s the one for me!

What fictional character would you most like to have been?
Holmes. For the coke and the opium and the violin-playing. No, seriously, just for the sheer intellect of the man.

Who do you read for guilty pleasures?
Anything by Annie Proulx. And it’s a guilty pleasure because I’m supposed to read Chandler and Hammett and Cain, not someone who writes homo-erotic cowboy stories!

Most satisfying writing moment?
When A QUIET BELIEF IN ANGELS was selected for Richard and Judy, because I knew it would open the door to translations, further publishing contracts, and a future. For me, it was as if I suddenly realized that I might be able to get away with doing this for the rest of my life.

The best Irish crime novel is …?
Impossible to answer. Even ULYSSES has been hailed as a murder mystery so that would have to figure in the ranking. I read Bruen, Burke, McGilloway, Hughes, and they are all superb.

What Irish crime novel would make a great movie?
Not an Irish writer, but it is an Irish novel; THE GOLDEN DOOR by Kerry Jamieson. I say this simply because I possess a profound fascination for New York at this time (Prohibition-era), and it was the Irish who built much of what we now consider to be New York.

Worst / best thing about being a writer?
Best thing is to have been given the privilege to do what you love for a living. Worst thing is the mind-numbing, bone-deep exhaustion of endless touring. Like thirty-two hour journeys back from New Zealand - five flights, nine films, no sleep ...

The pitch for your next book is …?
Orphaned by an act of senseless violence that took their mother from them, half-brothers Clarence Luckman and Elliott Danziger start life with two strikes against them. Raised in state institutions, unaware of any world beyond the confines of rules and regulation, their lives take a sudden turn when they are seized as hostages by a convicted killer en route to his execution. Earl Sheridan, psychopathic murderer, could be their salvation or their downfall. A road trip ensues – Sheridan and the two brothers on the run from the law through California and Texas, but as the journey continues the two brothers must come to terms with the ever-growing tide of violence that follows in their wake, a tide of violence that forces them to make a choice about their lives, and their relationship to one another. Will the brothers manage to elude the dark star that has hung over them since their mother’s death, or will they succumb to the pull of Earl Sheridan’s terrifying, but exhilarating vision of the world? Set in the mid 1960s, this is a tale of the darkness within Man, the inherent hope for redemption, and the ultimate consequences of evil.

Who are you reading right now?
DISPATCHES by Michael Herr, FAT CITY by Leonard Gardner and THE DISENCHANTED by Budd Schulberg.

God appears and says you can only write OR read. Which would it be?
Write. No question. No doubt, no hesitation. It’s the only thing that keeps me crazy.

The three best words to describe your own writing are …?
Slow-motion thrillers.

RJ Ellory’s SAINTS OF NEW YORK is published by Orion.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Nobody Move, This Is A Review: The Irish Times’ ‘Crime Beat’

The latest of the Irish Times’ ‘Crime Beat’ columns appeared yesterday, featuring offerings from Patricia Cornwell, Jane Casey, Janet Evanovich, Philip Kerr, Michael Connelly and Anne Holt, along with your humble host’s take on the Top 10 Thrillers of the Year. To wit:
Patricia Cornwell is credited with kick-starting the current craze for the forensic pathology sub-genre in crime fiction, and her heroine Kay Scarpetta is again ahead of the curve in PORT MORTUARY (Little, Brown, £18.99, hb). Scarpetta employs a 3D system of imaging to help her autopsy the latest murder victim to wind up on her table, but it’s the victim’s use of innovative technology that appears to be the motive behind his killing. Is the US military involved in the murder? And is it a coincidence that the man was killed a stone’s throw from Scarpetta’s front door? Cornwell’s terse prose drives a complex tale of unravelling conspiracy theories, in which Scarpetta is unable to trust even her closest friends and associates. The pace is slow but measured, with the second half building to an unstoppable momentum, although first-time readers of Cornwell, and those who prefer their heroes flawed, might find it difficult to warm to Scarpetta’s icy-cold demeanour and unquestioned capability in virtually every field she encounters.
  Maeve Kerrigan, the heroine of Jane Casey’s THE BURNING (Ebury Press, £6.99, pb), is the polar opposite to Kay Scarpetta. A 28-year-old detective with the London Metropolitan Police, the ambitious and likeable Kerrigan is prone to the occasional procedural gaffe as she brings a woman’s quality of empathy to her male-dominated workplace during an investigation into a serial killer who immolates his victims. Casey, on the other hand, rarely puts a foot wrong in this enthralling example of a ‘bait-and-switch’ novel, of which the serial killer element is something of a red herring that allows Casey to dig deep into the psyche of an altogether more interesting brand of murder. Parallel first-person narratives from either side of the thin blue line contribute hugely to the novel’s page-turning quality, although the author’s success here is largely due to her superb characterisations. Casey’s debut novel, THE MISSING, was shortlisted in the Irish Book Awards crime section, and THE BURNING confirms that she’s a talent to watch.
  FIELD GREY (Quercus, £17.99, hb) is the seventh in Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series, of which the most recent, IF THE DEAD RISE NOT, won this year’s CWA Ellis Peters Historical Award. Gunther, a policeman in Germany during the 1930s and ’40s, is the focus of what has been dubbed ‘Nazi noir’, although FIELD GREY opens in 1954, with Gunther observing Graham Greene carousing with women in a Havana nightclub. A series of unfortunate events finds Gunther back in Germany and answering to American investigators probing Nazi war crimes, which in turn leads to extended flashbacks in which Gunther describes his trans-European adventures in pursuit of a killer called Erich Mielke, a pursuit that finds Gunther and Mielke crossing paths for the duration of the war. Dotted with historical personages such as Heydrich and Himmler, the novel is impressive in its detail, and harrowing in its description of mass slaughter. Gunther’s fondness for inappropriate quips undermines his authenticity, however, and the detective-cum-soldier’s peripatetic wanderings means that the novel can lack narrative drive.
  Janet Evanovich’s winsome heroine, Stephanie Plum, takes a back seat for her latest offering, WICKED APPETITE (Headline Review, £18.99, hb). Here Lizzy Tucker, singleton and pastry chef supreme, finds her all too normal world turned on its head when a mysterious and handsome stranger called Diesel materialises in her life and announces that he’s on the trail of seven mysterious stones, which will give the evil Gerwulf Grimoire unlimited powers should he manage to collect all seven. As fluffy and insubstantial as Lizzy’s legendary cupcakes, the story appears to be a parody of Harry Potter-style shenanigans, although Evanovich’s reputation for comedy is nowhere evident here. Slight, dull and for the most part needlessly irritating, WICKED APPETITE achieves very little except to sharpen the reader’s craving for a substantial novel.
  The eighth in Anne Holt’s Hanne Wilhelmsen series, although the first to be translated into English, 1222 (Corvus, £12.99, hb) is a far meatier proposition from a former Norwegian Minister for Justice. The wheelchair-bound Wilhelmsen and her fellow passengers find themselves stranded in a remote mountain hotel during a blizzard in the wake of a train crash, and things go from bad to worse when two of the survivors are murdered in quick succession. Can the cerebral Wilhelmsen identify the murderer before the hotel becomes a charnel house? Holt has Wilhelmsen reference Agatha Christie’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE during the course of her musings, and 1222 is indeed a smart homage to the classic ‘locked room’ mystery, which also functions as an examination of Norwegian society in microcosm. While the pace is lively, and the tension expertly handled, Holt’s fondness for red herrings won’t be to every reader’s taste.
  Michael Connelly brings together two of his best-selling characters in THE REVERSAL (Orion, £18.99, hb), as defence lawyer Mickey Haller and detective Harry Bosch team up to ensure that a previously convicted child-killer does not escape justice when his case comes up for a retrial. It’s an outrageous conceit, particularly as Connelly is blending the traditional courtroom drama with a police procedural, and alternates Haller’s first-person narration with a third-person account of Bosch’s investigation, but the novel has a gripping clarity from the off, and very quickly establishes a compelling momentum. Connelly’s experience as an award-winning journalist is revealed in fascinating nuggets of information pertaining to both legal and police work, even as he draws us deeper into the conflicted worlds of Mickey Haller (for once operating ‘across the aisle’ as a prosecution lawyer) and the haunted Harry Bosch. All told, it’s another expertly handled tale from a born storyteller which blazes into an incendiary denouement as the child-killer turns his gaze on Mickey and Harry’s daughters. - Declan Burke


Top 10 Thrillers of the Year

ORCHID BLUE by Eoin McNamee (Faber and Faber, £12.99, pb).
A stunning meditation on the nature of justice, rooted in the real-life murder of Newry shop-girl Pearl Gamble in 1961.

TRICK OF THE DARK by Val McDermid (Little, Brown, £18.99, hb)
Disgraced clinical psychologist Charlie Flint seeks redemption in the pursuit of a possible serial killer.

THE LAST CHILD by John Hart (John Murray, £6.99, pb)
A young boy tracks his twin sister’s abductor in a superb excavation of the prejudices of small town America.

FAITHFUL PLACE by Tana French (Hodder & Stoughton, £12.99, pb)
Undercover policeman Frank Mackey’s past comes back to haunt him when a body is discovered in an inner-city Dublin tenement.

THE SNOWMAN by Jo Nesbo (Vintage, £6.99, pb)
Oslo police detective Harry Hole investigates a killer whose trademark is a snowman in a hard-hitting tale of revenge.

SPIES OF THE BALKANS by Alan Furst (W&N, £18.99, hb)
Subterfuge and intrigue in WWII Greece, as policeman Costa Zannis sets up an underground railway to aid Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany.

PEELER by Kevin McCarthy (Mercier Press, £9.50, pb)
Excellently detailed historical crime novel set in Cork, in which the RIC and IRA chase the same killer during the War of Independence.

STARTED EARLY, TOOK MY DOG by Kate Atkinson (Doubleday, £18.99, hb)
Whimsical but compelling tale of private detective Jackson Brodie’s attempt to trace an abducted child.

CITY OF LOST GIRLS by Declan Hughes (John Murray, £19.99, hb)
Hughes’ series detective investigates a peculiarly Irish morality as a serial killer stalks a Dublin-based movie set.

BAD INTENTIONS by Karin Fossum (Harvill Secker, £11.99, pb)
Inspector Sejer investigates an apparent suicide in Fossum’s latest cerebral take on the nature of crime and punishment.
  This column was first published in the Irish Times.

Friday, December 10, 2010

One Pill Makes You Larger …

Good news, bad news. The good news is that there’s a very nifty trailer for the adaptation of Alan Glynn’s THE DARK FIELDS doing the rounds, said trailer featuring Bradley Cooper in an ‘infomercial’ about the radical new superdrug, NZT. The bad news is that the movie has been re-titled ‘Limitless’, which makes a certain amount of sense in terms of the movie’s content, but is nowhere as interesting a title as ‘The Dark Fields’. Anyhoo, the movie also stars Robert De Niro, Abby Cornish and Anna Friel, and is slated to open (in the US, at least) next March. In the meantime, roll it there, Collette …

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Working Class Hero Is Something To Be

One thing I’ve always liked about John Lennon, who was shot to death on this day 30 years ago, is that there’s a rare quality of savagery to some of his best lyrics. ‘Working Class Hero’ may not be his finest moment in terms of composition, but it’s the first song I start to hum whenever I hear his name, and it’s a salty antidote to all those renditions of the saccharine ‘Imagine’ you’ll be hearing today. It’s also, given the way the Irish government so punitively punished the Irish people yesterday for the sins of a gilded circle of fools, charlatans and white collar thieves, a timely blast of cold, quiet rage. Roll it there, Collette …

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

“Ya Wanna Do It Here Or Down The Station, Punk?”: Jane Casey

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?
Margery Allingham’s THE TIGER IN THE SMOKE. It’s very old-fashioned but quite brilliant – a hunt for a vicious killer through foggy post-war London, peopled with maimed survivors of the conflict. You have to read it in one sitting. The tension is almost unbearable.

What fictional character would you most like to have been?
Dorothy L. Sayers’ Harriet Vane (without having to stand trial for murder, preferably).

Who do you read for guilty pleasures?
Young adult fiction. I used to work as a commissioning editor in children’s publishing and I’m proud of buying a few YA books that did very nicely. I missed out on a few that I regret to this day! I love how intense teenagers are about their lives and relationships; YA fiction is just brilliant when it’s done well. I still won’t read it in public, though.

Most satisfying writing moment?
Finishing my second book, THE BURNING. I was on the phone to my editor while sitting on the floor of my living room, typing with one hand and trying to distract my then seven-month-old son with the other. The last-minute changes were nail-biting but necessary, and clicking on ‘save’ was a beautiful moment.

The best Irish crime novel is …?
I love John Banville’s Benjamin Black novels – CHRISTINE FALLS, if I must pick.

What Irish crime novel would make a great movie?
Stuart Neville’s THE TWELVE. All those ghosts are crying out to be put on film.

Worst / best thing about being a writer?
The best thing is spending your working life in a world of your own creation, with characters that you love. The worst thing is that your working life is your life. I don’t know how to switch off that part of my brain so I never truly relax, even between books. But I’d be lying if I said I hated that.

The pitch for your next book is …?
DC Maeve Kerrigan returns to hunt for a killer preying on convicted paedophiles.

Who are you reading right now?
I’m re-reading THE MURDER FARM by a German writer, Andrea Maria Schenkel. It’s very short, very assured, utterly compelling and original. It was her first book, which is just extraordinary.

God appears and says you can only write OR read. Which would it be?
Read. I would get bored with only my own thoughts and ideas to entertain me. And I could always think about what I’d write if I was allowed. I had my first novel in my head for about two years before I ever typed a sentence, so I’m used to it!

The three best words to describe your own writing are …?
Dark and light.

Jane Casey’s THE BURNING is published by Ebury Press.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Nobody Move, This Is A Review: HARBOUR by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Sweden’s Roslagen archipelago is home to almost 13,000 islands, but John Ajvide Lindqvist has added another, the isle of Domarö being a fictional setting for the second follow-up to his debut, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN. That novel, a tale of vampirism imbued with a gritty social realism, established Lindqvist’s international reputation, and HARBOUR too boasts a strong supernatural element.
  The story opens with married couple Anders and Cecilia trudging across a frozen bay with their young daughter Maja to visit the lighthouse at Gåvesten. An idyllic scene, it quickly turns to creeping horror when Maja simply disappears, leaving no trace her going on the pristine, snow-covered ice. What is truly horrifying to Anders, however, is that while Maja’s disappearance into thin air is certainly unusual, it’s not the first time the locals have experienced this kind of event. What monstrous presence lurks beneath the cold seas of the Roslagen archipelago?
  Anders’ search for his daughter and his attempt to come to terms with his loss serves as only one strand of Lindqvist’s epic, sprawling account of an island possessed by demons of its own conjuring. The 515-page novel teems with vividly drawn characters, chief among them Anders’ grandparents, Simon and Anna-Greta, both of whom have supernatural secrets that they conceal not only from Anders and the island’s population at large, but from one another. As was the case with LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, however, Lindqvist goes obliquely at the story’s heart of darkness. For the first third of the novel, HARBOUR resembles nothing less than a Swedish version of the magic realism we tend to associate more with Latin American authors, with only the vaguest intimations of the more conventional brand of horror writing to come.
  Indeed, for long stretches Lindqvist simply concentrates on amplifying an entirely mundane but compelling terror, that of every parent’s worst nightmare, the child that disappears with no hint as whether he or she is dead or alive, safe or in danger. Meanwhile, the question the reader is left to answer is whether the emotionally fragile Anders, perpetually drunk and understandably prone to grasping at straws, is imagining that his daughter his calling to him to come rescue her, or if it’s all a figment of his deranged imagination.
  Once the story hits its stride, however, Lindqvist fully embraces the supernatural elements that dominate the latter two-thirds of the novel. It’s then that his painstaking work in setting up the characters of Anders, Simon and Anna-Greta pays off. Rooted in a contemporary reality, and entirely empathetic in atmosphere and characterisation, the tale has earned its right to its flights of fancy, which include magic, ghostly hauntings and possession, and ultimately the emergence of an impossibly powerful evil from the black depths of the sea itself.
  Perversely, given the shocking nature of the story, Lindqvist (translated from the original Swedish by Marlaine Delargy) writes in a quietly refined baroque style, sketching in elegant little flourishes when describing the landscape and the quirks and foibles of his protagonists. It’s no coincidence that the text, which is shot through with a poetic black humour, is littered with quotes from The Smiths (the title of Lindqvist’s debut, incidentally, was adapted from a Smiths’ lyric). It all makes for a fascinating blend, as if Stephen King had tried his hand at redrafting an outlandish fable by Borges.
  As much a historical epic and contemporary myth as it is a horror story, HARBOUR is above all an engrossing novel that consolidates and enhances Lindqvist’s reputation. - Declan Burke

  This review was first published in the Sunday Business Post

Sunday, December 5, 2010

DAMN NEAR DEAD 2: David Thompson Lives On

The late and very much lamented David Thompson casts a long shadow over DAMN NEAR DEAD 2, the collection of ‘geezer noir’ stories which was published by Busted Flush on November 30th. I haven’t seen a copy yet, but it’s a hell of a line-up: CJ Box, Joe Lansdale, Ed Gorman, Marcia Muller, Christa Faust, SJ Rozan, Don Winslow, Denise Mina, Bill Pronzini and Cornelia Read all make a contribution, along with many more, one of whom is your humble host. Bill Crider is the editor, and the final package was put together in the wake of David’s death, which makes it a rather poignant collection. The last I heard, authors’ fees and all proceeds were to be donated to a fund designed to commemorate David’s massive contribution to crime fiction, although I’ve been out of the loop for the last couple of months, so maybe those plans have changed. Either way, it looks like a terrific compilation, so congrats to all involved in making it happen and bringing David’s project to fruition. Meanwhile, if you fancy nabbing a copy for a Christmas gift for the crime fan in your family, all the details can be found here

Friday, December 3, 2010

Nobody Move, This Is A Review: MISSING JULIA by Catherine Dunne

Julia Seymour is a retired doctor, an accomplished and independent woman not given to flights of fancy. So when she simply walks out of her life one October morning, her partner, thriller writer William Harris, is devastated. Unable to explain to Julia’s daughter, Melissa, or to himself the reason why Julia might want to leave behind her happy life, and with the Gardai apparently unwilling to get involved, William takes it upon himself to track Julia down. What William discovers during the course of his investigation is a Julia he never even suspected existed - but then, Julia herself is a woman in flight from herself. Told in parallel narratives, Julia and William’s story travels from Dublin to London and on to India, where the truth of Julia’s disappearance is to be found - and perhaps, too, the redemption Julia craves.
  The opening to MISSING JULIA makes for an intriguing hook. A very short prologue establishes the fact that Julia Seymour has something of a haunted history, and then the novel opens with an extended description of Julia’s preparations for her secretive flight. This immediately prompts questions as to why Julia is leaving, and why in such clandestine circumstances; what could such an ostensibly respectable woman such as Julia Seymour have done that would warrant such a dramatic departure?
  Dunne establishes all this, and maintains Julia’s air of secrecy for a good two-thirds of the novel, by writing obliquely about the central issue. Characters Julia meets, most of whom are good friends, are persuaded to help her without asking why she needs help; again and again, Dunne slips away from the core issue by allowing Julia to reminisce about her time with William, or times she spent with her friends as a student doctor in UCD during the ’70s, or by a variety of other methods. Initially compelling, this tactic does become irritating.
  The second strand of the narrative, that of William’s pursuit of Julia, is solidly constructed in the beginning. William was about to propose to Julia when she departed so abruptly, and is left bereft. A retired man, who writes thrillers, he has the time and resources to attempt to find her. In this way, he becomes the kind of character he writes about. As he tells his friend, Jack:
“To be truthful, I think I’m boring myself. I can’t be arsed with villains and police procedure - thrillers just aren’t thrilling me any more.”
  Less convincing, however, is William himself, particularly in his internal monologues. He is, not to put too fine a point on it, too good to be true. Most men finding themselves in his position would very probably have sulked for a few days and stamped around a bit, perhaps believing that Julia had thrown him over for another man. The fact that Julia has left the white queen out of position on the chess board is enough to convince William that things are a little more complicated than that (the thought of another lover never occurs to him, in fact), and is sufficient to tell William that Julia has left him a message beseeching him to follow her.
  Dunne has a pleasingly light style, which is punctuated with deft observations. William, remembering the first time he met Julia, recounts it thus:
“It’s the memory that has been hurting at him all day, insisting that he unfold it, open out its pleats, regard all the glittering contents spread before him.”
  The single word ‘pleats’ is a winner here, suggesting that William is opening memories like old and fabulous maps.
  Another pleasing aspect to the novel is that Dunne is unafraid to take on a big issue. While it takes some time for it to be revealed, euthanasia is for some time the word that dare not speak its name. Has Julia, the dedicated doctor, participated in the assisted death of her friend? If so, how does that square with her principles and philosophy, and with the Socratic oath?
  Dunne doesn’t underplay the seriousness of euthanasia, nor of Julia’s plight, nor of Ireland’s shortcomings when it comes to confronting such ethical issues head-on:
“But the charge is still one of attempted murder. And Ireland is different anyway: this is yet another nettle that people will refuse to grasp. We’ve never faced up to our demons, or our shortcomings.”
  MISSING JULIA is for the most part an intelligent and challenging novel. I was ultimately disappointed, however, for the very reason that Dunne is obviously a very smart writer, and yet she glosses over a crucial issue early in the novel. In any such case of a woman going missing so suddenly, and without even saying goodbye to her daughter, the husband, or partner, would find himself suspected of her disappearance. Dunne, however, needs William to be free and mobile so that he can pursue Julia and bring to light her murky past, and so she neglects to address this issue head-on. That may well sound like a minor niggle, but given that the rest of the novel is predicated on William being above suspicion (none of Julia’s friends, as he meets them, seem to be overly concerned that William might have done away with Julia, or acted in a way that might have driven her to flight), it is in fact a rather large omission, and undermines Dunne’s narrative throughout.
  If you can overlook that issue, however, MISSING JULIA is an entertaining page-turner with a very potent ethical issue at its heart. - Declan Burke

  MISSING JULIA by Catherine Dunne is published by Macmillan.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

“Ya Wanna Do It Here Or Down The Station, Punk?”: Jim Thompson

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 DAY OF THE JACKAL by Frederick Forsyth. The best procedural ever.

What fictional character would you most like to have been?
Belbo, from FOUCAULT’S PENDULUM. He experienced it all. Re-wrote history to his own liking, took part in a grand conspiracy surrounding the Holy Grail, even had a great unrequited love with the beautiful Lorenza Pellegrini. And ultimately failed at everything. I can’t picture myself as a winner take all as fictional character.

Who do you read for guilty pleasures?
I re-read old Graham Greene novels and occasionally weep from frustration because I’ll never write anything to compare to the best of them.

Most satisfying writing moment?
When writing my first published novel, ACROSS THE GREEN LINE, and the second act climax came to me. In my head, I watched the bomb explode, saw the front of the Dome of the Rock burst into flame, watched holy men disintegrate, their eyes melt, their limbs blasted from their bodies, and shed tears of satisfaction.

The best Irish crime novel is …?
ON THE BRINKS by Sam Millar. Actually an autobiography, but a crime story just the same. I’ve never read anything else like it. Most of the Irish literature I read is poetry.

What Irish crime novel would make a great movie?
As above. BRINKS deserves to made into a film as a matter of cultural importance.

Worst / best thing about being a writer?
Worst: public speaking. Best: getting paid to do what I love.

The pitch for your next book is …?
LUCIFER’S TEARS. It’s been a year since the Sufia Elmi case, but Inspector Kari Vaara’s scarred face, chronic migraines, and head full of ghosts serve as daily reminders of that dark Christmas. Vaara has relocated to Helsinki, at the urging of his beautiful American wife, Kate, and now spends sleepless, anxious nights working the graveyard shift in Helsinki homicide, protecting a city that brings him nothing but bad memories. When the gorgeous Iisa Filippov is found tortured to death in the bed of her lover, Vaara and his rookie partner—the brilliant but slightly deranged Milo—are assigned to the case. It’s obvious that Iisa’s lover is being framed for the murder, and her husband, a powerful Russian businessman, seems the most likely suspect. But Mr. Fillipov is being protected from above, and as Vaara follows the trail of evidence—fueled by a good deal of vodka and very little sleep, in the typical Vaara fashion—he is led deep into a realm of political corruption, twisted obsessions, and deeply buried family secrets. At the same time, Kari is assigned to investigate Arvid Lahtinen, a ninety-year-old national hero now being accused of war crimes during World War II. Vaara learns that, contrary to the accepted historical record, Finland actually colluded with the Germans in the extermination of Communists and Jews—and Arvid is the last living soldier to have served in a secret POW camp on Finnish soil. The Interior Minister demands that Kari—whose late, beloved grandfather, Ukki, is also implicated in the crimes—prove Arvid innocent, and preserve Finland’s heroic image of itself and its role in the war. But that may turn out to be easier said than done. As the two investigations begin to boil over, an extended visit from Kate’s dour sister and degenerate brother cause uneasiness at home. Pressure is mounting on all sides, and Vaara isn’t at all sure he’s going to come out on top—or in one piece—this time. Set against the chilling atmosphere of the coldest winter to hit Finland in over 40 years, LUCIFER’S TEARS is at once a gripping page-turner and a captivating snapshot of a unique culture and its conflicted history. With the tough but troubled Inspector Vaara at its crux, LUCIFER’S TEARS is suspenseful, full-throttle mystery full of thrilling plot twists and intriguing revelations.

Who are you reading right now?
BANDWIDTH by Angus Morrison.

God appears and says you can only write OR read. Which would it be?
Write, without doubt.

The three best words to describe your own writing are …?
Dark, disturbing, honest.

James Thompson’s SNOW ANGELS is published by Putnam.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Burning Ambition

Jane Casey’s (right) debut novel, THE MISSING, was shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards crime fiction category, and her new offering, the very fine THE BURNING, should be landing on a shelf near you right about now. Yours truly met with Jane last week, and a very pleasant experience it was too, for your humble host at least. To wit:
They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and a similar warning should apply to authors. Quietly spoken and impeccably mannered, Jane Casey is a doe-eyed beauty who could well have popped up as some hack writer’s notion of what a serial killer’s victim should look like. Until, that is, she starts to talk about why she was drawn to write about an arsonist-cum-serial killer in her new novel, THE BURNING.
  “My husband is a criminal barrister,” she says, “and he always gets very annoyed when you get this incredibly gothic killer with a complex backstory in books and films. He says, and it’s true, that people who kill in this fashion do it because they enjoy it, full stop. So I wanted to write about the reality of what it’s like to look for someone who just likes to kill.
  “It’s like the case of Levi Bellfield,” she continues, “it all happened quite close to where I used to live in London. It was a really nice area, a part of Richmond, near Twickenham, very expensive, and it was there that he beat two girls to death. He’s an incredibly sinister person, and yet he has no complicated motive for murdering women. He’s just a very violent man. And I wanted to have a character who was just a killer who liked to kill, and how do you find a person like that in a place the size of London? Because they’re not standing on a corner twirling their moustache, or leaving clues for the police to give themselves away.”
  The 33-year-old Casey is Irish born and was raised in Castleknock. “Not very interesting,” she deadpans, “a typical suburb.” Except the suburbs, of course, are where all the quality fictional killers hide out behind their twitching curtains. “Actually, I think the suburbs are really creepy,” she says. “You don’t know what these apparently respectable people are thinking, or how they’re really living.”
  After getting the highest marks in the country in English when she did her Leaving Certificate, Casey had the pleasure of having a medal awarded by Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney.
  “It was just brilliant,” she says. “I sat and listened to him reading his poetry and it was just the most amazing experience. Except my father fell asleep. I could have murdered him! And Heaney obviously spotted this, we were sitting in the fifth row, and as he was winding down he said something very nice about how people had come a long way and were tired of listening to him. Except then he came over and was introduced to us, and asked where we were from, and Dad said, ‘Oh, from just down the road, in Castleknock.’ But Heaney didn’t bat an eyelid. A lovely man.”
  Casey went on to read English at Oxford, and has lived in England for some years now. Her debut novel, THE MISSING, which is set in London, was shortlisted for the Crime Fiction section in this year’s Irish Book Awards.
  “I know that people always says this, and that it can sound trite, but it really does mean so much to me to be included,” she says. “Mainly, I think, because a lot of people didn’t realise I am Irish, and it’s nice to have it recognised that I am, even though THE MISSING is set in London, and it has a totally English cast.
  “THE BURNING is a bit different,” she says, “because Maeve Kerrigan has an Irish background, and it draws from the two cultures, playing them off one against the other, which is something I’ll be looking to do more of in later books.”
  “Somebody who’s quite young and ambitious, and trying her best to get her head around the job,” according to Casey, Maeve Kerrigan is the heroine of THE BURNING, a woman who isn’t particularly skilled in any one sphere of policing but brings a rare quality of empathy to the way she goes about her job. Despite her telling eye for detail, Maeve is always likely to be battling for credibility with her male workmates.
  “I think for women working in that kind of environment, they have some stark choices,” says Casey. “They can either be very girly or they can be quite butch, or they can try and just be neutral. Maeve is trying to be taken seriously, she doesn’t want to be seen as one of the girlies going off and acting as bait for the killer - she’s one of the lads, in her mind at least. But of course, they don’t care about that. And she’s always coming up against that.”
  If Maeve Kerrigan is at times a contradiction in terms, so too is Jane Casey’s writing. A children’s books editor who took an mPhil in Anglo-Irish literature at Trinity College, THE BURNING somehow manages to blend a horrifyingly authentic tale of arson and serial killing with a deceptively light storytelling touch that is studded with nuggets of the blackest humour.
  “I think it was partly the desire to keep it entertaining,” she says, “to keep a little bit of Maeve’s humour coming through. Police officers generally use humour to get through the things that they’re dealing with, and I think the banter is very important. I think that that’s something that Kate Atkinson does very well, that ability to entertain you as she’s telling the story, and I think you can let the story have that light touch it you want, and still deal with big themes and have dark events.”

  Jane Casey’s THE BURNING is published by the Ebury Press.
  This interview was first published in the Evening Herald.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Nobody Move, This Is A Review: FREEDOM by Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen’s fourth novel centres on the Berglund family, who live in St. Paul, Minnesota, as the novel opens. Married couple Patty and Walter are sterling examples of post-Baby Boomer America, liberal in thought and deed, environmentally friendly, thriving in the self-renovated old home and rearing their children, Joey and Jessica, with hands-on parenting.
  A third character, Richard, proves the undoing of their idealistic lifestyle. Walter’s former college roommate, Richard is a musician who initially caught Patty’s eye in college. Despite his selfish ways, particularly in terms of his many relationships, Richard is drawn to boring old Walter in a chalk-and-cheese relationship. As Richard’s fame grows, and her children grow up to achieve independence, Patty finds herself more and more unable to quiet her lustful thoughts for Richard.
  The fourth main character is Joey, who is something of a parallel character to Richard, given that he is attractive, self-sufficient, and sexually advanced from a young age. As the millennium turns, and the Bush administration comes to power when Joey goes to college, Joey confirms his rejection of his parents’ values by becoming an entrepreneurial Republican who makes a decision to benefit financially from the Iraq invasion.
  Jonathan Franzen has a very deft touch when it comes to establishing character, and the most fascinating character in FREEDOM is Patty, which is somewhat surprising, given that she begins the novel as an apparently passive suburban mother-of-two who is content to be a stay-at-home mother. Naturally, given that this state of affairs wouldn’t lend itself to any great conflict or tension, Patty’s character quickly becomes more proactive - or perhaps passive-aggressive is a better way to describe it.
  One of the most enjoyable aspects of FREEDOM is the Autobiography of Patty Berglund, which Patty writes at her therapist’s suggestion. Here Franzen delves deeply into Patty’s psyche, or far more deeply than he does any other character in the novel, even though he uses a curiously distancing third-person technique for the strands of the novel that comprise Patty’s autobiography, which amounts to a confession of her betrayal of her husband, Walter. This distancing technique (‘The autobiographer wonders if one reason why Joyce’s voice always trembles is from struggling so hard all her life to not sound like Brooklyn.’) should be off-putting, but in fact it’s a compelling aspect to the story, because the reader is automatically put on notice that Patty is using this tone in order to distance herself from her actions, which are (presumably) so traumatising that she can’t bring herself to write them in the first-person.
  Franzen’s other main characters are less interesting, however. Walter, despite his ability to reconfigure his life and become a conflicted conservationist, is something of a cliché despite Franzen’s best efforts. His relationship with the ardent young conservationist Lalitha, for example, which comes to dominate the latter half of Walter’s narrative, resembles the feverish fantasy of the older man, the conscious and knowing echoes of ‘Lolita’ in Lalitha’s name notwithstanding. Perhaps it’s the fact that Franzen has written the besotted, beautiful, intelligent Lalitha as too perfect a cipher for Walter’s mid-life crisis, but a cipher she is, and no less a cliché in her own right than if Walter had simply renounced his conservationism instead of his marriage, and gone out and bought a bright red Ferrari.
  The third corner of the love triangle, the reluctant rock star Richard, is a more subtly drawn character than Walter, but again he’s something of a male fantasy figure. Irresistible to women, Richard is a gifted musician with a magnetic appeal to women and men alike. Despite his rock star ambitions, however, which generally involve a hefty dose of self-indulgent ego, Richard is unusually self-aware, and is also unusually gentle and sensitive. When the young Patty more or less throws herself at Richard during a road-trip, Richard gently steers her back towards Walter, despite the fact that Patty and Walter aren’t an item at this point. Later, when Richard finally achieves the success he has craved all along, albeit in as a kind of cult hero who becomes successful almost by default, he performs an about-face, unable or unwilling to deal with the pressures of fame. It’s to Franzen’s credit that he doesn’t impose a kind of rock star martyrdom a la Kurt Cobain on Richard, but the fact that Richard abandons his career to go roofing houses and patios is so faux-humble that it negates any authenticity Richard has built up to this point.
  Arguably the most interesting character in the novel is Walter and Patty’s son, Joey. Indulged as a child (whereas his sister Jessica is kept on a tighter rein), Joey grows up to reject his parents’ liberal middle-class values, and as a young man makes a valiant attempt to financially benefit from the war in Iraq. Here, at least, we have conflict made manifest, and Joey’s internal monologues, in which he debates the merits or otherwise of conforming to expectations, particularly in terms of his commitment (or otherwise) to his childhood sweetheart Connie, have a ring of authenticity that is all too often lacking elsewhere.
  It’s entirely possible, given that title, and the fact that a number of characters appear to be variations on cliché, that we’re being invited to read the novel ironically. That Franzen wants us to snigger at his emotionally stunted suburban creatures, who bumble along wrapped up in their kitchen-sink drama, only occasionally raising their gaze from their spot-lit navels to take cognizance of what has been a fairly dramatic decade in American history. If that’s the case, it’s a very strained and thin kind of irony, and one which fails to skewer its suburban heartland.
  The novel is very much concerned with themes that spring from the ‘personal-is-political’. Walter’s compromises on the environment, for example, mirror the compromises he makes in his personal relationships. Joey’s decision to embrace the free-market philosophy of Republicanism equates with his rejection of his parents’ Clinton-era liberalism.
  Very similar in tone and themes (and even title) to Milan Kundera’s THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING, Franzen’s FREEDOM details the personal struggle to live and thrive according to a particular philosophy in the messy confusion that is day-to-day existence. The underlying theme appears to be one of a plea for compromise, whether that’s in the personal, domestic, political or artistic fields. That might well be a fair comment to make on an American political system that has grown hugely fractured ever since George Bush jnr ascended to the White House, and has intensified even more with Barack Obama’s presidency, but a novel that preaches common sense values such as the need for compromise is never going to be the most exciting of reads, particularly as the novel as a narrative form thrives on conflict.
  It’s true that, while there is plenty of conflict in FREEDOM, most of it is internalised, in that most of the conflict is generated by people who are in conflict with themselves, with values that have grown outdated or are no longer useful, or practical. This provides Franzen with plenty of material for extended internal monologues, of which Patty’s autobiography is an example, but it does little to enhance the pace and momentum of the overall story.
  That Franzen, hailed as a great American novelist, should write a story that is essentially so small in terms of its scale, despite the fact that American has been through 9/11, two wars, an economic meltdown, is something of a major disappointment. Adam Haslett’s UNION ATLANTIC, which was published earlier this year and covered much of the same territory as FREEDOM, is a much more mature and provocative novel.
  Overall, FREEDOM is a solid novel that is competently written (although Franzen displays little flair for ambitious language), but one that is far from compelling. Written by a debutant, it would suggest promise - although, if written by a debutant, it would have been heavily edited down from its rather extensive 562 pages. As a novel from the man hailed as the Great American Novelist, however, FREEDOM is something of a disappointment, drab in places, self-indulgent in others, and only fitfully fascinating. - Declan Burke

Saturday, November 27, 2010

“Ya Wanna Do It Here Or Down The Station, Punk?”: Tony Bailie

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 SAVAGE DETECTIVES by Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño. Although not strictly a crime writer, Bolaño was hugely influenced by the genre. This large, sprawling novel follows the lives of two South American poets from the perspective of a whole range of narrators who drift in and out of their lives. It starts off in Mexico in the 1970s and follows its central characters to Europe, The Middle East and Africa. The diverse narrative voices can be a bit disconcerting and they often focus on their own stories and barely mention the main protagonists. It demands that the reader work and almost become a detective, trying to sift through the testimonies and piece together the movements of the two poets.

What fictional character would you most like to have been?
Pepe Carvalho, who appears in a series of novels by the late Spanish novelist Manuel Vázquez Montalbán. Carvalho lives in Barcelona [a decided advantage when you are sitting in Co Down on a rain-sodden November morning], enjoys gourmet cooking, fine wine, becomes involved with cases that are never that difficult to solve and seems to get laid a lot without trying too hard.

Who do you read for guilty pleasures?
I've a soft spot for science fiction but only now and again ... Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius novels [not the sword and sorcery stuff], Robert A Heinlein and a bit of Philip K Dick. It is interesting how their speculation about a multiverse, which they first aired in the 1960s, now seems to be gaining credibility with modern science.

Most satisfying writing moment?
Five thousand words in a night-long session which just flowed and became the basis of my short story The Druids’ Dance, published in the anthology REQUIEMS FOR THE DEPARTED, which was published earlier this year. Usually I write in spurts and splice the results together. Although I don’t regard myself as a crime writer as such, REQUIEMS was an opportunity to experiment in the genre and to meet and be published alongside some of the best crime writers on the Irish scene at present.

The best Irish crime novel is …?
REDEMPTION by Francis Stuart. Set in late 1940s, it tells the story of an Irishman who spent the war years in Germany and who returns to Ireland, which had remained neutral. It strips back the shallow moral values of quiet rural Irish town for which the war was just a rumour and which are exposed when a girl, of easy virtue, is murdered. It is told from the point of view someone who witnessed the total breakdown of human civilization in war-ravaged Europe. Stuart remains a sore point with many people in Ireland because of his war-time activities in Nazi Germany, but that doesn’t devalue his novels, which often confront easy assumptions about right and wrong.

What Irish crime novel would make a great movie?
A story by Gerard Brennan called Hard Rock which first appeared on the ThugLit website, and which is due to appear in THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF BEST BRITISH CRIME next year, would make an excellent movie, although possibly with a triple-x rating. My first novel, THE LOST CHORD, told the story of a debauched Irish rock star who ‘disappeared’ and the persistent rumours that he was still alive. However, the characters who appear in Gerard’s story make my characters seem like members of Westlife … it was the most depraved, disgusting and sick piece of writing I have ever read. Fair play to him.

Worst / best thing about being a writer?
The widespread recognition, the constant offers of film deals, publishers and agents battering at my door offering huge sums of money for my next novel … it can be both a curse and blessing.

The pitch for your next book is …?
Part adventure story, part psychological thriller and part new-age philosophy, ECOPUNKS is an environmental parable for the 21st century.

Who are you reading right now?
A biography of Alexander Solzhenitsyn by the English novelist DM Thomas. Solzhenitsyn fought for the USSR during the Second World War but was arrested for criticising Stalin and sentenced to eight years hard labour in a gulag and then exiled to Kazakhstan when he was released, where he nearly died from cancer. He used his experiences as the basis of his novels and reportage but fell foul of the Soviet regime in the 1970s and was exiled to the West, where he rounded on the lack of integrity of Western governments who thought he would be a literary battering ram to attack communism with. A truly epic life.

God appears and says you can only write OR read. Which would it be?
Read ... It would be a relief, in some ways.

The three best words to describe your own writing are …?
Gnarled, tortured prose. It’s not really, but I just liked the sound of that … better than ‘can’t really spell’.

ECOPUNKS by Tony Bailie is published by Lagan Press.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Irish Book Awards: DARK TIMES Never Seemed So Good

A ray of light in these dark times: Gene Kerrigan’s DARK TIMES IN THE CITY deservedly won Best Crime Novel at the Irish Book Awards last night. The shortlist was, as I’ve mentioned before, missing such luminaries as John Connolly, Ken Bruen, Arlene Hunt and Alan Glynn, but then last year was a very strong year indeed for Irish crime writing, and the very strong shortlist did include Tana French, Declan Hughes, Alex Barclay, Stuart Neville and Jane Casey. All of which should give Gene an extra fillip as he plonks his award on the mantelpiece. Mind you, Gene being an unusually modest man, there’s every chance said gong will be put away out of sight, lest anyone remark upon it and force Gene to admit that, yes, he’s actually a very fine writer indeed. Hearty congratulations to the man, and commiserations to all the runners-up …
  I reviewed DARK TIMES almost two years ago now, and had this, among other things, to say:
“Cruelly authentic, the novel refuses the simplistic pieties of either the genre’s form or society’s wishful thinking. DARK TIMES IN THE CITY is a very fine crime novel, but it’s also one of the very few novels of any stripe to hold up a mirror to the dark heart of modern Ireland’s boom-and-bust.”
  For the rest, clickety-click here
  Elsewhere, by which I mean my own little world, it’s been a busy, funny and often odd week or so. Yesterday, my former agent, who still holds some of the European rights to THE BIG O, rang to say that the contracts for the Italian version of said tome had arrived, and was I available to sign on the dotted line? Erm, yes, please. The money involved, of course, would hardly stretch to cover some decent lattes and a plate of spag bol, but at this stage, money is not the point. It’ll be fantastic to see THE BIG O in Italian, especially as I have a particular fondness for the country, and it also means that I’ll have been translated into three languages, as EIGHTBALL BOOGIE was published in Holland some years ago, under the title SPEEDBALL. The third language I’ve been translated into, as any of my editors will attest, is English.
  So that was nice. If you have any Italian friends who might enjoy a crime-comedy romp featuring a one-eyed Siberian wolf called Anna, feel free to give them a heads-up.
  Meanwhile, Paul D. Brazill did me proud with a review of the sequel to THE BIG O over at his interweb lair, aka You Would Say That, Wouldn’t You? To wit:
“CRIME ALWAYS PAYS is the follow up to Burke’s splendid THE BIG O and it almost actually IS that oxymoron ‘a screwball noir’. There’s a LOT going on, and it does take a bit to get used to the frantic pace, but it’s a satisfying read that still makes you want more. CRIME ALWAYS PAYS: A SCREWBALL NOIR is a cracking, fast paced, clever and very droll road movie with a top drawer cast - especially Sleeps!” - Paul D. Brazill
  Which, again, is very nice, and thank you kindly, sir. Funnily enough, Sleeps is probably my favourite character from CRIME ALWAYS PAYS, and at one point I was even thinking of calling the book SLEEPS THE HERO. Sadly, for everyone already fumbling for their credit cards in their rush to secure a copy, the book is only available as an e-book, or as a download to your PC, and will set you back a whopping $1.99. If you’re still determined to read it, however, all the details can be found here
  Finally - and this may cause Ms Witch to prick up her ears, if no one else - I had something of an unusual request last week. In essence, it was from a publisher of children’s books, wondering if I’d like to meet to discuss the possibility of my writing a book for young adults. Now, writing a book for kids has been something that’s been flickering on the very edge of my radar ever since the Princess Lilyput arrived, but I’ve never spent any time thinking seriously about it. Right now, I can’t think of anything else. The idea I hatched has gone forward for consideration, but already I think that I’m going to write the story no matter what the decision is, because I’m entirely enthralled by it. For one thing, it’ll be a massive challenge to write a whole novel without recourse to foul language; for another, it’ll be an equally massive challenge to try to write something that will capture a young reader’s imagination. I have no faith in my ability to achieve either, but I like the idea of trying. Plus, given the rate at which I tend to write and get published, two-year-old Lily should be just the right age to identify with the 13-year-old heroine when the book finally appears. Or, as is far more likely, sneer at it with a carefully honed teenage disaffection …

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The North Will Rise Again, Again

Apologies to all Three Regular Readers for the intemperate outburst regarding Irish politics yesterday, a post I had to take down on the basis that it was attracting all kinds of bizarre comments, most of them even more radical in terms of visiting violence on Irish politicians than my own. Normal service is hereby resumed …
  I’ve mentioned Eoin McNamee’s ORCHID BLUE on these pages more than once in the last few weeks, but it really is a terrific read. If you don’t believe me, check out John Burnside’s review in The Guardian last week. The gist runneth thusly:
“Northern Ireland, 1961. The body of a young woman, stripped naked, brutally beaten, stabbed and finally strangled, is discovered in a stubble field after a dance at Newry Orange Hall. Though the police have nothing to go on other than the most circumstantial evidence, the whole town agrees that the killer is a young bodybuilder and ne'er-do-well named Robert McGladdery …
“It is this sense of how the defining moments come to be agreed – of how they are essentially defined by the ruling class – that illuminates ORCHID BLUE, so that what begins as a crime thriller gradually builds not only into a political novel of the highest order but also that rare phenomenon, a genuinely tragic work of art.” - John Burnside
  Nice. Meanwhile, I was delighted to see Stuart Neville’s very fine COLLUSION reviewed by Marilyn Stasio in the New York Times at the weekend, although it has to be said, it was less of a review and more of a synopsis. To wit:
The violence in Stuart Neville’s novels about Northern Ireland is about as nasty as it gets in noir crime fiction. But while the bloodshed in Neville’s first novel, THE GHOSTS OF BELFAST, was viewed from the perspective of a professional killer named Gerry Fegan, in COLLUSION (Soho, $25), a law enforcement officer is drawn into the brutality, which only adds to the sense of despair. Detective Inspector Jack Lennon, a Belfast policeman with an unsavory past, has a chance to redeem himself by coddling an informant with intelligence on local gangsters doing business with a Lithuanian mob. But in the process Lennon learns of more serious criminal collusion involving “the cops, the Brits, the Irish government, the party” — not to mention the mob bosses.
  This corruption can be traced all the way back to the Troubles and to one particular bloodbath that made fugitives of Lennon’s estranged lover and daughter. In his frantic efforts to find them, the detective turns to Fegan, the assassin, who is his only hope of finding out why that old atrocity is being revisited. What he doesn’t hold out any hope for is an end to the cycle of violence — not in Northern Ireland, where even today, in the midst of peace, organized crime is relentlessly intruding. - Marilyn Stasio
  Now, I’m sure Stuart Neville isn’t exactly complaining, but I was left scratching my head as to the point of a ‘review’ like that. Maybe I’m being obtuse, but if I hadn’t read the novel, I’d be no wiser as to if it was actually any good, and if so, why. Which is the point, is it not, of a review?

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Digested Read: THE SLAP by Christos Tsiolkas

Yep, it’s that time of the week again. Herewith be the latest in an increasingly improbable line of Digested Reads, aka the Book du Jour in 300 words. This week: THE SLAP by Christos Tsiolkas. To wit:

“No-no-no-no-no!” Young Hugo was a bludger. Got caught lbw, everyone saw it, he was out. But he wouldn’t let go the bat. “No-no-no-no-no!” he screamed. So Harry cracked him a right bloody rippah.
  “That’s child abuse, mate!”
  “Nah, it’s just a slap.”
  “I’ll give you a slap.”
  “Don’t tie me kangaroo down, mate.”
  Hector threw a few more tinnies on the barbie.

  So then, like, the cops got involved and Harry got arrested and a trial date was set and some people thought the kid deserved a slap and some people didn’t and some people said whether or not he deserved it wasn’t the point and some other people said the point was there was no point, and so on.

  Meantime, Hector the Greek wasn’t happy married to Aisha the Indian and Harry was Hector’s brother, the bloody gallah, and Hugo’s parents were hippies, the flaming drongos, and Richie the student was coming out of the closet and isn’t Australia such a wonderfully rounded multicultural country when people aren’t slapping other people’s kids?
  “Yeah but, right, see, if the hippies had slapped Hugo when they should have instead of smoking all those joss sticks, Harry wouldn’t have had to stick his billabong in, would he?”
  “Hmmm, maybe you have a point.”
  “Yes. Except the point is there isn’t any point, isn’t it?”
  “I take your point.”

  So, like, anyway, Hector’s father thinks Harry did the right thing, but he’s Greek, so what would he know? Besides, wouldn’t the world be a better place if Hector’s mother was nicer to Aisha? Hey, maybe then Hector wouldn’t have ended up screwing Aisha’s friend.
  “I say slap ’em all, let God sort ’em out.”
  “You may have a point there.”
  “I’ll take that point and ram it up your wazoo, mate!”
  “Touché, sir.”

  So, like, anyway, multiculturalism: looks good on paper, but it ain’t worth a flaming XXXX if you can’t throw it on the barbie.

  The End.

  The Digested Read, in one line: “What’s that, Skip? A mouthy kid got slapped? Rippah!”

  This article first appeared in the Evening Herald.