“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.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

What Would Ray Chandler Do?

Last year, over coffee, a good friend of mine asked if I’d be interested in joining a book club, which request sent hot frothy milk spurting from my nose. No thanks, says I, as politely as you can after showering a lady friend in second-hand latte, I’m afraid I have trouble finding the time to read the books I already need to read without adding another to the list on a monthly basis. I also mumbled something about being a bloke, and not wanting my testosterone throwing its weight around the room. What I didn’t say is that my wife is in a book club, and most of the titles she brings home seem to reek of the most irritating kind of smug, middle-class respectability, which probably says a lot more about me than about the books in question.
  Anyway, the Irish bookseller chain Eason recently published their ‘Best Books of the Noughties’ Top 50, which list was voted on by the public in a poll conducted by the on-line Eason Book Club, and it’s mildly dispiriting but not entirely surprising to find that THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO and WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS? are the only crime titles therein, unless you want to stretch the boundaries and include NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and THE WHITE TIGER. Given the week that’s in it, it’s disappointing that the list featured no Irish crime writers at all, and this for a decade in which Irish crime fiction exploded onto the bookshelves, in a poll of Irish readers conducted by an Irish bookseller. Depressing stuff, although I’m not necessarily blaming anyone, because the list seems to be made up of the kind of stuff people are directed towards today, including a lot of Booker Prize nominees / winners, and the usual kind of Book Club bait you find in such company. That said, there’s some cracking novels there too – a couple of Banvilles, David Mitchell’s CLOUD ATLAS, two Cormac McCarthys, Sebastian Barry’s A LONG, LONG WAY, the Dark Materials trilogy, a Margaret Atwood, a John McGahern …
  So what’s my beef? Well, I’m just wondering where the crime titles are. It’s either true that crime fiction is hugely popular or it’s not; and if it is, how come it never shows up on such lists? Is it the case that people tend to vote for the kind of thing they think they should be voting for, rather than what they like, and actually read? Were – just for random example – SHANTARAM, THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST and I’M NOT SCARED really three of the fifty best novels of the last decade, or are they simply three of the novels people had shoved under their noses by a combination of booksellers, broadsheets and the arbiters of public taste? Or is the list simply skewed towards the conventional kind of Book Club book because it’s a Book Club list?
  Yet more questions: does my antipathy to Book Clubs stem from the fact that I write books that are highly unlikely to feature on Book Club lists, even if I could get them published? Am I, in fact, a scruffy urchin shivering in the snow with my nose pressed up against the drawing-room windows, craving the warm glow of smug middle-class respectability?
  I should say at this point, if you haven’t already guessed, that I’ve gone bi-polar about writing, mainly due to the pointlessness of the exercise. And it’s not just an up-and-down experience – it’s the kind of bi-polar in which you’re up and down at the same time, which makes for an interesting tone in the piece I’m working on at the moment. I have a guy who’s going through the Beckett thing of ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on’, a kind of passive acceptance of his need for momentum, even as he concedes that his best efforts are a waste of time. He has his own reasons for not wanting to engage with the rest of the characters, and that’s fair enough, but I’m very much afraid that he’s as likely to just throw himself off the ferry he’s on right now as do something constructive, or destructive, or at least do something that’s interesting to potential readers. Maybe it’s the paralysing stasis that’s affecting Ireland right now, as it grinds to an economic halt with precious little direction from those responsible for such things, but there’s every chance the chap in the story will just down tools and call a sit-in protest on the top deck of the ferry, a kind of one-man campaign of civil disobedience against being forced to jump through hoops on behalf of an audience that simply doesn’t exist. What would Chandler do? He’d have a drink, and send a guy through a door with a gun already in his hand … but sometimes even that, or Chandler, isn’t enough to get the blood stirring.
  Incidentally, my wife’s Book Club is this month reading FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS, on the basis that one of the ladies decided it was high time for some proper reading. Good for her.

  Recently I have been reading: IF I NEVER SEE YOU AGAIN by Niamh O’Connor; THE RISING by Brian McGilloway; THE MARRIAGE OF CADMUS AND HARMONY by Robert Calasso; THE SNOWMAN by Jo Nesbø.

7 comments:

Brian Lindenmuth said...

Just wanted to chime in real quick and say that No Country for Old Men is 1000% crime fiction. No need to stretch the boundaries to include it.

My problem with book clubs was always that it felt like they were infringing on my time, like they were dictating to me what I would be reading next. Don't know what this says about me...

seana said...

The book group phenomenon is an odd thing, and I say that being in one of longstanding. I tend to resent the task ahead of time, but usually I'm happy enough with the selection in the end. We just read Cloud Atlas, for instance. I don't know how substantial the discussion ends up being,but although it is just an excuse to get together in some ways, it is very interesting to have read books in common with people over a long period of time. You're right though, not a lot of crime fiction gets read. I mean, a lot of crime fiction does get read, but not for this type of group. And yes, it mystifies me that the Swedes have caught on and the Irish haven't, or haven't as much yet. But I don't get what bounced Steig Larsson up into the stratosphere either. Frankly, I think there are better Scandinavian crime writers. But at least they can ride his coattails.

Your feelings about writing remind me of my feelings about being a bookseller. It's definitely a manic/depressive sort of job these days.

Reg said...

You actually liked (and could stand to read) For Whom the Bell Tolls? My wife was "assigned" it in her last book club, which she recently quit because of the lame book choices. Just try and read the wooden dialogue! As translators we both thought it sounded like a really bad translation from Spanish. Not a good choice of technique, Ernest. Same problem with the movie, despite having Ingrid Bergman spouting some of those lame lines. Unwatchable. Makes me want to reread The Sun Also Rises and the early stories to see if my judgment of them holds up today at my advanced age. But do count us in as the biggest Banville fans in New Mexico.

Declan Burke said...

Brian - I'm with you on NO COUNTRY. But some McCarthy purists might object ...

Cheers, Dec

Declan Burke said...

Seana - CLOUD ATLAS is terrific, I read it a couple of weeks ago. If I was guaranteed that kind of fare every month, book clubs might be a more palatable prospect. What I object to is the classic book club book, a quasi-literary style married to some whimsical plot device ... Gives me the snaking shudders.

Cheers, Dec

Declan Burke said...

Reg - Haven't read FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS. FIESTA is terrific, and ACROSS THE RIVER ... My favourite, though, is THE GARDEN OF EDEN, although I know a lot of Hemingway fans hate it.

Cheers, Dec

Reg said...

Declan, I would say don't bother, you'd be shocked by the utter clunkiness of the language. I'll have to take a look at THE GARDEN OF EDEN, hadn't heard of that one. Thanks for the tip. Since I'm not a big "fan," maybe I'll like it. A nice change from Swedish thrillers, anyway.