FOR A MAN who recently lost his first name, The Artist Formerly Known As Colin Bateman is in remarkably chipper form.This interview first appeared in the Evening Herald.
The prolific writer (25 novels and counting) of comedy crime novels that began with DIVORCING JACK was recently rebranded ‘Bateman’ to coincide with the publication of a new series character who goes only by the name ‘Mystery Man’ as Bateman spoofs the conventions of the traditional crime thriller.
“It’s kind of a mixed blessing,” he says of his new moniker. “It has undeniably worked as far as the books are concerned - or maybe the books are getting better - in that there’s a recognition factor there. The downside, I suppose, is that if you don’t know it’s tongue in cheek, you’d think it was a bit self-important. And of course, now that I have that doctorate from Coleraine University, I’m officially a Doctor, so the new book could be DR YES by Dr Bateman. If I chose to, ahem, yank my own chain.”
Fiddling with his funny bits, of course, is what led to the creation of Bateman’s choicest character to date.
“Most of my books have been launched in Belfast’s No Alibis mystery bookstore,” he says, “and at a launch I generally read the first chapter of the new book: you don’t have to set it all up or confuse people with back stories and asides. But when I was launching DRIVING BIG DAVIE about six years ago I had a bit of a problem – the first chapter was all about masturbation, and my mother-in-law was in the audience. So I had to read something, and that something was a story I wrote over the weekend before the launch, actually set in the bookstore, and with a fictional version of the owner [Dave Torrans] cracking a humdrum crime in ‘The Case of Mrs Geary’s Leather Trousers’. It really was just to fill a gap, but it went down so well that at the next book launch I wrote another short story featuring the same character, and those two stories eventually evolved into the first novel.”
Mystery Man’s schtick is that he is the antithesis of the conventional crime fiction hero: he’s a cowardly neurotic, a hypochondriac with all the fighting qualities of a cloistered nun, a man who excels only at “being paranoid and foolish and saying the wrong thing, mostly. Yep, it’s a thinly veiled autobiography,” laughs Bateman. “I think Mystery Man and Dan Starkey [the wise-cracking hero of Bateman’s previous series of novels] have a lot in common in that they both tend to open their mouths before they put their brains into gear. The difference is that Dan’s a bit of a jack-the-lad, and if he doesn’t exactly get away with it, he does have a bit of charm and swagger to him. Mystery Man you’d probably just want to hit with a hammer. I suspect I’m probably half way between the two of them.”
The first in the new series, MYSTERY MAN, was a Richard and Judy ‘Summer Read’, while the second, THE DAY OF THE JACK RUSSELL, scooped the Last Laugh award at the recent CrimeFest bunfight in Bristol. The third, DR YES, will be published on September 30th, but Bateman isn’t resting on his laurels.
“I think it’s important to keep the writing fresh,” he says, “so I’m always open to new challenges – the most recent being writing an erotic short story for Maxim Jakubowski’s Dublin-set anthology, SEX IN THE CITY, which story is chiefly notable for having no discernable erotic content.”
Having previously written for TV, most notably the Murphy’s Law series that starred James Nesbitt, Bateman has now turned to writing for the stage.
“‘National Anthem’ is about a composer and a poet,” he explains, “both exiles for twenty years, and with a certain level of fame, who are commissioned by the Government to create a national anthem for Northern Ireland to coincide with the visit of the American President. They’re very much up against a deadline: two men in a room with one day to compose it. But this isn’t the country they left, and they both have secrets which are exposed during the course of the play, secrets which also come back to haunt them. I should add that it’s a comedy, a farce, but maybe with a few points to make about how ‘we’ see ourselves, where we’ve been and where we’re going.”
After that it’s back to another Mystery Man novel, and using comedy to continue to carve out a niche in what he believes is quickly becoming a depressingly homogenous genre.
“In publishing terms,” he says, “crime fiction is the biggest genre, and the best-selling authors are selling phenomenal amounts of books. But I genuinely believe that 99 per cent of crime readers, if they were given just the books minus their covers and any identifying information, really couldn’t tell the difference between any of them.
“I was at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival a couple of months ago and I met many crime fiction fans, and they were all perfectly nice and lovely and I got a great reception and they laughed at my jokes, but it was absolutely clear to me that at the end of the day what they actually wanted was the next Jeffrey Deaver, or Patricia Cornwell or Karin Slaughter. They like the safety of knowing what they’re getting every time they buy a book, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but most of them just aren’t comfortable with the idea of crime comedy and won’t take a chance on it.
“I think maybe readers have forgotten that there was a strong element of humour in crime fiction in the past - Sherlock Holmes and Raymond Chandler had it in spades - but it seems to have been sucked out of it over the years in favour of blood and guts.
“It’s not so much that comic crime is cutting edge,” he continues, “it’s just that I think anything that varies from the norm is always worth checking out. Comic crime fiction at least dares to be different. It also,” he grins, “dares not to sell very many copies.”
DR YES is published by Headline on September 30th. National Anthem debuts at the Belfast Theatre Festival on October 20th.
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “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.
Monday, September 13, 2010
Fiddling With His Funny Bits: The Bateman Interview
With his latest ‘Mystery Man’ novel, DR YES, on the horizon, and a new play in the works, I recently interviewed Colin Bateman (right) for the Evening Herald. It went a lot like this: