“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.

Friday, March 19, 2010

An APRIL For April

With an unerring eye for the myriad marketing possibilities, Henry Holt releases Benny Blanco’s ELEGY FOR APRIL in – oh yes! – April. Quoth the blurb elves:
Quirke—the hard-drinking, insatiably curious Dublin pathologist—is back, and he’s determined to find his daughter’s best friend, a well-connected young doctor April Latimer has vanished. A junior doctor at a local hospital, she is something of a scandal in the conservative and highly patriarchal society of 1950s Dublin. Though her family is one of the most respected in the city, she is known for being independent-minded; her taste in men, for instance, is decidedly unconventional. Now April has disappeared, and her friend Phoebe Griffin suspects the worst. Frantic, Phoebe seeks out Quirke, her brilliant but erratic father, and asks him for help. Sober again after intensive treatment for alcoholism, Quirke enlists his old sparring partner, Detective Inspector Hackett, in the search for the missing young woman. In their separate ways the two men follow April’s trail through some of the darker byways of the city to uncover crucial information on her whereabouts. And as Quirke becomes deeply involved in April’s murky story, he encounters complicated and ugly truths about family savagery, Catholic ruthlessness, and race hatred. Both an absorbing crime novel and a brilliant portrait of the difficult and relentless love between a father and his daughter, this is Benjamin Black at his sparkling best.
  Last year brought us John Banville’s THE INFINITIES, of course, which is a terrific read for anyone who hasn’t caught up with it yet. It’s highly unlikely ELEGY FOR APRIL will be in the same league, but hey, even a workmanlike Banville is better than no Banville at all.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Is Eileen Battersby Fit For Purpose?

There’s an interesting piece in today’s Irish Times from Eileen Battersby, who (belatedly) leaps to the defence of those Irish authors traduced by Julian Gough’s assertion that our literary heroes are hopelessly out of touch with modern Ireland. That she does so without mentioning the words ‘Julian’ or ‘Gough’ is strange enough, but the fact that she answers the question ‘Do Irish writers engage with contemporary life or are they stuck in the past?’ without referring to a single Irish crime writer would be hilarious if it weren’t so pathetic.
  Actually, that’s not strictly true. Ms Battersby does mention John Banville’s alter-ego, Benjamin Black, albeit in order to laud his investigation of the past. And you can also include Eoin McNamee, if you’re willing to concede that THE BLUE TANGO, RESURRECTION MEN, 12:23 et al, are crime novels, which Ms Battersby doesn’t, and overlook the fact that McNamee writes thrillers under the pseudonym John Creed, which she does.
  That said, how can the Irish Times’ literary correspondent answer the question of ‘Do Irish writers engage with contemporary life or are they stuck in the past?’ without citing the likes of Declan Hughes, Tana French, Brian McGilloway, Gene Kerrigan, et al? Even if she confined herself to literary authors – which Julian Gough did – then Adrian McKinty’s mischievous treatment of ULYSSES in THE BLOOMSDAY DEAD was surely worth a mention. But Ms Battersby is happy to include the chick-lit writers Sheila Flanagan and Cecilia Ahern, while ignoring the likes of Alan Glynn’s WINTERLAND or Ken Bruen’s PRIEST. Meanwhile, and leaving aside the fact that the political entity of Northern Ireland is composed of six rather than nine counties, how can you praise David Park’s (very fine) novel THE TRUTH COMMISSIONER for engaging with ‘post-Good Friday Ulster’ and ignore Stuart Neville’s THE TWELVE, which was recently nominated one of the best crime novels of the last year by the New York Times and the LA Times?
  Now, it can be argued that I’m getting my knickers in a twist over nowt, because Ms Battersby is as entitled to her opinion as anyone, and you can’t please everyone, because the Irish literary landscape is teeming with contenders for ‘Most Relevant Chronicler of Our Times’. By the same token, Ms Battersby mentioned 58 writers, playwrights and poets, and didn’t find room for a single Irish crime writer bar Benjamin Black. And, given that the Irish Times is the paper of record, and that Ms Battersby is the paper’s literary correspondent, any tourist reading that piece in Dublin today would be entitled to conclude that Ireland is a most peculiar modern country in that it has no indigenous crime writers dealing with contemporary matters. As the government talks up an export-led recovery, Irish publishers with Irish crime writers on their books must be gnawing their knuckles with frustration.
  It’s not as if Irish crime writing is hiding its light under a bushel. Or has it entirely escaped the notice of the Irish Times’ literary correspondent that Irish crime writing has its own category in the Irish Book Awards? Fintan O’Toole noticed. Meanwhile, Ms Battersby lauds Keith Ridgeway for nailing the Celtic Tiger phenomenon, and ignores the fact that Declan Hughes, Gene Kerrigan and Alan Glynn were last year already writing about the post-boom/bust Perhaps the article’s leading question should be rephrased as, ‘Do Irish literary correspondents engage with contemporary life or are they stuck in the past?’
  Given that those 58 writers mentioned cover virtually every kind of fiction bar sci-fi and crime, the only conclusion to be drawn from Ms Battersby’s piece today is that Irish crime writers were omitted from her article on the basis of taste, ignorance or prejudice. Regardless of which it happens to be, and in the light of today’s farrago, very fine authors such as McGilloway, McKinty, Hughes, French, Neville, Bruen and Kerrigan, to name but a few, are surely entitled to ask: Is Eileen Battersby fit for purpose?

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.