“Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

“Ya Wanna Do It Here Or Down The Station, Punk?”: Kevin Brooks

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 BIG SLEEP by Raymond Chandler.

What fictional character would you most like to have been?
Travis McGee (from the John D MacDonald books).

Who do you read for guilty pleasures?
I don’t feel guilty about reading anything.

Most satisfying writing moment?
Publication of my first book, MARTYN PIG.

The best Irish crime novel is …?
Depends how you define ‘Irish crime novel’. Does John Connolly’s THE REAPERS count?

What Irish crime novel would make a great movie?
THE REAPERS (if allowed).

Worst / best thing about being a writer?
Best thing – all of it. There is no worst thing.

The pitch for your next book is …?
London, 1976, the long hot summer, the birth of punk rock, and a young Irish boy known as Billy the Kid.

Who are you reading right now?
Christopher Hitchens.

God appears and says you can only write OR read. Which would it be?
I’m an atheist, so neither (and even if I wasn’t an atheist, I’d just tell Him to go away).

Kevin Brooks’ iBoy is published by Puffin.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The World: Gone To Hell In A Hand-Basket, Apparently

I had a piece published in the Irish Times yesterday, the gist of it concerned with the development of the crime novel in settings and countries not necessarily associated with the traditional haunts of crime fiction. To wit:
How the World Became One Big Crime Scene

From the Palestinian Territories to Mongolia and beyond, crime writers are using international locations to tackle global themes

The popular perception of crime fiction is that it’s the foul-mouthed, hard-drinking, black sheep of the literary family. Unsurprisingly, it’s quite popular with the ladies, perhaps as a result of the broad mind it has developed on its travels.
  The success of Stieg Larsson’s Sweden-set ‘Millennium Trilogy’ has alerted mainstream readers to the fact that the crime novel has an existence beyond its traditional enclaves of America and the UK. Larsson, of course, is following in the footsteps of his countryman Henning Mankell, while ‘foreign’ settings for crime novels are nothing new for aficionados au fait with the groundbreaking works of Georges Simenon (France) and Sjöwall and Wahlöö (Sweden), and latterly the likes of Andrea Camilleri (Italy), Colin Cotterill (Cambodia), Michael Dibdin (Italy), Jo Nesbø (Norway) and Deon Meyer (South Africa), to mention but a few.
  Three years ago, writing in the New Yorker, Clive James celebrated international crime fiction offerings from Ireland, Scandinavia and Italy while simultaneously deriding the limitations of the genre’s form. “In most of the crime novels coming out now,” he said, “it’s a matter not of what happens but of where. Essentially, they are guide books.”
  What James failed to recognise is that the crime novel, by virtue of engaging with issues of law and (dis)order in a timely and relevant fashion, tends to be at the cutting edge in terms of addressing society’s fundamental concerns and broaching its taboos.
  Per Wahlöö, for example, claimed that the motive behind the ten-book Martin Beck series written with his wife was to “use the crime novel as a scalpel cutting open the belly of the ideologically pauperized and morally debatable so-called welfare state of the bourgeois type.”
  Peeling back layers of cant and perceived wisdom is a theme that writers are currently exploring in settings as diverse as Canada, Poland, the Palestinian Territories, Brazil, South Africa and Mongolia.
  “Toronto has been proud of its label as one the most multi-ethnic cities in the world for the past twenty years or so,” says John McFetridge (right), whose Let It Ride is set in Canada’s great melting-pot city. “There’s been some great literature written here, but there hasn’t been much written about crime. And there’s been plenty of crime. Almost everything in my books is inspired by real events, from the closed brewery turned into a giant marijuana grow-op to the beauty queen pulling armed robberies at spas, to eight members of a gang killed in one night. I wanted to write what I saw going on in my city that not many people were talking about.”
  Mike Nicol, the author of Killer Country, is one of a new breed of South African writers inspired by Deon Meyer. “During apartheid the only fiction was literary fiction,” he says. “It was believed to have the seriousness that our political condition demanded. So there was no crime fiction – or almost none, although there were some very good novels from James McClure and Wessel Ebersohn.
  “After the end of Nelson Mandela’s presidency in 1999 it became obvious that the new government wasn’t terribly different from the old government. Apartheid was gone but the politicians remained politicians. There was widespread cronyism, fraud, corruption, embezzlement within government, collusion between cops and gangsters, a collapse in the education system, a collapse in the health sector as AIDS denialism became a national policy, and an unhealthy relationship developed between the private sector and the public sector that was a mixture of threat and bribery. As a crime writer, I felt I was back in business.”
  Matt Benyon Rees (right), a journalist, sets his Omar Yussef series of novels in the Palestinian Territories in order to humanise the newspaper headlines. “I wanted to show the Palestinians - whom we all think we know from daily news reports - as they are and to make readers realize that they didn’t really know them at all. Detective fiction is perfect for such a manoeuvre because it requires readers to examine very closely what’s happening in the story - there’s not much room for gloss. When it’s placed in a foreign culture, the reader’s attention has to be that much closer and the writer has to look again at every element of his descriptions.
  “Fiction, strangely, is a much better way of getting at the truths of a foreign culture than political analysis,” he continues. “Politics and journalism are based around liars and those who observe liars at work but often neglect to point out that the liars are lying. Fiction can’t lie.”
  The classic dramatic conflict between have and have-nots forms the backdrop to Leighton Gage’s Chief Inspector Mario Silva novels, which are set in Brazil.
  “Brazil is a rich country,” he says, “but it’s still a developing country. As such, it continues to have highly inequitable income distribution. That’s changing, and changing rapidly, but it’s still true that this country’s taboos (unlike the ones Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler et al had to contend with) can vary immensely depending upon where you stand in the socioeconomic pecking order. Forcing one of your children into prostitution is repugnant, for example, but there’s no taboo against it if the alternative is to let your other children starve.
  “That’s an extreme case, obviously, but Brazil is full of societal issues that don’t arise in so-called First World countries. Liberation theology, for example, has been condemned by the Princes of the Church, but many of Brazil’s poorer priests practice it. Excessive concentration on the promise of reward in heaven, they say, often propagates social injustice on earth. So, at one end of the scale, a defence of liberation theology is taboo. And, at the other end, not embracing it is equally taboo. How could I possibly live here, be a writer, and not want to tell people what a fascinating place this is?”
  Michael Walters sets his Nergui novels in the former Soviet satellite of Mongolia.
  “I’m not exactly exploring ‘societal taboos’,” he says, “but writing about a society which is still in the process of trying to work out exactly what its values (and therefore taboos) ought to be. The relationship between ‘legality’ and ‘morality’ is sometimes far from clear. In my first book, for example, I was trying to work out the links between individual murder and corporate crime, and the way in which, in a society desperate for economic growth, the corporations can sometimes, maybe even literally, get away with murder. In my second, I was looking to explore the difficulty of trying to establish legitimate law enforcement in a society where corruption is endemic and, historically, the word ‘police’ has usually been preceded by the word ‘secret’.”
  “In a pretentious mode,” Walters says, “I’d quote the line from Gramsci: ‘The old is dying, the new is struggling to be born and in the period of interregnum there arise many morbid symptoms.’ That’s a pretty good description of some aspects of Mongolia. The ‘morbid symptoms’, of course, make perfect material for crime fiction.” - Declan Burke
  This feature first appeared in the Irish Times.

The Bryce Is Right

I’ve no idea what the hold-up was, but Alex Barclay’s eagerly awaited fourth novel, TIME OF DEATH, finally arrives this month, with FBI agent Ren Bryce suffering the consequences of an ostensibly successful undercover operation that left one or two loose ends without a frilly bow. To wit:
FBI agent Ren Bryce’s hunt for some of the country’s most dangerous killers is about to turn into a nightmare. There is unfinished business between Ren and those she is pursuing, and soon she is forced to confront both personal and professional traumas. Then someone close to Ren is murdered and secrets from her past look set to be revealed, throwing her into a world of fear, paranoia and danger. Dark forces are at work and someone is determined to destroy Ren’s life. But time is running out and Ren must catch a killer before he catches her …
  TIME OF DEATH hits a shelf near you on July 22nd.
  Meanwhile, I’ve been mulling over for quite some time now (the entire three minutes since the idea occurred to me, to be precise) about how masculine are the current crop of Irish female crime writers. Not the writers themselves, of course - a more radiantly fragrant bunch of roses you’d be hard pressed to find the length and breadth of Christendom. As authors, though, they do tend to have a masculine edge. Alex Barclay’s hard-nosed Ren Bryce could by no stretch of the imagination be described as girly; Arlene Hunt not only writes of a partnership that is half male, but she did away entirely with the female half for her current offering, BLOOD MONEY; Tana French’s latest novel, FAITHFUL PLACE, features an entirely convincing male detective as its protagonist, as did IN THE WOODS; Cora Harrison’s series protagonist Mara is a judge in mediaeval times, an era not renowned for its enlightened attitude towards gender equality; Ava McCarthy’s female lead goes by the name Harry; and to say that Ingrid Black’s protagonists have balls would be anatomically incorrect, but metaphorically on the nail.
  Is it the case - Niamh O’Connor’s female detective being a hard-pressed domestic goddess at home, for example, but a ballsy woman at work - that the ladies are reflecting the fact that, in Ireland today, women have to work twice as hard as men in order to get paid half as much? Or are they simply having fun with gender politics? Or is it that, being the backward soul that I am, any woman not sporting kitten heels and a cleavage in which you could park a moped is immediately classed as unfeminine?
  The comment box is open for business, people …

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Declan Burke bio

My fifth novel, CRIME ALWAYS PAYS, will be published by Severn House in March (UK) and July (US), 2014.

With John Connolly, I am the co-editor of BOOKS TO DIE FOR (2012), a collection of essays on the greatest crime and mystery novels written by the greatest living crime and mystery authors. The book won the non-fiction crime Anthony, Macavity and Agatha awards in 2013.

SLAUGHTER’S HOUND, the latest Harry Rigby mystery, was shortlisted in the Ireland AM Crime Fiction Category for the Irish Book Awards, 2012.

ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL won the Goldsboro ‘Last Laugh’ Award at Crimefest in 2012. It was also shortlisted for the Crime Fiction category at the Irish Book Awards, 2011.

EIGHTBALL BOOGIE (2003) was also shortlisted in the Crime Fiction category at the Irish Book Awards, 2003. THE BIG O (2008) was shortlisted for the Goldsboro ‘Last Laugh’ Award in 2009.

In 2011, I edited DOWN THESE GREEN STREETS, a collection of essays, memoir and short stories written by Irish crime writers about the current wave of Irish crime writing.

As a journalist and critic, I write and broadcast on books and film for a variety of media outlets, including the Irish Times, RTE, the Irish Examiner and the Sunday Independent.

Contact: dbrodb[@]gmail.com

Origins: Sam Millar

Being the latest in what will probably be yet another short-lived series, in which yours truly reclines on a hammock by the pool with a jeroboam of Elf-Wonking Juice™ and lets a proper writer talk about the origins of his or her characters and stories. This week: Sam Millar (right), author of THE DARK PLACE. To wit:
“Write what you know, some old sage once wrote, many centuries ago. So mostly, that’s what I do: write what I know.
  “Karl Kane, my Belfast PI, always up to his neck in debt, shit and blood, is not unlike me – especially the debt bit. Although I would love to say he’s my alter ego, unfortunately – or fortunately, depending how you look upon him – he’s a hybrid of two other men, one fictional and the other real. I don’t even make it into the equation.
  “One part of Kane is based on James Scott Rockford, usually called Jim, sometimes Jimmy, or if you’re feeling really courageous, Jimbo. Mostly people will recognise Jim from the Rockford Files.
  “Still, despite not being me, there are some uncanny familiarities between myself and Jim Rockford.
  “Rockford served time in San Quentin Prison, not the most hospital of places at the best of times.
  “I served time in quite a few American prisons, even less hospitable, at any given time.
  “Rockford received five years for armed robbery. Later he received a pardon.
  “I received five years for an armed robbery. Later I received a pardon from President Bill Clinton.
  “He lives in a dilapidated home on the beach, 29 Cove Road, Paradise Cove.
  “I live in a dilapidated home, minus the beach, and I sure as hell ain’t giving my home address!
  “Just like Rockford, Karl Kane would sooner duck a fight than swing his fists, and rarely carries a gun, unless his life – or the life of those he loves –is in danger.
  “Kane also has the same dress sense as Rockford, which is pretty depressing, to say the least. He’ll wear anything provided it’s always within easy reach. He wore a pink bathrobe, for fuck sake, in the opening page of his latest adventure!
  “Now, that’s the fictional part of Kane.
  “The other man who gets the dubious honour of influencing my take on Kane was my father, one of the true ‘tough guys’ with a heart bigger than his punch. Big Sam, as he was affectionately known throughout Belfast, was a gentleman to a fault. Always a lover of the underdog, he was a socialist when it wasn’t fashionable to be one, a pugilist and a writer of millions of unpublished stories (a bit like Kane). He loved women, good brandy and gambling. A trinity that probably sent him to an early grave, but at least a happy one. I remember one day as a kid telling him I was going to be a writer, just like him. He smiled proudly (I think. I hope.) and patted me on the head. Years later, in the penitentiary, I decided to immortalise Big Sam, in a way he would love. And so the genesis of Karl Kane came eventually about.
  “Sadly, Big Sam never got to see Kane, or the way I saw him in Kane. I think he’d be very happy with the depiction. Just one thing, though: Big Sam would never wear a pink bathrobe. Me? Well, that’s telling, and writers never tell. They only show ...” - Sam Millar
  THE DARK PLACE is published by Brandon Books. Sam Millar is a judge of the Aeon Awards.

Cry Havoc, And Let Slip The Dogs Of Rome

An Irish author, an Italian setting, and a literary crime novel courtesy of a former arts editor who has produced a current affairs magazine for foreign embassies in Rome: Conor Fitzgerald’s debut THE DOGS OF ROME is an intriguing proposition. The early word is good too. To wit:
“A powerful and hugely compelling novel. Dark, worldly and written with tremendous style and assurance.” - William Boyd

“Guaranteed to whet the thirst of international crime fiction fans. This promising debut is reminiscent of early Michael Dibdin, and that is more than enough to put Fitzgerald’s series on your radar.” - Booklist

“Impressively plotted … those who like their gritty crime thrillers with a European flair will be well rewarded.” - Publishers Weekly
  Nice. Meanwhile, the blurb elves have been wittering thusly:
Rome. A city where rules are compromised. And compromise rules. It's one of the hottest days of the year. Chief Inspector Blume is enjoying a rare solitary lunch in a tranquil corner of Trastevere when an unwelcome phone call intrudes with news of a brutal killing a few streets away. Arturo Clemente is no ordinary victim. His widow is an elected member of the Senate, and Blume arrives at the scene to find enquiries well underway, the case itself apparently clear-cut, a prime suspect quickly identified. Blume must fight to regain control of the investigation, but well acquainted with the city's underworld, he knows from bitter experience that in Rome even a murder enquiry must bow to the rules of politics. But when worrying shortcuts sanctioned by one of his superiors are uncovered, it seems events are being manipulated from on high. The complex and uncomfortable truth Blume will unravel will shock even him, and his struggle for justice may yet cost more innocent lives ...
  Incidentally, Conor Fitzgerald has in the past “collaborated in the translation and annotation of “Scritti Italiani” by James Joyce. These consist of lectures and essays in Italian written by Joyce while in Trieste and Rome, and were included in JAMES JOYCE OCCASIONAL, CRITICAL AND POLITCAL WRITING (Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford 2000).”
  Hmmmm. James Joyce? Leopold Bloom? Inspector Blume? Let the third-form theorizing commence post-haste …

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

“Ya Wanna Do It Here Or Down The Station, Punk?” PJ Brooke

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?
This is going to be interesting, as PJ Brooke is two of us, Jane Brooke and Phil O’Brien. Phil is Creative Genius; I turn dodgy drafts into decent prose. Phil’s family on his father’s side is from Clonmel, County Tipperary, and on his mother’s from Germany. He had the misfortune to be schooled by the Jesuits in Glasgow, went to Chile after University, was radicalized there, briefly joined the International Marxist Group after the Chile coup, got a University post in Glasgow at the Institute of Latin American Studies and supported solidarity and anti-war movements. I’m a nice girl from Pontefract, a market town in Yorkshire, who spent too long behind a desk in Glasgow. We met at a Green Party meeting. He had terrible hair, and worse tee shirt. His sisters think he looks okay now. Anyway, the crime novel - THE NAME OF THE ROSE (Umberto Eco). We agree on that one.

What fictional character would you most like to have been?
Me? Lizbeth Salander of course. Pure wish fulfilment: getting to beat up the bad guys, rescue hero, AND steal a Harley Davidson. Phil, having had a much more interesting life than me so far, would settle for being Father William of Baskerville.

Who do you read for guilty pleasures?
Phil follows the footy – strong Barcelona supporter. I read cookery books. Phil eats the outcomes.

Most satisfying writing moment?
For me, we’d finished the first complete draft of BLOOD WEDDING, but the ending seemed … well … limp. We’d spent best part of five years on it. And just couldn’t come up with the plot twist we needed. So I asked my aunt (80 at the time) to have a wee look at it. And she said, “It wasn’t x that did it, it was y.” So we thought again, revised the draft, wrote two more chapters, and the whole thing fell into focus something wonderful. For Phil, the most satisfying writing moment was just finishing the bloody thing.

The best Irish crime novel is?
Ah … we have a bit of a problem here ’cos I’m writing this in Granada, Spain, and our big library is in our main house in Glasgow. But we enjoyed, in part, Benjamin Black’s THE SILVER SWAN. The gloomy pathologist, Quirke, struck a chord, as did some superb writing. “The past was tied to him like a tin can to a cat’s tail …”

What Irish crime novel would make a great movie?
Stretching the definition of Irish to include those across the Atlantic, Denis Lehane’s MYSTIC RIVER was a pretty good novel, but rambled somewhat. But Clint Eastwood trimmed and tightened it into a brilliant, brilliant movie, a dark Shakespearian tale.

Worst / best thing about being a writer?
The worst thing is when the plot just won’t come together, but you can’t put the damn thing aside because the publisher needs the complete typescript next month. So you just have to keep plugging away, and hope inspiration strikes before repetitive strain injury kicks in. The best thing is when a trivial observation illuminates an entire chapter, or maybe when characters start to speak for themselves. That’s good.

The pitch for your next book is?
Pretty graduate student Leila is doing research on the impacts of the Spanish Civil War on a village outside Granada. She’s Muslim, but that's not her main thing. But then Leila is found dead under a bridge, and a badly mishandled police investigation spirals out of control when the prime suspect, a Muslim kid from Leeds, turns out to have connections with a radical mosque in London.

Who are you reading right now?
I’m reading Michael Dibdin’s COSI FAN TUTTI. Phil is reading ANATOMIA DE UN INSTANTE, novelist Javier Cercas’ extraordinary account of 23 February 1981, when troops stormed the Spanish Parliament building, and Spain’s democracy was nearly strangled at birth. With luck, the coup attempt is going to be the jumping off point for another Max Romero novel.

God appears and says you can only write OR read. Which would it be?
I would opt for reading, ’cos there are folks out there who write far better than we do. Phil, being a Jesuit, would argue the point with God, and probably win.

The three best words to describe your own writing are?
Looking at our reviews on Amazon, people use the words “evocative “, “political” and “absorbing” quite a lot. Which I suppose reflects what we are trying to do … to share with readers our pleasure in Granada … an exotic and beautiful city, which was the last Muslim kingdom in Europe. We use Granada to explore the fault-lines in Spanish politics going back to the Civil War (the dress rehearsal for the Second Word War), and try to find in conversations, newspaper articles and graffiti, human stories that people might want to read.

A DARKER NIGHT by PJ Brooke is published by Soho Constable.

Come All Ye FAITHFUL

Currently the shining peak of Mt TBR here at CAP Towers, Tana French’s FAITHFUL PLACE has been garnering some tasty reviews, not least from Laura Miller over at Salon.com, where she describes French as ‘the Kurt Gödel of crime fiction’. Excerpts run thusly:
“French’s hypnotic storytelling remains in full force in this novel, despite having shaken off the dreaminess that suffused IN THE WOODS and THE LIKENESS. This is Roddy Doyle territory, an excavation of that particular torture experienced by those who want to break out of a hopeless, working-class world but keep getting sucked back in by the loyalty that is its one redeeming quality. FAITHFUL PLACE is wrenching to a degree that detective fiction rarely achieves: Frank -- a cocky devil who prides himself on his skilful lying and ability to play other people -- gets pulled apart psychologically as he pursues Rosie’s killer, and the reader undergoes it with him. By the end, it’s difficult to distinguish what the real crime is or who committed it …
  “Which is not to say that French doesn’t solve the novel’s technical mystery or that the answer isn’t tightly cinched into her larger themes. Like Kate Atkinson, who has grafted the contemporary novel of manners onto the bones of the detective story in her Jackson Brodie series, French sticks to the genre’s brief while conveying it into new territory. But where the Brodie books are all pretty much the same in tone and subject matter, French does something fresh with every novel, each one as powerful as the last but in a very different manner. Perhaps she has superpowers of her own? Whatever the source of her gift, it’s only growing more miraculous with every book.” - Laura Miller
  All of which is very nice indeed. For the full review, clickety-click here
  So, the Big Question: Will we be hearing Tana French’s name being spoken in the hushed tones reserved for literary prize winners some day soon? Only time, that notoriously doity rat, will tell …

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

GALLOWS LANE: Vote Early, Vote Often

Good news for mild-mannered, Derry-based English teachers everywhere: Brian McGilloway’s GALLOWS LANE has made the cut for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, and belated congratulations to him. The full short-list runneth thusly:
IN THE DARK – Mark Billingham
THE SURROGATE – Tania Carver
A SIMPLE ACT OF VIOLENCE – RJ Ellory
THE CROSSING PLACES – Elly Griffiths
DEAD TOMORROW – Peter James
GALLOWS LANE – Brian McGilloway
DOORS OPEN – Ian Rankin
CHILD 44 – Tom Rob Smith
  It’s a strong list, so whoever wins it will have their work cut out, and good luck to all contenders. If you’re Irish, however, and given that the government is waffling on about how an exports-led ‘creative economy’ will lead us out of recession, it’s your patriotic duty to vote Brian. The voting form can be found here, people, and the closing date for voting is July 21st: you know what to do …

“Ya Wanna Do It Here Or Down The Station, Punk?”: Sheila Lowe

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?
It’s a tossup between THE CONCRETE BLONDE (Connelly) and DEMOLITION ANGEL (Crais). Who could have come up with a better opening line than in THE CONCRETE BLONDE: The house in Silverlake was dark, its windows as empty as a dead man’s eyes. Gives me shivers every time I read it. And the story holds up all the way through, too.

What fictional character would you most like to have been?
I suppose it’s cheating a bit, but the one that comes to mind is Hermione Granger, Harry Potter’s girl chum. I’d love to have gone to Hogwarts. As I was born in England, I’m strongly attracted to the scenery and Hermione is just the kind of little knowitall smartass that I’m afraid I was. Expecto Patronum!

Who do you read for guilty pleasures?
Can’t say I feel a bit guilty, as when I take some time out to read, I believe I’ve earned it: John Sandford, Michael Connelly, Tess Gerritsen, Deborah Crombie, Patricia Cornwell, Robert Crais, Jonathan Kellerman, and so on, and so on ...

Most satisfying writing moment?
Ripping open the carton of finished books and seeing the reality—a major publisher believed my books are good enough to publish!!! Nothing like that feeling. Or does that count as a writing moment? How about having written a scene and just knowing it works.

The best Irish crime novel is …?
Sadly, I haven’t the foggiest—would you recommend one for me to begin my education?

What Irish crime novel would make a great movie?
Ditto above, I’m ashamed to say.

Worst / best thing about being a writer?
Worst: having to handle promo and sales numbers. Best: seeing my characters come to life on the printed page and readers emailing that they just had to stay up all night to finish the book(s).

The pitch for your next book is …?
LAST WRITES, coming out July 6th: What does an old stuffed bunny have to do with a fundamentalist religious cult and a forensic handwriting expert? … Erin Powers is a member of a religious sect, living in an isolated compound called the Ark. Now her husband and young child have disappeared, leaving behind a cryptic note with a terrifying message. In desperation, Erin seeks help from her estranged sister, Kelly Brennan, who in turn enlists the aid of forensic handwriting expert Claudia Rose. Claudia seizes on an unexpected opportunity to use her special skills and becomes one of the few outsiders ever to be invited inside the cult compound. With time fast running out, Claudia must uncover the truth about Kelly’s missing niece before the prophecy of a secret ancient parchment can be fulfilled and a child’s life is written off for good …

Who are you reading right now?
Just finished Michael Palmer’s SECOND OPINION and am about to dive into John Sandford’s latest ‘Prey’ novel (he is my top favourite author). Sandford’s characters are all so real, the dialogue so true to life, I always look forward to spending time with them.

God appears and says you can only write OR read. Which would it be?
Too tough a choice, I guess I’d have to kill myself … Or would I really? It’s a mystery …

The three best words to describe your own writing are …?
I’m going to cheat and pick three words that I like best from reader mail: Evocative, suspenseful, intelligent.

Sheila Lowe’s LAST WRITES is published by Signet Books.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The World Cup: Does It Come In Diamante?

I had a piece published in the Irish Examiner about three weeks ago, just in time for the World Cup, suggesting that those who consider today’s game of football a tad less manly than that of yore simply aren’t up to speed on contemporary manliness (image courtesy of drinky.org). I also predicted a Spain v Holland final, except I hadn’t factored in those pesky Germans. To wit:
Ah, the World Cup. Every time I see a ridiculously hyped sports shoe ad featuring ridiculously hyped footballers poncing about with Table Mountain in the background, I’m eight years old again.
  The smell of cut grass. Jumpers down for goalposts. “Bags I’m Mario Kempes.” “No, I’m Kempes.” “Sound so, I’ll be Johnny Rep.”
  The 1978 World Cup Final. Argentina, the hatchet-tackling hosts, versus Holland, the silky-skilled purveyors of Total Football. No contest, right?
  Except just as the ref puts his whistle to his lips to start the game, my mother says, “Now remember, Argentina are the Catholic team. Holland are the Protestants.”
  Result? 3-1 to the Pope’s Rovers.
  Football has changed since those halcyon days, of course. For starters, you can bet your bottoming-out euro that no contemporary international footballer is heading to South Africa with the intention of defending the honour of the Vatican / Martin Luther / Buddha / et al.
  Worse, these days footballers are overpaid whinging cheats. Back in the good old days, the last thing you’d want an opponent to know was that he’d hurt you with a bad tackle. Today it seems like every tackle, good or bad, is an audition for Swan Lake. Then there’s the chaps who can’t wait to take their shirts off to display their unnecessarily tanned and muscular torsos, not to mention the unnatural predilection for orange / yellow / red / green football boots. And the quite frankly embarrassing displays of mutual affection that include hugs, kisses and the patting of behinds …
  It’s just not very manly, is it?
  Except, unfortunately, it is.
  Yon striker rolling around on the ground in agony after a centre-half accidentally brushed up against his perm? It’s just football’s equivalent of the man-cold.
  And what man, after achieving a nigh-impossible feat - toe-poking a heavy balloon into an empty rectangular structure, say, or completing a report only two days behind deadline - hasn’t wanted to rip off his shirt and sprint around the office, to slide knees-first towards his adoring fans gathered around the water-cooler?
  What man isn’t ridiculously over-paid, at least by comparison with the women gathered around the water-cooler to discuss exactly how useless he is?
  What man doesn’t enjoy a little touchy-feely male bonding, be it celebrating a goal, rolling a maul on a mucky pitch or plunging into the scrum at the bar come closing time?
  What self-respecting man wouldn’t revel in the mindless adulation of millions of fans for excelling in an utterly pointless exercise?
  What man could resist the allure of a war with rules and a referee?
  And the man hasn’t been born who can resist the temptation of pointing at a group of other men and chanting - regardless of the language, or the actual lyrics employed - “Ours is bigger / La-la-la / Bigger than yours / La-la-la …”
  Hell, the advent of red / yellow / white / orange football boots even allow us to tap into our inner shoe-diva.
  Ah, football. How do we love you? Let us count the ways …
  As for this year’s winners, Spain look good. Xavi, Iniesta, Torres, Villa, Fabregas. They’re the reigning European Champions, and unbeaten in all competitions since God was a boy. And even though there’s a pretty good chance they’ll come up against the silky-skilled young guns of Holland in the final, they’re Catholics.
  No contest. - Declan Burke

Sunday, July 4, 2010

TRUTH, The Whole Truth And Nothing But

Hmmm. You go away on holidays and the world turns upside down. Brazil and Argentina go out of the World Cup at the quarter-final stage, Sligo beat Galway (after hammering Mayo in the previous round) to make the Connacht Final, and a crime writer wins Australia’s prestigious Miles Franklin Award.
  This being a books blog, we’ll concentrate on Peter Temple. First off, hearty congrats to the man. Not only is he a terrific writer, but a little birdie tells me he’s a decent human being to boot.
  I’m a little bit wary, though, of the way the crime fiction niche of the blogosphere has been jumping up and down about TRUTH’s success. The general impression appears to be that crime fiction is finally getting its turn in the sun, and that the barriers between genre fiction and prestigious prizes are being broken down.
  I doubt very much if that is the case. Rather, I’d imagine it’s the case that Peter Temple’s TRUTH is an excellent novel, and has been rewarded as such. Those who think that TRUTH has breached the ivory tower of the literary establishment, and that crime fiction is about to pour through the gap, will be sorely disappointed.
  The Guardian had an excellent piece last week on Peter Temple’s win, following up on the news with a query as to whether a crime novel will ever win the Booker Prize, for example. Contributors included Ian Rankin and John Banville, but the most pertinent comment came from Morag Fraser. To wit:
For Morag Fraser, a Miles Franklin judge for the past six years, it is simply a question of quality. “Most crime novels that I have read (and I read one a week, often more) will never win the Miles Franklin or any other ‘literary’ prize because they do not work language hard enough, and they do not think originally and with sufficient depth and imagination,” she said. “They may gratify but they do not surprise the way great literature does.”
  “In the case of Peter Temple’s TRUTH, the divide was so comprehensively crossed that we did not think much about the conventions of crime fiction except to note that Temple was able to observe them rather as a poet observes the 14-line convention of the sonnet or a musician the sonata form: as a useful disciplinary structure from which to expand, bend or depart.”
  All of which should be patently obvious to crime writers, but is patently not. Of the 25 or so crime novels I’ve read so far this year, only three - Alan Furst’s SPIES OF THE BALKANS, John Hart’s THE LAST CHILD and Eoin McNamee’s ORCHID BLUE - allowed me to forget that I was reading crime fiction. In other words, and despite working within the parameters of crime fiction, they were simply novels, rather than a specific type of novel.
  There is a tension inherent in writing genre fiction, of course. Every author writes the best novel he or she can, but the commercial imperative at the heart of genre fiction means that, in order to appeal to as big an audience as possible, the best of intentions are often compromised in order to fit a story or a character into a particular format. That well may prove successful and profitable in the short-term, but in the long run, an adherence to formula is undermining crime writing. It’s worth quoting Morag Fraser again: “Most crime novels … do not think originally and with sufficient depth and imagination. They may gratify but they do not surprise the way great literature does.”
  Not every novel can be great literature, of course, just as not every novel can win a prize. But here’s the thing: originality, and depth and imagination, can surprise, even if they ‘fail’ to gratify. And here’s the other thing: there’s only so many brass rings to be grasped at. The thousand, or ten thousand, wannabes chasing Lee Child’s coattails, or the thousand, or ten thousand, bandwagon-jumpers currently labouring over their version of THE GIRL WITH THE DA VINCI TATTOO, are far more likely to be commercially successful with an original work than a second- or third-rate knock-off of a proven winner.
  I’ve written elsewhere on this blog (in a comments box, I think) that the novel is the most potent tool we have when it comes to understanding, or trying to, what it means to be human and alive. You can argue for music and theatre and psychology and whatever you’re having yourself - I’m biased in favour of the novel. The point being that Peter Temple was rewarded with the Miles Franklin Award not for writing a crime novel, or an excellent crime novel, but for writing a superb novel that explores the human condition.
  Last month, writing about the plethora of crime fiction awards, I said this:
I’ll be honest with you: I want more from the crime novel. I want more than a response of ‘Oh, it’s the classical Greek structure’ when someone complains about simplicity of form. I want more than ‘Oh, it’s what the market demands’ when someone complains about shallow characterisation. I want more than ‘Oh, the crime novel is traditionally a conservative art form’ when someone complains about predictability. And I definitely want more than ‘Oh, you don’t want to make the reader so much as blink’ when someone complains that the writing wants for challenging prose or narrative conceits.
  These days, more often than not, I’m reading crime fiction out of a sense of duty, and turning to ‘literary’ fiction for my kicks.
  It may be hard for some crime writing fans to stomach, but Peter Temple won the Miles Franklin Award not because he is a crime writer, or even a very good crime writer, but because he is the exception to the rule.

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

The Irish Times continued its ‘Crime Beat’ round-up of recent crime fiction titles yesterday, with yours truly casting a cold-ish eye over new offerings. To wit:
There’s more to Scandinavian crime fiction than Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson. THE SNOWMAN (Harvill Secker, £12.99, pb), the seventh in Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole series to be translated into English, finds the laconic police inspector Hole investigating what appears to be the work of a serial killer who targets women, whose deaths are marked by the mysterious appearance of a snowman. Hole’s hard-bitten, hard-drinking and self-loathing mannerisms are the very stuff of stock characterisation, but Nesbø is fully aware of the genre’s conventions and is most enjoyably readable when subverting them. Needle-sharp dialogue and a vividly detailed depiction of Oslo and its hinterlands are bonuses, as is Hole’s rueful awareness of his limitations.
  Anne Zouroudi’s THE LADY OF SORROWS (Bloomsbury Publishing, £12.99, pb) is the fourth novel to feature Hermes Diaktoros, aka ‘the Fat Man’, a gentleman detective with apparently limitless resources. Set in Greece some decades ago, the novel finds Hermes investigating the famous ikon of Kalmos, which may or may not be a fake, depending on whether one’s religious faith can be measured in drachmae. Fans of more hardboiled fare might be disappointed by the lack of blood and gore; Diaktoros is a detective very much in the vein of Miss Marple, and tone and pace are equally gentle. Where Zouroudi scores, however, is in her lovingly detailed descriptions of Greek island landscapes.
  The Roman detective Falco returns in Lindsey Davis’s NEMESIS(Century, £18.99, hb), the twentieth in a series that turns a sardonic eye on the foibles of ancient Rome. Falco’s old foe Anacrites, a Praetorium spy, plays the foil here, as Falco investigates a series of murders connected to a gang of freed slaves. As always, Davis’s cutting wit and Chandleresque observations are as much a pleasure as the page-turning quality of the tale, as she blows the dust off historical Rome with considerable glee. Also published by Century is FALCO: THE OFFICIAL COMPANION (£19.99, hb), in which Davis fleshes out the backdrop to each of the Falco novels.
  From historical Rome to mythical Ireland: REQUIEMS FOR THE DEPARTED (Morrigan Books, £8.99, pb), edited by Gerard Brennan and Mike Stone, is a compilation of modern crime stories derived from Irish myth and legend. Queen Mhaca (Arlene Hunt and Stuart Neville), the Banshee (Ken Bruen), the Children of Lir (Neville Thompson) and Cuchulainn (Tony Black) are among the legends mined for inspiration in a collection that is uneven in tone but never less than challenging in its ability to draw parallels between contemporary criminality and its pre-historical origins. Adrian McKinty’s ‘Diarmuid and Grainne’ and Brian McGilloway’s ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ are the pick of the bunch.
  Another unusual Irish offering comes from Robert Fannin, whose FALLING SLOWLY (Hachette Ireland, £12.99, pb) is a Kafkaesque tale set in Bristol. Devastated when he arrives home one lunchtime to discover that his girlfriend has committed suicide, Desmond Doyle is further shocked to learn that Detective Inspector Harry Kneebone is determined to prove that Doyle was responsible for her murder. As his life starts to fall apart, and Doyle ‘falls slowly’ in a downward spiral, he begins to question his own sanity - and whether he is, in fact, his girlfriend’s killer. A tautly plotted tale, this quickly belies its languid pace and philosophical musings to become a compelling, cerebral thriller.
  In THE WINGS OF THE SPHINX (Mantle, £14.99, pb), Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano negotiates the labyrinthine social strata of Sicily as he pursues the killer of a young woman who can only be identified by a butterfly tattoo, the ‘sphinx’ of the title. Montalbano’s 11th outing has some of the qualities of a soap opera, as the tribulations of the inspector’s love life are as integral to the narrative as his professional duties, during which he uncovers human trafficking into Sicily conducted by a rather surprising cabal. Deftly plotted but sedately paced, the story suffers from a lack of urgency, particularly as the most terrifying danger the inspector encounters is the threat of his favourite restaurant having to go without fresh fish for the duration.
  John Grisham’s latest offering, THEODORE BOONE (Hodder & Stoughton, £12.99, hb), is yet another legal thriller from the bestselling master of the courtroom drama, but the twist here is that the eponymous hero is a 13-year-old ‘lawyer’. The precocious offspring of two lawyer parents, Theodore ‘represents’ his peers in legal issues - for example, talking his best friend April through the legalities of her parents’ divorce. When he is approached by a fellow teenager with an insight into a murder case currently being tried, however, Theodore quickly finds himself out of his depth. Reminiscent at times of To Kill a Mockingbird in the way it offers a child’s-eye view of the legal niceties of the adult world, the novel has a direct, unaffected tone that gives Theodore’s plight an unexpectedly poignant twist. By the same token, the plot’s lack of conflict - Theodore is universally admired by young and old, for example - makes for a frustratingly simplistic narrative.
  Far more complex and challenging is Maureen Gibbon’s THIEF (Atlantic Books, £12.99, hb), in which Suzanne, a teacher who was raped as a 16-year-old, strikes up a relationship with Alpha Breville, a convict serving prison time for rape. Gibbon, who was herself raped as a teenager, offers no simple solutions to the scenario she devises for Suzanne: THIEF does not deliver the polemic, panacea or ersatz catharsis of the conventional crime novel. It is, however, a fascinating insight into one woman’s journey to come to terms with an horrific crime many years after the event. Despite its quietly elegiac tone, and Gibbon’s frequent philosophical digressions, THIEF is a riveting page-turner that is as uplifting as it is harrowing. - Declan Burke
  This article first appeared in The Irish Times