“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, July 30, 2010

Rum Punch Drunk: Yep, It’s Another Elmore Leonard Comparison

Those precious few among you who have read CRIME ALWAYS PAYS - how few! how precious! - will be aware that it is an ebook release, and a sequel-of-sorts to THE BIG O. The reasons why it’s an ebook release are so complicated, pathetic and boring that even I’m sick to the back teeth of them; suffice to say, even if you don’t own an e-reader, the novel is now available to download straight to your desktop computer. So far it’s garnered very little by way of review, mostly because I don’t have the time to go promoting it the way I should, but those that have come in have been very gratifying. The latest is from Sean Patrick Reardon, a relatively recent addition to the ranks of readers of this blog, and the gist of his review runneth thusly:
“CRIME ALWAYS PAYS is a continuation of the cleverly written, fast paced, and gut-busting romp, THE BIG O …
  “The story is not so much a sequel as it is a continuation of the lives of the awesome cast of characters, how their lives intersect, and all of the resulting action, mishaps, and follies that result. There is enough ‘flashback dialogue’ to get the gist of what happened in THE BIG O, so reading it is not mandatory, but I highly recommend doing so for the sheer enjoyment, and it does help when reading this instalment.
  “Mr. Burke has a unique talent for creating characters and dialogue, and coupled with the solid story, CRIME ALWAYS PAYS delivered on every expectation I had before I started.
  “The comparisons to Elmore Leonard’s style are warranted and deserved, but Mr. Burke has managed to put his own unique spin on it. As an avid reader of Mr. Leonard, I can honestly say that I have never laughed out loud as much when reading his novels as I did when reading both of Mr. Burkes. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of suspense throughout the story, but it is so damn funny at times.
  “For anyone looking for some escapism, a great read, and a lot of fun, CRIME ALWAYS PAYS is for you. The style of narration, dialogue, characters, and the situations and how they play out in the story, are to me reminiscent of Guy Ritchie’s crime capers.”
  I thank you kindly, Mr Reardon.
  Meanwhile, if you glance to your left, you’ll see that the venerable Glenn Harper of International Noir had this to say:
“CRIME ALWAYS PAYS is part road movie and part farce, reminding me sometimes of Elmore Leonard, sometimes of Allan Guthrie, sometimes of Donald Westlake and sometimes of the Coen Brothers – sometimes all at once.”
  And if you scroll down a little further, you’ll see that the equally venerable Colin Bateman recently had this to say over at the Guardian blogs:
“If you want to find something new and challenging, comic crime fiction is now the place to go … Declan Burke [is] at the vanguard of a new wave of young writers kicking against the clichés and producing ambitious, challenging, genre-bending works.”
  So: if you’re intrigued by new, fresh, smart and subversive writing, clickety-click here for a free sample.
  If you’re not, fuck away off somewhere else and stop clogging up my bandwidth.
  And have a nice weekend y’all, y’hear?

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Collusionist

That cradle and lair of all things Irish crime fiction, Belfast’s No Alibis, hosts the official launch of Stuart Neville’s COLLUSION tomorrow, July 30th, with the details running thusly:
No Alibis Bookstore is pleased to invite you to the launch party for Stuart Neville’s second novel, COLLUSION, on Friday 30th July at 6:30PM.
  Stuart Neville has been a musician, a composer, a teacher, a salesman, a film extra, a baker and a hand double for a well known Irish comedian, but is currently a partner in a successful multimedia design business in the wilds of Northern Ireland. COLLUSION is his second novel, the follow-up to the hugely successful and award winning THE TWELVE.
  In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last year, THE TWELVE (aka THE GHOSTS OF BELFAST) came complete with a blurb from none other than James Ellroy (“THE TWELVE will knock you sideways. This guy can write.”) and scooped the LA Times’ Mystery / Thriller of the Year a couple of months back. Not bad for a debut, but THE TWELVE has also been nominated for a Best First Novel gong in each of the Anthony, Barry and Macavity awards, to be announced at this year’s Bouchercon.
  I mentioned a couple of weeks back that COLLUSION is a finer novel than THE TWELVE, not least because it’s rather more cynical than its predecessor about joining the dots between ‘the Troubles’ and post-conflict Northern Ireland. Here’s another snippet:
Did anyone live here now? He searched for signs of someone, anyone, making a life on this street. Not a soul. Less than a mile away, millions were being pumped into brownfield sites, building apartments, shopping centres, technology parks. Just across the river, property was changing hands for prices never imagined just a few years before. One-bedroom flats sold for a quarter of a million, snapped up by investors looking to make a killing out of Belfast’s peace boom, desperate to get rich before the bubble burst, as it surely would. And here, not ten minutes away, stood two rows of empty houses with generations of memories rotting away along with the mortar and woodwork, all because small-minded thugs couldn’t see beyond the world of Them and Us.
  In my humble opinion, COLLUSION is a very fine novel indeed. A good old-fashioned page-turner of a thriller, it should be required reading for those Ivory Tower types who bemoan the paucity of novels addressing social and political flux of contemporary Ireland, and the lack of post-ceasefire literature concerning itself with Northern Ireland.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Peeling Back The Layers

There was an interesting piece on Kevin McCarthy’s PEELER from Henry McDonald in last Friday’s Belfast Telegraph, which reviews the novel in the context of Ireland’s voluntary amnesia when it comes to the Royal Irish Constabulary. To wit:
The RIC was airbrushed from the Republic’s consciousness for 80 years. Artists have a role to play to ensure it doesn’t happen again, says Henry McDonald

Kevin McCarthy’s brilliant first novel, PEELER, rescues from the margins of Irish history a group that the future Free State and Official Ireland airbrushed from national memory: the Royal Irish Constabulary.
  When I was taught Irish history at grammar school back in the 1970s, this force was only referred to by a single and dismissive sobriquet -- they were merely the “eyes and ears” of the British Army which Michael Collins had so ruthlessly blinded and deafened in the War of Independence.
  At the time we knew nothing about what these officers were actually like, how the vast majority of them were Catholic Irish and what happened to them once the state was created and Ireland partitioned.
  In fact, compared with the details of fratricidal brutality wrought by the subsequent Civil War, students were given next to no information about the RIC, its casualty rates, its fate and the future for its members.
  PEELER fills that knowledge-gap. The story of its central character, RIC acting Sergeant Sean O’Keefe, was not just a hugely enjoyable read, but also socially and historically illuminating.
  McCarthy has turned these shadowy, ghostly figures relegated in history as the “eyes and ears” to fully-formed flesh and blood characters, whose lives were as complex and rich as the men in the Flying Columns who hunted them down.
  PEELER is, first of all, a detective novel, a hunt for a suspected serial-killer who has brutally murdered a young woman and abandoned her mutilated body in the remote West Cork countryside at the height of the war.
  While trying to survive one of Collins’ assassination squads, O’Keefe and his colleagues now find themselves searching for a murderer who has left the word ‘Traitor’ on the young woman’s body.
  That word prompts the British military-political establishment to think that the victim has been singled out by the West Cork IRA who suspected she has been passing on information to the RIC and the Army.
  Meanwhile, the IRA has set up its own parallel murder inquiry and has appointed West Cork Brigade intelligence officer Liam Farrell to head up the investigation.
  Farrell represents the coming power in the land, the guerrilla on the verge of taking over law and order, the republican poacher turning Free State game-keeper.
  To McCarthy’s credit, both O’Keefe and Farrell are sympathetic characters with deep internal lives. Farrell is tortured by the necessities of war, of its brutal imperatives.
  O’Keefe is also a victim, a mentally scarred veteran of the First World War, who witnessed his regiment being slaughtered at Suvla Bay by the Turks.
  Yet it is not just the two main rival Irish figures pitted against each other in a race to catch a serial murderer that are multi-dimensional characters.
  McCarthy even evokes sympathy for the English demobbed soldiers hastily drafted into an auxiliary military force to curb the armed insurrection or as they are more notoriously known, the Black and Tans.
  As a veteran whose brother fell beside him under Turkish machine gun fire, O’Keefe regards some of these men as brutes and others simply as brutalised by war and crushed into service in Ireland through poverty.
  McCarthy’s book indirectly provokes bigger questions about the legacy of Ireland’s violent past -- especially for those of us in Northern Ireland.
  At present, the devolved administration at Stormont and the British Government at Westminster are grappling with various notions of how to confront what happened in the north over the last 40 years.
  The approach thus far has been piecemeal with selective inquiries, the appointment of four Victims’ Commissioners and the Eames-Bradley process.
  It has been, in essence, confusing and misdirected probably because in the end any exploration into the past, let alone the ‘truth’ of the Troubles is to going to be politically loaded.
  Northern Ireland seemingly faces two options in terms of truth and reconciliation: it can go down the Spanish road towards the ‘pact of forgetting’, when all of Spain post-Franco agreed to put the crimes of the civil war aside, re-enter Europe and move on; or it could adopt a South African Truth and Reconciliation process, an official ‘national cleansing’ in front of the cameras, open to all.
  The reality is that there is going to be some cobbled together compromise, a third way of muddling through.
  While the victims and their families as a whole might receive some retrospective compensation, or even psychological help and support in a new Troubles-Trauma centre, there will neither be Spanish-amnesia or South African-style collective catharsis. The answer to questions such as ‘what or how did that all happen?’ cannot be properly offered by officialdom in any shape or form.
  Perhaps the only positive way to explain where we have come from will be in the guise of novels, plays, films, poetry, documentary and so on. (Time, by the way, for broadcasters -- particularly the BBC -- to lift the unofficial ‘embargo’ on Troubles-related themes and give artists the space and the support to explore some of the most important events of our lives over the last 40 years through the medium of film and drama.)
  Shelley once declared that poets are the unelected legislators of the world; they can also be their truth-tellers.
  Let’s just hope that all those untold stories of our conflict just past won’t have to be told eight decades later the way the narrative of the forgotten RIC have been finally brought back into public consciousness by Kevin McCarthy’s dark, brooding, multi-layered, morally complex masterpiece. - Henry McDonald

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Nobody Move, This Is A Review: TINKERS by Paul Harding

The cliché has it that a man’s life flashes before his eyes before he dies. Paul Harding’s remarkable novel, the first debut to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 10 years, burrows into the heart of this truism in search of the truth of the human condition.
  The story opens as the unwitting memoir of George Washington Crosby, who, Harding informs us in the very first line, ‘began to hallucinate eight days before he died’. George has been dying for some time, and is surrounded in the family home by his wife, children and grandchildren. A solid citizen, George has lived a quietly successful life, indulging in his spare time a love for tinkering with old clocks that has come to define who and what he is:
“When his grandchildren had been little, they had asked if they could hide inside the [grandfather] clock. Now he wanted to gather them and open himself up and hide them among his ribs and faintly ticking heart.”
  As George grows progressively more feeble, and his mind wanders farther afield, Harding introduces another character: Howard, George’s father, a travelling salesman from the turn of the century who peddled his wares in the back woods from a mule-drawn cart. Where George, as an horologist, is fascinated with the art and science of measuring time, Howard is prone to epileptic fits that not only disrupt and distort his perception of day-to-day life, but eventually erupt into an event that shapes the lives of future generations.
  Aptly enough, Harding’s parallel narratives proceed by fits and starts, with time a fluid and often contrary element as the story advances. George’s mind flutters back and forth through time, alighting on moments in his family’s extended history and observing with a poet’s facility for detail whatever here-and-now he happens to find himself in.
  At one point, Howard covertly watches the young George build a boat to set sail on a pond in the woods:
“What of miniature boats constructed of birch bark and fallen leaves, launched onto cold water clear as air? How many fleets were pushed out toward the middles of ponds or sent down autumn brooks, holding treasures of acorns, or black feathers, or a puzzled mantis? Let those grassy crafts be listed alongside the iron hulls that cleave the sea, for they are all improvisations built from the daydreams of men, and all will perish, whether from ocean siege or October breeze.”
  Harding is a consummate wordsmith, and the novel is studded with such prose-poems. Delicious to read, and reread, they do raise the question of how George and Howard, neither one particularly well educated men, become so fluently and instinctively poetic in their interior monologues.
  That said, the novel opens with George beginning to hallucinate, so perhaps it’s best to simply accept the novel in its entirety as a feverish dream. Besides, and despite the rigorously unsentimental tone and its occasional flourishes of sobering realism, the novel is equally invested with surreal moments, and even hyper-realism. Harding, for example, interrupts the narrative with frequent excerpts from the Rev. Kenner Davenport’s treatise The Reasonable Horologist (1783), a fictional and often hilarious account of the history of time-pieces. None of this, we are being warned, is to be taken too seriously.
  That warning, it appears, extends to life itself. Are we to depend for the truth of three generations of family on the wanderings of George’s enfeebled mind? Are we to depend, when it comes to measuring out our lives, on clocks and watches, when all attempts to come to terms with time, space and the universe at large must in the final analysis be considered ‘improvisations built from the daydreams of men’?
  In invoking the Rev. Kenner Davenport, and the spirit of the Age of Enlightenment in which his fictional treatise was published, Harding also invokes the belief that the universe is a vast piece of machinery. One day, runs the theory, we will understand everything, if only we apply logic and reason to its cogs and gears. In the context of this novel, however, we are being persuaded to believe this courtesy of George’s dying ramblings and the poetic fancies of Howard’s epileptic mind.
  The notion that we can distil reason and meaning from the universe if we simply apply the correct tools - memory, thought, words in their best order - is revealed in Harding’s hands as the fallacy it has always been. What does the universe know, or care, of the tiny implements horologists use to pin time in its place?
  Short enough at 191 pages to be read in one sitting, TINKERS is a superb novel that deserves and demands a more measured reading experience. Part prose-poem, part philosophical investigation, it is a wholly satisfying excavation of limited lives lived to their fullest capacity. - Declan Burke

  This review first appeared in the Sunday Business Post

Monday, July 26, 2010

Hill, Thrills And Bellyaches

Some days it seems like I’m always the last to know, etc. Further proof that we’re staring into the abyss of an economic apocalypse, if any were needed, comes with the news that best-selling Irish chick-lit author, Melissa Hill, has turned her hand to writing thrillers. To wit:
  Bestselling Irish chick-lit author Melissa Hill has switched to thriller writing.
  A new book she has co-written with her businessman husband Kevin was bought this week for a six-figure sum by Simon & Schuster in the UK and big money deals have also been done for other countries.
  The forensic crime thriller is called TABOO and represents a major literary crossover for Melissa whose eight chick-lit novels to date have all been bestsellers.
  TABOO was snapped up by publishers in several countries within 24 hours of being offered by Hill’s agent. It’s the first in a series she and Kevin will be penning together under the name Casey Hill. - John Spain, Irish Independent

  So wot's it all abaht, then? Quoth Irish Publishing News:
TABOO, the first of a six-figure, two book deal, will be released in Spring 2011 and will feature the character Riley Steel – a Quantico trained forensic investigator who comes to Dublin to head up the GFU, a new state-of-the-art Irish crime lab.
  Riley Steel, eh? In a way it’s almost too neat for words. Chick lit celebrated the shopping-and-fucking excess of the Celtic Tiger, most of it the literary equivalent of shiny, tacky bling. Now that the party’s over, and everyone’s wondering who paid for it on the never-never, crime fiction steps in to investigate.
  Hey, maybe Amanda Brunker will slip a mickey finn into her next Champagne novel.
  So: am I going to bellyache about the chick-lit brigade stomping all over the crime scene in their six-inch stilettos? Nope. Could. Not. Be. Arsed. The best of luck to Melissa with her new venture, and here’s hoping it’s not a one-way street. I, for one, would pay big bucks to read Gene Kerrigan’s chick-lit tale of a former Dublin gangster who has gone all Gok Wan and hit the runways of Paris and Rome modelling Armani briefs, but only as a front for his undercover role as a globe-trotting hitman. Gene? You know it makes sense …

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Nobody Move, This Is A Review: MY FRIEND JESUS CHRIST by Lars Husum

Danish 13-year-old Nikolaj - aka Niko - is orphaned when his parents die in a car crash. Reared by his older sister Sanne - aka Sis - Niko becomes dependent on Sis’s love, and resorts to self-harm and violence to ensure the dependence is mutual. The downward spiral into self-loathing culminates in Niko’s battering his girlfriend, Silje, the consequences of which eventually cause Sis to commit suicide. At the lowest moment of Niko’s life, a strange man appears in his living room, claiming to be Jesus Christ …
  Lars Husum’s debut is similar in tone to early work by Bret Easton Ellis (especially Less Than Zero) and Chuck Palahniuk. His protagonist, Niko, is a wilfully abrasive character intended to challenge conventional mores, as the potentially provocative title suggests. While his circumstances, and particularly the death of his parents at such a formative age, lend themselves to the reader’s sympathy, Niko is a bland kind of sociopath. A peeper and a stalker, he regularly provokes fights and mutilates himself.
  All of this is perversely designed to strengthen the bond between Niko and his older sister, Sis, and Husum is effective in the early part of the novel at achieving his aim. The fact that Niko appears to lack the courage of his convictions, however, make him an irritating protagonist.
  The fact that Niko’s mother was a much-loved pop star in her native Denmark plays a significant part in the story, especially near the end. It’s also quite convenient for Husum, given that Niko, who has in part inherited his mother’s fortune, has plenty of free time in which to indulge his navel-gazing.
  In effect, we are presented with a bratty, self-absorbed rich kid with virtually no redeeming features other than his brutal honesty about his emotional and psychological shortcomings. This honesty, however, only reinforces those characteristics of Niko that were unlikeable to begin with.
  Niko’s downward spiral into utter self-loathing finally reaches rock bottom when he batters his girlfriend, Silje, into a coma. When his long-suffering Sis hears the news, she finally gives up on Niko - and herself. Despite the fact that she is herself in a happy relationship, and has recently had a baby son, Sis commits suicide.
  Shortly afterwards, Niko wakes up one morning to discover a hairy, sandal-wearing man in his apartment. The man tells Niko that he is Jesus Christ, and has come to help. Tough love is the order of the day.
  In order to help himself, Niko must first help others. On Jesus’ advice, he leaves Copenhagen behind to move to Tarm, the rural part of Jutland where his mother grew up. Embraced by the locals, Niko establishes a team, or ‘family’, that will assist him in his ultimate goal - to rehabilitate the broken Silje.
  Husum’s style is pleasingly direct, and not without a coarse but very effective black humour. The idea of dropping a Jesus Christ figure - Husum never confirms if the character is real or a figment of Niko’s imagination - into a modern city in a Western, secular world is a bold stroke, and throws up all manner of fascinating potential narrative strands.
  Unfortunately, Husum fails to capitalise on the idea. The Christ character engages only fleetingly with Niko, and the conceit seems only half-realised. While the Christ character tells Niko that he is the Christ who ‘came with a sword’, for example, there is never any sense that there will be consequences for Niko if he fails to take Christ’s advice.
  For that matter, and despite some superficial changes, Niko’s character hardly changes throughout the novel, a fact confirmed by the rather squalid finale. Nonetheless, and despite his reprehensible behaviour, and admitting to such, he appears to be universally loved by those he meets.
  Niko isn’t particularly handsome, and he’s far from charming. Neither does he squander his money on his friends. In fact, we are given no good reason as to why people might want to spend time in his company, let alone actually like him.
  It’s possible, of course, that Husum intends the novel to be a parody of the liberal Christian culture of contemporary Western civilisation. Hence the biker-style Jesus, and the Pollyanna characters who take the violent and self-absorbed Niko at his word when he asks for forgiveness. But while the novel is undoubtedly archly contrived, it lacks the persuasiveness of satire. Husum paints in broad strokes, and few of his characters have the kind of depth that might make them convincing acolytes to Niko’s very narrow definition of what constitutes redemption.
  Another irritating aspect of the novel, the number of coincidences it contains, could also be considered an element of an archly contrived satire, and it’s probably best to steer clear of accusing a writer of MY FRIEND JESUS CHRIST of introducing deus ex machina. Unfortunately, this novel thrives on coincidence. Denmark has a population of roughly five million people, but Niko regularly bumps into characters on the street, or in wine shops, or finds that they have friends in common. The fact that Silje is a singer with a band would be sufficient to establish a meeting of minds when she and Niko first meet, given the fact that Niko’s mother was a famous pop singer; but Silje is not just a singer, she is the singer in a band that do cover versions of Niko’s mother’s songs.
  MY FRIEND JESUS CHRIST is a potentially subversive conceit swamped by a self-indulgent and repetitive narrative. With a stronger editor on board, the novel could well have said important things about liberal Christianity in Western culture, and the West’s attitude to religion in general. At the very least it might have been an entertaining novel. As it stands, however, MY FRIEND JESUS CHRIST is a heavy-handed satire that lacks the wit and depth to truly offend or inspire. - Declan Burke

  MY FRIEND JESUS CHRIST is published by Portobello Books.