“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, August 14, 2010

The Digested Read: BLOOD’S A ROVER by James Ellroy

Following on from the runaway success of last week’s Digested Read chortle-fest, herewith be another. To wit:
The Digested Read: BLOOD’S A ROVER by James Ellroy

Dig it, hepcats: bad men on the rise. Tricky Dick, Edgar J Vamp.
  Check it now:
  RIP MLK. Sayonara Bobby the K. Kuba’s gone, KIA. Hey, is that Mickey Mobster looking south to the Dom Rep? Factor in some Papa Doc rebop. Voodoo dogz howl at the moon and the moon she swoooooooon.
  Kut to: kinky karnival for the good guyz. Ticker-tape for Wayne Tedrow, Dwight Holly. Feds ‘n’ foes both sides of the line.
  Tell it like it is.
  Dig that Mormon KKK vibe.
  Factor in Don Crutchfield. Peeper, doper, small-time lech. Hopped on the lewd nude and her foxy afro. Be he me?
  Cherchez la femme, mofo.
  Scarfing acid, riding the wave. Get wise, dogz: the wave, she ride you.
  Throwdown guns - check. Truck full of coke - check. Head hipped on jazz - check. Heart hopped on jizz - check.
  Check in, check out.
  Kut to: the Brothers rocking the Black Power hour. The revolution reverb. Spooks, mooks and soul-power crooks. Go Panthers! Infiltrate, annihil-hate.
  Hate is good. Hate is whole. See it, feel it, taste it, eat it, be it.
  Say, there’s Sal Mineo. Scuzzy Hollywood vibe. Rat Pack ratz and fat Vegas catz. Say a prayer for Mom’s apple pie.
  Tell it like it is.
  Be kool. Spritz some jive. Hustle the muscle. See America hex itself, re-hex, de-hex.
  Redz under the bedz. Redz in the bedz. Kick their Kommie keisters all the way back to Moskow.
  Green emeralds. Black ops. White cops. Blue-eyed boys and green-eyed girls. Read it and wipe.
  Shoot-’em, loot-’em, dilute-’em. Brute force is truth force. They got the guns but we got the honeys.
  Demokkkracy my lily-white ass.
  Tell it like it is.

  The Digested Read, Digested: Here be monsters. O, America!
  James Ellroy’s BLOOD’S A ROVER is published by Windmill Books.

Friday, August 13, 2010

On Bill Badger, And Other Favourite Bukes

A couple of dates for your crime fic diaries, folks. On September 4th, Irish crime writing takes to the stage at the Electric Picnic, when Declan Hughes, Arlene Hunt and Gene Kerrigan assemble to talk about the business of books and writing, with yours truly standing by to make sure they all colour inside the lines. The idea of the gig is to talk to crime writers about books in general, and not just crime writing, with each of the authors offering a couple of examples of the novels that first inspired them to start reading and writing … although there’s every chance, of course, that they will be crime novels.
  The first book I can remember having a profound impact on me was about a guy called Bill Badger, he was an actual badger who lived on a barge moored on a canal … I can’t remember anything about the story, I was only about four at the time, but it was pretty riveting stuff.
  (Holy Moly, I’ve just discovered that there were nine Bill Badger books! Right, that’s Lily’s bedtime reading sorted for the next couple of months.)
  Anyway, I’ll also be asking the trio about Irish crime novels that they think deserve rehabilitating, or possibly republishing, in light of the recent explosion of Irish crime fiction. Some suggestions I’ll be making: Seamus Smyth’s QUINN; John Kelly’s THE POLLING OF THE DEAD; TS O’Rourke’s DEATH CALL; Hugo Hamilton’s SAD BASTARD; and Vincent Banville’s DEATH THE PALE RIDER.
  Elsewhere, Dun Laoghaire’s Mountains to the Sea literary festival runs from September 7th to 12th, and boasts a small but perfectly formed crime contingent, with Kate Atkinson in conversation with HELLFIRE author Mia Gallagher on Saturday the 11th. I read Atkinson’s latest, STARTED EARLY, TOOK MY DOG last week, and it’s terrific stuff. The gig I’ll be getting along to, though, is the fascinating pair-up of Eoin McNamee and Stuart Neville (noon, Saturday the 11th), gnarled veteran and callow lieutenant, respectively, of Norn Iron letters. I read McNamee’s ORCHID BLUE last month, and it’s probably his finest novel yet; while Neville’s latest, COLLUSION, is a superior offering to his very fine debut, THE TWELVE. All in all, should be a cracking afternoon. For all the Mountains to the Sea details, clickety-click here
  Finally, for those of you scratching the itch to write a novel of your own, the Author Rights Agency, under the aegis of Svetlana Pironko and Kevin Stevens, is offering a 26-week course in ‘The Making of a Novel’, which comes complete with an individual assessment from the course directors on your work. The fee - brace yourself, Bridget - is €2,000, but course contributors include Ken Bruen, Siobhan Parkinson, Catherine Dunne and Marita Conlon-McKenna. Do bear in mind that your humble host has absolutely no connection with said course, and is simply doing a mate a favour by giving it a shout-out. All the details can be found here
  I am reminded, though, every time I hear about writing courses, about the (hopefully apocryphal) story about the tutor who stood up on the very first night of a writing course to address his students.
  “Who here really wants to write?” he said.
  A full show of hands.
  “Who’s willing to get up at five in the morning to write?” he said.
  Maybe half the hands go up.
  “Who’s willing to slough off all their friends and most of their family in order to write?” he said.
  Five or six hands go up.
  “Who’d be willing to let their mother die in order to be able to write about it afterwards?” the tutor said.
  One hand goes up.
  “Okay,” says the tutor. “So why the fuck aren’t you at home, writing?”

Thursday, August 12, 2010

On Writing For Fun, And Other Lunacies

Maybe it’s just me, but a chart of this writer’s writing life would probably look a lot like a seismograph during a quake hitting 7.2 on the Richter Scale, or a polygraph attached to Janet Evanovich during an interrogation during which she was asked if she really believed - like, seriously now - that four of her novels were worth an advance of fifty million dollars, or thereabouts.
(What bugs me about the Evanovich demand for $50 million advance - I’ve never read any of her novels, so I’m in no position to say if she’s worth it, although it’s fair to say that you’d need thumbscrews to truly convince me - is that if she’d only asked for $49 million, there’d still have been a spare million left over to divide up between a thousand or so other writers, giving them not necessarily a living wage but the hope that some day, they might just be able to earn a crust from this gig. And you’d have to imagine that, out of that thousand, at least one would be able to come up with something a little fresher than a tired reworking of a raddled old post-feminist parody. But I digress.)
  Anyway, that seismograph chart - the life of a struggling wannabe writer is one of rapid and violent ups and downs, and far more downs than ups. That goes with the territory, puts fire in your belly, and if nothing else, gives you an overwhelming desire to succeed even if it’s just to prove the bastards wrong.
  The last week or so has been pretty much typical. A little birdie whispers the very bad news that one of the best Irish crime writers has had his / her American contract cancelled for lack of sales. Shameful stuff, totally unexpected and utterly depressing, given that he / she is a terrific writer who is never less than entertaining and also pretty illuminating about the world we live in right now.
  That’s the biz, I suppose.
  For me personally, it’s been a decent week. I got a green-ish light on a project I’ve been working on for about two years, of which more anon. I also heard that there are two US publishers taking a good long squint at BAD FOR GOOD, and that initial reactions have been very positive. Not that that amounts to a molehill of beans, in real terms, but still, it’s good to know that someone out there is reading it, and liking it.
  I’ve also been doing quite a bit of writing, largely because I joined a ‘writing group’ last month. Four people, decent skins all, coming together to pool resources and give one another a helping hand over the various humps and hillocks that get in the way of putting words on paper. We all have our own agendas, and we’re all at different stages of the publishing game, which will be very healthy, I think. For my own part, my needs are threefold. One, that said decent skins apply shoe leather to my skinny white ass and get me writing again; two, that that process will help me rewrite a novel currently labouring under the weight of its 149,000 words into something more taut, elegant and accessible; and three, that I can get back to writing the way I used to write in the good old days before I ever got published, and start telling stories just for the fun of it.
  That might sound a little naïve, but during the last two years or so, I’ve started at least five different novels, investing anything between 10,000 and 30,000 words in each. Every time I came grinding to a halt, worn down by the constant process of second-guessing the industry, particularly the bean counters to whom most editors have to answer these days, worrying if what I was doing was commercial (very probably), or commercial enough (hard to say), or if I wouldn’t be more profitably employed shouting down a well (very probably).
  Fun. Not a word you hear very often when people talk about writing in particular and the publishing industry in general. But it’s why I started writing, way back when, those halcyon days when the process of putting words in their best order was enjoyable for its own sake. A very serious kind of fun, of course, given that writing is a serious business, whether or not the business takes you seriously. But fun.
  My little girl arrived home yesterday from crèche with a paper folder full of drawings and doodles and paintings and sparkly stuff, my favourite of which you can see above. Bright, colourful, bold, fun. Was Lily worried about what anyone thought about her picture when she was painting? Hardly, given that she’s only two years-and-a-bit old. Had she any idea that when her silly old sentimental Dad saw it, his heart would feel like it might explode? Probably not. Did she just get stuck in and splash the paint around and do the best job that fun would allow? I’d imagine so. Will anyone ever pay for it? Not that I’d ever sell it, but no.
  The ‘writing group’ met for the first time last month, and the plan is that we assemble in mid-September with 2,000 words each to show for our efforts this month. The good news there is that I’ve already racked up 15,000 words in the last three weeks, although the bad news - given that I’m supposed to be rewriting the damn thing - is that said 15,000 words are all brand new and freshly minted. Mind you, the process of writing that section has allowed me to identify not only a massive, glaring flaw in the novel, but also how to rectify it. I’d say that that 15,000 words will save me about 40,000 by the time I get into the heart of the story.
  Anyway, good news / bad news. This week it’s mostly good, and high-ho for upward and onward, at least until next week, when I’ll very probably plummet off the precipice again.
  The main thing, though, is that it’s all good, that I’ve started to rediscover that sense of fun again. Maybe, given the fact that none of my previous offerings have overly taxed the boys ‘n’ gals at Nielsen, I’ll have to send out the redrafted novel under a pseudonym, as I’ve discussed before. And maybe (very probably) it’ll never see the light of day, because I’m already a beaten docket as a published writer at the age of 41.
  And so what? What I get from writing - fun, joy, self-worth, all the good stuff you tend to forget about after too long at the coal-face - is far too precious to entrust to the publishing industry, or at least the publishing industry in its current, ultra-conservative incarnation. As the quote from Isak Dinesen I’ve tacked to my PC monitor says, “I write a little every day, without hope and without despair.”

  Lately I have been mostly reading: DEXTER IS DELICIOUS by Jeff Lindsay; COLLUSION by Stuart Neville; FAITHFUL PLACE by Tana French; RIVER OF SHADOWS by Valerio Varesi; DON’T BLINK by James Patterson; TIGERLILY’S ORCHIDS by Ruth Rendell, STARTED EARLY, TOOK MY DOG by Kate Atkinson, and THE DOGS OF ROME by Conor Fitzgerald.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Nobody Move, This Is A Review: DEXTER IS DELICIOUS by Jeff Lindsay

Jeff Lindsay is the bestselling author of five ‘Dexter’ novels: DARKLY DREAMING DEXTER (2004), DEARLY DEVOTED DEXTER (2005), DEXTER IN THE DARK (2007), DEXTER BY DESIGN (2009) and DEXTER IS DELICIOUS (2010). The novels are set in contemporary Florida.
  The first Dexter novel, DARKLY DREAMING DEXTER, wasn’t just a popular success, it was also nominated for a ‘Best First Novel’ Edgar. It was subsequently dropped from the category, however, when it was discovered that Jeff Lindsay had previously published novels under a different name.
  The character of Dexter is an intriguing one. He is a broadly sympathetic sociopath, and can be read as a linear descendant of both Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley and Robert Harris’s Hannibal Lecter.
  Where Dexter differs from these characters is in the way he harnesses his homicidal impulses in order to kill only those particularly vile criminals who are a threat to society. In effect, and while works a day job as a forensic technician for the Miami Police Department specialising in blood traces, his true calling is as a vigilante who believes himself to be reinforcing the thin blue line.
  Dexter was taught at an early age to control and channel his homicidal instincts by his father, Harry, who was himself a Miami cop. Dexter operates to a strictly observed ‘Code’ of ethics, according to which he only ever kills other killers.
  The novels are told in the first person. The tone is jaunty, with Dexter acutely aware of his failings, and also of how incongruous his nature is. The first-person narrative allows for plenty of asides to the reader, and lashings of morbidly black humour. The pace is swift, with short, snappy chapters maintaining the momentum.
  He is married to Rita, who has two young children (Astor and Cody) from a previous relationship. Rita is oblivious to Dexter’s true nature. Her children, however, share his dark secret and his instincts.
  The current novel, DEXTER IS DELICIOUS, offers a number of twists on the standard Dexter story. The story opens with the birth of Dexter’s child, Lily Anne, which has the effect of ‘humanising’ him to a degree that he previously considered impossible (Dexter frequently refers to himself as ‘inhuman’). The novel also introduces Dexter’s long-lost brother, Brian, who appears to have a malign interest in Cody and Astor.
  The narrative thrust of the story has Dexter helping his foster-sister, Detective Sgt Deborah Morgan, investigate a series of gruesome murders perpetrated by a group of Miami-based cannibals.
  Lindsay treads a very fine line in the Dexter novels. Readers respond well to the fact that Dexter privately cuts through a lot of red tape and the usual boring detail of police procedural work in order to render a very crude form of natural justice.
  By the same token, Dexter himself works for the Miami Police Department, and is publicly bound by a more conventional expression of law and order. It is also to his credit that, as the novels have progressed, Dexter has become more aware of his own failings.
  What is interesting about the Dexter novels is that they present the reader with a moral conundrum. The anti-heroes in the novels of Patricia Highsmith, Robert Harris and Jim Thompson, for example, are sympathetically drawn, but it’s always clear that they are not intended to be read as forces for good.
  Dexter, on the other hand, is a serial killer, yet Lindsay wants the reader to accept that Dexter is a positive character, and that the world is enhanced by his acting on his murderous impulses, regardless of how refined and sophisticated he has rendered those impulses. For all the jaunty humour and self-deprecating asides, this conceit never fully works for me.
  I also had issues with the extent to which Dexter, a crime scene technician, was free to accompany Detective Sgt Morgan as she sped around Miami investigating the case of the feasting cannibals. Dexter spends far more time out of his office than in it, with no superior asking questions about his absences, and while Lindsay makes great play of the adversarial relationship between Dexter and Morgan, and the extent to which she bullies him into going along with her whims (she detests her new partner, for example, and prefers Dexter’s company and insights), the frequency of such trips make the story increasingly implausible.
  That said, Lindsay is not aiming for gritty realism here. The Dexter novels (and the spin-off TV series) have far more in common with CSI Miami than The Wire, say. The novels are intended, you’d have to assume, as wish-fulfilment hokum, and for the most part they fulfil their remit.
  Dexter’s black humour begins to grate after a while, particularly in terms of his self-deprecating references to his weaknesses when compared with the stronger women in his life, and especially as we know that he is capable of tremendous savagery. Humour is a very personal thing, of course, but I did find that it detracted from the character rather than added to him.
  Much more interesting is Lindsay’s take on Dexter’s extended family, even if very few of the characters are linked to Dexter by flesh and blood. The latest arrival, Lily Anne, is the exception.
  His father, Harry, was an adoptive father; he has a foster-sister, Sgt Deborah Morgan; his ‘children’ previous to Lily Anne are Cody and Astor, Rita’s son and daughter from a previous relationship. His brother, Brian, turns up in the new novel, after a long period of estrangement.
  Other than Lily Anne, Brian is Dexter’s “only biological relative, as far as I knew, although considering the little I had uncovered about our round-heeled mother, anything was possible.”
  While this extended, complex family offers the promise of some insights into the nature of the contemporary fracturing of the traditional nuclear family unit, Lindsay does very little to develop it. His frequent declarations of love for his new baby sound heartfelt at first, although they do become rather banal through repetition.
  More significantly, perhaps, the construction of the novel - the swift pace, the short chapters, the jocular tone - are not conducive to Lindsay exploring any theme or subject in any great depth. This is as true of Dexter’s own psychological complexities as it is of his complicated family.
  All told, DEXTER IS DELICIOUS is a fun, breezy read that demands too little, given the seriousness of its subject matter, of the reader. For a more profound take on the mind of a psychopathic killer, read Patricia Highsmith or Jim Thompson instead. - Declan Burke

  Jeff Lindsay’s DEXTER IS DELICIOUS is published by Orion

Monday, August 9, 2010

“Ya Wanna Do It Here Or Down The Station, Punk?”: Conor Fitzgerald

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?
DAS FRÄULEIN VON SCUDERI, or MADEMOISELLE DE SCUDERY by E.T.A. Hoffmann. It is not the best detective work ever written, but it is the first. It would be nice to be the inventor of the genre.

What fictional character would you most like to have been?
As a child, I adored the Just William books, all of which I read in Cabinteely library. William lived in a closed, safe and comfortable English country garden world that I wanted to step into. Of course, I now feel that would be a twee and hellish place to spend my adult life. So, if I am really allowed to be any fictional persona from any book, and be accorded his or her concomitant strengths and defects, I suppose I’d go for the character known as ‘God’ in the Old Testament.

Who do you read for guilty pleasures?
Popular science books. I find everything a read in them utterly fascinating, though I am too stupid to retain any of the information they impart. But even though I learn nothing from them whatsoever, I always feel enormously reassured and comforted to be reminded of the presence of those highly intelligent people thinking about complex and intricate matters that are quite beyond me. Good science writers are like antibodies to the viral ignorance of politicians, sociologists, psychologists, economists and literary theorists. The pleasure is a guilty one, because these books form no part of the long and often boring reading list I need to get through for research purposes.

Most satisfying writing moment?
Writing ‘Chapter 1’. I tend to be feel a bit disappointed with most of what follows.

The best Irish crime novel is …?
What I consider the best piece of music, art, literature, TV or food changes from hour to hour. That said, I have enormous respect for THE BOOK OF EVIDENCE by John Banville, which surely counts as a crime novel. I think it marked the beginning of a new type of modern, urban and sophisticated movement in Irish literature, which is continuing to develop today.

What Irish crime novel would make a great movie?
I think Cormac Millar’s THE GROUNDS has all the right ingredients. I find that many good movies, including HBO TV series, force characters to operate in constructed and constricted spaces, which Millar does in his book. That said, I find there is much to the truism that bad books make great moves and great books make bad movies, so perhaps there is some lousy Irish crime novel out there that I will never read but is destined to become a classic movie.

Worst / best thing about being a writer?
The luxury of working from home is offset by having to live at your place of work. It’s like spending your whole life with that guilty Sunday-night-and-I haven’t-even- started-my homework-and-here-I am-watching-TV feeling from school. That, and abject penury.

The pitch for your next book is …?
Commissioner Blume investigates the death of an Irish forger whose false masters hang in major galleries worldwide. Based on a true story.

Who are you reading right now?
Camen M. Reinhart & Kenneth S. Rogoff: THIS TIME IS DIFFERENT: EIGHT CENTURIES OF FINANCIAL FOLLY.

God appears and says you can only write OR read. Which would it be?
Read. When I read, I rewrite in my head, or imagine writing responses, or I plot out where I think the book is going. So reading encompasses writing. Also, we read for the comfort of knowing we are not alone, but we write for fear that we are. As for God appearing, cf. question 2.

The three best words to describe your own writing are …?
Place, character, mortality.

Conor Fitzgerald’s THE DOGS OF ROME is published by Bloomsbury Publishing.