“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, August 20, 2010

Diamonds: Miffed They’re No Longer Ava McCarthy’s BFF

A couple of snippets that snuck in under the perennially malfunctioning CAP radar, kicking off with Morning Ireland’s TV interview with the ever radiant Ava McCarthy (right) last May, when THE COURIER, her second Harry Martinez thriller, hit the shelves. A wide-ranging chat it is, too, incorporating computer hackery, insider trading and the illicit diamond trade. To find out why Ava will never again buy a diamond, clickety-click here
  I’ve also been disgracefully neglecting the latest Benjamin Black novel, ELEGY FOR APRIL, which also appeared a couple of months back. Happily, the good folk at Euro Crime are, as always, on the ball, with the gist of the review running thusly:
“The plotline follows similar themes to the previous books in the series: a toxic cocktail of families, sex, religion and hypocrisy, with a sprinkling of privilege and political influence thrown in for good measure. There is relatively little emphasis on Quirke’s day job in this book; the author concentrates his focus on Quirke’s struggle to remain on the wagon. The actual plotting is somewhat languid, eventually proceeding hastily to a dramatic denouement coming from a flash of intuition by Quirke. But with writing of this quality, quibbling about the pace of plotting feels somewhat churlish; ELEGY FOR APRIL is another slice of classy Emerald Noir.” - Laura Root
  Nice. Meanwhile, Dermot Bolger’s latest offering, NEW TOWN SOUL, which also appeared a few months ago, is a YA novel that’s not strictly crime fiction, but sounds like it blurs the lines between quite a few genres. To wit:
Imagine what it must feel like to be a doll within a doll, to lose your own identity and spend your life in darkness … Joey thought he’d done all the research on his new classmates before he met Shane and Geraldine. Shane is his new best friend, calm and cool with a personality for every occasion and a strange sense of recklessness about him. But why does Shane make Geraldine so uncomfortable? They’re both hiding something from Joey and the answer can only be found in the old house on Castledawson Avenue - Souls are snatched and gambles taken in this distinctly Irish supernatural novel set in Blackrock, Dublin. Based on the concept of changelings, Bolger’s first young adult novel is a thrilling gothic ghost story with a romantic subplot.
  And the verdict?
“NEW TOWN SOUL is taut, mysterious and gripping to the last word. Dermot Bolger gets under the skin of the teenage experience and explores the dark side of the teenage psyche. A beautifully crafted thriller.” - Eoin Colfer
  Thank you kindly, Mr Colfer sir.
  Finally, if you happen to feel peckish in the vicinity of Dalkey on September 2nd, Declan Hughes will hosting a special lunch at the Royal St George Yacht Club (there’s posh) that includes vittles and the appetite-whetting prospect of Squire Hughes giving it large from his latest offering, CITY OF LOST GIRLS. For all the details, clickety-click here

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Famous Last Words

I had a piece published recently in the Irish Examiner called ‘Famous Last Words’, the idea being that writers nominate their favourite last lines from a novel. Declan Hughes, Tana French, Val McDermid, Eoin Colfer and Adrian McKinty were among the contributors, and it went something like this …
Famous Last Words

It’s one of the most understated finales of any novel, and yet the last lines of To Kill a Mockingbird, delivered after Atticus Finch consoles his daughter Scout in the wake of the Boo Radley affair, have an enduringly quiet resonance. “He turned out the light and went into Jem’s room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.”
  To mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of Harper Lee’s classic coming-of-age tale, we asked a number of authors to tell us their favourite last lines from a novel.


  “‘Murder doesn’t round out anyone’s life except maybe the murdered’s, and sometimes the murderer’s.’
  ‘That may be,’ Nora said, ‘but it’s all pretty unsatisfactory.’” - The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett
  Declan Hughes, author of City of Lost Girls: “I like this because it sums up the complex, open-ended nature of the new type of crime fiction Dashiell Hammett was writing, where justice and order were not restored at the end.”


  “Poor Eric came home to see his brother, only to find (Zap! Pow! Dams burst! Bombs go off! Wasps fry: ttsss!) he’s got a sister.” - The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
  Niamh O’Connor, author of If I Never See You Again: “To the very last line, The Wasp Factory manages to just keep the surprises coming.”


  “Someone should tell a blind man before setting him out that way.” - Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy
  Adrian McKinty, author of Fifty Grand: “If the world were not a fallen place someone would help the blind man. And perhaps, eventually, someone will.”


  “ … I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like made and yes I said yes I will Yes.” - Ulysses by James Joyce
  Patrick McCabe, author of The Holy City: “With no contest, it’s Molly at the end of Ulysses. It makes a perfect circle of the narrative.”


  “But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” - Middlemarch by George Eliot
  Ruth Dudley Edwards, author of Aftermath: The Omagh Bombing: “Middlemarch is the wisest novel I know, and its ending is a wonderful tribute to all those fine but forgotten people to whom the world has owed so much down the generations.”


  “I laid my cheek against his hand and breathed with him until the last breath. ‘You done good, kid,’ I whispered, when he was still at last.” - O is for Outlaw by Sue Grafton
  Ava McCarthy, author of The Courier: “Snappy sound-bites are all very well, but they usually just deliver an intellectual impact. For me, the last line should capture the core emotional change that has occurred at the very heart of the story. An emotional ingredient is far more enduring.”


  “When Margaret grows up she will have a daughter, who is to be Peter’s mother in turn; and thus it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless.” - Peter Pan by JM Barrie
  Eoin Colfer, author of And Another Thing: “This is a brilliant sentence at once romantic and cutting, which gets straight to the heart of how young people are and I think that was J.M Barrie’s gift; he understood children.”


  “I leave this manuscript, I do not know for whom; I know longer know what it is about: stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus.” The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco.
  Brian McGilloway, author of The Rising: “In a book about books and how we respond to them, where objects such as a Rose have become so symbolic that they lose all meaning, the final phrasing is beautiful.”


  “Are there any questions?” - The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  Val McDermid, author of The Fever of the Bone: “I like novels that leave space for my own imagination, and I like the confidence and wit of Atwood’s ending.”


  “What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. Far more a part of it than Rusty Regan was. But the old man didn’t have to be. He could lie quiet in his canopied bed, with his bloodless hands folded on the sheet, waiting. His heart was a brief, uncertain murmur. His thoughts were as gray as ashes. And in a little while he too, like Rusty Regan, would be sleeping the big sleep.
  “On the way downtown I stopped at a bar and had a couple of double Scotches. They didn’t do me any good. All they did was make me think of Silver Wig, and I never saw her again.” - The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
  Ed O’Loughlin, author of Not Untrue & Not Unkind: “I love the way it aches.”


  “Enough.” - Rabbit at Rest by John Updike
  Aifric Campbell, author of The Loss Adjustor: “Updike closes his four volume ‘Rabbit’ masterpiece with one word, and with this masterful stroke, he captures the joy and pain and beauty that is at the heart of all endings for readers and writers alike: we cannot bear to say goodbye, but it is time to let go.”


  “My dearest, said Valentine, has the count not just told us that all human wisdom was contained in these two words - ‘wait’ and ‘hope’?” - The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  William Ryan, author of The Holy Thief: “That last line is a neat encapsulation of the thousand odd pages that precede it, and a perfect finish to a book I love reading.”


  “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” - The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  Deborah Lawrenson, author of Songs of Blue and Gold: “It’s just magical.”


  “He told me what he was going to do when he won his money then I said it was time to go tracking in the mountains, so off we went, counting our footprints in the snow, him with his bony arse clicking and me with the tears streaming down my face.” - The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe
  Tana French, author of Faithful Place: “This line captures everything that’s punch-in-the-gut powerful about the whole book - that expert mix of black humour, vortexing insanity and terrible sadness.”
  This feature first appeared in the Irish Examiner.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

On Mammoths And Woolly Thinking

I was thinking of writing a post full of mock-bluster and bravado about the inclusion of a story of mine in THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF BEST BRITISH CRIME 8 (ed. Maxim Jakubowski), claiming that, all things considered (other than the fact that I’m not actually British, unless you’re talking about how the UK and Ireland together make up the British Isles), I’m perfectly entitled to consider myself on a par with very fine writers like Ian Rankin, Colin Bateman, Kate Atkinson, Simon Kernick, Louise Welsh, Andrew Taylor, et al.
  I’m not, of course. I’m long way off par with those writers, and many others in the compilation, and all false modesty aside, I’m not entitled to delude myself that I am either.
  That said, it’s a massive shot in the arm. Not a shot of confidence, but the far more dangerous speedball-style blend of hope and conviction. Because the story wasn’t written as a conventional crime story, and remains, to me at least, something of an oddity - and right now, I have a novel out on spec that wasn’t written as a conventional crime novel, and is something of an oddity. And not only that, but I’m currently in the early stages of rewriting a novel that wasn’t written as a crime novel, which looks as if it too will become - my best intentions of lashing it into genre straitjacket notwithstanding - something a little off-kilter.
  And while it’s a massive leap of faith to believe that the publication of one story will necessarily lead to the publication of a novel, or novels, the inclusion of my story in THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF BEST BRITISH CRIME 8 offers just enough hope to give me the courage of my convictions.
  They do say, of course, that it’s the hope that kills you in the end …
  Anyway, I’m off back to the writing. In the meantime, here’s the full rundown on THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF BEST BRITISH CRIME 8 - and congrats, by the way, to fellow Irish Brits Gerard Brennan and The Artist Formerly Known as Colin Bateman on their inclusion:
The must-have annual anthology for every crime fiction fan – the year’s top new British short stories selected by leading crime critic Maxim Jakubowski. This great annual covers the full range of mystery fiction, from noir and hardboiled crime to ingenious puzzles and amateur sleuthing. Packed with top names such as: Ian Rankin (including a new Rebus), Alexander McCall Smith, David Hewson, Christopher Brookmyre, Simon Kernick, A.L. Kennedy, Louise Walsh, Kate Atkinson, Colin Bateman, Stuart McBride and Andrew Taylor. The full list of contributors is as follows: Sheila Quigley, Nigel Bird, Jay Stringer, Paul D. Brazill, Adrian Magson, Colin Bateman, Gerard Brennan, Matthew J. Elliott, Andrew Taylor, Lin Anderson, Christopher Brookmyre, Ray Banks, Declan Burke, Liza Cody, Simon Kernick, Stuart MacBride, Allan Guthrie, Ian Rankin (two stories, including a new Rebus), Nick Quantrill, Edward Marston, Nicholas Royle, Zoe Sharp, Robert Barnard, Simon Brett, Peter Lovesey, A.L. Kennedy, Roz Southey, Phil Lovesey, David Hewson, Amy Myers, Marilyn Todd, Peter Turnbull, Keith McCarthy, Alexander McCall Smith, Stephen Booth, Denise Mina, Mick Herron, Kate Atkinson and Louise Welsh.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Go Nord, Young Man

I had one of those pieces on ‘Nordic Writers Wot Aren’t Stieg Larsson’ published in the Sunday Independent last week, which featured contributions from Jan Costin Wagner, Yrsa Sigurdardottir and Hakan Nesser. It went a lot like this:
The Thrillers Who Came In From the Cold

With the second movie of the ‘Millennium Trilogy’ coming at the end of August, a Hollywood remake of the first movie starring Daniel Craig and (rumour has it) Scarlett Johansson already in the works, and the discovery of a fourth Blomkvist-Salander novel on his computer, it’s fair to say that the publishing phenomenon that is Stieg Larsson has some way yet to run.
  Aficionados of the genre, however, are aware that Scandinavian crime writing has much more to offer than Stieg Larsson. The Sweden-set ‘Martin Beck’ series of novels written by husband-and-wife team Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö are considered a milestone in the evolution of the realist crime novel, while Henning Mankell is a household name, particularly for his Kurt Wallander novels.
  A whole new generation of Scandinavian crime writers have emerged in the last decade, however. While the sub-genre has its roots in Sweden, the crime novel is now indigenous to Norway and Finland, Denmark and Iceland. Writers such as Karin Fossum, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Jø Nesbo, Jan Costin Wagner, Karin Alvtegen, Håkan Nesser, KO Dahl, Camilla Lackberg, Leif Davidson, Arnaldur Indridason and Gunnar Staalesen are hugely popular not only at home, but increasingly so abroad too.
  The conventional theory has it that the assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986 had a seismic impact on the Swedish psyche, one consequence of which was an explosion in crime writing. Given the seriousness of the catalytic event, the crime novels were taken seriously by the Swedish literati, resulting in an ever-increasing quality of writing and criticism.
  Swedish author Håkan Nesser, on the other hand, takes an irreverent approach to the question of why there has been such a boom in Scandinavian crime writing.
  “When I’m in my most optimistic mood I tend to answer, ‘It’s due to the fact that we are such damned good writers,’” he says. “Right now we probably have the world’s largest number of good crime writers per capita, but please be aware of that we also have the world’s largest number of bad crime writers!
  “There is no such thing as a ‘Swedish way’ of writing a crime story,” he continues. “We are all different. The only thing we have in common is that we write in Swedish. Any reader who reads a book by Stieg Larsson, a book by Karin Alvtegen and a book by myself will realise this immediately. We all have different styles, different plots, different aims and agendas.”
  German author Jan Costin Wagner, who sets his novels in Finland, agrees. “Basically I think that every author has to find their own language,” he says, “their own key topics, characters and ways of approaching a story. And, of course, not each Scandinavian crime novel is a good one. But apart from that, I think that many Scandinavian crime writers understand how important it is to be serious and committed to their story and their characters.”
  Icelandic author Yrsa Sigurdardottir believes that Iceland offers a unique setting for the crime novel.
  “Iceland, with its 300,000 inhabitants, is a whole lot smaller population-wise than most countries,” she says. “As a result, the atmosphere here is still quite similar to that of a small town, despite our attempts at becoming cosmopolitan. This allows for complex interactions and ties between characters that differ greatly from those one expects in stories that take place in a big city. Another ingredient of the social fabric that differentiates us from other western countries is an unusually high belief in the occult and the supernatural, which adds an element that would probably strike a false note in crime stories based elsewhere.
  “Also,” she continues, “old secrets, vendettas and misdeeds might lie dormant here but they are never fully forgotten - or forgiven. When the social aspects just described are coupled with the smorgasbord of eerie scenery my geologically active country has to offer, Iceland thankfully has the makings of a wonderful backdrop for good, fun and creepy murders.”
  While Sigurdardottir highlights the physical and social aspects of her settings, Wagner identifies a more psychological appeal.
  “I don’t feel committed to a ‘school of writing’,” he says, “because I want to stay committed to my own inner movement: that is most important for everything I write. I feel close to the Scandinavian crime writing because Scandinavians quite often stay focussed on the inner, maybe hidden, life of a story and a character. I like novels which surprise the reader by finding their way beyond cliché. I like the silent moments, the words that are hidden behind the lines; I also like the silent showdown and not so much the bombastic one, which is based on a kind of formal, expected resolution.”
  The idea that the modern Scandinavian crime novel offers a blend of social realism and a more introspective take on the traditional crime narrative is echoed by Håkan Nesser.
  “Ingmar Bergman is a cineastic icon around the world,” he says, “and for most people a Bergman character is the true essence of a Swede: gloomy, depressive, suicidal, tragic, silent and deeply, fundamentally unhappy. But interesting, somehow.
  “I like to think that the above is not an accurate description of our national character,” he says, “but in all clichés there is an element of truth. And actually – though I find it a little hard to acknowledge – such stereotypes might be good material for characters in a crime story: morose men and women who can store grudges inside themselves for half of a lifetime, and then one day take desperate but calculated action like a bolt out of the blue.” - Declan Burke

  Håkan Nesser’s THE INSPECTOR AND SILENCE is published by Mantle.
  Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s ASHES TO DUST is published by Hodder & Stoughton.
  Jan Costin Wagner’s SILENCE is published by Harvill Secker.
  This article first appeared in the Sunday Independent.

  Incidentally, I finished Jan Costin Wagner’s SILENCE last night, and it’s a terrific piece of work. Highly recommended.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Smarter Than The Average Alec

“Surely there are Italian policeman who are not obsessed with their stomachs?” I wrote that line, which appears in the post / column below, on the basis that virtually every fictional Italian policeman I’ve come across in the past appears to have a food fetish, to the point where it’s ripe for parody. Is it a trope unique - Anthony Bourdain notwithstanding - to Italian crime fiction? I tend to skip over the various menus, cooking instructions and food porn descriptions on the basis that food is a fuel for me - I like it when it’s tasty, I don’t mind when it’s not.
  Anyway, shortly after writing that column, I read Conor Fitzgerald’s THE DOGS OF ROME, which features the Rome-based Chief Inspector Alec Blume. The good news is that Blume is not a foodie - at one point he even snacks on dry breakfast cereal - and the better news is that THE DOGS OF ROME is an unusually assured debut. It’s a gripping police procedural that manages to illustrate meticulous nature of an investigation and the complexity of the politics of Italian policing without ever getting bogged down in detail, while Blume himself is something of a rara avis, being possessed of a melancholic Scandinavian disposition despite the Rome setting.
  Fitzgerald is an Irish writer, albeit one long domiciled in Italy, while Blume himself is an American who has most of his life in Italy. The combination gives both men an insider’s eye for detail and an emotional distance from their subject matter, and the result, written in a style that is both taut and elegant, is a very fine debut indeed.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Nobody Move, This Is A Review: The Irish Times’ Crime Beat Round-Up

The latest of yours truly’s crime fiction review columns appeared in the Irish Times yesterday, featuring Stuart Neville, Tana French, Alan Furst, Karin Fossum, Ruth Rendell and James Patterson, among others. To wit:
Lennon Takes the Lead

In the context of Northern Ireland, ‘collusion’ is an ugly word denoting state-sponsored murder during the Troubles. In COLLUSION (Harvill Secker, £12.99, pb), Stuart Neville takes pains to illustrate the extent to which collusion ‘worked all ways, all directions’, and continues do so in the murky world of covert operations. Belfast Detective Inspector Jack Lennon, a minor character from Neville’s debut THE TWELVE, takes the lead here as he investigates the fall-out from the slaughter that accrued when ex-paramilitary Gerry Fegan went on the rampage. The novel has the page-turning quality of Neville’s debut, which recently won the LA Times’ Mystery / Thriller of the Year, but it’s Neville’s clear-eyed appraisal of the real-politik of the post-Ceasefire Northern Ireland that gives it real heft.
  In FAITHFUL PLACE (Hachette Books Ireland, £12.99, pb), Tana French also gives prominence to a minor character from a previous novel. Undercover cop Frank Mackey appeared in both IN THE WOODS and THE LIKENESS, but here he is the narrator, sucked back into his former life when the corpse of the girl he’d once planned to elope with to England is discovered on his old stomping ground, Faithful Place in inner city Dublin. As always, French is as exercised by the psychology of criminality as she is by the investigation of the mystery, and the result is a gripping, literate thriller laced with black humour.
  The latest in her Inspector Sejer series, Karin Fossum’s BAD INTENTIONS (Harvill Secker, £11.99, pb) is another novel that trades heavily in the psychology of the criminal mind. Fossum sets up a scenario in which no actual crime is committed when a young man steps off a boat into a lake, to subsequently drown, but explores instead the morality of those who were with him as they finesse the details to their own advantage. Tautly told in a crisp translation from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund, the story is a riveting exploration of the consequences of crime, a whydunit rather than the traditional whodunit.
  Two aging brothers are murdered within hours of one another in RIVER OF SHADOWS (MacLehose Press, £18.99, pb), the debut from Italian author Valerio Varesi. Commissario Soneri investigates against an atmospheric backdrop of a wintry northern Italy, as the Po floods its banks. The plot neatly explores the ramifications of the Italy’s internal Fascist-Communist struggle during WWII, and Joseph Farrell’s translation is appropriately poetic, but Soneri himself is rather less fascinating, being yet another in a long line of urbane, sybaritic Italian detectives. Surely there are Italian policeman who are not obsessed with their stomachs?
  Equally atmospheric is Alan Furst’s SPIES OF THE BALKANS (W&N, £18.99, hb), the 11th in his ‘Night Soldiers’ novels, which are set in Eastern Europe prior to and during WWII. Set in Salonika in 1940, undercover policeman Costa Zannis awaits the inevitable invasion of Greece by Italian forces, and finds himself drawn into establishing an underground railway for Jewish refugees fleeing Germany. The literary style belies a deftly paced plot in an old-fashioned spy thriller more reminiscent of John Le Carré and Graham Greene than Ian Fleming. Highly recommended.
  Jeff Lindsay’s DEXTER IS DELICIOUS (Orion, £12.99, hb) is the fifth in his series about a homicidal Florida psychopath who harnesses his urges and only kills for the good of society. The twist here is that Dexter, who can barely describe himself as human, has his entire life overthrown when his wife gives birth to a baby daughter. Struggling to deal with emotions for the first time, Dexter has to deal with the appearance of his equally homicidal brother, all the while helping to investigate what appears to be a cannibalism spree. Lashings of gallows humour help to sugar the pill, but even though the tale moves swiftly towards its climax, it’s difficult to ignore the nagging thought that Dexter might well have outlived his novelty.
  DON’T BLINK (Century, £18.99, hb) is the latest offering from James Patterson, co-written with Howard Roughan. Magazine journalist Nick Daniels is plunged into peril when he goes to interview a former baseball player at a New York restaurant, only to witness the Mafia lawyer at the next table get his eyes gouged out. The usual Patterson tropes of very short chapters and cliff-hanger endings help to move the action along at a furious pace, but the characters couldn’t have been more crudely drawn had Patterson and Roughan used crayons and cardboard. The story somehow manages to be utterly implausible and entirely predictable, and has all the literary merit of a laundry list. If you’re in the mood for a migraine, this is the book for you.
  Ruth Rendell is one of the few authors who can claim to be as prolific as the James Patterson factory, although, despite publishing her first novel in 1964, she has yet to learn how to pander to her readers. TIGERLILY’S ORCHIDS (Hutchinson, £18.99, hb) features a host of characters, all of whom live in or near the flats of Lichfield House in north London, most of whom have their lives impacted by a number of crimes that occur in the locality, ranging in seriousness from identity theft to marijuana farming to murder. It’s by no means a conventional crime novel; in fact, it’s much more a social novel that incorporates criminal activity. That the tale succeeds brilliantly on both levels is due to Rendell’s telling eye for detail when it comes to characterisation, a quietly elegant style, an acerbic take on modern Britain and an irrepressible delight in storytelling that results in a novel bursting at the seams with ideas, narrative digressions and twists and turns that are as heartbreaking as they are unexpected. In a nutshell, a wonderfully satisfying novel. - Declan Burke
  This article first appeared in The Irish Times