“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, September 25, 2010

The Digested Read: THE JOURNEY by Tony Blair

Yep, it’s that time of the week again. Herewith be the latest in an increasingly improbable line of Digested Reads, aka the Book du Jour in 300 words. This week: THE JOURNEY by Tony Blair (hey, is it just me, or does Tone look a lot like John McEnroe these days? No?). Anyhoo, roll it there, Collette

THE JOURNEY

“Wotcher, mates!
  “Tone here, Tony Blair. I haven’t gone away, y’know! Just like my bestest buddies Gerry ‘n’ Martin. Lovely guys. I like them more than I should, really. But hey, everyone makes a few mistakes. Am I right? You know I am!
  “So I met Cherie at Oxford. Like an animal in bed, I was. A ring-tailed lemur, to be precise.
  “Ah, Oxford. I even played a little pick-up guitar. Rock ‘n’ Roll! Hey, did you know Bill Clinton played sax? I’m just saying.
  “So, yeah, New Labour. Jeez, it’s not like I set out to destroy the party. And anyone can make a mistake, am I right? You know I am!
  “Gosh, though, when I think back now. The Queen, eh? Lovely woman. I liked her more than I should have, really. But that’s us closet Conservatives for you. Hey, anyone can make a mistake, right?
  “Anyway, that whole New Labour wheeze … Look, what I actually said was, ‘Let’s run a Con past the electorate.’ Was it my fault Gordon thought I meant ‘con’? Mandy knew what I meant. Eh, Mand? Down, girl, sorry, boy!
  “But listen, while we’re on the subject of Gordon … He was a politician, okay? Of all people, he should have known what a politician’s promise is worth. Caveat emptor, chaps. Am I right? Rock ‘n’ roll!
  “So, yeah, Iraq. Look, between you and me, there’s what you know and what you believe you know and what you know you believe you know you believe. And you weren’t there at that meeting. Me, George and God. I can’t reveal the deets, obviously, but let me put it this way - Saddam don’t play no pick-up guitar. Iraq ‘n’ Roll!
  “Northern Ireland? Don’t mention it. No, seriously - don’t mention Northern Ireland. Cherie gets a migraine. Big Ian’s accent, apparently.
  “Gosh, peeps, it’s been a journey. Not entirely unlike that band, Journey. All together now: Don’t stop / be-lee-vin’ / Hold on to the fee-e-lin’ / Streetlights peeps
  “Rock ‘n’ Roll!”

  The Digested Read, In One Line: The Blair Snitch Project.

  This article first appeared in the Evening Herald.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Nobody Move, This Is A Review: SEAN CONNERY: THE MEASURE OF A MAN by Christopher Bray

Beware the double meaning of that subtitle. The conventional reading, of course, is that Bray is taking the measure of his subject, although the biographer does not pretend that his appraisal of Connery will be rigorously objective. Connery, writes Bray, had at an early age ‘showed me a vision of the man I wanted to be.’
  Given that Bray was a boy when he first saw Connery play James Bond in ‘Diamonds are Forever’ (1971), this is entirely understandable. In his introduction, however, Bray gives the subtitle another reading. Quoting the film critic Pauline Kael, Bray claims that every man born in the past half-century or so wants to be Sean Connery when he grows up. The implicit suggestion is that Connery’s masculinity is the standard against which all men must measure themselves, particularly in terms of Connery’s most famous role. “If part of wanting to be Connery is wanting to be Bond,” Bray writes, “the whole of wanting to be Bond is wanting to be Connery.”
  What’s fascinating about Bray’s book is Connery’s love-hate relationship with the character that made him a star, yet pigeonholed him as a particular kind of actor. Unfortunately for Bray, that’s well-worn ground, as the author is well aware. In further defining his remit, he claims that, “ … this is a book about the [Bond] movies and what they have done to us.” A leap of faith allows Bray to assert that the early Bond movies were something of a fulcrum upon which the business (if not the art) of filmmaking turned. He then spends the rest of the book analysing the films of the star’s post-Bond career by judging each new project against what Bray describes as ‘Connery’s languorously insurrectionary take on what he saw as this jumped-up imperialist bore.’
  This insistence on comparing all of Connery’s post-Bond work to ‘Dr No’ (1962) and ‘From Russia With Love’ (1963) begins to grate very quickly. Moreover, Bray is often unnecessarily wordy as he strains to ascribe significance to some of Connery’s more mundane celluloid outings. One use of ‘synecdoche’ is happenstance, if we can paraphrase Ian Fleming, and twice bad editing; a third usage suggests that Bray is as guilty as Connery when he wonders ‘whether Connery’s fondness for [Ingmar] Bergman might not consist largely in a belief that seriousness is the same thing as significance.’
  It almost goes without saying that Bray does not penetrate the Connery mystique to any great extent. “What strikes you most about Connery is his sheer down-to-earth ordinariness,” Bray observes two pages short of the end of the book, although given how little Bray has excavated of Connery’s off-screen persona other than his well-known passions for golf, football and Scottish nationalism, that’s hardly surprising. The star’s son Jason gets one blink-and-you-miss-it reference, for example.
  That said, Connery is notorious for not collaborating with biographers, so Bray’s account is not unusual in that respect. The result, however, is something of a cut-and-paste compilation of second- and third-hand sources, woven together by Bray’s exuberant enthusiasm for his subject matter, which is at times exhilarating, at others downright repellent.
  It’s when Bray goes to bat for Connery over allegations of domestic violence that the reader gets a sour taste in the mouth. First the author glosses over the suggestion that Connery deliberately struck co-star Gina Lollobrigida on the set of ‘Woman of Straw’ (1964) (“It’s possible,” comments Bray, “that there might have been something to the rumours of on-set enmity between [the] two stars.”). Later, he closely parses the vivid account given by Connery’s first wife, Diane Cilento, of her husband’s assault towards the end of the shoot for ‘The Hill’ (1965). “Alas,” concludes Bray, “she hid herself away so well that no one has ever been able to corroborate this story.”
  Connery’s infamous interview with Playboy magazine, on the other hand, is a matter of record. “I don’t think there is anything particularly wrong about hitting a woman,” Connery told journalist David Lewin in 1965, “although I don’t recommend doing it in the same way that you’d hit a man.”
  Here Bray jumps through a number of hoops on behalf of his hero, first suggesting that such comments were not out of the ordinary at the time, before going on to define the question and answer ‘in narrowly legalistic’ terms, before finally asserting that, “Connery nowhere advocates the hitting of women” (italics Bray’s).
  Such ‘narrowly legalistic’ nit-picking, however, is completely at odds with Bray’s unabashed eulogising of Connery’s ability to humanise the sadistic, quasi-fascistic James Bond for a mainstream audience. It’s also the kind of self-serving double-think that allows Bray to gush as if in a homo-erotic frenzy about Connery’s physical presence, even as he rues the quality of most of the actor’s post-Bond output.
  In a nutshell, this is the perfect book for that audience that still believes Sean Connery is God’s gift to the Silver Screen. Unfortunately for Christopher Bray, that audience is likely to consist only of Christopher Bray. - Declan Burke

  This review was first published in the Sunday Business Post.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

I Wish I Was Back Home In Derry

Gerard Brennan (right), the ever affable host of Crime Scene Norn Iron, drops a line to see if I’ll plug Derry’s ‘Night of Crime’, which takes place at Derry Central Library tomorrow evening, September 24th. To wit:
Thanks to the City’s first ever Culture Night, Libraries NI, in partnership with Derry City Council, is inviting fans of crime thrillers along to Derry Central Library’s ‘Night of Crime’ event.
  Over half a million people are expected to explore and engage with culture on the evening of 24th September and at this Derry Central Library event, fans of crime thrillers will be able to enjoy readings by two renowned local authors of crime fiction, Eoin McNamee and Stuart Neville, who read from their work from 8pm to 9.30pm. This will be followed by an open discussion, led by Gerard Brennan of the blog Crime Scene NI, about the emerging crime writing scene in Northern Ireland.
  Trisha Ward, Business Manager with Libraries NI explains:
  “Culture Night is a night of entertainment, discovery and adventure and Derry Central Library is proud to be involved. Arts and cultural organisation, including libraries, will open their doors with hundreds of free events, tours, talks and performances for you, your family and friends to enjoy – and Libraries NI is delighted to be working with Derry City council to make this ‘A Night of Crime’ event, featuring respected crime thriller novelists and bloggers, a success.”
  Eoin McNamee, is originally from Kilkeel, County Down and saw his first book, the novella THE LAST OF DEEDS, shortlisted for the Irish Times Literature Prize. In his new novel, ORCHID BLUE, due out in November, he returns to the territory of his acclaimed Booker longlisted THE BLUE TANGO. The evening will include readings from this book as well as from the crime fiction titles McNamee has published under the name John Creed.
  Stuart Neville burst onto the crime writing scene in 2009 with his Belfast set novel THE TWELVE. The sequel to that award- winning debut, COLLUSION, has just been published. Both books confront in an unsparing manner post-ceasefire Northern Ireland.
  Gerard Brennan, of the Crime Scene NI blog, will also be in the library to chair the event and to stimulate discussion. He has edited REQUIEMS FOR THE DEPARTED, published earlier this year, an anthology of short stories inspired by tales from Irish mythology. His work is due to appear in the MAMMOTH BOOK OF BEST BRITISH CRIME 2010.
  For all the details, clickety-click here …
  I’ve said it here before, and no doubt I’ll be saying it again, but ORCHID BLUE and COLLUSION are two excellent novels from writers who have important things to say about Northern Ireland, past and present. Should be a cracking night …

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Very Irish Noir

Some whippersnapper called Otto Penzler has been making predictions about the ‘Future Masters of Noir’, and of the five tipped for the top (or bottom, if you’re being noir-ish about it), two are Irish. Not bad going, chaps. The two are Ken Bruen and Stuart Neville (right), authors of the recently published THE DEVIL and COLLUSION, respectively, and while I’m certainly not going to quibble about the inclusion of either, you’d have to question the bit about Ken Bruen being a ‘future’ master of noir. Which is to say, Sir Kenneth of Bruen has been writing some of the most provocative noir for the best part of 20 years now - although Otto does hedge his bets a little there, suggesting that Ken is already a master, even if the mainstream has yet to embrace his bleak, twisted vision of the world.
  Anyhoo, it’s all kinds of good news for both men, and well deserved to boot. For the full list of Penzler’s ‘Masters of Noir’, clickety-click here
  Meanwhile, Stuart Neville had a piece on ‘Emerald Noir’ published in the Sunday Tribune last weekend, and a fine piece it is too, with Stuart waxing lyrical on the origins of the current boom in Irish crime writing and invoking names such as John Connolly, Declan Hughes, Adrian McKinty, Colin Bateman, Ken Bruen, Arlene Hunt, Gene Kerrigan and FL Green. Quoth Stuart:
“Perhaps the blossoming of home-grown crime fiction can be better explained by a change in attitude, rather than circumstance. Having more money in our pockets, however fleetingly, was a symptom of change, rather than a cause. The simultaneous transformations of the Celtic Tiger and the peace process went hand-in-hand with a deeper, more permanent shift that occurred on this island: Ireland, north and south, began to look outward rather than inward. With that change came a greater willingness, particularly in the Republic, to discuss and confront the uglier aspects of its own history, such as state and church abuse against children.”
  For the rest, clickety-click here

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Origins: Alan Glynn

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: Alan Glynn (right), author of WINTERLAND. To wit:
“Origins? It seems to me that that’s just a fancy way of asking the dreaded question: where do you get your ideas from? (A question second only in dread to: what’s your book about?). Whenever I’m asked the first question I try hard to answer it, but I generally end up feeling like a bit of a fraud, as though I’ve made an answer up on the spot just to keep things moving. Because the thing is, by the time I arrive at the end of a book I usually find I’ve forgotten how it got started, its origins obscured somewhere in memory and almost inaccessible now through thickets of notes, outlines, obsessive but often unnecessary research and a seemingly endless process of re-writing.
  “Thinking back on answers I’ve given, though, a pattern emerges. The account I offer will either be fine-sounding and rational or slightly random and mechanistic – left brain, right brain stuff. Both do the job, and neither, I suspect, is actually untrue. It’s just that I can never be sure which came first . . .
  “For example, when asked about my first novel, THE DARK FIELDS, I would say either one of two things. I would say that it arose from an interest in the scandals of the late ’90s regarding performance-enhancing drugs in sport, and that it was a sort of ‘what if . . .’ story – what if there existed a performance-enhancing drug for lawyers or businessmen or politicians? Out of which came questions about that very American theme of the perfectability of man and the notion of a latter-day Gatsby, whose impulse for self-improvement has been reduced to a pharmaceutical commodity.
  “Or I would say that it arose from . . . not much at all, from a desperate scrambling around inside my own brain for SOMETHING TO WRITE ABOUT. So . . . a situation. Maybe two guys who bump into each other on the street. One is a bit desperate (like I am at the time) and he meets . . . who? His ex-brother-in-law? Someone he hasn’t seen in nearly ten years? Yeah, that’s the ticket. But now that I have them together what are they going to talk about? What have you been up to? Still dealing? Not exactly. How about you? Still a loser? One thing leads to another and before you know it they’re having a conversation. Possibilities are opening up. And – quite literally – the whole book comes out of that.
  “With WINTERLAND I would say that I was fascinated by the idea of a skyscraper that had an in-built structural flaw and of having that represent the greedy aspirations of a society spinning out of all moral control. Or . . . I’d say that the book started with the disconnected image of some people sitting in a beer garden having to listen to a car alarm outside, and slowly realizing that the car belongs to a young gangland thug sitting in their midst who refuses to go out and switch it off.
  “With my new novel, BLOODLAND, was it reading Michela Wrong’s IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF MR KURTZ and wanting to explore the direct line from ivory and rubber extraction in the Congo over a hundred years ago to the extraction of coltan today? Or was it simply wanting to kick-start a whole novel with just these two words: ‘Phone rings.’
  “Well? Was it?
  “As Rocky Balboa once said, “I don’t know, you know, who knows?”
  “It’s a weird process and Edgar Allen Poe describes it best in an essay called ‘The Philosophy of Composition’. He suggests going behind the scenes of a work-in-progress and taking a peep, ‘at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought - at the true purposes seized only at the last moment - at the innumerable glimpses of idea that arrived not at the maturity of full view - at the fully matured fancies discarded in despair as unmanageable . . .’
  “Ouch. But it sounds about right.
  “Having finished BLOODLAND, it won’t be long before I’m heading back once more into the thickets. But every time I do this, I try to convince myself that there must be a form of insurance policy you can take out to guarantee safe passage to the other side, that there must be some help available – a GPS system for novelists, say, or at the very least a how-to manual that actually works . . .
  “It’s amazing how much time you can devote to this sort of stuff – and for devote, of course, read waste. I think what happens is that one day you realize you have started, you’re somewhere, and the only way to go is forward. By the time you’re secure enough to look back the starting point will invariably seem distant and fuzzy.
  “But then, when you get asked about it later on, you can always come up with something – a handy retrofit based on what eventually emerges . . . either that or a half-remembered fragment, a shard, dreamlike but telling, that might very well be the actual starting point, that might very well be the truth. But hey, one way or the other, who’s going to contradict you, right?” - Alan Glynn
Alan Glynn’s WINTERLAND is published by Faber and Faber.

Monday, September 20, 2010

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

Being the latest in a series of columns on crime writing compiled by your humble scribe, which appeared in Saturday’s edition of the Irish Times. To wit:
On the Trail of the Killers

The complex nature of its hierarchies can make the world of Italian policing a daunting place for the inexperienced reader, but making a virtue of such complexities while also rendering them accessible is one of the strengths of Conor Fitzgerald’s debut offering, THE DOGS OF ROME (Bloomsbury Publishing, £11.99). Called to investigate the apparent murder of a Senator’s husband, Commissario Alec Blume quickly finds himself tip-toeing through a singularly Roman political minefield. Fitzgerald is an Irish writer long domiciled in Rome, Blume is an American-born Chief Inspector, and both men bring their sceptical outsider’s eye to bear on a city in which the art of compromise is as essential as oxygen. Written in a spare but elegant style, THE DOGS OF ROME is a very promising debut indeed.
  Yvonne Cassidy’s THE OTHER BOY (Hachette Books Ireland, £12.99) is another Irish debut, a novel of suspense that aims to bridge the gap between the conventional crime novel and more mainstream fare. JP Whelan should be the happiest man in London when his girlfriend Katie gets pregnant, but then JP’s brother Dessie appears, threatening to blow the lid on the ugly truth of JP’s youth. Cassidy ratchets up the tension as Dessie tightens his grip on JP’s life, all the while offering flashback snippets of what happened back in Dublin when the brothers were boys. Fans of Tana French will find much to enjoy here, even if Cassidy’s prose lacks French’s ambition and inventiveness.
  Jan Costin Wagner’s second novel, SILENCE (Harvill Secker, £12.99), is set in Finland, and opens with an extended prologue in which an unidentified man is party to the rape and murder of a young girl. When a similar crime takes place in the same spot 33 years later, Detective Kimmo Joentaa calls on the experience of his recently retired partner Ketola, whose first big case was the original crime. Wagner delivers his tale in a taut, dry style, utilising multiple points of view to explore the psychology of criminality from both sides of the thin blue line. Similar in tone to Henning Mankell’s early Wallander novels, this one drifts up off the page with all the deadly intensity of mustard gas.
  Matt Rees’s series protagonist Omar Yussef generally prowls the mean streets of Palestine, but his fourth outing, THE FOURTH ASSASSIN (Atlantic Books, £11.99), finds him in New York as part of a Palestinian delegation to the United Nations. There, Yussef is reunited with his son, only to discover that one of his son’s friends has been brutally murdered. Plodding the bitterly cold thoroughfares of Brooklyn, Yussef must track down the killer before his son is framed for the crime, all the while striving to subvert a Jihadi assassination plot. Rees’s first novel won the CWA ‘New Blood Dagger’ in 2008, and Omar Yussef remains hugely enjoyable company, equal parts fussy Poirot and the tarnished knight of Philip Marlowe. As always, Yussef’s love of Muslim culture, and the irascible temperament that allows him to poke fun at himself and his co-religionists, makes for a winning blend.
  Simon Johnson gets attacked in his apartment one night by a doppelganger who wants him dead. That’s all the information payroll accountant Simon has to work with in Ryan David Jahn’s second novel, LOW LIFE (Macmillan, £12.99), as he sets out to discover who might have ordered his killing, and why. Fans of noirish tales of paranoia by the likes of Gil Brewer and David Goodis will enjoy the Kafkaesque twists and doom-laden tone, but the appeal of Jahn’s tale quickly begins to pall as the improbable absurdities pile up.
  A town on an island off the Icelandic coast long buried by a volcanic eruption yields some macabre artefacts when its excavation begins, in particular the three corpses and one severed head discovered in the basement of Markus Magnusson’s old home. Attorney Thora Gudmundsdottir agrees to take up Markus’s case in Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s third novel, ASHES TO DUST (Hodder & Stoughton, £12.99), only to discover that her faith in his innocence looks increasingly misplaced. Sigurdardottir neatly dovetails Thora’s humdrum domestic concerns with the gruesome details she uncovers, and patiently builds up a superbly detailed backdrop to the crime. The sedate pace may frustrate at times, but Sigurdardottir compensates with elegant prose studded with nuggets of mordant humour.
  SAVAGES (William Heinemann, £12.99) is Don Winslow’s fourteenth novel, and reads like a Ken Bruen redraft of Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers. Specialists in manufacturing high quality dope, philanthropist Ben and ex-Navy SEAL Chon go to war with the Baja Cartel as the Mexican drug war spills over the border into Southern California. The tale could have been ripped from yesterday’s headlines, and Winslow’s irreverent style and linguistic pyrotechnics maintain a breathless pace throughout. Given that the pair are in love with the same woman, however, and that all three find themselves at the mercy of a terrifyingly ruthless foe, the tale is frustratingly shallow when it comes to emotional depth.
  Former Whitbread Prize winner Kate Atkinson’s previous offering, WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS?, was something of a phenomenon, and her latest, STARTED EARLY, TOOK MY DOG (Doubleday, £17.99), is a beguiling follow-up. Opening with retired policewoman Tracy Waterhouse ‘buying’ a young girl, the novel expands to incorporate a number of parallel narratives, chief among them private eye Jackson Brodie’s attempt to trace a client’s parentage. Brodie is a recurring character in Atkinson’s novels, and his whimsical internal monologues are only one of the joys to be had in a riveting page-turner that blends biting social commentary with an off-beat take on current developments in both the traditional PI and police procedural novels, even as it harks back to Ripper-era Yorkshire of the 1970s. - Declan Burke
  This article first appeared in The Irish Times.