“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, December 3, 2010

Nobody Move, This Is A Review: MISSING JULIA by Catherine Dunne

Julia Seymour is a retired doctor, an accomplished and independent woman not given to flights of fancy. So when she simply walks out of her life one October morning, her partner, thriller writer William Harris, is devastated. Unable to explain to Julia’s daughter, Melissa, or to himself the reason why Julia might want to leave behind her happy life, and with the Gardai apparently unwilling to get involved, William takes it upon himself to track Julia down. What William discovers during the course of his investigation is a Julia he never even suspected existed - but then, Julia herself is a woman in flight from herself. Told in parallel narratives, Julia and William’s story travels from Dublin to London and on to India, where the truth of Julia’s disappearance is to be found - and perhaps, too, the redemption Julia craves.
  The opening to MISSING JULIA makes for an intriguing hook. A very short prologue establishes the fact that Julia Seymour has something of a haunted history, and then the novel opens with an extended description of Julia’s preparations for her secretive flight. This immediately prompts questions as to why Julia is leaving, and why in such clandestine circumstances; what could such an ostensibly respectable woman such as Julia Seymour have done that would warrant such a dramatic departure?
  Dunne establishes all this, and maintains Julia’s air of secrecy for a good two-thirds of the novel, by writing obliquely about the central issue. Characters Julia meets, most of whom are good friends, are persuaded to help her without asking why she needs help; again and again, Dunne slips away from the core issue by allowing Julia to reminisce about her time with William, or times she spent with her friends as a student doctor in UCD during the ’70s, or by a variety of other methods. Initially compelling, this tactic does become irritating.
  The second strand of the narrative, that of William’s pursuit of Julia, is solidly constructed in the beginning. William was about to propose to Julia when she departed so abruptly, and is left bereft. A retired man, who writes thrillers, he has the time and resources to attempt to find her. In this way, he becomes the kind of character he writes about. As he tells his friend, Jack:
“To be truthful, I think I’m boring myself. I can’t be arsed with villains and police procedure - thrillers just aren’t thrilling me any more.”
  Less convincing, however, is William himself, particularly in his internal monologues. He is, not to put too fine a point on it, too good to be true. Most men finding themselves in his position would very probably have sulked for a few days and stamped around a bit, perhaps believing that Julia had thrown him over for another man. The fact that Julia has left the white queen out of position on the chess board is enough to convince William that things are a little more complicated than that (the thought of another lover never occurs to him, in fact), and is sufficient to tell William that Julia has left him a message beseeching him to follow her.
  Dunne has a pleasingly light style, which is punctuated with deft observations. William, remembering the first time he met Julia, recounts it thus:
“It’s the memory that has been hurting at him all day, insisting that he unfold it, open out its pleats, regard all the glittering contents spread before him.”
  The single word ‘pleats’ is a winner here, suggesting that William is opening memories like old and fabulous maps.
  Another pleasing aspect to the novel is that Dunne is unafraid to take on a big issue. While it takes some time for it to be revealed, euthanasia is for some time the word that dare not speak its name. Has Julia, the dedicated doctor, participated in the assisted death of her friend? If so, how does that square with her principles and philosophy, and with the Socratic oath?
  Dunne doesn’t underplay the seriousness of euthanasia, nor of Julia’s plight, nor of Ireland’s shortcomings when it comes to confronting such ethical issues head-on:
“But the charge is still one of attempted murder. And Ireland is different anyway: this is yet another nettle that people will refuse to grasp. We’ve never faced up to our demons, or our shortcomings.”
  MISSING JULIA is for the most part an intelligent and challenging novel. I was ultimately disappointed, however, for the very reason that Dunne is obviously a very smart writer, and yet she glosses over a crucial issue early in the novel. In any such case of a woman going missing so suddenly, and without even saying goodbye to her daughter, the husband, or partner, would find himself suspected of her disappearance. Dunne, however, needs William to be free and mobile so that he can pursue Julia and bring to light her murky past, and so she neglects to address this issue head-on. That may well sound like a minor niggle, but given that the rest of the novel is predicated on William being above suspicion (none of Julia’s friends, as he meets them, seem to be overly concerned that William might have done away with Julia, or acted in a way that might have driven her to flight), it is in fact a rather large omission, and undermines Dunne’s narrative throughout.
  If you can overlook that issue, however, MISSING JULIA is an entertaining page-turner with a very potent ethical issue at its heart. - Declan Burke

  MISSING JULIA by Catherine Dunne is published by Macmillan.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

“Ya Wanna Do It Here Or Down The Station, Punk?”: Jim Thompson

Yep, it’s rubber-hose time, folks: a rapid-fire Q&A for those shifty-looking usual suspects ...

What crime novel would you most like to have written?
THE DAY OF THE JACKAL by Frederick Forsyth. The best procedural ever.

What fictional character would you most like to have been?
Belbo, from FOUCAULT’S PENDULUM. He experienced it all. Re-wrote history to his own liking, took part in a grand conspiracy surrounding the Holy Grail, even had a great unrequited love with the beautiful Lorenza Pellegrini. And ultimately failed at everything. I can’t picture myself as a winner take all as fictional character.

Who do you read for guilty pleasures?
I re-read old Graham Greene novels and occasionally weep from frustration because I’ll never write anything to compare to the best of them.

Most satisfying writing moment?
When writing my first published novel, ACROSS THE GREEN LINE, and the second act climax came to me. In my head, I watched the bomb explode, saw the front of the Dome of the Rock burst into flame, watched holy men disintegrate, their eyes melt, their limbs blasted from their bodies, and shed tears of satisfaction.

The best Irish crime novel is …?
ON THE BRINKS by Sam Millar. Actually an autobiography, but a crime story just the same. I’ve never read anything else like it. Most of the Irish literature I read is poetry.

What Irish crime novel would make a great movie?
As above. BRINKS deserves to made into a film as a matter of cultural importance.

Worst / best thing about being a writer?
Worst: public speaking. Best: getting paid to do what I love.

The pitch for your next book is …?
LUCIFER’S TEARS. It’s been a year since the Sufia Elmi case, but Inspector Kari Vaara’s scarred face, chronic migraines, and head full of ghosts serve as daily reminders of that dark Christmas. Vaara has relocated to Helsinki, at the urging of his beautiful American wife, Kate, and now spends sleepless, anxious nights working the graveyard shift in Helsinki homicide, protecting a city that brings him nothing but bad memories. When the gorgeous Iisa Filippov is found tortured to death in the bed of her lover, Vaara and his rookie partner—the brilliant but slightly deranged Milo—are assigned to the case. It’s obvious that Iisa’s lover is being framed for the murder, and her husband, a powerful Russian businessman, seems the most likely suspect. But Mr. Fillipov is being protected from above, and as Vaara follows the trail of evidence—fueled by a good deal of vodka and very little sleep, in the typical Vaara fashion—he is led deep into a realm of political corruption, twisted obsessions, and deeply buried family secrets. At the same time, Kari is assigned to investigate Arvid Lahtinen, a ninety-year-old national hero now being accused of war crimes during World War II. Vaara learns that, contrary to the accepted historical record, Finland actually colluded with the Germans in the extermination of Communists and Jews—and Arvid is the last living soldier to have served in a secret POW camp on Finnish soil. The Interior Minister demands that Kari—whose late, beloved grandfather, Ukki, is also implicated in the crimes—prove Arvid innocent, and preserve Finland’s heroic image of itself and its role in the war. But that may turn out to be easier said than done. As the two investigations begin to boil over, an extended visit from Kate’s dour sister and degenerate brother cause uneasiness at home. Pressure is mounting on all sides, and Vaara isn’t at all sure he’s going to come out on top—or in one piece—this time. Set against the chilling atmosphere of the coldest winter to hit Finland in over 40 years, LUCIFER’S TEARS is at once a gripping page-turner and a captivating snapshot of a unique culture and its conflicted history. With the tough but troubled Inspector Vaara at its crux, LUCIFER’S TEARS is suspenseful, full-throttle mystery full of thrilling plot twists and intriguing revelations.

Who are you reading right now?
BANDWIDTH by Angus Morrison.

God appears and says you can only write OR read. Which would it be?
Write, without doubt.

The three best words to describe your own writing are …?
Dark, disturbing, honest.

James Thompson’s SNOW ANGELS is published by Putnam.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Burning Ambition

Jane Casey’s (right) debut novel, THE MISSING, was shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards crime fiction category, and her new offering, the very fine THE BURNING, should be landing on a shelf near you right about now. Yours truly met with Jane last week, and a very pleasant experience it was too, for your humble host at least. To wit:
They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and a similar warning should apply to authors. Quietly spoken and impeccably mannered, Jane Casey is a doe-eyed beauty who could well have popped up as some hack writer’s notion of what a serial killer’s victim should look like. Until, that is, she starts to talk about why she was drawn to write about an arsonist-cum-serial killer in her new novel, THE BURNING.
  “My husband is a criminal barrister,” she says, “and he always gets very annoyed when you get this incredibly gothic killer with a complex backstory in books and films. He says, and it’s true, that people who kill in this fashion do it because they enjoy it, full stop. So I wanted to write about the reality of what it’s like to look for someone who just likes to kill.
  “It’s like the case of Levi Bellfield,” she continues, “it all happened quite close to where I used to live in London. It was a really nice area, a part of Richmond, near Twickenham, very expensive, and it was there that he beat two girls to death. He’s an incredibly sinister person, and yet he has no complicated motive for murdering women. He’s just a very violent man. And I wanted to have a character who was just a killer who liked to kill, and how do you find a person like that in a place the size of London? Because they’re not standing on a corner twirling their moustache, or leaving clues for the police to give themselves away.”
  The 33-year-old Casey is Irish born and was raised in Castleknock. “Not very interesting,” she deadpans, “a typical suburb.” Except the suburbs, of course, are where all the quality fictional killers hide out behind their twitching curtains. “Actually, I think the suburbs are really creepy,” she says. “You don’t know what these apparently respectable people are thinking, or how they’re really living.”
  After getting the highest marks in the country in English when she did her Leaving Certificate, Casey had the pleasure of having a medal awarded by Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney.
  “It was just brilliant,” she says. “I sat and listened to him reading his poetry and it was just the most amazing experience. Except my father fell asleep. I could have murdered him! And Heaney obviously spotted this, we were sitting in the fifth row, and as he was winding down he said something very nice about how people had come a long way and were tired of listening to him. Except then he came over and was introduced to us, and asked where we were from, and Dad said, ‘Oh, from just down the road, in Castleknock.’ But Heaney didn’t bat an eyelid. A lovely man.”
  Casey went on to read English at Oxford, and has lived in England for some years now. Her debut novel, THE MISSING, which is set in London, was shortlisted for the Crime Fiction section in this year’s Irish Book Awards.
  “I know that people always says this, and that it can sound trite, but it really does mean so much to me to be included,” she says. “Mainly, I think, because a lot of people didn’t realise I am Irish, and it’s nice to have it recognised that I am, even though THE MISSING is set in London, and it has a totally English cast.
  “THE BURNING is a bit different,” she says, “because Maeve Kerrigan has an Irish background, and it draws from the two cultures, playing them off one against the other, which is something I’ll be looking to do more of in later books.”
  “Somebody who’s quite young and ambitious, and trying her best to get her head around the job,” according to Casey, Maeve Kerrigan is the heroine of THE BURNING, a woman who isn’t particularly skilled in any one sphere of policing but brings a rare quality of empathy to the way she goes about her job. Despite her telling eye for detail, Maeve is always likely to be battling for credibility with her male workmates.
  “I think for women working in that kind of environment, they have some stark choices,” says Casey. “They can either be very girly or they can be quite butch, or they can try and just be neutral. Maeve is trying to be taken seriously, she doesn’t want to be seen as one of the girlies going off and acting as bait for the killer - she’s one of the lads, in her mind at least. But of course, they don’t care about that. And she’s always coming up against that.”
  If Maeve Kerrigan is at times a contradiction in terms, so too is Jane Casey’s writing. A children’s books editor who took an mPhil in Anglo-Irish literature at Trinity College, THE BURNING somehow manages to blend a horrifyingly authentic tale of arson and serial killing with a deceptively light storytelling touch that is studded with nuggets of the blackest humour.
  “I think it was partly the desire to keep it entertaining,” she says, “to keep a little bit of Maeve’s humour coming through. Police officers generally use humour to get through the things that they’re dealing with, and I think the banter is very important. I think that that’s something that Kate Atkinson does very well, that ability to entertain you as she’s telling the story, and I think you can let the story have that light touch it you want, and still deal with big themes and have dark events.”

  Jane Casey’s THE BURNING is published by the Ebury Press.
  This interview was first published in the Evening Herald.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Nobody Move, This Is A Review: FREEDOM by Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen’s fourth novel centres on the Berglund family, who live in St. Paul, Minnesota, as the novel opens. Married couple Patty and Walter are sterling examples of post-Baby Boomer America, liberal in thought and deed, environmentally friendly, thriving in the self-renovated old home and rearing their children, Joey and Jessica, with hands-on parenting.
  A third character, Richard, proves the undoing of their idealistic lifestyle. Walter’s former college roommate, Richard is a musician who initially caught Patty’s eye in college. Despite his selfish ways, particularly in terms of his many relationships, Richard is drawn to boring old Walter in a chalk-and-cheese relationship. As Richard’s fame grows, and her children grow up to achieve independence, Patty finds herself more and more unable to quiet her lustful thoughts for Richard.
  The fourth main character is Joey, who is something of a parallel character to Richard, given that he is attractive, self-sufficient, and sexually advanced from a young age. As the millennium turns, and the Bush administration comes to power when Joey goes to college, Joey confirms his rejection of his parents’ values by becoming an entrepreneurial Republican who makes a decision to benefit financially from the Iraq invasion.
  Jonathan Franzen has a very deft touch when it comes to establishing character, and the most fascinating character in FREEDOM is Patty, which is somewhat surprising, given that she begins the novel as an apparently passive suburban mother-of-two who is content to be a stay-at-home mother. Naturally, given that this state of affairs wouldn’t lend itself to any great conflict or tension, Patty’s character quickly becomes more proactive - or perhaps passive-aggressive is a better way to describe it.
  One of the most enjoyable aspects of FREEDOM is the Autobiography of Patty Berglund, which Patty writes at her therapist’s suggestion. Here Franzen delves deeply into Patty’s psyche, or far more deeply than he does any other character in the novel, even though he uses a curiously distancing third-person technique for the strands of the novel that comprise Patty’s autobiography, which amounts to a confession of her betrayal of her husband, Walter. This distancing technique (‘The autobiographer wonders if one reason why Joyce’s voice always trembles is from struggling so hard all her life to not sound like Brooklyn.’) should be off-putting, but in fact it’s a compelling aspect to the story, because the reader is automatically put on notice that Patty is using this tone in order to distance herself from her actions, which are (presumably) so traumatising that she can’t bring herself to write them in the first-person.
  Franzen’s other main characters are less interesting, however. Walter, despite his ability to reconfigure his life and become a conflicted conservationist, is something of a cliché despite Franzen’s best efforts. His relationship with the ardent young conservationist Lalitha, for example, which comes to dominate the latter half of Walter’s narrative, resembles the feverish fantasy of the older man, the conscious and knowing echoes of ‘Lolita’ in Lalitha’s name notwithstanding. Perhaps it’s the fact that Franzen has written the besotted, beautiful, intelligent Lalitha as too perfect a cipher for Walter’s mid-life crisis, but a cipher she is, and no less a cliché in her own right than if Walter had simply renounced his conservationism instead of his marriage, and gone out and bought a bright red Ferrari.
  The third corner of the love triangle, the reluctant rock star Richard, is a more subtly drawn character than Walter, but again he’s something of a male fantasy figure. Irresistible to women, Richard is a gifted musician with a magnetic appeal to women and men alike. Despite his rock star ambitions, however, which generally involve a hefty dose of self-indulgent ego, Richard is unusually self-aware, and is also unusually gentle and sensitive. When the young Patty more or less throws herself at Richard during a road-trip, Richard gently steers her back towards Walter, despite the fact that Patty and Walter aren’t an item at this point. Later, when Richard finally achieves the success he has craved all along, albeit in as a kind of cult hero who becomes successful almost by default, he performs an about-face, unable or unwilling to deal with the pressures of fame. It’s to Franzen’s credit that he doesn’t impose a kind of rock star martyrdom a la Kurt Cobain on Richard, but the fact that Richard abandons his career to go roofing houses and patios is so faux-humble that it negates any authenticity Richard has built up to this point.
  Arguably the most interesting character in the novel is Walter and Patty’s son, Joey. Indulged as a child (whereas his sister Jessica is kept on a tighter rein), Joey grows up to reject his parents’ liberal middle-class values, and as a young man makes a valiant attempt to financially benefit from the war in Iraq. Here, at least, we have conflict made manifest, and Joey’s internal monologues, in which he debates the merits or otherwise of conforming to expectations, particularly in terms of his commitment (or otherwise) to his childhood sweetheart Connie, have a ring of authenticity that is all too often lacking elsewhere.
  It’s entirely possible, given that title, and the fact that a number of characters appear to be variations on cliché, that we’re being invited to read the novel ironically. That Franzen wants us to snigger at his emotionally stunted suburban creatures, who bumble along wrapped up in their kitchen-sink drama, only occasionally raising their gaze from their spot-lit navels to take cognizance of what has been a fairly dramatic decade in American history. If that’s the case, it’s a very strained and thin kind of irony, and one which fails to skewer its suburban heartland.
  The novel is very much concerned with themes that spring from the ‘personal-is-political’. Walter’s compromises on the environment, for example, mirror the compromises he makes in his personal relationships. Joey’s decision to embrace the free-market philosophy of Republicanism equates with his rejection of his parents’ Clinton-era liberalism.
  Very similar in tone and themes (and even title) to Milan Kundera’s THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING, Franzen’s FREEDOM details the personal struggle to live and thrive according to a particular philosophy in the messy confusion that is day-to-day existence. The underlying theme appears to be one of a plea for compromise, whether that’s in the personal, domestic, political or artistic fields. That might well be a fair comment to make on an American political system that has grown hugely fractured ever since George Bush jnr ascended to the White House, and has intensified even more with Barack Obama’s presidency, but a novel that preaches common sense values such as the need for compromise is never going to be the most exciting of reads, particularly as the novel as a narrative form thrives on conflict.
  It’s true that, while there is plenty of conflict in FREEDOM, most of it is internalised, in that most of the conflict is generated by people who are in conflict with themselves, with values that have grown outdated or are no longer useful, or practical. This provides Franzen with plenty of material for extended internal monologues, of which Patty’s autobiography is an example, but it does little to enhance the pace and momentum of the overall story.
  That Franzen, hailed as a great American novelist, should write a story that is essentially so small in terms of its scale, despite the fact that American has been through 9/11, two wars, an economic meltdown, is something of a major disappointment. Adam Haslett’s UNION ATLANTIC, which was published earlier this year and covered much of the same territory as FREEDOM, is a much more mature and provocative novel.
  Overall, FREEDOM is a solid novel that is competently written (although Franzen displays little flair for ambitious language), but one that is far from compelling. Written by a debutant, it would suggest promise - although, if written by a debutant, it would have been heavily edited down from its rather extensive 562 pages. As a novel from the man hailed as the Great American Novelist, however, FREEDOM is something of a disappointment, drab in places, self-indulgent in others, and only fitfully fascinating. - Declan Burke