“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.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What’s Up, Docx?

Edward Docx (right) had a piece in Sunday’s Observer, in which he pointed out that Dan Brown and Stieg Larsson aren’t much cop when compared to literary geniuses. He won’t get much argument about that here, but Docx then went on to trash pretty much all genre fiction, and claim that literary fiction is innately superior to any other kind of fiction, but crime fiction in particular, on the basis that genre fiction is constrained by conventions that must be adhered to by the genre writer, whereas the literary writer is free to write whatever he or she likes.
  Predictably enough, the crime fic spectrum of the blogosphere is up in arms about Docx’s temerity in dissing crime fiction. And, as always, I can’t help but wonder if the virulent reaction to the piece isn’t ever so slightly coloured by some kind of inferiority complex. I mean, it’s not as if we haven’t heard variations on this theme countless times before, and yet every time some self-proclaimed literary writer mounts this particular hobby horse, the peasants are out en masse waving torches and pitchforks. Really, shouldn’t that sore spot, so often rubbed up the wrong way, have developed a callus at this stage?
  It’s only my opinion, of course, but I reckon the only reasonable response to Docx’s piece, and to the next one, and the one after that, etcetera, ad nauseam, is this:
*yawns*
*scratches oxter*
*wonders why literary writers get so het up about crime fiction if it’s so crap*
*thinks about boiling kettle*
*wonders why genre writers don’t get so het up about literary fiction, and if maybe it’s because they’re too busy writing*
*yawns*
*scratches oxter*

“Ya Wanna Do It Here Or Down The Station, Punk?”: RJ Ellory

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?
IN COLD BLOOD by Truman Capote. No doubt about it. And I know it’s not a ‘novel’ per se, but what the hell? That’s the one for me!

What fictional character would you most like to have been?
Holmes. For the coke and the opium and the violin-playing. No, seriously, just for the sheer intellect of the man.

Who do you read for guilty pleasures?
Anything by Annie Proulx. And it’s a guilty pleasure because I’m supposed to read Chandler and Hammett and Cain, not someone who writes homo-erotic cowboy stories!

Most satisfying writing moment?
When A QUIET BELIEF IN ANGELS was selected for Richard and Judy, because I knew it would open the door to translations, further publishing contracts, and a future. For me, it was as if I suddenly realized that I might be able to get away with doing this for the rest of my life.

The best Irish crime novel is …?
Impossible to answer. Even ULYSSES has been hailed as a murder mystery so that would have to figure in the ranking. I read Bruen, Burke, McGilloway, Hughes, and they are all superb.

What Irish crime novel would make a great movie?
Not an Irish writer, but it is an Irish novel; THE GOLDEN DOOR by Kerry Jamieson. I say this simply because I possess a profound fascination for New York at this time (Prohibition-era), and it was the Irish who built much of what we now consider to be New York.

Worst / best thing about being a writer?
Best thing is to have been given the privilege to do what you love for a living. Worst thing is the mind-numbing, bone-deep exhaustion of endless touring. Like thirty-two hour journeys back from New Zealand - five flights, nine films, no sleep ...

The pitch for your next book is …?
Orphaned by an act of senseless violence that took their mother from them, half-brothers Clarence Luckman and Elliott Danziger start life with two strikes against them. Raised in state institutions, unaware of any world beyond the confines of rules and regulation, their lives take a sudden turn when they are seized as hostages by a convicted killer en route to his execution. Earl Sheridan, psychopathic murderer, could be their salvation or their downfall. A road trip ensues – Sheridan and the two brothers on the run from the law through California and Texas, but as the journey continues the two brothers must come to terms with the ever-growing tide of violence that follows in their wake, a tide of violence that forces them to make a choice about their lives, and their relationship to one another. Will the brothers manage to elude the dark star that has hung over them since their mother’s death, or will they succumb to the pull of Earl Sheridan’s terrifying, but exhilarating vision of the world? Set in the mid 1960s, this is a tale of the darkness within Man, the inherent hope for redemption, and the ultimate consequences of evil.

Who are you reading right now?
DISPATCHES by Michael Herr, FAT CITY by Leonard Gardner and THE DISENCHANTED by Budd Schulberg.

God appears and says you can only write OR read. Which would it be?
Write. No question. No doubt, no hesitation. It’s the only thing that keeps me crazy.

The three best words to describe your own writing are …?
Slow-motion thrillers.

RJ Ellory’s SAINTS OF NEW YORK is published by Orion.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

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

The latest of the Irish Times’ ‘Crime Beat’ columns appeared yesterday, featuring offerings from Patricia Cornwell, Jane Casey, Janet Evanovich, Philip Kerr, Michael Connelly and Anne Holt, along with your humble host’s take on the Top 10 Thrillers of the Year. To wit:
Patricia Cornwell is credited with kick-starting the current craze for the forensic pathology sub-genre in crime fiction, and her heroine Kay Scarpetta is again ahead of the curve in PORT MORTUARY (Little, Brown, £18.99, hb). Scarpetta employs a 3D system of imaging to help her autopsy the latest murder victim to wind up on her table, but it’s the victim’s use of innovative technology that appears to be the motive behind his killing. Is the US military involved in the murder? And is it a coincidence that the man was killed a stone’s throw from Scarpetta’s front door? Cornwell’s terse prose drives a complex tale of unravelling conspiracy theories, in which Scarpetta is unable to trust even her closest friends and associates. The pace is slow but measured, with the second half building to an unstoppable momentum, although first-time readers of Cornwell, and those who prefer their heroes flawed, might find it difficult to warm to Scarpetta’s icy-cold demeanour and unquestioned capability in virtually every field she encounters.
  Maeve Kerrigan, the heroine of Jane Casey’s THE BURNING (Ebury Press, £6.99, pb), is the polar opposite to Kay Scarpetta. A 28-year-old detective with the London Metropolitan Police, the ambitious and likeable Kerrigan is prone to the occasional procedural gaffe as she brings a woman’s quality of empathy to her male-dominated workplace during an investigation into a serial killer who immolates his victims. Casey, on the other hand, rarely puts a foot wrong in this enthralling example of a ‘bait-and-switch’ novel, of which the serial killer element is something of a red herring that allows Casey to dig deep into the psyche of an altogether more interesting brand of murder. Parallel first-person narratives from either side of the thin blue line contribute hugely to the novel’s page-turning quality, although the author’s success here is largely due to her superb characterisations. Casey’s debut novel, THE MISSING, was shortlisted in the Irish Book Awards crime section, and THE BURNING confirms that she’s a talent to watch.
  FIELD GREY (Quercus, £17.99, hb) is the seventh in Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series, of which the most recent, IF THE DEAD RISE NOT, won this year’s CWA Ellis Peters Historical Award. Gunther, a policeman in Germany during the 1930s and ’40s, is the focus of what has been dubbed ‘Nazi noir’, although FIELD GREY opens in 1954, with Gunther observing Graham Greene carousing with women in a Havana nightclub. A series of unfortunate events finds Gunther back in Germany and answering to American investigators probing Nazi war crimes, which in turn leads to extended flashbacks in which Gunther describes his trans-European adventures in pursuit of a killer called Erich Mielke, a pursuit that finds Gunther and Mielke crossing paths for the duration of the war. Dotted with historical personages such as Heydrich and Himmler, the novel is impressive in its detail, and harrowing in its description of mass slaughter. Gunther’s fondness for inappropriate quips undermines his authenticity, however, and the detective-cum-soldier’s peripatetic wanderings means that the novel can lack narrative drive.
  Janet Evanovich’s winsome heroine, Stephanie Plum, takes a back seat for her latest offering, WICKED APPETITE (Headline Review, £18.99, hb). Here Lizzy Tucker, singleton and pastry chef supreme, finds her all too normal world turned on its head when a mysterious and handsome stranger called Diesel materialises in her life and announces that he’s on the trail of seven mysterious stones, which will give the evil Gerwulf Grimoire unlimited powers should he manage to collect all seven. As fluffy and insubstantial as Lizzy’s legendary cupcakes, the story appears to be a parody of Harry Potter-style shenanigans, although Evanovich’s reputation for comedy is nowhere evident here. Slight, dull and for the most part needlessly irritating, WICKED APPETITE achieves very little except to sharpen the reader’s craving for a substantial novel.
  The eighth in Anne Holt’s Hanne Wilhelmsen series, although the first to be translated into English, 1222 (Corvus, £12.99, hb) is a far meatier proposition from a former Norwegian Minister for Justice. The wheelchair-bound Wilhelmsen and her fellow passengers find themselves stranded in a remote mountain hotel during a blizzard in the wake of a train crash, and things go from bad to worse when two of the survivors are murdered in quick succession. Can the cerebral Wilhelmsen identify the murderer before the hotel becomes a charnel house? Holt has Wilhelmsen reference Agatha Christie’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE during the course of her musings, and 1222 is indeed a smart homage to the classic ‘locked room’ mystery, which also functions as an examination of Norwegian society in microcosm. While the pace is lively, and the tension expertly handled, Holt’s fondness for red herrings won’t be to every reader’s taste.
  Michael Connelly brings together two of his best-selling characters in THE REVERSAL (Orion, £18.99, hb), as defence lawyer Mickey Haller and detective Harry Bosch team up to ensure that a previously convicted child-killer does not escape justice when his case comes up for a retrial. It’s an outrageous conceit, particularly as Connelly is blending the traditional courtroom drama with a police procedural, and alternates Haller’s first-person narration with a third-person account of Bosch’s investigation, but the novel has a gripping clarity from the off, and very quickly establishes a compelling momentum. Connelly’s experience as an award-winning journalist is revealed in fascinating nuggets of information pertaining to both legal and police work, even as he draws us deeper into the conflicted worlds of Mickey Haller (for once operating ‘across the aisle’ as a prosecution lawyer) and the haunted Harry Bosch. All told, it’s another expertly handled tale from a born storyteller which blazes into an incendiary denouement as the child-killer turns his gaze on Mickey and Harry’s daughters. - Declan Burke


Top 10 Thrillers of the Year

ORCHID BLUE by Eoin McNamee (Faber and Faber, £12.99, pb).
A stunning meditation on the nature of justice, rooted in the real-life murder of Newry shop-girl Pearl Gamble in 1961.

TRICK OF THE DARK by Val McDermid (Little, Brown, £18.99, hb)
Disgraced clinical psychologist Charlie Flint seeks redemption in the pursuit of a possible serial killer.

THE LAST CHILD by John Hart (John Murray, £6.99, pb)
A young boy tracks his twin sister’s abductor in a superb excavation of the prejudices of small town America.

FAITHFUL PLACE by Tana French (Hodder & Stoughton, £12.99, pb)
Undercover policeman Frank Mackey’s past comes back to haunt him when a body is discovered in an inner-city Dublin tenement.

THE SNOWMAN by Jo Nesbo (Vintage, £6.99, pb)
Oslo police detective Harry Hole investigates a killer whose trademark is a snowman in a hard-hitting tale of revenge.

SPIES OF THE BALKANS by Alan Furst (W&N, £18.99, hb)
Subterfuge and intrigue in WWII Greece, as policeman Costa Zannis sets up an underground railway to aid Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany.

PEELER by Kevin McCarthy (Mercier Press, £9.50, pb)
Excellently detailed historical crime novel set in Cork, in which the RIC and IRA chase the same killer during the War of Independence.

STARTED EARLY, TOOK MY DOG by Kate Atkinson (Doubleday, £18.99, hb)
Whimsical but compelling tale of private detective Jackson Brodie’s attempt to trace an abducted child.

CITY OF LOST GIRLS by Declan Hughes (John Murray, £19.99, hb)
Hughes’ series detective investigates a peculiarly Irish morality as a serial killer stalks a Dublin-based movie set.

BAD INTENTIONS by Karin Fossum (Harvill Secker, £11.99, pb)
Inspector Sejer investigates an apparent suicide in Fossum’s latest cerebral take on the nature of crime and punishment.
  This column was first published in the Irish Times.