“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, January 1, 2011

Nobody Move, This Is A Review: SAINTS OF NEW YORK by RJ Ellory

SAINTS OF NEW YORK is a hardboiled police procedural set in contemporary New York, and has for its main protagonist Frank Parrish, who is on the face of it a stereotypical crime fiction protagonist. He is a NYPD detective who is married to the job at the expense of his family; he is divorced from his wife, and has strained relationships with his son and daughter. He is a heavy drinker and has a haunted past which largely relates to his relationship with his dead father, who was a renowned NYPD cop in his time. He has difficulty communicating with those he loves, and is also regarded as something of a loner by his co-workers. He is also under investigation by Internal Affairs, and may well be one wrong move away from being fired.
  By the same token, Ellory is a good enough writer to create a unique character in Frank Parrish. Parrish is compelling in his downward spiral, and the character reminded me very much of a policeman version of Travis Bickle, or of the bad lieutenant played by Harvey Keitel in the movie of the same name, albeit a ‘bad lieutenant’ whose instincts are for justice and the general good of society.
  It’s difficult for the reader not to share Parrish’s obsession. Parrish is absorbed by a case in which teenage girls are abducted and filmed having sex, before being killed and having their bodies dumped. Parrish quickly begins to suspect that he is infiltrating a snuff movie ring, which may or may not be facilitated by a social worker specialising in adopted teenagers.
  It helps hugely that Ellory gets under the skin of New York every bit as effectively as he inhabits Parrish’s skin. SAINTS OF NEW YORK has a real tang of authenticity, which is important given that the story depends heavily on the kind of geographical detail that only native New Yorkers might know. This is worth noting, if only because Ellory is a British writer, albeit one who has set all his novels in America.
  Among the minor characters who populate the novel are Parrish’s new partner, Jimmy Radick, and his daughter, Caitlin. Less peripheral characters are Parrish’s therapist, Dr Marie Griffin, and Parrish’s dead father, John, a legendary NYPD cop and one of the original ‘Saints of New York’, whose shadow still looms large in Frank’s life.
  For much of the novel, Frank Parrish is convinced that his father, John Parrish, was a facilitator for the Mob, who certainly took pay-offs in order that the Mob could infiltrate JFK Airport, and who may or may not have actually killed to order on behalf of the Mob. One of Frank’s obsessions is the difference between the private and the public John Parrish, and one of the reasons Frank drinks is the pressure to live up to the reputation of a man whom he believes to be utterly corrupt.
  John Parrish was involved with a number of gangsters, the most famous of whom was Jimmy Burke, a character fans of the movie Goodfellas will be familiar with. Parrish tells his therapist, Marie, many stories about his father - about the real John Parrish. One of the stories, and the one that underpins his relationship with his father, concerns itself with John Parrish’s involvement in the infamous Lufthansa heist at JFK which forms the backbone to the Goodfellas story, and which was conducted by Jimmy Burke, who was played by Robert De Niro in the movie.
  I was surprised that Ellory devoted so much of the book to such a well known story, and curious as to his motives for doing so. Certainly Frank’s bid to come to terms with his father’s reputation makes for a fascinating strand of the novel, but I’m not sure that inserting a real-life story into the narrative wasn’t more of a distraction than a benefit.
  Another quirky aspect to the story is the way Ellory writes the interaction between Frank and his therapist, Dr Marie Griffin, which is achieved in chapters that are utterly devoid of any descriptive elements, and consist solely of dialogue. Ellory is an excellent descriptive writer, perhaps because of his background in photography and graphic studies, and the novel benefits hugely from his atmospheric descriptions of New York. I’m curious as to why he would deliberately eschew that skill during the conversations between Frank and Marie - although it has to be said, the conceit creates a superb intensity between the pair.
  The victims in the novel, teenage girls who are abducted and killed, are particularly vulnerable, given that they are for the most part adopted, or come from broken homes. While it might seem like something of a cliché, it’s entirely reasonable that the hardboiled, cynical Frank should respond to these victims so comprehensively, not least because their deaths cause him to reflexively think of his own daughter, Caitlin, who lives and works not too from the scenes of the crimes.
  As is usual in crime novels, the protagonist, Frank, becomes entirely consumed by the fate of the killer’s victims. Solving the case becomes Frank’s potential shot at redemption, but Ellory goes way past the clichés in outlining Frank’s empathy for the teenage girls. This is particularly true of the tone. I’ve described SAINTS OF NEW YORK as hardboiled, but there are times when it goes beyond that to verge on the existential. Some of the passages in SAINTS are a very grim kind of Zen. For example, on pg 88, when Parrish thinks about one of the victims:
“And it wasn’t simply that she reminded him of Caitlin [his daughter]. It wasn’t that she was orphaned or had a piece-of-shit junkie brother. It wasn’t that her St. Francis of Assisi friends considered her quiet and funny and pretty and sweet. It was something else. A reminder that if there was no one there to look after you, no one to keep an eye on things, then the world and all its wonders would devour you in a heartbeat.
  “You were there, and then you were gone.”
  And again, on pg 139, when Parrish is thinking about his job:
“Spend thirty years a cop you’re gonna die a cop. There was no easy way out of it. It was not a job, it was a vocation. After that it became a passion, an addiction, a crutch, a belief. Either that, or you got out. Cops didn’t marry well. They were lousy fathers. They walked out of the house into a world that no one else could see, as if only they could perceive the thin veneer that lay between what people believed was reality and reality itself. Reality was behind the crime scene tape. Reality was found at the tip of a stiletto, down the muzzle of a .38, back of a sawn-off Mossberg pump-action shotgun as it unloaded its guts into half a dozen diners in a restaurant on Myrtle Avenue. Reality was a stabbing, a beating, a strangulation, a drowning, a suicide, an overdose, a hanging. Reality was twelve-year-old junkies, fifteen-year-old hookers. It was stealing and running and hiding, and backing up into a corner while the world looked for you, and knowing full well that soon the world would find you and it would all be over.”
  All told, SAINTS OF NEW YORK is a powerful crime novel, inventively rich in its use of language, absorbing in its intensity. Highly recommended. - Declan Burke

Friday, December 31, 2010

Word Junkies; Or, The True Cost Of Writing

Like most people who are even semi-serious about the writing business, I try to write every day. That’s not always possible, what with pesky issues like the need to put food on the table and nappies on bums to deal with, and the even more pressing need of ensuring the mortgage gets paid so that your daughter doesn’t have to go live in an actual tree (right), but I generally get a couple of hours a day done, five or six days a week. Which is pretty poor going, especially as fulltime writers get to spend eight or ten hours at the desk every day, but needs must, and a couple of hours per day is usually enough to keep me ticking over and the bubble of whatever world I’m creating fully inflated.
  Taking a break of more than a day or two can be a dangerous business. It can be a good thing, in that it allows the mind to roam more freely, and you can start making connections that might not otherwise have occurred to you; it can also serve as a kind of damming process, behind which the story builds up, thus allowing you to burst back into a story bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.
  The danger, of course, is that spending even four or five days away from a story affords a perspective that can very easily prick that bubble. The old doubts about your ability have time to fester; you start to wonder if the story is actually all that believable; or, worse, if there’s really any point to writing it, no matter how believable it is, or enjoyable to write.
  The week just gone by, in which I took a break of six days from working on the current story, appears to have fatally holed it beneath the waterline. I still think it’d be fun to write, and I like the characters, by which I mean I find them interesting enough to follow through to find out where the story will take them; but the whole ‘what’s-the-point?’ black dog started howling out in the darkness.
  Worse, while slumped in a turkey-and-sherry-trifle coma in front of some rubbish TV, I started crunching numbers. Now, I earn a decent if not remarkable wage as a freelance writer. The hours are long, and the work itself is interesting, and the bills get paid and nappies get put on bums. All of which, especially in the current climate, is very good indeed.
  For some reason, though, I started wondering about how much, in terms of dollars and cents, I’ve invested to date in my writing ‘career’. Any aspiring writers out there might want to look away now.
  The nuts and bolts run thusly: I’ve had two books published, EIGHTBALL BOOGIE (2004) and THE BIG O (2007). I’m hopeful, although not hugely so, that I’ll have another book published this year, BAD FOR GOOD aka THE BABY KILLERS. (I’m not counting CRIME ALWAYS PAYS for the purpose of this little exercise, by the way, as that went straight to e-format - but feel free to have a squint, if you’re so inclined).
  Now, I started writing EIGHTBALL BOOGIE some time around 2000 or 2001. So let’s say, for a round figure, and taking a huge leap and presuming that I’ll have another book published in 2011, that by the end of this year I’ll have had three books published to show for 10 years work. (I’ve written other novels, there are three or four gathering dust on the shelf, but for now let’s just stick with published books).
  The rates for freelance journalism have changed over the last decade, not always upward, so it can be hard to put an hourly figure on earnings. These days I can write a feature in two hours and earn €200 (very rare), but my hourly rate, when I’m being honest with myself and factor in the daily commute, is usually closer to €20.
  Now let’s extrapolate, and apply that hourly rate to writing fiction. At two hours per day, five days per week, 48 weeks per year, at a rate of €20 per hour, that amounts to €9,600 per year ‘spent’ on writing fiction. Multiply that by the ten years I’ve been writing seriously, we’re looking at the guts of €100,000, or €33,000 per book published. And that’s presuming that I’ll have a book published in 2011, which is a pretty big presumption; if I don’t, we’re looking at each book I’ve published costing me €50,000. Meanwhile, the largest advance I’ve ever received is €10,500, a figure that’s roughly ten times what an author scrabbling around at my level is likely to receive if he or she is lucky enough to see a book land on a shelf.
  I should say, of course, that those hours I spend writing fiction tend to be in the 6am-8am or 9pm-11pm bracket, hours when I very probably wouldn’t be working at earning anyway. Still, it’s a sobering thought, that investing all that time and effort should end up costing you somewhere in the region of seventy grand.
  If this was any other kind of business, I’d have been declared forcibly bankrupt and / or certifiably insane a long, long time ago.
  Unfortunately, it’s not any other kind of business. It’s writing. And just like the degenerate gambler and / or junkie who keeps on borrowing to feed his habit, I’ll keep on pounding the keyboard. Not in the hope that, one day, I’ll hit big and earn enough to have made all those years financially worthwhile, because junkies don’t think like that. No, I’ll keep writing for the pure and simple buzz of seeing the words appear on the page. My words, my story, my dream made real.
  I’m not a moron, all evidence to the contrary. Unlike the average junkie, I won’t be doing anything that might impact on my ability to put nappies on bums. Those writing hours I do scrape together will remain in the 6am-8am or 9pm-11pm slots, and will be just about enough, hopefully, to keep me from turning into the psychopathic bear I become when I don’t get my two-hourly fix every day. If I do get another book published this year, that will be marvellous; if not, well, you write in order to write. Everything else to do with the publishing industry, with apologies to everyone involved, is just a necessary evil.
  So, my New Year Resolutions:
1 To write and not to count the cost.
2 Give up smoking.
3 Spend more time with Lily.
  Meanwhile, a happy and prosperous New Year to all of you good folks, and here’s hoping that 2011 is a better year than the annus horribilis gone before. Upward and onward, people …