“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.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

On The Irish Crime Novel and Institutional Cultural Caution

I find myself in a very unusual situation as 2011 draws to a close, because I’ve never before had novels published in consecutive years. Four years separated EIGHTBALL BOOGIE and THE BIG O, and it was another four years before ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL landed on bookshelves last year. And yet, if all goes to plan, my fourth novel should arrive some time around the middle of 2012.
  This is, of course, very good news for yours truly, not least because books in consecutive years might create some kind of momentum. Even so, I’m feeling a little bit fraught at the moment. This is partly because there’s still a job of work to be done on the new book, with semi-final revisions due before it goes off to the editor at the end of January, but it’s mainly due to the fact that the new book - formerly known as THE BIG EMPTY, and currently labouring under the working title of SLAUGHTER’S HOUND - is a very different kind of book to AZC.
  As all Three Regular Readers will be aware, ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL is a novel that has a little fun with straightforward narrative and conventional tropes, being a story in which an author who bears a very strong resemblance to one Declan Burke is confronted by a character from an abandoned novel, said character being a possibly homicidal hospital porter to demands to be rewritten as a more likeable sociopath, and who promises to make the rewrite worthwhile by blowing up the hospital where he works.
  Before it was published, I was worried that AZC might fall between two stools. Those readers who don’t read crime fiction might not have bothered with it, on the basis that it is essentially a crime novel, once you strip away the bells and whistles; and crime fans who prefer their stories told in a straightforward way could well have shrugged and moved on to something more conventional. So I was very pleasantly surprised to find that the book was, for the very great part, pretty well received, and that most reviewers were happy to champion the more offbeat aspects of the story.
  Of course, that kind of thing can backfire badly. If I can (immodestly) point you towards the Publishers Weekly review, which is the most recent review AZC has received, the reviewer suggests that, “those looking for a highly intellectual version of Stephen King’s THE DARK HALF will be most satisfied.” Which was nice to hear, although my first instinct was to wonder whether the phrase ‘highly intellectual’ wouldn’t put off more people than it might attract.
  The new book, on the other hand, is far more straightforward a story than AZC. It’s a sequel-of-sorts to my first book, EIGHTBALL BOOGIE, and features erstwhile ‘research consultant’ (aka freelance journalist and occasional private eye) Harry Rigby, who has recently been released after serving a term in a prison for the criminally insane. And even if Rigby’s killing of this brother at the end of EIGHTBALL BOOGIE makes him, as one character points out, ‘the least private eye in the business, and Rigby is driving a taxi to earn a living as the novel opens, it is to my mind a private eye story, and proceeds within the parameters of that kind of tale.
  So right now I’m a little concerned that those readers who liked ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL for the way it messed around with story and storytelling might be disappointed by the fact that SLAUGHTER’S HOUND has very little interest in meta-narrative et al, and aims instead to tell a hard-boiled tale of fatalistic noir. We shall see.
  I’m prompted to wonder about such things by a piece in today’s Irish Times by Mick Heaney, which looks back on the Irish arts world and the way in which, as Heaney says, “2011 felt like a pivotal year, during which Ireland’s cultural landscape started to take on new, as yet unformed, contours.” The piece takes into account film, music, theatre and the visual arts, and has quite a bit to say about literature too.
Heaney name-checks some established and new names in Irish literary fiction, before having this to say:
“These works suggest Irish literary fiction – the jewel in the crown of Irish writing over the past 20 years – is in a healthy state, but its primacy is quietly being questioned by another, less vaunted, genre.
  “Crime fiction continued to thrive last year, with writers such as John Connolly and Stuart Neville, and newer arrivals such as William Ryan and Conor Fitzgerald, showing how Irish authors can compete in this huge international market.
  “DOWN THESE GREEN STREETS, an anthology of home-grown crime writing edited by novelist Declan Burke, showed how such writers can weave contemporary issues and darker themes while maintaining entertainment value. Such work may not have quite the same highbrow appeal as “serious” fiction, but the fact John Banville’s latest volume, A DEATH IN SUMMER, was published under his crime-writing nom de plume, Benjamin Black, is further indication of how the genre has taken centre stage in the public imagination.”
  I’m intrigued by the line about ‘how such writers can weave contemporary issues and darker themes while maintaining entertainment value.’ I’ve gone on record here many times to say that the Irish crime novel is important in terms of how it is documenting the upheaval in Irish society, although it’s interesting that of the five writers Heaney mentions by name, three set their novels outside of Ireland, and one sets his stories in 1950s Ireland. Of the batch mentioned above, only Stuart Neville’s STOLEN SOULS was a contemporary Irish tale.
  I’m also wondering about the primacy of the elements of that line, and whether crime writers are obliged to first create an entertainment, and then invest that entertainment with ‘contemporary issues and darker themes’; or whether the onus is on the crime author to write about ‘contemporary issues and darker themes’, in the process making them entertaining.
  I’m wondering about this because I can write about contemporary issues and dark themes until the cows come home. It’s the making them entertaining bit that keeps me awake at night.
  In terms of the bigger picture, such questions are becoming increasingly important, I think. The Irish crime novel has been in the ‘promising’ phase for quite some time now, without ever fully delivering on that promise and crossing over into the realms of fiction to be taken seriously. This may well be because the crime novel is doomed to be considered entertainment first and foremost, and thus irrelevant in terms of what it has to say about the culture and society from which it springs. Just before Christmas, for example, I had a very interesting conversation with a literary editor of one of the Irish Sunday broadsheets, who said that they’d nominated a certain literary title as their book of the year, this on the basis that it was the only novel they’d read that had something to say about modern Ireland, and even though said novel was set in the past. What was implicit in that statement was that crime novels by the likes of Gene Kerrigan, Niamh O’Connor, Adrian McKinty, Colin Bateman, Stuart Neville and Alan Glynn, just to mention some high-profile names, were excluded from ‘book of the year’ consideration because they were crime novelists, even though they all had very pertinent things to say about Ireland in 2011.
  Such an attitude, from an ostensibly well-read person who is after all a literary editor, is entirely dispiriting; or would be, if the times weren’t so dramatically a-changing. To quote again from Mick Heaney’s piece:
“Taken separately, these disparate developments in the literary, theatre, music and visual spheres are exciting; viewed together, they can be seen as the first tectonic shifts in a culture as affected by doubt and upheaval as the wider economy. After all, the current cultural climate was essentially shaped during the extended period of turmoil and decline that ran from the oil shocks of 1973 to the chronic recession of the 1980s, which swept away the institutional cultural caution of before.”
  Next year will be a tough one for Ireland Inc., and all who sail in her; and so will the following year, and the year after that. Ireland is not Greece, as our politicians are fond of telling our overlords in Brussels and Frankfurt, this because the Irish are accepting their harsh and unfair economic medicine without taking to the streets, going on strike and burning banks and bondholders alike.
  But if it all looks very placid on the surface, those tectonic plates are shifting. Essentially, there’s a whole new order up for grabs, politically, economically, and in terms of how we speak to ourselves about ourselves.
  Writers, to paraphrase the Chinese saying, always live in interesting times, and the crime novel is perfectly positioned right now to colonise the Irish literary landscape over the next few years, to speak to us all about who we are, how we got here and where we are going.
  Here’s hoping it rises to the challenge of the new cultural climate, as the current institutional caution is swept away.

7 comments:

Dana King said...

You worry too much. First you worried AZC might fall between the stools. (I'd not heard that term before. I'm stealing it.) Turns out AZC bridged the stools, and a well received architectural structure it was.

Now you're worried if the new book will fail to meet the expectations of those who liked AZC. Bollocks. (See? I'm learning the lingo.) You've had contracts before, and lost them through no fault of the writing, the material, or public taste; the company consolidated and orphaned you. Threw the baby out with the bath water. Whose fault is that? Certainly not yours, nor the public's. It was some bean counter who probably hasn't read a book without charts since he was in school.

Write the best book you can, which I know you will. Since it will be the best book you can write, it will be a hell of a good book, as you have the chops to make Prince Charles's biography read like he was James Bond. Control what you can control. Write the book, take care of your regular gig, and take Lily to the park. (Not necessarily in that order.)

As for crime fiction that reflects contemporary Ireland, I've not been to Ireland so I can't speak to accuracy, but Declan Hughes does as well as anyone in painting an atmosphere that describes a place that resembles the Ireland I've come to expect from reading other fiction, and factual descriptions. I'm a little surprised his name didn't appear in Heaney's otherwise fine piece.

Declan Burke said...

Thanks for the kind words, Dana. Much obliged.

As for Declan Hughes and contemporary Ireland - definitely. I didn't include his name in the piece simply because he didn't publish a novel in 2011. The same applies to Tana French.

Cheers, Dec

John McFetridge said...

When crime novels are excluded from "book of the year" considerations and things like that, and when "entertainment" is spoken about the way it was in the piece, I wonder if there is a difference between a "crime novel," and a "crime-solving novel."

bookwitch said...

Dana, he always worries.

In my opinion a good writer will write good books, no matter what 'genre' they end up with. And I love considering myself highly intellectual.

It will be all right, Mr Burke.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Irish life and politics are going to affect Irish crime writing whether Irish crime writers want them to or not. If they shift in some unforeseen direction, and an Irish crime writer makes the tactical decision to ignore those shifts, that decision is itself a response. (I may be thinking back on my first response to Brian McGilloway. The Troubles are present even by their absence in his early books, I wrote at the time.)

As for what people expect, ---- ‘em. I loved AZC, but I also liked Eightball Boogie very much. Worst that could happen is that you’ll become known as the unpredictable Declan Burke. I can think of worse fates.

This whole thing about Benjamin Black bringing crime writing attention as "serious" literature drives me a bit nuts. On the one hand, if he brings readers to other, better crime writers, that's all to the good. On the other, for all Black has done in his John Banville guise, and for all the tense beauty of the depiction of 1950s Dublin in A Death in Summer, as a crime novel the book is not that great. The Cold Cold Ground and Havoc, in Its Third Year are better books, and better examples of books that might appeal both to adventurous crime readers and adventurous "serious" readers.

The previous commenters are right. You do worry too much. Are you sure you're not a Jewish mother?
=================================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Peter Rozovsky said...

“I wonder if there is a difference between a `crime novel,’ and a `crime-solving novel.’"

My wise compatriot is right. The further a book drifts from crime-fiction forms and conventions, the likelier it is to get consideration as “serious” literature. I have no special objection to this. But criminy, if you’re going to both use and make fun of crime-fiction conventions, the way Black does in A Death Summer, do a better job of the first and a defter job with the second.

On the other hand, our present blog host has helped me understand Benjamin Black better. He’s the first person I knew of in the crime-fiction world who regarded Banville/Black as other than a putz, and his interview with Banville/Black in Down These Green Streets reveals something approaching disarming modesty in an interview subject not generally noted for those qualities.
=======================================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

adrian mckinty said...

Dec

Whatever you turn your hand to next I'm sure will be great, but I understand your concern...follow your convictions and gut or compromise to reach a wider audience. I dont know the answer to that.