“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, March 26, 2011

Nobody Move, This Is A Review: THE BOOK OF LIES by Mary Horlock

If the novel has taught us anything it’s that killers come in all shapes and sizes, and that the unlikeliest murderers are often the most charming.
  Cathy Rozier is a Guernsey teenager, an overweight history geek befriended by the blond, vivacious Nicolette. The friendship is doomed. “It’s been a fortnight since they found her body,” Cathy announces on the very first page, which opens in December, 1985, “and for the most part I’m glad she’s gone. But I also can’t believe she’s dead, and I should do because I did it.”
  Mary Horlock’s clever conceit is to make Cathy both protagonist and antagonist, the killer upon whom we rely to excavate the truth behind Nicolette’s death. THE BOOK OF LIES is not a ‘whodunit’ but a ‘whydunit’, a first-person psychological exploration of the mind of a murderer.
  In this it has much in common with Jim Thompson’s classic noir ‘THE KILLER INSIDE ME, the first-person confessional of Lou Ford, a sociopathic killer who is an outwardly friendly small-town sheriff.
  Horlock, as Thompson did before her, makes powerful use of the local vernacular, employing an indigenous patois and an ostensibly languid style to lure the reader in to what appears to be an easygoing backwater. Once we’re under the skin of the place, however, Guernsey is quickly revealed as a festering hotbed of secrets, lies, betrayals and murders.
  Arguably the most important ‘character’ in the novel after Cathy, the apparently idyllic Guernsey is portrayed as a prison of sorts. Yet the island exerts an inexorable pull on its inhabitants. “Why is it we find this little rock so hard to leave?” asks Charles Rozier when dictating his life’s testimony to Emile Rozier, Cathy’s father.
  The answer to that question is ‘History’ (Cathy, whose narrative takes the form of her own testimony, has a habit of capitalizing the words that are most important to her; Horlock, meanwhile, read History and History of Art at Cambridge). As her account progresses, we realise that Cathy, the daughter of a historian, understands that an appreciation of history is a double-edged sword. Cathy thrives at school as a result of her excellence in the subject, and yet that success leads to her being bullied as a nerd and a teacher’s pet.
  On a deeper level, Cathy also appreciates that what we understand to be History is simply the Official Version of Events, one which doesn’t necessarily explain the truth of what actually happened.
  This applies to Cathy’s own version of the death of Nicolette, as recounted in Cathy’s journal, in which she implicitly admits that she is, by dint of being our only witness to the events described, an unreliable narrator.
  This in turn funnels into the parallel narrative of Horlock’s tale, in which Emile Rozier, via his brother Charles, gives his version of the events of the German occupation of Guernsey during WWII, in which Emile’s actions as a callow resistance fighter led to the death of his own father. Emile’s take on history gives rise in turn to other versions, as the historian Charles seeks to verify the truth, or otherwise, of Emile’s account.
  The result is a satisfyingly complex story which is entirely at ease as it shifts between the recent past and Cathy’s present and deftly excavates the layers of betrayal and treachery that have settled on Guernsey since the German occupation. The chief delight is Horlock’s winning way with language, as she creates in Cathy an irreverent stylist who delights in offbeat digressions and quirky phrasing, and whose status as a loner and observer gives her a disconcerting facility for unearthing rough diamonds from the dross of her day-to-day life.
  That said, the quirkiness can prove an irritation, particularly when it diverts attention from the intensity of a rapidly developing scenario. Late in the novel, with Cathy potentially in peril, Horlock can’t resist unnecessary insertions: “When we got to Saumarez Park I didn’t smell a rat (i.e. her). I didn’t want to look a gift horse (i.e. two-faced cow) in the mouth.”
  Meanwhile, Horlock’s account of the events immediately preceding Nicolette’s death feels surprisingly rushed and contrived, and lacks the poise that characterises the rest of the novel.
  Those caveats aside, THE BOOK OF LIES is an assured debut, and Horlock’s irreverent style marks the arrival of a distinctive new voice. - Declan Burke

  Mary Horlock’s THE BOOK OF LIES is published by Canongate.

  This review first appeared in the Sunday Business Post

Friday, March 25, 2011

In Like Glynn

Not naming any names or nowt, but as events this week in Ireland have proved, you can’t be too paranoid about the likely consequences when the worlds of business and politics collide. That’s a theme explored in ‘Limitless’ (see review here), the movie adapted from the novel THE DARK FIELDS written by Alan Glynn (right, in full-on Kenneth Branagh mode). As he explains in an Irish Times interview published today, it’s a theme Glynn further explores in the novels WINTERLAND (2009) and the forthcoming BLOODLAND (2011). To wit:

“People Do Get Away With Murder”

A writer of dark, thoughtful thrillers, Alan Glynn waited 10 years for his first novel to get the movie treatment. But when your hero Robert De Niro is starring in it, it’s worth the wait, he tells Declan Burke

“The idea of there being a ‘quick fix’ for everything in your life is one that’s current in the culture,” says Alan Glynn, author of THE DARK FIELDS, from which the film ‘Limitless’ is adapted. “There’s a drug for everything, there’s a quick diet, you can make yourself over, all these kinds of things. So it was a question of taking that notion and reducing it to a simple pill - if you take this one pill, you can have the world, but it’s going to cost you your soul.”
  ‘Limitless’ stars Bradley Cooper, who plays struggling New York writer Eddie Morra. Once Eddie is introduced to a new super-drug, NZT, his life is changed utterly. Productive, insightful and surpassingly intelligent, Eddie is soon making a fortune trading stocks. But every drug has its side-effects, and Eddie’s come-down involves paranoia, betrayal and the distinct possibility of an early death.
  Right now, Alan Glynn’s adrenaline rush has no need of artificial stimulants.
  “Before the movie started,” says Glynn of last week’s New York premiere of ‘Limitless’, “the director, Neil Burger, stood up and said he wanted to introduce a few people who were involved in the movie. And he said, ‘This all started with the book,’ and introduced me first (laughs). I hadn’t expected that, and I thought it was lovely, because after that he went through Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper, all the rest. So that was very gratifying.”
  What made it even better was that De Niro was sitting three rows behind in the theatre. “He was a hero of mine, as he was to a whole generation,” says Glynn. “If you had told me when the rights for THE DARK FIELDS were first signed [in 2001] that I’d have to wait another ten years to see it made, but Robert De Niro would be in the movie, I’d have taken that.”
  In a neat touch, the title of the book Eddie publishes in ‘Limitless’ is called ‘Illuminating the Dark Fields’. In the real world, THE DARK FIELDS has been re-released under the title LIMITLESS.
  “I’m not so happy about that,” he says. “Obviously, I’m very attached to the original title, it’s from the last page of THE GREAT GATSBY, and it has thematic resonances throughout the whole book, while the title ‘Limitless’ is the product of a marketing testing system. But the book has been re-released here and in the US, it was in the shops in the US before the movie opened and selling quite well. I mean, even before the movie has been released, the book has sold more copies now than it did on the entire run of its first publication.”
  Glynn, who lives in Dublin with his wife and two sons, lived in New York from 1985 to 1989, but only started writing THE DARK FIELDS after he moved back to Ireland from Italy in 1999. “That was around the time of the dot com bubble, and in the book there’s this whole section about the biggest corporate merger in American history, which I based on the Time Warner / AOL merger of the time.”
  The Faustian pact Eddie enters into is a theme Glynn subsequently explored in WINTERLAND (2009). Set in Dublin just as the property boom is going bust, and hailed as remarkably prescient on its release, it explores the shadowy nexus where the worlds of politics, business and white- and blue-collar crime intersect.
  “In anything I’ve ever written,” he says, “there always seems to be a dark, malign power figure at the heart of the story. It seems to me that the modern incarnation of that malign power in society is the CEO, who’s almost like the Machiavellian Prince figure. A politician or even a monarch might have a sense of responsibility to go with that power, but the CEO has a responsibility solely to his or her shareholders, so it’s almost an amoral power. In that sense it’s a very modern pure form of power, which can even be more evil in its consequences, with no regard all for any community or human value whatsoever.
  “I go into that in BLOODLAND as well. WINTERLAND is about the property boom in Ireland, but BLOODLAND has a broader, more international setting. Part of it has to do with the illegal mining of coltan in the Congo, and the lack of accountability there in the supply chain between the metals extracted illegally and high-end consumer products that are found in the First World. Coltan is essential for use in capacitors in the electronic equipment we use all the time - it’s in every mobile phone, every game console, that we use. But there doesn’t seem to be any moral connect between that and the conditions in which this stuff is extracted in the Congo, and which has in part been responsible for a war that’s been going on for nearly 20 years, in which five to eight million people have been killed. I mean, it’s covered intermittently, but the scale of it is mind-boggling. But because it’s not about oil, it flies under the radar, strategically speaking. I don’t want to sound polemical or that I’m pushing an agenda, but I’m using that to explore the kinds of power figures who control that trade, from the upper echelons of corporate America. That’s one strand of the story, and there’s a political aspect, and military contractors, and the privatisation of war as a business.
  “What I’m planning for the next book,” he continues, “which is called GRAVELAND - it’s the third in a loose trilogy - is to go back into the past, back to the 1870s in America, when the railroads were being built. There’s a character called James Vaughn who features in WINTERLAND, the old American corporate guy, he’s also in ‘Bloodland’ and he’ll feature largely in GRAVELAND - it goes back into his family history, almost like exploring a Kennedy-like dynasty.”
  Glynn was first inspired to write by what he calls the ‘great paranoid thrillers’ of the 1970s. How does ‘Limitless’ compares as a conspiracy thriller to that Golden Age?
  “It’s obviously different to the classic conspiracy thrillers,” he says, “the tone and the feel of those movies was so specific to the times, y’know, Watergate, Vietnam, and that paranoid, claustrophobic feeling can’t be recreated authentically. And it’s definitely not in this movie - there’s a lighter tone to this film, there’s a knowing, satirical edge to it that you didn’t get in the classic conspiracy thrillers.”
  While the movie ends on an upbeat but morally complex note, the novel THE DARK FIELDS has a very bleak and noir finale.
  “It’s not the book up there on screen,” Glynn concedes, “but you expect that. There’s always more depth in a book. In the movie, Eddie doesn’t get the really fuzzy end of the Faustian pact he gets in the book. But then, cinema is a whole different medium, there’s a totally different energy to it. The movie is the book’s story edited down to the bone.”
  That didn’t stop the author from enjoying the movie, which topped the US box office on its release last weekend.
  “To be perfectly honest, I grinned like a loon the whole way through,” he says. “I was anticipating feeling ambivalent, or even horrified, possibly, and afterwards there was such a sense of relief that I’d enjoyed it so much. I met Neil Burger two minutes after it finished, and I was able to shake his hand and say, ‘I loved it.’ Which was a great relief (laughs). To be able to speak positively about it is great. It’d be a strange position to be in otherwise, to have to either (a) lie about it or (b) tell the brutal truth. But I don’t have to do either of those, which is great.”
  Despite the themes of power and corruption, and the criminal activities in which his characters tend to dabble, Glynn is in no hurry to pigeonhole himself as a particular kind of writer.
  “I don’t really care about the labels. When I say I don’t see myself as a crime writer, I don’t mean that to sound judgemental. I love crime fiction, but that’s not in my head when I’m writing. I wouldn’t consider myself a literary writer either, I just do what I do.”
  The innate conservatism of the crime novel, where order almost inevitably emerges from chaos, is an unnecessarily restrictive constraint.
  “There is that element of conservatism and morality that exists in a lot of crime fiction, the idea that the wrong has to be set right. But some of the stuff I’ve done has almost been a cynical conclusion that right doesn’t triumph, that the harsh reality is that it often doesn’t, and that people do get away with murder.
  “I mean, by the end of WINTERLAND, the bad guy isn’t caught and held accountable, but he does die according to his own weakness. There’s a certain amount of wrapping-up there, but it’s a bit more complex than just the bad guy brought down by the good guy.”

Alan Glynn’s Top Paranoid Thrillers

‘Chinatown’ (1974)
“With its sun-drenched 1930s LA setting, a brilliant script by Robert Towne and unforgettable score by Jerry Goldsmith, Polanski’s ‘Chinatown’ is the ultimate study of power and corruption. It looks back nostalgically to the classic noir era, but it also roots itself in the malaise of the 1970s – because never before had a big screen American hero been so casually crushed by malign, unaccountable forces.”

‘Three Days of the Condor’ (1975)
“The ending is brilliant, it’s an ending they’d never use today. The Robert Redford character is standing outside the ‘New York Times’ offices, and he’s telling this guy he’s about to blow the story, this conspiracy, wide open. And the guy is saying, well, go ahead, but do you really think it’s worth it, every day for the rest of your life looking over your shoulder? And it all ends on a very dark, paranoid note …”

‘All the President’s Men’ (1976)
“Even today, it really stands up. I saw it again recently and it’s just fantastic. What’s great about it is the way it cuts out before the whole thing about Nixon really goes off, they’re typing away - tchk-tchk-tchck- it’s up there on the screen, it’s fantastic. And that kind of ending requires the audience to know what happened next, to be intelligent enough to make their own leap. That doesn’t happen a lot these days.”

‘Marathon Man’ (1976)
“I love Marathon Man. I saw it when it came out first, I was still a kid, and I absolutely adored it. Especially the music, by Michael Small. You can’t get it anymore. None of his scores are available, and he’s one of the key ’70s composers of music for paranoid thrillers - ‘Klute’, ‘Marathon Man’ and a couple of others.”

  ‘Limitless’ goes on general release this weekend. Alan Glynn’s BLOODLAND will be published by Faber & Faber in September.

  This interview first appeared in the Irish Times

Nobody Move, This Is A Review: Rewind

Rewind (15A) ****
Karen (Amy Huberman) has a past she’d rather hide from her husband, businessman Simon (Peter Gaynor). Unfortunately for Karen, her ex Karl (Allen Leech) is out of prison and determined to pick up the pieces of his life - even if that means shattering Karen’s life in order achieve it. A compulsive and thoughtful film set for the most part in the suburbs of Dublin, Rewind offers a credibility that’s rare in Irish movies. PJ Dillon’s direction is sharp and clear (Dillon also co-writes), an arrow-straight narrative that offers an emotionally nuanced tale that make Karen’s plight utterly believable as she attempts to shed herself of the blackmailing Karl. There’s a palpable sense of menace in a fine performance from Leech, as Karl ups the ante and turns the screw on Karen, although Huberman - who won the IFTA award for Best Actress for her role here - steals the show with her compelling turn as a recovering addict trying to cope with her worst nightmare coming true. All in all, a gritty, downbeat and pleasingly authentic Irish noir. - Declan Burke

  Rewind goes on nationwide release on March 25th. For the trailer, roll it there, Collette …

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Cometh The Hour, Cometh The Mankell

I had the very great pleasure last month of interviewing Henning Mankell (right), whose latest novel, THE TROUBLED MAN, will be the last outing for Mankell’s iconic protagonist, Kurt Wallander. The interview ran a lot like this:

Forget Stieg Larsson. Henning Mankell, the author of the Kurt Wallander novels, is the man who put modern Scandinavian crime writing on the map.
  With 30 million books sold worldwide, Wallander is one of fiction’s great police detectives. And yet the biggest mystery surrounding Mankell’s latest novel, THE TROUBLED MAN, is why he would choose to kill off Kurt Wallander.
  “Well,” says Mankell, “the truth is that ten years ago I decided that the Wallander novel I was writing would be his last case (laughs). But in the last number of years I started to feel that there was one more story in him, but that this story would be about Wallander investigating himself and his own life. And you can see, when you finish reading the novel, that there’s really nothing more to be said about him, that he has nothing more to say about himself. So this is why it must be the last Wallander story.”
  Despite his fame, the award-winning and best-selling Mankell is unassuming and quietly spoken, a serious but self-deprecating man with a neat line in dry humour. In fact, it’s tempting to believe that Kurt Wallander bears more than a passing resemblance to his creator.
  Mankell laughs aloud at the suggestion. “Well, I believe Wallander is a cheerful person. It is not true that Wallander is a mirror to myself, but perhaps he is a mirror in one respect, and that is that I too have a cheerful personality.”
  A ‘cheerful personality’ is not a trait a fan would automatically apply to Wallander, especially those who have seen the rather glum Kenneth Branagh play the part during the recent Wallander series. Mankell, on the other hand, believes that of all the actors to play the detective, including those in his native Sweden, Branagh comes closest to capturing the essence of Wallander.
  “Very much so,” he says appreciatively. “I was very pleased when Kenneth Branagh came to me about making the Wallander films, because he is a very serious actor and director. And of course he has that experience of directing Shakespeare, which is perhaps why he made such a success of the films. I liked them very much. Actually, [the producers] might be annoyed with me for saying this, because it might be a secret, I don’t know, but Kenneth Branagh will be making more Wallander films in the near future. I think his films really capture the spirit of the books. They seem to strip away everything and make them bare, in the way that Shakespeare could strip back a stage to its bare essentials.”
  Mankell, who is also a playwright, and who writes teleplays for TV, published his first novel in 1977, although it would be 20 years later before the first Wallander novel, THE FACELESS KILLERS, appeared.
  “Well, I didn’t set out to write crime novels,” he explains. “In the 1980s, I left Sweden to travel and live abroad, to get a sense of how life is lived beyond the Swedish way, to broaden my mind as a writer. And when I came back again, a spirit of xenophobia seemed to have taken hold in the country. And xenophobia, to me, is a crime, so it made sense to address that by writing a crime novel. So the subject came first, and then the way of writing about it came after.”
  Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, the Swedish husband-and-wife writing team who created the Martin Beck series, were early influences.
  “Oh yes, very much so. They published their first novel when I was 17, which is a very formative age, and I thought the first four novels were very, very strong. After that I thought they got a little weaker, but that is perhaps understandable, as Wahloo was in poorer health. He died just a year after the first novel was published.
  “But I think if we talk about the influence of crime writing,” he says, “I think it is an old and ancient thing. Take the classical Greek theatre, look at Medea. That play has a woman who kills her two children for the sake of jealousy. If that’s not a crime story, I don’t know what is. And Shakespeare too, he knew the value of writing about crime. And Dostoevsky, he had much to say about crime in society.”
  When it comes to specifically Swedish crime fiction, some theorists have pinpointed the murder in 1986 of the then Swedish Prime Minister, Olof Palme, as the catalyst that sparked the phenomenon. Does Mankell agree?
  “No. Absolutely not.”
  Nonetheless, Mankell acknowledges that Palme’s death had a convulsive effect on Sweden. In THE TROUBLED MAN, for example, the possibility that Palme was in reality a Russian spy is brought up on a number of occasions.
  “There was an element in society that believed that,” Mankell says, “a right-wing conservative element. But then, at the time there were all kinds of attempts to discredit Palme. For instance, there was a rumour that he was mentally unbalanced, because he visited a mental institution so often. Well, yes, he did - because his mother was living there at the time. People would tell him he needed to address these rumours, but he didn’t seem to care. He was a brilliant man. I think that Sweden would probably have changed if he had not died when he did, but I believe that it would not have changed so dramatically, or in the way it did.”
  A moral desire to explore the wrongs undermining Swedish society underpins much of Mankell’s work, but he is not content to play the armchair warrior and simply write about a commitment to righting wrongs. For many years now he has been working, unheralded, as a writer and director of a theatre in Maputo, in Mozambique. He also donates a sizeable portion of his earnings to charity, has co-founded a publishing company dedicated to unearthing young Swedish and African writers, and last year he was on board the MS Sofia as part of the flotilla attempting to break the embargo on the Gaza Strip.
  Given the opportunity, it’s a journey Mankell would be only too happy to repeat.
  “Oh yes, most definitely,” he says enthusiastically. “I believe that if you have a political conscience, then it’s not enough to write about it, it’s important to act. Of course, the trouble is that I am banned from entering Israel for the next ten years as a result of last year’s flotilla. But then, I wasn’t attempting to enter Israel, I was trying to enter Gaza, and I think it’s important to remind people that the Israeli blockade is illegal. It helps such things if there are people involved whose name is known, and if I am one of those people, then I will do all I can do to help.”
  Previous to THE TROUBLED MAN, Mankell’s novels were more literary offerings such as KENNEDY’S BRAIN (2007) and DANIEL (2010). With Wallander exiting stage left, is Mankell leaving crime fiction behind?
  “If you look at the books I’ve written,” he says, “only twenty-five per cent or so are crime novels. And I would never say that I will never write another crime story. If the idea arises, and it is a crime story idea, then that is what I will write.
  “In the past I have written about Wallander’s daughter, Linda, she was the main character in one novel [BEFORE THE FROST (2005)]. Perhaps it’s possible that Linda could come to the fore in future novels, and that her father would be there in the background. That’s certainly a possibility.
  “All I can tell you now is that my next novel, the one I’m working on now, is set in the 19th century in Mozambique, about a Swedish woman who ran the biggest brothel in Maputo. Where did she come from? One day she was the biggest tax-payer in the city, the next she was gone. Who was she? My account is purely fiction, and I couldn’t say even with the subject matter that it’s a crime novel. But after that, who knows?”

  Henning Mankell’s THE TROUBLED MAN is published by Harvill Secker on March 31st.

  This interview first appeared in the Evening Herald

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Life, The Universe And Everything

It’s my birthday today, according to Facebook, and if Facebook says so then it must be true. The best present of the day actually arrived last night, when I went in to check on the sleeping Princess Lilyput (right), and discovered that, like her silly ol’ Dad, she just doesn’t know when to quit on a good book.
  Elsewhere, Mrs Lovely Wife presented me with a Kindle to mark the occasion. A strange feeling: why should I feel like a traitor for liking my birthday present so much? Anyway, the early signs are good, and the actual reading experience was so positive that it was only afterwards I realised I’d had no issues with reading off a machine. Unsurprising, perhaps, when I spend 10-12 hours per day reading off machines, but I was worried that the Kindle might somehow make the reading of books a more mechanical or clinical experience than reading good old-fashioned dead trees. Not so.
  Naturally, the first ebook I downloaded was EIGHTBALL BOOGIE, mainly because I’ve been plugging the bejasus out of said tome for the last few weeks, and I wanted to make sure it looked the part, and that no one is being cheated when they fork over their hard-earned $0.99c or £0.86p.
  The readers’ reviews suggest that they’re not, and pardon me for a moment while I dust down ye olde trumpet and give it a lung-bursting blast. There have been four readers’ reviews to date, which isn’t a lot, but I’ll take quality over quantity any day, and they’ve all been five-star big-ups. Here’s the skinny from Kindle UK:
Eightball Masterclass *****
“You want a book with heart, humour and brains then look no further than EIGHTBALL BOOGIE … I am quite frankly in awe of Declan Burke’s ability with a sentence. His writing is at turns lyrical and succinct; his dialogue snaps in your ear and his characters are so real they stay in your head long after you’ve turned the last page. Simply can’t praise this writer enough. Get yourself a copy now!” - Michael Malone

Boogie On Down *****
“Harry Rigby. Great protagonist. Wish I had his knack for one-liners. They’re a defining feature of the novel. I didn’t do a formal count, but there has to be at least a couple of wisecracks on every page. Wise mouth, cocky attitude, low self-esteem … I loved the book.” - Gerard Brennan

An Irish Crime Classic *****
“Much has been written about the new wave of quality crime fiction coming out of Ireland at the moment and arguably, EIGHTBALL BOOGIE is the novel that kicked it all off. EIGHTBALL is a blistering amalgam of hardboiled, Irish noir reminiscent of Chandler, Hammett, Willeford or Elmore Leonard but wholly unique and wholly Irish at the same time. In EIGHTBALL BOOGIE, Burke is one of the first writers to recognise just how ‘noir’ life can be in Irish towns - Ken Bruen is another … What elevates EIGHTBALL BOOGIE to its status as a small classic of Irish crime writing, however, is its prescience. In its portrait of an Ireland at the height of its slow, self-satisfied orgy of consumption - of cocaine, dodgy property deals, dodgier sex, Mercs and facelifts (EIGHTBALL does them all well and more) - it is as if the novel was written with the coming crash in mind. EIGHTBALL BOOGIE is witty, hilarious at times, violent, biting social commentary which also manages to be a little bit sad and brilliant at the same time. An outrider for the sub-genre of Irish crime fiction and a small classic of the genre. Buy it.” - Kevin McCarthy
  And, over on Kindle US:
Noir at its Finest *****
“At times the book is like a phantasmagoria, with vivid characters and lurid scenes appearing out of the murky Northwest Ireland winter, and fading again. The dialogue sparkles with one-line zingers, the exposition (descriptions of snow, ice, winter) is perfect, and the sense of menace is all-pervading. A scintillating read -highly recommended.” - Frank McGrath
  I thank you all kindly, folks. Meanwhile, if you’re of a mind to dip a metaphorical toe into EIGHTBALL but don’t own a Kindle, there’s always the option of getting a paperback copy for free (plus postage & packaging). For more, clickety-click here
  So there it is. The title of this post will give most of you a fair idea of how old I am, although I have to say I’m a tad disappointed that the wisdom of the ages and / or cosmos has yet to seep through. Maybe that comes after the cake.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The CANDY Man Can

TS O’Rourke is one of the unsung heroes of the current wave of Irish crime writing. A pioneer when it was neither profitable nor popular, he was writing hard-boiled police procedurals in the mid-’90s; as was the case with Ken Bruen, his first novels, featuring DS Dan Carroll and DC Sam Grant, were set on the mean streets of London. GANGLANDS (1996), on the other hand, was set in Dublin, as the lethal Costello brothers make their bid to control the burgeoning drugs scene.
  He dropped out of sight, publishing-wise, for some years, but now O’Rourke is back with an ebook novella, CANDY SAYS KILL. Quoth the blurb elves:
When a stranger pulls into a roadside bar and motel he gets an offer he can’t refuse from a wily femme fatale intent on murder. Can she be trusted to keep her side of the bargain? Is anything ever what it seems?
  Short and very probably not in the slightest bit sweet, CANDY SAYS KILL can be found here
  Meanwhile, O’Rourke has also e-published the Carroll and Grant novels - DEATH CALL and DAMNED NATION - as a two-for-one collection, again available as an ebook. For all the info, clickety-click here
  As for recommendations, some whippersnapper called Declan Burke obviously approved. To wit: “As blunt and effective as the average anvil, TS O’Rourke’s prose was hardboiled, pickled and left out to dry under a post-apocalyptic sun.”
  Nice. All together now: “The Candyman can ’cos he fixes it with love and makes the world taste good …”

Monday, March 21, 2011

Can We Fit Just One More E Into PEELER?

It’s going to be a lot tougher to keep up with Irish crime fiction now that writers are bypassing the traditional structures and going directly to the e-market - see Alexander O’Hara here, and Ruby Barnes here. And that’s on top of the writers who are conventionally published but are also availing of the e-option, such as Kevin McCarthy, whose debut novel PEELER is now available in electronic form.
  Here’s a quick review of PEELER I contributed to January Magazine’s end-of-year round-up of the best books of 2010. To wit:
PEELER by Kevin McCarthy

Eoin McNamee, Benjamin Black and Cora Harrison are among those who write historical Irish crime fiction, and Kevin McCarthy’s PEELER (Mercier Press) deserves to be mentioned in the same breath. Set in Cork in 1920, during the Irish War of Independence, the novel has for its main protagonist Acting Sergeant Sean O’Keefe, a man who is not only a policeman with the hated Royal Irish Constabulary, but also a veteran of the Great War. McCarthy has made things doubly difficult for himself by choosing such a man for his hero, as Ireland’s relationship remains conflicted even today with the men who served in the RIC and fought for Britain during WWI. It’s a testament to his skill as a storyteller, then, that the complex O’Keefe - who considers himself as Irish as the next man, and is considered suspect by his superiors for that very reason - is such a sympathetic character as, aided and abetted by the despised Black-and-Tans, he pursues a killer who is also wanted by the IRA. McCarthy’s historical detail is excellent as he weaves a backdrop of black ops and blacker propaganda, with O’Keefe often a lone voice of reason and law-and-order while about him move squads of killers, both rebel and state-sanctioned. The pace and tension are expertly handled in what is a traditional page-turner of a thriller, yet McCarthy invests the novel with occasional poetic flourishes that highlight the bleak environment in which O’Keefe operates. All told, it’s a remarkably assured debut. - Declan Burke
  Don’t take my word for it, though - check out the rather impressive array of readers’ reviews PEELER has already generated at Amazon US, and here at Amazon UK

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Nobody Move, This Is A Review: THE PARTICULAR SADNESS OF LEMON CAKE by Aimee Bender

I thought was going to hate THE PARTICULAR SADNESS OF LEMON CAKE. The title makes it sound like stereotypical Book Club bait; the quirky hook, that of Rose’s ability to taste emotions in food, sounded twee.
  As it happens, Aimee Bender grounds the quirkiness of that hook in a very plausible reality. Perversely, and despite the strangeness that pervades the novel, there is very little that is not determinedly realistic about Rose’s experience. Her unusual talent is simply a means to an end, which is the excavation of the profound emotional nuances which shape our day-to-day lives.
  Whereas most novels tend to concentrate on emotional extremes - and logically so, as these provide dramatic opportunities for writers to exploit - Aimee Bender is more concerned with the minutiae of everyday life, and the gradual accretion of more humdrum emotional responses to the tiny triumphs and failures of our lives. It’s a very effective approach.
  The main protagonist and first-person narrator is Rose Edelstein, who is nine years old when the novel opens (later stages of the novel take place when Rose is twelve, and in her early 20s). A very likeable character, she blends an unassuming public persona with a sharp eye for detail in her interior monologues.
  Apart from her unique ability to taste emotions, Rose is an unremarkable child who achieves decent grades in school and is not a problem for her parents. The reader may wonder at Rose’s facility for language at a young age, and question the veracity of her insights, given that she is so callow. By the same token, Aimee Bender writes with such panache that it feels begrudging to question Rose’s maturity; Rose is neatly drawn as a child, particularly in terms of her self-questioning as she approaches puberty. It’s also true that the narrative arc of the novel offers, by the finale, a Rose who is in her 20s, so it’s possible to argue that the young Rose, despite the first-person narration and the immediacy of her observations, is actually written by the older Rose.
  Rose is one of two siblings, and lives very much in the shade of her brother Joseph, who is the recipient of a very different kind of love from their mother - while their mother loves Rose, she is obsessed with Joseph. This is in part because Joseph was her first-born, but also because Joseph is something of a prodigy, particularly in terms of speculative physics.
  Oddly enough, and despite the fact that Joseph is an insular person who makes little effort to connect with the world at large, Bender makes him an utterly compelling character, even before the revelation that Joseph has a talent that is even stranger than Rose’s. As the novel progresses, and Joseph grows even more uncommunicative, he becomes ever more compelling, to the point where his story assumes tragic proportions. Despite the various emotional ups and downs of the Edelstein family, as documented by Rose, Joseph’s is the most heartbreaking.
  Rose’s mother is another complex character, and one superbly drawn in all her strengths and failings. Despite the fact that Rose tells us that her mother loves her less than she does her brother, we get no sense that Rose is unloved - indeed, the pair seem to have a strong mother-daughter bond. It’s this very bond, of course, that makes Rose’s discovery of her talent for tasting emotions all the more profound, when she discovers that her mother’s much-loved lemon cake is shot through with frustration, loss and despair.
  Later, again through tasting her mother’s food, Rose discovers that her mother is having an affair at work, at the co-operative where she is employed as a wood-worker. The discover impinges very little on the Edelstein household, and not only because Rose keeps the secret to herself; Rose’s mother has always been somewhat distant, not fully cut out for the job of motherhood, in part because her own relationship with Rose’s Grandma has always been a strained and distant one.
  Rose’s father and Joseph’s friend George are also prominent characters in the novel. Rose develops a crush on the latter, who is also something of a science prodigy, but both George and her father remain frustratingly out of reach for Rose for most of the story. As with all of Bender’s characters, however, both are plausibly drawn and fully rounded, and play their part in the developing parallel tales of how Rose and Joseph come to terms with their unique talents.
  The quality of the writing is exceptional. Bender quickly establishes a style that is light and conversational as Rose narrates the unfolding events, an offbeat and deadpan tone that always contains the potential to divert into more poetic digressions and keen observations on the human condition:
“I could feel the tears beginning to collect in my throat again, but I pushed them apart, away from each other. Tears are only a threat in groups.” (pg 29)
  And again:
“I felt such a clash inside, even then, when she praised Joseph. Jealous, that he got to be a geode - a geode! - but also relieved, that he soaked up most of her super-attention, which on occasion made me feel like I was drowning in light. The same light he took and folded into rock walls to hide in the bevelled sharp edges of topaz crystal and schorl.” (pg 57)
  Bender’s parallel career as a writer of short stories is evident here, given the finely observed characters, the poetic intensity of the prose, and a story that has the capacity to slip into another dimension entirely on the turn of a phrase, or an apparently innocuous narrative development.
  One of the most pleasing aspects of the novel, aside from the narrative itself, is Bender’s evocation of Los Angeles. Again, her physical descriptions have a poetic quality, particularly when she writes about light and its changing moods, and the impact that those changes have on the city around Rose.
  This novel reminded me very much of a novel by Alison MacLeod called THE WAVE THEORY OF ANGELS, a beautifully written tale which also blended an earthy realism, a very likeable heroine and speculative physics.
  All told, THE PARTICULAR SADNESS OF LEMON CAKE is a hugely satisfying novel, poignant and uplifting, sad but elementally true to life. Heartily recommended to anyone who enjoys fine writing, layered and complex plotting, and a uniquely distinctive authorial voice. - Declan Burke

  THE PARTICULAR SADNESS OF LEMON CAKE by Aimee Bender is published by Windmill Books