“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, April 1, 2011

On Final Revisions And The Inevitable Self-Loathing

O, the hypocrisy. A source of teeth-grinding envy when he puts pen to paper himself, Allan Guthrie (not pictured, right) was kind enough to ask me to contribute a post to his new blog, Criminal-E, which concerns itself with crime and mystery novels available as ebooks, and said post went live today - herewith be the linkity-link.
  Why the hypocrisy? Well, the gist of the post - and that of all the other authors featured on Criminal-E - is that we talk about the process of writing. Now, as a rule, I love talking about books but hate talking about writing, mainly because, as a writer, I’m shooting in the dark every time I sit down at the desk. My books aren’t so much written as eventually cobbled together into some kind of legible form, and possibly by pixies who come out at night when I’m asleep, to very generously reassemble my pathetic efforts into a coherent narrative. Asking me about issues like style, pace, character and so on is akin to asking a three-toed sloth about its digestion. It needs to get done, and somehow it gets done, but the process and consequences don’t bear too much close scrutiny.
  That’s me on a good day. On a bad day, I just shrug and say, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be marvellous to be a three-toed sloth and not have to give a crap about all this?’
  All of which is pertinent, given that I’m having a bad week. I’m revising - for the last time, I hope - my current offering, formerly known as THE BABY KILLERS, now revelling in the unlikely title of ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL. The book is due with the publishers, Liberties Press, in two weeks time, to be published in September. The revision, as always, began as ‘just a final spit-and-polish, I’ll breeze through it’, but has now - as always - become a rather more serious redraft. Why this should be a surprise at this stage is beyond me, because (mixed metaphor ahoy!) I’m an inveterate tinkerer, and once you tug at a single stray thread, the whole tapestry starts to unravel.
  At this point, having spent most of the week redrafting, and currently up to my oxters in loose threads and tufts of wool, I feel like I’m actually doing damage rather than making improvements. It doesn’t help that this is the twelfth, thirteenth or maybe twentieth time I’ve been over some of the sections, but it feels unpardonably dull (it’s supposed to be a black comedy), dead and brittle as old bones that have been raked over once too often. Part of the problem, too, is that it will have been over three years since the publication of my last novel, THE BIG O, by the time ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL arrives, and I have no guarantee that I’ll ever seen another novel published after that. So I think I’m trying too hard, trying to say too much, placing too much hope on the book’s slender shoulders (it’s only a story, after all).
  I’ll get through it. Slog on, plough through, slice away. Slough off the self-loathing. In two weeks time, or possibly three, I’ll send off the final revisions and waltz around on a cloud, eight miles high, for about a couple of hours. Then, the next morning, I’ll wake up seeing all the mistakes and blunders, the clumsy non sequiturs, the clichés, the irrelevancies, and come crashing down to earth again, utterly deflated.
  Still, there’s always the proofs, isn’t there? Maybe then I’ll finally get it right-right-right ...
  My line for today comes courtesy of Samuel Beckett: Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Winner Alright

Irish Times’ racing correspondent Brian O’Connor got a nice bonus a couple of weeks back, when the dear Old Lady published an extract from his very fine debut novel, BLOODLINE. In the extract, our hero Liam Dee has just arrived at the yard where he works as a jockey, and where the body of a Ukrainian stable-boy has been discovered with the back of his head smashed in. Now read on …

Murder on the Curragh

THE ONLY SOUNDS came from crows lazily gliding over the yard to examine the flashing blue lights that still had enough power in the morning gloom to make you blink. But there wasn’t a murmur where there should have been the snorting clatter of keyed-up horses emerging from their night’s sleep and the shouts of frozen lads trying to keep them under control.
  After the initial frenzied arrival of police cars and an ambulance, there was an eerily mundane hour when little seemed to happen. The crime scene was sealed off and so was the stable yard. But then things seemed to stand still in the wait for specialists to show up. Rocky, Bailey and myself told a couple of detectives what we’d seen. Rocky said he’d been in the tack room when he thought he heard someone running outside. He figured his ears were playing tricks on him at first but went out to have a look and saw the box door in the alley open. That was when he saw the body, turned on the lights and tried to call the guards. But he’d heard an engine gunning outside the yard as well – like a motorcycle, he said.
  I told them how I’d encountered someone on a motorbike who’d tried to run me over.
  “What did this person look like, sir?” the detective asked.
  “I’d guess he was about my height, but it’s only a guess. He was wearing a helmet so I couldn’t see his face. Apart from that, nothing really – jeans, a leather jacket, boots. It was all so quick.”
  “What make of bike was it?”
  “It was one of those trackers, like they use for racing on mud.”
  He asked me what I was doing around the place so early.
  I explained that I had just driven from Dublin. He asked if anyone could verify what time I had left Dublin. I told him there wasn’t but I’d stopped for petrol soon after leaving Sandyford and the people in the station knew me.
  “And what were you doing here, sir?”
  “I was coming down to ride work. I’m Mrs McFarlane’s jockey. My car skidded and hit the railway bridge so I ran the rest of the way here.”
  “So you work here every day?”
  “No. I usually just ride out one morning a week, or come for schooling.”
  “Schooling?”
  “Getting horses to practise their jumping.”
  The detective told me to stay around and I assured him I wasn’t going anywhere. It all felt completely unreal. Such things didn’t happen in the middle of the Curragh. The bald, flat plain contained more horses than people, and most of the villains had four legs. Anything to do with horses could be dangerous and sometimes people were killed – but from a flailing leg or a bad fall: this was terribly different.

  For the rest, clickety-click here

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Nobody Move, This Is A Review: Blatty, Hill, Gran, Lackberg, Mankell

William Peter Blatty’s THE REDEMPTION (Piatkus Books, £7.99, pb) is an unusual thriller, as you might expect from the author of THE EXORCIST. Opening in Albania in the 1970s, the story focuses on a man being tortured on suspicion of being an enemy agent of the State. The atmosphere is redolent of a John Le Carré Cold War thriller, albeit one with supernatural overtones - the tortured man, Dimiter, remains effortlessly unbroken, and is spoken of in whispered tones as ‘the agent from Hell’. The setting then switches to Jerusalem, where a local police detective investigates a number of strange murders, and the supernatural tone gives way to a more philosophical enquiry into the politics of revenge, salvation and redemption. Blatty’s prose is starkly rendered, a minimalist style that adds momentum to the propulsive plot. There are occasional poetic flourishes, however, which leaven the story’s hard-headed realism, just as Blatty’s hints that Dimiter may be a creature more exotic than a mere spy lend the thriller format an element of quixotic speculation. The net result is a haunting tale that remains thought-provoking long after the final revelation.
  TABOO (Simon & Schuster, £6.99, pb) is the debut offering from husband-and-wife writing team Kevin and Melissa Hill. The latter is better known as the author of a series of best-selling women’s fiction titles, and here she creates the ultra-feminine feminist Reilly Steel, a California-born forensic investigator seconded to the newly founded Garda Forensic Unit, based in Dublin. The narrative employs for its spine a series of perverse murders that all appear to transgress social taboos, although the plot itself is secondary to the establishing of Reilly Steel as a credible Irish alternative to the international popularity of CSI-related investigations. In this the Casey Hill writing team is largely successful: Reilly Steel is a broadly drawn but likeable character, smart but not omnipotent, entirely capable but vulnerable too. The presence of a Quantico-trained FBI investigator on the mean streets of Dublin is plausibly achieved, and the novel derives its page-turning quality from the rapid pace of events as the investigation gathers momentum. The frenetic pace, however, results in a lack of psychological depth when it comes to characterisation, while the machinations of the fiendish killer are revealed to be disappointingly clichéd at the finale.
  CITY OF THE DEAD (Faber and Faber, £12.99, pb) is Sara Gran’s fourth novel, and the first to feature the private investigator Claire DeWitt. Commissioned to find a missing man in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, DeWitt applies her unique brand of investigation style. This echoes the modus operandi of classic private eyes such as Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer, but often appears counter-intuitive due to DeWitt’s devotion to the theories of legendary French detective Jacques Silette, as espoused in his sole publication, ‘Detection’. Searching in the least likely places, working off instinct and hunch, DeWitt trawls the devastated New Orleans in pursuit of a truth she explicitly acknowledges does not exist. The tale has strong echoes of Ken Bruen’s post-modern take on the private eye novel, in which the case being investigated is less important than the self-invigilating investigator; as is the case with Bruen’s Jack Taylor novels, in which his native Galway looms large as a character, New Orleans, and the lack of response from the Bush administration to the catastrophic effects of Hurricane Katrina, provides Gran not only with her setting but also her theme. The result is a tour-de-force. Mock profundity blends into brilliantly detailed description on a line-by-line basis in a novel that deserves to be read in tandem with James Lee Burke’s magisterial THE TIN ROOF BLOWDOWN.
  THE GALLOWS BIRD (HarperCollins, £12.99, pb) is the fourth in Camilla Lackberg’s Patrick Hedström series, which is set in the relatively sedate backwater of Tanumshede in Sweden. Opening with what appears to be a straightforward single-vehicle drink-driving fatality which subsequently proves to be something rather more sinister, the novel broadens out to accommodate a number of narratives which run parallel to Hedström’s initial investigation. Chief among these is the murder of a contestant in a TV reality show being shot in Tanumshede, although Lackberg also invests the story with domestic detail in the run-up to Hedström’s impending marriage to his partner, Erica, who is herself struggling to cope with the demands imposed by her sister’s depression. Lackberg is one of Sweden’s best-selling authors, but THE GALLOWS BIRD is a curiously disjointed police procedural, its frequent digressions into the domestic minutiae of the protagonists’ lives creating a frustratingly halting tale that lacks narrative drive.
  THE TROUBLED MAN (Harvill Secker, £19.99, pb) of Henning Mankell’s latest offering can only be his perpetually self-questioning police detective Kurt Wallander. In this, his last case, Wallander is more troubled than ever, and not only by the disappearance of the future father-in-law of his daughter, Linda; Wallander, unable to ignore the protests of his aging body, is contemplating his own mortality and casting a cold eye over his career. What unfolds is a novel that works on a number of levels: a compelling investigation into a Swedish Cold War spy ring, a philosophical assessment of the nature of policing and its function in society, and a very personal evaluation of a person’s worth in the grand scheme of things, as Wallander opens a ledger on his own life’s profit and loss. Written in Mankell’s downbeat style (beautifully translated by Laurie Thompson), the fatalistic tone is entirely fitting for the final testimony of one of crime fiction’s great protagonists. The result is a hugely satisfying novel that ranks alongside Mankell’s best, a heartbreaking tale of descent into despair and darkness that serves as a totem for what great crime writing can achieve.

  Declan Burke is the editor of the forthcoming collection DOWN THESE GREEN STREETS: IRISH CRIME WRITING IN THE 21st CENTURY (Liberties Press).

  This column first appeared in the Irish Times.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

“Ya Wanna Do It Here Or Down The Station, Punk?”: Casey Hill

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?
SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. There has never been a more perfect rendering of a psychopath than Harris’s brilliant Hannibal Lecter.

What fictional character would you most like to have been?
Jeffery Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme - he’s super-smart, very cool and never has any problems getting a parking space in Manhattan.

Who do you read for guilty pleasures?
Katie Price aka Jordan - she has the best story ideas. Nah, no such thing as guilt when it comes to reading anything.

Most satisfying writing moment?
Bringing our daughter Carrie into a book shop and seeing TABOO on the shelves for the first time. She was only nine months old but think she looked quite impressed.

The best Irish crime novel is …?
Difficult question but would have to go with John Connolly’s THE WHITE ROAD, though his brilliant writing almost transcends genre.

What Irish crime novel would make a great movie?
Casey Hill’s TABOO, of course. Failing that, any one of John Connolly’s would transfer well to the big screen if the director could properly capture the supernatural elements.

Worst / best thing about being a writer?
Best: Being able to set your own hours and work from anywhere. Worst: Being able to set your own hours and work from anywhere.

The pitch for your next book is …?
Reilly Steel hunts down another gruesome murderer using street smarts and shiny new forensic equipment.

Who are you reading right now?
Chuffed to have been offered a sneak preview of Declan Burke’s fab new tome ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL, which is actually very cool indeed.

God appears and says you can only write OR read. Which would it be?
First, I’d beg him to let me write just once more before choosing to read. Then I’d ask Himself for an exclusive interview about his life story, write about it, then read away to my heart’s content on the Caribbean island I bought with the royalties.

Casey Hill’s TABOO is published by Simon & Schuster.

Monday, March 28, 2011

EIGHTBALL BOOGIE: The Val McDermid Verdict

Another week, another dollar - or $0.99c, to be precise. EIGHTBALL BOOGIE garnered some very nice readers’ reviews over the weekend, with a certain Val McDermid popping up on Facebook on Friday to lend her considerable reputation to our on-going scheme to obliterate the mortgage one ebook at a time. To wit:
“I can’t remember the last time I got so much pleasure for 86p. I’d have paid at least 95p for it. But all joking apart, there’s a lot to like in Declan Burke’s debut, including some cracking plot twists. I’d recommend it to anyone who wants an entertaining way to spend a few hours. And doesn’t mind a bit of blood and gore along the way.” - Val McDermid
Meanwhile, over on Amazon US, John ‘I Am Spartacus’ Kane left a short-but-sweet review that runs thusly:
“I could not put this down. Raymond Chandler meets Ken Bruen. Surprising to the end and some really dastardly bad guys. A great work of Emerald Noir!!”
Chandler and Bruen? My metaphorical cup runneth over, metaphorically speaking. Many thanks, folks - the good word is deeply appreciated.
If anyone wants to investigate further, all the info - including how to get a free EIGHTBALL BOOGIE in hard copy, plus P&P - can be found here