“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 8, 2011

A Very Black Hole

I met with Jo Nesbo (right) last month, to interview him on the publication of the latest Harry Hole novel, THE LEOPARD. The result read a lot like this:

The cover of THE LEOPARD, the eighth in Jo Nesbo’s series of Harry Hole novels, bears a sticker saying, ‘The next Stieg Larsson’. This is not something that has Nesbo, a Norwegian, jumping for joy.
  “I guess every writer doesn’t want to be compared other writers,” he shrugs, “and it’s not like I’m enthusiastic about it. I’m thinking okay, you want to use that sticker, it probably could have been worse. It could have been ‘The next Dan Brown’ (laughs).”
  When we meet in the plush surroundings of the Westbury Hotel, Nesbo appears to have little in common with his most famous creation. Harry Hole is a morose character, a hard-drinking loner and a self-destructive detective with the Oslo Crime Squad who pursues and is pursued by demons in equal measure. Nesbo, on the other hand, is a lively interviewee, outgoing and articulate.
  Both men, however, share a fascination with evil.
  “I remember when I was going to school,” he says, “and there was this guy who sat in the window row. And he would catch flies on the window-sill, and he had brought a tweezers, and he would pull off one wing and two feet, something like that. And part of me, as kids always are, was fascinated as to what would happen to the fly, but what made me more fascinated was that this guy would do this thing day in, day out, and that he had brought the tweezers. Just the idea of him being at home in the morning, planning it - ‘Oh, I’ll bring a tweezers, so I can torture a fly.’ I thought that was really evil. And I wondered, could that be me? Or is this kid just a mean character, and I could never be anything like that? Or is it just coincidence that he’s killing flies and I’m not? Has it to do with upbringing? Are you born that way? And that’s really what I’m writing about - those kind of people. Why do they do it? What’s in it for them?”
  As a boy, Nesbo had a very catholic taste in literature.
  “From a very young age, it was Mark Twain, when I read TOM SAWYER. And later, Charles Dickens, who I only started reading some years ago, but I had OLIVER TWIST read to me when I was young. Later on it would be Norwegian writers like Knut Hamsun, and then some American writers, Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac, the Beatnik generation … Ernest Hemingway was a big influence. And a lot of Norwegian writers (laughs) that you probably haven’t heard about.
  “My mother was a librarian, so she would bring books home. My father was also a keen reader, so there would always be lots of books around where I grew up. And later on, many of my friends would be planning to become the next big European writer. So we would gather in this café, dressed in the long coats we had bought from the Salvation Army, and sucking in our cheeks to look hungry (laughs), and discuss literature. Dostoevsky and Hamsun, y’know, although we hadn’t actually read them … But I think that milieu at the café probably stopped me from starting on my first novel, because all my friends started, and they would brag about it, but they would never get around to actually doing it. They all had writers’ block at the age of 19. So maybe all that discussion about literature put me off from sitting down to do it, because you couldn’t bear failure. And I can still see that in my friends, that the fear of failing is probably greater than the eagerness to succeed, because it means so much to them.”
  Oddly, for a writer who is so closely identified with Norway, Nesbo’s first two novels were set on the other side of the planet.
  “The first one, THE BAT MAN, is set in Australia because I was going to Australia for five weeks, and I just needed a backdrop for the story. So I took Harry Hole to Sydney, and I was doing research while I was writing. Actually, I didn’t see much of Australia (laughs), I spent most of the time in a small hotel room in Sydney, in a red-light district, just running out to grab a meal and then back to the room to write. It was that and visits to the museum, where I collected aboriginal tales, that was also some of the backdrop to the novel.
  “For my second novel … I’d also read Ray Bradbury, the science-fiction writer, when I was young. I really liked his stories set on Mars, this red desert that had been colonised, so it was really familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. And I liked the idea that he could create a place where nobody had been before, and was completely his own universe. So I thought, is there a city in the world that has that quality, we know it’s there and we have some general ideas about it, but we don’t really know it, and to me that city was Bangkok. So I went to Bangkok and stayed there for two months, and that’s where the second novel is set.
  “But then, for my third novel, I knew I was going to write the novel that my father never got around to writing. And that was about his war-time experiences, in THE REDBREAST, which is very much a novel about Norwegian society and the formation of a young nation. I mean, Norway won its independence only in 1905, and so it’s always been very important to the Norwegian self-image of the idea of Norway resisting the German occupation during the war. Which I understood, from my father’s side of the story, was only part of the story about that period.”
  The nature of good and evil isn’t just a concept for Nesbo. THE REDBREAST features the stories his own father told him of fighting for the Germans who occupied Norway during WWII. Was it difficult to write about such a personally painful episode?
  “In a way it was easy,” he says after a lengthy pause, “because I had lived with these stories for so long. Actually, some of the stories, the ones that sound the most fantastic, they’re actually just my father’s stories. The bigger story, which was about how a young man living in Norway at that time could choose to fight for Hitler … I mean, I didn’t know about my father fighting for the Germans until I was 16. I’d grown up with the same view as everyone of those, y’know, evil Nazis from hell, but then I had to imagine my father … Just the image of him wearing that German helmet, y’know? It was a shock to me. But at the time, the way they saw Europe, the old democracies were bankrupt, and it seemed like the ‘strong men’ of Europe at that time were Hitler and Stalin. So you had to make a choice between Germany and Russia, and my father decided to go with Hitler rather than Stalin.
  “But what I tried to do when I wrote THE REDBREAST,” he insists, “was to not make it simple, to say that everyone who fought the Germans were the good guys, and that none of them had a motive for, say, receiving favours for fighting alongside the Germans. Because that brings a greater complexity than the stories we grew up with when I was young, about the few ‘bad apples’ collaborating with the Germans.”
  By comparison with Nesbo’s previous novels, THE LEOPARD is more complex offering that engages with Norwegian society on a number of levels. Was that a deliberate approach, or was it simply what the story required?
  “It’s always about the story. I don’t have any other agenda than the story. Writing about Norwegian society … If it helps the story, I’ll use it. But my focus is always on the story and the characters. I mean, I spend quite a lot of time working with plot, and I love that, but the difficult part for me, and the part which has to be right, is the characters. Especially the motive of the killer. That’s the most difficult thing, to make it credible that a person has motive enough to kill somebody. I find that hard. I have to believe in my characters, and I have to believe in their motives logically, that this person would kill another person because it adds up, but it has to add up emotionally too. And that’s hard, because killing is such an extreme act. And what happens in a lot of stories, you tend you end up with serial killers who kill just because they’re mad, y’know?”
  A best-selling crime author and excavator of the darkest aspects of the human psyche, Nesbo is equally proud of his children’s novels, the latest of which was awarded the 2010 Norwegian Critics’ Prize for Literature for Best Children’s Book only last week.
  “It’s more fun,” he says of the ‘Doctor Proctor’ series. “In many ways, I find more pleasure in writing children’s books. It’s still hard work, but I feel better at the end of the day, when I go to sleep, having worked on my children’s books. The crime novels go more into a dark universe, so it’s place that … well, I have to take breaks from Harry Hole, and that’s one of the reasons why I write children’s books as well as adult novels, or novels for adults …’ He grins. “I guess, ‘adult novels’, that would be a sex story, right?” He shakes his head. “The English language, it’s hard to master.”

  Jo Nesbo’s THE LEOPARD is published by Harvill Secker.

  This interview first appeared in the Evening Herald.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

On Putting The Holy Into Wholly Deserved

Hearty congrats to William Ryan, author of THE HOLY THIEF, which has just been shortlisted for Listowel Writers’ Week Irish Fiction Award, a nomination that is holy, oops, wholly deserved. The news comes courtesy of Eileen Battersby in the Irish Times, who had this to say:
The Irish thriller genre has been consolidated by a large group of writers producing international fiction, much of it based in Dublin. The inclusion of William Ryan’s first novel is an important acknowledgment of the strength of the Irish thriller, although his book looks to the history of the Stalinist era. - Eileen Battersby
  For the rest of the (non-crime) nominees, clickety-click here

“Ya Wanna Do It Here Or Down The Station, Punk?”: Ruby Barnes

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?
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO by Stieg Larsson, of course. Money, money, money. Except I don’t want to be dead, so any of Colin Bateman because I love his combination of crime and absurd humour. I’ll pick DIVORCING JACK because that’s the first time I discovered him. Or there’s THE BROKEN SHORE by Peter Temple for its great Aussie tones. I’d like to have written them all. Ken Bruen. Help! I’m a compulsive reader.

What fictional character would you most like to have been?
That’s more straightforward. Without hesitation, Thomas Covenant, White Gold Wielder. He’s the impotent leper with reluctant magic powers from THE CHRONICLES OF THOMAS COVENANT THE UNBELIEVER by Stephen Donaldson. I chose white gold for my (first) wedding band in the belief that I might follow in his steps and walked my golden retriever under the Sun of Pestilence. Wow, that’s opened up a whole fantasy reading history that I’d completely forgotten about. How much am I paying for this therapy session?

Who do you read for guilty pleasures?
My indulgence reading is the macabre, the grotesque. Patrick McGrath’s SPIDER and his THE GROTESQUE, Patrick Susskind’s PERFUME, Patrick McCabe’s THE BUTCHER BOY and his WINTERWOOD. Anything by blokes named Patrick.

Most satisfying writing moment?
That was during Christmas 2010. I had worried about how I could feed the monster whilst crowded by family and managed to ring-fence a couple of hours per day. A chapter of my current project emerged and I knew as the words appeared on the screen that it was something special. Two escaped lunatics making love in a castle ruin. The first group review of 2011 and the stunned silence of the members had me close to tears. They hated it! Then they began to applaud. I’m tearful at the memory. Pretentious, moi?

The best Irish crime novel is …?
Actually, I’m not a huge crime reader as my tastes are cross-genre. If I have to give an answer then THE MAGDALENE MARTYRS by Ken Bruen was my first discovery of his writing and I’ll put my honest vote on that one for now.

What Irish crime novel would make a great movie?
I’m not a movie buff and don’t usually do that see the film of the book thing. THE GROTESQUE by Patrick McGrath but wasn’t that done with Sting and it isn’t really crime. Haven’t seen it.

Worst / best thing about being a writer?
The best thing about being a writer is the purpose that it adds to life. It’s a purpose and a goal that you, as author, don’t explicitly know is missing until you embark upon the journey. I felt the same way when my daughter was born. Until then I had been hollow, a shell of a man passing through life, picking up the trappings of society and treading the mill towards an uncertain end. Her coming into being put sense and meaning into everything and helped me fill the emptiness. Writing is a constant articulation of hopes, lusts, loves, fears and fantasies. It feels like a vocation. Where’s my wimple? The worst thing about being a writer is that it can consume you. Sacrifices have to be made, threatening the balance of work, family and guitar playing. Self-doubt and its shadowland colleagues of luck and fate threaten to mock your endeavours as futile. The support structure needed to write well, continuously and successfully has to be embedded in and wedded to all that you hold dear, otherwise terrible choices threaten. Not feeling good now. I need a mug of tea.

The pitch for your next book is …?
THE BAPTIST is my next project and I’m about two thirds through. It’s mostly delivered first person: a serial killer driven by deluded religious zeal. As with PERIL, Detective Inspector Andy McAuliffe is in pursuit of the perpetrator. Here’s the pitch from John Baptist himself:
To deliberately drown your brother in a bathtub is a terrible, if clean, thing. Might it not be excused, if he’s the manifest son of Satan? But that wasn’t the view of the Authorities, when they committed me to Fairfield Mental Institution. I didn’t appreciate the drug-induced fat suit, but it wasn’t all bad; they let me keep my hair long and I met Dirty Mary. We loved, we lost and left. Thank God for Care in the Community. I don’t think Joe McCarthy would agree with that last sentiment; stoned to a watery death when the devil’s mock sun blazed red upon his head. But the last prophet must wander, cleanse. I am not the One. I am merely sent to prepare a way for the One. I am The Baptist.
Who are you reading right now?
A bit of classical fiction: BRIDESHEAD REVISITED by Evelyn Waugh. I developed a taste for the classic several years ago whilst in-between jobs and it’s good to savour from time to time. Like Marmite.

God appears and says you can only write OR read. Which would it be?
He’s a cruel and vengeful God, offering such black and white choices. I would rather make offerings to a grey-scale God. Very well. I choose to write as in writing I experience all the emotions of the character when they first commit their evil deeds, have their wicked ways, are surprised to find love and lust and ultimately endure their fate. I get from writing what I get from reading.

The three best words to describe your own writing are …?
Volatile, surprising, satisfying.

Ruby Barnes’ PERIL is available as an ebook via Amazon UK and Amazon US.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Asylum Has Taken Over The Lunatics

I’d have got less for GBH, etc. Today is the fifth anniversary of my voluntary incarceration in the occasional lunatic asylum that is Crime Always Pays Towers (appropriately stale two-year-old cake pictured, right) and all Three Regular Readers won’t be in the slightest bit surprised to learn that the first post was a plug for my then current novel, THE BIG O (these days, of course, I’m plugging the bejaysus out of EIGHTBALL BOOGIE. But that’s a story for another day). THE BIG O had just been published with the small but perfectly formed Hag’s Head Press, and between us we hadn’t so much as a Michael Lowry red cent for promotion and publicity purposes. Crime Always Pays was intended to be a cheap (i.e., free) means of getting the word out there, although I also saw it as a chance to celebrate the small but growing number of Irish crime writers.
  These days, I’m delighted to say, there are so many Irish crime writers that it can be hard to keep tabs on them all, with more appearing every year. Then again, it’s hardly surprising that crime writers are coming up like mushrooms, given that the official response to the larceny on the grandest of scales that is the Irish economic downturn, recession and austerity bail-out was to shovel on the shite and keep us all in the dark.
  Anyway, one unintended consequence of Crime Always Pays is DOWN THESE GREEN STREETS: IRISH CRIME WRITING IN THE 21st CENTURY, which is a collection of essays, interviews and short stories by Irish crime writers on the subject of Irish crime writing and edited by yours truly, and which will be published next month by Liberties Press. It’s an odd feeling, waiting for it to appear. I’m nervous on its behalf, of course, especially as I have no idea of how it’ll be received, given that - to the best of my knowledge - it’s one of a kind. But I have no sense of ownership of the collection, not in the way I would if it was one of my own books. As far as I’m concerned, the book belongs to the contributors. I am proud of it, though, proud on behalf of the very fine writers involved, and delighted to see such a diverse range of talents all together and talking about a phenomenon that has long since been recognised abroad, and is finally starting to register with an Irish audience.
  Another unintended consequence of CAP, the most delightful, and one which has always kept me going through the inevitable peaks and troughs of a writer’s life, is the number of people I’ve met on-line, most of them in the crime fiction community. I was bowled over in the early days of CAP by the generosity of spirit offered to a newbie by people I’d presumed would be competitors, i.e., fellow bloggers, but it appears that the spirit of good karma is alive and well in a blogosphere near you. People, you know who you are, and you keep me young(ish). It’s a labour of love, ye olde blogge, but as with most things, you get out what you put in.
  Upwards and onwards, folks. Here’s to another five years or so, twice as many Irish crime writers, multiples of good folk met on-line, and perhaps even a book or two to promote from yours truly. Hey, I can always dream …

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Best Things In Life Are Free … Books

Now that’s what I call service. Not one but two complimentary copies of THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF BEST BRITISH MYSTERIES (Book 8), edited by Maxim Jakubowski, arrived in the post on Friday, which is rather decent, as I’m sure you’ll agree. The full roll-call of contributors can be found below, with yours truly’s name popping up rather incongruously in the company of some stellar talent. To wit:
The must-have annual anthology for every crime fiction fan – the year’s top new British short stories selected by leading crime critic Maxim Jakubowski.
  This great annual covers the full range of mystery fiction, from noir and hardboiled crime to ingenious puzzles and amateur sleuthing. Packed with top names such as: Ian Rankin (including a new Rebus), Alexander McCall Smith, David Hewson, Christopher Brookmyre, Simon Kernick, A.L. Kennedy, Louise Walsh, Kate Atkinson, Colin Bateman, Stuart McBride and Andrew Taylor.
  The full list of contributors is as follows: Ian Rankin, Mick Herron, Denise Mina, Edward Marston, Marilyn Todd, Kate Atkinson, Stuart MacBride, David Hewson, Alexander McCall Smith, Nigel Bird, Robert Barnard, Lin Anderson, Allan Guthrie, A.L. Kennedy, Simon Kernick, Roz Southey, Andrew Taylor, Sheila Quigley, Phil Lovesey, Declan Burke, Keith McCarthy, Christopher Brookmyre, Gerard Brennan, Matthew J. Elliott, Colin Bateman, Ray Banks, Simon Brett, Adrian Magson, Jay Stringer, Amy Myers, Nick Quantrill, Stephen Booth, Paul Johnston, Zoë Sharp, Paul D. Brazill, Peter Lovesey, Louise Welsh, Liza Cody, Peter Turnbull and Nicholas Royle.
  Nice. Given that the good people at Running Press were kind enough to send me two copies, I’m going to go crazy and give one of them away. To be in with a chance of winning it, just answer the following question:
What’s the greatest short story you’ve ever read, and why?
  Answers in the comment box below, please, leaving a contact email address (using (at) rather than @ to confuse the spam munchkins), before noon on Thursday, April 7th. Et bon chance, mes amis

Sunday, April 3, 2011

“Ya Wanna Do It Here Or Down The Station, Punk?”: Sara Gran

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?
Raymond Chandler’s THE LONG GOODBYE. Beautiful, haunting, and exactly what the mystery is is a mystery itself.

What fictional character would you most like to have been?
Well, I like being myself. But Sherlock Homes might have been fun. I would like to be smarter than I am. And Nero Wolfe’s sidekick Archie Goodwin always seemed to have a good time.

Who do you read for guilty pleasures?
I don’t feel guilt about reading. I mean, there’s people killing people out there, Declan, and you think I should feel bad about reading a trashy novel?! But I do enjoy some light reading others would probably like to make me feel guilty for; in contemporary stuff I enjoy the Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child thrillers, and I never get tired of V.C. Andrews, who I’ve written about pretty extensively.

Most satisfying writing moment?
Writing the end of DOPE felt pretty good. And pretty bad. Both of which are probably equally satisfying, which explains a whole lot about the world now that I realize that. Wow. Thanks for bringing that up. I think I just understood something really important.

The best Irish crime novel is …?
Well, the only Irish crime novelist I’ve read is the brilliant and generous Ken Bruen, so I would say his VIXEN. Nothing against the Irish, by the way, I just read very little contemporary fiction, crime or otherwise.

What Irish crime novel would make a great movie?
(See above)

Worst / best thing about being a writer?
Best: Writing! I like to write. And I love working for myself. It’s a lot of responsibility to manage your own life but it beats the hell out of someone else managing it for you. Worst: Same answer! Rewriting the same novel for six months can and does get dreary. And while I love not having a boss, sometimes I wish someone else could be in charge for an hour or two.

The pitch for your next book is …?
I’m writing the second book in the Claire DeWitt series, which takes place in the San Francisco bay area. And thank God I’ve got a contract for it, so I don’t have to pitch it! That’s a nice break from one of the less-fun parts of the job; hawking your books to publishers. It’s Die Hard meets Carlos Castenada (kidding!).

Who are you reading right now?
I’m reading William T. Vollman’s THE ROYAL FAMILY. That’ll be my answer for the next year or two.

God appears and says you can only write OR read. Which would it be?
Lordy that’s a tough one! Starting now, writing; starting from birth, reading - I would have been lost without books.

The three best words to describe your own writing are …?
Oh, I stopped doing these three-word things. If you’re reading this and want to know what my books are about, read the books. If they don’t look like your cup of tea, send me and email and I’ll help you find a better book to read. Isn’t that more useful?

Sara Gran’s CITY OF THE DEAD is published by Faber and Faber.