“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, January 27, 2012

A Murder Less Ordinary

Now this could be interesting. It’s not often you get a debut crime novel from a former editor of the Irish Times who is also a former Garda Ombudsman, but Conor Brady publishes A JUNE OF ORDINARY MURDERS with New Island next month. Quoth the blurb elves:
In the 1880s the Dublin Metropolitan Police classified crime in two distinct classes. Political crimes were ‘special’, whereas theft, robbery and even murder, no matter how terrible, were ‘ordinary’.
  Dublin, June 1887: the mutilated bodies of a man and a child are discovered in Phoenix Park and Detective Sergeant Joe Swallow steps up to investigate. Cynical and tired, Swallow is a man living on past successes in need of a win.
  In the background, the city is sweltering in a long summer heatwave, a potential gangland war is simmering as the chief lieutenants of a dying crime boss size each other up and the castle administration want the celebration of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee to pass off without complication. Underneath it all, the growing threat of anti-British radicals is never far away. With the Land War at its height, the priority is to contain ‘special’ crime. But these murders appear to be ‘ordinary’ and thus of lesser priority.   When the evidence suggests high-level involvement, and as the body count increases, Swallow must navigate the waters of foolish superiors, political directives and frayed tempers to investigate the crime, find the true murderer and deliver justice.
  A JUNE OF ORDINARY MURDERS captures the life and essence of Dublin in the 1880s and draws the reader on a thrilling journey of murder and intrigue.
  Sounds like it could be an absolute cracker. Brady, incidentally, has previously published the non-fiction GUARDIANS OF THE PEACE, ‘a political history of the Irish Police, or Garda Síochána’. We’ve had historical Irish crime fiction from Cora Harrison and Kevin McCarthy to date, and while one Swallow (koff) doesn’t make a summer, the late 19th century in Ireland could well be very fertile ground for a very interesting series. We’ll keep you posted …

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The James Gang

I had a round-up of recent crime titles published in the Sunday Independent last week, among them PERFECT PEOPLE by Peter James and DEATH COMES TO PEMBERLEY by PD James. I’ve mentioned both of those titles here recently, though, so here’s the third of the reviews, being FEAST DAY OF FOOLS by James Lee Burke. To wit:
Set in contemporary Texas, FEAST DAY OF FOOLS by James Lee Burke is a very modern novel that is nevertheless obsessed with the past. The novel is the third in a series of books to centre on Hackberry Holland, county sheriff of a Texas territory that shares a border with Mexico; the first in the series, LAY DOWN MY SWORD AND SHIELD, was published in 1971, while the second, RAIN GODS, was published in 2009.
  Here Holland finds himself faced by an old adversary, a religiously-inspired killer called Preacher Jack. He also struggles to cope with a narco-gang spilling over the border from Mexico, led by the ruthless Krill; and a number of competing groups, some of whom are legal, others criminal, who are in pursuit of a missing man called Noie Barnum, an engineer with information on the Predator drone, and who is considered a valuable asset to be captured and sold to Al Qaeda.
  Written in a style that could on occasion be mistaken for that of Cormac McCarthy, Burke’s prose is here heavily influenced by Biblical references, as the aging Holland meditates on this mortality and tries to come to terms with his failings as a man. Holland is depicted as something of a bridge between the past and the future - his grandfather, for example, was an Old West sheriff - and Burke is at pains to set Hackberry Holland very firmly in the landscape of south Texas, frequently writing eloquently descriptive passages about the deserts and mountains, its storms, sunsets and dawns.
  Despite the contemporary references, however, and Burke’s explicit referencing of the consequences of 9/11, FEAST DAY OF FOOLS is no less than a good old-fashioned Western masquerading as a crime thriller, fuelled by the pioneer spirit and the attempt to impose order on the anarchy of the lawless Old West. The result is a hugely entertaining and thought-proving novel.
  This review first appeared in the Sunday Independent.

Monday, January 23, 2012

How NOT To Be A Writer

You may, if you’re an aspiring writer and you’ve perused the interweb for more than five seconds at a time, stumbled across a blog post titled, ‘How To Be A Writer’. There are variations on this theme, the bolder ones being titled, ‘How To Be A Successful Author’, but generally speaking the song remains the same: someone you’ve never heard of saying things like, ‘Work hard’ and ‘Don’t give up’ and ‘Try to marry someone who thinks you’re a genius but who doesn’t actually know a good book from an elephant’s left testicle’. And so on, and so forth.
  For some reason, you never come across posts about ‘How Not To Be A Writer’. Which is a little bit odd, really, because wanting to be a writer is a disease, a sickness, and most people (yours truly included, very probably) are never going to get well, aka make it as a successful author. Which means, in turn, that all these helpful bloggers are not unlike enablers in a perverse take on Alcoholics Anonymous (‘Be sure to drink booze every day’; ‘Set yourself a number of drinks, for example ten, and try to drink them all in one sitting, although don’t beat yourself up if you only manage nine.’).
  Funnily enough, very few of these posts about how to be a writer start off with (or mention at all) the need for some talent. ‘Before you begin your soul-shrivelling journey into oblivion, first ensure you have a flair for swilling martinis at 3pm in the afternoon, every afternoon. Your wife believing that you are a useless booze-hound simply isn’t enough.’
  Anyway, given that being a writer is a tough gig, but wanting to be a writer is that soul-shrivelling experience, and particularly if you lack talent, and that I’ve spent the last two decades embarked on such a journey, I hereby present for your delectation ‘Declan Burke’s How NOT To Be A Writer’ (© Declan Burke, 2012). To wit:
How NOT To Be A Writer

1) Read, read, read, read, read. And keep on reading. What’s the worst that could happen? An education?

2) Write every day. Especially on Twitter. Blogging helps too, and especially guest posts on other author’s blogs and unpaid self-promo gigs masquerading as op-eds in your local newspaper. If you’re of an ironic bent, you could specialise in ‘How To Be A Successful Author’ pieces.

3) Develop an obsession with honing your craft. An extreme example of this is Ernest Hemingway, who learned to write by typing out entire books by writers he admired. The trick here is to read back over these manuscripts once they’re typed up, accept that you’ll never in a million years do any better, acknowledge that there’s few enough trees in the Amazon rain forest anyway, and go read some Hemingway.

4) Express yourself. Many people turn to writing as a cathartic exercise, a means by which they can purge their inner demons. But why waste your time impressing complete strangers with your lunacy? It’s much more fun to allow your anger to build and build, then terrorise your nearest and dearest with irrational outbursts of (preferably inarticulate) rage.

5) Learn to delegate. Come up with story ideas and then hand them over to someone else to turn into a novel. If you’re very good at this, you’ll come up with the same story every single time. If James Patterson sues, great: you’ll be so busy fending off his lawyers you won’t have time to scribble so much as a Post-It note.

6) If at first you don’t succeed ... immediately accept that repeating the same action over and over again and getting the same result while expecting a different response is a kind of madness, albeit not a madness sufficiently interesting to be worth writing about. (see Number 4).

7) Shoot for the moon. Aim to be the next James Joyce, Mary Renault or Raymond Chandler, et al. If you’re useless, that should keep you locked away in a shed working on your first manuscript for at least forty years. If you’re halfway good, you’ll give up immediately. If you’re as brilliant as you think you are, you’ll pack it in after three pages, consumed by self-loathing at how close you came to stooping to compete with the likes of raggedy-ass Joyce, Renault and Chandler, et al.

8) Learn from the experts. Sign up to every creative writing programme in town. Literally. Not only will you be too busy attending classes to do any actual writing of your own, the conflicting advice offered by the internationally renowned, prize-winning and critically acclaimed authors hosting said programmes will melt your brain to the point where even your special brand of lunacy is left smouldering in the ashes.

9) Identify your target demographic. Don’t go writing any old tat in the hope people will find it interesting. Do some research and find out what it is people actually like to read (the NYT best-seller list may be of some use here), and then write that and publish it under the name of James Patterson. He’ll hardly notice one more, will he? And even if he sues, we’re back to Number 5 again.

10) Get a life. No, really. Make some friends, have a kid or two. Go for a walk. Play some ball. Travel the world, swim with the dolphins, stalk James Patterson. Start living first-hand rather than through the mirror darkly. What’s the worst that can happen? A life?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Nobody Move, This Is A Review: THE COLD COLD GROUND by Adrian McKinty

I reviewed Adrian McKinty’s THE COLD COLD GROUND for RTE’s Arena programme last week, in the very fine company of Arlene Hunt. The audio can be found here, with the gist of my review notes running thusly:
The riot had taken on a beauty of its own now. Arcs of gasoline fire under the crescent moon. Crimson tracer in mystical parabolas. Phosphorescence from the barrels of plastic bullet guns. A distant yelling like that of men below decks in a torpedoed prison ship. The scarlet whoosh of Molotovs intersecting with exacting surfaces. Helicopters everywhere: their spotlights finding one another like lovers in the Afterlife.
  And all this through a lens of oleaginous Belfast rain. - Adrian McKinty, THE COLD COLD GROUND
  Adrian McKinty’s latest novel opens in the spring of 1981, with a group of RUC officers watching a Belfast riot from afar. The action is described in the first person by Detective Sergeant Sean Duffy, a Catholic in the predominantly Protestant RUC. The backdrop to the riots is the ongoing hunger strikes, although Duffy and his cohorts are a little disappointed with this particular riot:
“In fact we had seen better only last week when, in the hospital wing of The Maze Prison, IRA commander Bobby Sands had finally popped his clogs.”
  Against the powder-keg backdrop of the hunger strikes, DS Duffy investigates a number of murders that appeared to be linked: a homophobic serial killer seems to be targeting homosexuals. Given that Northern Ireland has had no previous experience of a serial killer, however, Duffy has his doubts, and believes that the murders may be perpetrated by someone using the homophobia, and the ongoing tension related to the hunger strikes, as an excuse to settle some personal, paramilitary-related scores …
  DS Sean Duffy is a fascinating character, being a Catholic police officer in a predominantly Protestant RUC at the time of the hunger strikes. This immediately gives his story an extra frisson, as sectarianism was at its height (or nadir) in Northern Ireland during the early 1980s. In fact, and despite being a police officer, DS Duffy keeps his religion a secret from his neighbours, allowing them to presume that he is a Protestant.
  That said, the sectarianism Duffy faces doesn’t necessarily lend itself to conflict. At work, for example, Duffy and his co-workers engage in sectarian banter in which Duffy gives as good as he gets. As often as not, the sectarianism manifests itself as lazy stereotyping; his Protestant superiors, for example, simply presume that Duffy, being a Catholic, must know virtually every other Catholic in Northern Ireland.
  Away from work, Duffy is the antithesis of the ultra-conservative RUC officer. He listens to the period’s more adventurous rock music, and occasionally smokes dope. He appears to be more laidback about life in general than his colleagues, particularly in terms of the sectarianism of Northern Ireland. When it becomes clear that a killer is targeting homosexuals, Duffy is much less homophobic in his attitude towards the gay community than most of his colleagues.
  It’s easy to see why McKinty picked the hunger strikes for a backdrop: the setting provides immediate tension, a sharply divided society, and a very vivid backdrop of continuous rioting. By the same token, the hunger strikes are still hugely important in the psyche of Northern Ireland, and have iconic status in large parts of the Catholic / Nationalist community. Any crime writer deploying the hunger strikes as a backdrop runs the risk of being accused of exploiting the period, and the sacrifices made, for the sake of a crime thriller.
  Having said all that, I got the impression that McKinty picked the hunger strikes for the backdrop to this novel not just because it would provide instant tension, but because that period, arguably, represented the nadir of the Troubles, and so serves as a kind of crucible for the worst that humanity is capable of.
  It’s worth mentioning, I think, that there has been very little by way of serial killer novels in Ireland until very recently. The only explicit examples I can think of are Rob Kitchin’s THE RULE BOOK and TABOO by Casey Hill, although it can be argued that Stuart Neville’s THE TWELVE is a serial killer novel (in that particular case, the ‘serial killer’ is a sympathetic character, who kills to avenge others’ deaths). All three novels have appeared in the last two or three years. (Arlene Hunt’s novel THE CHOSEN is in part a serial killer novel, but that book is set in the US.)
  This may be because Ireland itself has had no history of serial killers - officially, at least. By the same token, Ireland has lent itself over the years to being a place where a psychopath could very easily indulge a homicidal streak by signing up to one or another political / paramilitary creed. The Shankhill Butchers, for example, were serial killers in all but name.
  As for the style, McKinty quickly establishes and maintains a pacy narrative, but he does a sight more too. McKinty brings a quality of muscular poetry to his prose, and the opening paragraph quoted above is as good an example as any. He belongs in a select group of crime writers, those you would read for the quality of their prose alone: James Lee Burke, John Connolly, Eoin McNamee, David Peace, James Ellroy.
  I should probably have pointed out before beginning this review that I’ve been a fan of Adrian McKinty’s work since his first novel, DEAD I WELL MAY BE. I think he’s one of the best crime writers currently working today, and I also think that THE COLD COLD GROUND is his best novel since his debut. Given its backdrop, and the fact that the hunger strikes are still to a great extent a taboo subject in fiction, I would also argue that THE COLD COLD GROUND is an important novel too. - Declan Burke