“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, March 2, 2012

“Ya Wanna Do It Here Or Down The Station, Punk?”: Paul Johnston

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?
It changes on a daily basis - today, Michael Dibdin’s DEAD LAGOON. (Sorry, Raymond Chandler’s THE BIG SLEEP, James Ellroy’s WHITE JAZZ, Ian Rankin’s BLACK AND BLUE, Robert Wilson’s A SMALL DEATH IN LISBON, James Lee Burke’s IN THE ELECTRIC MIST WITH THE CONFEDERATE DEAD - best title award, and John Connolly’s THE KILLING KIND.)

What fictional character would you most like to have been?
It would have been Sherlock H, but he’s been debased by modern revamps. So how about the Continental Op, with fewer pounds and more hair?

Who do you read for guilty pleasures?
*Inhales deeply* Tolkien.

Most satisfying writing moment?
Finishing THE LAST RED DEATH (2003), my novel about terrorism in Greece. I’d been feeling like shit and it turned out I had a very nasty cancer (called ‘Thatcher’). Nearly didn’t see publication day...

The best Irish crime novel is …?
Aha! I won’t embarrass you by saying ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL (oops, I just did), so I’ll go for Eoin McNamee’s RESURRECTION MAN.

What Irish crime novel would make a great movie?
Well, they screwed up RESURRECTION MAN big time. I think Alan Glynn’s WINTERLAND fits the bill.

Worst / best thing about being a writer?
The blank page or screen/ the last hours of writing a novel, when everything - unbelievably - comes together.

The pitch for your next book is …?
THE GREEN LADY - Athens 2004: the Olympic Games, the eyes of the world, and a major industrialist’s daughter goes missing. Think Persephone, Hades and all hell breaking loose around PI Alex Mavros ...

Who are you reading right now?
David Lodge’s A MAN OF PARTS, about H.G. Wells - disappointingly little about the great SF books, mainly because ‘HG’ wasn’t shagging anything that moved when he wrote them. Crime novels I’ve read recently are Peter May’s THE BLACKHOUSE (over-rated), Christa Faust’s MONEY SHOT (not as revealing about the making of porn movies as I’d hoped ), Tony Black’s TRUTH LIES BLEEDING (good), Megan Abbott’s QUEENPIN (excellent) and Joyce Carol Oates’ ZOMBIE (the last word on serial killers and squirm-inducing, in a good way).

God appears and says you can only write OR read. Which would it be?
God? Who s/he? Anyway, obviously ‘write’. Then I could read what I’d written, thus sneakily defeating your conundrum.

The three best words to describe your own writing are …?
Political, fast-paced, violent. (Oh, and on the grounds that no one expects the Irish Inquisition, deep.)

Paul Johnston’s THE SILVER STAIN is published by Crème de la Crime.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Crime Fiction and Contemporary Ireland: The Truth!

It’s off to Maynooth University with yours truly next Tuesday, for an event titled ‘Crime Fiction and Contemporary Ireland’, which will be hosted by one Rob Kitchin of Blue House fame. I’m really looking forward to it, even if it’s the case that I’ll stuck between two of Ireland’s finest journalists (and equally fine novelists) in Gene Kerrigan and Niamh O’Connor, both of whom, it’s fair to say, have their fingers firmly on the erratic pulse of that intensive care patient known fondly to the world’s financial markets as Ireland, Inc. Meanwhile, I’m a guy who reviews books and movies for a living. I’ll be so far out of my depth I may wind up with a crippling case of the bends.
  I think it’ll be an interesting event, though. Last year, when DOWN THESE GREEN STREETS came out, one negative review more or less sneered at Irish crime writing on the basis that it feeds like a parasite off the misery of the country without offering any solutions to the mess. Which I thought was a bit rich, seeing as how a whole raft of politicians and economists are paid to come up with solutions to various economic messes, and fail miserably at every hand’s turn.
  Anyway, there are a number of Irish crime writers who are engaged with charting the woes of contemporary Ireland through their fiction, although there are as many again who haven’t the slightest interest in doing so. It’s all valid, I think. The most important thing any book can offer is an interesting story, well written. If a writer chooses to give that story an immediacy and urgency that derives from a timely investigation of the setting’s current ills and travails, then that can add another dimension. By the same token, agit-prop is no one’s idea of good art. So there’s a fine line to be negotiated.
  My current book, ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL, has a bit of fun with the notion of agit-prop, setting up a hospital as a metaphor for the country itself, with a demented hospital porter hell-bent on blowing it up in order to alert the nation to the dangers of depending too heavily on the kindness of strangers. My new book, SLAUGHTER’S HOUND, which I’ve just finished, is also influenced by current events - I find it very difficult to ignore that kind of thing, simply because it would be unrealistic for characters not to be engaged on a daily basis with the wider context of how their lives are being lived, or - more accurately, perhaps - how they are forced to live their lives.
  The extract below is from SLAUGHTER’S HOUND, and comes when the main character, and narrator, the former private eye Harry Rigby, is conversing with a previously wealthy woman, Saoirse Hamilton, whose son, Finn, has committed suicide two days previously, due to his financial circumstances. Saoirse Hamilton, as you can imagine, is rather bitter, and keen to foist the blame for Finn’s death (and by extension Ireland’s woes) onto someone, anyone, other than herself:
  ‘This is an old country, Mr Rigby. There are passage tombs up on the hills of Carrowkeel and their stones gone mossy long before the pyramids were built. There were Greeks sailing into Sligo Bay when Berlin was still a fetid swamp in some godforsaken forest. Take a detour off our shiny new roads and you’ll find yourself in a labyrinth, because no Roman ever laid so much as a foundation brick on this island. Hibernia, they called it.’ A wry smile. ‘Winterland.’
  ‘Well, the roads run straight enough now.’
  ‘Indeed. Irish tyres hissing slick on the sweat of the German tax-payer, who will tell you that he has paid for every last yard of straight road built here in the last forty years. You know,’ she said, ‘there have always been those who turned their back on Brussels and Frankfurt, and not everyone who professes to ourselves alone is a Sticky or a Shinner. But I could never understand that. I quite liked the idea that Herr Fritz was spreading around his Marshall Plan largesse to buy himself some badly needed friends.’ She shrugged. Her voice gone dead and cold, as if she spoke from inside a tomb. ‘Perhaps I was wrong. Herr Shylock has returned demanding his pound of flesh, and it appears he is charging blood debt rates. Straight roads, certainly, and more suicides in the last year than died in traffic accidents.’
  ‘It won’t last,’ I said. ‘Nothing ever does.’
  A hard flash of perfect teeth. ‘My point entirely, Mr Rigby. I’m told that the latest from Frankfurt is that our German friends are quietly pleased that the Irish are not Greeks, that we take our medicine with a pat on the head. No strikes, no burning of the bondholders, or actual banks. Apparently they’re a little contemptuous, telling one another as they pass the latest Irish budget around the Reichstag for approval that we have been conditioned by eight hundred years of oppression to perfect that very Irish sleight of hand, to tug the forelock even as we hold out the begging bowl.
  ‘They are children, Mr Rigby, our German friends. Conditioned themselves, since Charlemagne, to believe want and need are the same instinct. Hardwired to blitzkrieg and overreach, to forget the long game, the hard lessons of harsh winters bogged down in foreign lands.’ Tremulous now. Not the first time she’d delivered this speech. ‘The Romans were no fools. Strangers come here to wither and die. Celt, Dane, Norman and English, they charged ashore waving their axes and swords and we gave up our blood and took the best they have, and when they sank into our bogs we burned them for heat and carved our stories from their smoke and words.’
  SLAUGHTER’S HOUND is due to be published in June, which is around about the time when the Irish people will be going to the polls to vote in a referendum on whether Ireland should change its constitution to allow for the EU’s new fiscal treaty pact to take effect here. Essentially, I think, the battle for Yes and No will be fought on the basis of how steaming mad the Irish people are at their loss of economic sovereignty at the hands of a German-dominated EU - which isn’t strictly true, by any means, and ignores the extent to which Ireland was culpable in its own downfall (SLAUGHTER’S HOUND is to a large extent a novel about the consequences of not taking responsibility for your actions).
  Contrary to the doomsayers, I believe the Yes vote will edge the referendum, this on the basis of ‘that very Irish sleight of hand, to tug the forelock even as we hold out the begging bowl’ - we’ll be offered a deal on the debt Ireland has been burdened with, and we’ll vote pragmatically, if not on behalf of ourselves, then on behalf of our children.
  But I digress. Where was I? Oh, yes - ‘Crime Fiction and Contemporary Ireland’, Maynooth University, March 6th, 5pm. If you’re in the vicinity, we’d love to see you there …

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Nobody Move, This Is A Review: HOPE: A TRAGEDY by Shalom Auslander

HOPE: A TRAGEDY opens with Solomon Kugel hearing strange sounds in the attic of the farmhouse he and his wife have recently bought after moving from Brooklyn to the small, rural community of Stockton. Fearing that the scratching sounds he hears in the attic are mice, Kugel goes to investigate. Much to his surprise, he discovers that the ‘scratching’ is in fact typing, and that the typist is an elderly woman who lives in the attic. Rather more surprising is the fact that the elderly woman is Anne Frank, previously, and famously, thought to have perished in a concentration camp during the Holocaust, but who has instead spent her entire life hiding out in attics.
  Being Jewish, Kugel finds himself in a bind. The tattoo on her arm confirms that the woman is indeed a Holocaust survivor, even if she isn’t Anne Frank. Will Kugel be the man to be identified as the Jew who threw a survivor out of his house? And what if the woman really is Anne Frank?
  HOPE: A TRAGEDY has been compared to a wide variety of Jewish writers, including Philip Roth and Woody Allen, but for me the novel was very much in the same vein as Kurt Vonnegut’s work, and I mean that as the highest of compliments.
  Auslander very elegantly, and hilariously, presents the reader with an impossible scenario, that of a man discovering that Anne Frank is alive and well in his farmhouse attic, and working on a novel which she hopes will trump the thirty-two million sales of The Diary of Anne Frank.
  For some, such a scenario may prove too irreverent, especially as it’s the case that Auslander has his characters engage with the Holocaust, and the entirety of Jewish persecution, in a way that few writers would have the courage to do. Essentially, Auslander is questioning the sacred cow of Jewish suffering, and asking tough questions about a culture, and an industry, that has grown up around the unquestioning acceptance of the Jews’ right to claim that their suffering trumps all others’.
  It’s a very tough sell, especially as Auslander is writing in the comic style - although it’s fair to say, I think, that the humour is of a very black pitch. For example, the first chapter is something of a very short prologue, about a man suffocating to death in a house fire. Chapter Two then opens with: ‘Solomon Kugel was lying in bed, thinking about suffocating to death in a house fire, because he was an optimist … Hope, said Professor Jove, was Solomon Kugel’s greatest failing.’
  But Auslander is being quite clever, I think, in his subject matter. While some might object to the irreverent way in which he writes about the Holocaust, for example, Auslander never fails to provide the context of the Holocaust, and never shies away from portraying the horrors, the banality of the evil, the sheer scale of the industrialisation of the attempted murder of an entire race. In other words, Auslander gets to have it both ways, and he copes with the balance remarkably well.
  Kugel himself is a very likeable character, the classically ‘nebbish’ Jewish character who is riven with paranoia and anxiety, and who is too self-aware for his own good. Constantly second-guessing himself, his heart is in the right place - who wouldn’t, if offered the opportunity, give Anne Frank a place to live? - but this clashes with his more immediate responsibilities, to his wife and young son. He is, naturally, in therapy, although Kugel’s therapist, Dr Jove, is a rather bracing man who preaches against hope and optimism. ‘Give Up,’ says the sign in Dr Jove’s office, ‘You’ll Live Longer’.
  Around Kugel, Auslander has created a number of enthralling characters. Chief among them is Anne Frank herself, whom Auslander re-imagines as an elderly crone, shuffling around an attic as she types her never-ending novel. Anne has been poisoned against the human race, as you might imagine, given her experiences, and proves to be a fairly callous, uncaring tenant, one given to pronouncements on the Holocaust that should shrivel the soul. She is a malign, brooding presence in the Kugel attic, and one which drives a wedge between Kugel and his wife, Bree.
  Kugel’s mother is another fascinating character. Abandoned by her husband as a young woman, leaving her to rear Kugel and his sister Hannah alone, Mother is an embittered creature who has learned to foist all of her disappointments in life on the Nazis. She blames the ‘sons of bitches’ for everything, even though she was born and raised long after WWII, in relative comfort in Brooklyn. ‘Ever since the war,’ she mutters whenever something goes wrong, which leads those who don’t know her well to presume that she suffered badly during the Holocaust. For those who do know her, and particularly her family, they learn to accept her self-association with the Holocaust as one of her many quirks and foibles. From pg 107, when Kugel and Mother are talking about when it’s appropriate to tell a three-year-old boy about the Holocaust:
Reason rarely worked with Mother, so Kugel had appealed, as he often did, to her emotions. As destructive as her way of showing it may have been, Kugel believed she loved Jonah deeply, and genuinely cared, first and foremost, for his well-being.
  You’re going to scare him, Kugel said, looking deep into her eyes.
  Somebody has to, Mother replied.
  The novel is a classic novel-of-ideas, with Auslander freewheeling through a variety of concepts, exploring philosophies and putting his very idiosyncratic spin on them. For all the whimsical, irreverent humour, and its apparently ludicrous central concept, the novel has very serious things to say about the human condition, and humanity’s constant ability to generate hope and optimism despite all the evidence to the contrary. Strip away the jokes and Kugel’s self-flagellating mind-set and the story becomes a very bleak tale of the inevitability of death, and the extent to which hope is a self-deluding folly; and more, a dangerous folly, for there is no depth, the novel warns, to which humanity will not sink.
  The novel is also an exploration of the creative process, Anne Frank typing away in the Kugels’ attic being a metaphor, presumably, for Auslander’s struggle to write fiction, even as someone stalks the darkness outside, bent on burning down Kugel’s farmhouse. It is chock-a-block with literary references, from some very pointed and funny comments on Philip Roth’s superstar status in the literary establishment in New York, to throwaway mentions of Zelig, and Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’, and a whole range of final utterings by famous people.
  HOPE: A TRAGEDY is a wonderful novel. The writing is wonderfully arch, the humour is brilliantly bleak, and it’s a book bursting with ideas, concepts and notions. It’s subversive, irreverent, scabrously funny and profound - in short, it represents for me everything a novel should be, raising far more questions than it provides answers for, and asking the reader to decide, in the end, if the writer is serious or not. I believe he is deadly serious about the philosophical notions in the book, and that there’s an incandescent anger about the Holocaust burning brightly between each and every line. - Declan Burke

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

SLAUGHTER’S HOUND: A Shaggy Dog Story

The more eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that I haven’t posted anything here for the last three or four days, in large part because I’ve been struggling in the death throes of the latest book, which felt a lot like howling at the moon whilst wrestling a tank full of giant squid, naked. That’s me who was naked, not the squid. They were all wearing Kevlar.
  Anyway, it’s done now, for good or ill. Or pretty much done, because the book will go off to an editor, and the editor will pick up on all the glaring plot holes and the occasional damp tentacle draped across a page, not to mention (so why mention it?) the complete lack of anything approaching cohesive grammar and punctuation. So, yes, there will be changes to make, and commas to fiddle obsessively with, and no doubt the occasional stray tentacle will come in very useful for the purpose of self-flagellation.
  But to all intents and purposes, the book - SLAUGHTER’S HOUND - is done. And so am I. This has, by some distance, been the toughest book I’ve ever written. I think that that’s in part because I was writing against my previous / current offering, ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL, which is a tongue-in-cheek take on the crime novel, and wanted SLAUGHTER’S HOUND to be very much a straight crime novel; and while it’s nice to bounce around the genre and play games and have fun, there’s something very satisfying in playing the game straight and hard and clean. Not that SLAUGHTER’S HOUND is very ‘clean’ - it’s a filthy, grimy slice of noir, or so I hope.
  The main reason it was a tough book to write, though, is that it’s the first book I’ve written since the light of my life, aka the Princess Lilyput, grew old enough to climb the stairs on her own and come tapping on the door of my lair and demand I come play with her. Which meant that most of the book was written between the hours of 5am and 7am, while Lily is still asleep, and before the day proper begins. It’s a lovely time to write, because there’s absolutely no danger that you’ll be disturbed by anything except the occasional (frequent) realisation of your own limitations, but that kind of schedule, when you’re also running a full-time freelance journalism schedule, just isn’t sustainable in the long run. Right now I feel blitzed to the bone, utterly exhausted, as if I’ve burnt the candle at both ends and taken a flamethrower to the middle. The prospect of sleeping in until 7am tomorrow morning is so delicious as to verge on sinful.
  There’s a slump coming, I know. The nervous energy (and buckets of coffee) that sustain me through the final, frenzied stages of a book requires payback, the mental equivalent of crawling into a cave and curling up in the foetal position, fingers stuffed in my ears. And there’s an emotional price too, if you’re in any way engaged emotionally with your characters - right now it feels as if I’ve been living for the last few weeks with one foot in reality and the other in the makey-uppy world, some kind of half-assed Atlas shouldering a sky of his own making. Yes, I know it’s only a detective novel, but that’s not really the point: if you’re committed to it, then it takes a certain amount of psychic energy to bring it into being and (koff) keep it real - and once it’s done and you step away, hoping the architecture is such that it stands alone without your support, then that can be a very draining experience.
  And then, of course, there’s the girding of the metaphorical loins to hear the offer for your work, and the kick in the metaphorical groin when you realise just how little all that effort is worth, in cash terms at least.
  It’s traditional at this point for me to announce that that’s it, I’ll never write another book again; but at this stage, who would I be kidding? Already there’s an asp’s nest stirring and hissing in the back of my head, the vague outlines of another story coming together.
So I’ll suck it all up, and get some sleep, and in a couple of months time I’ll slap myself around the chops and sit down at the desk again. For good or ill.
  Finally, and given that SLAUGHTER’S HOUND is a sequel to my first book, EIGHTBALL BOOGIE, I’m going to celebrate finishing the former by making the ebook of the latter available at the knock-down, recession-friendly price of $3.99 / £2.50 for the next 30 days. A private eye-of-sorts tale featuring ‘research consultant’ Harry Rigby, it was described on its publication as ‘the future of Irish crime fiction’ by no less an expert on the future of Irish crime fiction as Ken Bruen. For all the details and links, clickety-click here