“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 23, 2012

It’s My Birthday And I’ll Cry If I Want To

Or, having no good reason to cry at the moment, I’ll take the opportunity to side-step for one day the relentless shilling that generally characterises this blog and instead pause to smell the proverbial roses, and celebrate a number of things:
1. I’m 43. There was a time when I thought, and with good reason, that I wouldn’t make it to 30. So there’s that.
2. My baby girl, Lily (right, somehow wearing one more colour than God actually invented), will be four years old on Monday, and thus - as she points out on a regular basis - is no longer a baby girl, even though - as I point out on an equally regular basis - she’ll always be my baby girl. This time four years ago, I was hoping she’d be born today. It wasn’t to be, but I think we’ve all recovered from the disappointment at this stage.
3. Last Monday evening, Lily ‘read’ the Sleeping Beauty story to me, turning the pages and taking the pictures as her cue, and reciting aloud whatever she could remember of the story according to the images. I’m not the best of it yet.
4. I quit smoking (again) three weeks ago. So far, so good.
  There’s plenty of other stuff worth celebrating from the last year or so, but most of it is book-related, so it can all wait for another day.
  Today I will be mostly getting Lily out to school, then coming home to transcribe and write up a Richard Ford interview before reading the final 100 pages of the excellent THE IRON WILL OF SHOESHINE CATS by Hesh Kestin (the latter two items being my idea of work, by the way); proofing and subbing a couple of essays for a non-fiction collection on crime fiction that’s in the pipeline; and then, all going well, relaxing for the evening with what will probably be a very indulgent meal, a bedtime story for Lily, and a couple of beers in front of the TV with Mrs Lovely Wife.
  Not exactly rock ‘n’ roll, I know. But then, I am 43.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Nobody Move, This Is A Review: LOST MEMORY OF SKIN by Russell Banks

Russell Banks’ 13th novel opens with a young man, a 22-year-old known simply as ‘the Kid’, entering a library and asking a librarian to enter his real name on an internet sex offenders list. When she does so, the Kid’s face pops up on the screen, which seems to satisfy some need the Kid has to be confirmed as a sex offender. This need to have his reality confirmed by other, external means is a recurring theme in the Kid’s story.
  The story then opens properly, informing us that as a convicted sex offender currently on parole, the Kid is not allowed to live within 2,500 feet of any place where young children are likely to congregate. This limits his options to three places in the city of Calusa (which appears to be Miami): a remote part of the airport; the swamp that backs onto the city; or under the Causeway that links the city of Calusa to a number of barrier islands along the coast.
  Throughout the novel, Banks draws parallels between the Kid and a number of classic outsider myths, particularly American mythology, such as Billy the Kid and the pirate William Kydde, and further draws explicit parallels between the Kid’s flight into the sanctuary of the Panzacola Swamp and that of the Seminole Indians, who fought the white settlers to a standstill and retained control of huge swathes of Florida’s mangrove swamps.
  Thus the Kid lives under the Causeway in a rudimentary commune with a number of other sex offenders, all male. These include Rabbit, Paco and the Greek, and a newcomer, formerly a lawyer, whom the group called Shyster. It’s a fragile society, and the reader is hardly surprised when the offenders’ haven under the Causeway is attacked in the middle of the night by a group of vigilante policemen, who roust the offenders out and banish them from their limbo-like existence, destroying their crude huts and tents, and shattering the facsimile of civilisation the men have built up over a number of years.
  Banks then introduces a second main character, the Professor. An unusually intelligent man, the Professor lectures at the local university on homelessness. He has always meant to converse with the homeless sex-offenders who live under the Causeway; when he hears the news that they have been rousted from their position, he goes to check it out. The Professor meets the Kid, and offers to help him financially if the Kid will agree to be interviewed about his particular predicament, and the factors that led him to become homeless. The Kid reluctantly agrees, and an odd relationship begins.
  Having chosen his subject matter, Russell Banks is in quite a bind at the beginning of this novel. He needs to make the Kid at least potentially sympathetic, or the reader will have little interest in reading on. And yet, expressing sympathy for a sex offender, and particularly one who targets children, is one of the last taboos of our culture.
  In order to combat this, Banks cites a number of examples of previously taboo topics and / or character types who were once outcasts in society, but have since been rehabilitated. The classic example is that of lepers, a group that is frequently mentioned in association with the Kid and his fellow sex offenders. In one example, Banks writes of the Kid reading the Bible in his tent:
The Kid has started reading the fifth chapter of Numbers and it gives him a sudden chill, makes him sit up in his sleeping bag and keep reading: And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Command the children of Israel, that they put out of the camp every leper, and every one that hath an issue, and whosoever is defiled by the dead: Both male and female shall ye put out, without the camp shall ye put them; that they defile not their camps, in the midst whereof I dwell …
  Not cool, the Kid thinks. Even lepers deserve a break and shouldn’t be abandoned and put under a bridge someplace outside the city like garbage just because they’re sick. That’s what hospitals are for … (pg 273)
  Are sex offenders our contemporary lepers, exiled from society for fear they might infect the rest of us with their disease? Are they entitled to hope that a cure might be found for their particular disease that might allow them to function in society at some point in the future?
  Earlier, Banks has written of the Professor’s intentions:
The Professor intends to cure the Kid of his paedophilia. Not with psychotherapy or drugs or more radical means like feeding him female hormones or chemical castration. He intends to cure the Kid by changing his social circumstances. By giving him power in the world. Autonomy. Putting his fate and thus his character in his own hands. He believes that one’s sexual identity is shaped by one’s self-perceived social identity, that paedophilia, rightly understood, is about not sex, but power. More precisely, it’s about one’s personal perception of one’s power. (pg 159)
  Taken in tandem, the Kid and the Professor make a convincing argument, within the context of the novel, for the fact that some sex offenders are very much the products of their culture. That is to say, they have received a rather negative, or non-existent, nurturing, and thus their sense of right and wrong, of good and evil, is nowhere as strongly pronounced as it should be. Or needs to be, if society is to function.
  The title of the novel, LOST MEMORY OF SKIN, is suggestive of the fact that an entire generation of men, especially, have grown up entirely desensitised to the reality of sex and physical touch, and are experiencing sex - the ultimate in emotional connection, in theory - at a remove, or second-hand, as it were.
  And if a generation’s reaction of one of its prime impulses has been so totally desensitised, what does that mean for the rest of its reactions towards society as a whole?
  There’s an interesting conversation between the Professor and his wife, Gloria, which begins on page 124 with Gloria warning her husband against getting too deeply involved with the Kid:
  You should be careful, hanging out with sex offenders [she says]. Especially homeless sex offenders. Don’t you find them … creepy? Scary? Some of them are rapists, I’ve heard. Child molesters.
  A page or so later, the Professor has this to say:
  These men are human beings, not chimpanzees or gorillas. They belong to the same species as we do. And we’re not hardwired to commit these acts. If, as it appears, the proportion of the male population who commit these acts has increased exponentially in recent years, and it’s not simply because of the criminalisation of the behaviour and a consequent increase in the reportage of these crimes, then there’s something in the wider culture itself that has changed in recent years, and these men are like the canary in the mine shaft, the first among us to respond to that change, as if their social and ethical immune systems, the controls over their behaviour, have been somehow damaged or compromised. And if we don’t identify the specific changes in our culture that are attacking our social and ethical immune systems, which we usually refer to as taboos, then before long we’ll all succumb. We’ll all become sex offenders, Gloria. Perhaps in a sense we already are. (pg 125, italics mine)
  Is Banks blaming the internet and the widespread dissemination of desensitising material? Or is the internet responding to a need in the culture, which seeks to be desensitised to its reality?
  Banks deserves credit for tackling a very difficult subject, and for doing so in a way that is not overbearing, dogmatic, nor prescriptive. Surprisingly, he can be comically playful with the issues he raises. I wouldn’t go so far as to describe the novel as a black comedy, but there are flashes of morbid wit throughout, which go a long way towards leavening the mood. One example comes close to the end, when the Kid is befriended by a freelance travel writer, called - almost inevitably - ‘the Writer’, who is penning a feature for a New York magazine (called ‘Outsider’) on the Panzacola Swamp. Once he hears about the Kid’s and the Professor’s story, the Kid asks if the Writer will write about the story:
Who’d want to read it? [responds the Writer]. Kiddie porn and child molesters, paedophiles and suicidal college professors? Jesus! Besides, I’m just a freelance travel writer, not some kind of investigative journalist or a novelist trying to depress people. I have to make a living. (pg 381)
  There are many other examples of a self-reflexive awareness. On a number of occasions, Banks has one of his characters remind another that what they’re dealing with is reality, rather than fantasy. For example, when the Kid interviews the Professor’s ‘confession’, and agrees to pass on the DVD to the Professor’s wife:
A deal is a deal [the Kid says]. It don’t actually matter to me what’s true about you and what isn’t. It ain’t like this is in a novel or a movie where the whole point is figuring out what’s true. (pg 300)
  Indeed, Banks is quite obviously playing post-modern games. When the Kid rents a houseboat to live on in the Panzacola Swamp, its name is the Dolores Driscoll - which is the same name of the bus driver who played a central part in the novel, THE SWEET HEREAFTER.
  All told, and even if it might have benefited from some judicious editing, I found LOST MEMORY OF SKIN to be a very satisfying novel, not least because Russell Banks is happy to raise any number of difficult questions and not feel the need to spoon-feed the reader easy questions, and for a finale that pulls the rug out from under the complacent reader.
  Both of the main characters, The Kid and The Professor, were sufficiently interesting in themselves and in tandem to make the narrative a compelling one, and The Kid’s story was something unique, offering a glimpse of a life on the underbelly of society that I had never come across before, while the Kid himself is a haunting creation, compared by the Professor to Huckleberry Finn, “long after he lit out for the Territory, grown older and as deep into the Territory as you can go.” - Declan Burke

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Always Trust A Greek Bearing Gifts

Yep, it’s CRIME ALWAYS PAYS at Crime Always Pays - and before you ask, no, crime doesn’t pay. Or crime writing, at least, for me, doesn’t pay. But it is fun.
  Anyway, as all Three Regular Readers will be aware, I published CRIME ALWAYS PAYS - a comedy crime caper set in the Greek islands - as an ebook a couple of years ago, just when things went a little screwy around here, time-wise (new baby, writing a novel, day job, etc.). Which meant that I didn’t get any time to promote it, which was a shame, because I’m of the not-very-humble opinion that CAP is the best book I’ve written to date.
  I have a little more time on my hands these days (baby is all grown up, turning four next week, and currently learning to cook, clean, vacuum and take out the trash), so I’m rebooting CRIME ALWAYS PAYS with a brand spanking new cover, and planning to spend a bit more time promoting it.
  First, the blurb elves:
“You never get away. You’re always getting away ...”

When a kidnap scam goes south, Karen and Ray head for the Greek islands to lay low for a while. Trouble there is, Anna - their Siberian wolf - ripped off Rossi's ear, Rossi being Karen's ex who believes he's owed half the kidnap score. Then there's Doyle, the cop Ray was making gooey eyes at; Sleeps the narcoleptic getaway driver who wants to go back inside for some soft time; and Melody, who’s in the market for a decent story she can turn into a movie. All of which is just Chapter One ...

A trans-Europe screwball noir, CRIME ALWAYS PAYS features a cast of cops and robbers, losers and hopers, villains, saints and a homicidal Siberian wolf. You’ll never see the Greek islands in quite the same light again …

Praise for Declan Burke:

“Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre, was Declan Burke’s ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL … Burke splices insights into the creative process into a fiendishly dark thriller that evokes the best of Flann O’Brien and Bret Easton Ellis.” - Sunday Times, ‘Best Books of the Year 2011’

“Imagine Donald Westlake and his alter ego Richard Stark moving to Ireland and collaborating on a screwball noir and you have some idea of Burke’s accomplishment with THE BIG O.” - Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“I have seen the future of Irish crime fiction and its name is Declan Burke.” - Ken Bruen on EIGHTBALL BOOGIE
  In the interests of promoting said tome, by the way, I’m more than happy to email on a review copy (i.e., e-friendly copy) to anyone who thinks they might like to review it. Or, for that matter, to anyone who thinks they might like to read it with no strings attached. If you do, drop me a line at dbrodb[@]gmail.com. Hell, drop me a line anyway, just to say hello, let me know what you think of the new cover …
  CRIME ALWAYS PAYS did receive a couple of very nice reviews on its first pass around, by the way, the first from the inimitable Glenn Harper over at International Noir:
“CRIME ALWAYS PAYS is part road movie and part farce, reminding me sometimes of Elmore Leonard, sometimes of Allan Guthrie, sometimes of Donald Westlake and sometimes of the Coen Brothers - sometimes all at once.” - Glenn Harper, International Noir
  Meanwhile, the lovely folks at the New Mystery Reader declared that the novel was “ … a little like what might be expected if Elmore Leonard wrote from an outline by Carl Hiaasen ... It’s as close to watching an action movie as a reading experience can be.” Which is nice …
  Finally, here’s a little taster, aka how the novel kicks off, with the less-than-intrepid duo Rossi and Sleeps taking a visit to a veterinarian:
Sleeps

It was bad enough Rossi raving how genius isn’t supposed to be perfect, it’s not that kind of gig, but then the vet started carping about Sleeps’ pride and joy, the .22, nickel-plated, pearl grip, enough to stop a man and put him down but not your actual lethal unless you were unlucky. And right now, empty.
  Sleeps waggled it in the vet’s general direction. ‘Less talk,’ he said, ‘more angel of mercy. How’s that ear coming?’
  Not good and not fast, Rossi ducking around like Sugar Ray in a bouncy castle. Still in shock, bofto on the wowee pills, with these delusions of grandeur – he was Tony Montana or maybe Tony Manero, Sleeps couldn’t say for sure.
  It didn’t help there was no actual ear. The wolf had tore it clean off, along with enough skin to top a sizeable tom-tom. Plus the vet was using catgut and what looked to Sleeps like a needle he’d last seen on the Discovery Channel stuck horizontal through a cannibal’s nose.
  In the end Sleeps stepped in and stuck his forefinger in the wound, stirred it around. Rossi screeched once, high-pitched, then keeled over.
  ‘I’ll be wanting,’ Sleeps said, wiping his finger on Rossi’s pants, ‘a bag of horse tranks. And whatever gun you use for putting down the animals.’
  The vet shook his head. ‘We don’t use those anymore, they’re not humane.’
  ‘Humane? You’re a vet, man.’
  ‘We treat them like children,’ the vet said, ‘not animals.’
  ‘Nice theory.’ Sleeps scratched the cattle-prod off his mental list, gestured at Rossi with the .22. ‘But what if they’re a little of both?’
  So there you have it. CRIME ALWAYS PAYS. In comedy crime capers, at least. If you have the time, the energy and the inclination, I’d be very much obliged if you’d spread the good word

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

“Ya Wanna Do It Here Or Down The Station, Punk?”: Anna Smith

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?
I don’t have one particular crime novel I wish I’d written, because I enjoy a variety of crime – particularly American crime. But anything by Harlan Coben, as I like the way his character Myron Bolitar gets involved in all sorts of scrapes, plus the kind of attitude the character has. I like that style. And I also like anything by Tom Clancy, and the late, great James Crumley.

What fictional character would you most like to have been?
Impossible to answer that because there are so many brilliant female fictional characters down the years. But the ones who spring to mind as having left a lasting impression are, Sophie Zawistowski, the Polish prisoner in the Nazi concentration camp in SOPHIE’S CHOICE, by William Styron. Incredible character, and when I read that novel for the first time the Sophie character blew me away. Also, the bold Scarlett O’Hara from GONE WITH THE WIND – one of the first women to kick down all the barriers and still be the most amazing woman. And JANE EYRE – all the strength and vulnerability that Charlotte Bronte put into creating that character always makes me feel unworthy, no matter how many times I read the novel or listen to the audio version in the car!

Who do you read for guilty pleasures?
Any kind of pulp fiction. I would read Jilly Cooper or Jackie Collins – anything that’s a bit of escapism and takes me into a world that’s well outside of mine. Or something that would be make me laugh!

Most satisfying writing moment?
For me, the most satisfying writing moment is while I’m revising my script and I read back a chapter I’ve written, and find myself surprised at how it’s ended. That means when I wrote it I was so absorbed in the characters that it almost wrote itself, and I feel like I’m reading it for the first time. Spooky feeling, but I love it.

The best Irish crime novel is …?
I haven’t read a lot of Irish crime, but I’m enjoying Stuart Neville’s latest novel STOLEN SOULS. I like his style – very pacy and kind of in-your-face. He can paint a character very quickly in few short sentences.

What Irish crime novel would make a great movie?
I think Stuart Neville’s novels with the Lennon detective character would make a great movie.

Worst / best thing about being a writer?
Best thing about being a writer is freedom to express yourself once you’ve got a character up and running and finding that it’s caught fire with the reader. And when you’re writing a novel, you sit down and look at the blank page of the next chapter and it feels as though these characters you’ve created are waiting to see what they’re going to do next. My characters are very real to me and I love living with them! I don’t have a worst thing about being a writer. I love everything about it, because creating characters and storylines is what makes me tick. I’d have nowhere to go in my life if I didn’t write. Sad, but true!

The pitch for your next book is …?
My next book is called REFUGE and is about refugees in Glasgow who are going missing under very mysterious circumstances, and the journalist character Rosie Gilmour is getting stuck into the investigation. I’m using my experience as a frontline reporter in troublespots all over the world to make the story feel real, and to help create characters with big backstories, who find themselves in Glasgow during a time when the city seems to have refugee fatigue. A lot of the novel is set in Glasgow as I like to retain that with all my novels as it’s my stomping ground. But it’s important to me to take Rosie out of the city and give her big stories all over the world, which is what I did. This investigation takes her to Bosnia, Belgrade and Kosovo, and it’s a ripping story that moves at such an incredible pace it was even hard for me to keep up with it!

Who are you reading right now?
Right now I’m reading a book by Natasha Cooper, called OUT OF THE DARK – very classy and a gripping story.

God appears and says you can only write OR read. Which would it be?
If God appeared and says I can only write or read – it would be write. Every time. Writing is about more than putting words on the screen. I write in my head all the time, because I live in my imagination, and so much of what I see I always look further at it, creating characters and stories all the time. If I couldn’t write, I couldn’t think. I’m very lucky.

The three best words to describe your own writing are …?
Compelling. Moving. Tense.

Anna Smith’s TO TELL THE TRUTH is published by Quercus.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The At Last Girl

Jane Casey (right) is quietly becoming one of the stars of the Irish crime writing scene, penning London-set psychological thrillers - THE MISSING, THE BURNING, THE RECKONING - which feature the very likeable heroine DC Maeve Kerrigan. Her latest offering is another Maeve Kerrigan novel, THE LAST GIRL (Ebury Press / May 24th), and the blurb elves have been wittering thusly:
High summer. Wimbledon. 14-year-old Lydia Kennford returns home to discover the bodies of her mother and twin sister in the family living room, while her father, Philip, lies unconscious and bleeding in an upstairs bedroom. DC Maeve Kerrigan and DI Josh Derwent begin to investigate, discounting a burglary quickly and focusing instead on Philip Kennford QC himself. There is no easy explanation for why he survived when the others were shown no mercy, and they suspect he might have staged the attack on himself after killing his wife and daughter. But Kennford is a self-possessed, intelligent man who knows criminal law inside out; proving that he’s guilty will be difficult.
  Jane Casey has twice been shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards in the last couple of years, and gone home empty-handed each time. Will THE LAST GIRL become THE AT LAST GIRL, ands see her finally taking home the gong? Only time, that notoriously doity rat, will tell …