“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.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Nobody Move, This Is a Review: THE IRON WILL OF SHOESHINE CATS by Hesh Kestin

And now for something almost entirely different. Set in New York in late 1963, THE IRON WILL OF SHOESHINE CATS is narrated by Russell Newhouse, a young Jewish student of English literature. At the age of 22, Russell is an orphan, having lost his mother at a young age, and his father - a well-known hard-bitten Jewish NYPD cop - more recently.
  Russell is also a member of the Bhotke Young Men’s Society, a meeting of which is interrupted by the arrival of Shushan Cats, a notorious gangster and larger-than-life character known to the media as ‘Shoeshine Cats’ and ‘Kid Yid’. The Bhotke Young Men’s Society owns a plot of real estate in the Queens cemetery, and Shushan, whose mother has just died, wishes to join the society so as to avail of a grave for his beloved mother. Russell, as secretary for the society, is given the job of organising the funeral.
  From there, of course, it’s but a short hop, skip and jump before Russell is running a mob empire and fending off FBI investigations into the assassination of JFK.
  First that mob empire: Shushan ‘Shoeshine’ Cats is not Italian, but Jewish, and this is crucially important to the plot and the way the story is told. Kestin frequently refers back to the Holocaust, for example, which has taken place barely two decades before in terms of the novel’s setting:
Of the entire village of Bhotke [in Poland], only one man had survived the initial slaughter in 1939 when an SS battalion had entered the village … Was it any wonder that a Jew who brandished a baseball bat and feared no one, and who was known to fear no one, might become a hero to the Jews who survived?
  To the members of the Bhotke Young Men’s Society, Shushan Cats was no criminal. The criminal statutes held no validity for those to whom the law meant only authorized starvation, torture, death. Everything done to the Jews of Europe … everything done to these had been absolutely legal, sanctioned by legitimate courts whose judges sat in black robes and vetted each and every decree as binding, fair, in the public interest, legal. Under these circumstances, that Shushan Cats was a Jewish gangster not only could not be held against him, but was a matter for celebration. (pg 219)
  The novel is on the one had a mildly absurd and very funny crime novel. Kestin revels in the tropes of the crime novel, and virtually every chapter ends on a cliff-hanger, each one more ridiculous than the last. There are times when the tough-guy patter and dialogue is so hard-boiled as to recall the best of Raymond Chandler, although Kestin does invest his style with directness that can be as disconcerting as it is hilarious: “I thought: Let’s take this bullshit one turd at a time.” (pg 127)
  For the most part, however, style and tone is very much tongue-in-cheek; while the historical detail is neatly detailed, and the story is very much rooted in reality, the central premise - that a bookish-loving student might find himself gifted a gangster’s criminal empire - is ludicrous.
  It’s important, I think, to view that unlikely promotion in context, however; the ludicrous nature of it is very deliberate. How likely would it have been fifty years previously, for example, that a single nation would make it its mission to wipe out the entire Jewish race? How likely was it, on November 20th, 1963, that President John Kennedy would be assassinated on a drive through Dallas, Texas? Could anyone have predicted, ten years previously, that hawks in Moscow and Washington would have lined up enough nuclear warheads to eradicate humanity rather than back down on a matter of principle?
  The early 1960s was a time when the absurd seemed to rule, Kestin reminds us, and the central thrust of his story, as Russell effortlessly replaces Shushan as a mobster, is no more or less absurd than any of history’s more famous lunacies.
  Russell, the first-person narrator, is an immensely likeable character. An honours student in English literature, he is smart, funny, very self-aware and self-deprecating - not only about himself, but his culture and heritage:
While a young and more affluent generation of native-born Jews felt as American as baseball, Frank Sinatra and Chinese food, the foreign-born, most of whom had escaped the Nazi ovens through sheer luck, considered themselves marginal. For their sons the line between newly American and American never existed … but for the so-called greenhorns American was not a noun but a verb: you had to work at it. Even the longtime recording secretary, whose Yiddish was not only perfect but perfectly legible, voted himself out of the job in a flurry of nativism that would have given pause to the Ku Klux Klan. (pg 2)
  This kind of bright, breezy tone, replete with off-colour humour and/or cultural insight, characterises the tone of the novel. Russell’s voice, and his way of seeing the world, which is simultaneously cynical and refreshing, becomes very quickly addictive. Not only is he opening up a world that is something of a novelty to us - even in 1963, the notion of Jewish mobsters was growing archaic - he is doing so in some style, not least because Russell is himself a student of English literature who at his happiest, linguistically speaking, when taking huge liberties with the language.
  It’s also true that, in terms of Russell’s development, Kestin has his cake and eats it too. On one level, Russell’s slightly surreal adventures in New York’s gangland are a spoof on young male fantasies of power, money and (especially) sex; by the same token, Kestin describes Russell’s new-found wealth and power with palpable glee. The result is a character with a real spring in his step, a young, Jewish Tony Soprano revelling in an Alice in Wonderland experience as he steps through the looking-glass and begins to appreciate the extent to which his new world has no limits - or at least, that the limits which apply to normal, law-abiding citizens simply don’t apply to Shushan Cats, Russell Newhouse and their ilk.
  Shushan Cats, meanwhile, is one of the most compelling literary creations of recent years. A self-made and self-educated man, Shushan is on the face of it a typical mobster, a hard man who rules with a fist of iron.
  Kestin gives Cats a number of unexpected dimensions, however. The first is his Jewish heritage, which Kestin links very strongly to the recent Holocaust and to Cats’ ability to survive and thrive in adverse circumstances. Cats is not a conservative or traditional Jew; indeed, this is why he first embraces Russell Newhouse, and brings him into the fold, as he needs the young man to properly organise his mother’s funeral. Nonetheless, Cats observes shiva in the traditional manner, and is appropriately respectful of his ancestors, family and otherwise.
  Another unexpected aspect is the depth and breadth of Cats’ education. An autodidact with a voracious appetite for books, Cats is happy to give the impression of being an ignorant, unlearned gangster, in part because his modus operandi depends on wrong-footing those who underestimate him. At one point, accused of coasting through his university education, and thus wasting it, Russell announces that he could quite easily write a term paper on HUCKLEBERRY FINN without applying himself too seriously to reading it:
  “You could write a paper now?” Shushan said. “On Huckleberry Finn?”
  “Sure.”
  “Could you write it on the seventeen fucking accents and dialects in it, or the place of theatre, or Nigger Jim’s options, or the resolution of sequence, like when …” Shushan stopped. “What’d I do? Russy, shut your mouth a fly will come in.”
  Finally I had to speak. “What is it with you, Shushan? Are you a gangster or what? Every time I look up there’s another literary reference fired off, another allusion … Del, an hour ago this guy was quoting La Rochefoucauld to a couple of gumshoes --”
  “The elder or the son?”
  “Père,” Shushan said. “To my mind, the son was nothing.”
  Of course, there is nothing that is even remotely realistic about Shushan Cats. A benign mobster who is inordinately generous, who is beloved and respected throughout the city, and by cops and criminals alike, he is a fantasy father-figure to the orphaned Russell, who craves not only fatherly affection, but direction in his life, a moral weather-vane to help him make sense of the topsy-turvy times in which he lives. That it’s a gangster who provides this sense of direction and self-worth is just one more of the many delicious ironies that underpin this novel.
  The tone, meanwhile, is a beautifully judged affair. Shushan Cats’ reference to the ‘seventeen fucking accents and dialects’ in Huckleberry Finn is no accident; SHOESHINE CATS is a symphony of accents and dialects that reflects the various immigrant groups’ origins, and reminds us of the extent to which New York was and is a melting pot. But Hesh Kestin isn’t satisfied with that: he strains a variety of accents and dialects through the filter of the classic hard-boiled novel, the dialogue whip-smart and crackling with Chandleresque humour.
  As the Huckleberry Finn reference above suggests, it’s also a novel chock-a-block with literary allusions that run the gamut from ALICE IN WONDERLAND to HEART OF DARKNESS. But Kestin isn’t a cultural snob; in Russell’s world, Dodgers’ pitcher Sandy Koufax is as relevant, and important, as Joseph Conrad or Mark Twain.
  For all of its absurdities and off-kilter sense of humour, however, the novel is very much rooted to its time and place by the event that looms in the background of the story from the very beginning, that of the assassination of John F Kennedy in Dallas. That event doesn’t fully escape the gravitational pull of the novel’s absurd tone - Shushan Cats is a long-time friend of Jack Ruby; at one point, Cats, a former crack marksman with the Marines, is considered a suspect for the assassination - but there is a pervasive sense that the killing of JFK, for all the man’s personal faults (to which Shushan testifies at every opportunity), marks something of a watershed in modern American history; that America took a turn for the worse on that fateful date in November 1963.
  Ultimately, and for all of his idiosyncrasies and fantastical attributes, Shushan Cats excels at realpolitik. Less than two decades after the Holocaust, and with the reader aware that the assassination of JFK is only a matter of days away, the world is the way it is; significantly less than idyllic, certainly, and yet you have no choice but to deal with it on its own terms:
  “So you’re some kind of benevolent despot,” I said, by now wondering if I did indeed have balls of stainless steel. “You think that’s American?”
  “Fuck that,” Shushan said. “You’re going to learn you can’t do everything the right way, because of all the people who are ready to do it the wrong way. You’re just a kid, your nose is in books, and maybe you know a lot, but what you don’t know is that in the real world somebody has to make a decision every minute. Okay, sometimes you get the wrong somebody, and sometimes he doesn’t have the luxury of being democratically elected, but somebody has to step up.” (pg 90)
  Everything a good novel should be and more, THE IRON WILL OF SHOESHINE CATS is by turns hilarious, brutal, irreverent, thought-provoking, vexing and terrific fun. - Declan Burke

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Best Things In Life Are Free … Books: Tony Black’s MURDER MILE

We’ve noted on these pages before that Tony Black is an honorary Irishman, having spent his childhood summers in the vicinity of Galway. Not that a man’s honorary nationality should matter when it comes to giving away free books. For lo! Tony’s publishers at Arrow have very kindly provided us with three copies of Tony’s latest tome, MURDER MILE, for your delectation. But first, the blurb elves:
In a cold, windswept field on the outskirts of Edinburgh lies the brutally mutilated body of a young woman. As DI Rob Brennan looks at the tangled mass of limbs and blood, he feels his heart freeze. Like Fiona Gow five years earlier, this girl has been strangled with her own stockings, sexually mutilated and her eyes have been gouged out. Is this the work of an Edinburgh Ripper? The press certainly think so. Rob Brennan is determined to uncover the truth - however painful that might be. But truth is hard to come by in a world of police rivalries, media hysteria and copycat crime.
  Sounds like an absolute belter. To be in with a chance of winning a copy of MURDER MILE, just answer the following question:
What’s your favourite Edinburgh-based novel?
  Answers via the comment box, please, along with a contact email address (using (at) rather than @ to confound the spam monkeys), before noon on Friday, April 6th. Et bon chance, mes amis

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Cold Cold Comfort

I had an interview with Adrian McKinty (right) published in the Irish Examiner recently. It ran a lot like this:
Taboo or not taboo, that is the question. Adrian McKinty’s latest novel, THE COLD COLD GROUND, has for its backdrop one of the most contentious topics in recent Irish history, the IRA hunger strikes of 1981.
  “It is a taboo subject,” McKinty agrees. “In fact, the whole Troubles era is still a taboo. I had a conversation with a BBC NI producer once, we were discussing a potential commission. He was completely aghast when I told him that I wanted to do something about the Troubles. ‘That’s all behind us now, we want to look to the future,’ he said. Well, it isn’t behind me. I’ll never forget those days.
  “It’s also true,” he adds, “that if no one wants to talk about something, then that’s probably the very thing you should be talking about.”
  Born in 1968 in Carrickfergus, Co Antrim, McKinty grew up a child of the Troubles.
  “My memories of that time are so vivid that it was pretty easy coming up with material for the book,” he says. “For example, I used to get a lift to school from a neighbour who was a Major in the UDR. Every morning he would get down on his knees and check under his car for mercury-tilt bombs, and when he got the all-clear he would call my little brother, me and his son outside and we would get in the car and go to school. But then one day it was raining hard, and he decided just to skip it and called us out without checking under the car. Every week on the news you’d hear about a copper or a soldier, and sometimes their families, who were killed by a mercury-tilt device. So on that ride to school I literally thought I was going to die.”
  If you’re a writer, there are no such things as bad memories, only experiences to be retro-fitted for the sake of a story.
  “Of course,” he grins, “like the self-consuming novelist I am, I took the memory and put it in the book. But it was really an extraordinary time and the more I probed my own recollections, the more those gates opened. A lot of them were bad memories: the time I got knocked down by a police Land Rover in a hit-and-run, the fight I got into with a paramilitary hood and ended up with 18 stitches in my face, the time I planted a bullet in my sister’s handbag to see what would happen at a police checkpoint, our next door neighbour getting arrested for a triple homicide by seemingly half the British Army, bomb scares, bombs, riots … So, yeah, they sound like bad memories. But in many ways, they’re gold for a writer.”
  THE COLD COLD GROUND centres on Detective Sergeant Sean Duffy, who investigates a series of murders that appear to be the work of a killer taking advantage of the tensions created by the hunger strikes. As the name suggests, Sean Duffy is a Catholic. Why did McKinty, himself a Protestant, choose a Catholic RUC man for the hero of his book?
  “There were a couple of reasons,” he says. “I wanted Duffy to arrive in East Antrim as an outsider, and as an outsider he could cast a jaundiced eye on the toxic politics and culture of the area. And of course, I knew that as a Catholic Duffy would run right up against all the fault lines of the time, which would be tremendous material for a novelist. I grew up in a working class Protestant housing estate and I loved the idea of putting a cynical intellectual like Duffy in among those people. And as a Catholic copper, Duffy can never be completely comfortable in his own skin or in the company he keeps. His life is literally on the line every single day.
  “That he’s a Catholic in the RUC in 1981 would have been incredibly rare back then,” he says. “The IRA famously had a bounty on Catholic policemen and the RUC was completely distrusted by the Catholic community, so few joined. The force in that era would have been over 90% Protestant. So you’ve got a gifted but conflicted and fractured young man in a very hot-house environment.”
  McKinty has written six adult crime titles previous to THE COLD COLD GROUND (he also writes children’s fiction), but this is his first police procedural novel. Why the change in direction?
  “To be honest, I was never that enthused about the police procedural story,” he says, “but then I got to know Evan Hunter [Ed McBain] a little bit before he died, and I started reading his fantastic 87th precinct books and I gradually saw the possibilities of that type of book. What finally sold me was reading James Ellroy’s LA Quartet, which are fascinating takes on the procedural, and by then I knew that this was a genre I wanted to tackle.”
  THE COLD COLD GROUND blends the police procedural with a serial killer storyline, a rare development in the Irish crime novel, which has seen very few serial killer stories published despite the recent boom in Irish crime fiction.
  Is this because, officially at least, we have no record of a serial killer operating in Ireland?
  “I don’t know about the South,” says McKinty, “but in the North, serial killers just get absorbed into the paramilitaries. I knew several clearly deranged individuals who were high ranking paramilitaries. The Shankhill Butchers and Michael Stone are just a couple of examples of psychopaths who probably would have been ordinary, everyday serial killers had they grown up in a non-sectarian society.”
  McKinty currently lives in Melbourne, Australia, with his wife and two daughters. Is it the case that he needed to travel to the other side of the planet before he could start writing about home?
  “I’m not sure I completely buy into this exilic notion that you have to leave a place to write about it,” says the author. “At the last stanza of TS Eliot’s Little Gidding, he says, “And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” Perhaps, but William Faulkner did a pretty good job writing about Oxford, Mississippi while living in Oxford, Mississippi his entire life.”
  McKinty’s novels have been very well received to date, particularly, and unusually, as audio books. The Dead Year (2007) won the ‘Audie’ for Best Thriller / Suspense Novel, while Audible.com chose last year’s offering Falling Glass as the Best Mystery / Thriller of 2011.
  “That’s all down to the narrator, I think,” says McKinty. “If you can get a good narrator, you’re in like Flynn. I’ve been fortunate with Gerard Doyle, who is incredibly popular and much sought after. I’m pretty sure if I’d done a Le Carré or a Douglas Adams and narrated the books myself, it would have been a complete disaster.”
  THE COLD COLD GROUND is being touted as the first of a proposed trilogy, and McKinty is looking forward to exploring Northern Ireland in the 1980s through DS Duffy’s eyes.
  “I’ve got so much material about that time and place and there are many more interesting places the character can go,” he says. “I’d love to get him in some kind of confrontation with the Thatcher government, for example, or get mixed up in the DeLorean disaster, or any number of things. And of course, musically, we’ll eventually have to get to his difficult ‘New Romantic’ years …”
  THE COLD COLD GROUND by Adrian McKinty is published by Serpent’s Tail.

  This interview was first published in the Irish Examiner.

Monday, March 26, 2012

On Shooting Bertie Ahern With Bullets Of His Own Shite

It’s been hilarious here in Ireland for the past week or so, if endemic political corruption is the kind of thing that tickles your funny-bone. The results of the Mahon tribunal are in, and even though former taoiseach Bertie Ahern (right, with cheeky chappie Robert - check the fine print on Robert's t-shirt) denies any wrongdoing on his behalf, he has resigned from the Fianna Fail party he led in government for 14 years, this before they can kick him out next Friday. Resigning before you can be booted out being, of course, the only action that a wrongfully libelled innocent man can take.
  For my own part, I don’t believe Bertie Ahern is personally and solely responsible for the economic disaster that is Ireland today, but only because I’m grudgingly forced to provide the muppet with a fool’s pardon. But still - a qualified accountant who, despite rising through the political ranks to become the Lord Mayor of Dublin, the Minister for Finance and then Taoiseach for 14 years, somehow never managed to persuade himself that it might be a good idea to open a bank account? Not dodgy at all, that. Not in the slightest. Doesn’t AT ALL suggest a man who shouldn’t have been allowed fumble in the greasy till of Tessie Bear’s sweetshop in Toy Town, let alone get his grubby mitts on the levers of power of a modern democracy. Here's a CAP taster on Bertrand from all the way back in 2007 ...
  Anyhoo, and with apologies to those of the Three Regular Readers who have sensitive stomachs, I pretty much had my say about Bartholomew Ahern in ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL. To wit:
There being no ‘Family Guy’ to be found on any of the 94 channels available, Cass and I watch a documentary recreation of the latest scandal from the Middle East, which is the assassination of a carload of suspected terrorists by an air-to-ground missile fired from an unmanned drone airplane. An operator, sitting deep in the bowels of a destroyer, controls the drone and launches the rocket.
  ‘That’s complete crap,’ Cassie says. ‘Everyone knows those fuckers are sitting in a bunker in Idaho.’
  Either way, this represents a remarkable feat of engineering. At least Bin Laden got the human touch. This latest requires the identification, targeting and assassination of a carload of human beings from a position hundreds and perhaps thousands of miles beyond the boundaries of the state in which the car motors along. This is trial, conviction and execution by remote control.
  This is Phil Dick on a bad hair day. This is George Orwell suffering from migraine. This is Stanislaw Lem with a boil on his anal rim. The holiday cruise of the future involves safaris conducted from offshore destroyers, targeting carloads of suspected Muslim terrorists.
  I like to imagine the operator as he sits deep in the bowels of the destroyer twiddling the buttons of his joy-pad. This is the logic of breeding a generation of couch-bound warriors. Some day presidential candidates will be required to clear all twenty levels of ‘Apocalypse Hence III’, in one sitting and without resorting to cheats, in order to establish their credentials.
  When the programme ends we flick over to the news, to see what Jean Byrne is almost wearing tonight while reading the weather report. A PR flunky for Bord Failte regales us with a good-vibes story about soaring tourist numbers in the wake of visits by Queen Elizabeth II and President Barack Obama.
  I say, ‘Hey, how about this. We stick all the scumbags on an island, say Inishbofin, all the paedophiles and bankers and Real IRA fuckers.’
  ‘Bertie Ahern,’ Cass murmurs, handing across the spliff.
  ‘Nice. So then we sell charter cruises to tourists, who sail around the island all day lobbing rockets at them. Plus, we don’t give them any food, so they’re eating one another. The scumbags, like, not the tourists.’
  ‘We could film it,’ Cass says, ‘sell the broadcast rights.’
  In the end we decide we want Bertie shot with bullets of his own shite, then left on a hospital trolley to rot.
  Sadly, Jean Byrne is a no-show for the weather report. Maybe she turned up naked tonight.
  So there you have it.
  It’s been pretty quiet recently, I have to say, in terms of AZC reviews. In one sense, that’s hardly surprising, seeing as how it was first published way back in August; but it was only officially published in February in the US and Canada, and there’s been precious little by way of reaction. Booklist and the Library Journal were very generous, as were Elizabeth A. White and Glenn Harper, but for the most part it’s been pretty much tumbleweeds.
  So it was nice to hear some good word for AZC this week. First up, the wonderful folk at Crimespree Magazine:
“You will be amused as hell, philosophically aroused and mentally sated as you wonder how Burke can pull it off. And pull it off he does. A courageous, droll and satisfying read.” - Crimespree Magazine
  And then, out of the blue, that very fine author Paul Johnston got in touch to say he’d read the book, and quite liked it:
“Do you know how difficult it is to write a postmodern crime novel that is both funny and moving? The only person I knew to have pulled that off was Robert Coover in his imaginatively titled NOIR. Now Declan Burke has done it even more successfully in ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL. A true one-off: witty, profound, sad and ... cool as hell.” - Paul Johnston
  In the interest of clarity, transparency, accountability and non-Bertie Ahern-ish shenanigans, I should point out that (a) I write for Crimespree Magazine and (b) I reviewed Paul Johnston’s latest novel, THE SILVER STAIN, very positively last month - the review here is a longer version of an original that appeared in the Irish Times.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

“Ya Wanna Do It Here Or Down The Station, Punk?”: Brian Finnegan

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?
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS by Agatha Christie. I graduated from Enid Blyton to Agatha Christie at the age of 13 and read her voraciously. ORIENT EXPRESS is her best, and even though it’s dated and the language is now unintentionally funny, it’s still as tightly wound and perfectly structured as a crime novel can be.

What fictional character would you most like to have been?
Ignatius J. Reilly from A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES - possibly the best literary creation of all time.

Who do you read for guilty pleasures?
Marian Keyes. Seriously.

Most satisfying writing moment?
At the end of 1,000 words, which is my daily target.

The best Irish crime novel is …?
IN THE WOODS by Tana French. A brilliant investigation, a chilling backstory, a cracking crime team, beautiful prose and relentless tension.

What Irish crime novel would make a great movie?
IN THE WOODS. I imagined it as a movie as I read it. It’s structurally perfect for screen adaptation.

Worst / best thing about being a writer?
The worst thing is making myself get up at 6.30am every morning to write before I go to work (I find it impossible to write after a day at the office). The best thing, so far, has been getting my first book back from the printer, holding it and smelling it.

The pitch for your next book is …?
When a group of colleagues all lose their jobs in a Dublin-based global corporation, they resolve to stay in touch. The five meet once a month in the Forced Redundancy Film Club to watch their favourite classic movies in each other’s houses. Over the course of a year unlikely friendships form as each goes on a personal journey – reflected through the films chosen for their monthly meetings

Who are you reading right now?
PURE by Andrew Miller. Can’t put it down.

God appears and says you can only write OR read. Which would it be?
Too hard. Read, I think. Reading my own writing over and over again wouldn’t be enough for me.

The three best words to describe your own writing are …?
Light, funny, pacy.

Brian Finnegan’s THE FORCED REDUNDANCY FILM CLUB is published by Hachette.