“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, January 19, 2013

A River Runs Through It

Peter Murphy’s new novel, SHALL WE GATHER AT THE RIVER, is a fabulous work of imagination, incorporating Irish mythology, eternal sound, early rock ‘n’ roll and Old Testament proselytising – all set against the backdrop of a mysterious ‘cluster suicide’. I sat down with Peter Murphy a couple of weeks ago to interview him for the Irish Examiner, and the result begins a lot like this:
PETER Murphy’s Shall We Gather at the River is a novel in full spate, a torrent of ideas bursting its banks with every turn of the page.
  “For me the great under-trumpeted element in modern Irish fiction is imagination,” says Murphy.
  “We talk about craft, we talk about realism and social realism, we talk about humanity and the pressing issues of the day. But for me imagination is supreme above all of them. It just comes from when I was a kid, walking home from school. I didn’t live in the real world. One day [Enniscorthy] would be a Martian colony, the next a dystopian Bladerunner-type landscape — whatever I was playing at that day. And that really never left me.”
  Set in ‘a mythic space’ that strongly resembles his native Wexford, the novel is Murphy’s second offering. His debut, John the Revelator (2009), was also set in Wexford, although not for reasons of geographical familiarity.
  “There’s something about the prime elements of the area,” he says with a grin, “there’s a fair old mythical bang off it. There’s something coming off it that’s quite extraordinary.”
  For the rest, clickety-click here

Friday, January 18, 2013

“Ya Wanna Do It Here Or Down The Station, Punk?” Michael Russell

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?
Easy answer, Raymond Chandler’s THE BIG SLEEP or FAREWELL, MY LOVELY. It’s not about story or character or insight (there in spades) but the solid business of putting one word after another. Raymond Chandler is simply one of the 20th century’s most luminous writers of prose in any genre.

What fictional character would you most like to have been?
Dashiell Hammett’s Nick Charles in THE THIN MAN. I don’t know how long before his alcohol intake would kill me, but there can have been few cities in history more exciting to live in than New York in the ’30s and ’40s. Maybe 4th century BC Athens, but with no skyscrapers, no movies, no jazz, no air conditioning and no detective fiction (the only literary genre the Greeks didn’t invent?) – no contest.

What do you read for guilty pleasure?
Richmal Crompton’s ‘William’ stories. I read them to my nine-year-old son pretending it’s for his entertainment, not mine. Fortunately he’s always entertained. I don’t think any books, old or new, have ever made him laugh aloud as much as ’William’.

Most satisfying writing moment?
Like everyone else, that first published book. After years of writing for popular television, a book still felt like the real deal in an entirely different way. If only the audiences were as big!

The pitch for your next book is…?
1939. In Dublin the body of a man who has returned from Germany, where he was an engineering student, is found in the Grand Canal, with the fingers of both hands very professionally amputated. In Berlin the Irish Ambassador, Charles Bewley, has been sacked by de Valera after offering his services to German Intelligence. He has gone straight to a job in the Reich Propaganda Ministry … The body in the canal is fiction, though an unidentified engineering student was one of the last Irish citizens the Department of External Affairs was concerned about getting out of Germany before war started. The sacking of the Irish Ambassador and his subsequent job with Joseph Goebbels - true.

If you could recommend one Irish crime novel what would it be?
Freeman Wills Croft’s ‘The Hog’s Back Mystery’ and ‘Death on the Way’ (and many others); Agatha Christie with meticulous police procedure and (whisper who dares) believable motives. Croft was born in Dublin and isn’t much remembered, but in the twenties and thirties he ranked with Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Marjory Allingham, Ngaio Marsh (the only man who made it?). We see great gulfs between that ‘Cluedo’ school of crime fiction, American ‘hardboiled’, and more contemporary ‘psychiatrist’s chair’ stuff, but Raymond Chandler knew the difference between style and substance. He called Croft ‘the soundest builder of us all when he doesn’t get too fancy’ (a tip worth remembering there from Ray too!). When Croft’s methodical Inspector French directs his attention to up trains and down trains on timetables it’s not lack of imagination, it’s the forerunner of the police procedural. And I have a sneaking regard for fictional detectives who don’t give a feck why a murderer killed, unless it helps catch him or her; maybe they remind me of real detectives!

What Irish crime novel would make a great movie?
When I was a script editor on ‘Emmerdale Farm’ (when the word ‘farm’ was attached and we stole ideas from ‘The Riordans’ – true, and the first time I have confessed it!) there was a newspaper cartoon that said: “I prefer ‘The Archers’ to ‘Emmerdale Farm’, the pictures are better.” ‘The Archers’ was (still is) a radio soap about a rural community. What I love about new Irish crime fiction are the ‘pictures’ that come from the glorious profligacy of its language – the thing no movie can ever offer.

Worst/best thing about being a writer?
Best thing is thinking about what I’m going to write – worst thing is writing it.

Who are you reading right now?
Chester Himes’ REAL COOL KILLERS. If Dashiell Hammett is Chandler on too many martinis, Himes is Chandler on so many substances you could get arrested for making a list. Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson are two of ‘hardboiled’s’ greatest detectives. My second Stefan Gillespie story is partly set in New York in 1939, and stops off for a murder at Harlem’s Theresa Hotel. Himes is writing about Harlem twenty years on, but ‘39 or ‘59, it’s still a long way from West Wicklow …

God appears and says you can only write OR read. Which would it be?
If I was inventing my own religion from bits of existing ones, I’d take from Judaism the idea that if God behaves unreasonably you should have a row with him. So I’d argue, and if he wouldn’t budge it would have to be reading. As civilisation and reading seem to me pretty much the same thing, it’s probably a bad idea to stop! However, if God wanted to tell me what to read, all bets would be off …

The three best words to describe you’re own writing are
I don’t know. One reviewer said ‘expansive but straightforward’, well, it is three words …

Michael Russell’s CITY OF SHADOWS is published by Avon.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Poe Is We

Yesterday was something of a Red Letter Day at CAP Towers, when the news filtered through that BOOKS TO DIE FOR (Hodder & Stoughton / Emily Bestler / Atria) has been nominated for an Edgar award in the Best Critical / Biographical category. If you haven’t come across said tome before, the blurb elves kick off their description thusly:
BOOKS TO DIE FOR is a unique, must-have anthology for any fan of the mystery genre, featuring personal essays from 120 of the world’s most beloved and renowned crime writers on the mysteries and thrillers that they most admire, edited by two of their own—John Connolly and Declan Burke.
  I’m still a little bit stunned by the nomination, to be perfectly honest. Perhaps I shouldn’t be, given the quality of the contributors and the way they write so lovingly about the great books in the crime / mystery genre. Moreover, both Hodder & Stoughton in the UK, and Emily Bestler / Atria in the US, produced gorgeous books.
  Even so, you never really expect that you’ll be nominated for an Edgar. I don’t, anyway. I’ve been on a pretty good run of it lately, but this really is Cloud Nine material.
  Of course, I’m acutely aware that in co-editing BTDF, I was standing on the shoulders of giants – not just those of the contributors, but those of the authors they were writing about.
  I was also – all modesty apart, false or otherwise – standing in the shadow of another giant, John Connolly. It’s a fact that if John hadn’t committed to BTDF in the way he did, bringing not just his work ethic but his depth and breadth of knowledge about the genre, but also the respect and goodwill of his peers, the book simply would not have happened.
  It’s also true that Clair Lamb, BTDF’s assistant editor, was the glue that kept the whole project together, particularly when a number of my wheels fell off during the pre-production phase.
  I think I’m more pleased for John and Clair this morning than anything else. So if you’ll pardon me, I’m off to bask in their reflected glory …
  Oh, and before I go – hearty congratulations to fellow Irish crime scribes Alan Glynn and Jane Casey, who were both nominated for Edgars too, for BLOODLAND and THE RECKONING respectively. Excellent news, and fully deserved.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

A Jack Of Most Trades

Phil Cone is one of a new breed of Irish crime writer, one who has forsaken the traditional publishing conventions to go the e-pub route. His debut novel PADDY NEMESIS features the protagonist Jack Clancy, a man with a rather eclectic CV. Quote the blurb elves:
This is the story about one man, and one very long day in the life. The man is Jack Clancy: Friend, lover, poet, wit, raconteur, autodidact, philosopher, and Government assassin. Jack is going through the motions, as much as any assassin can, living life on the edge and revelling in the decadence of Dublin’s nightlife, Jack’s life is about to get really interesting …
  After a little recreational violence, Jack runs into his boss. He is asked to go to his home town in Boyle, in the west of Ireland, and intercept a consignment of drugs. Whilst there, his job is to kill the men who are distributing the drugs. That may be a simple enough task for an assassin, but going home comes with its own problems, and Jack is in for one very long day.
  The men importing the drugs are heavily involved in organised crime in the area, and Jack’s incentive just went nuclear. Throw in an unfinished love story, a child he never knew existed, a duplicitous friend and a psychotic mother into the mix, and something is bound to blow. Jack only hopes it’s not him.
  The one-liners in this story will draw you in, and make you smile wryly, while the richly overlaid intelligence and humour will keep you reading. There is a poignant melancholy to the character, which will keep more romantic-minded readers hooked, and the action is delivered in a high-octane thrill-a-minute style, which will satisfy even the lustiest appetites for action.
  There’s a lyrical charm to the scenic descriptions of Ireland’s lush green countryside, rolling hills and bleak small towns. The action, perfectly described drama, razor sharp humour, knowing winks to works such as Hamlet and Ulysses, add up to a sense that this story is an epic of our time.
  Boyle in the lovely County Roscommon is of course the home of the currently ubiquitous Chris O’Dowd, comedian, actor and Hollywood darling, and the setting for Sky’s recent comedy series Moone Boy, in which O’Dowd starred (he also co-wrote). Chris O’Dowd and PADDY NEMESIS? Sounds like a marriage made in heaven to us …

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Nobody Move, This Is A Review: STANDING IN ANOTHER MAN’S GRAVE (Orion) by Ian Rankin

Lee Child recently noted that were he to die, his fans would mourn and quickly move on. Were he to kill off Jack Reacher, on the other hand, the result would be uproar.
  It’s an echo of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s experience when he was forced to resurrect Sherlock Holmes after that character’s apparently fatal plunge into the Reichenbach Falls. One of the strengths of the crime / mystery genre is that it encourages the development of a character over a series of novels, to the point where the reader comes to identify more with the hero rather than his or her creator. Thus Max Allan Collins can write ‘new’ Mickey Spillane novels, and John Banville’s alter ego, Benjamin Black, can next year take up the baton from Robert B. Parker in writing about Raymond Chandler’s iconic private eye, Philip Marlowe.
  Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh-based Inspector John Rebus is equally iconic. Indeed, he is archetypal in his dour contempt of authority, his solitary nature, his fidelity to old-school policing methods and a fondness for the demon drink.
  Ian Rankin didn’t exactly kill off Rebus at the end of Exit Music (2007), the 17th novel in the series and flagged at the time as the final Rebus novel. With his customary fidelity to the realities of Rebus’s experiences, Rankin put Rebus out to pasture, because a police detective of his age operating in Scotland would have reached retirement age.
  Rebus requires no melodramatic resurrection for Standing in Another Man’s Grave, then, but it is notable that he is working, in a civilian capacity, in a ‘cold case’ department as the story begins. Approached by a woman whose daughter disappeared many years previously on the A9 motorway, and who is convinced that a recent disappearance of another girl on the same route represents the latest in a series of abductions, Rebus agrees to persuade his former subordinate, Siobhan Clarke, to take the case to her current boss.
  Meanwhile, with revised retirement legislation in place, Rebus is angling for a return to professional duties with CID. His reputation should be sufficient to secure his place, but Rebus is under investigation by Malcolm Fox of Edinburgh’s internal affairs department, which is probing his habit of consorting with known criminals, and in particular Rebus’s old nemesis, Ger Cafferty.
  With these twin hooks, Rankin draws us into a thematically rich plot which evolves into a meditation on mortality and how best to assess a man’s worth (the novel’s title is adapted from a song by Jackie Leven, a Scottish singer-songwriter with whom Rankin collaborated with in the past, and who died in 2011).
  There’s a certain poignancy in the novel’s opening as Rebus, one of the most iconic fictional characters of our generation, fumbles through the ashes of various cold cases, and then proceeds to pursue an investigation largely on his own initiative, all on the basis that his previous dedication to the job has left him solitary and - in his own eyes - irrelevant in his retirement. Painfully aware of his limitations and his diminishing physical capability, Rebus rouses himself - much as he cajoles his battered old Audi into life every morning - for one last tilt at the windmills, convinced that CID’s new and improved policing methods lack the hands-on quality that requires police officers to get said hands dirty, to engage with the criminals and barter away some of your soul, if that’s what it takes to bring a killer to justice.
  In that sense the novel is a commentary of sorts on the kind of crime / mystery narrative that has come to dominate popular culture in recent decades, that of the bright, shiny and utterly implausible CSI series and their multitude of spin-offs. Despite the best efforts of his young, social media-friendly colleagues, Rebus remains wedded to the old methods, just as Rankin eschews the easy options, plot-wise, to concentrate on his fascination with the character of Rebus, and how this previously immovable object is contending with the irresistible force of aging and death.
  It’s a compelling tale, although fans of the Malcolm Fox stories - the internal affairs man has appeared in two novels published by Rankin subsequent to Rebus’s retirement, The Complaints (2009) and The Impossible Dead (2011) - may be taken aback by Rankin’s portrayal of Fox here. To date an entertainingly flawed character who appreciates that his peers are entitled to consider that his investigations of his colleagues are a treachery of sorts, Fox is here rather one-dimensional, a petty jobsworth determined that Rebus should be exposed as tainted due to his complex relationship with the criminal fraternity.
  Perhaps Rankin is burning his bridges with Fox in preparation for more Rebus novels to come. If so, it’s a pity - but then, with Rebus, the ends always justify the means. – Declan Burke

Editor’s Note: The more eagle-eyed Rebus / Rankin fans among you will have spotted that I managed to confuse ‘Audi’ with ‘Saab’ for the purpose of this review. I am currently crouched in a corner wearing a pointy hat.

This review was first published in the Irish Times.

Monday, January 14, 2013

A Perennial Blume

All Three Regular Readers will be aware that I’m rather fond of Conor Fitzgerald’s Rome-set Commissioner Blume novels, which have been described by the Sunday Times as filling the gap left by Michael Dibdin – no mean feat, I’m sure you’ll agree. The fourth Blume novel, THE MEMORY THEATRE (Bloomsbury), is due in April, with the blurb elves wibbling thusly:
On a freezing November night in Rome Commissioner Alec Blume is called to the scene of a shooting. The victim, Sofia Fontana, the sole witness to a previous shooting, had been under the questioning of Magistrate Principe, whose deteriorating health is affected by the sad fate of this attractive young woman he had become fond of. Sidestepping protocol, Blume takes the case from Principe. His enquiries lead from a professor with a passion for the Art of Memory to a hospitalised ex-terrorist whose injuries have left her mind innocently blank, and back twenty years to a murderous train station bombing in central Italy. But Blume’s disregard for authority, and refusal to kowtow to the politics endemic to the Carabinieri, look set to derail not just the investigation, but his troubled relationship with colleague Caterina Mattiola ...
  I’m very much looking forward to THE MEMORY THEATRE; Conor Fitzgerald’s books tend to be among my reading highlights in any given year. For those of you interested in such things, and have the patience to click through, I’ve reviewed the Blume novels THE FATAL TOUCH here and THE NAMESAKE here. If you’ve reviewed any of Conor Fitzgerald’s novels yourself, please feel free to leave a link …

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Making Her Marc

Is it just me, or has it all been about Northern Ireland writers on these pages lately? The latest is Catriona King, a name that has popped up on the CAP radar on a number of occasions over the last six months. THE GRASS TATTOO (Crooked Cat Publishing) is the second in her Belfast-set series featuring DCI Marc Craig, a book that finds the blurb elves in an unusually clipped, staccato mood:
Belfast is in trouble.
A body is discovered at a Belfast public place, with symbolism originating far from Northern Ireland.
The beauty of the Fermanagh Lakelands and Donegal, disturbed by death.
High public office with a dark agenda.
Join D.C.I. Marc Craig and his team as they lead the hunt for the daring killer that leaves a body at one of Northern Ireland's most famous landmarks.
They uncover answers further afield.
THE GRASS TATTOO. The second in the D.C.I. Craig detective series.
  So what’s it all about, then? Over to you, NI Scene:
Set in modern-day Belfast (very modern, each book is released on the date the story starts) the series deals with what King calls ‘ordinary crime’. So, murder, black-mail, extortion – anything as long as it is nothing to do with the Troubles.
  ‘I wanted a story that could happen in Belfast or in Paris,’ King explains, adding with a grin. ‘Once you’ve changed the place-names and dialects, that is.’
  For the full NI Scene interview with Catriona King, clickety-click here