“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “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.
Sunday, December 27, 2015
First Look: THE BIG O in German Translation
To mark the publication of THE BIG O, the following short interview appears in the current Edition Nautilus catalogue:
1. When I first read “The Big O”, I thought that you must have invented a whole new genre here: ‘Screwball-Noir’, maybe. How on earth did you find this twisted plot and these characters?
“I’m not sure who coined that phrase ‘screwball-noir’, although it has been used to describe “The Big O”. It sounds to me like a contradiction in terms – screwball is generally light-hearted and funny, whereas noir is bleak and doom-laden. I did deliberately set out to write a comic crime novel with “The Big O”, because I wrote it after completing the early drafts of “Absolute Zero Cool”, which seemed quite dark in tone to me, and I wanted to try something rather different and fun. I’ve always been drawn to characters in crime novels whose clever schemes fail because the criminals themselves are nowhere as clever as their schemes – prisons are full of people who thought they were smarter than they really are. There’s also a line from the Rolling Stones song ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ that goes, “All the cops are criminals / and all the sinners saints …” – I though it might fun to write a book about those kind of characters, to see how they might interact.”
2. The title “The Big O” is probably a reference to “The Big Sleep”, even though there is not much Chandler in it, is there?
“There isn’t very much Raymond Chandler in “The Big O”, although I’m a huge fan of his books – in fact, if it wasn’t for Raymond Chandler, I probably wouldn’t have started writing crime fiction. I have written some private eye novels in the past, and they were strongly influenced by Chandler, but ‘The Big’ element of the title has more to do with classic crime fiction novels featuring those words – “The Big Heat”, for example, or “The Big Sleep”, or “The Big Combo”, “The Big Nowhere”, or “The Big Steal”. As for the influences on “The Big O”, in my mind I was very much influenced by American writers such as Elmore Leonard, Barry Gifford and George V. Higgins – although I hasten to add that I am acutely aware of how far short I fell by comparison with greats such as they.”
3. Your German readers only know “Absolute Zero Cool” so far, even though “The Big O” was published before. And the protagonist in “AZC” is writing “Crime Always Pays”, which is the second volume of “The Big O”. You are obviously creating an entire Declan-Burke-Cosmos - showing a remarkable variety in style. Was your idea to try out a completely different genre in crime fiction?
“There has been a variety of styles in the six novels I’ve published to date, certainly. There has been private eye novels, comedy crime caper novels, a spy novel and “Absolute Zero Cool”, which is a book I’m still not sure how to describe – I think it’s more of a novel about the crime novel, or the crime writer, rather than a crime novel in itself, which is why I have the protagonist in AZC writing “Crime Always Pays” (the sequel to “The Big O”). As to why I have tried different styles, I think it’s because, as a reader – and I will always be a reader first, and then a writer – I like to read widely, and not just in one genre, or one strand of a genre. Life would become boring very quickly, I’d imagine, if you only ever read private investigator novels; and that’s also true, for me, for writing – I think I would quickly get bored of writing the same kind of book all the time. It’s also true that I’m a fan of almost all kinds of crime fiction, from the so-called ‘cosy’ mysteries right through private eyes and hard-boiled noir and spy fiction, so when it comes to writing my own books I try to pay tribute to the wide and varied kinds of storytelling styles you get within the crime fiction genre.”
4. A beauty surgeon with a loose crown on his tooth; a criminal with a Saint’s name doing a hold-up in an Oxfam store, a getaway car driver suffering from narcolepsy ... honestly, which one of those if you favourite or was the most fun to write?
“That’s a very hard question for me to answer! It’s like asking me which of my children I love most … I guess, if I really had to answer the question, I would say that I particularly loved Rossi and Sleeps. Rossi is a criminal with huge ambitions, and a very inflated sense of his own abilities, and I developed a great sympathy for him as I wrote the book, mainly because Rossi was born into a life where he had very little opportunities, but through no fault of his own. And Sleeps, who is the narcoleptic getaway driver and something of a quiet philosopher, was an absolute joy to write – in fact, I’m currently considering writing a novel that will feature Sleeps as the central ‘hero’.”
5. I think it’s great how your women characters are, in spite of all their bad habits and quirkiness, very positive and tough, very hard to impress. Are there real-life models for this?
“The short answer to this question is ‘Yes, there are.’ The longer answer is that if those women – and in particular, one woman – ever found out that I was writing about them, my life would not be worth living! Actually, now that I think of it, she doesn’t read German, so I should be okay to say that the main model for Karen in the novel – she is the main character, in my mind; “The Big O” is really her story – is my older sister, who was always very independent, self-sufficient, creative, positive and tough when I was growing up. In fact, she blazed a trail that allowed me to follow. So Karen, in the book, is very much my way of paying tribute to my sister, even if, to the best of my knowledge, my sister has never taken part in a stick-up …”