Praise for Declan Burke: “Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “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.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Do The White Thing

In my first book, EIGHTBALL BOOGIE, which was set in the week running up to Christmas, I used snowfall the way some people use an impending thunderstorm, and the muckier things got as Harry Rigby found himself up to his oxters in corruption and murder, the heavier the pristine snow fell. Ironic, eh? No? Okay.
  Herewith be Jim Kelly (right) on why snow is such an important element of his latest novel, DEATH WORE WHITE
“What is it about snow that fascinates the British - or perhaps specifically - the English mind ? As we struggle to deal with the worst snow for twenty years it’s a question worth asking. For me it’s a particularly pertinent question. This week sees the publication of my latest crime novel – DEATH WORE WHITE - a mystery set on a snow- choked country lane. Aside from the almost spooky coincidence, the falling snow flakes prompt for me this larger question - why is the whole crime genre, and especially its so-called Golden Age, so fond of snow ? And it’s just not crime buffs who like the stuff. Just look at MISS SMILIA’S FEELING FOR SNOW, or SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS, or any number of recent classics. Why do they return so often to the white stuff ? It’s not just the picture postcard beauty - although it helps. And it’s not just the nostalgic feel - harking back to Winnie the Pooh, WIND IN THE WILLOWS and A CHRISTMAS CAROL - although that helps too. There’s another much more deep-rooted reason, lying just beneath the white shroud, like the door knocker to Mr Badger’s set.
  “And on other big question comes to mind: as global warming turns the classic snow scene into little more than a nostalgic oddity, can we crime writers go on conjuring up such frosty plots ?
  “The central place of snow in the crime literature goes back to the idea of the “locked room mystery” – the core element of the modern crime story, which can be traced to Edgar Allan Poe’s famous 1841 short story – ‘The Murders In The Rue Morgue’. We all know the basic rules of the locked-room mystery - the crime where the killer leaves no trace. A dead body, a locked room, no way in, no way out. But beyond this rather narrow idea of the locked-room lies a bigger idea - that of the impossible crime. And behind that an absolutely massive idea - the impossible itself, the sheer wonder when we come across something which speaks of the super-natural, the unknown, or the superhuman. What Poe called the “preternatural”. But why does this idea big idea so often lead to snow ? Two examples illustrate why snow is so useful: In THE HOLLOW MAN, by John Dickson Carr, a book widely considered to be the very best of the genre, a man walks a snowy London street. A shot rings out, he falls dead, seen by witnesses. The wound points to the fact the gun was held against his chest. But there’s no gun. And there’s no other footsteps. Who committed this impossible crime ?
  “Nearly eighty years after Dickson Carr’s classic was published I’ve written my own version on the same theme. In DEATH WORE WHITE I conjured up a line of eight cars, stranded on a country road. Once the police arrive they find the driver in the leading vehicle dead at the wheel - a chisel driven through his eye. But there’s no footsteps around the car. How did the killer get in ? How did the killer get out ?
  “Snow - you see - gives us a virtual locked-room. Short of the missing ceiling, the snow provides us with transparent impenetrable walls. Of course you can fire something at the victim - but then you could always do that through a window anyway (usually an icicle - then the murder weapon is gone too !). The only real difference is that there is no ceiling to our virtual locked-room, but that only multiplies the solutions. So as soon as those flakes of snow start to fall those of us in the crime-writing fraternity who still like a locked room mystery find our imaginations, strangely, unlocked. So after Poe - and specifically after Israel Zangwill’s ground-breaking 1903 book THE BIG BOW MYSTERY (the first novel with a locked room at its heart) - writers turned to snow to ‘modernise’ the locked room and find other ways of giving readers an impossible crime.
  “The basic rules of the locked-room can be applied to many other crime plots and scenarios. (Dickson Carr - again in THE HOLLOW MAN - gives us a helpful list of seven ways to commit the impossible locked-room crime - an invaluable tool for the budding crime writer)
  “But there’s much more to snow that a locked room. Snow reduces the landscape to its essential components - the lane, the old house, the stream, the village church, with none of that annoying ‘noise’ in between. It reduces the real world, the real landscape to a real-life map, a plan - and we all know that at the heart of a really good puzzle of the Golden Age, or indeed any other age, we’ll find a diagram, or a map, so that we the reader can puzzle along with the sleuth or the puzzle-setter. It’s almost as if snow gives us a chance to see the world more clearly: still, crisp, and without those annoying grey-areas that can make real life so complex and difficult.
  “And of course, every time a real-live person sets out across this landscape they are forced to leave those comforting footsteps behind.
  “It’s a world where everyone leaves a trail, and in a world fascinated with forensic science, and the certainties it seems to promise, this is deeply reassuring. And talking of reassurance snow also takes us back to our childhoods - to Christmas, to comfortable log fires, and the warmth of families real and imagined.
  “While I’m happy - in fact proud - to follow in these snowy footsteps of the Golden Age of crime writers, I hope my book is a very contemporary take on an old theme. There’s nothing cosy about the world inhabited by my hero - DI Peter Shaw, and his side-kick DS George Valentine. The book’s set along the North Norfolk Coast - the modern-day home to the Chelsea-set, up from London for some bracing sea air. But Shaw is based in Kings Lynn, just along the coast, and despite its medieval heart that’s a town with enough modern problems to put it alongside any of Britain’s smouldering inner cities. But given the increasing rarity of real-life snow, can I ever get away again with a snow-bound locked room mystery ? Not every time, certainly, but yes - literature has a way of commanding the forces of nature to its needs. Thunder and lightning strike more often on the printed page, or on Shakespeare’s stage, than in any real life.
  “That’s what literature and drama do best - distil the best, most exciting, most curious aspects of everyday life into a pocket-sized world crammed with excitement. So unless snow becomes just a folk memory, I’ll always be able to enjoy it’s criminal possibilities.” – Jim Kelly


seanag said...

That's a thoughtful little piece by Kelly. I look forward to a lot of new crime novels being set in early February, 2009 now, just to be able to take advantage of the possibilities of snow.

Martin Edwards said...

I'm reading Jim Kelly's book at the moment and I'm enjoying it a lot. The idea of giving a contemporary spin to a classic genre concept is enormously appealing.