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.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

O Danny Boy, The Pipes, The Pipes Are Calling …

As all three regular readers will be aware, I’ve been tipping away at a new novel for the past few weeks - or radically rewriting an old novel, to be precise about it. I was doing fine until about ten days ago, with nearly 20,000 words under my belt (all new, unfortunately, given that I’m supposed to be stripping back at 150,000-word m/s to something a little less unwieldy), when for some reason I decided to go back and start again. Worse, the new start has the unmistakable aura of the dreaded prologue.
  Anyway, I’m having trouble finding the right note, the exact tone of voice. Below I offer for your delectation my scrawlings to date, and please feel free to toss brickbats and barbed-wire my way - all feedback is welcome - and please feel free to comment anonymously if you prefer. Think of it as a book club of sorts, albeit with the novel in its embryonic phase. The working title, by the way, is DANNY BOY, which is in part a wee homage to a fellow Irish scribe.
  As for the pic above, it was taken from the northeast of a village called Loutro, on the south coast of Crete, where I spent a very enjoyable holiday seven or eight years ago. If there’s a more perfect place on the planet to set a novel, I don’t want to know about it, or at least not until I’ve worked my way through this one.
  Roll it there, Collette …

Chapter 1

Out to the balcony as dusk sifts in, the light whisked thicker by a billion wings. A full moon low over the eastern bluff. From up here you can only marvel at how swiftly, how visibly, the dark comes on. A fine black mist sheeting in. ‘Night falls so fast here,’ Berte tells the tourists, ‘you can almost hear the bump.’ Not that it falls. What I’ve noticed is that the dark rises, drifting up out of the earth to settle in strata like good stout. Down below the village curves out around the bay, the murk already blurring its lines and angles to that of a pearl necklace loosely strung. Yet the peaks above still glimmer along the ridge and a zinc horizon slices sky from sea. The Libyan Sea, the nameless sky. Too early yet for stars.
  Here I stand, I can do no other
  It will be warm until long after midnight. The air hangs trapped in the steep bowl of the bay, hemmed in by the faint offshore breeze. Just pacing the balcony, the cigarette cupped in my palm, is enough to glaze my forehead with sweat and set my back a-prickle. Indistinct murmurs carry across the water from the village, beach in a swish of surf, wash on up the hill. The early diners gathering. Chairs scrape, a cork pops. Then a trill of laughter, the impatient chink of knife on plate, the hiss and spit of grilling fish. A whiff of kalamari wafts up on the breeze, roasting lamb speckled with oregano, the sharp bite of lemon. My mouth waters, and sure enough my stomach starts to grumble. To distract myself I rub the ball of my thumb on the crosshatched grip of the Colt and imagine his agony as he drags himself across the stony ground, through the coarse maquis, a dying animal with only one thought in mind.
  But of course, he won’t come alone.
  Go tell the Spartans, thou who passest by
  The Boop has this trick where she sneaks up from behind and ducks in between my legs, forcing her head through, her pudgy arms gripping my thighs. A tiny Samson about to haul on her pillars. This time, when she twists her head to look up, her wide blue eyes are solemn. ‘Smoking nasty, Dada,’ she says.
  There’s nothing like disappointing his child to flay a man’s heart.
  ‘It is, love,’ I say. ‘Tell Momma I’m giving up.’
  She forces herself all the way through my legs, stands before me with one hand on her hip, wags a finger. A two-foot tyrant. ‘I put you,’ she says, ‘on the thinking chair.’
  I flip the cigarette away and reach to ruffle her blonde hair, but she ducks away, pouting. ‘Won’t be long now, Bumbles,’ I say.
  All at once her face brightens, the chubby cheeks flushing, milk-teeth gleaming in that perfect smile. ‘Dada come in a liddle bit?’
  ‘Another liddle bit, Boop. Tell Momma that Dada is coming.’
  She flinches. The blue eyes cloud. ‘I not find Momma.’ Her lower lip trembles. ‘I missed her.’
  Lost her, she means. ‘I know, love, but we’ll find her. Dada will help.’
  The eyes widen again. She quivers with repressed hope. ‘Find Momma?’
  ‘Exactamundo, Boop. Can you say ‘exactamundo’?’
  ‘Good girl. Kiss for Dada?’ I hunker down as she flattens her pink lips in a parody of a pucker, arms thrown wide as she giggles and launches herself against my chest, and I close my eyes and beg for just this once, to feel her again just one last time …
  Back inside, and despite the white-tiled floor, the whitewashed walls, the room has grown dim as a cave. A brief yellow glow when I open the fridge to take out the plastic bottle of orange juice, a tub of yoghurt with a pair laughing strawberries on the label. I bring them across to the bed. There’s no denying she’s a pretty girl. Brown eyes that are almost almond in shape, the irises flecked with hazel. In direct sunlight, when she smiles her crooked smile, the flecks are green.
  No flecks in the subterranean gloom. No smile tonight. Her nostrils flare as I perch on the bed, place the yoghurt and juice on the locker. I reach behind to the small of my back and slip the Colt from my waistband and hold it up until she nods. Then I tuck the gun away and take the balled sock from her mouth. She spits dry, works a sandpaper tongue across her lips. Eleven years old, perhaps a little older. These days it can be hard to tell.
  The juice first, tilting the bottle to her lips. She drinks greedily, sucking it down. While she gasps I dab the run-off from her chin with a corner of the sheet. Open the yoghurt, spoon it home. She’s ravenous.
  ‘There’s fruit,’ I say. ‘A banana, if you want it. Or an apple?’
  I fetch the banana, peel it back. She devours it in three bites. Then the rest of the juice. When I try to replace the gag she ducks her chin, then tosses her head from side to side. I wait for her to run out of steam. ‘Courtney,’ I say, ‘listen to me. Courtney?’
  ‘He’ll fucking kill you,’ she says, low and cold. ‘He’ll feed you to the fucking pigs. He’ll -’
  As gently as I can I grip her cheeks with thumb and finger, squeeze her mouth open. Poke the balled sock in. She chokes, tries to say something, then gags way back in her throat.
  ‘He’ll come for you, Courtney. Don’t doubt that. He’s on his way.’
  Tears leak from the corners of her eyes, although there’s no telling if they’re tears of rage or fear or self-pity. All three, probably.
  I put the banana skin and yoghurt carton in the bin, the empty juice. Sit at the desk, nudge the laptop out of sleep mode. Roll a smoke while it whines and whirrs, its lights flickering. When it settles down to a quiet hum, and the wi-fi light is showing a steady green, I open up Gmail.
Sam -
  I’m going to be ducking out for a while. The file comes attached, along with both transcripts. The story will need a polish, I only finished it this evening. Feel free to dice and slice as you see fit. I’ll be in touch.
  I click send, wait for the whoosh, then fold down the laptop’s lid. Glance across at Courtney. As hard as she’s fighting it, the red-limned eyelids are beginning to droop. Hardly surprising. She’s had as tough a day as she’s ever likely to have. Besides, the orange juice was laced with two crushed Dalmanes.
  ‘It’s okay to sleep, Courtney. He’s coming for you. Do you believe he’s coming?’
  She nods, sluggish.
  ‘Then sleep.’
  I wait, rolling cigarettes, watching until she drifts off.
  Out on the balcony it’s fully dark. By now the village is festooned with fairy lights, the bay burnished gold and shimmering with the rise and fall of the swell. From somewhere further up the hill comes the zizz-zizz of a lone cicada. The moon fully up and perfectly round. God’s mouth pursed in a disapproving moue.
  I slip free the Colt and angle my arm until the its blunt sight splits the moon.
  The hour of Doom is drawing near, and the moon is cleft in two
  The house was built into the side of the hill. A sheer drop beneath of ten feet or so, then three, maybe four hundred yards of steep slope to the village below. Broken ground, fuzzed with maquis, you could hide a small regiment in its dips and hollows. Too brightly lit for a frontal assault, the path a silvery thread in the moonlight. Maybe when the time comes they’ll send him up that path, dragging his shattered leg behind him, decoy and sacrificial lamb. His daughter, unconscious on the bed, the staked goat that draws him on.
  As for themselves, they’ll come from the north, circling up out of the village to slip down from the black hills like the andartes of old. Shadows in velvet.
  No telling when they’ll come. The circling around will take hours, and they’ll wait until the tourists are tucked up in bed. But they will --
  There. A motorboat skimming out across the bay, arcing towards the eastern headland, its wake shattering the gold leaf into tiny shards. A little late in the evening for running errands, boys, for dumping sacks of rubbish beyond the pebble strand that lies to the east of the bay.
  They’ll beach near Hora Sfakion to cut off my retreat, come west along the trail, spread out across the hills. A two-hour hike at a steady march, three to four hours for a cautious advance, one leapfrogging the other, all the while half-expecting a bullet from the dark.
  Brave men, these Sphakians, and tough as heartwood, but crafty with it. Born to survive at any cost but dishonour. The old laws, and only the old laws, pertain here: hospitality, physics, vendetta. All else is no more than choice and personal taste.
  When the motorboat disappears around the point I go back to watching the village again. A pointless exercise, the blaze of light leaves the western headland, the hills beyond, black as pitch. If I had infra-red glasses I might see them drift away in ones and twos, out past the dock towards the ruined fortress, creeping up out of the alleyways into the gullies and ravines like so many cats on the prowl. The night’s hunt begun. Possessed of the stealthy patience of those who know that time and night are their allies, who know that any help I have called for will arrive too late, if it ever comes.
  This will be their one mistake.
  You do me wrong to take me out o’ the grave. I am bound upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears do scald like molten lead
  As crafty as they are, they presume I think as they do. That above all else any man holds sacred, the survival instinct reigns supreme.
  Were they Persians advancing at the Hot Gates, they could not be more wrong.
  ‘You come in a liddle bit, Dada.’
  ‘A liddle bit, Bumbles. Just another liddle bit now.’
  And so I smoke and wait for my killers, an ear cocked to the murmur from the village, the swushing surf, the zizz-zizzing cicadas, alert but not reacting to a loose stone kicked free above on the slopes, the tinkle-tankle of a stray and anxious goat, for when andartes come they come as black angels, in deathly silence, and like an old man worrying at his kombolói I count off the minutes caressing the Colt’s grip with my thumb, now and again allowing it wander across to the safety to ensure the snib is off.
  O Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling

© Declan Burke, 2010

  And now, Dear Reader, it’s over to you. The comment box is open for business …


Michael Malone said...

All I can think of saying is - well done, m'man. Lyrical, atmospheric writing - sets the scene nicely - with enough hints to make me hungry for more.

Back to an earlier comment you made in your post - what's wrong with a prologue?

Declan Burke said...

Michael - Much obliged, sir.

Prologues - I don't know, I just don't like them. Or maybe it's more I don't like the idea of them - a whiff of pretension, perhaps. There's also the fact that it suggests the writer (or his / her editor / publisher) isn't confident enough in the story as it stands, so that it needs a kind of 'best bits' trailer to draw the reader in ...

I don't know. I suppose like everything else, there's good and bad when it comes to prologues.

Cheers, Dec

bookwitch said...

I like the 'action'. Feel there is slightly too much poetry and description to begin with...

But yes, I'd like to know where it's going.

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

No fair, leaving me in the lurch like this. I want more!

This is certainly a big change from CAP and TBO. You do a great job with the 1st POV and I don't see where there is anything lacking in the "voice".

I think this is a very strong opening and I'm wondering if CH 2 will continue with the confrontation, or take the reader back in time, and CH1 will be revisited at the end, kind of like FIFTY GRAND. (no need to answer)

I really like the use of the italicized quotes (and the quotes themselves)

This line is awesome:

"There’s nothing like disappointing his child to flay a man’s heart."

Also liked the nod to "The fonze".

I re-read this a few times, and each time, I liked it more. If I thought it sucked I'd tell you, but IMO it is good, so keep a level head, and keep it up.

Best of luck!

Declan Burke said...

Ms Witch - Too much 'poetry' and description - check.

As to 'where it's going' ... the bin, very probably.

Cheers, Dec

Declan Burke said...

Sean - much obliged, squire. Although I think there's at least one quote too many ... probably two.

The Fonz reference - you're reading too much in that, I'm afraid, wherever it pops up ... Where'd you find it? I might need to take it out ...

Cheers, Dec

michael said...

You left out one important step before I can fairly critique the work. Before any reader reads or buys a book he/she knows the details of the plot, characters, genre. Without a synopsis I found myself very impatient with this story, as if I was lost and my GPS would tell me nothing but the weather report. So my basic problems with this probably would vanish if I knew more about the plot and characters.

As for prologues, I prefer using flashbacks if possible because it allows the reader to better understand the motives of the characters and the reasons for the actions.

Since this is the point in writing where you want the critic to be overly critical, I am happy to return to my ancient evil past when I was a TV critic for local newspapers here in America. You had your description disagree with itself. One character says the night falls (giving you the funny joke "hear the bump"). This gives the reader one image of the darkness shoving the sun down into the horizon. Then our POV character gives us a different image with darkness rising to replace the light. I prefer the image of the darkness rising but I know how much it would hurt the writer to lose the bump line.

There better be a great reason why the man has "The Boop" there. Is it kidnapper/killer bring your daughter to work day? I really disliked the man for sending the child off alone as he waits for armed killers to attack. The Momma stuff confused and annoyed me. (see my comment about a synopsis before setting the critics on the story).

Again I feel I am being unfairly hard on this innocent section of a much larger story.

Declan Burke said...

Hi Michael -

Ta for the comments, sir.

A fair point about the context. I'd actually written a short blurb for this post, as you suggest, but then I decided I didn't want to give any readers a 'steer', and let them read it blind ...

The contradiction in night falling and rising ... Again, a fair point, although I do have Dan say, "Not that it falls," before he goes on to say that he feels the night rises. I may need to clarify that.

The Boop, and killer/kidnapper bring-your-daughter-to-work-day ... Much as I like the idea, The Boop and Courtney are two different characters. The Boop is a "two-year-old tyrant" with blue eyes, Courtney is an ll-year-old with brown eyes. The Boop, in fact, is either a ghost or a manifestation of Dan's weariness / insanity / longing ... Either way, she's dead. Again, I might need to clarify this.

Much obliged for the feedback, sir.

Cheers, Dec

eimear said...

After a second read I was fairly sure that the daughter was a memory. I suppose a man who kidnaps someone else's daughter would be bound to start thinking of its own.

Overall it grabs me and by the end I really want to know what happens. But somehow I don't like the first sentence.

michael said...

Actually I knew The Boop and Courtney were different characters. I did not pick up on The Boop being in Dan's mind. If I had the Mother thing would have made more sense.

There seems to be two (at least) types of readers, one than savors every word and the other that speeds through the text interested in only the content of the sentence. The literary prose and detailed descriptions of writers such as yourself and Raymond Chandler tend to be wasted on us speed readers who prefer the quick to the point of Dashiell Hammett school. Obviously, comparing you to Chandler means the flaw is more with me the reader than you the writer. But I just finished the first day in Big O and there are times I wish you hurry up and get to the point (then again what else would you expect from an American).

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

Re: the The daughter / hostage thing. At first read,the eye color change from blue to brown got me.

I back tracked and realized the transition.

"I close my eyes and beg for just this once, to feel her again just one last time …"

It all made sense to me and I understood it as the wife was gone, and I'm pretty sure his daughter is either estranged, or more likely, dead as well.

The more I re-read it, the more I liked it, but i have never had issue with flashback scenes.

Declan Burke said...

Yet again, folks, ta muchly. I should do this more often - there's some very interesting feedback coming through.

Eimear - I'll be having a good long squint at that first line again. First lines are tough, tough, tough - I don't know if I've ever been really happy with a first line.

Michael - Obviously, comparing me to Chandler means you're off your head on peyote. But no, I get what you mean - although it could be argued that it's the very absence of overtly lyrical flourishes that makes Hammett a better novelist than Chandler.

I like different books for different reasons. Some I read for the prose, others I read for plot. The great writers, of course, combine the two. And much more besides.

Oh, and thanks for investing the time / cash in The Big O - much obliged. I hope the pace picks up for you. Keep me posted.

Sean - if you had to back-track at all, or re-read to confirm something, then I'm not doing my job. Still, it's early days. There's always tomorrow ...

Cheers, Dec

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

I hear ya. I read at at 5:00 AM, while having my first cup of joe. Could be I'm biased too, as I am familiar and a fan so..I still think your on to something good. I also fall into the non speedreding catagory.

On a totally seperate note, IMPERIAL BEDROOMS is awesome, if you dig BEE. He's still got it, albeit, same formula etc..but you already know what you're in for before you start.

Glenna said...

Before I give you my opinion know that I'm just a typical reader. I know nothing about writing or critiquing.

With that disclaimer...Honestly, I liked it. I liked the prose and the general feeling, and that it seemed you didn't go into the exact color, size, shape of everything but gave an image. I do think it might have a been a bit lengthy but generally well done. The "Boop" part did confuse me some. I didn't get it right away, but as I read started to wonder if something had happened to her. At first I more or less thought she was sent to another room or that she was with the main character. Otherwise, I enjoyed it and look forward to seeing where the story leads, (I have a feeling it's going to be a heart breaker).

Winters said...

Like it very much and do want to read more. Great dialogue. My only suggestion relates to the start. To me, the stronger start is the first quote followed by "It will be warm..." First paragraph almost lost me, and I would have missed some great stuff that followed if I hadn't pushed past. That second paragraph grabbed me.

Keep going!

Oonagh @ CeltoiCroi said...

I could almost taste the lamb you described it so well, much to Andys' disgust (I'm sure) Dec and I could hear the voice of the baby girl, you played it out so well. The second character 'Courtney', seemed somewhat unreal, the way she spoke to 'Danny' quite alien to me as coming from an 11 year old, probably because I have something to compare it to with Katy being 10, but then again there are kids out there that do swear like this, so maybe I'm just too sheltered. The setting seems almost too beautiful for such a dilemma to be happening, but again this does happen.... all in all, another great job done, looking forward to reading more and more, (but yeah, you could do with laying off the quotes to maybe two per chapter!!!)
If you head over to my blog at CeltoiCroi, you will see that I have nominated you and your blog for the Versatile Blogger Award. To be honest I'm dumbfounded that you haven't already received one already, and am honoured to be the one to give it to you.
Keep on impressing me....
xx Oonagh

Frank said...

Start with "The Boop..." - it arouses curiosity etc. The descriptions of scenery, insects etc is offputting, and is the type of stuff readers skip. Perhaps throw in some mild description after we've established some characters. Definitely don't start with it. Too literary, arty-farty. Eogtistical. You're better than that!

Declan Burke said...

Glenna - thanks for that, ma'am. That there needs to be clarification is coming through loud and clear. And between you and me, there's no such thing as 'just a typical reader'. All opinions are welcome.

Winters - I hear you. You're not the first to say the fluffy stuff is getting in the way at the start. Taken on board, and ta for that.

Oonagh - crikey, when you can't depend on your own sister to blow smoke up your skirts, who can you depend on? Sheeesh ... No, you're right about the too many quotes; and I'll need to work on Courtney, although she's not your typical 11-year-old, I should say that now. Anyway, I'll keep you posted.

Frank - much obliged. Don't know if I'm better than that, or anything right now, but I appreciate the nod. What I'm hearing from you is Elmore Leonard's take on John Steinbeck's advice to 'skip the hoopty-doodle' ... taken on board, and thanks for taking the time.

Might be interesting to run this piece again in a week's time, with changes, see how it fares ...

Cheers, Dec

Anonymous said...

Even though I am notorious for skimming over descriptive passages this one managed to hold me. The more I read the more I wanted to read.... I'm intrigued - keep it coming!!!!


michael said...

Update on my progress with Big O. Finished the section "Thursday". My feelings towards the book are more positive. You get to the point. You still have too many of them but I can see all will join later in the book. The bouncing back and forth between characters doesn't frustrate me as often once I could remember who is who. This also points to the weakness of criticism of one chapter out of context.

Couple of more thoughts about Danny Boy. I think my feelings about this chapter would be more positive if it was Chapter Two or Three, not Chapter One. Also, many readers enjoy stories where the location is equal to a character. Is that what you are going for? Right now I feel Chapter One is burying your lead (a newspaper term I hope they use overseas).

Declan Burke said...

S - Much obliged. I have to say, I'm generally not one for the descriptive passages when writing, but the place I'm trying to evoke is particularly important to the story ... I'm currently stripping it back in a rewrite of that excerpt, which I'll post next week as an experiment in comparison.

Michael - the comment above ties into your suggestion that the location is important to the novel. It is, but location should never be as important as character and plot, and especially so at the very beginning ... Burying my lead is an apt description, and yes, we use it here too.

Glad to hear The Big O is picking up pace for you, or at least starting to come together ...

Cheers, Dec

Deborah Lawrenson said...

Delighted to see this!
Love the intent of the lyrical passages and so many of the phrases, but maybe less is more and would help the flow. (Having spent the summer on a close edit with a brilliant new editor, I can hear her voice giving your prose the same going-over as mine...)
Can I suggest you get hold of a copy of Laurie Lee's A Moment of War to see how effective his "muscular" lyricism is? Just a thought.

Declan Burke said...

Thanks Deborah ... Less is always more, indeed.

I don't mind admitting that "The Art of Falling" is an influence on where I'm going with the rewrite ... Naturally, I'll cut you in for your 10% plagiarism fee.

"A Moment of War" - what a brilliant title. Will try to track it down ...

Cheers, Dec

seana said...

I'll agree with others that the Boop's presence was a bit confusing to me, not to say outright disturbing in the midst of a kidnapping. Now that I understand that she's not actually there, though, I like it much more.

I actually like the descriptive passages and the feel of place you have here quite a lot,though of course you'd tighten it in further drafts a bit. I think there's maybe a bit too much going on. This guy's contemplation of the night makes sense if he's just there alone,waiting for events to unfold. It makes less sense with a kidnapped child in a room just behind him, and even less with the ghosts of the past haunting him at the same time. I think somehow these different elements need to be separated a bit more. Maybe leave out the Boop for now and put her in as a motivation later? I'd go for the impact you'd have by starting with the protagonist's vigil and drawing us into identifying him, and then giving us the shock that he's holding a child captive straight up, and only later giving us back our sympathy for him, if such is to be had.

Richard L. said...

Very nice. Hopefully, the completed DANNY BOY will be one to sit alongside Adrian McKinty's DEAD I WELL MAY BE and Lawrence Block's ALL THE FLOWERS ARE DYING, the latter of which uses the lyrics to "Danny Boy" as an epigraph.

I like your site, and am glad to have discovered some of the Irish authors you showcase here (including yerself). I've been linking to your site from the WHAT I'M READING NOW threads of the forum at the Cormac McCarthy Society.

Keep up the good work.

Declan Burke said...

Seana - Some very sensible advice there, the kind I particularly hate taking. Thanks for that. You didn't happen to work as an editor before, did you?

Richard - Haven't read the Block novel, I'm afraid, but if DB got to rank beside McKinty's, I'd be a happy man.

Much obliged for the kind words and links, too.

Cheers, Dec