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, April 3, 2010

The Lone Ranger and Toronto

Canada is justifiably lauded for many things, but gritty urban noir isn’t one of them. Unless, of course, you’re one of the cognoscenti who’s read John McFetridge’s (pictured right, in classic ‘having cake and eating it’ mode) ‘Dirty Sweet’ (2006) and ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ (2007). Pared-down tales of Toronto’s dark underbelly, the novels have been favourably compared with Elmore Leonard’s Detroit-set stories for their smartly observed characters, sharp dialogue, and a willingness to go beyond simplistic characterisations to explore the complex nature of crime and criminality.
  His latest offering was published last year in Canada as ‘Swap’, but arrives in the US bearing the title ‘Let It Ride’. It’s his best novel yet, a distillation of the elements that made the previous novels such compelling reading, and yet it’s a complex story of interwoven motivations that virtually defies a synopsis. John? Can you tell us what it’s all about in fifty words or less?
  “My publisher would love it if I could,” he laughs. “It’s about how relationships change over time, how the balance of power shifts ... It’s about an ex-marine who comes to Toronto from Detroit to set up a supply line for drugs from a guy he met in Afghanistan who’s now a member of a biker gang. And he meets a woman who’s robbing spas and wants to rob the bikers. And there are cops ...”
  Before John McFetridge, Toronto revelled in the name of ‘Toronto the Good’. Is it true that he’s personally responsible for the steep rise in Toronto crime statistics? Is it even safe to visit Toronto these days?
  “Yes, this is true, the only crime in Toronto is in books, otherwise it really is New York run by the Swiss. No crime, clean streets, all the people friendly all the time. Honestly, though, almost everything that happens in my books has its roots in something that actually happened here, from the closed-down brewery being used as a giant grow-op to the eight bikers killed in one night, to the highest ranking narcotics officers on the Toronto police being arrested for drug dealing.”
  As in all good crime writing, McFetridge’s tales explore how conventional notions of street-level criminality impacts on all strata of society, a pervasive poison that goes right to the top of the power structure. Is there a moral dimension to writing that kind of fiction? Or is crime fiction purely an entertainment that reflects the world we live in?
  “If it accurately reflects the world we live in,” he says, “then I think that’s the moral dimension. I try to show the circumstances that allow the criminals to operate, the ways that they justify criminal behaviour to themselves as being just business, and the internal politics and the restrictions on the police that make it difficult to catch these guys. Any conclusions are up to the reader.”
  McFetridge gets compared to Elmore Leonard quite a lot. Does that ever get boring?
  “It’s certainly not boring yet, though he must be getting tired of the number of writers being compared to him. I think it’s a style of writing that’s almost a genre of its own by now. I think of it starting with Hemingway and short stories like ‘The Killers’ and ‘Fifty Grand’ and then maybe it split into crime and literary with Elmore Leonard, and everyone who gets compared to him in the crime camp, and people like Richard Ford and Raymond Carver in the literary camp.”
  Are there any writers who make him you bite his fingers with envy?
  “Lots. So many. And the great thing is there are more all the time, every year more writers come out with debut books that are so good.”
  That said, McFetridge is of the opinion that there should be more good writers getting published every year.
  “I know of a few very good writers,” he says, “who’ve had a number of books published, who are having trouble finding a publisher for their new work. More and more I see any book that falls outside the easy description, that’s difficult to categorize or take risks - all the things that literature should do - having trouble finding a publisher. I can understand the employees of the publishing companies having bosses to answer to who have shareholders to answer to, so the drive becomes the most amount of profit in the shortest time above all else, but that mentality isn’t really the roots of publishing.”
  To that end, McFetridge has recently taken the radical step of setting up a writers’ co-operative organisation.
  “The idea is a kind of novelists version of the original United Artists,” he says, “a company run by the artists. Democracy sounds like a great idea but it’s messy and hard to work on a day-to-day basis, but I’d like to try. If the co-op members are all people who love books and who love literature and that’s their main priority, then I think it’s possible they could do great things. I’m not suggesting it be a non-profit organization (at least not on purpose) but that the drive for the most amount of profit possible not be the main decision making factor all the time.”
  It’s a fascinating concept, especially given the technological advances of recent years, which should in theory make it a lot easier for writers to connect with readers while minimising the number of middle-men involved in the process. For more info, clickety-click here ...
  Meanwhile, do yourself a favour and check out John McFetridge’s superb ‘Let It Ride’. If its quality is anything to go by, Toronto’s Lone Ranger won’t be riding away into the sunset any time soon.

  This article was first published in Crimespree Magazine.

Friday, April 2, 2010

All She Wrote: Murder Ink, RIP

Some very sad news arrived late last night, courtesy of Rob Kitchin: Murder Ink, the crime fiction bookstore on Dawson Street in Dublin, is closing its doors. Run for the last 12 years by Michael Gallagher (right), Murder Ink was always hugely supportive of Irish crime writers, and rarely failed to put a new Irish release front and centre in its windows - at no cost to the writer or publisher, I hasten to add. A combination of the economic downturn and Michael’s failing health contributed to the decision, although the fact that Dawson Street also hosts a Waterstones and a Hodges Figgis meant that it was never easy for Murder Ink to capitalise on its niche appeal. An unfailingly warm and welcoming proprietor, and hugely informative about crime fiction domestic and international, Michael Gallagher will be sorely missed as a supporter of Irish crime writing.
  It really has been a funny old week on ye olde blogge. On Tuesday I covered the death of independent publishers and the revolution in publishing; on Wednesday I had a piece in the Irish Times on the unique relevance of crime writing to modern Ireland; yesterday I featured Arlene Hunt’s launch for BLOOD MONEY at the newly opened Gutter Bookshop in Temple Bar, and tied that in (with a nod to the impending launch of the iPad) with the availability of CRIME ALWAYS PAYS in a variety of formats courtesy of Smashwords. So I’m feeling a little guilty sitting here this morning, as if I’ve somehow betrayed Michael Gallagher in particular and independent bookshops in general, especially as I haven’t darkened the doors of Murder Ink for about two months now. Sentimental tosh, of course: the industry is a machine designed for one purpose only, and that’s to maximise profit.
  Sentimentality aside, you may have noticed that I haven’t provided a link to Murder Ink, and that’s because the shop didn’t have one. A crucial failing in this electronic age, you’d imagine, although it’s very probably because there was no way Murder Ink could compete on-line with the likes of Amazon. Even so, an on-line presence is at the very least an essential marketing tool as the publishing industry slowly migrates to the web. But it’s not just as a marketing tool that the industry is utilising the web: with the advent of e-publishing, writers are more and more using the tools available to by-pass the traditional model of the industry itself. In the week that Murder Ink announced that it will no longer be doing business, for example, the writer JA Konrath announced March sales of $4,200 from e-books alone.
  The death by a million cuts of the independent bookstore is not just an erosion of the traditional publishing model’s core, and it’s not just a machine-like milling out of diversity and originality in favour of blandly homogenous fare. It’s also a very human tragedy in terms of jobs lost, incomes destroyed and lives ruined. “We are living through a revolution as enormous as the one created by Gutenberg’s printing press,” claimed Sameer Rahim in Monday’s Daily Telegraph, and although it’s unwise to make definitive pronouncements while a revolution is ongoing, it appears that, once the dust has settled, there will be very few independent bookstores left standing. It may also be the case, if JA Konrath is any example, that the newly modelled landscape of this Brave New World will boast tens of thousands, and perhaps hundreds of thousands, of independent booksellers. Or writers, as they were formerly known.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Declan Hughes In The Gutter. Again.

The stars were out in force last week to help Arlene Hunt launch her latest tome, BLOOD MONEY, at the Gutter Bookshop, and Declan Hughes was there too (ba-boom-tish, etc.). Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make it myself, possibly because I was too busy feverishly thumbing through said tome. For my verdict, which was delivered on RTE’s Arena programme on Tuesday night, clickety-click here. Don’t adjust your speakers; if you’re wondering why I sound even more like a hippo playing the tuba than usual, it’s because I had a heavy man-cold. Poor me, etc.
  Happily enough, a couple of books popped through the letter-flap to cheer me up - the paperback versions of Alan Glynn’s WINTERLAND arrived, as did a new version of Gene Kerrigan’s DARK TIMES IN THE CITY, complete with ‘Shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger’ branding. Nice. And as if that wasn’t enough, John Connolly’s THE WHISPERERS arrived too. So that’s next week’s reading taken care of.
  In other news, the Spinetingler Awards are open for business again, with Stuart Neville, Adrian McKinty and Ken Bruen (co-writing with Reed Farrel Coleman on TOWER) holding up the Irish end of things in the nominations. If you want do your democratic duty, clickety-click here
  In other-other news, I was a bit gobsmacked to learn that JA Konrath, a veteran of e-book publishing at this point, earned just over $4,200 in March, just by selling e-books. Now, maybe March was a particularly good month for him (he gives all the details here). But if that kind of income evens out over a year, he’s looking at earning about fifty grand a year from e-book sales. Not a figure to be sneezed at, especially if you’re a writer (i.e., yours truly) who can’t get the proverbial dog to bark at him.
  In that spirit, and after hearing that Smashwords have signed up with the forthcoming iPad, I uploaded the previously Kindle-only CRIME ALWAYS PAYS to Smashwords, which now means that it’s available in a wide range of electronic formats. Hell, you can now read the blummin’ thing on your iPhone. For a free sample of the novel, clickety-click here

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Deceptively Simple Art Of Murder

There’s been a lot of talk recently about whether Irish writers are engaging with modern Ireland, a conversation begun by Julian Gough and continued in the Irish Times recently by Eileen Battersby and Joseph O’Connor. Despite the fact that most Irish crime writers tend to be as contemporary in terms of storyline and setting as the business of publishing will allow, said writers are noticeably absent from the conversation. Caroline Walsh, the Literary Editor at the Irish Times, was good enough to suggest that I write a piece rectifying that state of affairs, and the piece is published today, with the opening following below.
  I honestly think there’s something important at stake here. It’s not simply an issue of relevance in terms of writing about contemporary subject matter, as I say in the piece; it’s about the relevance of literature itself, and the function of a body of literature in relation to the culture it springs from. At the risk of sounding a complete plank in quoting myself, I have this to say: “Making a distinction between crime and literary fiction in Ireland today is … redundant, unless it’s to suggest that contemporary Irish crime authors are producing a canon of work that’s equally important as that of their literary counterparts.” To paraphrase Raymond Chandler from The Simple Art of Murder, crime writers are taking the Irish novel out of the drawing room and dropping it in the alley, where it belongs.
  Have on, James, and spare not the horses …
We always take great pride in our writers – except for our crime writers, who, despite being feted abroad, get little recognition here. Strange, given that they seem to be the ones tackling the burning issues, writes DECLAN BURKE

THE ASSASSINATION in 1986 of the Swedish prime minister Olaf Palme sent shockwaves through Sweden in particular and Scandinavia in general. One consequence was the emergence of an indigenous crime fiction, a phenomenon taken very seriously by cultural commentators in Sweden and Norway. Today, writers such as Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbø are household names across the world.
  The then Irish minister for justice, Kevin O’Higgins, was assassinated on his way to Mass in July, 1927. In 1928, Liam O’Flaherty published The Assassin, a political thriller set in Dublin about the murder of a prominent politician. Its staccato rhythms, spare style and bleak tone, the psychological study of a disturbed criminal mind, was practically a blueprint for the hard-boiled crime writing produced in the following years by American writers Dashiell Hammett and James M Cain, yet Ireland has had to wait until the past decade for a comparable outpouring of crime writing ...
  For the rest, clickety-click here

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Only The Trashy And The Brilliant Will Thrive

There was an excellent piece in the Daily Telegraph by Sameer Rahim yesterday, which should be required reading for anyone interested in the future of publishing, aka Publishing 2.0. The gist runs below, but it’s well worth reading in full here
“The death of independent bookshops is just one symptom of a much wider crisis in publishing. Discounted books, online bookselling and the advent of ebooks are destroying old patterns of reading and book buying. We are living through a revolution as enormous as the one created by Gutenberg’s printing press – and authors and publishers are terrified they will become as outdated as the monks who copied out manuscripts. How this happened is down to ambitious editors, greedy agents, demanding writers and big businesses with an eye for easy profit. Combine that with devilishly fast technological innovation and you have a story as astonishing as the credit crunch – and potentially as destructive …
  “We are living through a moment when all the balls have been thrown in the air and no one is sure where they will land. In the digital age, will publishers and agents survive in their current form? Derek Johns argues that “authors need agents as first readers and financial advisers” and someone will have to collate and distribute books whether in bound or ebook form. But will they? How long can it be before Tesco (which already has a 10 per cent share of the book market) stops dealing with fussy publishers and brands its own books? The ebook is also changing things dramatically. The iPad arrives in this country next month and looks set to put the Sony Reader out of commission. Perhaps more significantly, ebooks will allow writers to bypass agents, publishers and bookshops by launching their work on the web or exchanging it quickly among themselves. The extra costs involved in manufacturing books will inevitably come to make them seem a luxury and make the bound book as obsolete as vinyl.
  “Without some form of institutional support, there is a risk that only the trashy and the brilliant will thrive. That might sound like a bracingly efficient way of doing things, but the wonder of books is that no one can ever be sure how important they might be – or who might start slowly and then turn, eventually, into a genius. The careers of many authors show that the mercurial and the eccentric often take a long time to be appreciated. Abolishing the gatekeepers – however excessive or peculiar they may be – will not help reveal all those hidden talents to public view. Instead, the danger is our bookshelves will come to resemble a long line of branded baked beans.” – Sameer Rahim
  With impeccable timing, Smashwords announced its hook-up with the iPad, by which ‘unpublished authors can sell their work on the Apple iPad at virtually no cost’, according to Dean Takahashi at Digital Beat. To wit:
“Smashwords, a site where writers can publish their own e-books, said today it has signed a distribution deal with Apple to put its books into the iPad iBookstore. Mark Coker, chief executive of Smashwords, said in an email to authors that his company has been working on the deal ever since the iPad was announced. And, yes, this means that unpublished authors can sell their work on the Apple iPad at virtually no cost.” – Dean Takahashi
  The next couple of years are going to very interesting indeed, people. Buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy ride …

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Irish Crime Cinema: Now In Gigglevision

Perrier’s Bounty, a thriller starring Cillian Murphy and Brendan Gleeson, opened in Ireland on Friday. I need hardly add that it’s a comedy crime caper; the humour is black, and the gangland Dublin setting suitably grim, but there’s no mistaking it for a serious crime flick.
 In fact, Ireland doesn’t really do serious crime flicks these days. The notable exception is the biopic Veronica Guerin, but even the two movies based on Martin ‘The General’ Cahill were played in large part for chuckles. I Went Down is a terrific film, but the criminals are for the most part figures of fun. In certain circumstances, such as Divorcing Jack, the comedy is the whole point, because Colin Bateman’s novel was written during a particularly dark period of the Troubles, when being able to laugh, and to do so by poking fun at paramilitaries of all stripes, was no mean feat in itself. But why hasn’t Irish cinema responded to the last decade or so in the way crime fiction has? Not all Irish crime fiction is a considered response to how we live now, but a good (the best) chunk of it is, and there’s no parallel development in Irish film. It can’t be a result of snobbery, because the genre / literary divide doesn’t seem to exist in cinema – The Departed and No Country For Old Men, to give two recent examples, won Best Picture Oscars and did serious box office in the process. So why, when faced with the issue of crime, does Irish cinema dissolve in a fit of giggles?
  Anyway, my review of Perrier’s Bounty runneth thusly:
Perrier’s Bounty (16s)
Michael McCrea (Cillian Murphy) is a man with problems. With only a few hours in which to find the money he owes to Dublin gangster Darren Perrier (Brendan Gleeson), Michael finds his woes multiplied when his next-door neighbour Brenda (Jodie Whittaker) shoots dead one of the thugs sent to put him under pressure. All of which is bad enough, but Mutt the loan shark (Liam Cunningham), who might be able to ease Michael’s financial burden, is a double-crossing rat. Oh, and Michael’s father (Jim Broadbent) shows up to tell Michael he’s dying. Given its gangland milieu, the archly comic tone and a script dense with incident and interwoven plot-strands, it’s almost inevitable that Perrier’s Bounty will be compared with Guy Ritchie’s comedy crime capers. The Dublin gangsters speak in a quasi-philosophical way about the business of criminality, much in the same way as the East End crooks do in Ritchie’s movies, and the writer, Mark O’Rowe, never misses an opportunity to insert a joke or gag, even when the story is crying out for a little gravitas give the characters some emotional ballast. Brenda, for example, never seems at all dismayed by the fact that she’s murdered someone, while Michael’s grim determination to pay back Perrier excludes any possibility of his taking time out to commiserate with his dying father. Modelled, in terms of Irish film, on Intermission and (the superior) I Went Down, the movie hits the ground with the cinematic equivalent of a screech of smoking tires, and goes from nought to sixty in seconds flat. For the first half-hour that’s all hugely entertaining, as the characters bounce off one another in an anarchic game of gangland pinball. Murphy is enjoyable as a cynical bottom-feeder with no illusions about life, while Gleeson is in scenery-chewing form as Perrier, a man with a grandiose perception of who he is and a loquacity to match. The director, Ian Fitzgibbon, showcases a deft hand at sustaining momentum, and it’s all shot with panache by cinematographer Seamus Deasy, who finds intriguingly murky corners of Dublin city to poke his camera into. That said, the fact that the pace never flags grows tiresome after a while, as the story turns into a relentless series of incidents that fails to give the audience the kind of emotional involvement that might allow them to care whether Michael survives through the night. ***