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 16, 2011

When In Rome, Giggle Your Socks Off

I started Conor Fitzgerald’s THE FATAL TOUCH the other night (gorgeous cover, right), which is set in the Eternal City, and even at this early stage it’s evident that the novel is more assured than Fitzgerald’s very fine debut, THE DOGS OF ROME. That assurance manifests itself in a laconic sense of humour that knowingly undermines the crime novel’s tropes, as offered by Fitzgerald’s protagonist, Commissioner Blume:
When Grattapaglia had gone, Blume leaned back and turned his face up to the sun. “I need a job that allows me to drink coffee, eat pastries, and soak up the morning warmth. A job without people like Grattapaglia. I’d keep the dead bodies and crime victims, though. I wouldn’t have any perspective on life without them. So, what’s your impression so far?”
  And again, as Blume contemplates a locked door:
“We could go in from this side, or go back and enter through that green door. I have some picklocks in the tactical bag.”
  Blume patiently worked at the tumbler lock on the door. “Almost have it,” he said after five minutes. “I’m a bit out of practice.”
  Three minutes later he pulled out a crowbar from the same bag, stuck it into the wood frame next to the strike plate, and hurled his body against the door.
  Good, clean fun it is too, and THE FATAL TOUCH has put a wry smile on my face with virtually every page. If the rest lives up to the promise of the first 60 pages or so, it’ll be one of the finest crime novels of the year.

Friday, April 15, 2011

It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Soul

It won’t be published until October, but already Stuart Neville’s STOLEN SOULS is shaping up to be one of the novels to watch out for in 2011. The winner of the LA Times’ Mystery / Thriller award in 2009 with his debut THE GHOSTS OF BELFAST, and in the running for the same gong this year for COLLUSION, Neville’s third novel comes freighted with expectation. Mind you, the blurb elves suggest that STOLEN SOULS will deliver. To wit:
Detective Inspector Jack Lennon of the Belfast Police has watched the developing cooperation between Northern Ireland’s Loyalist gangs and immigrant Lithuanian criminals with unease. The Lithuanians traffic women from Eastern Europe and Asia for the Loyalists’ brothels, and they’re all making big money in spite of the recession that has stopped Northern Ireland’s peace boom in its tracks. Lennon has a more intimate knowledge of the city’s brothels than he’ll ever admit, but the surge in trafficked girls makes him question his lifestyle, especially considering he has his daughter, Ellen, to care for now.
  When a Lithuanian trafficker turns up dead on Christmas Eve with a shard of glass embedded in his throat, Lennon’s plans to spend the holiday with Ellen are put in jeopardy. The dead man was the younger brother of a ruthless Lithuanian crime boss, Arturas Strazdas, and the young Ukrainian woman who killed him has escaped her captors. Now Strazdas holds the Loyalists responsible and won’t let up until everyone involved has paid. A bloody gang war erupts across the city.
  Meanwhile, somewhere in Belfast, Galya, the Ukrainian girl, is running for her life, alone and scared, clinging to the darkest corners as the frozen streets empty for the holiday. Galya’s captors told her how the police deal with illegal immigrants, that she is a criminal in a foreign land, and the law will not help her. And now she is also a murderer. She cannot be discovered by anyone, not the cops, not the gang who held her prisoner. There is only one person she can go to: a man she met on her first day as a prostitute, a friend who gave her a crucifix and an address to run to if she ever got away. He’d saved four prostitutes before her, he’s told her, and she can be his fifth. But when Galya arrives at the address, she finds something more evil than she had ever imagined.
  Sounds like a cracker. Mind you, I was putting the final proofs for DOWN THESE GREEN STREETS to bed this week, and while proofing Neville’s contribution, a short story entitled ‘The Craftsman’, it struck me that, as propulsive as he is as a thriller writer, it’s in the quieter moments, the emotional connections, that Neville truly excels. I can’t say much more than that or I’ll spoil the story; suffice to say that beneath the bearded, hard-boiled exterior Neville presents to the world, there lurks the soul of a poet. And, if the subtleties that underpin ‘The Craftsman’ is a measure of how Neville has developed as a writer since the publication of COLLUSION, then STOLEN SOULS promises to outstrip his previous novels by some distance. It’s a tantalising prospect.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Laughing All The Way To The Bank

The Independent carried an interview with Eoin Colfer on Sunday, to celebrate the forthcoming PLUGGED, Eoin’s first foray into adult crime fiction. A nice piece it is, too, although there was one line that jarred. To wit:
The book is unusual because it’s funny, although Colfer says he originally tried to write it straight. “He was initially very much the implacable hero, in the Lee Marvin type, out for revenge, no messing around. But I couldn’t sustain it. It just felt like I was trying to write someone else’s book. Then one joke got in, and then another one. Initially the character wasn’t the brightest guy, but then I started to leak in a bit of psychology and he became more knowing and aware of his own foibles, so I had to go back and change it all and make it much funnier.” He is full of ideas for future adventures, but adds: “It’s a very fickle world. The public might decide there’s already a funny crime writer so we don’t want you.”
  All of which suggests that PLUGGED won’t be entirely unlike the Parker novels rewritten Carl Hiassen - I haven’t read it yet, but that should be rectified in the next couple of weeks or so (the book is officially published on May 12).
  The line that jarred, though - ‘The book is unusual because it’s funny …’ Not to cast asparagus on Susie Mesure’s research for the piece, but there are at least four Irish authors writing comedy crime fiction, among them Colin ‘Nine Inch’ Bateman, Garbhan ‘Girth Unknown’ Downey and Ruth ‘Cuddly’ Dudley Edwards. Broaden it out to the international stage, and (off the top of my head) you have the aforementioned Carl Hiassen, Christopher Brookmyre, Donald Westlake, Simon Brett, Alexander McCall Smith, Chris Ewan, Jasper Fforde, Christopher Fowler and LC Tyler. In fact, there are so many comedy writers that Bristol’s Crimefest has a dedicated ‘Last Laugh’ award.
  That said, humour is a very subjective thing. I think Elmore Leonard is a very funny writer. Sara Gran’s forthcoming CITY OF THE DEAD is a comic masterpiece. James Patterson, of course, is the funniest writer alive.
  Anyway, niggling aside, I’m pretty sure that (a) PLUGGED will be very funny, and (b) the public will find room in their hearts for another funny crime writer, especially one who’s earned his licks with the Artemis Fowl series.
  Over to you, folks. Any comic crime writers I’ve missed?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Bonfire Of The Inanities

As I’ve said before on these pages, I’m not really exercised by book covers, but every now and again one comes along that catches the eye. The UK cover of THE BURNING SOUL - to be published on both sides of the pond on September 1st - comes courtesy of its author, John Connolly, and is definitely one such eye-catcher: at first glance, it put me in mind of both ‘The Children of the Corn’ and ‘The Wicker Man’. Meanwhile, the blurb elves are wittering thusly:
Randall Haight has a secret: when he was a teenager, he and his friend killed a 14-year-old girl. Randall did his time and built a new life in the small Maine town of Pastor’s Bay, but somebody has discovered the truth about Randall. He is being tormented by anonymous messages, haunting reminders of his past crime, and he wants private detective Charlie Parker to make it stop. But another 14-year-old girl has gone missing, this time from Pastor’s Bay, and the missing girl’s family has its own secrets to protect. Now Parker must unravel a web of deceit involving the police, the FBI, a doomed mobster named Tommy Morris, and Randall Haight himself. Because Randall Haight is telling lies …
  Sounds like a cracker. Suddenly September seems a long, long way away …
  Meanwhile, given my well-deserved reputation for reading way too much into far too little, it’s incumbent upon me to posit a theory about THE BURNING SOUL as a metaphor for Ireland’s economic collapse. If we say that Randall Haight represents the banks and their dirty secrets, for example, and the murdered 14-year-old girl the innocent Irish tax-payer, then perhaps our hero Charlie Parker is entering the financial labyrinth (aka the ‘web of deceit’) on our behalf to face down the demons, ultimately to emerge, bloodied but unbowed, to advise the government that the only way to deal with €100 billion debt placed on Ireland’s already buckling shoulders is to burn the soul-sucking bondholders to the floor, aka, the bonfire of the inanities.
  Too much? Erm, yes. But again, at the risk of reading too much into such things, it’s interesting to take a look at the titles of recent and forthcoming Irish crime titles in the context of all that has happened here over the last 12 months or so. To wit: THE BURNING SOUL (John Connolly); THE BURNING (Jane Casey); THE RAGE (Gene Kerrigan); THE FATAL TOUCH (Conor Fitzgerald); FALLING GLASS (Adrian McKinty); PLUGGED (Eoin Colfer); TAKEN (Niamh O’Connor); BLOODLAND (Alan Glynn); STOLEN SOULS (Stuart Neville); BROKEN HARBOUR (Tana French); LITTLE GIRL LOST (Brian McGilloway).
  Now, not all of those novels are even set in Ireland, and to the best of my knowledge, none of them explicitly deal with how Irish people are being punished for the sins of profligate European bankers. Still, there’s a lot of broken, bloody, lost, burning, angry souls in there …

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

If The Name Fitz, Wear It

I was away last weekend, engaged in fifth wedding anniversary-related shenanigans, so I didn’t get to see Saturday’s Irish Times’ books pages until yesterday. Some very good stuff there was, too, starting with Arminta Wallace’s piece on how crime fiction set in Italy (albeit courtesy of non-Italian writers) is about to steal the limelight away from its Scandinavian counterpart. Among the writers interviewed was Conor Fitzgerald, whose THE FATAL TOUCH is published round about now. Quoth Conor:
“The Scandinavians have a good society with a nasty underbelly. In Italy it’s almost the reverse; they know they have a bad society. Usually detective fiction is about setting the world to rights, so if you place it in Italy you’ve got a problem. Crimes do not get solved; court cases never finish.”
  Wallace, by the way, also tells us that ‘Conor Fitzgerald’ is a pseudonym, and reveals the name of the author’s father, who is a famous Irish poet (hint: it’s not Seamus Heaney). For the scoop, clickety-click here
  Elsewhere, Ed O’Loughlin’s very fine sophomore novel, TOPLOADER, was reviewed by David Park, with the gist running thusly:
“O’Louglin’s writing is consistently impressive in his descriptions of the imposition of military might and its human consequences. He is also skilled at capturing the nightmarish, terrorised topography inside the zone and the conditions that the inhabitants have to endure.”
  Park was less impressed with the comic aspects of the novel, which is a little bit odd, given that TOPLOADER is a comic novel in the vein of DR STRANGELOVE - dark and tragic, certainly, but always attuned to the absurdities of the ‘war on terror’. For what it’s worth, I read TOPLOADER with a sloppy grin pasted to my face throughout. If you remain unconvinced that the comic novel can be simultaneously funny and heartbreaking, then I recommend you read TOPLOADER.
  For the rest of the review, clickety-click here
  Finally, Max McGuinness reviewed Hadrien Laroche’s THE LAST GENET: A WRITER IN REVOLT, which details Jean Genet’s political activism in the latter stages of his life, when he went out to bat for organisations such as the Black Panthers, the PLO and the Red Army Faction. I went through a phase of gorging on Jean Genet some years ago now, and enjoyed the vicarious wallowing in the gutter that reading Genet offers, although I wouldn’t be in any great hurry to re-read any of the novels. That said, I have a biography, THE IMAGINATION OF JEAN GENET by Joseph McMahon, sitting on the shelves, and I might be tempted to crack it open if I ever again get to the point where I have the luxury of simply reading for fun.
  Anyway, for the review of THE LAST GENET, clickety-click here

Monday, April 11, 2011

A Good Think, Interrupted

I tuned in late to the Masters last night, long after Rory McIlroy (right) had blown his four-shot lead at the start of the day, but just in time to watch Rory disintegrate in considerable style as he took the long way home, hacking his way through the undergrowth of the more remote parts of Augusta’s back nine. Commiserations to Rory, although it’s hard to feel truly sorry for him - if you’re good enough to establish a four-shot lead going into the last day of the Masters, then you’re good, period.
  Back in the days when I used to swing a golf club, in the process exploring the more exotic flora of whatever course I was on, I used to call that ‘value for money’. People did try to persuade me that the point of the exercise was to take the minimum number of shots to get around, but investing good money in a set of clubs and not using them as often as possible made no sense to me.
  I don’t golf anymore. I like the game, but I can’t be doing with all the bullshit that has to be negotiated between the car park and the first tee. Plus, it’s a time-consuming sport. Besides, writing is a much more exquisite form of self-torture. If golf is a good walk spoiled, as Mark Twain suggested, then writing is all too often a good think interrupted.
  It occurred to me last night, and not for the first time, that golf and writing have much in common. The pursuit of an impossible excellence, for one. How the finest difference in intent and execution can result in triumph or disaster. One of Rory McIlroy’s drives last night was perhaps only a millimetre off when club struck ball, for example, but that put it two feet off its trajectory when the ball hit a tree branch, and the branch deflected the ball a couple of hundred yards away from where it should have been.
  At the time, Rory was a shot clear of a chasing pack which included Tiger Woods, and such competition brings with it its own pressures. Ultimately, though, when Rory stood over that shot, or any of his shots, he wasn’t competing against anyone but himself. He was competing with the limits of his skill, his facility for grace under pressure, his ability to keep his inner demons at bay whilst maintaining an outward façade of calm efficiency.
  In the end, Rory lost his battle with himself, which will probably be the most disappointing thing for him when he wakes up this morning. To be beaten by a better golfer is one thing, and nothing to be ashamed of. To be beaten by yourself, though, sabotaged from within, that’s a whole different issue.
  Most writers I know are prone to self-sabotage, most of it connected to the nebulous concept of confidence. They might have just written a brilliant book, but when it comes to starting the next one, they can’t remember how it’s done. And there’s no point in telling yourself that if you’ve done it once, you can do it again - there’s always the possibility that the last time was a fluke. Hell, even I hit a hole-in-one once. But I could stand on the same tee from now until Judgement Day, swinging the club in exactly the same way, and never hit that hole-in-one again.
  In the more extreme versions, some writers - yours truly being one example - go through this every day.
  All of which is a roundabout way of saying that confidence plays a huge part in the writing process. And it’s nice, on those occasions when you find yourself ankle-deep in the rough, and possibly out-of-bounds, to get a shot of confidence, aka a positive review. Seana Graham, a long-time friend of Irish crime writing, who blogs over at Confessions of Ignorance, provided such a shot in the arm this weekend, when she posted a reader’s review of EIGHTBALL BOOGIE on Amazon, with the gist running thusly:
“THE BIG O could justly be called an Elmore Leonard style caper book, with a madcap carnival of characters keeping the action going. Though EIGHTBALL BOOGIE could never be accused of being less than lively, and plot-wise it is probably just as complicated, the story is perhaps a bit more grounded in the character of its protagonist, one Harry Rigby. Rigby’s got all the usual P.I. problems - women trouble, cop trouble, and smart mouth trouble. Unlike some similar protagonists I’ve read recently, I’m not all together convinced that he’s a good guy. But he does have one core value, and that’s protecting his son Ben. Trace that through, and you’ll see that everything he does is motivated by that one objective. Everything.
  “In one aspect, anyway, this book is a straight up homage to Raymond Chandler, and of course it’s a brave thing to offer yourself up for comparison to an American master of detective fiction. But in my book, Burke is up to it. There are countless throwaway lines that show the same kind of spark of cleverness, and I think the first one where I realized I should slow down and start paying better attention was: “Conway lived two miles out of town, the house only three drainpipes short of a mansion.” This is the kind of book that fans will love to dig such nuggets out of, but why should I spoil your pleasure by revealing more?
  “There are many plot twists in this story, and some of them I did manage to see coming. But there is one great piece of finesse that figures in towards the end, and I admired it immensely. I think there is something in this one for everyone, though I will say that as with much Irish crime fiction I’ve read, there was one moment of brutality that was a bit beyond my tolerance level. Well, make that two.
  “But hey, if you’re going to read Irish crime fiction, you’re going to have to get used to this stuff.” - Seana Graham
  All of which is very nice indeed, and I thank you kindly, ma’am. Do I honestly believe that THE BIG O is entitled to be mentioned in the same breath as Elmore Leonard, or EIGHTBALL BOOGIE compared with Raymond Chandler? No, I don’t. But such references go a long way towards bolstering a fragile confidence, tantalising whispers that suggest if I stay the course, and keep doing what I do, that some day, somehow, I’ll write a book that does deserve such exalted company. Even if it does turn out to be a fluke.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Nobody Move, This Is A Review: SUPER SAD TRUE LOVE STORY by Gary Shteyngart

SUPER SAD TRUE LOVE STORY is a dystopian sci-fi novel (is there any other kind?) set in the near future, and as such is a satire on contemporary American obsessions. It opens in Rome in the very near future, where Lenny Abramov, the story’s hero, is attending an orgy. Lenny is in Rome in pursuit of High Net Worth Individuals, hoping to sell them on the idea of Indefinite Life Extension, a service provided by the Post-Human Services division of the Staatling-Wapachung Corporation.
  Lenny meets Eunice Park, an American-Korean student living in Rome, and falls for her immediately. Soon after, Lenny returns to New York, where we discover that the United States is in a state of terminal decline. At war in Venezuela, the US is indebted to China, and is ruled by the quasi-fascist Bipartisan Party led by the hated Rubenstein.
  Lenny’s ambitions are two-fold. He wants to earn enough money to become a High Net Worth Individual, and thus avail of Indefinite Life Extension. He also wants to marry Eunice Park.
  The novel’s opening chapter comes courtesy of Lenny’s diary, in which he records his fears and concerns, his hopes and desires. Lenny’s is not the only story being told, however. The reader is given access to Eunice’s ‘Globalteen’ account, in which we are offered her emails to her sister, Sally, her mother Chung Won, and her best friend, Jenny Kang, aka Grillbitch.
  Thus the story proceeds with Lenny telling us about the declining economic and political situation in New York, and his burgeoning romance with Eunice; we then get Eunice’s take on the same events, which is often radically different to Lenny’s.
  Lenny is an ambitious, shallow, naïve 39-year-old. His infatuation with Eunice, who is roughly half his age, bears all the hallmarks of a mid-life crisis. Obsessed with youth, his credit balance and maintaining the illusion of normality as normal life crumbles around him, Lenny is very much a product of his time, when consumerism and patriotism amount to more or less the same thing.
  Lenny does appear to be slightly more thoughtful than his circle of friends, however. He is genuinely in love with Eunice, and wants nothing more than to be allowed to take care of her. Despite his conflicted relationship with his Russian-Jewish parents, he is constantly seeking their approval. Lenny also has a love of books, or ‘old print media’, which marks him out as something of a subversive in a society that has only contempt for any information that is not streamed on the ‘Globalteen network’ (aka the internet) and condensed into easily digestible data packets.
  Shteyngart makes much of Lenny’s Russian-Jewish background, but also presents Lenny as an Everyman, his naivety manifesting itself as a curiosity that in turn allows the reader to explore the nooks and crannies of his brave new world. He should be a likeable protagonist, but Lenny is too passive a hero to generate much sympathy. It makes sense, according to the book’s logic, that Lenny - and his entire generation - should be passive, conditioned as they are to be constantly receptive to information overload. By the same token, Lenny would have been a much more interesting character had he taken the decision to kick against the pricks much earlier in the story.
  Eunice is roughly half Lenny’s age, a young woman who is entirely immersed in the shallowness of her culture. An obsessive on-line shopper, she is emotionally stunted, dazzled by surface appearance and prospective mates’ credit rating. It’s to her own credit that Eunice gradually comes to appreciate Lenny’s subtle virtues, not least of which is that Lenny loves her for who she is, not what she represents.
  Eunice’s background is every bit as complicated as Lenny’s. One of two daughters in an immigrant Korean family, she has grown up with one foot in the liberal, consumerist society of the United States, and her other foot firmly shackled by her family’s conservative values. Her family life is further complicated by the fact that her father is physically abusive, and her mother is deeply religious. Starved of genuine affection, reluctant to trust men beyond physical engaging with them, she slowly responds to Lenny’s overtures.
  Meanwhile, Joshie Goldmann is Lenny’s boss at the Post-Human Services division of Staatling-Wapachung, a sprawling corporation that also houses a military division. Joshie is the living embodiment of the Indefinite Life Extension programme; although a father figure to Lenny, and a friend of almost 20 years standing, Joshie appears physically to be 20 years younger than Lenny. Joshie rules the Post-Human Services division with a benign dictator’s tender touch, espousing hippy-like mantras in order to motivate his staff.
  The America Lenny lives in is embroiled in a doomed land-war in Venezuela; Shteyngart never explicitly states the war is for oil, but we can take it for granted that that is the motive. Meanwhile, disgruntled veterans of the war, denied their promised bonus when they return to the States, foment dissent against the Bipartisan Party that rules the US. This dissent eventually boils over into outright conflict, when the veterans of New York, many of whom live homeless in Central Park, are attacked by the National Guard, and a state of emergency declared.
  Shteyngart also emphasises the current US obsession with the illusion of eternal youth, exaggerating it into a desire to live forever via the Indefinite Life Extension programme. The obsession with technology is also lampooned, as most people own an ‘apparat’, which appears to be an advance version of today’s hand-held devices (at one point, when Lenny takes out his out-moded apparat, he is sneered at by a younger co-worker, who asks if his apparat is an iPhone). The cult of celebrity and the desire for 15 minutes of fame is also lampooned, as most of Lenny’s ‘Media’ friends appear to stream their own on-line shows. Consumerism has become something of a philosophy in Lenny’s America; strangers can point their apparats at you to discover your credit rating, while credit poles on the street will also flash your credit details as you pass by.
  On a darker note, the two-party democratic system currently operating in America has morphed into a one-party government, which is quasi-fascist in tone, and issues declarations reminiscent of Big Brother in George Orwell’s 1984.
  Shteyngart employs a lively style, a variety of ‘teen-speak’ which is perfectly pitched to reflect the shallowness of the culture. The prose is slightly more formal when Lenny addresses his diary, but Eunice’s accounts are peppered with sexual slang, acronyms and an abrasively crude form of affection.
  He also employs a narrative structure that is initially interesting, in that he presents the reader with Lenny’s diary account of events, and then offers a contrasting take on those events - personal, political - from Eunice’s perspective. Once the pattern is established, however, it very quickly becomes predictable, and even monotonous.   Overall, the novel is an interesting contemporary equivalent to Aldous Huxley’s BRAVE NEW WORLD or George Orwell’s 1984, or Michael Chabon’s THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN’S UNION, as it offers a jaundiced view of a near future where our modern obsessions could well lead us.
  Despite Shteyngart’s use of familiar technology, however, there is little that is fresh or new here - in its appraisal of a conservative and quasi-fascist future, the novel’s liberal angst is predictably conservative.
  Shteyngart’s lively use of language makes the novel an enjoyable read on a page-turning basis, but in terms of the big picture, the novel is more concerned with reacting to current trends rather than devising a future philosophy. There’s a self-limiting aspect to the story that is perfectly in tune with Lenny’s passive personality, and with the internal logic of the world Shteyngart has created, but that self-limiting aspect also means that the novel lacks the grand ambitions of the great sci-fi novels.
  I’d recommend SUPER SAD TRUE LOVE STORY to anyone interested in dabbling in contemporary sci-fi, but connoisseurs of the genre might find it a little disappointing. - Declan Burke