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, November 14, 2009

On James Ellroy, Bad Dreams, Not Writing And Daughters

Russell McLean was thinking aloud on Twitter last week, wondering if he should have bought James Ellroy’s (right) BLOOD’S A ROVER, given that he was working on his own novel, and that it’s impossible to read Ellroy and not be influenced, as a writer, by the power of Ellroy’s ‘voice’. I could empathise, because I was (koff) ‘working’ on the second or third draft of my first book, EIGHTBALL BOOGIE, when I read my first Ellroy, LA CONFIDENTIAL.
  Now, I don’t know if this afflicts everyone writing their first novel, but at the time I wanted my book to be the best book ever written. In that context, reading LA CONFIDENTIAL was the worst possible thing I could have done; had I tossed a grenade into the m/s, I couldn’t have blown apart my own story more effectively. I was mesmerised. Not only did Ellroy pack more plot into a page than most writers get into a whole book, but it was the way he did it, with prose that was brutal and inventive and funny and angry and fresh; it combined the swaggering bravado of a Western gunslinger with the gravitas of an Old Testament prophet. Yes, the book was printed on paper, but I wouldn’t have been the slightest bit surprised to learn that Ellroy’s first draft had been machine-gunned into a tombstone.
  Naturally, deep despair for my own paltry effort followed swiftly. Once I crawled back out from under the bed, however, I decided that reading LA CONFIDENTIAL was the best thing I could have done. Given that I was never going to reach that level of excellence, I could just concentrate on making EIGHTBALL BOOGIE as good as it could be. Which was a huge relief at the time, and my first experience of how living with yourself as a writer involves, first and foremost, learning the art of compromise.
  It’s probably no coincidence that I went public with my decision to stop writing in the week after I met and interviewed James Ellroy. Now, said decision is a massive thing to me, and a tiny enough thing in the grand scheme, but I was overwhelmed by the response to the post on the blog – hopefully, if it achieves nothing else, said post will encourage other writers to gird their loins, grit their teeth and say, ‘Well, I’m not going to duck under like that sad sack of shit.” But it was, for me, the latest in a long line of compromises I’ve made with myself. I also think it was no coincidence that the decision came in the same week as I blogged about Darley Anderson’s profile in The Bookseller, and in the same week that I had a dream in which (I won’t bore you with too many details) I found myself on the edge of a cliff, with my father dangling from my hand and his weight already pulling me over the precipice; in the dream I was horribly ashamed when I said, distinctly, “Let go my hand,” and pulled mine from his, and turned my face away so I wouldn’t see him fall. I woke up terrified and horrified, but I suppose the salutary element of it all is that, just before I woke, I realised I had turned my face away towards where my wife and child were holding on to me.
  I’d been researching James Ellroy in the run-up to the interview, of course, which might have influenced the dream; how the man survived the various traumas and tragedies of his life is impressive enough, but that he has written wonderful books in the process almost defies belief. Maybe I’m reading too much into it (I don’t dream very often), but I think I was trying to warn myself that I don’t have the moral courage it takes to become a great writer; that, when it comes to writing, I’m happy to peer over the edge into the abyss without having what it takes to make the leap of faith required. There’s also the fact that you’re not taking that leap alone – you’re taking others with you, your wife and child, and asking them to have faith in your ability to fly.
  I should point out, by the way, in case anyone is wondering what the hell my wife is doing while I’m so busy working freelance that I haven’t time to write – she’s busier than I am, as it happens, and she’s also the main bread-winner in the family; freelance journalism, no matter how busy you are, is never going to sustain a family in Ireland 2009. My wife is and always has been hugely supportive of my writing; I’ve often wondered if I would have been half as useful to her had our positions been reversed. I’d like to think I would have been, but I really don’t know.
  Anyway, at one point in the interview, Ellroy asked me if I have kids, and we talked about daughters, because he has always wanted to have a daughter. He also talked about ‘yearning’, that all of his books, fiction and non-fiction, have the common theme of ‘yearning’; and while I didn’t realise it at the time, it did occur to me afterwards that, brilliant as they are, I wouldn’t swap all of James Ellroy’s books for what I have. And, if not writing is what it takes to keep what I have in the manner to which she is not only accustomed, but is the least she deserves, then that’s what it will take. The most frightening thing about it? The decision has made me happy.
  So – I met James Ellroy last Saturday. It went a little like this:

“If you’re asking me if I exploited my mother’s death for the sake of my career, then yes, I exploited my mother’s death.”
  James Ellroy does many things with his prose – slices ‘n’ dices, brutalises – but the one thing he does not do is mince words. On stage, as was the case last weekend at the Belfast Waterfront (during which he dedicated a reading from his current novel, ‘Blood’s a Rover’, to all the ‘perverts, peepers, panty-sniffers and pimps’ in the audience’), he is a force of nature who just about stops short of howling at the moon.
  In person, in a gothically dimmed and plush hotel suite earlier that evening, he is no less forthright in his opinions, although he is far from the intimidating ‘Demon Dog’ of American letters he is reputed to be. Thoughtful and considered in his responses, he is a careful listener and an elegant, erudite interviewee, regardless of how intrusive the questions may be.
  “Yes, I exploited my mother’s death,” is arguably the only answer Ellroy can give to that question. Jean Hilliker Ellroy was found murdered in 1958, when Ellroy was 10 years old. Unsurprisingly, the murder had a profound effect on him. He has spoken at length in interview about it, and written two books on the subject, the non-fiction ‘My Dark Places’ and the fiction ‘The Black Dahlia’.
  He’s not done yet, though. When I ask about the parallels between his troubled adolescence, when Ellroy was an out-of-control voyeur who would break-and-enter and ‘prowl’ strangers homes, and his vocation as a writer, which gives him license to snoop through strangers’ lives, he is candid in his answer.
  “The common denominator, I think, is exhibitionism,” he says. “And I’ve got a tremendous need to confess my life … Y’know, I realised only belatedly that my mother and I were a love story rather than a crime story. And it was then that I got the idea to write the memoir [to be published in 2010]. It’s about women and me and it’s called ‘The Hilliker Curse’.”
  The author of 15 novels and / or memoirs, and three collections of short stories, Ellroy is renowned for his clipped, staccato prose style and the hard, tough men who populate his tales. Yet he insists that ‘Blood’s a Rover’, the third part of the ‘Underworld USA’ trilogy following on from ‘American Tabloid’ and ‘The Cold Six Thousand’, is ‘a historical romance’.
  Set against the backdrop of the fall-out from the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, and with Richard Nixon in the White House, ‘Blood’s a Rover’ delivers yet more revisionism and behind-the-scenes political shenanigans involving a mix of real-life and fictional characters, including Nixon, FBI chief Edgar Hoover, and various Caribbean dictators. Its main characters are FBI agent Dwight Holly and Mob fixer Wayne Tedrow, both of whom return from ‘The Cold Six Thousand’, and Donald Crutchfield, a young peeper and pervert who becomes politicised when he discovers a shocking murder.
  “The kid [Crutchfield] is less experienced and brilliant than Wayne and Dwight are, but the kid is the one who is not essentially self-destructive, and who is indefatigable, resourceful, who is lucky, who is endlessly searching for love. And lucky.”
  Despite the apparently autobiographical aspect of Crutchfield (the character, whom Ellroy refers to affectionately as ‘the kid’ and ‘the lost boy’, spends much of the early part of the novel searching for his missing mother), the story comes to be dominated by two women: ‘Joan’ and ‘Karen’, both of whom are ciphers for real-life women Ellroy has loved and lost.
  “Yeah, there’s a real-life ‘Joan’. And the woman I’m with now, who is the love of my life, Erika-with-a-K, I call her ‘the Joan-slayer’. The greatest moment of the film for me, I mean the book, is where ‘Joan’ asks Dwight what he wants. And he says, ‘I want to fall. And I want you to catch me on the way down.’ And when Erika read that and got that, she owned me forever.”
  He is, he says, a happy man these days, a ‘fierce and vital’ 61-year-old.
  “I am happy, yeah. Erika’s a grand and wondrous woman and I’m happier than I’ve ever been. You know, I always wanted a daughter but it didn’t really hit me until my ’50s … I wanted to have a daughter with ‘Joan’, and it didn’t work out. And then I moved to LA and I met a very pregnant woman, and had an affair with her – she was the ‘Karen’ of the book. And it didn’t work out with her, either. But that was what life gave me, and I tried to honour both women with this book.”
  It is a fitting tribute, and a monumentally epic and elegant work of fiction besides. Almost shockingly, the thunder-blast of yearning testosterone that was motherless James Ellroy appears to have found comfort at last.
  “I’ve never gotten over sex,” he says, “I’ve never gotten over women. Women as saviours, women as redemption, women as sex-object and sex-symbol, especially when I’m having sex with them … But I mean, Erika has two daughters, they’re 11 and 13, and the courage of motherhood is astounding. I mean, my God. It’s an astonishing, astonishing level of courage, I can’t even conceive of it.”
  With ‘Blood’s a Rover’ and ‘The Hilliker Curse’, Ellroy appears to have finally put his mother’s ghost to rest. So what now?
  “For Act III,” he says, “I’m going to write big juicy historical love stories. I know what the next four are going to be, yeah. But what they’re about,” he says leaning in, “I’m keeping that under wraps, so this much is off the record …”

‘Blood’s a Rover’, the third part of the ‘Underworld USA’ trilogy, is published by Century.

This interview was first published in the Evening Herald

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Laddies Who Launch

’Tis the season to be merry, tra-la-la-la, etc. There will, no doubt, be a fair swally of dry sherries lowered in the wake of not one but two book launches next week, with merriment assured at the launch of THE DAY OF THE JACK RUSSELL, the latest offering from The Artist Formerly Known As Colin Bateman. I’m reliably informed that TAFKAP will be doing interpretive excerpts from Riverdance as part of the evening’s festivities at No Alibis (where else?) in Belfast, the shindig kicking off at 6pm next Monday evening, November 17th. I’ve just finished TAFKAP’S A-OK TDOTJR, and enjoyed it even more than MYSTERY MAN, the eponymous ‘hero’ of which returns to investigate The Case of the Cock-Headed Man. Having much more in common with THE MALTESE FALCON than THE DAY OF THE JACKAL, TDOTJR boasts a fabulous McGuffin and more red herrings than the McCarthy witch-hunt. Gerard Brennan has all the details, as always, over at CSNI
  That’s next Monday taken care of. Onwards then to Tuesday evening, November 17th, when Alan Glynn will be launching WINTERLAND at Dubray Books, Grafton Street, Dublin, with kick-off around 6.30pm. W (do single-title books qualify for abbreviation?) is a terrific novel, both contemporary and prescient, and a classic crime novel in the way it links conventional, street-level criminality to the highest echelons of business and politics. For more of the same, check out Declan Hughes, Gene Kerrigan and Stuart Neville, all three of whom have turned out excellent novels this year. As for WINTERLAND, I think it’s a superb piece of work, mature and elegant. In terms of its politicisation of criminality, it put me in mind of Liam O’Flaherty’s THE INFORMER and Chinatown. For what it’s worth, I really think this one is worth your time and money …
  Finally, a quick word of thanks to everyone who dropped by and left comments on the whinge-fest below, and also to everyone who linked to it, and got in touch by other means, and generally sympathised. Folks, it’s disappointing but life is otherwise good – it’s not a bad complaint for a freelancer in these straitened times to be so busy you can’t find time to write. Onward and upward …

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Woe Is Me, Etc: A Failing Writer Writes

It’s taken me a while, but I’ve started to realise that the thrust of Crime Always Pays has changed. Yes, it was always intended to be a blog in support of Irish crime writing and writers, but as all three regular readers will be aware, it also doubled as a platform for my own experience of being published. For the last while, though, it’s been more of a platform for my experience of not being published.
  In theory, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as the experience of not being published can just as easily be as interesting as that of being published (for the reader, if not the writer), depending on how well it’s written, not that I make any grand claims in that department.
  Anyway, for those of you who aren’t the three regular readers, the situation is as follows: I’ve had two books published to date, EIGHTBALL BOOGIE and THE BIG O, both of which were decently reviewed and both of which sold like cheese-graters at a leper convention. Which isn’t to complain too bitterly: neither book was a life-changing read, and I’ll always be delighted that I’ve had two books published, even if I never publish another. Right now, I have two more books out under consideration. One is a sequel to EIGHTBALL BOOGIE, the other is a standalone novel about a hospital porter who decides to blow up ‘his’ hospital. At least, I think they’re still under consideration: both have been abroad in the world for some months now, and for all I know, they’ve both been roundly rejected and my agent is simply sparing my feelings. Which might well be the case, he’s a nice bloke.
  Naturally, I’d like both books to be picked up, although I’d be more than happy if only one was published. Whatever reason(s) you have to write, the ultimate goal is to have the story published, so that the maximum possible number of readers get to read it. Hopefully, they’ll even like it. Hopefully, they’ll like it so much they’ll want to read more. And so I’ll get to write another book, etc.
  That’s the natural way of things, but lately I’ve started to hear a little voice in the back of my head suggesting that it might not be the best thing for me right now were either book to be published. That’s because, barring a miracle, what will happen is this: an offer will be made that will amount, in practical terms, to no more than a couple of months’ worth of mortgage payments. Following acceptance, edits and rewrites will follow (a good thing, by the way, because I like both stories and their characters, and I wouldn’t mind at all getting back into the stories, especially if doing so is going to improve them). Then the pre-publication promotion will begin, which is very time-consuming; then the publication promotion; and then the post-publication promotion. Most of this will be conducted via the web, given that I am (a) not wealthy enough nor remunerated enough to do it in person; (b) married with a small child, of whom I don’t see enough of as it is; (c) a freelance journalist who works a minimum of 70 hours per week at the job, and can’t afford to take time off, let alone spend good mortgage money on hauling my ass around the world at a time when house repossessions are starting to climb at an alarming rate back home.
  It really is becoming as stark as that. I decided over the weekend, after interviewing James Ellroy, that it is actually immoral of me to steal time to write fiction when I could be writing freelance material that will actually earn real money. And that’s not even factoring in the time I steal away from my family on the ‘writing’, a catch-all word which includes, these days, reading and blogging too. Someone who liked my books asked me over the weekend, rather facetiously, how come I haven’t sold a million books. I said, rather facetiously, that it was because no one put a million dollars worth of advertising spend behind them. It’s not quite that simple, of course, but there’s a significant element of truth in that.
  As it stands, and given the straitened economic circumstances we all live in, my priorities these days, in order of importance, are family, work and writing. There are, sadly, only 168 hours in any week, roughly a third of which are spent asleep. Factor in such necessities as eating and washing, etc., and that leaves me with about 100 hours to play with. Take away 70 of those hours for work, including the commute, and you’re left with roughly four hours a day for family, which includes basic chores and upkeep of house. That works out at about four hours per day, two in the morning and two in the evening, most of which I choose and prefer to waste in what I like to call ‘Lily-time’.
  I could sleep less than seven hours per night, of course, and frequently do. I could eat and wash less often. I could cut out the morning or evening hours with Lily, and let the house go to hell in a handcart. I could cut back on my work schedule and earn less money. With the time clawed back, I could write a new novel, in the quixotic hope that somewhere out there is an editor who (a) likes my stuff enough to take it forward and (b) has the juice to push it through all the way to publication, all of which would take roughly two years and earn me roughly three months’ worth of mortgage.
  I could do all that. Except, were this any other kind of business, I would be classified insane for even contemplating that kind of return on investment.
  I’d love to finish up with some kind of gloriously noble declaration about how writing isn’t just a business, it’s a vocation, a passion, an obsession, and come hell or high water, I’ll write the next novel and let the chips fall where they may, etc. But I can’t. Not only would such a decision be immoral, it would be foolhardy verging on insanity. Because the publishing business is a business, and I don’t have the time or the chops to make it work for me. Yes, I understand that making it in any business means making sacrifices, but in this particular business, what ‘making sacrifices’ actually means is asking others to make sacrifices on your behalf. Maybe if I was a genius I’d feel comfortable with that, or I simply wouldn’t care. But I’m not. The books I write are (at best) an enjoyable diversion, a pleasant waste of time. They’re not important enough, vital enough or relevant enough to be worth anyone else’s sacrifice, and while there was once a time when I was selfish and ruthless enough to not care about the sacrifices I was asking others to make on my behalf, that time is long gone, and good riddance.
  It’s possible, of course, that one of those books out under consideration might come good, and that an offer will be made that will earn me the kind of time I need to write over the next couple of years. Hey, in a theoretically infinite universe, anything is possible. But it’s unlikely, highly unlikely, and the longer said books spend under consideration, the less likely it becomes. It’s a great pity for me, because I do love to write, but needs must, and the most pressing need these days is the need to be practical. So be it.
  In the meantime, feel free, those of you who are struggling writers gasping for a few molecules of publicity oxygen, to get in touch with this blog. My admiration for your dedication increases by the day, and whatever little I can do to help, I’ll do.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Now That’s What I Call A Review: Ruth Dudley Edwards on THE TWELVE

Gosh, but that Ruth Dudley Edwards (right) keeps busy promoting Irish crime writing. One minute she’s schmoozing Gene Kerrigan in the Sunday Independent, the next she’s bigging-up Stuart Neville’s THE TWELVE over at Shots Mag. To wit:
“While THE TWELVE is taut and beautifully-written, it is not its success as a thriller that so impressed me. It is that it that after decades of painfully seeking to achieve an understanding of what went on during the Troubles, I am stunned to find a novel that reflects the extraordinary complexity of that period, that treats the various players without sentimentality but with deep understanding, and has empathy for the unfortunates caught up in something beyond their ability to control. The blurb provided by my friend Sean O’Callaghan, whose THE INFORMER described how he became caught up in the IRA as a teenager and later atoned for his crimes by becoming an unpaid agent of the Irish police, says simply: ‘Stuart Neville goes to the heart of the perversity of paramilitarism’. And so he does, in his unflinching depiction of how idealists and ideologues who see themselves as community defenders can turn into brutal, hypocritic persecutors of their own people as well as their traditional enemies. But he also goes to the heart of the murkiness of elements of counter-intelligence, the cynicism and narrow self-interest of some of our rulers, the rotten apples that can be found in an honourable police force, the supine nature of fellow-travellers, the moral ambivalence to be found among some clergy and much else … The themes Stuart Neville is addressing are among the greatest in literature: in his treatment of crime, cruelty, guilt, punishment, suffering and justice it is impossible not to be reminded of Dostoevsky.”
  Crumbs! The Big D-ski, no less. You heard the lady, folks. THE TWELVE is where it’s at, and if ‘Cuddly’ Dudley doesn’t convince you, let Adrian McKinty take a whirl. Those Christmas stockings ain’t gonna fill themselves, y’know …

Monday, November 9, 2009

O Come All Ye FAITHFUL. Just Not Yet

The faithful patiently (and not-so-patiently) awaiting the third Tana French novel, FAITHFUL PLACE, will have to twiddle yon thumbs a while longer – the novel isn’t due to hit a shelf near you until next July. Boo, etc. The story features Frank Mackey, who was Cassie Maddox’s boss when she went undercover in THE LIKENESS, with Tana describing him thusly:
“He’s a lot of fun to write, because his moral sense isn’t like most people’s. He’s willing to do anything, to himself or to anyone else, in order to get who he’s after. His conscience is not all that developed, and you find out why, in the course of the book. This one spins around family, the way THE LIKENESS spun around identity.”
  Colour us intrigued …

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Burke’s A Rover

Off with me yesterday to Belfast to interview James Ellroy, who’s on the circuit promoting BLOOD’S A ROVER, and a marvellous day it was too. Mr James Ellroy was charm personified, an elegant, erudite and self-effacing interviewee who also understands the worth of a mutually beneficial stand-out quote or ten. I liked him a lot, which was nice, because it’s not always a good thing to meet your heroes, and I think Ellroy is one of the best writers on the planet. Hence the irrepressibly smug demeanour of yours truly above, although Mr James Ellroy doesn’t seem to be enjoying the occasion anywhere as much, despite his protests of ‘Man, I’m digging it,’ to the contrary. Oh, and I probably shouldn’t have worn my favourite shirt, the one with the hole in the elbow …
  Anyway, I bumped into Gerard Brennan of CSNI going into the Waterfront gig where Ellroy was appearing, and he seems a pretty nice bloke too. He’s less evil-looking in person than he is in his blog pic, which was a relief. He had some bad news during the week, by the way, so pop over to CSNI and cheer him up.
  Afterwards I met Andrew Pepper. I’d met Andrew earlier in the year, at the Bristol CrimeFest, and a nicer guy to while away a couple of coffees you won’t meet in a country mile. He has a new novel coming out next February, the fourth in the Pyke series, called THE DETECTIVE BRANCH. I’ll keep you posted …
  In between, Stuart Neville interviewed James Ellroy, and did a very fine job (kudos to Dave Torrans of No Alibis, who not only arranged the gig, but provided yours truly with a couple of free tickets). Ellroy did a reading dedicated to (I paraphrase) ‘all you perverts, peepers, panty-sniffers and pimps’ in the audience. I’m pretty sure he uses the same dedication every time he does a reading, and that his performance is similar wherever he goes, because there’s an compelling sense of theatre to what Ellroy does in a live context. He does perform, and he just about stops short of howling at the moon in the process. It’s all very polished and effective and damn near electrifying. Having said all that, it’s worth bearing in mind that the most important part of the performance are the words themselves. What Saturday night taught me is (1) it’s no harm for a writer to get in touch with ancient tradition of bardic poetry when performing a reading; and (2) it’s no harm for a writer to make sure his words are worth hearing out loud if he’s going to stand up on a stage and start reciting them.
  Off with us then (I was with an old college mate, Big Joe Lindsay, who works for BBC NI, and whom every second person in Belfast seems to know) for a Pimms or two, fetching up in the wee hours in a beautifully ramshackle club run by David Holmes, whom one or two of you might remember as the man on soundtrack duties for Steven Soderbergh’s movie Out of Sight. Given that that soundtrack is one of my all-time faves, it was nice that Big Joe (naturally) knew David Holmes, and made the intros. Big Joe plays some tunes on BBC NI himself, by the way, which is well worth checking out ...
  The evening ended shortly after I started waving my mobile phone around and showing pictures of the Princess Lilyput, which is always a sign that I’ve had one Pimms too many.
  Sunday morning I got up and read my review of James Ellroy’s BLOOD’S A ROVER, which I loved (the novel, not the review). I wrote the review two days after finishing the novel, though, and at this stage (three weeks on) I think it’s an even better novel than I gave it credit for – more subtle than I appreciated at the time, I think, and a more elegant, enduring work than either of the ‘Underworld USA’ books that preceded it. Anyway, for what it’s worth, here’s my two cents
  Finally, here’s David Holmes’ ‘Rip Rip’ from the Out of Sight soundtrack. “Tighten up yo panties, boy …” Roll it there, Collette …