Thursday, June 30, 2011

Review of From Aberystwyth With Love by Malcolm Pryce (Bloomsbury, 2009)

It’s a sweltering summer in Aberystwyth and a flooded village emerges from a parched lake. More used to the cold of Siberia, Uncle Vanya, a museum curator, has arrived in the town from the fabled Hughesovka, a town established by a Welsh migrant to Russia. He’s come in search of the story of Gethsemane Walters, a young girl that was murdered thirty years previously. Vanya’s daughter had acquired imaginary friend not long after, but as she got older she claimed to be Gethsemane. Then Vanya was sent to prison and he never saw his daughter again. His mission for private detective Louie Knight and his trusted sidekick, Calamity Jane, is to discover what happened to Gethsemane so that she can be given a Christian burial. Their investigation takes them into the strange world of stamp collecting, spinning wheel repairman, the Russian space programme and rumours of troll brides.

From Aberystwyth With Love is a fine addition to Malcolm Pryce’s slightly surreal detective series. Pryce takes the hardboiled private investigator genre and gives it a Monty Python spin, taking elements of Welsh culture and the local geography of Aberystwyth, and foregrounding and twisting them, and blending the whole lot with a noir sensibility and myth and fable. The result is a set of highly enjoyable yarns. Given this is book five, the characters are well rounded and developed, their back stories established. The story is intricately plotted and, despite its surreal oddness, it has an internal logic that makes perfect sense. There’s some nice intertextuality and it jaunts along at a steady clip. It might have been interesting to have spent more time on the overseas jaunt, but that doesn’t take away from the story as is. An entertaining read and I’m looking forward to book six, The Day Aberystwyth Stood Still, released in August.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Old book, new format

A small parcel arrived today containing four copies of the paperback edition of Rethinking Maps. The original cover was simply a plain blue. They've given the paperback a makeover. I have to say I like it. Simple but strong. It looks better in real life than the thumbnail right. It's also a hell of a lot cheaper. The hardback was strictly a library buy. Sales though must have been okay for them to re-issue in paper two years after the original publication. Available anywhere they sell books. Here's links to and where you can look inside.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Reading a scream

Maxine from Petrona commented on my Sunday post about 1974 by David Peace that it's like reading a scream. As a very short book review that works perfectly. It's a while since I've been so unsettled by a book. I find myself reading it in 20 to 50 page chunks, then putting it down and thinking 'fuck'. It's a complete headwrecker - so intense, visceral and gritty. The subject matter is the usual fare for crime fiction, but Peace's style and flair, and the deep sense of realism, is very unsettling. It's difficult to explain. It's compulsive and repellent. It draws you in at the same time it pushes you away. The equivalent of watching a horror movie from behind cushions. I'm thirty pages from the end and I almost afraid to continue. Brilliant stuff, but should be sold with uppers.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Review of White Death by Tobias Jones (Faber, 2011)

Somebody has burnt out the car of a factory owner and threatened to do the same to his premises unless he sells up. Undaunted, he hires Castagnetti, a hard nosed private detective whose hobby is to keep bees, to find out who is threatening him. Castagnetti soon discovers that there are other similar tales in the city. Shortly after those who are intimidated sell their site, it is re-designated as a development area and its value soars. The stakes though are high. A year previously a man involved in such a deal was shot dead. Then the factory he’s meant to be protecting is set ablaze killing a young immigrant working as a security guard. The factory owner wants to settle with his invisible attackers, but Castagnetti wants justice and to tackle the intimidation and political corruption at work.

This is the second book I’ve read in a week that proclaims that the author is the new Michael Dibdin. This seems to be mainly on the pretext that both write crime novels set in Italy as both Conor Fitzgerald and Tobias Jones have their own voices and styles that bear little resemblance, I feel, to Dibdin and indeed each other. Fitzgerald’s prose is richly textured and has lengthy descriptive passages, Jones’ is more economical, tighter and faster paced. Whilst Fitzgerald charts the life of a policeman, Jones’ principal character is a private investigator. Both have their merits and both are enjoyable reads. White Death moves at a swift pace. The prose is expressive and the characters and scenes well penned. The plot is fairly straightforward, with some nice detail on property politics and deal making, and it has a nice twist, though I found the tension a little underwhelming at times and the ending a little sudden and underdeveloped. A few more pages would have helped to round the story off a little more. Overall, a very readable book and a solid second addition to Jones’ series.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Lazy Sunday Service

I've made a start on David Peace's 1974. Grim but gripping seems to about sum it up. An intense read that's terse yet vivid. One of those books that actually recreates and immerses you in a world; a deeply unsettling one.

My posts this week:
The paradigm busting detective method
The balance between sense of place and good governance
Review of The Fatal Touch by Conor Fitzgerald
The Rule Book: Kindle edition
Fun and games ...

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Fun and Games ...

Amazon has informed me that the following books are in the post. The TBR is straying up towards 30 books. About four months supply. The aim is to get it back down to around ten. I've strayed into buying faster than I'm reading. Which would be fine, but I'm meant to be spending more time writing fiction more than I'm reading. Fat chance. I've also 200 dictionary entries, two papers and two book chapters to write over the summer. So much for it being a quiet one, relaxing, reading some fine books ...

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Rule Book: Kindle edition

The Kindle version of The Rule Book was released back in April. I knew it was on the way, but hadn't picked up it had been released. It's available for download at and Happy reading if you do purchase!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Review of The Fatal Touch by Conor Fitzgerald (Bloomsbury, 2011)

The body of an aging man is found in the early hours of Saturday morning in the Piazza De’ Renzi. It’s not clear whether the cause of death is an accident or murder, but a mugger has been operating in the area preying on tourists. It turns out the man is Irish, but has been living in Rome for years. Henry Treacy describes himself as imitator rather than forger, but he is well known to Carabiniere Art Forgery and Heritage Division and Colonel Farinelli. The case is originally assigned to Commissioner Alec Blume, an American who has risen through the ranks of the Italian police system, but Farinelli moves to push Blume aside. Blume is not so easily shifted, especially after he starts to read Treacy’s memoirs written out in three notebooks. Ordered to drop the case, Blume and Inspector Caterina Mattiola carry on regardless, convinced there is more at stake than discovering why Treacy’s body was lying dead in a Rome square.

The Fatal Touch has a lot going for it. It has a strong, intricate plot, with a disparate range of characters and several cleverly interwoven strands. It is clearly based on a lot of research around art forgery and the art world, and procedurally it seems realistic. The narrative is culturally sensitive and portrays a good sense of place with respect to Rome. And it is generally very well written with some lovely prose. The notebooks of Henry Treacy are particularly nicely drafted. Despite all the good stuff, I do however have two concerns. The first is that the novel is overly long. My sense is that a good ten thousand words, and probably twice that, could be cut from the script and a reader would not notice. In fact, it would increase the tension a little and make the book more of a page turner. As it is, the start is slow and it takes a while to get going and there is a lot of superfluous description and dialogue, much of it nicely written, but not needed for the story. Second, Alec Blume seemed a little characterless to me. As the leading character, I never got the sense as to what made him tick or felt there was any real depth or range to him. It's almost as if he's a blank foil for more colourful characters surrounding him. Overall though The Fatal Touch is a very competent police procedural, with loads of technical and procedural detail, and an enjoyable plot.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The paradigm-busting detective method

In Malcolm Pryce's From Aberystwyth With Love one of his detectives decides to take a novel approach to trying to investigate a case using a method set out in the magazine Gumshoe. The reasoning runs thus: if the world doesn't operate rationally, then to discover the truth a detective has to act irrationally; by investigating a hypothesis that is patently absurd one can stumble across the truth. It's an interesting idea. Here's the relevant passage.

Calamity began to read. ‘Traditional detective methods which rely on deductive reasoning are premised on the belief that life makes sense. This is a mistake. Normally, life only makes sense in novels and movies where events are shaped by the hand of a creative artist. In the real world events are born of contingency and are frequently shaped by the hands of people who are often clinically insane. Thus, because no rational process can be discerned behind the events of life, deductive reasoning is not best suited for unravelling its mysteries. In the past one means of countering this problem was the frequent use of the policeman’s hunch which proceeds by non-linear and counter-intuitive methods and aims to break the straitjacket of conventional thinking. Deployed successfully the hunch often rearranges the pieces of a jigsaw in such a way that old paradigms are superseded. Though a reliable method of unravelling stubborn mysteries, the hunch suffers from the drawback that it occurs but rarely and, crucially, is not subject to conscious control. The advanced detective seeks to summon up the paradigm-busting thinking that hallmarks the hunch by deliberately entertaining hypotheses that are absurd.’

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Sunday Service

Heading back to Ireland today on an afternoon ferry. Was a little disappointed not to see Sospan the ice cream seller and Eeyore the donkey man and has troop of donkeys on the seafront whilst in Aberystwyth. Malcolm Pryce has one heck of an imagination, but it all seems plausible somehow. Aberystwyth just has that feel as a town; of being aligned 90 degrees to everywhere else.

My posts this week
Review of Nine Dragons by Michael Connelly
Review of The Rage by Gene Kerrigan
To Aberystwyth with trepidation
Review of The Deputy by Victor Gischler
Stitch and bitch
Raiding the charity shop

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Raiding the Charity Shop

I've spent the morning wandering round the charity shops in Hoylake on the Wirral, seeing what books they have. Managed to pick up two bargains - Hugo Hamilton's Headbanger and David Peace's 1974, both for 50p each. Expect reviews of these two in due course. Nothing much else of interest. The rest of the selection were the usual mix of Patricia Cornwell, Kathy Reichs, Dan Brown, etc.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Stitch and bitch

I ended up on the periphery of a stitch and bitch session at a bar in Aberystwyth last night. A group of young women meet every week, have a few drinks, a bit of a bitch and moan, and knit. Kind of odd in a nice way, seeing a set of trendily dressed women in their twenties and early thirties knitting away as they chatted. I can see a chick lit novel in this. The Knitting Club. Tag line - Stitching, Bitching and Snagging Mr Right.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Review of The Deputy by Victor Gischler (Tyrus Books, 2010)

Toby Sawyer is a part-time cop in Coyote Crossing, a small town in Oklahoma that’s seen better days. He’s living in a trailer he inherited from his mother with his girlfriend and his young son and is struggling to make ends meet. Called from his bed in the early hours to a shooting, he’s instructed to guard the body of Luke Jordan, one of four bad-ass brothers. Bored, he wanders off, only to discover the body missing when he returns ahort while later. Any hope of a permanent position seems to have disappeared with it. Worse still, he seems to have unwittingly derailed a crime in action and the Jordan brothers think he killed Luke and want revenge. The tin star pinned on his Weezer t-shirt says he’s the law, but to everyone else it appears to be the slacker target to aim at. If he makes it alive to daybreak he’ll be doing well; if he administers justice it’ll be a miracle.

The Deputy is country noir crime novel that unfolds at an ever-quickening pace. Gischler writes in a well honed, pared back prose, and like Daniel Woodrell seems to be able to paint characters with a few deft strokes. Whereas Woodrell focuses on the everyday and mundane consequences of crime, Gischler delivers a rollercoaster ride, with twists and turns and some very fine set pieces. There’s a nicely developed sense of place and the plotting is first rate. If the movie rights have been bought for this book, I’m begging you, don’t change a goddamn thing. Seriously, there’s no need. The scenes, the pace, the dialogue, the characters, it’s all perfect as it is. Just cast a decent lead and fill the rest with a good ensemble cast, as per Winter’s Bone. If the rights haven’t been sold, then what are you producer’s waiting for? If there was ever a book crying out to be made into a movie, this is it. I thought it was a blast of a read and zipped through it in a sitting. Sawyer has great potential as an anchor for a follow-on book, or possibly a series. Regardless of whether The Deputy is a standalone, I’ll be keeping an eye out for other Gischler stories.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

To Aberystwyth with trepidation

Off to Aberystwyth today. Heading to the ferry in 10 minutes. Quite possibly the remotest university in the UK in terms of getting there. At least Aberdeen has an airport. I'm just starting as one of their external examiners. Loads of scripts and forms to wade through. I've been saving Malcolm Pryce's From Aberystwyth With Love for the journey. Looking forward to reading it in situ. Hopefully the donkeys will be on the beach.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Review of The Rage by Gene Kerrigan (Harvill Secker 2011)

Vincent Naylor has just got out of prison for assault. His usual choice of crime is theft. Moving into an empty apartment on an unfinished development in Dublin, along with his brother Noel and two friends he immediately starts to plot his next job – an armed robbery of a security van. Detective Sergeant Bob Tidey is sailing close to the wind. He’s just been caught perjuring himself in court to protect fellow officers. Finding a link between one of his old murder cases and the execution of a banker in serious financial difficulties, Emmet Sweetman, he’s assigned to the present investigation. He’s also called in when a suspicious car is found outside the home of an old nun he has had previous dealings with. The nun’s call inadvertently unleashes a tide of violence and rage, placing Naylor and Tidey on a collision course.

Gene Kerrigan is one of Ireland’s leading columnists and a keen observer and critic of Irish social and political life. In The Rage he weaves together a whole series of astute observations regarding the financial crisis, the property bust, the Ryan Report and Church abuses, and gangland crime. The writing is superb, with prose that is engaging and well paced, credible dialogue and a range of nicely penned characters that feel like real people. Kerrigan does a fine job at tugging and twisting the various strands together to produce a compelling narrative. Whilst there are resolutions with respect to both the Sweetman and Naylor cases, I like that Kerrigan has left them somewhat ambiguous and unsettling. It fits with the whole unsettling feel of the book. For anyone who lives in Ireland what is disconcerting is that reading the novel feels like seeing society reflected back as it is, rather than simply reading a story. I was a little disappointed with his last outing, Dark Times in the City, which, whilst good, didn’t quite match up to the standard of Midnight Choir, but he’s definitely back on song with The Rage (a view shared over on Petrona). Excellent stuff.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Review of Nine Dragons by Michael Connelly (Orion, 2009)

An elderly Chinese immigrant is gunned down in his liquor store in Downtown LA. Detective Harry Bosch believes it’s a triad hit and zeros in on his quarry. Whilst he’s trying to piece together enough evidence to make the case stick, however, he receives disturbing news from Hong Kong, a triad powerhouse. Having to drop everything, Bosch heads for the Chinese city, determined to resolve what has just become a very personal case.

I’m a Michael Connelly fan. I own a copy of just about all of his books. They are generally superior fare amongst the bestseller lists, but Nine Dragons, I felt, was one of his weaker offerings. The story felt rushed, with prose that was workmanlike and flat. And the plot was weak, feeling like two shorter stories jammed together. The part of the book set in Hong Kong, in particular, seemed to lack life, depth and credibility. There was a particular event that happens that is described as if it had barely any emotional resonance or trauma to Bosch and other characters, and it continues as a notable absence throughout the rest of the book. And from the minute Bosch arrives back from Hong Kong, very little of the plot seems credible. The result is a police procedural/psychological thriller with the psychology bit mostly missing; a Harry Bosch story where Bosch seems like a very pale version of himself. I was a bit disappointed with the last Connelly I read, The Scarecrow, and Nine Dragons makes two in a row that have been below his usual very high standards. In both cases, my sense is the books were rushed. When on top of his game, it’s difficult to beat a good Connelly book, but for me at least, Nine Dragons is well down his greatest hits list.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Lazy Sunday Service

I got caught short yesterday and had to run off to a bookshop. I finished off the excellent The Rage by Gene Kerrigan on the train and then ploughed through Victor Gischler's wonderful The Deputy in a few hours and suddenly found myself without a book to read (forgot to pack more than one spare book for a short trip). The problem was solved by picking up Conor Fitzgerald's The Fatal Touch. I've been meaning to read his first book, The Dogs of Rome, but will have to make do with reading them out of sequence. Enjoying it so far. I wonder whether Italy would be prepared to swap its weather with us? It's cold and it hasn't stopped raining all day.

My posts this week
Review of The Good Thief's Guide to Amsterdam by Chris Ewan
The US produces the most compulsively readable crime fiction - get Down These Green Streets
Unfinished estates report and DECLG actions
A hundred thousand welcomes
NAMA properties database
Review of Plugged by Eoin Colfer

Friday, June 10, 2011

Review of Plugged by Eoin Colfer (Headline, 2011)

Danny McEvoy is an ex-Irish Army sergeant that has served as a peacekeeper in Lebanon who, since leaving the army after a stint with psychiatrist due to his compulsion to embrace dangerous situations and protect people and a gambling addiction, has drifted through a series of doorman jobs. He now works the door at a seedy New Jersey casino owned by Victor Jones, a ruthless, callous boss. Danny looks after his fellow casino workers, worries about his hair loss, argues through the ceiling with his psychotic neighbour, and hangs around with dodgy doctor, Zeb Kronski, plastic surgeon to the desperate. His world is turned upside down over the course of twenty four hours. First, a smartarse lawyer licks his sometime-girlfriend, casino hostess, Connie, arguing licking is not touching. Then when he visits Zeb’s unofficial surgery it is in the process of being searched. Shortly after the right-hand man of an Irish mobster is dead and so is Connie. The police think that Danny killed Connie and Danny needs to find Zeb – who else is going to finish his hair transplant? Cue race against time and general confusion and mayhem.

I liked Plugged a lot. There’s plenty to like - a zip along plot; lots of action; plenty of twists and turns; some very funny scenes; a healthy dose of witty one liners; and a load of colourful characters. It reads like a movie script for a Jason Statham or Vin Diesel vehicle. In many ways, it kind of reminded me of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series and Chris Grabenstein’s John Ceepak series. And like the Plum and Ceepak novels, it’s set in New Jersey. After Florida, New Jersey is clearly the place for comic crime capers, especially those involving the Mob. Where I had some difficulties was with the main character, Danny McEvoy. McEvoy is clearly meant to be hiding from the past, drifting along in a dead end job, living in a crappy apartment below a psychotic neighbour, in a nothing town, with no love life beyond the occasional tumble with a hostess, and no friends beyond a very dodgy doctor. And yet Danny does not come across as being the kind of guy who has no friends, barely any love life, and puts up with living in a crappy unit with mad neighbours – he’s too together, too self-reflexive, too resourceful and too nice. Something didn’t quite add up, despite his history with an army therapist. Clearly as a comic crime caper the plot is hardly believable, and its choched full of larger-than-life characters and cliches, but there has to be some ring of truth. Danny's backstory in Lebanon has that, but not quite the frontstory. This is not a deal breaker, just a niggle; as noted above there is plenty to like about the book. Indeed, Plugged is a very assured move into adult crime fiction by an author who has sold a bazillion kids books and is recommended to all those who like their comic crime capers with a healthy dose of violence and mayhem.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

A hundred thousand welcomes (Céad míle fáilte)

Céad míle fáilte is an Irish saying meaning a hundred thousand welcomes. I've used the phrase in English and Irish to frame a short passage I drafted on Monday. At the minute, I think it’s going to be the start of a longish short story. It might turn into something else. I’ve been thinking about the main character for a while and it was time to let him live a little. For those sensitive to profanities, I’m sorry about the first sentence of the second section. I did actually have this said to me once and it always seemed like it might come in handy at some point for a story. I'd welcome any feedback on the opening itself and also ideas for possible places to submit the piece to assuming it comes in under 10,000 words (which is the plan at the minute).

A hundred thousand welcomes (Céad míle fáilte)

‘Those Dubliners like to think that their city greets you with a hundred thousand welcomes. That the place is great craic altogether. Don’t believe a word of it, do you hear? The city shakes you by the one hand, pulling a fine old grin, whilst it filches your purse and your hopes and dreams with its other. Those Dubs know a trick or three. Nothing comes for free in that town. They’ll build you up with platitudes, then ... Are you listening, Catherine?’

‘What? Sorry, Mammy.’

The train from Sligo was five minutes late arriving into Carrick station.

‘Jesus, Catherine. They’ll see you coming from here. Be waiting on the platform for you, rubbing their hands with glee, welcoming a lamb to the slaughter.’

‘Mam, will you stop worrying! I’ll be fine. I’m going to Dublin not Ramallah. If I can cope with Longford Town on a Saturday night then I can cope with Dublin.’

‘Like a lamb to the slaughter. Don’t you be trusting anyone, do you hear? They won’t just be after one thing neither. I should be coming up with you. Make sure you get there in one piece. Get you settled in.’

‘Mam, will you stop! You know where I’m going. I’m staying with Rachel. It’s not like I’ll be alone there.’

The train pulled slowly round the corner and drew into the station. Catherine threw her arms around her mother and kissed her cheek.

‘I’ll text you when I get there.’

‘Just ...’

‘Mam! I’ll be fine.’

Catherine broke away as the train came to a halt, grabbing the handle of a large, black suitcase, half her size, tugging it on its wheels. She pressed the lighted button and doors slid open, and she dragged the case inside, turning to face her mother.

‘I’ll text you, okay?’

‘Okay. Here ... for the taxi.’ Bridie Regan thrust a twenty euro note into the carriage. She couldn’t help the tears. Catherine was her only daughter. Nineteen years old and heading off for a new life. ‘Cities like ...’ she trailed off as the doors closed automatically.

What she was going to say was ‘Cities like Dublin, they can swallow you whole.’ Her mother had told her that and she believed it. From the moment the doors clunked shut and the train started to pull out, she regretted not finishing the warning.

* * *

‘Why don’t you fuck off home, you English cunt!’ The old man has his hands on his hips, his flat cap pushed back on his head to reveal an angry frown.

Jesus, you’d think I was personally responsible for the 800 years of oppression prior to Irish independence. All I’d actually done was ask the cantankerous old git whether it might be possible to repair the fence between his field and my garden in order to stop his cattle wandering in and eating my vegetables. Right now I’d like to knock his bigoted, republican lights out, instead I counter with a sucker punch.

‘English? I’m as Irish as you are! I was born in Roscommon Town hospital. My parents moved to Manchester in 1966 when I was ten years old; just in time for the World Cup. Like thousands of other poor feckers, they had to emigrate to look for work.’

The old git breaks from my stare and gazes down at his wellington-clad feet and I know I’ve hit home, so I press my moral advantage.

‘I might have grown up there, but I’m feckin’ Irish. Irish born, Irish genes, Irish passport, living in Ireland. I am home.’

‘Aye, well,’ he concedes, scratching under his armpit.

‘So it’s okay then that I repair the fence?’

‘I’ll do it later. I better be getting on. Jobs to do.’

He turns away and walks back into his yard, heading for a tractor that must have been manufactured before I was born. His pride was dented by the exchange, but not enough to actually apologise. As far as he’s concerned, I’ve gone native. After all, I talk with an English accent. English accent, English mentality - English. It’s going to take a lot more than an assertion that I’m Irish to shift his perception of me as anything but one of the old foe.

Which is fair enough, as I’m actually Scottish by birth; not that the old git needs to know this. Besides, as far as I’m concerned I am bloody Irish. Second generation Irish: my mother hailed from County Leitrim, my father from Dublin. They met in 1955 at a ceili in an Irish club in Bothwell in south east Glasgow and fell madly in love. Or more likely, madly in lust. They were married seven months later and I was born two months after that.

Two brothers and two sisters followed, though I’m not sure how as my parents barely seemed tolerate each other’s company when I was growing up. They’re both dead now, god rest their souls. My father died in a car crash when I was fifteen; he drove into a bridge pillar whilst blind drunk. My mother died of lung cancer five years ago, which was no great surprise given her life-long impression of a human chimney.

And I moved to Manchester when I was four, not ten, not that matters much when we moved. As far as the native Mancunians were concerned I was simply Irish, none of this second generation shite. All through the 1970s I had to put up with Irish racism when the IRA was waging its bombing campaign in British cities. I wasn’t bloody English or Scottish then. And now I’ve retired to Ireland to reconnect with my roots I’m fucking English. Out of place in both countries.

I set off back along the laneway towards my small, two bedroom cottage. Not for the first time in the past ten weeks I’m wondering what possessed me to take early retirement, sell up, and move to a small plot of land in the arse end of rural Ireland? I’m fifty five for Christ’s sake! I have feck all DIY or gardening skills and I now live in a run-down cottage on an acre and a half of boggy land with two black Labradors – Laurel and Hardy – who are dafter than I am. And I’m surrounded by folk who would be suspicious about blow-ins from neighbouring townlands, let someone who grew up in another country.

I should have never of left my job as a detective sergeant in the Lancashire police. I had another good five years service left in me. All I needed was a few weeks break away from the job to recharge my batteries and gain a bit of perspective. Instead, I jettisoned out with a modest pension and ambitions of becoming a writer – a crime novelist, no less. Thirty years of experience should count for something, right?

I mean, at least I know what I’m talking about, unlike ninety nine percent of crime novelists, most of whom, to be frank, haven’t got a fucking clue. The nearest they’ve got to the lives of criminals or a police investigation is what they’ve read in the newspapers or what they’ve read in other novelists’ books or seen on the TV. Its crime and law seen through middle class sensibilities and it has fuck all to do with the grim realities of life. Unless you’ve lived something – as a drug addict, an armed robber, a paedophile, the victim of domestic abuse, an investigating officer, whatever, or worked on the front line as a social worker or something similar, believe me, you have no fucking idea what that life is like, what is going on in peoples’ heads, and the domestic, social and institutional shit that surrounds them. It’s all just guess work.

I was going to correct that. I was going write an authentic police procedural; an accurate reflection of what really goes on during an investigation, revealing the complex, messiness of a massive team effort that’s constrained by resources and due process. I wanted to pen characters that were ordinary folk with families and lives outside of policing; that weren’t mavericks or geniuses, but who plodded along. I wanted to write about cases that ran into dead ends or ended ambiguously, where the criminals didn’t always get caught or wormed their way out of a sentence.

Well, that was the idea.

I’ve since discovered a fatal flaw in my plan. I have no inherent talent as a writer. Sure, pour a few whiskies into me and I can tell a few good anecdotes, but I can’t actually write to save my life. It’s not half as easy as I thought it would be. You have to think carefully about plot and structure, narrative flow, sentence construction, punctuation and grammar, character development, prose and so on. I barely know what that stuff is, let alone how to do it effectively. It’s certainly not a case of sitting at the keyboard and knocking out a couple of thousand words a day and lo and behold three months later a book is complete. I guess it would be like deciding, despite having no training as a musician and not practising at an instrument, that because you’ve listened to a lot of music you’d retire to make bestselling albums.

The result has been a set of weak, lifeless scraps of text that are best suited to starting the stove in the morning. It’s going to take dozens of creative writing lessons and hours of practice before I produce even a half decent short story, let alone a novel. And even then, I might still produce shite. My brother has played the guitar for forty years, but I still wouldn’t pay to see him play live; especially if he’s performing his own compositions.

In the meantime, I’ve been making enemies of the neighbours by simply having the temerity to move from England to their rain-soaked, bog-ridden townland. A townland my mother left nearly sixty years ago to head to Scotland. The old git is her first cousin, not that I’ve told him that as yet. I’ve not been given the chance. I even stayed in his house once when I was a kid. He was a git then as well; resenting the fact that my mother had managed to get away and he was stuck tending the family farm.

Céad míle fáilte, my arse.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The US produces the most compulsively-readable crime fiction in the world? - get Down These Green Streets

Duane Swierczynski has a new book out - Fun and Games. It's right at the top of my present wish list. I've just come across the following review quote, which set my alarm bells ringing. Don't get me wrong I'm a big fan of US produced crime fiction, but it's a big claim to say the US produces the most compulsively-readable crime fiction in the world.

"Along with fellow writers Charlie Huston and Victor Gischler, Duane Swierczynski leads an insurgency of new crime writers specializing in fast-paced crime rife with sharp dialogue, caustic humor and over-the-top violence. Together, they ensure that the grittiest and most compulsively-readable crime fiction in the world is still produced right here in the USA. Spinetingler Review

In fact I'm hoping to attend an event this evening that might put that statement to the test. Down These Green Streets is a collection of essays, interviews and short stories by Irish crime authors, edited by Declan Burke (who blogs over at Crime Always Pays). Contributors include John Connolly, Tana French, Ken Bruen, Arlene Hunt, Declan Hughes, Gene Kerrigan, Alan Glynn, Alex Barclay, Eoin McNamee, Brian McGilloway, Niamh O’Connor, Jane Casey and Gerard Brennan (all of whom will be in attendance at the launch this evening), along with Adrian McKinty, Andrew Nugent, Colin Bateman, Cora Harrison, Cormac Millar, Gerry O’Carroll, Ingrid Black, John Banville, Kevin McCarthy, Neville Thompson, Paul Charles, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Sara Keating, Stuart Neville, Tara Brady.

Now for a small island of around 6 million people this is a team to take on all-comers. And if you want grit and compulsively-readable crime fiction, then these lot produce it in spades. The Irish don't do cozies.

Anyway, do check out Duane Swierczynski's Fun and Games as it will be compulsively-readable, but also check out the Irish authors listed above. And if you are in Dublin tonight Down These Green Streets is being launched by Eoin Colfer in the Gutter Bookshop, 6-7.30pm. More details here.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Review of The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam by Chris Ewan (2007, Pocket Books)

Charlie Howard writes novels about a thief. He also happens to be one. When an American approaches him to steal two monkey figurines for a nice fat fee he declines. But then curiosity gets the better of him and he undertakes the job. When he goes to deliver the haul, however, the American is dead and it seems he is the prime suspect. Several people want to locate the seemingly worthless figurines and they’re prepared to do whatever it takes to get their hands on them. Which makes them also very attractive to Charlie, who wants to both clear his name and clean up.

The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam is all about the plot. It’s a kind of screwball crime caper with thefts, double crosses, mistaken identities, confidence tricks, shifting alliances and the obligatory femme fatale. In particular, I thought the ‘all the characters in a room’ denouncement was very nicely delivered. Howard being a writer allows for a plot within a plot, and also to act as a kind of commentator on the case through his telephone discussions with his agent. The book is written in a light and witty style and fairly zips along. That zip, however, leads to pretty thin characterisation. Even Howard is fairly thinly drawn, with only a very modest back story, and it’s difficult to draw other conclusions about him other than he’s a thief with a conscience. In some ways that doesn’t matter; as noted, this is all about the plot, which is clever, flips, twists and turns as a good caper should.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Lazy Sunday Service

I suspect this might be the week that I follow a number of former Blogger bloggers and switch to Wordpress. Beyond all the problems with lost posts and comments, it really should be straightforward to log on to one's blog. For a couple of days I was locked out completely until I discovered a workaround, which consists of me logging on, encountering a 404 error, then reconnecting by revisiting the Blogger log in page by typing the address in (not using my bookmark). Go figure. I've been doing this for two weeks now. I'm loath to swap as it means people having to redirect connections, blogrolls, etc, but it's edging towards the inevitable stage. I'm not sure what Google's strategy is with Blogger as it seems happy to let the service slide. I'll persist for a few days more and see if things improve.

My posts this week:
Review of The Serbian Dane by Leif Davidsen
A Black Feather (short story)
May reviews
Review of Mercy by Jussi Adler-Olsen

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Review of Mercy by Jussi Adler-Olsen (Penguin, 2011; Danish 2008)

Carl Mørck used to be a cantankerous, but hot-shot detective. Now he is just cantankerous, a ship bobbing along with no direction or purpose, having returned to work a changed man after he was shot, one of his colleagues killed and the other paralysed from the neck down. The Danish government has requested that the police set up a new department to investigate high profile cold cases. Mørck seems like just the officer to run such a department and is banished to the basement with a Syrian immigrant, Assad, as an office help and general dogsbody. After a generally feckless starting-up period the first case they decide to investigate is the disappearance of Merete Lynggaard, a fast rising Danish politician who vanished five years previously. The suspicion is that Lynggaard drowned, but Morck isn’t so sure and starts to make a nuisance of himself, both amongst his colleagues and with respect to her former life.

I picked up this book as I was travelling to Denmark and wanted to read some Danish fiction whilst there. I'm glad I did. The real strengths of Mercy are the plotting and characterisation. Adler-Olsen runs two parallel timelines, 2002 and 2007, with the former converging on the latter. As a device it works well as it enables tension in the narrative from the start, counter-posed by the lethargy and slow pace of Carl Mørck re-finding his feet after being pushed sideways to start a new department. As the story unfolds, the Morck line slowly ratchets up, so that both main strands of the story gather pace and converge towards a climax. In particular, I liked the quadrant at the core of the book – a healthy body and flawed mind (Uffe Lynggaard), a healthy mind and flawed body (Hardy Henningsen), a free body and mind but little motivation to carry on (Carl Mørck), and a trapped mind and body and desperate to live on (Merete Lynggaard). Adler-Olsen uses these differences – and the two events that caused them, the Lynggaard’s car crash when they were children and the attack on the police officers - to good effect to create drama and a compelling story. This is then added to with the Morck’s rivalry with another officer and the humour from his new assistant. Mørck and Assad make an odd, but effective couple. Sometimes the dialogue doesn't seem to ring true, which might be an effect of the translation, the story strays into melodrama at times, and there are elements that seem a little far-fetched, but when all said and done this is great read. I’m assuming that Penguin have snapped up the rights to publish Morck’s other Department Q books. I’m hoping so as this seems like a series worth following.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

May Reviews

A pretty varied month of reading. I've been umming and ahhing over which book to give read of the month to. Both The Brush Off and A Stone of the Heart were good, solid, entertaining reads, but are very different in terms of style and focus - the former a comic caper, the latter a police procedural. I'm going with The Brush Off, but just by a whisker. I've already got the next books in both series on my TBR pile, so expect reviews of them some time in the next few months.

The Serbian Dane by Leif Davidsen ***
The Saints of New York by RJ Ellory ***.5
The Brush Off by Shane Maloney ****.5
Officer Down by Theresa Schwegel ****
One of Our Thursday's is Missing by Jasper Fforde ***.5
A Stone of the Heart by John Brady ****.5
Stratton's War by Laura Wilson ***
The Man Who Went Up in Smoke by Maj Sjowall and Pers Wahloo ****
Agent X by Noah Boyd **