Saturday, August 19, 2017

Pride & Prejudice, Pride & Prejudice, Pride & Prejudice, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies

Pride And Prejudice (1940). Journeyman director Robert Z Leonard turns in a creditable movie version of the book in this big budget 1940 studio production. The screenplay was partly written by Aldous Huxley (one of an amazing six writers they needed to translate this material to the screen) and is notable for the interesting spin on the character of Lady Catherine de Bourgh towards the end. The parts in the film are well played: Edward Ashley is a suitably villainous Mr Wickham, Greer Garson is a lively Elizabeth Bennet and Maureen O'Sullivan is a radiant Jane Bennet. Greer Garson's look of hatred towards Miss Bingley after she has dissed her family is some of the finest screen acting you'll ever see, but everyone in the cast is playing second fiddle to Laurence Olivier who is an extraordinary Mr Darcy. This is one of Olivier's best early screen roles: he radiates perfect quantities of menace, intelligence and diffidence. I should also mention Edmund Gwenn as a drole Mr Bennet. The movie is let down a little by the costumes by the famous Adrian Greenburg (who et al. in a brilliant career designed Dorothy's shoes for the Wizard of Oz) which are beyond ridiculous and not remotely Regency.

Pride and Prejudice (1995). For an entire generation of people in the UK this BBC mini series is the definitive version of P&P. With a lot more room to breathe (six hours) the characters are fully fleshed and many of the more diverting but easily cuttable bits of the book are left in. Colin Firth is a stolid Mr Darcy and Jennifer Ehle is a charming Elizabeth Bennet. The BBC lavished a lot of money on carriages, country houses and authentic Regency outfits. And nobody puts a foot wrong. And yet. . .Well call it heresy if you want but I don't find Firth all that interesting as Mr D, Adrian Lukis is a timid and unthreatening Mr Wickham and Jennifer's Ehle's Lizzy lacks bite. You cannot complain about Alison Steadman's Mrs B or Andrew Davis's faithful screenplay. 

Pride and Prejudice (2005). Keira Knightley is a spirited, beautiful Elizabeth Bennet with lank hair and dirty boots. Rosamund Pike is a lovely Jane Bennet. Carey Mulligan shines as Kitty Bennet and Jenna Malone and Talulah Riley are great as Lydia and Mary. Simon Woods is an outstanding Mr Bingley playing him as a bit of a nineteenth century Bertie Wooster. Matthew Macfayden is an appropriately dour, broody Mr Darcy almost as good as Olivier's version. Rupert Friend is sinister and scary as Mr Wickham. This is by far the best directed of the three versions I'm reviewing here. There's a tracking shot at the Bingley ball (the second ball in the book if you'll recall) where the camera swings through the action taking in a sad Mr Collins, a humiliated Lizzy, Mary being consoled by her kind father (Donald Sutherland), an ethereal Jane and a happily toasted Mrs Bennet (the superb Brenda Blethyn). The screenplay was written by Debborah Moggach with script doctoring by Emma Thompson (who won an Oscar for her script for Sense and Sensibility). At two hours this is the right length for the story and the humour of the book is excised & reattached with ease. The scene where Mr Collins (Tom Hollander) proposes to Lizzy is one of the funniest you'll ever see. There's also a little more room given to the servants than any of the other versions, which when you read Jo Baker's Longbourn and watch the upcoming BBC version of that superb book you will appreciate. 

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2015). An ok attempt to mix zombification and class into a post apocalyptic romance. Lily James is all right as Lizzy, Sam Riley makes an OK Darcy. Charles Dance is sadly off form as Mr Bennett. Lena Headey steals the show a bit as Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Ok, as Simon Pegg is wont to say, skip to the end: Wickham, a kind of semi-zombie, (Jack Huston) leads a horde of zombies out of London to conquer England but after Lizzy, of course, realises he's a baddie he is stopped by she and Darcy at the Last Bridge. Good cast and a few good ideas but cd have been much better....

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Ned Kelly Award

My novel Police At The Station has been shortlisted for the 2017 Ned Kelly Award. There were a record number of entries this year so I'm very honoured indeed to have made the shortlist. This is my fifth shortlisting in a row for this award and it means that every single novel in the Sean Duffy series has either won or been shortlisted for a major crime fiction award and that makes me very happy! This series didn't come out with a big publisher in either Britain or America so it's always been the little engine that cd. The awards aren't just a slap on the back by your peers, they're a way for you to get noticed when you dont have a PR budget behind you and your novels aren't getting reviewed. Getting shortlisted for the Anthony Award, Theakston and the Dagger and winning the Barry, Ned Kelly and The Edgar has been the difference between me quitting writing for good and soldiering on. So thank you judges very much!

Friday, August 11, 2017

A Guide For Hipsters: The 15 Coolest Novels

a post from a couple of years ago...
So you're a hipster and you live in Brooklyn, Camden Town, St Kilda or downtown LA. You've got your Oxfam cords, your Atari T shirt and your 1970's replica Adidas trainers (I've actually got these and they're great!) You're in the coffee place that no one knows about behind the stolen car chop-shop. It doesn't have Wi-Fi or comfortable furniture but it does have really good coffee. So you're there drinking the Bali Mother Temple Blend, sneaking admiring glances at your trainers, and checking out the other hipsters in the place. Some have Edwardian sideburns, some have full beards and as for the men...Sorry, old joke, couldn't resist. No, the girls are really cute and you're sitting there, worried that you're going to spoil the illusion of cool by bringing the wrong retro paperback out of your battered bike messenger bag. What novel is it ok to read that won't set the hipster alarm bells ringing? In the 1980s it was easier - Sartre, Camus, Henry Miller, Eudora Welty, Philip K Dick, a battered Penguin Classic. . .
But that shit don't work no more. It reeks of a set-book in uni or sixth form college and you're far too cool to be doing homework in here. So what does work? Here are some book suggestions and what to say to the curious guy/gal who - hopefully - asks you about your reading material:

1. Infinite Jest - David Foster Wallace. "It's so much funnier on the third reading."

2. Crash - JG Ballard. "It's about this pervy guy called Ballard who meets this guy called Vaughn who wants to kill himself in an erotic car crash with Elizabeth Taylor's limousine. . .What? They made a movie out of it? I don't watch movies from the last 40 years."

3. Platform - Michel Houellebecq. "It's a bit like Crash, actually, but without the cars, Ballard, or Elizabeth Taylor." 

4. Red or Dead - David Peace. "It's like Fever Pitch, but, you know, good."

5. The Rehearsal - Eleanor Catton. "Yeah, I read the one that won the Booker. This is her earlier better, longer, less crowd-pleasing one."

7. The Fortress of Solitude - Jonathan Lethem. "Its about this kid who lives in Brooklyn in the 70's and this homeless dude gives him this ring that lets him fly. No, wait, come back, it's the greatest American novel of the last 20 years. . ."

8. Childhood's End - Arthur C. Clarke. “What's it about? Uhm, well, aliens come to watch all the children on the Earth doing a conga dance that gets out of hand as they merge into a giant supercreature and sublime off into another dimension. He wrote it at the Chelsea Hotel if that helps explain things."

9. La Casa de los Espíritus - Isabel Allende. "Oh this? No, not really my cup of tea. I'm only reading it to improve my Spanish in preparation for my Ayahuasca rebirthing ceremony."

10. Human Race Get Off Your Knees - David Icke. "Alice Walker's favourite book, apparently. I'm guessing this is fiction." 

11. A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth. "She hasn’t met all three of her suitors yet but I’m only on page 973.”

12. The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffman - Angela Carter. "The book to give to a white male worried about 'Femi-Nazis'."

13. Post Office - Charles Bukowski. "I actually worked for the Post Office & it was exactly like this except with more drunks and way more depressing."

14. The Art of Fielding - Chad Harbach. "I came for the love triangle. I stayed for the Moby Dick, baseball & body snatching."

15. The Cold Cold Ground: Adrian McKinty. "The best crime writer you've never heard of. . .Wait, you've heard of him? Jesus, that dude is so over."

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Movies That Are Better Than The Book

There are a couple of lists like this floating around the internet but they're all written by kids who have no idea what they're talking about because they haven't A) seen any films or B) read any books. Also you have to scroll through many screens to get their ridiculously uninformed opinions, whereas to get my ridiculously overinformed opinions you need only look below. 
5. The 39 Steps. The book is ok, the Hitchcock film is breezy, sexy and fun. It's got a girl, Mr Memory, a police helicopter (in 1935!)* none of which are in the book. Jorge Luis Borges says in one of his essays that was the first film he'd ever seen that transcended the source material and he is right. Hitchcock didn't get this breezy again until North By Northwest (a kind of remake) 24 years later.
4. The Shining. Pretty good book. Excellent film. Maybe Kubrick's best? I dunno - I'm a wimp so I've always been too scared to watch it again. Same goes with most horror movies and actually most Stephen King books - they are just too scary for me I'm sorry to say. Anyway King was famously never happy with Kubrick's version so he made his own TV version in the 1990s.
3. Jaws. Every single person you ever met on public transport in the 1970s was reading this book. But those, apparently, were the good old days, now everybody on public transport is playing video games and texting and checking their bloody Facebook likes on their bloody phones. I was on a packed supertram yesterday and there wasn't a single other person on there reading a book. God help us all. Lost my train of...what was I talking...Oh yes, Jaws: strange big clunky book with bizarre mafia subplot & 70s style affairs but a lean, clever, subtle film (except, obviously, for the scene where Chief Brody gets slapped).
2. Barry Lyndon. Insufferable, long, meandering, silly, anti-Irish book, but somehow Kubrick made a minor masterpiece out of it. He does that a lot does Kubrick.The duel scenes alone are worth the price of admission...
1. Last of the Mohicans. This book is so dull that Mark Twain made hay out of mocking it 130 years ago and it has not aged particularly well since then. The Michael Mann film however is a classic especially that 8 minute long - almost silent - final sequence.
*ok technically its an autogyro

Friday, July 28, 2017

New Interview

There's a new interview with me here, on the Melbourne classical music station
3MBS. The format of the show is 1 hour of conversation and music and I get to pick 7 pieces of classical music that I particularly enjoy. I didn't want to go overboard with some of my more weirdo choices (which you might know from the Duffy books) but it does get slightly more eclectic near the end. 
I also chat about crime fiction, Belfast in the 70s and 80s and why I never became a lawyer.... Anyway, it's all here if you're interested. 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Secrets She Keeps

my review of the new Michael Robotham novel in last Sunday's Weekend Australian:

West London in the present day. Two women have a chance encounter in a supermarket. They are about the same age, both pregnant, both due in early December.
Agatha works in the supermarket as a shelf stacker (the “lowest position in the place”), Meghan is a “mummy blogger” on the rise (a women’s magazine has picked her blog as one of the top five in the country).
Although they live in roughly the same part of the city, they come from different social classes and their lives are on radically different trajectories. Agatha subsists just above the poverty line in a grubby flat with few real friends and no real connection to her Jehovah’s Witness family in Leeds. The father of her baby, Hayden, is a nice but dim sailor with whom she had a one-night stand and who is back on HMS Sutherland, oblivious to her condition.
Meghan is comfortably upper middle class. Her husband, Jack, is an Irish TV sports reporter whom she met at the Beijing Olympic Games. Jack’s more famous than she is and is often recognised down the pub and handed phone numbers by young women who are”desperate to break into television”. We meet Ag­atha first and we see Meghan initially through her eyes. We distrust Agatha from the get-go. She’s not exactly a dishonest narrator but she watches Meghan with the gaze of a voyeur who has a disturbing, covetous streak.
We soon learn that Agatha is up to no good. She’s a liar and not a very good one and she may not be quite right in the head. Either that or she’s just annoyed about how unfair life is. She is impressed and irritated by the beautiful Meghan with her glamorous partner and her blog and her two kids already! Why can’t she have that life?
The Secrets She Keeps is Sydney-based Michael Robotham’s 12th novel and is as brilliant as his recent Close Your Eyes and Life or Death, which won the UK Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger award in 2015. It begins as an acute, psychologically penetrating character study before moving into hair-raising thriller territory in the second and third acts.
As you would expect of someone with Robotham’s gifts for narrative the plot unfolds with clever, ruthless efficiency, but what really impresses is his sympathetic and well-observed unpacking of the two women’s loves and lives. Both have secrets, both have made mistakes and both are trying to navigate a complex web of emotional entanglements.
Meghan is a self-aware hero who is cognisant that her life may read like a sunny cliche to her many readers but who knows that even her minor celebrity is something of a gilded cage. Agatha’s existence is not a one-note stave of gloom and misery.
People are kind to her and at one point she is offered a surprising escape out of the pit she is digging for herself via a gentle letter from her estranged mother, who wants her to leave gloomy London and come live with her in the apartment she is renting in sunny Marbella.
Unfortunately for everyone Agatha is too far gone by this stage. Her obsession with Meghan is running deep.
Robotham plays with the trope of the alter ego here: Echo and Narcissus, Isaac and Esau and Fyodor Dostoyevksy’s 1866 novel The Double where a lowly clerk encounters a facsimile of himself in a snowstorm; but this other him is everything that the clerk is not: confident, happy, successful, respected. Meghan, too, has a little of the doomed Miranda Grey in her from John Fowles’s The Collector.
Agatha ingratiates herself with Meghan by first imprisoning and then pretending to save her toddler, Lachlan, from a storage room at the supermarket. A grateful Meghan is delighted to see her when she turns up at her yoga class and the women begin an unlikely friendship. Agatha admires Meghan’s ability to
transform herself from a pony-tailed Lycra clad gym bunny into a sophisticated modern wife and mother. Next to her I feel as clumsy and frumpy as a pantomime horse.
By this stage of the novel we’ve realised something important about Agatha’s baby that explains her fixation on Meghan.
Inspired by a real-life hospital kidnap incident from the 1990s, The Secrets She Keeps is also an adroit satire on the media feeding frenzy that surrounds cases such as this. Meghan and Jack remind one of the McCanns, another Irish couple living in Britain whose child was taken from them and who have been blamed and trolled mercilessly since. This is a taut, scary and effective thriller but it’s also a sociological portrait of a society where cupidity, stupidity and fame often coalesce to make a toxic brew.
The Secrets She Keeps
By Michael Robotham
Hachette, 436pp, $32.99

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Dirty Cops

my piece from LitHub about Dirty Cops in fiction....

Everybody loves to hate a dirty cop. The idea of the corrupt or lazy policeman is a very old trope indeed - two thousand years ago Seneca was complaining about dishonest Tribunes and cohortes urbanae. Edgar Allan Poe and Fergus Hume both have choice words for indolent and/or stupid policemen. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes was not always impressed by the dedication and reliability of the Metropolitan Police.
         Don Winslow’s summer hit The Force has focused renewed interest in a genre that I love. If you’re interested in stories of sleazy, venial, even murderous policemen (and, occasionally women) then you are in a luck as I’ve compiled a little primer for you of my top 10 dirty cop novels.
10. A Scanner Darkly – Philip K Dick. The weirdest novel on my list but also one of the best. Set in a dystopian Orange County (as opposed to a utopian Orange County?) Bob Arctor is an undercover police agent who is sent to spy on himself. Paranoia ensues.

9. 11th Hour - Maxine Paetro & James Patterson. When millionaire Chaz Smith is killed the very pregnant Detective Lindsay Boxer discovers that the murder weapon is linked to the killings of four San Francisco mobsters and that it was taken from her own department's evidence locker. Boxer puts her life and reputation on the life to solve the case.

8. 1977 – David Peace. Exhausted policeman Bob Fraser and burnt-out journalist Jack Whitehead investigate the Yorkshire Ripper case and discover that the West Yorkshire Police Force is a cesspit of corruption, bigotry, languor, racism, darkness and incompetence. Not exactly a lighthearted cozy from the incomparable Mr Peace.

7. Heavens May Fall – Unity Dow. Naledi Chaba is a feisty lawyer at a non-governmental organization that assists children in need in Mochudi, Botswana. She discovers institutional corruption on a societal scale when a young girl’s claims of rape are not taken seriously by the police or the judiciary.

6. The Given Day – Dennis Lehane. Lehane’s classic about the famous 1919 Boston Police Strike. Aiden "Danny" Coughlin is an Irish patrolman reluctantly sucked into going against the brass of his own department by the hardtimes of his brother officers. Luther Laurence is a black man on the run in a city where racism is as rife as any city in the American South. Bomb toting anarchists, destitute immigrants, corrupt ward bosses and cops on the take clash in the climactic revolutionary year of 1919.

5. Hard Revolution – George Pelecanos. Derek Strange, a black rookie police officer joins the Washington DC police department in 1968 just as the city is about to plunge into chaos and revolt following the assassination of Martin Luther King. Racism, the old boy network and corruption are Strange’s unenviable lot on his first weeks and months on the job. For another look at race and the terrible events of 1968 from a master of the PI novel (not quite in my purview here) try the always brilliant Walter Mosley’s Charcoal Joe.

4. The Cold Six Thousand – James Ellroy. This was a tough call. If you’re only going to have one James Ellroy on your list how can you not pick LA Confidential especially with the evil Dudley Smith lurking like a bloated spider at the center of a web of depravity? Well, for me The Cold Six Thousand is LA Confidential taken to the next level. The whole society is dirty here. From the President and the FBI director on down to CIA goon Pete Bondurant to beleaguered ex G man trying to do the right thing Ward Littell to Wayne Tedrow, Jr. a Vegas PD cop looking for the pimp who raped and murdered his wife. The Cold Six Thousand is America as a vile, unreasoning irredeemable dystopia. What’s not to love?

3. The Choirboys – Joseph Wambaugh. Everybody’s already read The Choirboys haven’t they? This is the classic novel of police corruption from the man who, with Ed McBain, virtually reinvented the modern American cop novel. Several young officers of the Wilshire Division learn quickly how things are really done in the endemically crooked Los Angeles Police Department.

2. The Force – Don Winslow. What Wambaugh and Ellroy do for LAPD Winslow does for the NYPD. There have many great dirty New York cop novels (Richard Price for one has performed sterling work in this arena) but Winslow has really done something special here by embracing police corruption as the raison d’etre of an entire segment of the police. Detective Sergeant Dennis Malone leads the Manhattan North Special Task Force, an elite unit established to combat drug gangs, organized crime and gun running. Years of undercover work and dirty deals have compromised Malone and his cohorts so that by the beginning of the book they are a well oiled thieving machine. Unfortunately for Malone the feds and Internal Affairs are looking for a sacrificial lamb to appease the punters and from then on the book is cop versus cop, cop versus DA, cop versus FBI – pretty much everything except cop versus criminals. A masterpiece of the genre.

1. The Killer Inside Me – Jim Thompson. The original and best sociopathic, sadistic, sexually depraved, serial killing, scary dirty cop. Lou Ford is an intelligent, cynical, chronically bored small town Texas deputy sheriff who uses his power to murder and pervert justice with impunity in post war Jim Crow Texas. This and Pop. 1280 (about another corrupt Texas sheriff) are the high watermarks of Thompson’s under appreciated genius.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Don Winslow's The Force

my review of the new Don Winslow in the Sydney Morning Herald...

Don Winslow’s The Force

In 1995 the crime writer James Ellroy published American Tabloid, a novel so revolutionary in its scope, narrative arc, prose style and structure that it immediately raised the bar for all other writers in the genre. Ellroy was the heavyweight champ and if you were going to compete with him you needed to produce something big, brassy and bold.

American crime fiction has thrown up many important talents in the last twenty years but perhaps only Don Winslow, Dennis Lehane and Richard Price possess the requisite skills to get into the ring and challenge Ellroy.

The Power of The Dog (2005) was the book that established Winslow’s brilliance beyond a reasonable doubt for we crime geeks, but it took until 2015’s The Cartel for the rest of the world to catch up. The Cartel won the Dagger Award, was the subject of a lengthy review article in The New Yorker, became an international best seller and was optioned for the movies by Ridley Scott.

Dog and Cartel were two long novels about how America’s war on drugs corrupts everyone and everything. Winslow’s new book The Force is an epic crime novel about a corrupt cop and his crew in contemporary New York.

Detective Sergeant Dennis Malone leads the Manhattan North Special Task Force, an elite unit established to combat drug gangs, organised crime and gun running. Years of undercover work and dirty deals have compromised Malone and his cohorts so that by the beginning of the book they are a well oiled thieving machine. Skimming from dealers is the normal operating procedure for a crew who manage to put enough of the bad guys behind bars to keep the heat off. Malone’s corruption is entirely believable as Winslow’s novel draws on several real life cases, particularly that of Detective Michael Dowd in the notoriously dirty Seven Five precinct.

Of course all good things must come to an end and when Malone kills a drug kingpin and hubristically lifts $4 million and 20 kilos of heroin from the scene of a major drug bust he draws the attention of not just Internal Affairs but also the hated Feds.

Malone is told that they will put him away for a long time unless he cooperates and helps them take down the bigger players. This is the second act turn we as readers are hoping for and I really enjoyed this look into the rules and mores of what a cop will and won’t do to his brother officers. You can rat on a dirty district attorney or a crooked politician but as Frank Serpico discovered more than three decades ago ratting on a brother cop takes you into a really complicated moral maze. Especially in a New York Police Department still in recovery mode from the long lasting psychic damage of 9/11.

One of the most interesting aspects of The Force is its geography. New York’s Upper West Side is cozily familiar to viewers of Law & Order and in the Marvel Cinematic Universe Midtown Manhattan has been the setting for so many Gotterdamerungs with gods, aliens and killer robots that probably every teenage boy on Earth can navigate his way blindfold through Times Square. White New York is a cliché and Winslow is shrewd enough to realise this, so he takes us north into the old Chester Himes territory of Harlem, Washington Heights and Jackson Heights. In the wealthy, gentrified Manhattan of 2017 there is still an invisible line that runs across the island through 125th Street. North of the line is where the action is.

The Force therefore has an original setting, a fascinating lead character and a tense and exciting third act. It’s a brilliant, big, messy, ambitious blockbuster of a book and exactly the kind of thing that American crime writers should be doing if they want to knock Mr Ellroy out of the ring. A+

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Symphony For The City of the Dead - Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad

Symphony For The City of the Dead by MT Anderson is the kind of book I wish
I'd written. I know the city and I know the subject matter and I know the symphony and if I'd gotten off my arse and gone and done the research I probably could have produced a book about half as good as this one. It's the story of course of Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony. This was Shostakovich's seventh symphony and his opus #60. It was begun before World War 2 but only finally completed during the extraordinary circumstances of the siege of Leningrad after the German invasion of the Soviet Union. The Wehrmacht's Army Group north pushed right to the edges of the Leningrad (known before and now as St Petersburg) and surrounded it to the south and east while the Nazis' Finnish allies surrounded it to the North. For 900 days the city was completely surrounded and attacked mercilessly. While the city was being bombarded by heavy artillery and bombed relentlessly by the Luftwaffe the greatest Russian composer of the twentieth century Dmitri Shostakovich was working on his masterpiece (one of his masterpieces anyway) in cellars and bomb shelters and occasionally in music rooms and rehearsal spaces. Eventually evacuated first to Moscow and then a safe-ish city on the Volga Shostakovich finished his symphony in early 1942 where it took on a new life as a propaganda piece that toured the world raising awareness of Russia's war effort. 
MT Anderson unpacks all of this and provides the context for Shostakovich's life and career and explains how his music fitted in or rather didn't fit in to the expectations of the New Order established by the Soviet Union. I was particularly moved by the sections of the book dealing with Stalin's terror. So many of Shostakovich's friends, acquaintances, fellow artists and musicians were randomly dragged off the streets and murdered by Stalin that it's amazing he didn't go mad or kill himself. He almost did go mad when a review written by Stalin himself in Pravda accused him of bourgeois tendencies. Immediately he was made a persona non grata and all the professional music bodies in Russia denounced him. Perhaps he eventually would have been killed by Stalin's NKVD had not war intervened. 
You can get Symphony For The City of the Dead at all good bookshops and you can listen to Shostakovich's 7th Symphony here

Saturday, July 1, 2017

All The Duffys In PBK

All the Sean Duffy novels are now available in mass market an aside I keep getting asked if there are anymore on the way...I don't want to be mysterious here but I honestly do not know. Circumstances are not entirely the way I'd want them to be at the moment. A writers life is not an easy one, but at they say in the Godfather...this is the path we've chosen....

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Brian McGilloway's Top 10 N Irish Crime Novels

this was originally published in The Strand Magazine which you shld definitely check out.

My Top Ten Northern Irish Crime Novels


There has been an explosion in crime writing from Northern Ireland over the past decade or so. An element of this certainly has been as part of the wider growth of Irish crime writing, but in Northern Ireland there is also the specific role the peace process has played in informing the fiction that is being produced here. I think the appeal of crime fiction rests in the fact that it imposes a degree of order and justice in a world where there is precious little of either at times. Crime allows us to vicariously experience fear safe in the knowledge that right of some sort will prevail in the end. I think the catharsis that it allows, and that imposition of order on disorder, is comforting in uncertain times.
I think it is also why Northern Irish crime fiction only really found its voice after the violence here subsided: there’s no need to vicariously experience fear when you are actually undergoing it. When I wrote Borderlands in 2003, I deliberately set out to write a novel unrelated to the Troubles. But, in the writing of it, I found the events of the previous thirty years remained a constant shadow, bleeding around the edges of every narrative. The same could be argued for many of the other crime writers here. In the absence of a Truth Commission in Northern Ireland, fiction is the closest we will come to an understanding of the past even as we chart our way forward. And crime fiction, more than any other genre, works in that dual movement—a crime novel starts at the end of the victim’s story and, while the narrative has continual forward momentum, the detectives are generally working backwards from the moment of the crime to trace the initial acts and motives that lead to it.
There are so many fine Northern Irish writers I could include on this list—John McAllister, Garbhan Downey, Sam Miller, Des Doherty, Simon Maltman to name a few—but this (in no particular order) is my Top Ten of Northern Irish crime writing.

  1. The Cold, Cold Ground – Adrian McKinty
McKinty’s work needs no introduction, but there is no doubt that, with the Sean Duffy series, he has really reached new heights. Throwing his main character into the heart of our violent history, McKinty has grasped with both hands the role of truth commissioner, dismantling the events of the past and imposing some form of rough justice on those who hitherto escaped it in any form. He deservedly won an Edgar this year for one of the later Duffy novels, Rain Dogs, but you should start here.
  1. The Twelve – Stuart Neville
Again, a writer who needs no introduction, Neville’s debut novel blew everyone’s socks off when it came out. Fearless in its portrayal of the effects of the past, unflinching in examining the consequences of violence on violent men, and a cracking thriller to boot, it’s the perfect place to begin with a writer who has gone from strength to strength with each new book.
  1. Divorcing Jack – Colin Bateman
While Northern Ireland may not have had an appetite for local crime fiction during the Troubles, there was one writer who bucked that trend by finding a way through it, using comedy to analyze the realities of the political situation here at the time. While Bateman has focused on screenwriting more recently, his talent and dark wit are plain for all to see in this first novel in the Dan Starkey series.My Top Ten Northern Irish Crime Novels
  1. The Lost – Claire McGowan
In a male-dominated field of Northern Irish crime fiction, Claire McGowan was a welcome new voice, and her character Paula Maguire, a forensic psychologist introduced here in 2013’s The Lost, works along the border areas. McGowan is particularly adept at dialogue, and Maguire herself, as she develops across the series, is a fascinating figure.
  1. Disappeared – Anthony Quinn
Another book based around the border regions where Anthony Quinn himself grew up, the Inspector Daly series offers a dark, occasionally brutal depiction of the realities of policing a lawless region. Daly is an intelligent, thoughtful investigator while Quinn’s lyrical prose style is just beautiful. Again, best to start with book one and savor the whole series.
  1. The Defence – Steve Cavanagh
Cavanagh, a lawyer himself, brought something different to the Northern Irish crime fiction table with his Eddie Flynn novels, legal thrillers based in New York. The Defence is fast-paced and compulsively readable while Flynn is a likable, quick-thinking hero. The books may not be set in Northern Ireland, but Cavanagh’s concern with the law and justice and the frequent distance between the two is very much born of a lifetime living here.
  1. The Bones of It – Kelly Creighton
While Creighton may not have set out to write a crime novel, there’s no denying that The Bones of It is very much informed by crime and the effects of crime through generations. A first-person narrative told by Scott McAuley, the novel deals with father/son issues and the consequences of violence and hatred, not just on the generation that lived through the Troubles, but on the generation that followed after. Beautifully written, The Bones of It offers a chilling evocation of a damaged mind.
  1. The Point – Gerard Brennan
Brennan started a blog, Crime Scene NI, some years back that covered the growth of new crime writing coming from the North and became a hub of sorts for the writers from here. But Brennan is also a brilliant crime writer in his own right. Start with his novella The Point. Fast-paced and extremely witty, it showcases Brennan’s wonderfully dark sense of humor and his intuitive understanding of noir fiction.
  1. The Dust of Death – Paul Charles
Best known for the London-based Inspector Kennedy novels, Paul Charles moved to the southern side of the border for several books featuring his intuitive Garda Inspector Starrett. Featuring the same intricate plotting and underlying sense of humanity that one would expect from Charles, the books exploited the border region setting, focusing on the consequences of discord within families and communities and the personal cost of crime.
  1. The Anglo-Irish Murders – Ruth Dudley Edwards
Dudley-Edwards’s satires have hit many targets from modern art to the world of academics, but here she turns her acerbic wit on local politics to fine effect. With a complete disregard for political correctness and a sharp eye for irony, she draws attention to the absurdities of politics and politicians in Northern Ireland.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Colum McCann - Letters To A Young Writer

my review of the new Colum McCann book in last Saturday's Weekend Australian...
Half a dozen times a day on my Twitter feed someone will post the following quotation attributed to Ernest Hemingway: “Writing is easy — all you do is sit at a typewriter and bleed.”
It’s a good quote because it captures the school of thought that sees writing novels as a heroic, almost impossible endeavour. The fact Hemingway never said any such thing is neither here nor there. He is the patron saint of those who strive to wrestle and throttle the blank page into submission.
In opposition to this model there are the utilitarians who see writing as a job like any other that simply requires you to punch in in the morning, working until you hit the daily word count, whereupon you punch out. Novelists who started in newspapers tend to be of this school. They are used to deadlines and discipline. “So what’s the secret of your success?” I once asked a famous novelist. “Sit down, shut up, stop looking out the window and do your 1000 words,” he explained succinctly.
Colum McCann’s wonderful new book Letters to a Young Writer is an attempt to steer a course between these two different philosophies. The New York-based Irish writer is all for discipline and sitting at the desk but he cautions that a successful day’s work is often one in which you cut your text by 1000 words. It can be glorious to ride the delete button or “fling the pages into the fire. Often, the more words you cut the better.”
The essential thing for McCann is to toil hard on the manuscript, continually testing it for authenticity and beauty and integrity. Work on it and put it away and work on it some more. Is this paragraph the sort of thing you’re going to be proud of if the book makes it into print? If not, edit it or delete it and begin again.
For McCann writing is a job and a calling, and not an easy one at that. His metaphors come from the boxing ring, the coalmine and the cross-country track. He agrees with Joseph Conrad that a work of art must justify itself on every page, and preferably every line. If that sounds too difficult, well, there are easier professions.
Letters to a Young Writer is more a series of meditations than a Novel Writing For Dummies guide but it’s the more welcome for that. All of us need someone in our corner telling us things aren’t as grim as they seem and that we have to keep jabbing away at our opponent.
And who is this opponent? Not other authors, not agents, not publishers; no, our enemy is probably fear itself. Fear of trying something new, fear of starting over, fear that time is passing us by and we have left it too late to begin. It’s never too late to be a ‘‘young writer’’ McCann says. Look at Frank McCourt, look at Miguel Cervantes, look at Giuseppe di Lampedusa.
Not that this book doesn’t have practical advice too. There are excellent chapters on finding an agent, finding an editor, how to build characters and how to shape a story.
Get yourself a small notebook, McCann says, carry it everywhere and write down snatches of dialogue, descriptions, ideas. Most of these notes won’t be useful at all, but some of them will germinate into a paragraph, or a page, or even a book.
One of the most powerful sections comes near the end when McCann, a writing teacher of 20 years’ standing, allows a little of his frustration to boil over when he asks how anyone can think of writing when they have barely begun to read. You have to read wide and deep, he says. You have to know your chosen genre inside and out. You need to understand where the literature has come from and where it’s going. You need to know the work of great contemporaries. You have to read poetry and plays, the classics, the Russians, James Joyce, the pulpy bestsellers, everything.
“Read, read, read!” McCann says, echoing the famous mantra of Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School. Read not hundreds of books but thousands. That’s where you will learn grammar and truth and the ‘‘rules’’ of the game.
When you’ve done the reading and wrestled with your opening line (McCann has a great chapter on opening lines), what then do you write about? Don’t write what you know, he says. Instead write about something you would like to know more about. Go on a journey, do the research, explore, become obsessed by something and write about your obsession.
I’m not so sure about that one myself. Personally I’d rather have fewer novels by master of fine arts students who’ve become obsessed with obscure figures from history and more books by people who have actually led interesting lives outside the academy.
I also wish McCann had given us a comprehensive reading list the way Herzog and Stephen King in On Writing and Harold Bloom do. I’m sure there will be people who read Letters to a Young Writer wondering who on Earth this DeLillo fellow is that he keeps speaking about.
But these are only minor gripes. McCann’s book will make an excellent pick-me-up for all wannabe writers out there. Put it on the shelf next to Bloom’s The Western Canon and Robert McKee’s Story and take it down when things are looking bleak and your latest opus is lining the cat’s litter tray.
In the end, of course, there’s no real substitute for sitting there at the desk and staring at that awful blank page. Books on writing are a bit like a map of a minefield. It could be the greatest map in the world but the only way to test it is to venture out there into the unknown, step by terrifying step.
Adrian McKinty’s latest novel is the sixth instalment in his Sean Duffy crime series, Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly.
Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice
By Colum McCann
Bloomsbury, 168pp, $22.99 (HB)