“Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “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. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Interview: Darragh McKeon, author of ALL THAT IS SOLID MELTS INTO AIR

‘Noble gases, expanding into the noble land.’ That short line from Darragh McKeon’s debut novel, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (Harper Perennial) has the appearance of a throwaway pun, but in a nutshell it captures the insidious horror of the aftermath of the nuclear reactor meltdown at Chernobyl in 1986, as the invisible, lethal radiation destroys the physical landscape and rots the very fabric of Russian society.
  Born in Tullamore in 1979, Darragh McKeon was only seven years old when the disaster took place. The obvious question is, why Chernobyl?
  “Adi Roche’s foundation brought kids from Chernobyl to Tullamore when I was about 12 or 13,” Darragh tells me when we sit down in Dublin’s Fitzwilliam Hotel. “Those kids were the first outsiders, or foreigners, I’d ever met. And I was really intrigued. I didn’t understand anything about Chernobyl. I knew it was an event, and they were here for recuperation, but we’d get these little stories about their lives. They didn’t speak English, obviously, and we didn’t speak Russian, so we only got small details, but even the idea of them living in Soviet tower-blocks was fascinating – the tallest building in Tullamore was only three stories high.
  “Then later I saw the documentary Black Wind, White Land, which Adi Roche made with Ali Hewson, and I remember them interviewing the farmers, who came back to the exclusion zone afterwards. A lot of them were old people, and the land was totally radiated and toxic and deadly, but it was home. The draw of the land was very powerful, and that really struck me – and that’s a very Irish theme, we could instinctively respond to that. It was fascinating to me that the pull of home can be that strong that you’ll give your life for it.”
  So began an obsession with Chernobyl which has culminated in All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, a novel that centres on Grigory, a doctor who arrives at the disaster site in the immediate aftermath; Maria, his estranged lover, and a proscribed journalist; and Maria’s nephew Yevgeni, a teenage musical prodigy.
  It’s a fascinating tale, not least because the characters find themselves suddenly embattled by an invisible foe that is impossible to fight back against.
  “I’ve been to Chernobyl since I wrote the book,” says Darragh, “and I’ve talked to some nuclear physicists, and someone said a very interesting thing. He said radioactivity is silent, it’s colourless, it’s tasteless, we can’t see it – none of our senses are attuned to picking up radioactivity. He said it’s because that it wasn’t part of our evolution, that those kind of man-made, highly toxic elements only came into existence about a hundred years ago.
  “When you go to Chernobyl now,” he says, “yes, it feels abandoned, and it feels like a momentous event in history happened, but that’s it – you can’t actually see it. It’s not a war-ravaged landscape. It’s actually a very peaceful place.”
  For a novel so impressively illuminated with images of terrible beauty, it was what McKeon couldn’t see that proved most seductive to him as a novelist.
  “With radiation, it’s a long-term, completely invisible phenomenon, and that’s quite interesting for a writer, because the kind of writing I like tends to get under the surface and explore the roots of things. And that whole [Chernobyl] accident happened under the surface. I mean, 9/11 happened and we all knew straight away, it was iconic, and some of the shock and horror of that event was its visual impact. But nobody even knew Chernobyl had happened until a radar in a facility in Sweden started going crazy days later.”
  Previously a theatre director based in London, McKeon has recently moved to New York. His experience in the theatre, he suggests, gives him an unusual perspective on writing fiction.
  “When you’re a director you’re the audience’s representative in the rehearsal room,” he says. “And one of the things I learned very quickly was that if you’re bored then the play’s dead. I think I took that experience into my writing. Maybe I’ll have a better sense of what’s interesting and what’s not, what’s coming across well.”
  The nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island in the US is mentioned in the novel, and McKeon also cites Robert Oppenheimer, ‘tinkering with the atom in the deserts of New Mexico during the Great Patriotic War: I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.’ He doesn’t intend for the novel to be read as a cautionary tale, however.
  “I wrote it out of curiosity, and from observation, and I tried to chart that line,” he says. “I certainly didn’t write it with an agenda. I think that’s dangerous ground for a novelist. There’s not really that many writers who can pull that off, combine a strong, artistically valid story and also have an agenda. George Orwell is maybe the only one. I was very careful to be as objective and neutral as I could be.”
  He applies the same care to his treatment of the clean-up operation that followed the disaster, when the Russian authorities – horrifically, perhaps, to a Western mindset – deliberately sacrificed lives for the sake of the greater good.
  “That idea of sacrifice is fundamental to the Russian culture,” says Darragh. “Veterans of the second world war are venerated, they’re gods in the Soviet Union. I’ve since gone back and talked to some of the ‘liquidators’ and they’re completely isolated now, they’re not supported financially or in terms of their health. But anyone I spoke to who was involved in the clean-up said they would do it all again tomorrow.”
  The novel offers a running commentary on perceptions of weakness and strength, albeit as seen through the eyes of the Russian and Ukrainian protagonists.
  “I think we don’t understand the Russian relationship with strength,” he says. “We look at Putin with his shirt off and think he’s naff, but there that kind of image is so important, it’s ingrained. Something that I found really interesting was Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who wrote The Gulag Archipelago and was the great dissident writer of that period of oppression. He came back to Russia in Yeltsin’s time, and when Putin was elected he said, ‘Finally, we are going to be strong again.’ Even Solzhenitsyn had this obsession with strength. So I tried to accept that as much as I could and not judge it.”
  McKeon is already working on his second novel, which will be set in South America, and believes he is unlikely to return to theatre.
  “I did always want to write, and I think that I probably always felt that I was a writer, but you have to get to the age, I think, at which you have something to say. Or that you have enough experience to make it worth putting down on paper. Like most writers, I tried to write when I was in my teens, and I just didn’t have anything to say. I didn’t have enough life experience.
  “I think at this stage I’ve figured out now that you are what you spend your time doing,” he says. “I think you can’t have it both ways – I kind of figured that out halfway through writing the book. So I may end up doing a show or two, but I’m a novelist now. I mean, it took me a long time to admit that to myself,” he laughs, “so I might as well stick to it now.” ~ Declan Burke

  This interview first appeared in the Irish Examiner.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Review: THE SILKWORM by Robert Galbraith

One of the literary world’s best kept secrets exploded into the headlines last summer, when it was inadvertently revealed that ‘Robert Galbraith’, the debutant author of the private eye novel The Cuckoo’s Calling, was a pseudonym for JK Rowling, the creator of the Harry Potter phenomena.
  Eyebrows were raised, first in surprise, but later in admiration, as The Cuckoo’s Calling – which initially sold relatively few copies – went on to become an almost universally acclaimed bestseller. It also scooped the LA Times’ Book Prize in the ‘Mystery/Thriller’ category.
  Set in London during the bleak winter of 2010, The Silkworm (Sphere) is a sequel to The Cuckoo’s Calling, and again features the private detective Cormoran Strike. A war veteran who lost a leg to an IED device in Afghanistan, Strike is a gruff, hulking but surprisingly sensitive soul who was named after a mythical Cornwall giant. His brush with death has left Strike physically and mentally scarred, but he is a proud man determined to live life on his own terms. Despite being belatedly acknowledged by his millionaire rock star father Jonny Rokey, Strike lives, as his straitened circumstances dictate, in a tiny flat above his office in Denmark Street.
  Also returning from The Cuckoo’s Calling is Robin Ellacott, the young woman Strike employed on a temporary basis to handle the paperwork, but who proved herself vital to the success of his previous investigation, and who now harbours serious ambitions of becoming a private investigator herself, despite the friction this causes with her fiancée, Matthew.
  Proving, in The Cuckoo’s Calling, that the model and socialite Lula Landry was murdered has made something of a minor celebrity of Cormoran Strike, and established a clientele that is for the most part composed of wealthy businessmen attempting to prove their mistresses’ infidelity. Bored by their self-absorption, Strike is intrigued when he is approached by a rather dowdy woman, Leonora Quine, who wants him to find her missing husband, the author and former enfant terrible, Owen Quine. It’s not the first time the impetuous Quine has folded his tent, and Leonora is sure that Quine’s agent, or his editor, will be able to point Strike in the right direction.
  Soon, however, Strike discovers that Quine has gone to ground because he has written a slanderous novel, titled Bombyx Mori – which translates as The Silkworm – in which vicious pen-portraits of his wife, editor, publisher, agent and peers are easily identifiable to anyone in the publishing industry. When Quine is discovered murdered in a vile fashion, and in a manner terrifyingly similar to the climax of Bombyx Mori, the police immediately suspect Leonora Quine. Determined to prove her innocence, Strike plunges into the murky world of literary publishing in search of the real killer.
  It’s hard to avoid the feeling that JK Rowling hugely enjoyed loosing her bluff, no-nonsense private detective on the literary world. Bombyx Mori represents hilariously bad literary fiction, an overwrought Pilgrim’s Progress stuffed to the gunwales with classical references, necrophilia, cannibalism and sadomasochism. Strike, for all his size and bulk, moves carefully through this world, sidestepping the blades that regularly flash into the hands of the embittered cast of back-stabbing publishers, editors, agents and PR people. And then, of course, there are the literary authors themselves, all of whom seem to be involved in a complex Mexican stand-off fuelled by envy, insecurity, greed and mutual loathing.
  All of which is good fun, if excessively caricatured, but even as Rowling weaves a satisfying complicated plot around a lurid cast of characters, her instinct is to place Strike and Robin front and centre. The investigators make for a fascinating pair, both individually and in tandem – both are struggling with personal relationships, which gives the ‘will they / won’t they’ sub-plot an added frisson – and while there is very little that is new about this kind of relationship, that seems to be point: Strike and Robin make for a double act strongly reminiscent of Holmes and Watson, even if here it’s Strike, rather than his assistant, who has recently returned wounded from Afghanistan. Indeed, the homage to the golden age of the mystery novel is evident throughout, not least when the denouement, with all the suspects present, takes place in a London club ‘that had the feeling of a country house, cosy and a little scruffy.’
  The novel also functions as something of a love letter to the city, or perhaps more accurately a well-thumbed and dog-eared London A-Z, as Strike limps his way down its mean streets and alleyways, lurching into a variety of pubs, clubs and restaurants, noting as he goes the more unusual sculptures and the less-travelled routes. These digressions, and the occasional poetic flourishes that see Strike on his way, are in stark contrast to the main thrust of Rowling’s storytelling, in which the prose is as functional and direct in its devotion to advancing the story as Owen Quine’s Bombyx Mori is meandering and prolix.
  It is telling that Cormoran Strike sees fit, on a number of occasions, to remind us of his pragmatic philosophy in work as in life, which is ‘to do the job, and do it well.’ JK Rowling, as Robert Galbraith, has done the job and done it very well indeed. ~ Declan Burke

  This review first appeared in the Irish Times.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

I Want To Live Like Roscommon People*

Boyle in the grand old county of Roscommon isn’t quite my former stomping ground of Sligo in the Northwest, but it’s close enough to my hometown for the Boyle Arts Festival to qualify as a local event for yours truly. I’m hugely looking forward to taking part in the festival, when I’ll be giving a potted history of Irish crime fiction, aka Emerald Noir, and reading a sample or two from my own books. The event takes place at King House at 1pm on Saturday, July 26th.
  Meanwhile, and if you’re a dedicated fan of Irish crime writing, Sinead Crowley will be talking about her debut novel, CAN ANYBODY HELP ME?, on Sunday, July 27th. For all the details of the festival – which incorporates literature, film, comedy, classical music, drama and poetry – clickety-click here

  *With apologies, obviously, to all Pulp fans.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Interview: Chris Pavone, Author of THE ACCIDENT

It made perfect sense that Chris Pavone’s debut thriller, The Expats, became a critically acclaimed bestseller when it was published in 2011, and that it subsequently won a slew of awards. The American author had, after all, worked as an editor in the publishing industry for almost two decades. Thus he had a canny understanding of the commercial requirements of a genre novel, and an insider’s knowledge of the craft involved in writing a block-busting thriller.
  At least, that’s the theory. Until you realise that Chris Pavone is actually a veteran editor of cook books and gardening tomes.
  He began in the industry as a copy-editor, he says, initially working on fiction. “But when it came time for me to become an acquisitions editor, I turned to non-fiction and cook books and some gardening titles, some fishing books,” Chris tells me when we sit down in the Merrion Hotel. “A lot of what I thought of as ‘light’ subjects, which in many ways were a lot more straightforward-looking to me as a young, still idealistic person. There were things about the fiction side of the business that weren’t quite right to me. It seemed to me that a lot of it was driven by things that didn’t strike me as being important to the work itself, and that wasn’t really true of these other types of books I was publishing.”
  If there’s a hint of cynicism about the fiction publishing industry in those words, it’s a cynicism that is writ large in Pavone’s current novel, The Accident. The story opens with a commissioning editor receiving a manuscript of a book that will, if published, destroy a media mogul’s career and lay bare the dark heart of America’s secret service. A race against time begins as a plethora of characters scheme, plot and murder in order to prevent the publication of the manuscript.
  “The book, for me, is very much about ambition and compromise,” says Pavone. “It’s not that that’s how I see the whole world, but I wanted to write a book that thought that way. The vehicle for feeling out these people’s compromises and ambitions is this manuscript that’s at the heart of The Accident. Everybody looks at this thing in a different way. It is to some extent corrupting to some of them. ‘Is this the point at which I sell out? Is this where I become corrupted?’ Or, ‘Is my corruption still in the future?’”
  The Accident is a pulsating tale that blends thriller, mystery and spy novel tropes and confirms the promise of Pavone’s debut, even if it’s the kind of novel that Pavone, in his younger years, ignored as a reader.
  “One of the epiphanies I had was that I got into publishing because I love literature,” he says. “I loved books by people who were dead before I was born, for the most part, who had won Nobel Prizes. But then it became part of my job to read a John Grisham book every year. I had been very dismissive of popular fiction – in fact, I’d refused to read it. And then I started working on popular fiction, and I realised these books weren’t the same as Hemingway, say, but they were good in a different way. They were great in a different way. I became much more of a relativist about the qualities of a novel. Now I think John Grisham writes fantastic books. They’ve got nothing to do with what Donna Tartt writes, for example, but they’re both writers I enjoy.”
  With two decades of experience under his belt, Chris Pavone was a highly regarded editor in the industry. Why the leap from gamekeeper to poacher?
  “I loved editing, and being a cook book editor is a really a great job. It’s difficult to imagine a more indulgent grown-up job to do, that someone would send you out to restaurants to find great chefs to write a book. But being an editor is essentially about other people’s passions, and helping other people bring out the best of what they have to say to the world. Eventually I realised that I wanted to try to create something myself, and that’s what writing novels is. Not because I wanted to put myself in front of the world, but because I wanted to create something that would go out into the world.”
  As an industry insider, Chris Pavone is more aware than most that the publishing world is today struggling to come to terms with a number of seismic changes in the traditional model. He admits to being ‘a little pessimistic’ about publishing’s future, but remains on the whole optimistic that readers and booksellers will combine to survive and thrive.
  “Bookselling, I believe, is enjoying a resurgence, especially the kind of bookselling we used to think of as booksellers before the advent of chain stores – the Mom & Pop stores, the independent neighbourhood store,” he says. “A lot of the big chain stores are now gone, and independent bookstores are springing up to step into the role again. The book market has levelled out, or at least it’s not declining as fast as it was a number of years ago, and I think readers are understanding more and more what thousands of certain types of independent retailers can bring to the market. That price is not the main consideration. I mean, relatively speaking, books are very inexpensive. A book takes a long time to read, and you don’t pay all that much for it. And paying less for a book isn’t necessarily the goal of every reader.”
  That said, he does believe that the industry may have to configure its ideas about how it generates the profits that will allow it to commission new writers, particularly in the face of the digital revolution.
  “I’m paying a lot more these days for things that I’m told are free,” he says. “But all these ‘free’ things – say on-line – they’re not free. You’re just not paying for the content. But you are paying for internet service. You’re paying for phone service. You’re paying for the hardware. And you’re paying a lot more than you used to pay, you’re just paying different people. We’re now paying telecom companies instead of movie producers and TV networks and book publishers. It doesn’t cost any less, it’s just going in a different direction.”
  With two best-sellers already under his belt, and Hollywood already circling around an adaptation of The Expats, Chris Pavone is particularly pleased that some of the highest praise he has received has come from his fellow writers. As an editor turned author, was he ever worried about push-back from writers concerned that he was muscling in on their territory?
  “I had many, many worries about my first book,” he laughs, “but that wasn’t one of them. I mean, I was worried that the book wasn’t good enough, and nobody would like it, that people would make fun of my ambitions. Waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat thinking it was all a huge mistake, and that I was going to die destitute and alone.” He grins. “Y’know, pretty much what every writer worries about.”

  Chris Pavone’s The Accident is published by Faber & Faber.

  This interview was first published in the Irish Examiner.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Review: THE LONESOME HEART IS ANGRY by Paul Charles

Born in Derry, but living in London for most of his adult life, Paul Charles first came to our attention with the Camden Town-set series of novels featuring Detective Inspector Christy Kennedy, publishing his debut, I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass, in 1997.
  There have been ten Christy Kennedy books in total, and Charles has also written a pair of crime novels set in rural Donegal, but he goes back to his roots for The Lonesome Heart is Angry (New Island Books), which is set in the early 1960s in the fictional Co. Derry town of Castlemartin, which also provided the backdrop to The Last Dance (2012).
  The opening brings to mind both John B. Keane and Sam Hanna Bell’s December Bride. Michael Gilmour, Castlemartin’s resident matchmaker, is shocked when he is approached by the twins Pat and Joe Kane, local farmers in need of a wife. Unfortunately, they intend sharing a single wife. Outraged by the impropriety, not to mention the potential damage to his own reputation, Gilmour sends them on their way, only to be deeply wounded when his beloved sister-in-law, Maggie, agrees to accept the twins’ unusual terms and conditions and marries Pat Kane.
  It’s not long before Michael Gilmour’s instincts about the ‘unnatural’ arrangement are proved correct. Joe disappears after a vicious and very public fight between the brothers, and the rumours of the local gossips force District Detective Inspector Doyle – a devotee of the methods of Sherlock Holmes – to investigate the intimate lives of the Kane clan …
  The Lonesome Heart is Angry is a delightfully genteel mystery novel, one that is very firmly rooted in the ‘cosy’ end of the spectrum. Apart from a couple of instances of fisticuffs, there is little here that remotely approaches the blood, gore and violence that characterises much of contemporary crime fiction. The diminutive Detective Inspector Doyle – aka ‘Wee Doyle’ – may well be investigating the disappearance and possible murder of Joe Kane, but that narrative strand is only one aspect of Paul Charles’ own exploration of a gentler, kinder time and place. His affection for his cast of quirky characters is palpable, as is his description of the town of Castlemartin itself, a fictional version of Charles’ own hometown of Magherafelt.
  The folksy, conversational tone, however, is bittersweet. The matchmaker, the bumbling policeman and the idyllic rural setting give the novel an old-fashioned air, but Castlemartin is a town in the early stages of a cultural revolution. The soundtrack in the local cafés and fairgrounds is jarring: The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles. Charles, who has spent most of his life working as a music promoter – his clients include Tom Waits, Christy Moore, Elvis Costello and The Waterboys – even has Wee Doyle’s investigation turn on a crucial clue provided by a Beatles single. Change is coming to Castlemartin and washing away the old values, and even paragons of virtue such as Michael Gilmour and Detective Inspector Doyle aren’t able to stem the tide.
  Curiously, perhaps, and in common with John McAllister’s similarly set The Station Sergeant (2012), religion and sectarian conflict play no part in The Lonesome Heart is Angry. The citizens of Castlemartin are entirely pragmatic when it comes to rules, laws and commandments, Heaven-sent or otherwise, adapting instead to circumstance as they see fit and bending to authority, as Wee Doyle discovers when he starts asking his questions, only when it suits their own agenda.
  It all sounds deliciously idyllic, of course, but the fate of Joe, Pat and Maggie Kane suggests that no society or community can thrive indefinitely if it is composed of moral anarchists, regardless of how friendly and sociable they might appear to be. ~ Declan Burke

  This review was first published in the Irish Examiner

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Review: MR MERCEDES by Stephen King

Best known for his novels of horror and the supernatural, Stephen King has over the years written a number of crime and mystery novels, including Misery (1987) – in which author Paul Sheldon abandons his Victorian romances to pen a crime novel – Dolores Claiborne (1992) and The Colorado Kid (2005).
  The title of his latest offering brings to mind King’s fascination with haunted cars but that’s as close to the supernatural tropes as Mr Mercedes (Hodder & Stoughton) gets. Pitched as a suspense thriller, it opens with an eye-witness account of a mass murder, when a stolen Mercedes is driven at high speed into a crowd of people standing outside an auditorium. Eight people are killed, fifteen are wounded, and the perpetrator gets away.
  Months later, recently retired police detective Bill Hodges receives a taunting letter signed by ‘The Mercedes Killer’. Hodges knows he should turn the letter over to his former partner, Pete Huntley, but Hodges is divorced, lonely and purposeless. He has, on occasion, put a .38 revolver in his mouth, “just to see what it feels like to have a loaded gun lying on your tongue and pointing at your palate. Getting used to it, he supposes.”
  Newly energised, Hodges decides to pursue the investigation alone, at least until he can be sure the letter isn’t a hoax. At this point Stephen King opens up the second of the parallel narratives that sustain the story, introducing Brady Hartsfield, a computer repairman and ice-cream van driver and the self-styled ‘Mercedes Killer’. A sociopath, Brady Hartsfield harbours a dark ambition to make his mark on American history by emulating, and perhaps exceeding, some of the worst mass murders of recent times.
  On the face of it, this is a conventional set-up: the cop with nothing left to lose pursuing a deranged serial killer as the clock ticks down to an explosive climax. Mr Mercedes is a more knowing, self-aware thriller than the broad strokes might suggest, however, as the host of quirky references to the genre’s greats – Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Joseph Wambaugh and Edgar Allan Poe – suggests.
  Meanwhile, the strongest influence on Mr Mercedes goes unmentioned. In the past Stephen King has cited John D. MacDonald as one of the three writers who most influenced him as an aspiring novelist – the others were Don Robertson and Richard Matheson – and Bill Hodges is a similar character to MacDonald’s series protagonist Travis McGee, who was neither a policeman nor a private detective.
  “Philip Marlowe you ain’t,” Hodges tells himself, referencing Chandler’s iconic gumshoe. He’s right. Bill Hodges is neither cop nor private eye, but something intriguingly in between, a man with a detective’s skills but no legal basis on which to act in order to prevent mass murder.
  Brady Hartsfield, for his part, is a fascinating variation on the genre’s stereotypical serial killer, the man – and it’s almost always a man – who is as ridiculously well resourced as he is intelligent. By contrast, Hartsfield is all the more plausible and dangerous for the unpredictability of his animal cunning, as he is constantly forced to recalibrate his scheme due to a lack of foresight and financial wherewithal.
  Told in a folksy, conversational style, Mr Mercedes is on one level a thoroughly enjoyable homage to the crime / thriller genre from an author who is obviously steeped in its lore. On another level, the novel stares dead-eyed into the heart of darkness, and explores the social and psychological factors that created the monster Brady Hartsfield. Supernatural tropes may be at a premium, but there is plenty of horror and evil to be found here. The evil is of the chillingly banal variety, the all too familiar desire to triumph over impotent anonymity through infamy and notoriety. The horror emerges via Hartsfield’s entirely logical thought processes, and his ability to blend, chameleon-like, into the society and culture he professes to despise.
  There is good too, of course, as represented by Bill Hodges and the motley band of volunteer helpers – amateurs all – he assembles around him as they bid to prevent a tragedy. In the grand scheme, however, or at least as far as Brady Hartsfield is concerned, good and evil are equally irrelevant: “He muses on the terrorists who brought down the World Trade Centre (he muses on them often). Those clowns actually though they were going to paradise …”
  Brady is operating under no such illusions: “Every religion lies. Every moral precept is a delusion … The truth is darkness, and the only thing that matters is making a statement before one enters it. Cutting the skin of the world and leaving a scar. That’s all history is, after all: scar tissue.”
  It’s a downbeat and occasionally unsettling tale. As with all great thrillers, however, it’s also compulsively readable and hugely entertaining. ~ Declan Burke

  This review was first published in the Irish Times.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Review: THE TRUTH ABOUT THE HARRY QUEBERT AFFAIR by Joël Dicker

The physical book may well be under threat from the digital revolution, but a growing number of crime writers have decided that books are more dangerous than endangered. In the last couple of months alone, Pierre Lamaitre’s Irene, Chris Pavone’s The Accident and Liz Nugent’s Unravelling Oliver have all told stories revolving around fictional books – and that’s good old-fashioned paper-and-cardboard books; none of your new-fangled device-friendly e-pub here, thanks, we’re talking books – that offer their characters plausible motives for mayhem and murder.
  The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair (MacLehose, €14.99), the second novel from Swiss author Joël Dicker, although his first to be translated into English, is the latest thriller to suggest that an obsession with books can prove fatal. It opens with 28-year-old author Marcus Goldman enjoying a celebrity lifestyle in New York courtesy of his bestselling, critically acclaimed debut novel. At least, Marcus appears to be enjoying the life of a literary superstar: the toast of Manhattan’s elite, he is rich, famous and the most eligible bachelor in town. The truth is that Marcus should have begun his second novel a long time ago, but finds himself, with a deadline fast approaching, suffering from a severe case of writer’s block.
  Desperate to get back into his writing routine, Marcus contacts his former college professor and writing mentor, Harry Quebert. Now living in splendid isolation in the remote New Hampshire town of Somerset, Harry Quebert was acclaimed a genius and the leading light of his generation when he published The Origins of Evil in the mid-1970s. Harry urges Marcus to abandon New York and come to Somerset, to find the peace of mind he needs to write.
  Shortly after Marcus arrives in Somerset, the remains of a young girl are dug up on Harry’s property. When the body is identified as that of Nola Kellergan, a 15-year-old girl who went missing in Somerset in 1975, Harry confesses to Marcus that he had been in a relationship with Nola when she disappeared; when it is discovered that the skeleton is clutching a hand-written manuscript of The Origins of Evil, Harry is arrested and charged with Nola Kellergan’s murder.
  The book-within-a-book game doesn’t end there; determined to clear his friend’s name, Marcus embarks on an investigation in tandem with police detective Perry Gahalawood, planning to publish the results of his findings as a book called The Harry Quebert Affair.
  A publishing sensation even before its translation into English – it has already sold in excess of two million copies, with translation rights sold for 32 countries – The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is being described as a ‘literary thriller’, and has been compared to Jonathan Franzen and Philip Roth. This is, presumably, on the basis that it is so firmly embedded in the publishing industry – a novel narrated by an author, investigating the literary origins of a famous author’s novel, all the while writing a book about his investigations. Further, each chapter is prefaced with a short dialogue between the younger Marcus Goldman and his mentor Harry Quebert, in which Harry offers his rules for writing.
  Despite its extensive engagement with writers and the business of writing, however, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is by no means a literary thriller. Its prose is neither elegant nor eloquent, and while language often suffers in translation, it’s worth noting that the translator here, Sam Taylor, also translated Laurent Binet’s superb HHhH.
  That said, it’s only fair to say that Joël Dicker isn’t responsible for how his novel is marketed, and that the book doesn’t read as if it were written for a literary audience. Its take on writer’s block, for example, is the unsophisticated notion of an author staring for weeks on end at a blank page, or feverishly scrawling the same word over and over again. A novel is routinely declared ‘great’ or ‘a masterpiece’ while its author is still halfway through its first draft; the story is chock-a-block with reversals of fortune and explosively dramatic reveals rather than the subtly nuanced characterisations and narrative developments we have come to expect from John le Carré and similar masters of the literary thriller.
  Indeed, from very early on it’s clear that Dicker’s ambition is to write a pacy, melodramatic pot-boiler. The rustic New England setting is deftly sketched in, but otherwise realism is at a premium: the depiction of the publishing industry errs on the grotesque side of parody, for example, while it’s highly unlikely, to say the least, that a hardboiled New England cop would agree to allow a bestselling novelist hijack his murder investigation with the stated intention of establishing an alleged child murderer’s innocence. Characters fall in love at the drop of a manuscript, and there are enough skeletons in closets to dance a conga down Main Street. The crucial revelation that drives the novel’s final stages, meanwhile, appears to have been parachuted in from another kind of novel entirely.
  By that point, however, and having already negotiated a couple of thriller’s worth of improbable twists and turns, you’re likely to be conditioned to forgive Joël Dicker virtually any kind of narrative extravagance. The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is thriller escapism writ large, irrepressibly exuberant storytelling that tramples realism underfoot as it rattles along at a thunderous pace.
  Yet for all its clunky dialogue and lurid melodrama, there is an undeniably endearing quality to Marcus Goldman’s – and possibly even Joël Dicker’s – faith in the genre’s fundamental conceit, that whimsical but tempting notion that justice can be served and the world made better if only we believe strongly enough in the redemptive power of truth. And once the book is finished and put back in the beach-bag, or stored in the overhead locker, what remains with the reader is the novel’s quiet heart, the heartbreaking poignancy of the image on which it all turns, that of the body of a murdered 15-year-old girl uncovered in a shallow grave and still clutching, three decades after her death, a beloved handwritten manuscript. ~ Declan Burke

  This review was first published in the Irish Times.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Murder, She Wrote

I was on Twitter last week, in a conversation about YA books and teenage reading, and I mentioned that the twin pillars of my teenage reading years – or so it seems, looking back through rose-tinted binoculars – were Agatha Christie (right) and Sven Hassel. Which very probably explains a lot about the kinds of books I like to write now.
  Anyway, there may come a time when I write a feature about why Sven Hassel loomed so large in my imagination, but for now I’ll point you in the direction of a piece I had published last week in the Irish Examiner on the enduring – and indeed, the increasing – popularity of Dame Agatha Christie. It features contributions from Sophie Hannah, who will publish her Poirot novel THE MONOGRAM MURDERS in September, and the inimitable John Curran, who very likely knows more about Agatha Christie than anyone else on the planet.
  If you’re in the mood, you can find the feature here

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The StoryBundle Tale

Quick question, folks – have you ever heard of StoryBundle? I hadn’t, until about a month ago, which was when Paul O’Brien – he of BLOOD RED TURNS DOLLAR GREEN fame – got in touch to see if I’d be interested in ‘bundling’ one of my books – THE BIG O – together with some other writers’ books, the idea being that a rising tide floats all boats. But seeing how Paul is the curator of the International Crime Bundle, I’ll let him take up the story:
“We’ve got novels from some of the best crime writers today, having picked up such awards as the Goldsboro ‘Last Laugh’ Award, Anthony, Macavity and Agatha Award, Spinetingler Book of Year, Pulp Pusher Book of the Year and a small matter of a Pulitzer prize!
  “Our authors have been translated into several different languages and called various corners of the world home. They have reviewed, reported, photographed and written about the world they live in and travel around—whether it be a India, Ireland, Poland, United Kingdom, the Americas, Hong Kong, Singapore or Bangkok—this panel of authors write crime from an international point of view.
  “And I hope you enjoy that wealth and breadth of experience.
  “I hope you enjoy authors from all over the world, coming together to thrill you, entertain you and fill your e-reader with blood, crime scenes, adventure, chills, laughs, noir, guns, cleverness and surprise. I know I enjoyed putting it together.
  “And you get to decide what it’s all worth. Pay the minimum and you get the main bundle - pay a little more and you get the main bundle plus the bonus books!
  “It’s simple.
  “You even get to decide what way your money is split. How about giving some to charity? How much of your money would you like to go the writers? How much goes to StoryBundle?
  “You decide.
  “So dive in and enjoy reading this beautifully measured mix, just as much as I enjoyed collecting it for you. As your curator, I have tried to give you the perfect pitch of story and crime from all angles.” – Paul O’Brien

The initial titles in the bundle (minimum $3 to purchase) are:

• Megan’s Cure by Robert B. Lowe
• The Outsider by Arlene Hunt
• Blood Red Turns Dollar Green Vol. 1 by Paul O’Brien
• The Big O by Declan Burke
• A World of Trouble by Jake Needham
• Exiles: An Outsider Anthology by Paul D. Brazill

If you pay more than the bonus price of just $12, you’ll get another three books:

• Blood Red Turns Dollar Green Vol 2. by Paul O’Brien
• The Chosen by Arlene Hunt
• Full Moonlight by Vincent Zandri
  Intrigued? For all the details, clickety-click here

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Weekly Update

Given that I’m up to my oxters in rewrites / edits, and time at CAP Towers is at a premium, I hope you’ll forgive me if I offer a couple of days worth of posts in one ‘Weekly Update’-style bundle. To wit:

  My latest Irish Times column has a review of Adrian McKinty’s latest offering, THE SUN IS GOD (Serpent’s Tail), which runs a lot like this:
The Troubles and 1980s Northern Ireland formed the backdrop to Adrian McKinty’s recent trilogy of novels, but The Sun is God (Serpent’s Tail, €17.90) is set on the tiny Duke of York islands in the South Pacific island in 1906. Boer War veteran and former military policeman Will Prior is supervising a failing rubber plantation when he is commissioned to investigate a suspicious death on nearby Kabakon Island, home to a cult that worships the sun and eats only coconuts. Based on an improbable but true story, the novel offers a fascinating twist on the traditional ‘locked room’ mystery, as only the island’s miserable few inhabitants can be considered suspects in the alleged murder. Prior, as reluctant a sleuth as has ever shuffled into the genre, makes for a blackly humorous guide to a palm-fringed, sun-drenched idyll that is both heaven and hell. McKinty’s 15th novel (including YA titles) is an ambitious offering that incorporates a sub-plot exploring pre-WWI colonial tensions between Britain and Germany, but it’s the investigation of the central mystery, with its undertones of Paradise Lost, that proves most entertaining. ~ Declan Burke
  For the rest of the column, which includes very good books from Alafair Burke, Marc Dugain, Alan Furst and Karin Fossum, clickety-click here:

  Meanwhile, Desmond Doherty launches his latest Valberg novel, SINS OF THE FATHERS (Guildhall Press), on Thursday, June 26th, at the Tower Hotel in Derry, with Brian McGilloway doing the honours as guest speaker. For more, clickety-click here
After inflicting brutal revenge on the jury that wrongly sent him down for child murder, a deadly assassin is back on the streets of Derry. And this time he’s working his way up the legal ladder. Police, lawyers, judges – no one is safe. Detective Jon Valberg leads the hunt to nail the killer and expose his shadowy accomplices. And soon finds out how personal it’s all about to become ...

  Elsewhere, I thoroughly enjoyed myself last Saturday afternoon at the Dalkey Books Festival, where I took part in a conversation on ‘Emerald Noir’ with the always entertaining Declan Hughes (right) at Dalkey’s Masonic Hall. We got to sit on a pair of thrones for the proceedings (not pictured), with Declan Hughes, obviously, perched on the gold throne, while I had to do with the less gilded one. A very nice hour or so it was too, not least because a lovely lady described me as ‘the Quentin Tarantino of Irish crime fiction’, and it was lovely to meet the fabulously talented Aifric Campbell again, and Ross Golden Bannon, who is a name to watch. You heard it here first …

  Finally, my current tome CRIME ALWAYS PAYS nabbed itself a rather nice review in the forthcoming Booklist. The reviewer thought the characters erred on the side of unsympathetic, but the gist was positive:
“This is screwball comedy at its screwiest, with super-short chapters told from the viewpoints of myriad characters … The dialogue flows fast, though, which moves the story along at a frantic pace. Give this one to fans of comic crime capers.” ~ Booklist
  Speaking of which, the lovely Bob Johnstone of the Gutter Bookshop asked me sign a load of copies of CRIME ALWAYS PAYS at the Dalkey Festival; so if anyone is craving a signed copy, Bob is your man

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Blind and The Lost

As all Three Regular Readers will be aware, sightings of new material have been rare to non-existent here at CAP Towers over the last few weeks. This is largely to do with the fact that I’m uncommonly busy right now, redrafting the current opus – working title: THE BLIND AND THE LOST (a title borrowed from the hymn Amazing Grace, and which feels entirely apposite at this very moment) – to a deadline that appears to have snuck forward by about four days every time I so much as glance at the calendar. Anyway, I do apologise for the hiatus, and hopefully normal-ish service will resume some time in mid-July, or thereabouts. Of course, by then I’ll very likely be blogging from a secure suite at the Home for the Terminally Bewildered, so things should be a little spicier than they have of yore. Well, we can always hope …

Thursday, June 12, 2014

All Decs On Hand

There has been, over the years, an occasional confusion between (or conflation of) Declan Hughes and Declan Burke, which will surely only be worsened by the fact that our current offerings – ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE and CRIME ALWAYS PAYS, respectively – are both published by Severn House as part of the ‘Celtic Crime’ imprint. I can only speak for myself, of course, but I’m quite pleased about this, because it means that I’m occasionally mistaken for a very good writer indeed.
  Anyway, in the interests of adding to the confusion, I’ll be appearing with Declan Hughes at the Dalkey Book Festival next month. The gist, according to the good people at the DBF, runs thusly:
There has never been so much interest in Irish crime writing and we are thrilled to have two of the best here for you this year.
  In an event called ‘Emerald Noir’, two of Ireland’s best crime writers, Declan Hughes and Declan Burke, take you through their favourite writers and discuss their own books in the context of current Irish crime fiction.
  The event takes place at The Masonic Hall at 12.30pm, Saturday 21st June. For all the details, including how to book tickets, clickety-click here

Monday, June 9, 2014

Killing Us Softly

Jane Casey is one of the growing number of Irish authors who write both adult crime / mystery fiction and YA titles. Her latest offering, THE KILL (Ebury Press), is the fifth in her acclaimed London-based police procedural series featuring DC Maeve Kerrigan, and the blurb runs thusly:
COP KILLER STRIKES AGAIN!
  The tabloid headlines are lurid but accurate. A killer is terrorising London but this time it is the police who are the targets. And Maeve Kerrigan and her boss Josh Derwent are clueless as to why.
  But it will only be a matter of time before the murderer selects his next victim.
  For a review, clickety-click here

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Good Day At Black Rock

I know that true success, according to Gore Vidal and others, means that you triumph while your friends fail, but I can’t help feeling more than a little bit pleased to see Canadian author John McFetridge on the cover of Quill & Quire. He’s a smashing bloke and a terrific writer; and his latest offering, BLACK ROCK (ECW), is a brilliant period crime thriller set in Montreal in 1970. If I were you, I’d jump on that bandwagon before it hauls on out of the station

Thursday, June 5, 2014

International Crime Fiction at Queens University

Dominique Jeannerod (right) of Queens University is the very charming French gentleman who organised last Friday’s public interview with Pierre Lamaitre at Belfast’s Crescent Arts Centre, which I managed to survive, in my role as inquisitor-in-chief, without entirely mangling the French language. Although I did, to be fair, mangle it quite a bit.
  It was a terrific turn-out on the evening, despite the fact that a number of Norn Iron’s crime writers also showed up, Stuart Neville, Gerard Brennan, Steve Kavanagh and Andrew Pepper among them. It was also lovely to be able to make my annual pilgrimage to No Alibis while I was in Belfast, and pick up some very interesting recommendations from David and Claudia.
  Anyway, Dominique gets in touch to let me know that Queens University – and specifically the International Crime Fiction brigade therein – will be hosting ‘An International Conference on the Noir Genre and its Territorialisation’ later this month. The conference runs over two days, June 13th and 14th, and offers a range of discussions on a number of international crime writers, among them Tana French, Eoin McNamee and David Peace, while Eoin McNamee and Brian McGilloway will be taking part in a ‘Readings and Questions’ session on the Friday afternoon.
  For all the details, and the full programme of events, clickety-click here

Friday, May 30, 2014

“Ya Wanna Do It Here Or Down The Station, Punk?” Sinead Crowley

Yep, it’s rubber-hose time, folks: a rapid-fire Q&A for those shifty-looking usual suspects ...

What crime novel would you most like to have written?
Val McDermid’s A PLACE OF EXECUTION.

What fictional character would you most like to have been?
Ariadne Oliver.

Who do you read for guilty pleasures?
I don’t believe in guilty pleasures! Any reading is better than no reading. Yes, even books with many types of colours in their titles. But give me a decent psychological thriller with well drawn characters and a killer twist and I’m in heaven.

Most satisfying writing moment?
Any time a reader tells me they didn’t guess the ending of my novel, I’m over the moon. I wanted to write a ‘whodunnit’ and I’m delighted if people tell me they were surprised at the end.

If you could recommend one Irish crime novel, what would it be?
Tana French’s IN THE WOODS.

What Irish crime novel would make a great movie?
It’s not technically a crime novel, but FROM OUT OF THE CITY by John Kelly would make a terrific high concept thriller.

Worst / best thing about being a writer?
The best thing is having a reader tell you they enjoyed the book. I find it amazing to think that this document which I slaved over for years is now out in the world and people are enjoying it. The worst thing was having to let the book go to the printers. I could have toyed with it for another five years and I still wouldn’t have been happy with it. They had to wrestle the proof from me in the end.

The pitch for your next book is …?
The second in the Sgt Claire Boyle series.

Who are you reading right now?
Louise Millar.

God appears and says you can only write OR read. Which would it be?
Read.

The three best words to describe your own writing are …?
Slowly getting there.

Sinead Crowley’s CAN ANYBODY HELP ME? is published by Quercus.

Pierre Lamaitre in Belfast


The event is free, but pre-booking is essential. Tickets can be booked through David Torrans at No Alibis.