“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

One to Watch: MINDS OF WINTER by Ed O’Loughlin

Ed O’Loughlin’s forthcoming novel MINDS OF WINTER (riverrun) arrived in the post during the week, a physics-defying process that involved it simultaneously dropping through the letterbox and pole-vaulting to the top of ye olde reading pile. To wit:
  It begins with a chance encounter at the top of the world.
  Fay Morgan and Nelson Nilsson have each arrived in Inuvik, Canada - 120 miles north of the Arctic Circle - searching for answers about a family member: Nelson for his estranged older brother, Fay for her disappeared grandfather. They soon learn that these two men have an unexpected link - a hidden share in one of the greatest enduring mysteries of polar exploration.
  In a feat of extraordinary scope and ambition, Ed O’Loughlin moves between a frozen present and an-ever thawing past, and from the minds of two present-day wanderers to the lives some of polar history’s most enigmatic figures. MINDS OF WINTER is a novel about ice and time and their ability to preserve or destroy, of mortality and loss and our dreams of transcending them.
  MINDS OF WINTER will be published on August 25th. For reviews of Ed O'Loughlin’s previous novels, clickety-click here ...

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Review: THE GOLDEN AGE OF MURDER by Martin Edwards

I was very pleased to hear that Martin Edwards’ THE GOLDEN AGE OF MURDER won the non-fiction gong at CrimeFest over the weekend – it really is a smashing piece of work. I wrote a review for the Irish Times last year that ran a lot like this:

“Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” demanded Edmund Wilson in a New Yorker essay published in 1945. Taking its title from Agatha Christie’s Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? (1926), the essay describes the detective novel as ‘sub-literary’, a perhaps understandable addiction that ranked somewhere between crossword puzzles and smoking.
  Only a year earlier, however, John Strachey, writing in The Saturday Review, had declared that readers were living through ‘the Golden Age of English Detection’, describing detective fiction as ‘masterpieces of distraction and escape.’ So popular and pervasive were Golden Age mystery novels that Bertolt Brecht – tongue firmly wedged in cheek, no doubt – could claim that, “The crime novel, like the world itself, is ruled by the English.”
  The contradictions persist to this day. The Guinness Book of Records claims that Agatha Christie, with sales in excess of two billion, is second only to The Bible and William Shakespeare in terms of books sold. And yet the perception remains that Golden Age mystery novels were no more than bland exercises in puzzle-solving, comfort blankets for a middle class readership all too eager to be persuaded that while the country house defences might be breached, and the village green become stained with blood, such anomalies would be detected by ‘the little grey cells’ of superior education and the status quo quickly restored.
  “The received wisdom is that Golden Age fiction set out to reassure readers by showing order restored to society, and plenty of orthodox novels did just that,” writes Martin Edwards in the opening chapter of The Golden Age of Murder. Yet the best of the Golden Age writers, he argues, and particularly those members of the Detection Club who account for the book’s subtitle, ‘The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story’, defied stereotypes and were ‘obsessive risk-takers’ as they reimagined the possibilities and potential of the crime novel. “Violent death is at the heart of a novel about murder,” writes Edwards, “but Golden Age writers, and their readers, had no wish or need to wallow in gore … The bloodless game-playing of post-conflict detective stories is often derided by thoughtless commentators who forget that after so much slaughter on the field of battle the survivors were in need of a change.”
  Edwards, an award-winning detective novelist and the Archivist of the Detection Club, has written a fabulously detailed book that serves a number of purposes. A rebuttal of the ‘perceived wisdom’ that Golden Age mystery fiction was trite and clichéd is to the forefront, but The Golden Age of Murder also functions as a history of the Detection Club, which was formed in 1930 and over the years included in its membership Christie, Sayers, Berkeley, G.K. Chesterton, Freeman Wills Croft, Ronald Knox, A.A. Milne, Baroness Orczy, Helen Simpson, Hugh Walpole, Gladys Mitchell, Margery Allingham, John Dickson Carr, Nicholas Blake, Edmund Crispin and Christianna Brand, among many others.
  Through this framework Edwards weaves a mind-boggling number of plot summaries of novels (without, naturally, ever giving away the all-important crucial twists), the authors’ fascination with real-life crimes, and the way in which the Golden Age mysteries reflected the turbulent decades of the 1920s and 1930s and on into the Second World War, persuasively arguing that, “The cliché that detective novelists routinely ignored social and economic realities is a myth.” Equally fascinating is his documenting of the frequently tortured private lives of the authors, with Edwards turning detective himself as he explores how alcoholism, unacknowledged children, repressed homosexuality, unrequited passion, radical political activism and self-loathing – to mention just a few examples – found their way into the writers’ novels.
  There are also a number of intriguing digressions, such as when Edwards notes the relationship between detective fiction and poetry. T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, W.H. Auden, Cecil Day-Lewis (who published his crime novels under the pseudonym Nicholas Blake) and Sophie Hannah are among those name-checked as critics or authors: “From [Edgar Allan] Poe onwards, a strikingly high proportion of detective novelists have also been poets,” says Edwards. “They are drawn to each form by its structural challenges.”
  As a novelist himself, Edwards can be cynically humorous about the publishing industry (“Allen [Lane] met Christie when she called at the office to complain about the dustjacket of The Murder on the Links, having failed to realize that when a publisher asks an author’s opinion of a jacket, the response required is rapture.”) and his quirky style is reflected in his chapter headings (Chapter 15 is titled ‘Murder, Transvestism and Suicide during a Trapeze Act’).
  For the most part, however, Edwards plays a straight bat with a sustained and impassioned celebration of the Golden Age mystery novel. The Golden Age of Murder is as entertaining as it is a comprehensively researched work, and one that should prove essential reading for any serious student of the crime / mystery novel. ~ Declan Burke

  This review was first published in the Irish Times.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Guy Clark RIP

I first came across Guy Clark courtesy of Robert Forster, who sang – on his Danger in the Past album – about “Wondering who sounds better in the dark / Is it Townes van Zandt or Guy Clark?” All told, I’m inclined to believe it’s the former, but it would be a close-run thing … Anyway, the sad news is that Guy Clark died today, aged 74. My favourite track of his is Desperadoes Waiting for a Train:
I played the Red River Valley
He'd sit in the kitchen and cry
Run his fingers through seventy years of livin’
And wonder, “Lord, why has every well I’ve drilled gone dry?”
Take it away, sir …

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Brain Noodles: The Mavericks; Sigur Rós; Our Kind of Traitor

Fun and games – literally – in this week’s reading: Rob Steen’s THE MAVERICKS: ENGLISH FOOTBALL WHEN FLAIR WORE FLARES celebrates those footballers who followed the trail blazed by George Best – the likes of Charlie George, Tony Currie, Peter Osgood, Stan Bowles, Rodney Marsh (the last examples glimpsed in English football were Paul Gascoigne and Southampton’s ‘God’, Matt Le Tissier) – who wore the Number 10 and played the game for the sheer joy of it all (or, in one case, because it was easier than actual work when it came to the vexed issue of financing a gambling habit). Ignored and / or distrusted at international level at a time when England were serially failing to qualify for the World Cup, the Mavericks, according to Rob Steen, were the platonic ideal of footballing excellence, entertainers above all else, men who raised the game to the level of art. And so forth. It’s a bitter-sweet read, given that Steen interviews most of the Mavericks in the wake of their (for the most part) underachieving careers, but for anyone with an interest in the beautiful game, it’s a delicious read.
  At one point Steen quotes Matt Busby on the direction the game is taking, at a time when George Best was being kicked out of the game by the likes of Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris: “Because of their heart and skill, he and other outstanding players in the league can go on giving the crowds entertainment. And it’s true there are still a few teams who believe the game is about talent and technique and imagination, but for any one you’ll find ten who rely on runners and hard men.”
  For some reason, this got me thinking about the crime novel, and how in recent years particularly the genre seems to have become increasingly pro forma. Maybe you couldn’t build a successful football team full of ‘mavericks’, and you certainly couldn’t build a publishing industry on their literary equivalent, but surely there should be enough room for a lot more writers like (say) Hesh Kestin and James Crumley, Barry Gifford and Jon Steele. Or maybe not – maybe it’s the case that what’s rare is wonderful.
  Anyway, the sporting theme continued with Philip Roth’s THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL – I’m not a Philip Roth fan per se, but I’m a sucker for a good baseball novel (THE NATURAL, SHOELESS JOE, THE ART OF FIELDING). Not that a baseball novel is necessarily ‘about’ baseball; but, apart from the gunslinger narrative of the pitcher facing down the batter that lies at the heart of a good baseball story, there’s something about the language of baseball (short stop, pop fly, swing away, shagging flies, suicide squeeze, et al) I love. Roth’s comic tale about the fictional Ruppert Mundys should have nailed me to the floor, but the humour is too arch, the tale too baroque – the novel isn’t just a parody of the great American novel, it’s a spoof of the baseball novel too. Maybe it’s that, at this remove on this side of the pond, I’m a little bit too in love with the myth of baseball, and take the myth-making element a bit too seriously, while Roth was having fun in demythologising the game as America’s conduit to a supposedly innocent past. Either way, it didn’t really work for me.
  On the music front, a recommendation this week for Trio Mediaeval’s Aquilonis sent me off listening to Ágætis byrjun by Sigur Rós, because that’s the way my brain works. I only stumbled across Sigur Rós last year, and Ágætis byrjun was the first of their albums I listened to (I went out and bought another four), but so far it’s still the only one I’ve listened to, because I’m terrified the others won’t be as good. Sigur Rós are Icelandic, and if you had to pigeonhole them you’d say they’re post-rock, but they’re beautifully opaque as they go about constructing their classically-inspired ethereal soundscapes – yep, we’re into the realms of sonic cathedrals and suchlike. I’ve never been to Iceland, but if living there felt half as good as Ágætis byrjun sounds, I’d move there tomorrow – if Sibelius was still composing, he’d probably sound a lot like this:
Movies-wise, I had the dubious pleasure this week of watching Escape to Athena late one night, a potboiler set on an unnamed Greek island during WWII, in which a motley crew work their way through a bonkers plot. I don’t know if I’d ever recommend it to anyone (to be honest, I was mainly watching it for the scenery; it was shot on Rhodes), but if kitsch is your thing, then it does at least boast what is very likely the most 1970s cast ever: Roger Moore, David Niven, Claudia Cardinale, Telly Savalas, Richard Roundtree, Sonny Bono, Stephanie Powers and Elliott Gould.
  As for this week’s releases, my film of the week is Our Kind of Traitor, adapted from the John Le Carré novel and directed by Susanna White. My review in the Irish Examiner runs a lot like this:
The post-Cold War landscape in international espionage has made for some surprising bedfellows, a fact to which the title of Our Kind of Traitor (15A) alludes. Perry Makepeace (Ewan McGregor) is a professor of poetics holidaying in Morocco with his wife Gail (Naomie Harris) when they are approached by a Russian, Dima (Stellan Skarsgård). A money launderer for the Russian mafia, Dima fears for the lives of his wife and children as a result of a mafia turf war being fought out in Moscow. Can Perry act as Dima’s go-between with British Intelligence back in London, and secure the safety of Dima’s family in return for information about corruption that goes to the very heart of the British political establishment? Adapted from John Le Carré’s novel by Hossein Amini and directed by Susanna White, Our Kind of Traitor is a bracingly cynical thriller that revels in its realpolitik – Hector (Damian Lewis), the handler who takes on Dima’s case, is as impersonal as a chess master as he shuffles his pawns around the board. Where the recent TV adaptation of Le Carré’s The Night Manager ironed out that story’s wrinkles in favour of creating a glossy thriller, White and Amini celebrate the nuances in Our Kind of Traitor, and particularly in terms of character. Dima, played as a vodka-fuelled but poignant shaggy Russian bear by Skarsgård, is no one’s idea of an ideal defector, while Lewis’s Hector is deliciously amoral, a clipped and apparently emotionless rogue operator who tramples over international law in order to satisfy his own agenda. McGregor, meanwhile, is solidly convincing as a dim but true polar star on the movie’s moral compass in a story that simultaneously celebrates and mocks Dima’s endearing belief in the myth of British fair play. ****
  Also reviewed this week are Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! and Angry Birds. For the reviews, clickety-click here

Friday, May 13, 2016

First Look: CLOSED CASKET by Sophie Hannah

I’m not for one second even contemplating claiming the forthcoming Sophie Hannah title, CLOSED CASKET (HarperCollins), as Irish crime fiction, even if Hercule Poirot’s latest adventure is set in Clonakilty in (the People’s Republic of) Cork. Quite how those innately shy and modest Cork folk will take to Poirot’s flair for self-promotion is anyone’s guess; we’ll find out in September, when CLOSED CASKET hits the shelves.
  I thoroughly enjoyed Sophie Hannah’s first Poirot novel, THE MONOGRAM MURDERS – for a review, clickety-click here

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Brain Noodle: Alan Glynn’s Paradime; Tchaikovsky’s Nine Sacred Choruses; Florence Foster Jenkins

Alan Glynn’s PARADIME (Faber) didn’t so much as noodle around my brain when I started it earlier this week as punch straight through to the cerebral cortex – his first novel since GRAVELAND (2013) is a doppelganger tale of conspiracy and paranoia which starts in fourth gear, quickly revs up into fifth and thereafter roars along like an Exocet in agony. I can’t say too much about it right now, because I’ll be reviewing it in the Irish Times next month, but suffice to say that it’s his most inventive novel since THE DARK FIELDS (2002) – which was adapted into the movie Limitless – and arguably a more fascinating psychological-thriller-cum-tragedy. More anon.

On the music front, it’s been something of a Tchaikovsky-fest this week – for some reason (over-familiarity, probably) I hadn’t listened to Swan Lake for a few years; sometimes your eyes glaze over as your gaze passes across certain albums, simply because – I’m guessing – the brain craves the blazing of new neural paths. That said, I was mainly listening to Nine Sacred Choruses and the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, a 1997 recording from Helios with the Corydon Singers under the baton of Matthew Best. The link below is the Liturgy courtesy of the USSR Ministry of Culture Chamber Choir under Valery Polyansky:

I’m a rank amateur when it comes to classical music, and I’m not noticeably religious and / or spiritual, so I really don’t know why I find ‘sacred music’ – most recently Arvo Pärt, Palestrina, Hildegard von Bingen – so appealing, other than it’s gloriously beautiful to listen to. Apologies for the lack of insight, but there it is.

As for movies, my film of the week is Florence Foster Jenkins, with Stephen Frears directing Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant. My review runs a lot like this:
A minor tragedy of self-delusion on an epic scale, Florence Foster Jenkins (PG) stars Meryl Streep in the eponymous role, playing the beloved patron of New York’s classical music world in the mid-1940s. Florence, a talented pianist in her youth, adores music and has a wonderful ear, but when Florence decides to sing at Carnegie Hall, disaster looms – Florence in full cry sounds like an alley swarming with dying cats. Based on a true story which is adapted by screenwriter Nicholas Martin and directed by Stephen Frears, Florence Foster Jenkins is by turns laugh-out-loud funny (Streep stumbling headlong through the scales is comedy-of-embarrassment gold) and heartbreakingly poignant, partly because Florence’s ambition so far exceeds her grasp and partly because she is daring, emotionally fragile and utterly charming in her lack of self-awareness. It’s Meryl Streep’s finest turn in years, mainly because her performance is sotto voce, allowing the character’s endearing quirks and idiosyncrasies to speak for themselves. It would have been easy for Florence, adorned in feather boas and tiaras, to appear utterly ridiculous, but Streep’s delicate touch gradually strips away the eccentricities to reveal Florence’s human frailties. She gets strong support from Hugh Grant as Florence’s long-suffering and (mostly) dedicated husband St Clair, and Simon Helberg, who plays Cosme McMoon, a pianist commissioned to accompany Florence, aka the little boy who dare not point out that the Empress, musically speaking, wears no clothes. Stephen Frears directs with panache (complete with old-fashioned screen wipes), fully aware of the story’s comic possibilities but never forgetting the tenderness and compassion that underpins the tale. ****
The other movies I reviewed this week (in the Irish Examiner) are the Hank Williams biopic I Saw the Light and Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups. For more, clickety-click here

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Publications: Irish Crime Fiction 2016

Herewith be a brief list of Irish crime fiction titles published / to be published in 2016, a list I’ll be updating on a regular basis throughout the year. To wit:

DEAD SECRET by Ava McCarthy (January 14)
BLOOD AND WATER by Siobhain Bunni (January 19)
RAIN DOGS by Adrian McKinty (January 21)

BURIED by Graham Masterton (February 11)
THE DROWNED DETECTIVE by Neil Jordan (February 25)
BISHOP’S DELIGHT by Patrick McGinley (February 29)

PENANCE by Kate O’Riordan (March 1)
WHAT SHE NEVER TOLD ME by Kate McQuaile (March 3)
A SAVAGE HUNGER by Claire McGowan (March 10)
THE DOLOCHER by Caroline Barry
PIMP by Ken Bruen & Jason Starr (March 18)
TWISTED RIVER by Siobhan MacDonald (March 22)
SIREN by Annemarie Neary (March 24)
SISTERS AND LIES by Bernice Barrington (March 26)
BLACK ROSE DAYS by Martin Malone (March 31)
THE WING-ORDERLY’S TALES by Carlo Gébler (March 31)

ALL THINGS NICE by Sheila Bugler (April 4)
A TIME OF TORMENT by John Connolly (April 7)

THE CITY IN DARKNESS by Michael Russell (May 5)
DISTRESS SIGNALS by Catherine Ryan Howard (May 5)
THE LAST DAYS OF SUMMER by Vanessa Ronan (May 5)
LITTLE BONES by Sam Blake (May 17)
THE PLEA by Steve Cavanagh (May 19)
A SHOCKING ASSASSINATION by Cora Harrison (May 31)

PARADIME by Alan Glynn (June 2)
GIRL UNKNOWN by Karen Perry (June 2)
TREACHEROUS STRAND by Andrea Carter (June 2)
THE DEAD RINGER by Triona Walsh (June 20)

LYING IN WAIT by Liz Nugent (July 7)
SO SAY THE FALLEN by Stuart Neville (July 7)

THE TRESPASSER by Tana French (August 11)
THE CONSTANT SOLDIER by William Ryan (August 25)

THE WONDER by Emma Donoghue (September 8)
BENEATH THE SURFACE by Joanne Spain (September 22)

  NB: Publication dates are given according to Amazon UK, and are subject to change.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Review: THE WING-ORDERLY’S TALES by Carlo Gébler

Carlo Gébler’s The Wing-Orderly’s Tales (New Island), set in the fictional Loanend Prison in Belfast, is comprised of a series of anecdotes about Harold ‘Chalky’ Chalkman’s fellow prisoners, with Chalky’s position as orderly and go-between making him a confidante of both prisoners and prison guards. The narrative form is unusual, lying somewhere between a short story collection and a novel (the stories are closely linked but self-contained), as Gébler details the sad, quirky, blackly funny and tragic events that befall a host of characters, all of them known by their prison nicknames (‘Eskimo’, ‘Smurf’, ‘Sweet Gene’, ‘Magic’). In the past Carlo Gébler was a creative writing tutor at the Maze and writer-in-residence in Maghaberry, and he invests these stories with a gripping verisimilitude, not least when outlining the perverse unofficial rules that apply in prison – one character, for example, is brutally punished for hating the paramilitaries who killed his mother. It’s a slim but powerful book that subtly explores the early causes and life-long consequences of criminality, its underlying theme summed up in the advice the recidivist Chalky is offered – “It may be a jail, but that doesn’t mean you have to act like it’s one.” – but ultimately rejects. ~ Declan Burke

  This review was first published in the Irish Times as part of April’s crime fiction column. Other titles reviewed are: MAESTRA by LS Hilton, THE TRAP by Melanie Raabe, BLOOD WILL OUT by Walter Kirn and SIX FOUR by Hideo Yokoyama.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Coming Soon: A SHOCKING ASSASSINATION by Cora Harrison

Cora Harrison is better known for her Mara mystery novels about a Brehon judge in the 15th century, but A SHOCKING ASSASSINATION (Severn House) is the second in a historical crime series featuring Reverend Mother Aquinas (the first, A SHAMEFUL MURDER, was published last year). To wit:
Reverend Mother Aquinas is asked to prove a young man’s innocence in the second of this atmospheric new Irish historical mystery series.
  Ireland. 1924. Reverend Mother Aquinas is buying buttered eggs in the Cork city market at the very moment when the city engineer, James Doyle, is assassinated. Although no one saw the actual killing, a young reporter named Sam O’Mahoney is found standing close to the body, a pistol in his hand, and is arrested and charged. Following a desperate appeal from Sam’s mother, convinced of her son’s innocence, the Reverend Mother investigates - and, in this turbulent, war-torn city, uncovers several other key suspects. Could there be a Republican connection? Was James Doyle’s death linked to his corrupt practices in the rebuilding of the city, burned down more than a year ago by the Black and Tans? Cork is a city divided by wealth and by politics: this murder seems to have links to both.
  A SHOCKING ASSASSINATION will be the 51st – yes, that’s 51st – novel published by the prolific Cora Harrison when it arrives on May 31st.