Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

GUEST POST: My Writing Space by CHRISTOPHER FOWLER

Christopher Fowler Arrivals Specsavers Crime ITKyI_eqRzsl Name: CHRISTOPHER FOWLER

Author of: BRYANT & MAY Series (2004 – 2015)
                 HELL TRAIN (2012)
                 ROOFWORLD (1988)

On the web: www.christopherfowler.co.uk

On Twitter: @Peculiar

Today marks the UK hardback publication of the twelfth Bryant & May mystery, The Burning Man. To celebrate the book’s release, I’m very pleased and excited to welcome its author, Christopher Fowler, to Reader Dad, to talk about his writing space. So, without further ado…

Fellow writers are always horrified when they walk into my home. The horror intensifies when they see my writing study. ‘But where is everything?’ they ask. ‘How on earth can you work like this? There’s nothing here!’

THE BURNING MAN - Christopher FowlerI grew up in a terraced Victorian house where space and light were both restricted. In summer you stayed cool inside, but in winter you lost the will to live. It was cluttered and chaotic with books, magazines and far too many ornamental objects. When I finally gave up my job for my career and switched to writing novels full-time, I knew I needed a better space in which to work. My partner and I found an apartment where the architects had spent four months measuring light levels before putting in the walls. Most of the outer walls are floor-to-ceiling glass. Living in a goldfish bowl takes some getting used to; there are many days when you have to wear sunglasses to the breakfast table. The unforgiving design ethic of stark white minimalism and glass is not conducive to the care and protection of beloved old books. Only one room could be shielded from the relentless glare of daylight, so that is where the library lives. We couldn’t leave books out in the light because even recent volumes have yellowed and turned brittle (whereas my rare paperback collections from the 1950s are fine).

Shelves were ordered, but only enough to keep the lines of the room. In my old house I had sat surrounded by wobbly stacks, shifting them from tables to eat, piling them beside my bed until I was in danger of being buried alive.

We decided to take all the books with us, but remove the duplicates. The dog-eared student texts, from Chaucer to Gunter Grasse, were all doubled, so they went. Out went spares of Shakespeare, Balzac, Hesse, 20th century poets, and reference books that were available online. Practical choices were made – we dumped the gardening books because we no longer had a garden. For a while the process remained polite, and even developed a peculiar kind of quid pro quo. ‘No,’ I insisted, ‘you keep your African authors, but I’ll hang onto my British theatre histories because I might need the research.’ Being an author, I could unashamedly pull rank.

There were still not enough shelves, even though they ran to the ceiling. I hung on to some very strange book choices. The worthy volumes that we felt required to keep had been discarded in favour of guilty pleasures. The Pan Books Of Horror, Spider-Man and The Films of Norman Wisdom had inexplicably been deemed more valuable than Proust. Ultimately, the new truncated library that emerged was as idiosyncratic as the old one, and as enjoyable. I think libraries should breathe and fluctuate.

Wi-Fi meant no cables, and the printer could be tucked away – although it’s virtually redundant now. The study naturally became a paper-free zone as nearly all of my research documents, photos and letters are stored online. I’ve only kept a few book awards – the rest are stored in an electronic format. The study windows overlook St Paul’s, an inspirational sight for any London writer, and there are 360 degrees of blinds which can be lowered one at a time, according to the position of the sun.

One problem is that my past books have all been written on different systems, and there’s no single access source for the texts. At some point in the future I’ll have to transcribe them to Word – the earliest were typed on manual typewriters. Even my first Bryant & May mystery novels were written on now defunct systems, so I have to go back to the master copies for reference. I keep style guides and character reference notes online, but still revert to pen and paper occasionally to help me visualise a situation.

It’s a great way to work, calm, uncluttered and skybound.

March 26, 2015 Posted by | Crime Fiction, Guest Post | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CAMILLE by Pierre Lemaitre

CAMILLE - Pierre Lemaitre CAMILLE

Pierre Lemaitre (www.pierrelemaitre.com)

Translated by Frank Wynne (www.terribleman.com)

MacLehose Press (maclehosepress.com)

£17.99

Anne Forestier is in the wrong place at the wrong time. When she stumbles upon the robbery of a Paris jeweller, she is beaten to within an inch of her life, and left for dead. Despite the lack of body, Camille Verhœven of the brigade criminelle pulls strings and calls in favours to get the case assigned to his team. What he keeps to himself is that Anne Forestier is his lover, and Camille has no desire to see a repeat of the events to which he lost his wife, Irène. As the investigation continues, Camille slowly unravels, working above and outside the law to determine who did this to Anne, and discovering that all is not exactly as it seems as he goes along.

Given how clever both Irène and Alex were in their construction, it was inevitable that Pierre Lematire was going to run out of ways to surprise the reader, not least because we have come to expect the surprises. As a result, we enter into the final part of the Verhœven Trilogy, the eponymous Camille, with our guard up and our senses finely tuned. It is unfortunate, then, that the trilogy’s closing chapter is, in some ways, something of a disappointment, although maybe not much of a surprise.

Set a number of years after the events of Alex – Le Guen has moved up the ladder leaving a new commissaire to butt heads with Camille, and the team itself is now reduced to Verhœven and Louis – Camille opens in brutal style as Lemaitre intertwines the account of the robbery – and the beating of Anne Forestier – and the initial portions of Camille’s investigation. It is clear from early in the novel – as soon as the relationship between victim and investigator is established, in fact – that Camille has been deeply affected by this close call, so it is easy to understand how completely he goes off the rails as the story progresses. Camille is as gruff and unsympathetic as ever, the type of character who shouldn’t make a good leading man, and despite this new, darker side that is a wild departure from the steadfast and conscientious policeman we have known so far, we still find ourselves rooting for him, praying that he solves the case before someone finds out his secret and he loses the case and, most likely, his job.

As with the previous novels, Lemaitre moves through a number of different points of view to give the reader a more complete view of what is going on: Camille himself, Anne, and the robber. There are, as you might expect if you’ve read the earlier books in the series, twists aplenty, though slightly more mundane ones that we’ve grown used to (probably, as I mentioned earlier, because we have grown used to them), and Lemaitre manages to maintain the suspense, if not the solution, for the greater part of the novel. And therein lies my biggest complaint about Camille: the robber’s identity – the identity of the man against whom the great mind of Camille Verhœven is pitted – is telegraphed early in the book, becoming a certainty around the two-thirds mark, despite the fact that the “official” reveal doesn’t come until the novel’s closing pages. It is this that leaves the reader – this reader, at least, feeling that the trilogy has failed, to a certain extent, the final view of Camille Verhœven we get not the triumphant genius of Irène or Alex, but the slightly anti-climactic denouement of Camille and the trilogy as a whole.

In all, I have very mixed feelings about Camille. Given how much I enjoyed the previous two books, I wanted to love this one, so I’m somewhat disappointed that it fell short of my expectations. That said, there is very little structurally wrong with the book and, examined in its own right, it’s not a bad novel at all. Here are the characters we have grown to love from the previous outings, the wonderful writing – and translation by Frank Wynne – that sets Lemaitre’s writing apart from his contemporaries. The violence is graphic but strangely necessary, the type of violence that is difficult to stomach, but almost impossible not to look at, while Camille’s descent into morally ambiguous territory is handled with no small amount of tenderness by the author, the fate of Camille’s wife fresh in our mind even as we watch him attempting to cope with the attack on his current lover.

While not the novel fans of Lemaitre’s first two Verhœven novels will be desperately hoping for, Camille does, however, still have some high points. A welcome return to the world of this strange and compelling policeman, the novel lacks some of the genius touches that mark the earlier books in the series. It may not be a fitting finale, but it’s a competent and enjoyable one nonetheless, and is a must-read for anyone who has already come this far.

March 24, 2015 Posted by | Crime Fiction | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

I AM RADAR by Reif Larsen

I AM RADAR - Reif Larsen I AM RADAR

Reif Larsen (reiflarsen.com)

Harvill Secker (www.vintage-books.co.uk)

£16.99

In April 1975, in New Jersey, Radar Radmanovic is born, a black child with white parents. While his father, Kermin, accepts the child’s “condition”, his mother, Charlene, is driven to discover some kind of cure. Her search leads the family to northern Norway and the mysterious Kirkenesferda, a group of puppeteers and scientists who claim to have some way of changing Radar’s skin colour. Thirty-five years later, a massive electromagnetic pulse plunges Kearney, New Jersey into darkness. Radar Radmanovic, now an engineer for a local radio station, races home to discover that his father has disappeared and may well have caused the pulse. When he tries to find his father, he discovers the remnants of Kirkenesferda, of which Kermin has been a member for over thirty years, as they prepare to depart the US to put on one of their mysterious shows. Drawn in by the mystery and the sense that he may be the only man who can fill Kermin’s shoes, Radar finds himself on a boat bound for the Congo, and the truth about who he actually is.

It has been a long wait for Reif Larsen’s second novel, whose 2009 debut The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet remains one of the most beautiful and engaging books ever produced. I Am Radar is very different in both tone and design, falling more into the realms of Neal Stephenson or Nick Harkaway than his first novel did, but still retaining some of the unique design elements for which T.S. Spivet’s journey will be remembered.

Ostensibly the story of Radar Radmanovic, a black child born to a white American mother and a white ex-patriot Serb in early 1975, it soon becomes clear that this novel has a much wider subject than the eponymous “hero”. I Am Radar gives us brief glimpses of Radar’s life: the first four or five years, and then the period thirty years later when his relationship with the enigmatic Kirkenesferda is rekindled. Interspersed with these stories are others: the story of Miroslav Danilović, who grew up during the terrible disintegration of Yugoslavia, and who would eventually become the core member of Kirkenesferda known as Otik Mirosavic; and the tale of Raksmey Raksmey, a foundling who would be present at Kirkenesferda’s disastrous Cambodian event and play an important part in the continued survival of the group. Threaded through these stories is the history of Kirkenesferda itself, the Røed-Larsen family and the seemingly well-informed book, Spesielle Partikler. In short, the scope of I Am Radar is vast, in terms of time, space and ambition.

Despite the book’s size, and the vast scope it contains, I Am Radar is one of the most engaging reads you’ll encounter in recent years. The central characters are, despite the often ridiculous scenarios in which they find themselves, well-drawn and reasonable people. The book’s opening section, describing the first four years of Radar’s life, sets the tone for the novel as a whole: here is the full range of human emotions laid bare on the page. There are hints of genius here, much of it original, some of it borrowed: Radar comes into ownership of his name in much the same way that Joseph Heller’s Major Major did – through the machinations of an over-enthusiastic father taking advantage of an overwhelmed mother’s mental state.

Kirkenesferda becomes the novel’s focus for much of the second half, yet they remain as mysterious at the book’s end as they were at its beginning. They are a group of puppeteers and scientists who perform shows for no audience, in the most bleak and remote areas on the planet. There is plenty of science behind their existence, behind the spectacles that they create, but Larsen does not dwell on the details, but rather uses external material – excerpts from books, photographs, newspaper clippings – to reinforce the novel’s reality for the reader. Like T. S. Spivet, in which drawings and margin notes form an integral part of the story, I Am Radar takes frequent breaks from the expected linear approach to storytelling to provide the reader with something a bit different, something that adds an extra dimension to the story above and beyond what the author’s words can provide. Also like his earlier novel, Morse Code plays a part in the proceedings, and its integration into the narrative – often overlaid with a visual representation of a drumbeat – is a beauty to behold.

Aside from the science, one of the novel’s main themes is that of war, and Larsen focuses on a number of modern-day conflicts as the interlinked stories of Radar and Kirkenesferda play out: first, the Bosnian conflict of the early 1990s, as a backdrop to Miroslav’s young adulthood; second, the Cambodian civil war, and the role played by the Khmer Rouge, during the late 1960s and 1970s, as a backdrop for the differences in Kirkenesferda between our first meeting in 1979, and the group’s incarnation in 2010. Larsen pulls no punches in either case, and plunges the reader into the middle of the respective conflict, showing the horror of war from the point of view of the people closest to it.

Apart from the fact that Radar Radmanovic is in his mid-thirties by the time I Am Radar ends, there is a distinct feeling that the novel is a kind of coming-of-age story. Maybe “voyage of self-discovery” would be more appropriate, but it is difficult to get away from that sensation. Perhaps it is Radar’s childlike innocence when we reconnect with him in 2010, but it feels that we are watching his transition from boy to man, rather than the so-called eye-opening that a mature adult would experience. In many ways, Radar Radmanovic is a negative image of young T. S. Spivet, that young boy who was much too old before his time.

There are touches of beauty and genius between the covers of I Am Radar. It’s an engaging and emotionally-charged novel that is guaranteed to keep the reader engrossed for the duration. Filled with characters with their own stories to tell – the cast of I Am Radar could populate an entire library of novels – I Am Radar is the perfect fusion of story and design to create something unique, enduring and wonderfully quirky. Funny and touching, exciting and horrifying, it marks a welcome return for Reif Larsen, and a novel you most definitely will not want to miss.

March 16, 2015 Posted by | Fiction, War | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CREATIVE TRUTHS IN PROVINCIAL POLICING by Paula Lichtarowicz

CREATIVE TRUTHS IN PROVINCIAL POLICING - Paula Lichtarowicz CREATIVE TRUTHS IN PROVINCIAL POLICING

Paula Lichtarowicz

Hutchinson (www.randomhouse.co.uk)

£16.99

Chief Hung Duong is head of the small police force in the southern Vietnamese town of Dalat. When his daughter Lila, blinded in a horrible accident, is to marry a local Party bigwig, Duong borrows 500 American dollars from Mr Mei, who has a finger in every one of Dalat’s criminal pies, and signs a contract that includes a clause that should (in theory) never affect him. When his new son-in-law is gunned down before the wedding is even finished, and the 500 dollars disappears, Duong discovers that a life of crime might be the only way to save Lila from a life of prostitution in Mr Mei’s brothel.

Paula Lichtarowicz’s second novel, Creative Truths in Provincial Policing, feels like a wild departure from her 2013 debut, The First Book of Calamity Leek, but the two have more in common than will be obvious at first glance. For her second outing, Lichtarowicz takes us to rural Vietnam and gives us front row seats as the life of the local police chief, Chief Duong, falls apart around him. As with her previous novel, the strength of Creative Truths lies in the pitch-perfect characterisation, from the placid Chief Duong and his high-strung wife, through the manic Mr Mei and his odd mannerisms, and the huge cast of supporting characters who make this world feel vital and fresh.

A farcical comedy of errors, Creative Truths is an off-the-wall tale that relies on a series of bizarre events and coincidences to get from point A to point B. Its power is in the author’s ability to grip the reader from the first page, and not give him or her time to breathe as she relates this series of tall tales: the death of Duong’s new son-in-law and the subsequent activation of Clause 46cii in his contract with Mei; how a gang of animal activists stealing primates from the region’s businesses is deemed more important by Duong’s superiors than catching a murderer (and the shady business goings-on that back up the decision); the kidnap of international soccer superstar, Sam Porcini, and the harrowing events of his incarceration. And through it all, the disintegration of Duong’s family and – it would seem – his very sanity.

There is an otherworldly or timeless feel to the story and, as with Calamity Leek, there is a feeling that the story might be taking place on a plane different from our own. The isolation of the location and the backward nature of the town of Dalat conspire to make us feel out of our depth, putting us at Lichtarowicz’s mercy for the duration. As the story progresses, we begin to get glimpses of normality, hints that this is the world as we know it, despite never having seen this corner.

Lichtarowicz’s narrative combines the oddness of Nick Harkaway’s worlds with the laid-back approach to Asian-set storytelling that Colin Cotterill does so well. Often laugh-out-loud funny, there is a strange undercurrent that leaves us feeling uneasy (why, exactly, does Mr Mei insist on riding a menagerie of stuffed animals?), surfacing in a handful of well-placed – and well-written – scenes that will linger long after the book is finished. As coincidence piles on seeming coincidence and the various threads of the story begin to converge into a single coherent whole, it becomes obvious just how cleverly-constructed this tale has been, how well-manipulated we have been by the events that have unfolded before our eyes. Everything is meticulously planned, with not a single word out of place.

Anyone picking up Creative Truths in Provincial Policing expecting something in a similar vein to The First Book of Calamity Leek will be surprised at just how different Paula Lichtarowicz’s second novel is. But the key elements are all here: well-drawn characters, an engaging and very original plot, and a narrative voice like no other. Creative Truths is a wonderful second novel and one that is impossible to put down once you’ve made the start. It cements Lichtarowicz’s place as an author worth watching and leaves the reader wishing and hoping for more. You may not come away with a burning desire to visit Vietnam, but you won’t read crime fiction in quite the same light ever again. Either way, it needs to be one of your must-reads for the year.

March 6, 2015 Posted by | Crime Fiction, Humour | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

An Interview with OWEN LAUKKANEN

OwenLaukkanen Name: OWEN LAUKKANEN

Author of: THE PROFESSIONALS (2014)
                 CRIMINAL ENTERPRISE (2014)
                 KILL FEE (2015)
                 THE STOLEN ONES (Forthcoming, May 2015)

Owen Laukkanen graduated from the University of British Columbia’s Creative Writing program before spending three years as a reporter in the world of professional poker. He lives in Vancouver, where he writes the successful Stevens and Windermere series.

Thank you, Owen, for taking the time to chat with us.

My pleasure! Thanks very much for having me.

The Stevens and Windermere books are set in and around Minnesota’s Twin Cities. It seems an odd location, not as instantly-recognisable as, say, New York or Los Angeles, especially to us non-Americans. What’s the logic behind the setting and why choose it over those other places, or even your native Vancouver?

There’s kind of a funny story about how the books came to be set in Minnesota, which was not something I’d planned to do. I’d spent very little time in the Twin Cities before I wrote The Professionals, so I was really unprepared to have to go back and set a series there.

I’m one of those writers who doesn’t think before he types, which is to say, I like to start with a character and a crime and let the story unfold as it wants to. The Professionals is about a group of nomadic kidnappers, and I started the book somewhat arbitrarily in Chicago.

Being nomadic, they needed somewhere to go from the Windy City, and I (again, pretty arbitrarily), sent them north to Minnesota, whereupon I needed some law enforcement to act as foils for the group, and voila, in came Stevens and Windermere.

I’d really intended for the kidnappers to be the main characters of the book, and it wasn’t until the book was finished that my American publisher broached the idea of creating a series around Stevens and Windermere, and I found myself suddenly having to do a lot of research about the Twin Cities as I prepared to write the second, and later books.

That said, I feel pretty lucky to have happened into this Minnesota locale, as it gives me plenty of excuses to visit Minneapolis and Saint Paul, both of which are wonderful. And the state as a whole is a lot like Canada, where I’m from, so it’s not an entirely alien place to be writing about.

As far as setting a book in Vancouver, or anywhere in Canada, I confess to being a little bit of a mercenary. Put plain, books set in Canada don’t seem to sell very well, internationally or at home. There’s a notion that in order to succeed in Canada as an artist, you have to be seen to have succeeded in America, and I wanted to reach as wide a readership as I could.

I’ve spent enough time in the United States that I feel I can write about it credibly, but I do sometimes think wistfully about setting something in Vancouver, which is certainly rife with its own criminal possibilities.

In the early books of the series, at least, Kirk and Carla aren’t your average police procedural partners, given that they work for different agencies (Stevens for the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension; Windermere for the FBI). The job titles inform a lot of the dynamics between the pair. How did the relationship develop as you began writing the series, and did you have a specific goal in separating the pair?

Essentially, the relationship developed out of jurisdictional necessity. Stevens is a state policeman, and I imagined that he would be the first agent called to deal with The Professionals’ band of kidnappers, but I knew he would need FBI help.

As I said, I initially intended for the pair to act as foils for my criminal protagonists, so I didn’t give very much thought to their relationship at first. In fact, I think Windermere is a little one-dimensional in the first book, as I figured she would be more of a plot device than a main character.

It was really a lot of fun to go back and explore their relationship, and especially Windermere as a character, in the second book, Criminal Enterprise, though obviously it’s difficult to keep coming up with reasons that an FBI agent and a state policeman would work together on multiple cases. I think I’ve come up with a workable long-term solution by now, but it’s been something of a challenge to keep them together without straining credibility too much.

Speaking of dynamics: the sexual tension between this pair is palpable from the outset; despite this, the relationship remains (reasonably) professional throughout. Do you feel that the sexual tension is necessary, or important, in helping you develop the characters?

That’s a good question, and it’s certainly something that readers seem to have strong feelings about, one way or the other! I think the sexual tension served a purpose, especially in the early books, as it helped to flesh out the characters and give them lives outside of the investigation they were conducting.

Obviously, characters are more interesting to read about when they’re fully realized and have relatable wants and needs, and I think it’s easier to make a bad guy into a compelling character, simply by virtue of their reasons for committing crimes. I wanted to give the reader a reason to tune into the police chapters, too, and sexual tension seemed like a pretty straightforward way of making them interesting.

That said, readers do tend to take sides, and I’ve received more than a few emails asking when Stevens and Windermere will finally hook up, or begging me to cut the tension out entirely so Stevens can focus on his wife. I think as the series moves on and the characters grow and develop a bit more, the romantic element might wax and wane, but I do think it’s been useful.

You’ve written (or, at the very least, published here in the UK) the first four books of the Stevens and Windermere series in fairly rapid succession. Do you have plans for future volumes in the series, or any plans to write non-series books?

I do! At present, I’m revising the fifth book in the series, which will come out in North America in 2016, and I’m under contract for a sixth book as well. The fifth one is quite dark; the series seems to be getting darker as I go, but I think it might be the best book of the lot.

And I actually have a young adult novel coming out under a pen name very soon! It’s called HOW TO WIN AT HIGH SCHOOL and is written by “Owen Matthews,” and comes out in North America on March 3rd. I have no big plans to jump ship to the YA side of things completely, but it was really fun to work on something completely different. It’s actually the first novel I ever wrote, when I was about nineteen or twenty, and I kept it in the proverbial drawer for a decade or so before dusting it off and realizing it wasn’t as embarrassing as I might have feared.

My real dream, though, is to write a series of nautical adventure novels, and I’m tinkering with the first one right now, though finding time has been difficult with the Stevens and Windermere series, and this YA novel.

What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

I remember reading John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row in high school and really admiring the language and the imagery it evoked, and wishing I could create something so vivid and alive. I think that’s the book that first made me want to be a writer.

I probably tend to hew closer to the James Ellroy and Elmore Leonard models, with their short, punchy sentences and minimal description. Bret Easton Ellis is another writer whose minimalist style I admire, though I find the content kind of hit-or-miss.

And I was lucky enough to have one of my all-time favourite authors, a Cherokee-Canadian writer named Thomas King, as a creative writing professor in university. He’s probably been the most influential, just as far as the technical aspect of writing is concerned. He taught me how to look critically at my own work and to cut, cut, cut anything that doesn’t serve the story, which is invaluable knowledge for any writer.

And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?

I find that the writers I admire most are those who can seemingly pull beautiful, evocative, lyrical sentences out of thin air. I’m not one for much description in my writing, in part because whenever I try to wax rhapsodic about anything, it comes off as purple and overwrought.

But I really envy writers like Michael Chabon, Raymond Chandler, Patrick DeWitt and Amor Towles (among many, many others) for the beauty of their prose, where my own work, in comparison, serves a rather more workmanlike function.

What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Owen Laukkanen look like?

Typically, a day in my life involves a lot of procrastination! I work five days a week, Monday through Friday, and I try to get about five thousand words written each day, which allows me to get a first draft of a novel hammered out in about four to six weeks. Mind, they’re not particularly good words, but at the very least, I get a draft out and then can settle into the more difficult task of editing my pile of words into something resembling a novel.

Last September, my girlfriend and I adopted a puppy, a year-old rescue pitbull named Lucy, and as my girlfriend works a normal job, it usually falls to me to keep the puppy occupied. So I take the dog for a long walk along the ocean in the morning, and in the afternoon, I write while the dog sleeps it off. If I time it right, I can get the five thousand words in before the dog wakes up and demands her evening walk.

That said, I do find it a little tough writing when there’s a giant mass of sleeping dog cuddled up against me, or better yet, wanting to play. I generally can’t resist her, so the writing is coming a little slower as of late!

And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?

My main advice is to finish the damn draft. In my experience, there are a lot of aspiring writers out there who spend their time tinkering with the first ten chapters of their novel, but whose desire to get the beginning perfect prevents them from actually finishing the thing.

I’m a huge advocate of giving yourself permission to write an absolutely horrible first draft, because then at the very least you have a novel with a beginning, middle and end, and you can then set about revising it into something publishable. But if you’re stuck with the first thirty pages of something, no matter how beautifully written, you’ll never get your book published. So my main piece of advice is to write a first draft, no matter how awful.

My second piece of advice is to learn how to edit your own work as critically as you would your worst enemy’s, and to pick out and cut anything extraneous from your text. This often requires a lot of holding one’s nose, as it’s painful to cut out wonderfully written passages that do absolutely nothing to further your plot, but the sooner you learn to do this, the better.

If you can identify the flaws in your own work and learn to correct them, you’re miles ahead of the game.

What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?

I’m reading a novel called Where All Light Tends To Go, by an American author named David Joy. It’s partly for business and partly for pleasure, as he and I share an American publisher and will be doing a couple of events together when The Stolen Ones, my fourth, comes out in March.

The publisher sent me a galley of his book, and so far it’s really good, unflinching rural noir. I’d have read the book even if I’d have had to pay for it, so I’m doubly lucky.

If the Stevens and Windermere should ever make the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

Oh man, this is a question I’ve been asked a fair bit, and I never have any good answers for it. I like Aisha Tyler (from Archer) or Zoe Saldana for Windermere, but for Stevens, I’m lost. As for directors, The Professionals was influenced to a pretty major extent by Michael Mann’s Heat, and I would go nuts if he ever got his hands on a Professionals script.

And finally, on a lighter note…

If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?

Oh, good question, and impossible to narrow down. I’d like to have a beer with John Steinbeck, preferably on the docks in Monterey, and since my tastes skew to the nautical, I also wouldn’t pass up a drink with Herman Melville or Joseph Conrad, either.

I also confess a weakness for, ahem, British theatre of the late 19th century, so I would happily drink with Oscar Wilde and/or George Bernard Shaw, as well. In all of the above instances, the drink would be alcoholic, and my contribution to the discussion would mostly be my attempting to avoid saying anything foolish, which actually sums up most of my interactions with other people, be they literary titans or otherwise.

Thank you once again, Owen, for taking time out to share your thoughts.

Thanks again for having me! This was a lot of fun.

February 25, 2015 Posted by | Crime Fiction, Interview, Thriller | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

KILL FEE by Owen Laukkanen

KILL FEE - Owen Laukkanen KILL FEE

Owen Laukkanen (owenlaukkanen.com)

Corvus (atlantic-books.co.uk)

7.99

The billionaire picked a heck of a day to die.

One of Minnesota’s richest men is gunned down in the driveway of the Saint Paul Hotel, in downtown Saint Paul, less than a hundred yards from where Kirk Stevens and Carla Windermere are sitting on a bench, enjoying a sunny April Saturday. The shooter escapes, but not before Stevens and Windermere see his face, and the emptiness in his eyes. Working together, and with the resources of the FBI behind them, the pair soon track the shooter, as he prepares to kill again in Windermere’s old stomping ground, Miami. As the body count mounts, and the FBI fail to find anything linking the victims, they discover the existence of Killswitch, a highly-secure and well-hidden website that allows people to purchase assassinations and that seems to be operating under the auspices of the Department of Defence. Working in the dark, and against the clock, Stevens and Windermere must find the owner of Killswitch before he can accept any more commissions.

Owen Laukkanen’s detective duo – Minnesota BCA’s Kirk Stevens and the FBI’s Carla Windermere – return for their third outing in Kill Fee. One of the problems Laukkanen was always going to face with this teaming was the plausibility of having them work together on a long succession of cases. This is a problem he solves for the longer term as the novel comes to a close, but for this outing, placing them at the scene of the crime effectively side-steps any problems he might have had, and makes their involvement, and their partnership, seem completely natural.

As with previous outings, Kill Fee is told from multiple points of view as the story progresses, including those of the story’s criminal elements. The plot device – the murder-for-hire website – is an update of the age-old hitman storyline that feels like it might have been plucked from today’s headlines. What makes it all the more believable is Parkerson, the man behind it, who comes across as an ordinary everyday businessman who runs the website on the side as a way of generating some extra cash, in the same way that he might sell his IT skills, or his family hierlooms on eBay.

Following the Saint Paul hit, and the identification of his killer, there is a subtle shift in Parkerson’s fortunes. As we watch his world slowly crumbling around him, and get to know more about the man behind Killswitch, we are forced to question how well we know those people who are closest to us. As with both Arthur Pender (The Professionals) and Carter Tomlin (Criminal Enterprise), Parkerson is the man next door, a theme that serves to ground this series of novels in reality and gives the reader a more immediate sense of danger as the story moves towards its climax.

Back in the driving seat once again are Stevens and Windermere, the unlikely team who nevertheless work so well together. The relationship has evolved somewhat since we first met them in The Professionals, though some things remain a constant: the sexual tension continues, though here it serves a more obvious purpose than in the previous two books. Here Kirk has some competition for Carla’s affections in the form of Derek Mathers, her young, good-looking FBI partner and this leads to a number of standoffs between the three characters. As the novel comes to a close, there is a feeling that this irritant, which serves mainly to distract from the central plot, may finally have been put to bed (pardon the pun), leaving room for a bit less teenage angst in the coming books of the series.

As the characters develop, Laukkanen’s work goes from strength to strength, his unusual pairing – characters who feel a little bit more alive and real with each passing novel – and uncommon setting making the Stevens and Windermere series something of a breath of fresh air in an otherwise crowded genre. By turns funny and tense, Kill Fee is an excellent addition to an already-excellent new series. Relatable characters combined with a plausible and well-constructed plot make this a fun and satisfying read that is perfect for anyone who claims to enjoy a good crime novel. Kill Fee puts Owen Laukkanen firmly on my must-read list and I’m already counting down to the arrival of the series’ fourth book later this year.

February 24, 2015 Posted by | Crime Fiction, Fanboy Gushings, Thriller | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

GUEST POST: Too Dangerous to Make a Movie There by PAUL E. HARDISTY

Paul_Hardisty2 Name: PAUL E. HARDISTY

Author of: THE ABRUPT PHYSICS OF DYING (2015)

On the web: paulehardisty.wix.com/paulehardisty

On Twitter: @Hardisty_Paul

My new novel, The Abrupt Physics of Dying, published by Orenda Books, is set in Yemen, a country on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. It’s a thriller based around a set of experiences I had working there over a period of about 15 years. Of course, those events have been fictionalised, and as it says inside the front cover: “This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination, or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.” Loosely translated: fiction is truer than non-fiction. So true that to protect himself and the reader, the author has to camouflage it, transform it into an entertainment.

Yemen would be a fabulous place to set a movie. It’s the most photogenic place I’ve ever seen. Landscapes as big as the whole sky, faces weathered by sun and labour, not yet homogenised by modern dentistry and skincare, bodies clothed each by hand, mud-brick and alabaster towns and hamlets clinging to the sides of desert wadis and bleak andesite cliffs. Oases strung like gems on a fishing line, heartbeats of life clinging to isolated sockets in the ancient Palaeocene limestone plateaux. But the truth is that it’s too dangerous to make a movie there.

Yemen is not really a country, as we would understand it. Sure it’s got a place on the map. They even, in just the last few years, got around to actually delineating the northern border with Saudi Arabia. Before that, it existed only as an uncertainty, a dotted line running through the Rhub Al’Khali, the Empty Quarter, a hundred thousand square miles of shifting desert sand as inhospitable as any place on the planet. It has a capital city (Sana’a, with its wonderful world heritage old-town), a flag, a national anthem. It even has what is supposed to be a government, and money. Except that the government has no control outside the main cities. What Yemen has, has had for ever, is tribes. They are the real power in this place that passes for a modern state. They are heavily armed, fiercely independent, and mostly they just want to be left alone. If you want to see Arabia as it was two hundred years ago, go. You can still see it, if you can get there.

So, for me, it makes it a perfect setting for a book. I know the place, or rather parts of the place, reasonably well. I’ve met some amazing people there, seen some pretty sad and beautiful and scary things there. I hope, one day, the people of Yemen can enjoy a time when it might be possible for people to travel the country in relative safety, maybe even make a film version of The Abrupt Physics of Dying there. I think it would make a pretty good movie.

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February 20, 2015 Posted by | Guest Post, Thriller | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

THOSE ABOVE by Daniel Polansky

those-above-cover THOSE ABOVE (The Empty Throne Book 1)

Daniel Polansky (www.danielpolansky.com)

Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)

£18.99

It is almost thirty years since the war between mankind and Those Above, the godlike creatures who live at the top of the great mountain city, The Roost. Now, as the warlike Aelerian people contemplate breaking the truce that has seen peace reign over the continent since those terrible days, a second war seems inevitable. Bas, general of Aeleria’s great Western Army and the only human ever to have defeated one of Those Above in single combat, has been promoted, and tasked with raising a new legion who will lead the charge; behind him is Eudokia, the most powerful woman in the country, whose husband was killed during the first war, and who has a thirst for revenge; in the lowest rung of The Roost, young Thistle progresses from petty criminal to murderer, and finds himself at the centre of a rebellion still very much in its infancy; at the top of the mountain, all but oblivious to the creatures with whom they share the continent, Those Above believe themselves untouchable, inviolate.

I fell in love with Daniel Polansky’s The Straight Razor Cure within the first handful of pages when I read it back in 2012. The unique mix of fantasy and hard-boiled crime appealed to me, and the central character, Warden, demanded that I keep coming back for more. The Low Town trilogy went from strength to strength (to the point where I was unable to write a review of the final book, She Who Waits, because of how completely Polansky broke me in the process of laying out his story). It was, then, with some trepidation that I picked up Those Above – it, and the series that it begins, The Empty Throne, has a lot to live up to. Focussing more on the fantasy, and ditching the crime in favour of an ancient Roman vibe, it is, in many ways, a much different beast to Polansky’s first trilogy, while still keeping the hard core that made those books so enjoyable.

The first major difference is the novel’s scope, both in terms of the area it covers, and also in the number of point-of-view characters Polansky uses to tell the story. The story is told from four key points of view: Bas, Eudokia, Thistle and Calla, the human servant of the Aubade, one of the most powerful of Those Above. It’s interesting to note that, while we get dispatches from the lords of the First Rung through Calla, we never really get to see their direct point of view. For the others, the spread gives us an interesting insight into this new world of Polansky’s and the various types of people that populate it. The most interesting part of this world is The Roost itself, a mountain city that is split into five rungs, with the inhabitants split according to rank or status: Those Above live in the first rung, at the mountain’s peak, while society’s dregs (which includes young Thistle) populate the city’s lowest, or Fifth, Rung.

The history of the creatures that live in the First Rung is scarce, though we know that they are a long-lived people who differ physically from humans in many ways: their size, their four fingers, to name but a few. Their politics and rituals are shown through the eyes of Calla, and feel slightly less alien to us, the reader, because of her own closeness to the Aubade, and familiarity with their ways. Their lack of emotion, and their superior approach to humans – they are to humans what humans are to bugs – are a frightening concept and lead to some beautifully-wrought scenes of horror as the novel progresses.

Outside of these godlike creatures, Polansky presents us humanity in all its glory: the field general and his men; the political machinations in Aeleria’s capital city, machinations that would give George R. R. Martin nightmares; and the childhood gangs and violence spawned by poverty in the lower reaches of The Roost, which are a stark contrast to the conditions deeper within the city.

As I mentioned earlier, Those Above has a dark, hard core, a gritty sense of reality that can often be missing from fantasy novels, and a voice that is unmistakably that of the brilliant writer who brought us Warden’s adventures in Low Town. If I have one complaint, it’s that Those Above feels like what it is: the first book in a fantasy series that needs to put everything in place in order for the reader to feel at home. There is plenty of action, but it takes second place to the world-building and chess-like manoeuvring, and there is little more than a token gesture at encapsulating a complete plot within the confines of the book’s four hundred-odd pages. Not a shock, by any means, to fans of this kind of epic fantasy – and let me make that point clear, this is epic – but worth knowing at the outset. That said, what does exist within those four hundred-odd pages is pure gold, compelling character-building, world-building and story-telling by a master of his art, and more than enough to have me coming back to Aeleria and The Roost for many, many more visits.

Dark fantasy with a decidedly military bent, Those Above is the perfect opener for Daniel Polansky’s career beyond Low Town. With his unmistakeable voice and his highly original new world, he draws the reader slowly in until it’s impossible to put the book down and escape back to reality. A brilliant start to what is sure to be one of the fantasy epics of all time, Those Above is the work of an author at the top of his game and brings with it the promise of a lot more to come.

February 18, 2015 Posted by | Fanboy Gushings, Fantasy, Military | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Interview with STEVE CAVANAGH

stephen_mearns_2 Name: STEVE CAVANAGH

Author of: THE DEFENCE (2015)

On the web: stevecavanagh.com

On Twitter: @SSCav

Steve Cavanagh was born and raised in Belfast, where he currently works as a practicing solicitor in the field of civil rights law. The Defence is his first novel.

Thank you, Steve, for taking the time to chat with us.

No problem, it’s my pleasure.

Modern Irish crime writers seem to take one of two routes: they write about Ireland and all the baggage that comes with it, or they take their fiction on the road. Eddie Flynn is a New York-based lawyer. Was there any sort of decision-making process around whether you should write Irish crime fiction and, if so, why did you choose the American route?

There are a few reasons I chose to base the book in the US. One thing that stands out to me is that I’m mainly influenced by American crime writers and books set in the US. Michael Connelly is a major influence and I would’ve read mostly US based fiction – although in recent years there has been more of a balance between US, UK and Irish fiction. The other major factor was that I wanted to write a legal thriller and that creates its own difficulties if you set that book in Northern Ireland. Largely because we have a dual system of representation; if you find yourself in court you will have a solicitor and a barrister representing you. The solicitor does most of the early court appearances and prepares the case for trial and the barrister performs the role of the trial advocate. At the time I didn’t feel confident about creating two lead characters – particularly when one character, the barrister, would inevitably be the one doing all the cool courtroom scenes. It didn’t seem balanced to me. So I felt setting the book in the US solved that problem as attorneys in America perform both roles and I could concentrate on a single lead character to focus the story.

Your short story “The Grey” was included in the recent Belfast Noir anthology, so you obviously have no qualms about writing fiction set in your native city. Do you see yourself producing anything novel-sized in the future?

I might well do, but not at the moment. I’m very pleased to have that short story in the anthology, and it was fun to write, but I’m not sure about a full length novel set in Belfast. Part of the reason I wrote The Defence was to have a little escape from the day job of being a lawyer. I do some work in the criminal courts so murder and mayhem in Belfast is still my 9 – 5 and I didn’t particularly want to come home and write about it at night. Maybe if I ever become a full time writer I’ll consider it. I do have an idea for a Belfast based character but at the moment I’m not sure if that story would be best told in a novel or on the screen.

The Defence puts us firmly in the head of Eddie Flynn, a con-man turned lawyer, which gives him a somewhat unique perspective on how the law works. How much research did you find yourself doing to get the detail – both of setting and of American judicial procedures, etc. – right?

I can tell you there was a tonne of research done into the legal procedures and virtually none of it made it into the book. I have textbooks on US criminal procedures, I’ve been taught by American lawyers and I strive to get it right but not let it interrupt the flow of the story. In terms of the setting, I also did a lot of research into New York City, and ultimately I took the Ed McBain approach and decided that some of the locations should be fictionalised, the courthouse in particular. There was a courthouse on Chambers Street, but it’s now the department of Education’s head office. I took that courthouse and made it bigger and more grand for the book. I wanted the reader to get a sense of New York, so again a lot of research and not much made it onto the page, but I felt as though I was informed enough to write about it. The other great advantage to setting your book in New York is that the reader already has a strong mental image of that city already, even if they’ve never been there.

What’s next for Eddie? There’s always an assumption with this kind of character that they’re a series character. Is this the case with Eddie, or have you set your sights elsewhere for your second novel?

No mistake about it, I’m writing a series. Eddie is such a fascinating character, to me at least, that for the moment all I want to do is write about him. That may change down the line, of course. I’ve always loved series characters and I envisaged this as a series from the very first book. The second book in the series has the working title – The Plea. It’s a much more complex book, but it hopefully retains the key ingredients from The Defence.

When it comes to thrillers, there is always a sense that the protagonist comes out the far end somewhat the worse for wear, almost as if the authors have a sadistic streak that needs to be satiated. Eddie joins a long and prestigious line of leading men who go through a lot of pain in order to entertain the reader (between beatings and night-time jaunts around high ledges). What’s the attraction, and do you ever feel sorry for the character even as you’re twisting the knife?

I do feel sorry for Eddie, and I don’t. All the stories that I love have characters facing real adversity and eventually coming through on the other side as the victor. Everyone loves an underdog – that’s why Rocky, Ruby, John McClane etc are such beloved characters. Plus I enjoy the challenge – when I put Eddie in a terrible situation I’m often not sure how or if he’s going to get out of it. It’s fun figuring out the problems through him.

What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

Michael Connelly, John Connolly, Lee Child, Jeffrey Deaver, John Grisham, John Mortimer, the poet Robert Service, Brendan Behan…quite a big list. Too many to name.

And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?

A lot more than one – The Black Echo (Michael Connelly) Silence of the Lambs (Thomas Harris) Every Dead Thing (John Connolly). Yeah, imagine you’ve just written the Silence of the Lambs – damn.

What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Steve Cavanagh look like?

Well none of it happens during the day. I’m usually up around 6.30am to help get the kids ready for school, I go to work, come home around 6.30pm, eat, see my family, and the writing day begins around 10pm. I write until I fall asleep, which can sometimes mean I get four hours of writing done or four minutes.

And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?

Write the book you want to read – polish the hell out of it – send it to a handful of agents at a time and believe in yourself. If you get rejections, which you will, just move on to the next agent as a rejection often tells you absolutely nothing about the quality of your book.

What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?

I’m about to start CJ Sansom’s Lamentation, then I’ve got a couple of Reacher’s to catch up on.

If The Defence should ever make the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

I’m a big Christopher McQuarrie fan, and if he wanted to direct I’d have him in a heartbeat. As for lead actors – I have a notion that Ryan Gosling would be a good Eddie Flynn, but I don’t know why. I don’t have a solid view of any actor for Eddie, really. Any good actor would be fine, just as long as it’s not Randy Quaid I’d be quite happy.

And finally, on a lighter note…

If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?

Spike Milligan. I wouldn’t say a word, I’d just listen to him. He didn’t drink alcohol so some tea would be just fine.

Thank you once again, Steve, for taking time out to share your thoughts.

It’s been an honour.

February 16, 2015 Posted by | Crime Fiction, Interview, Irish, Thriller | , , , , | Leave a comment

THE DEFENCE by Steve Cavanagh

THE DEFENCE - Steve Cavanagh THE DEFENCE

Steve Cavanagh (stevecavanagh.com)

Orion Books (www.orionbooks.co.uk)

£12.99

“Do exactly as I tell you or I’ll put a bullet in your spine.”

Pushing the gun hard into my back, he said, “I’ll follow you out of the bathroom. You’ll put on your coat. You’ll pay for breakfast, and we’ll leave together. We’re going to talk. If you do as I tell you, you’ll be fine. If you don’t – you’re dead.”

Eddie Flynn was an ex-con-man-turned lawyer. These days, he’s an ex-lawyer-turned-alcoholic who hasn’t set foot in a courtroom in a year, following the breakdown of a high-profile case. Now, in the bathroom of the diner where he eats breakfast every day, a Russian mobster has put a gun to his back and abducted him. The gangster has a proposal for Eddie, the type of proposal that a person doesn’t turn down: Eddie will defend Olek Volchek, the head of the Russian mafia, in an impossible murder trial with a bomb strapped to his back. For added incentive, Olek is holding Eddie’s daughter hostage, and Eddie has forty-eight hours to defend his client, or work out a way to get his daughter back. Luckily for Eddie, his chequered past has left him with a lot of contacts, and more than a few owed favours.

Belfast native Steve Cavanagh describes his debut novel, The Defence, as a “legal-thriller”. This reader can reveal that the emphasis is most definitely on the thriller, though the plot does allow for a fair amount of courtroom drama. We are introduced to Eddie Flynn, one-time con-man, one-time practicing lawyer, at the moment that the Russian mafia decides that he can help them achieve their nefarious ends in the trial of their leader, Olek Volchek. This tense and riveting opening gives us little time to get to know Eddie before he is thrown into the thick of the plot, so much of what we know about him by the end of the novel we learn in bite-sized chunks between the almost-relentless action.

It quickly becomes clear that Eddie Flynn is more than your average muscle-bound action hero.There is wit and a sly intelligence here, and a pride in his own ability that makes it clear he was once a force to be reckoned with in the courtroom. His dark past, the life of a petty criminal, and his close relationship with the leadership of the city’s Italian mafia, add to the mystery, and provide him with an almost endless source of resources to tap, and contacts on whom he can call in his hour of need. The daughter – held hostage by Volchek’s minions against Eddie’s continued cooperation – adds some further meat to the bones of this already well-fleshed character: Eddie’s life may be falling apart at the seams, but he still loves his daughter, still feels some element of responsibility for who he once was, and what he has done.

The tension increases as the story progresses, and Cavanagh injects a number of perfectly-realised set-pieces (the night-time trip around the upper ledges of New York’s Chambers Street Court building is one that springs immediately to mind) designed to keep the reader perched firmly on the edge of their seat, and completely immersed in Eddie Flynn’s rapidly-disintegrating world. Despite Eddie’s sense of humour, which lifts the tone of many of the novel’s darker scenes, there is something ominous about the events and, while the first-person narrative contains a clue concerning Eddie’s survival beyond the end of The Defence, nothing else comes with a cast-iron guarantee, and the very real threat that hangs over Eddie’s daughter is one that remains with the reader throughout. It’s a masterful play, a clever piece of plotting that overshadows even the bomb strapped to Eddie’s back. That said, Eddie isn’t in for an easy ride, and the author takes some delight in putting his character through the mill during the course of the story.

Despite all this, there is still the “legal” part to the “legal-thriller” combo that the author uses to describe the novel, and Cavanagh uses every trick up his sleeve to ensure that the courtroom scenes are as attention-grabbing and engrossing as those that take place outside those formal and refined environs. Eddie’s sharp mind and quick wit leave the reader wishing for a glimpse of the man at the height of his legal career, and hoping for a more permanent return to the courtroom as the series (for series it is) continues. It’s a rare talent that can make the staid and solemn courtroom environment as entertaining and engrossing as the against-the-clock all-out action that makes up much of the rest of the novel.

The Defence heralds the arrival of a fresh new voice in Irish crime fiction, a voice that is as authentically American as the character at the centre of this excellent debut novel. A gripping read from first page to last, it is a new breed of thriller that nevertheless pays its dues to those who have come before: Jack Reacher, John McClane and, maybe, Perry Mason. Cavanagh’s is a name you should expect to hear a lot of in the coming years, and Eddie Flynn is destined to become as instantly recognisable as his forebears. In a word: unmissable.

February 15, 2015 Posted by | Crime Fiction, Irish, Thriller | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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