|Name: OLIVER LANGMEAD
Author of: DARK STAR (2015)
Literary Influences, Contemporary & Classic
Dark Star has a lot of influences, because it’s three things in one. It’s science fiction, it’s a detective story of the noir and hard-boiled brand, and it’s an epic in the classical sense.
The best place to start is at the beginning, because it’s possible to see the exact moment when a fairly predictable trend in reading became something else. I started out with Brian Jacques and Roald Dahl from the age of about six, and by the time I was half way through my teens, I had devoured everything written by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, as well as a few other authors writing along the same lines. Then, at the age of sixteen, I was made to read All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy, and everything changed.
It’s difficult to describe exactly what that book did for me. It was as if I had certain expectations about what books were, what books could be, and I could see the limits of that. Then experiencing a book like All the Pretty Horses opened my mind to a whole world of literary writing that I had not really considered before.
This is where it’s possible to start to see where Dark Star came from. Over the past few years, I’ve been reading pretty much anything and everything to broaden my sense of what a book can be. From Lovecraft’s grim and verbose short stories, to Philip Roth’s beautiful but horrible Sabbath’s Theatre (the best book I’ve never finished) to Bret Easton Ellis, testing the idea of vacancy in the lines he writes, and beyond. I’ve loved the architecture behind Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books, and been in awe of James Joyce’s almost impenetrable writing in Ulysses, and spent even more time investigating what makes gothic classics, Frankenstein and Dracula, tick.
From science fiction, I cite China Mieville and Michel Faber as major influences. Specifically, Mieville’s The City & The City, which had a sense of wonder behind each discovery that I desperately wanted to kindle for myself, and Faber’s Under The Skin, which evoked such a sense of character in both its place and in its moods, that I hoped to see something similar in my own work. For Dark Star, I wanted the reader to feel a sense of discovery in a world that is disarmingly familiar. I wanted to evoke that 1920s noir kind of atmosphere, then give the reader glimpses of the science fiction beyond.
I chose a few books from the classic detective genre to look at in order to understand it better, and Raymond Chandler is the author I have to cite above all others. The Big Sleep was crafted so well to be what it was, and it is possible to see why it has had such a big influence on authors other than myself. This is one of the main sources from which those most treasured clichés and tropes come, which I hope I have treated well in my own book. Making a world that felt familiar, just like Chandler did, was important to me. Closer to the atmosphere that Dark Star would have, however, has to be Frank Miller’s Sin City. Sin City had the voice that I wanted to use; that gritty internal monologue, bitter and beaten by its surroundings.
Dark Star is a love story for three genres, however, and the third might surprise you. I hope that you’ve heard of Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad. I hope that you’ve heard of The Divine Comedy, and the Aeneid, and Paradise Lost. Because these are all epics, written in an ancient style, which I completely fell for and decided to try and emulate. I’m hoping that you’re wondering whether writing a science fiction noir in verse would work at all. Because I wondered that, as well. But… it does work. Some of those recognisable elements are there: the pentameter, the descent and the divine, and some of them are not, but Dark Star is undoubtedly written in the tradition of those ancient greats.
It all comes back to McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses, in the end. When I read it, I thought that it was completely marvellous that I had never read a book like it before: that someone had tried something so ambitious, and had been so successful with it. It’s something that I wanted to try for myself. And the result of that is Dark Star.
To celebrate the release of this excellent novel, Oliver’s publishers, Unsung Stories, are very kindly giving away a signed copy of Dark Star and a signed Dark Star poster to one lucky winner.
To be in with a chance of winning, all you have to do is send a single tweet answering the following question:
Which book changed your expectations of what books can be?
Make sure you include the hashtag #DarkStarGiveaway as well as including @MattGCraig @UnsungTweets to ensure your entry is included.
The competition will close at midnight, Monday 30th March 2015 and the winner will be notified shortly thereafter.
Book & Publisher Information
Dark Star product page (Unsung Stories)
Unsung Stories (www.unsungstories.co.uk)
Prometheus, resident wonder-drug;
Pro’, Promo’, ’Theus, liquid-fucking-light;
Prohibited by city law and shot
By yours truly, Virgil Yorke, hero cop.
Virgil Yorke is a Vox Police Detective, assigned to the case of Vivian North, a young lady found dead in the city’s back alleys, her veins glowing so brightly, they shine through her skin. It looks like an extreme case of Prometheus overdose, but Virgil isn’t convinced, and when he is pulled off the case shortly after he picks it up, his instincts go into overdrive. But the city has bigger problems: Cancer, one of the three Hearts that power this remote human outpost, has been stolen, and the loss of energy is the least of the city’s worries; should it fall into the wrong hands, Cancer could become a superweapon that could destroy the entire solar system.
Oliver Langmead’s debut work – novel, novella, epic poem; none of these words seems just right – takes us to the city of Vox, a city on a planet that orbits a dark star. The city’s inhabitants have adjusted to the lack of light over the years, learning to read through touch (very few people can read actual words from a page by sight anymore), and carrying out their daily routine in a world where light is scare, and light bulbs one of the city’s most expensive – and rare – commodities. The science – or at least Langmead’s version of science – behind this interesting phenomena comes through in the story in bits and pieces, rather than as an all-in-one introduction to this strange new world. Langmead introduces us to Vox’s “ghosts” – people who have long since lost their minds, and who are now drawn to sources of light – to the little adaptations that make life in this environment possible, and to the strange invisible fire which means the citizens live in fear of candles, or cigarettes, or any open flame.
Dark Star is difficult to categorise genre-wise as well as format-wise. It’s Philip Marlowe imagined by Philip K. Dick and penned by Dante Alighieri. At its core, it’s a hardboiled mystery relocated in time and space, built around Virgil Yorke, a drug-addicted, wise-cracking, cynical cop who tells the story in first person and, most interestingly, in epic verse. Yorke is the stereotypical hardboiled policeman, who seems to have begun life as a cardboard cut-out of Marlowe or Spade. The setting injects the story with a massive dose of originality, the fruits of Langmead’s seemingly boundless imagination. Like his forebears, Yorke tends towards the unlucky, a target for beatings and stabbings that see him losing large chunks of the time that has been allocated to him to solve the case. He is surrounded by equally-engaging characters, many of whom have, we can only imagine, long and interesting backstories – Dante, Virgil’s hulking partner on the force, and the mysterious Rachel, another well-worn trope of the hardboiled genre: the femme fatale.
The book is an interesting concept, but the thing that sets it apart is the thing that is likely to be its biggest downfall when it comes to attracting readers. Like Homer’s Iliad, or Dante’s Commedia, Dark Star is written in epic verse, a long poem told in the first person. I have something of an aversion to poetry – my mind can’t seem to parse it in the same way that it parses prose – so I didn’t expect to get very far with Dark Star, much less enjoy it as much as I did. After the first handful of pages, the narrative structure loses its importance, and the story reads in a prose-like manner. Most of this is down to the strong and easily-identifiable voice of Virgil himself, a voice that makes us feel that we are listening rather than reading, and that the metre is nothing more or less than the cadences of the character’s voice as he recounts his tale. The structure gives the story an added dimension that makes these characters feel all the more real and vital than they might otherwise have been.
I have already mentioned the strength of Virgil’s voice as one of the key reasons that we keep reading, but this is a mystery novel, so there are obviously more: the mystery itself is cleverly constructed, and the violence Virgil encounters restrained and in keeping with the rest of the narrative. The strangeness of this new world, and the darkness that enshrouds Vox are also key to the story’s success, and it feels that the city – a dark and dirty cross between Jack O’Connell’s Quinsigamond and Frank Miller’s Sin City – has plenty more stories to tell in whichever style Langmead chooses to tell them (I’m living in hope for a collection of short stories, myself).
One of the most interesting and original books you’ll read this year, Oliver Langmead’s Dark Star is one of those gems that creeps up and takes you by surprise. Beautifully written, masterfully plotted, and built around a character that is at once a complete stranger and an old friend, it sucks the reader in from the opening stanza, and holds the attention to the very last word. There are ideas and concepts here that will leave you wide-eyed with wonder, alongside wise-cracks that might have dropped fully-formed from the nib of Raymond Chandler’s pen. In short, a masterpiece, and a story you really won’t want to miss.
|NO-ONE LOVES A POLICEMAN
Translated by Nick Caistor
MacLehose Press (maclehosepress.com)
Argentina, December 2001. Against the background of a country in economic free-fall, we meet Pablo Martelli, a sixty-something bathroom appliance salesman with a history in the National Shame, an elite branch of the police force which lived up to their nickname during the dictatorship of the late ‘70s. After receiving a post-midnight phone call from an old friend, Martelli undertakes the long drive from Buenos Aires to the small coastal town of Bahia Blanca, only to find his friend’s corpse lying on the floor of his chalet. When the man’s daughter is kidnapped, Martelli is forced to investigate, and finds himself involved in a conspiracy that could bring down an already unstable government.
At its heart, No-one Loves a Policeman – the first of Orsi’s novels to be translated into English – is an old-fashioned hardboiled detective novel. Imagine Chandler’s Marlowe or MacDonald’s Archer brought up to date, aged a few years and relocated from the stifling heat of Los Angeles to the equally stifling heat of Argentina in the height of summer. Martelli, our first-person narrator, is a wise-cracking, gruff-natured man who it’s impossible not to like from the outset. He may be approaching old age, but he has a surprisingly modern view of the world and his insights, while amusing, are often spot-on. But at the same time, he has this history, this secret history, with the National Shame, for whom he killed his fair share of people, and from which he was ejected when he failed to toe the party line. We never discover exactly what the big secret is, and the reason for his discharge is decidedly ambiguous – was it because he went too far, or because he suddenly developed a conscience? This makes Martelli the epitome of the untrustworthy narrator, and I spent my time with the man wondering when he might stab me in the back.
The language is beautiful and evocative. The reader finds himself immersed in that troubled country, sweating along with the characters as the heat and the pressure build – mounting debts and no money to pay them because the banks don’t have the cash to cover everyone’s savings; a government in chaos, ministers resigning on a daily or weekly basis like rats abandoning the proverbial sinking ship. This background, and the style of writing, is reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s brilliant novella, No-one Writes to the Colonel (El coronel no tiene quien le escriba), which deals with very similar economic issues in Colombia forty years previous. Switching between narrative (“he said”, “she did”) and a love letter to a woman who abandoned Martelli when she discovered that he was a policeman (“you said”, “you did”), No-one Loves a Policeman is an exciting and captivating read.
The unsung hero here must be Nick Caistor (this is the second of his translations I’ve read in the past couple of months): no matter how good the source writing, a poor translation will ruin a perfect novel. That is far from the case here, and Caistor should be commended for a job very well done. Of course, credit is also due Orsi for constructing a complex story that is at once hardboiled mystery, political thriller and tale of unrequited love. He has given us a cast of characters who are vibrant and realistic, and a plot that – like the best of Chandler – requires a keen eye and a considerable amount of concentration.
In all, despite the questionable cover – there’s just something not right about that faux-Vettriano look – No-one Loves a Policeman is an excellent piece of crime fiction that should appeal to fans of the genre. I, for one, am already looking forward to Holy City which, according to the author bio, is forthcoming from MacLehose Press.