Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Some News...

Greetings all. It's been ages...two months, actually, since I last posted.  Life intervenes, as they say.  Any news? you ask.  Yes, in fact, there is.  Good news.  New Island will publish the follow up to Peeler, titled Irregulars, in February 2013.  I'm delighted, to say the least, and am confident New Island will do as fantastic a job publishing Irregulars as Mercier did with Peeler.

Irregulars is set during the Civil War in 1922 and deals with the search for the missing son of one of Monto's most powerful brothel owners while Free State and Republican death squads stalk the streets and back lanes of Dublin.  Sean O'Keefe, recently demobbed from the RIC is hired to find the boy amid the tumult and terror of a country at war with itself.   Much like Peeler, I used an actual crime--war crime?--I discovered in my research as the basis for Irregulars.  More on this anon...

Free State soldiers during Civil War raid house in Dublin
Anyone wanting to read up on the Civil War in Ireland should head over to The Irish Story website and take a gander at John Dorney's The Irish Civil War--A Brief Overview.  A short, brilliant, objective account of the conflict.  While there, have a read of some of the more comprehensive pieces on the Civil War as well.  Cheers!

Sunday, 29 April 2012

A June of Ordinary Murders: Review

Some weeks ago I mentioned the publication of Conor Brady's new historical crime novel, A June of Ordinary Murders.  The book's publisher, New Island, was kind enough to send me a review copy and here, alas, is the review!

'J.G. Farrell, the Liverpool-born, Irish novelist, renowned for his historical fictions, who died, too young, in 1979, wrote: “History leaves so much out … It leaves out the most important thing: the detail of what being alive is like.”  In his debut historical crime novel, A June of Ordinary Murders, Conor Brady goes a long way toward showing us what being alive was like for a Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) detective working a murder case during a heat wave in Dublin, circa 1887.  A crime novel rich in period detail and confident characterisation, the reader of A June of Ordinary Murders can almost feel the heat oppressing Dublin, smell the stench of the rancid Liffey at low ebb.  

Dublin Castle--the seat of British rule in Ireland
and headquarters for G-Division of the DMP
Set against the backdrop of the Irish Land War, in a city set to host a Jubilee visit by Queen Victoria's grandson, Prince Albert Victor, the novel presents us with Detective Sergeant Joe Swallow, a man tasked with solving the brutal murders of an unidentified man and child found in Phoenix Park.  To compound matters, the Queen of the city's criminal underworld, Ces 'Pisspot' Downes, has died and her retinue of vicious underbosses are beginning to jostle for control of her empire.  In a time when murders in Ireland were declared 'political' or 'ordinary'--with the bulk of resources devoted to  investigating 'political' murders in a country chomping at the bit of independence from the Crown--Swallow must negotiate the corridors of power in Dublin Castle as well as the mean back lanes and rough pubs of criminal Dublin in an effort to solve the murders.

Brady shows us early adaptations of
supposedly cutting-edge CSI 
It is Brady's portrayal of the murder investigation that is one of the book's strongest suits.  As a former journalist, Irish Times editor, Garda Ombudsman and author of the definitive history of the Garda Siochana, Guardians of the Peace: the Irish Police, Brady knows his cops and knows how they work.  In places, he exhibits this too well, one feels, with perhaps one too many scenes of crime conferences, which, while believable and fine summary of the story-so-far, could have been dealt with in a paragraph or two rather than pages.  This is a minor quibble, however, as Brady moves his tale along at a fine clip, pausing only to relish the minutiae of Victorian police work.  Much of this feels surprisingly modern, with revealing insights into the origins of much of what we take to be cutting edge CSI, such as the science of ballistics or facial reconstructions from the human skull.  He is especially good on the uneasily familiar relationship between detectives and their gangland nemeses which again, rings true.  There is a particularly fine scene where two young and ambitious detectives are somewhat too eager to believe the last-words of a dying underworld enforcer, and the results of their inexperience sail as close to real life as anything I've read recently in a crime novel.    

Swallow is a believable and sympathetic protagonist and his relationship with the publican, Maria Walsh, is particularly well drawn.  Another of the book's strengths, in fact, is its portrayal of female characters as rounded and modern in a way in perfect keeping with the waning Victorian setting.  All of the characters in the novel live on the page in a way that is never anachronistic.  It is the duty of the historical novelist to remind us that, while times change, people don't, and Brady pulls this off with panache.

His writing is clear and comfortable, as one would expect from a former journalist of Brady's stature, and the research, historical and criminal, exudes authenticity.  Again, a minor quibble, but perhaps too much of this fascinating research is evidenced in the early chapters; there is a long explanation of the Land War which, while interesting, admirably objective and well presented, would be better suited to a history textbook and could have been summarised neatly in a paragraph or bedded in the dialogue.  This tendency to over-inclusion of hard-won research--an occupational hazard for all historical novelists, myself very much included--fades, however, as the narrative progresses and we are left with a cracking whodunnit, rich in period detail and peopled with wholly believable, complex characters of whom I hope to see more of in future Joe Swallow novels.  All in all, a powerful, well-researched debut from Brady.  A June of Ordinary Murders is no ordinary historical novel and comes to you highly recommended by this reader.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Under the Boardwalk, Down by the Sea: HBO does it again

Kelly McDonald as Irish immigrant
Margaret Shroeder
Finally got around to cracking the dusty boxset of Boardwalk Empire last night and all I can say is: Why did I wait so long?  It is seriously excellent so far.  My wife and I have watched the first five episodes of series 1 and are enjoying it immensely.  As per recent posts, Boardwalk Empire is based on 'real' historical events and characters from prohibition-era Atlantic City, New Jersey.  Interestingly enough, and for much the same reason I explained of my own work in the previous post, the creator of Boardwalk--Terrence Winter, of Sopranos fame--took the figure of notorious political fixer/racketeer Enoch 'Nucky' Johnson and lightly fictionalised him as Enoch 'Nucky' Thompson so as to have more creative freedom with the story.

Enoch 'Nucky' Johnson and Steve Buscemi as
Enoch 'Nucky' Thomson
A few points from last night's viewing: 1) Steve Buscemi is wonderful as the crooked but complex Nucky.  His portrayal of venal...scratch that...mortal corruption would make the Mahon Tribunal blanche.  2)  Kelly McDonald, as the Irish immigrant Margaret Schroeder, (from Kerry--Schroeder is her married name though her husband...well, you'll have to watch it yourself...) is good and growing on me as a performance though the accent is dialogue-coach-101 for the most part.  McDonald is a fine actress--she was great in No Country for Old Men, where her accent was, to my ears, authentic and consistent--but could they not have found an actress from Kerry or Ireland at very least?  
Stephen Graham as Combo in
This is England
3)  Stephen Graham, conversely, is brilliant as a young Al Capone, despite hailing from Liverpool.  He is also a great actor and was cinema's most convincing psycho-skinhead in Shane Meadows' wonderful This is England.  I don't, in this case, mind that he's not actually from Brooklyn.  4) The sets are great but some of the panoramic CGI looks not a whole lot better than those shots of Atlanta burning in Gone With the Wind.  Technology is a funny old thing, but frankly, my dear, a minor quibble.

Martin Scorcese is an executive producer and directs the first episode, which I feel to be the best thing he's done on screen since Casino, though I've hardly seen everything he's done since then.  There is one long, Goodfellas-like tracking shot that roves along the boardwalk and into a dance hall only hours before the introduction of the Volstead Act and prohibition which is simply brilliant film-making.  

I'm surprised this series hasn't gotten the same resounding acclaim as, say, The Wire or The Sopranos.  Much like them, this is storytelling at its very best, most complex.  It makes one wonder (worry!), as a novelist, if the novel form is weaker as a vehicle for storytelling than high-quality, HBO-like TV series.  Any thoughts? 

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Is This Real Life, Is This Just Fantasy...

I'm reading The Cold, Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty at the moment and loving it.  Inadvertently, I find I'm on a real Troubles NI fiction kick at the moment.  This novel, as well as The Ultras, which I wrote about previously, are set in Northern Ireland in the 70's and (in the case of The Cold, Cold Ground, 1981) and both reek of cordite, boiled cabbage, bad haircuts, and ingrained hatreds.  Cheery reads, both...  But both evoke the period and the place(s) of the North brilliantly, particularly the sense that nothing was what it seemed and every act was believed to be driven by shadowy angencies with competing agendas.  Another thing both novels share is their use of 'real' characters from history in their narratives.  In The Cold, Cold Ground, Gerry Adams himself makes an appearance and not, I might add, protesting the 100€ Household Charge.

This got me thinking about the use of characters and events from 'real life' in fiction.  I've done it myself in Peeler and, most recently, in the forthcoming follow-up, Irregulars.  I generally, however, find it restricting and fictionalise characters from history, changing names etc.  (As does McKinty in Cold, Cold, introducing us to a certain Mr Scavanni, Sinn Fein spokesman and/or head of the IRA's Force Research Unit (Nutting Squad, I believe they called it)...would anybody care for some steak with that knife?)  I do this mainly because it allows me the freedom to have them act the way I want them to so as to suit the writing--occasionally, they resist direction and act any old way they please but that's true of all fictional characters and grist for another mill--rather than for the writing to have to bend to the demands of the lives actually lived by the characters.  

McNamee seems to have solved this problem in The Ultras by making Robert Nairac a cipher of sorts, an almost mythical construct framed by the (perhaps) delusional documenting of past crimes undertaken by the fallen cop Agnew.  This works (for me) because so much of the work done by men like Nairac and his (possibly) MI5 handlers in the book, as in real life, is mired in secrecy and rumour.  The violence is shadowed by the darkness of the cold ditch, by the quiet, lacerating shame of the compromised informer, by the black hatred of sectarian pseudo-gang set loose on the innocent and not so innocent.

Other authors do this as well.  Ellroy, particularly in American Tabloid.  Alan Furst.  Many others.  My question, I suppose, is: why we do it as writers and why, as readers, do we seem to enjoy reading about 'real' figures in a fictional format?  Is history not enough for us?  Is fiction better able to elucidate truth than the hard data of documentation?

Monday, 19 March 2012

'A finely wrought thing...' The Ultras by Eoin McNamee

'A bleakly poetic, raging elegy for the twentieth century soul.'
Niall Griffiths
Eoin McNamee

As often as not, it is reading great writers that inspires one to want to write and as a writer, I'm given over to professional admiration (as opposed to envy, which I never, ever...no, really...never, ever succumb to...) when I come across a really well-written, well-conceived novel.  One such novel I read this week and it is The Ultras, by Eoin McNamee.

Having the honour of being mentioned alongside McNamee in a couple of reviews as a writer of serious historical crime fiction, I figured I'd better read a few more of his books.  I had read his debut, Resurrection Man, when it came out some years ago and had been mightily impressed, though less so with the film version, which I'm afraid somewhat coloured my memory of the book.  Orchid Blue I read last summer and was blown away by it.  It is crime fiction in the loosest but most serious sense, and the highest of art in every other.  Thus when I came across a copy of The Ultras in our local bookshop a few weeks ago I snapped it up and am pleased to report it is much the same in terms of quality.  

'Orchid Blue may be his finest novel yet.'
Declan Hughes, Irish Times
What the two novels share, besides a Northern Irish setting, is the use of actual, (criminal) events from (recent-ish) history as their starting point.  The novels are also populated by real figures from history--some obvious and well known to even the most casual observer of Northern Irish affairs, while others are obscure and others fictional entirely.  McNamee is so good it's often impossible to tell the difference.  The novels also share a sense of historical events--well-publicised though they may be--as being ultimately mired in the murk of...well, history.  The Ultras is particularly good on this, being ostensibly the story of British Army Captain Robert Nairac of the Grenadier Guards, a kind of free roaming predator who stalks the grey/green blur of the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, possibly under the sinister direction of MI5, possibly not and possibly...  

It is this endless realm of the possible and improbable, of knowable and unknowable, that is the concern of the novel.  In life, nobody knows (or nobody is saying), in fact, what happened to the real Captain Nairac or any of his handlers--if he indeed had them--other than that Nairac was last seen drinking in a remote pub called the Three Steps Inn in South Armagh and was never heard from again.  Teeth and blood were found on a local bridge.  Reports of late night, cross border visits to a local meat factory are common.  Statements were made by 'witnesses' at a local RUC barracks with a reputation as bloody and brutal as that of the abattoir to which it is said Nairac's body was taken.  Men have been tried and convicted of murder though no body has ever been found.

 McNamee's brilliance lies in the way he constructs a novel about the construction of myth as historical record.  What is history, he appears to ask, when no one knows anything and those that do are dead or fear death if they tell what they know?  What is history when those in charge of the record construct it to justify the most invidious of political aims.  Here is one passage which does this amazingly well.  In it, a low level British spook is tasked with justifying the internment of republican suspects selected by his sinister boss.  He is creating historical record of the most unreliable kind and it is just such history that McNamee addresses in all its mire of misinformation.
David compiled documentation on them.  He learned that it was more reliable to invent a history for the target. Sightings of targets at known trouble spots by unnamed witnesses.  Spurious forensic evidence linking them to explosives finds.  He added unnecessary detail for authenticity...The more detail you gave, the more it seemed that guilt accrued...[He] thought that the profiles he created transcended the actual detail of the target's life.  The banal accounts they gave of themselves in distempered interrogation rooms.  David was tempted to show them what he had done to their lives.  To show them the finely wrought thing.  The troubled histories he had created, the brooding, overshadowed lives, the terrible symmetry of things preordained coming to pass...

A finely wrought thing, the fictional profile McNamee has created in The Ultras has indeed, in its own way, transcended the actual details of this period of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.  I'll quote a blurb from Time Out magazine, as it appears on the jacket of my copy of The Ultras, mainly because I couldn't put it any better myself:
'What McNamee brings to the "facts" is a novelist's truth, which can often represent the organic mechanisms at work better than any record.'
Buy it folks.  McNamee is one of the finest writers of historical fiction working today in any country.  His books aren't comfortable, or easy.  They are not the kind of novels to end nicely.  They do not restore your faith in the good of humanity and the power of the noble, if flawed, policeman.    They are also profound, beautifully written, brutal, nuanced and often brutally sad.  The Ultras and Orchid Blue also happen to be just plain brilliant.

Friday, 9 March 2012

New Irish Historical Crime Fiction from Conor Brady

I was thrilled to see some historical crime fiction getting pride of place in the Weekend Arts and Books section of the Irish Times, this Saturday past, in the shape of a full page extract from Conor Brady's new novel, A June of Ordinary Murders.  Read the extract here:    http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/weekend/2012/0303/1224312672054.html

Brady's novel, published by New Island press and launched this week at Mansion House in Dublin, is  tells the story of a murder investigation led by Detective Sergeant Joe Swallow of the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) in late 19th century Dublin.  The blurb runs thus:

 In the 1880s the DMP classified crime in two distinct classes. Political crimes were ‘special’, whereas theft, robbery and even murder, no matter how terrible, were ‘ordinary’. Dublin, June 1887: the mutilated bodies of a man and a child are discovered in Phoenix Park and Detective Sergeant Joe Swallow steps up to investigate. Cynical and tired, Swallow is a man living on past successes in need of a win. In the background, the city is sweltering in a long summer heatwave, a potential gangland war is simmering as the chief lieutenants of a dying crime boss size each other up and the castle administration want the celebration of Queen Victoria’s Golden jubilee to pass off without complication. Underneath it all, the growing threat of anti-British radicals is never far away. With the Land War at its height, the priority is to contain ‘special’ crime. But these murders appear to be ‘ordinary’ and thus of lesser priority. When the evidence suggests high-level involvement, and as the body count increases, Swallow must navigate the waters of foolish superiors, political directives and frayed tempers to investigate the crime, find the true murderer and deliver justice.
I can't wait to get my hands on a copy--payday's how many weeks away yet?--as I've read a good deal about the DMP in my own researches for Peeler and its follow-up, Irregulars.  The DMP were a separate force to the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) in which my fictional detective, Sean O'Keefe, served until its disbandment under terms of the Treaty post-War of Independence but as in the RIC, its members were Irish, predominantly Catholic and tasked with policing on behalf of the occupying  Crown in Ireland.  The unarmed DMP were a fairly conventional police force, modeled closely on the London Metropolitan Police, while the RIC was a para-military entity, armed to the teeth, with a presence in virtually every village in the country outside of Dublin.  Not for nothing were they known as the 'eyes and ears of the Crown' in Ireland.  All this, of course, is explained much better and in richer detail in Brady's  own history of the Garda Siochana (can't find the fada key on this computer anywhere!), titled Guardians of the Peace: Irish Police.  The other two indispensable books on both the DMP and RIC are by Jim Herlihy, a top drawer historian and gentleman never too busy to answer any of my occasionally ridiculous questions.  They are: Royal Irish Constabulary Officers: A Biographical and Genealogical Guide, 1816-1922 and 

The Dublin Metropolitan Police: A Short History and Genealogical Guide.

Have a great weekend all!

Sunday, 4 March 2012

My name is Kevin and I'm a lexiholic...

I was at an event on publishing, some years back, at the Irish Writer's Centre.  My agent was on the panel along with a woman from one of the Irish publishers (can't remember which) and a young writer who had been recently published.  I had a meeting with my agent afterwards so I'd gone along early and sat in.  It was interesting for me as I had not yet been published and though I can't remember much of what was said, I do recall one thing that has stayed with me.  When asked by a member of the audience what a writer can do to improve her chances of being published, my agent responded with two words:  'Read more.'  He then expanded on this, saying that reading--anything and everything--is the first stage of any writer's apprenticeship.  (Writing hundreds of stories and several novels before one actually figures out what one is really doing as a writer is the second stage and fodder for future post.)  But a love for reading--an addiction to the printed word--he said, was the single most important quality shared by 'successful' writers of fiction he had represented over the years.

This was comforting to me at the time.  Though I'd had short stories published and had won said agent's services on the strength of a reasonably good novel (which we never did manage to sell, thank God!) I was as yet an unpublished novelist.  (Peeler was two more unsold novels in the future for me then.)  But I was addicted to reading and had a drawer full of apprentice work in the form of short stories--some good, some dire--and two prior completed but unpublished novels.  I was on my way, I thought.

I bring this up, because it is my addiction to reading--cereal boxes, Heat magazine, novels of any genre, forms in waiting rooms--that led me this week to reading one of the best short stories I've read in years.  A colleague, knowing my propensities, gave me a stack of old and more recent magazines, thinking I would make use of them during down times at work.  Among them were several issues of the New Yorker, a magazine I'm too poor (and tight) to subscribe to now but which I read avidly in the Boston College library years ago (along with the Paris Review, more of which in a future post) when I was supposed to be studying economics or chemistry.  The story, called 'Someone', is by the Irish-American writer, Alice McDermott.  I had read, some years before, her novel Charming Billy and thought it a wonderful evocation of the Irish-America of which I have much experience.  This short story, which is an extract from her novel-in-progress, is every bit as good.

It appears you have to subscribe to the New Yorker to read it online, but if you have an iPhone or iPad, there apparently exists a free app allowing access to magazine content.  Or you could try the local library, no doubt.  But do try to find it, fellow addicts.  It is simply brilliant.  Here is a link to a short interview she gives to the New Yorker re the story, but SPOILER ALERT, it does give some of the game away so perhaps find a copy of the story before reading it.  http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/01/this-week-in-fiction-alice-mcdermott.html

Any other addicts have a rare gem they've come across recently?  Let us know!

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Go Ahead, Judge a Book by Its Cover

Wayne Simmons
Check out the cover art for Wayne Simmons' new novel Fever.  It is brilliant and, importantly, instantly recognisable for what it is:  a horror novel and follow-up to his carcass-shredding masterpiece, Flu.  It appears so effortlessly representative of the subject matter—gut-ripping zombie invasion of Nor'n Ireland spurred on by a virus so lethal it makes my man flu look like…well, man flu—but it is the end result of hours of professional, hard-graft creative work from cover designer and publisher Emma Barnes at Snowbooks.  I know something of what I speak here as Emma's work adorns the cover of my recent novel, Peeler (Mercier Press, 2010). 
Give Me Fever
            When Mercier bought my novel I was told--it was in the contract, if I remember correctly--that I would have some ‘input’ into the cover.  I thought this would be a good thing and that I would have much to add.  It was, after all, my novel.  Who knew it better than I did?  Who better to guide the hand holding the (bloody) paintbrush or mouse?  (Computer mouse!)  More fool me.  I wasn’t aware at the time that Mercier contracted Emma at Snowbooks for the job.
            Some months later, after corrections, re-drafts and galleys, an email arrived bearing the draft cover for Peeler.  This would be the first time I saw a visual representation of my work.  This would be the painted face to the corpus of my words, the image by which anyone (please God) who stopped to think of my work for even a second would remember it by.
          And what I saw was good.  But Mercier had asked for my opinion and by God I was going to give it.  Too much blood, I thought.  Though I was as aware as any writer of the importance of a book’s cover and its relation to sales, and that as a crime novel Peeler needed to be seen as such from one look at the cover, I was concerned that the cover made the book look like something it was not.  It is a (hopefully) serious historical crime novel; it is not a serial killer/slasher type of book, not that I'm in any way against such a thing.  The brutal murder that sets my novel in motion happens off-stage.  There is bloody violence in the book; it is intended to be brutal and sudden and shocking, like violence tends to be in real life.  But does this cover, I asked myself, present the image of Peeler that I want? 
Too much blood?  Not by half?
            Thus I asked Mercier if it would be possible to tone down the splattered claret.  'Ummm, sure,' they said.  'We’ll get right on it.'
            All of which is to say, they shouldn’t have bothered asking me in the first place.  I know nothing about marketing books nor do I have any knowledge of which colours attract a book buyer’s eye and why or why not.  I think Emma might have toned down the blood splatter somewhat but I’m not actually certain she did.  Mercier might have said, ‘Hey, Emma Barnes is a pro.  This is a great cover and will sell books.  Ignore him.  He’s a writer.  Let him stick to writing…’ And they would have been right to do so.
            This came to me some months later when I was asked to go to Mercier’s distribution warehouse out in Sandyford Industrial Estate to sign a stack of books for shops.  While there, I got chatting to the distribution manager, a great guy whose name I can’t for the life of me remember.  I asked him how he thought the book was selling.  ‘Great,’ he said.  ‘We’ve had a good few re-orders and Eason’s have upped theirs.  The cover, apparently, is selling it.  According to the shops, buyers are picking it up, checking out the cover and heading to the tills.’
            Wayne, no doubt, will have the same experience with Fever. The moral of the story: listen to the writer when it comes to writing.  For all else, there’s someone like Emma Barnes who really knows what she’s doing. 
            And good luck to Wayne with Fever.  I haven’t read it yet but it looks great and if it’s half the book Flu is, he’s onto a winner.   

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

WTF? Why is there so much f*&$ing cursing in Peeler?

What do you say when you smash your thumb with a hammer?  No, really...  Apparently 99% of all English speakers drop an 'f bomb'.  The other 1% are lying. 

I'm one of the 99%.  There is just something about the word 'fuck' (there, I've said it) that seems to simultaneously reduce pain and quash rage while allowing one to announce to the world that, 'Yes, here I am, doing DIY, mutilating myself in the process, and do I get any bleedin' thanks for it!?'

I even curse when I'm not hitting myself with heavy objects.  I swear when I'm sad.  I swear when I'm feeling reflective, or mildly amused or enraged or really, really happy.  And I've taught my kids to swear.  I've never sat them down and said,  'Now, kids, today we're starting with 'damn' and we'll see how we get on with it for a few days before tackling 'shit'...' and I'm not particularly proud of it, but there it is.  I knew I was a good teacher when my eldest daughter, aged 3 at the time, came barreling out of the house, curls bouncing, innocence embodied, as I was packing my mother's suitcase into the car for her flight home,  screaming, 'Oh fuck!  Don't go! I forgot to give Grandma a goodbye kiss!'  Needless to say, my mother was less than impressed (though she was touched by the urgency that only a 3 year old can bring to sweet parting) and swore (natch) to jack-in the cursing, swearing and muttering of oaths for good.  I lasted about a week.

All of the above is a fairly round about way of drawing your attention to this posting via Melissa Hill on the Irish Crime Fiction Facebook page: http://crimebeat.bookslive.co.za/blog/2012/02/16/crime-beat-foul-language-in-sa-crime-fiction-is-it-fing-necessary/ .

This, in turn, led me to the originating post, here: http://www.thecrimefactory.com/2012/01/guest-blog-warning-contains-language/.  They are both well observed and of interest to readers and writers alike.

Both of them got me thinking about the use of foul language in crime fiction and how I use it in my own writing.  My agent, Jonathan Williams, a fine editor as well as agent, has told me more than once that there is too much of it in the early drafts of my work.  He doesn't object, I must stress, to the foulness of it, but much more to how repetitious it appears on the page.  In each of the four novels of mine he has represented, two historical, two contemporary, he has made this point and in each one, I have gone back and judiciously cut hundreds of swear words, virtually all of it from dialogue.

Which brings me to how and why I use cursing in my writing and the simple answer is this:  I use it in dialogue because it is how the characters I am writing about speak.  That's it.  How and why.  Writing dialogue is a mysterious (cheesy word choice, mysterious, I know, but allow it for now, please...) process.  I find it to be automatic, a subconscious listening to the characters; almost as if I'm transcribing words as they are spoken, an eavesdropping of a kind.  I'll write more about dialogue in some future post because it is something profound, (and profoundly difficult to describe) wonderful, and yes, mysterious, but for our purposes here, I'll say simply that when I'm writing, and listening to my characters speak, and I hear them curse, then by fuck, that's what I write because that's what they said.  First draft writing is like this or it should be, fingers flying, a document detailing voices and movements impelled by the subconscious mind and moderated by the conscious one.
And today at Aspects of the Novel (For Dummies).blogger.com...
This rapid flow required by the first draft, of course, leads to far too much swearing in the early manuscripts, because the men (generally, it's the men) I write about, the criminals and cops and soldiers and old men in bars, all swear too much.  I swear too much and you probably do too.  But I generally listen to my agent and go a-slashing with the red pen because he is correct also in saying that written speech--fictional dialogue--is very different to actual recorded speech.  Again, a topic for another day, but fictional dialogue is a very structured and stylised affair.  Just as we don't include in fictional dialogue every 'ummmm...' and 'well...' and 'hmmmm...' that mark much of what constitutes how we really speak, nor should we include every 'fuck' or 'shite' or 'jaysus'.  It may be how we really speak, how the characters would really speak if they were standing in corporeal form here next to us and bending our collective ear, but it is not how they would or should speak on the page.  Too much naturalistic swearing, basically, and it drains dialogue of meaning and power.  Too little (or none), for certain, and it can drain the dialogue of realism and, again, power, calling into question that sacred contract between reader and writer which hinges on the balance of veracity against suspension of disbelief.  (Another topic for a another day, that balance, and one for a more learned mind than my own.  Maybe E.M. Forster will grapple with it on his blog, Aspects of the Novel For Dummies)  But again, too much or too little cursing, in my opinion, is ultimately a question of effective or ineffective writing.

The hills of West Cork from
The Wind That Shakes the Barley
To pick one example from Peeler, my protagonist, Acting Sergeant Sean O'Keefe finds himself in a cave/IRA hideout in the mountains of West Cork where he has been allowed to question two nefariously violent, but ultimately pathetic, criminal brothers who are suspects in the brutal murder case he is investigating.  Presiding over this are several hardened IRA gunmen and young IRA Volunteer, Liam Farrell, who is investigating the same brutal murder from the republican side.  Without giving too much away, when the questioning is finished, Farrell is tasked with dispensing summary justice upon the Skelly brothers.  The brothers, therefore are asked if they have any last words.

In early drafts of this scene, the younger brother begs and pleads for mercy, cursing a blue streak in a sad panic to prolong his life.  The IRA gunmen curse in a brutish, gallows-tainted way and the elder Skelly brother curses at them all in an act of defiance.  I liked this scene a great deal, I might add, not withstanding the above blog on failing better, and because I did, perhaps, I was blinded to quite how much like white noise were all the 'fucks' and 'shites' and 'bastards' littering the dialogue.  Jonathan read the scene and asked, 'Would the whole of it not have more power if you cut most of the rest of the cursing and left only this...?'  He was entirely correct and I now like this scene even more. (If I do say so myself) In the published novel it reads as follows and I feel the curse uttered is much more powerful for its relative solitude:

     The older Skelly brother looked over at them. ‘I’m no rat.’ But he said it without conviction, as if he had learned some time in his life that this was what – as an Irishman or a lifelong criminal or both – he was supposed to say.      Halloran was right. Farrell knew he was wasting his breath trying to spare the Skellys. He had a job to do. He stepped behind the two brothers and raised the Mauser. His hand was shaking. He had never pictured it quite like this, killing for his country. Putting bullets in the brains of two unarmed men had never featured in any of the heroic scenes he had screened in his imagination.      His index finger brushed the trigger guard and as if aware, the younger Skelly brother found his voice.      ‘I didn’t do nothing. I didn’t. I’m no rat. I swear it. Please.’ His words were choked with sobs. ‘I done nothing.’      Halloran said, ‘You hurt that woman. You done that, you. Who told you do that, Mutton?’      The older Skelly was unmoved. He hacked and spat again, saying nothing and Farrell was seized by sudden terror. Jesus. I can’t do this. This is not what…not how…      He turned, handed the gun to Halloran and ducked out of the cave.      Eamonn Halloran shook his head, partly in disgust, partly in sympathy. Out of his depth, Farrell was. Should have stayed in university. No business in the fray, poor bastard. He checked the load in the Mauser and raised it.      ‘Any prayers, lads, before we get down to it?’      The elder Skelly brother cleared his throat and said, ‘Fuck all o’ ye cunts.’      The younger brother wept.      Climbing out of the ravine, O’Keefe and his escort of gunmen heard the shots. Faint pops in the night. Almost as if they hadn’t happened.

Just now, copying and pasting in that scene, I've remembered a reading I did a while back when, tired of reading the opening scene of Peeler, I switched to this scene above.  When signing books afterwards, I overheard one woman (mid-60's, I'd guess, and very kindly bought Peeler, despite her objections to my reading) say to her friend (similar age) something to the effect that she'd liked the reading but that it could have done without all the blue language.  Her friend replied, and I remember this quite clearly:  'But that's how those men spoke back then.  That's how my father talked, sure, when he thought we couldn't hear him!'                  

Two things strike me now:  1) I'm not the first father to inadvertently teach his daughter to curse, thank God, and 2) this woman's words strike at the core of what I've been so long here in getting at.  The characters in my fiction swear and curse, 'f and blind', because that's how those men spoke back then and without the (judiciously edited) swearing, Peeler would be a lesser book.

How these men speak...
So that's that then.  I had planned on musing somewhat on cursing in the historical fictional context (I've been asked was 'fuck' used as a curse in 1920 and yes, it was) and perhaps on the origins of cursing itself, a subject on which I've been known to hold forth in the pub.  (Shakespeare himself, was a whore for the cursing, so he was, though in Elizabethan England, 'fuck' was a perfectly acceptable if not commonly used verb while swearing oaths on Christ's body was murderously offensive, hence, 'zounds', seen often in the plays which is a contraction of what was commonly screamed by late 16th century Londoners when they smashed their thumbs with hammers, namely 'God's wounds!')  But instead, I'll leave you with this link, to one of the most remarkable--I say remarkable only because half of me thinks it's brilliant and the other half of me thinks it's somewhat stagey--scenes from The Wire, a  fictional crime series of utter genius which perhaps ought to have the last word on swearing.  Screenwriting is, of course, as different an art from novel writing as television is but it sums up the point of this posting quite nicely.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Qualifying failure. Fail again. Fail better?

This is my most recent novel, Peeler (Mercier Press, 2010). http://www.amazon.com/Peeler/dp/1856356590

Buy it.  No, seriously, buy it and then tell your friends to buy it in paperback or ebook.  It's big and not too expensive.  A bargain in the current economic climate and all that.  But I have to warn you:  it is, I often think, even now, after generally rave reviews--'dark, brooding, multi-layered, morally complex masterpiece', Belfast Telegraph; Irish Times Selection Top 10 Thrillers 2010--a failure.  No false modesty, this.  Oh this little old thing?  It's no good at all, don't waste your time... It is a good novel. Some have thought it to be a very good novel and I am proud of it, as I am of its successor which will be (God willing) released next year.  And yet...  And yet I still consider it something of a qualified failure.

This has nothing do with sales figures, which, while not of the kind that might induce an Irish bank to consider me for a mortgage, are certainly good enough that I can afford to buy pretty much any size tent in Halford's. (Ok, the 6 man is out, but any size up to 4 man, definitely do-able...) Nor does it have to do with the fact that it has thus far only been published in Ireland.  I expect it will be published in the US and UK soon enough and rakes of copies have been sold in these markets--and Canada, amazingly--thanks to all you fellow bloggers and reviewers who kindly pushed it.  (You know who you are Crime Always Pays, Detectives Beyond Borders, The Rap Sheet, Critical Mick, Eurocrime et al.) 

No, I consider it a qualified failure in that every time I pick it up, I find things in it I would like to change, things that could be better.  

The copy of Peeler that I used when doing readings/events/promotional gigs etc. is splattered and scored with ink every bit as bloody red as the deeds described in the pages. Words--whole lines, even a paragraph--are excised.  Commas are dropped, added; the word 'derelict' [cottage] changed (for what reason I can no longer remember) to 'the ruins of the' [cottage] in urgent, pre-public-reading red ink.  I find occasional words that are used twice on the same page--cardinal sin!--and sentences that, while not bad in and of themselves, could simply be better, have more punch.

I make it a point not to be too hard on myself when I stumble upon these minor blights, harking back to another of the many quotes I've pinned to the wall by...  Hmph... Looking at it I realise I've no idea who said it and to preserve the mystery, I'm not going to Google it.  Anyway, the quote is this: You don't finish a novel, you merely abandon it.  When I handed Peeler to my agent, I abandoned it in as fine a state as I could make it at the time.  He then read it and gave it back and I made some changes, made it better, I think, and abandoned it to him again.  After it sold, my editor at Mercier Press--the brilliant Wendy Logue--suggested some more changes, asked some questions which I tried to answer.  I made the changes I agreed with (most of them, in fairness) and again with the abandonment.  (By this time, I was so sick of the manuscript, so weary of my own words, I would have happily thrown it from a car window in a cinched bin bag.  This, I feel, is a common enough sentiment among writers and it is the one true sign that the MS is ready to rock.)  Which brings me to another quote from the wall, this one on a faded yellow post-it by the writer Peter Mayle:  The best advice on writing I've ever received is: Finish. So finish I did, thinking Peeler even then to be a failure in ways but as good a failure as I was capable of as a novelist.

So a qualified failure...  But then again, I sometimes open it and find lines, paragraphs, scenes, I have no recollection of ever writing and think, 'Hey, that's not bad at all.'  Others, I feel really, really chuffed over.  (Even if I can't remember writing them, I'll still take the credit...)  All of which is to get around to the title of this inaugural post.  From Worstword Ho--yes, I read it back in the day, and no, I don't remember much of it--it is one of Beckett's most cited lines.  Ever tried.  Ever failed.  No matter.  Fail again.  Fail better.  Google it...and find yourself on a how-to-play craps site which, unwisely, I feel, uses it as its presiding philosophy for learning to play games of chance.  For money.  Hmmm...  So it's become a bit of a cliche, really.  Used in sports psychology, business seminars, by unlucky gamblers (!), by artists and writers alike, its appeal lies in it's clear and basic wisdom:  Life is not perfect, it seems to say, and your endeavors never will be either.  You'll roll sevens, more often than not and lose your shirt, your wife,  your dog.  But just maybe...just this time...  Many a cliche is strangely, powerfully profound.

Thus, Fail again.  Fail better.  As a maxim it accepts imperfection as a given but acknowledges hope for improvement (scope for improvement?) and the possibility that any work, while imperfect, can be 'better'.  There are works that I (very) occasionally read--and in this blog I hope to recommend them as they arise--that strike me as almost perfect.  Impossibly good.  But I'm willing to bet that the authors of these books view them similarly to how I do mine.  Qualified failures but 'better' than they were once as mere concepts of the mind or neurosis inducing rough drafts; works as good as they can be and hopefully, just plain damn good.

Monday, 13 February 2012

testing, testing 1,2,3... if a blog post lands on the screen but the blog itself cannot be found on google, does it exist?