THE WHISPERERS, the next Charlie Parker novel, was delivered to my British and American editors shortly before Christmas. Well, it should have been, but the courier company was shoddy to the nth degree, and so at least one of my editors didn't receive the manuscript until early in the New Year. To cover myself, as it's due for publication in Ireland and the UK at the start of May, I gave a copy to one independent reader to check for errors, and a second copy to a friend of mine who had agreed to check that the details of military service were accurate. With a further copy sent to my agent, this meant that five people were reading the manuscript at the same time.
Delivering a manuscript is a source of mixed feelings for me. To begin with, there's a sense of relief in that I've somehow managed to write another book in the face of the usual obstacles, including, but not limited to:
1) doubts about the quality of the book;
2) doubts about the quality of the writer;
3) generalized doubts about everything not immediately connected to the book but still capable of impacting upon the writing;
4) writing another book entirely - The Gates - before embarking upon this one;
5) touring that other book, as well as the book - The Lovers - that had already been delivered and scheduled for publication in 2009;
6) other projects demanding time - short stories, reviews, newspaper articles, and the reading of other people's books at the request of writers and editors in the hope that I might be moved to offer a supportive quote;
7) eating, sleeping, and generally trying to balance living with the fact that each day begins and ends with an internal voice nagging about the book in hand.
Allied to this sense of relief, there is the faint hope that this book might be better than the last one, just as I hoped that the last one might be better than the one that preceded it, and so on back to DARK HOLLOW, which I hoped would be better than EVERY DEAD THING. As a writer, you have to feel that you're moving forward, and trying to do something different with each book. At least, I have to feel that way, although as I stumble through increasingly formulaic pieces of genre fiction as part of my reading material I start to wonder if I am not, perhaps, simply making life harder for myself than I should be. After all, isn't it in the nature of genre fiction to be generic? It's certainly in the name.
The danger in this, of course, is that one may alienate the very readers who liked the last book, and were rather hoping for the same thing again, albeit with some of the names changed, and with a bit of adjustment to the plot. THE WHISPERERS, though, is a departure from THE LOVERS, and certainly from THE GATES, although it contains one very deliberate echo of that book and, indeed, of "The Reflecting Eye", the Parker novella contained in the NOCTURNES volume of short stories. In part, that's because I feel that there should be some consistency, even across genres, to the universe of my books. After all, they come from the same imagination, and the rules applicable to one should probably be applicable to the rest.
To return to THE WHISPERERS: I think, from the start, I thought of this book as one that was almost dreamlike in its narrative, although 'nightmarish' might be a better word to use. One of my editors felt that it was fragmented, and it is, but it is fragmented in the sense that a dream may be fragmented, but contains within itself an essential consistency. There is no single character in the book who is entirely certain of what is happening, and that includes Parker himself. We flit from consciousness to consciousness, each one providing a piece of the puzzle without that individual being sure of where that piece fits into the overall picture. All are tormented by what they know, but also, in the case of the soldiers at the heart of the story, by what they have endured. It is, on one level, a book about the aftermath of war, and its effect on those who have survived conflict.
That element of the book has proved slightly contentious, and raises an interesting question about the limits, or otherwise, of genre fiction. Some years ago, the always interesting Deadly Pleasures magazine printed an article on the work of George Pelecanos, taking him to task for social commentary in his novels. It remains, I think, one of the worst pieces of critical writing that otherwise estimable magazine has ever produced, failing every basic critical test, including the one that suggests it's a good idea to critique the book that has been written and not the book that the critic thinks should have been written. Worse than that, though, it exposed the 'inferiority complex fault line' that runs through sections of the mystery community like pink writing through a stick of rock. (Witness the degree of genuflecting and grateful hand wringing from within the genre that occurs when a literary writer deigns to pen a mystery novel, and then 'fesses up to it, like the bitter, fawning Uriah Heep welcoming David Copperfield into his 'ever so 'umble' abode.) Mystery novels should concentrate on, well, a mystery. It's about the plot, dummy. Leave the social commentary to proper novels. Know your place. Another murder, please, and be quick about it.
Thankfully, there are plenty of authors out there who are happy to ignore such attempts to place strictures on their work, and the last year alone has seen Val McDermid engage with the legacy of the miners' strike in Britain, and Steig Larsson tackle the sex trade in Sweden, although Larsson (and, as a reader, I have some reservations about those books, finding them a bit long and undisciplined, but I appear to be in the minority) has a 'Get out of Jail Free' card because he is no longer with us, and also because he has become the most recent Adopted Genre Author ®, the genre writer picked up on by those who don't ordinarily read, in this case, mystery fiction because they feel that it's beneath them, are then kind of surprised by how good it can be, but don't believe that the regular stuff is usually this good and therefore don't bother to read any more of it until the next AGA comes along.
So it may be that THE WHISPERERS will be more divisive than some of my previous books, and it has been interesting to receive the responses of my editors, agent, and the two readers to the manuscript. The parts that one disliked, others have loved. Where another suggested changes, three others wanted no changes at all. Now, as the writer, it is up to me over the next week or so to consider the arguments of each, to decide what points are valid, what points are open to dispute, and where to draw the line at altering the manuscript. There will be arguments, and agreements to differ. It's what makes the post-submission process at once challenging, frustrating, and ultimately beneficial to the work that will eventually appear on bookshelves later this year.
Without such input, my books would be poorer offerings.
THIS WEEK JOHN READ
Wicked Prey by John Sandford
AND LISTENED TO
Twelve Songs by Owen Pallett
Mayday by Peter Von Poehl
Hospice by Antlers
AND DESPAIRED AT THE FOLLOWING