Tuesday, October 04, 2011


It is an unseasonably humid day in New York, the kind of day designed for sitting in an air conditioned bar, sipping something cold and mildly fruity, and less mildly alcoholic with a copy of the New York Times for company in the absence of one's nearest and dearest. It is most certainly not a day to be hauling oneself in and out of subways and the occasional taxi in order to sign books at the city's bookstores - not, I hasten to add, because such an activity is a chore in itself, for it is not, and God forbid that anyone should read this and mistake it for a plea on the writer's part to be required to perform anything resembling a real job, but because it is slightly unbecoming of an author to arrive at a store's information desk bathed in sweat and panting like a bloodhound at the end of a long and harrowing fugitive hunt. Even the most understanding of booksellers is entitled to be a little dubious about the bona fides of a sweaty, croaky man with a peculiar accent who claims to be the author of the books in whose direction he is frantically pointing and ownership of which he is apparently claiming by spraying them with his own perspiration.

On the other hand, weather permitting, drifting in and out of bookstores to sign one's books is a very pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon, just as talking to readers and booksellers and about books - one's own and the work of others, assuming one's ego is wiling to allow the existence of the work of others, however inferior - is considerably less than a chore.

Quite often in the course of a signing, especially one that is particularly well attended, I'll be asked some variation on the question: "Does it make your hand hurt?" Now that's open to a number of answers, some of them unfit for popular consumption, but I tend to rise above the obvious and reply that, no, it doesn't at all, and even if it did it would be a very good complaint.

Like most authors, I can remember a time when nobody would ask me to sign anything at all. I recall tramping around Britain for EVERY DEAD THING, my first book, and arriving at stores in which my impending arrival, advertised with a showcard and a time, seemed to have aroused absolutely no interest at all among the local population. Now, again like most authors, I had kind of hoped that my first novel would change the world, and in every small town crowds of adoring acolytes would be waiting to greet me with palm fronds, rose petals, and babies to be kissed. The reality, as you may have surmised, was somewhat different, and this continued to be the case for a number of years. My novels sold okay, but nobody wanted to meet me, or have a book signed. Now more people want their books signed, and some of them even want to meet me, although not many of them want to meet me twice, which is probably understandable.

I remember going into a chain bookstore in the northwest of England to sign copies of EVERY DEAD THING, pen at the ready, only to be informed that I shouldn't sign too many copies. "We haven't sold any yet, dear," a nice lady explained, for this was a time when a signed copy was regarded as a sold copy, which meant that the bookstore couldn't return it to the publisher if nobody bought it. I would essentially have defaced my own book, thereby rendering it valueless. I signed three, I think. I hope that they sold. I wouldn't want to have left the bookstore with an irksome debt. Now bookstores don't tend to mind too much if I sign their stock, which is nice.

This was the first time that I had done the round of New York stores since Borders went out of business, and I missed them because they had been just as good to me as Barnes & Noble, and no writer likes to see bookstores go out of business. I'd also made friends among the Borders crowd, and it pained me to think that they were out of work, although some of them have now found homes at B&N, or with other stores, although most have had to find jobs in areas without an outlet for their love and enthusiasm for books and reading.

It's one of the reasons why I find myself growing increasingly angry with those of my peers who seem to have divested themselves of any loyalty to bricks-and-mortar bookstores in favor of a rush to solely electronic publishing, too ignorant to even be ashamed to use phrases like "dead tree publishing" or "legacy publishing" about the beauty and usefulness of a printed book. Hey, guys and gals: those bookstores, chains and independents, that you've apparently abandoned to their fate were the making of you all, and you were very willing to badger their owners into stocking your books when they were the only game in town. I'm as happy as anyone to take my royalties on e-book sales, and I'm grateful to the companies that distribute me in that form, but I firmly believe that electronic publishing and printed books can co-exist in our brave new world, and I'd dearly like to see bookstores survive to take their place in that world, because it will be a poorer, coarser place without them. End of lesson.

So, sweatiness apart, today was a very good day, enlivened by chats with booksellers, some of whom even bought copies of my books for themselves and for others. I almost had a shelf to myself in B&N on Union Square, and I rather hope that they'll put up a commemorative plaque when I die. At B&N near Greenwich Village I had a bonding moment over Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood with the marvellous staff behind the information desk. At Partners & Crime I had one of those fine chats in which recommendations are exchanged, and at McNally Jackson, that great independent on Prince Street, I met again the lovely Michelle, who used to work at RiverRun in Portsmouth, just down the road from my stomping ground in Maine.

Even after all these years, though, I'm still plagued by that sense of doubt specific to authors signing in bookstores, and it's this: if the bookstore has lots of books in stock, the author worries that nobody is buying them; if it has only a handful in stock, the author worries that the store is not ordering enough, and therefore nobody is buying them, because they can't. It will never cross the author's mind that people might actually be buying the books, hence the relative lack of copies, or that the author is sufficiently popular that the store feels confident enough to keep multiple copies of his or her various works in stock. No, it's either bad news, or worse news, with nothing in between.

But there was THE BURNING SOUL in each store, which was nice to see. Nicer still, perhaps, was the fact that THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS seems to have found a permanent place on the shelves of both chain stores and independents. I remain hugely fond of that novel, and I'm always touched to see it in stock. It had no luck when it came out: it was barely reviewed on my own side of the Atlantic, was rejected by a major TV book club for implying that Red Riding Hood might have harbored feelings for the wolf, and was the first of my novels not to make it into the Top Ten Bestsellers list. But as the years have passed it has found its way into the right hands, thanks to readers recommending it to other readers, and the passionate support of booksellers in both chain stores and independents.

And, every time I sign a copy, I think to myself, "Hello, little book . . ."

Monday, July 18, 2011


Eighteen. That's how many there are in my office right now: eighteen. I feel guilty every time I see them, but I can't get rid of them, not yet. It's terrible, just terrible. I am, officially, a bad person.

I'm talking about advance copies of books that have been sent to me in the hope that I might be able to offer a supportive quote. They arrive at such a pace that it's impossible to keep up with them. If I read them all, I'd never read anything else. I'm on various publishers' lists, my own publishers occasionally send me a book (always with a 'no pressure, just if you have the time' get-out clause), and then there are manuscripts that have come to me by more personal paths, such as the one I'm reading one at the moment for a friend (a friend who will, incidentally, owe me lunch as a consequence, not least because he sent it as an electronic copy, and since I don't like reading books on screen I had to print it off, all 300 pages of it. You know who you are . . .)

Rather worryingly, at least one of these advance copies has been on my shelf for so long that it has already been released in paperback. I figure I can probably give that one away now. The others don't appear to be past their publication date yet, so I'd better hold on to them. It doesn't seem right to give the ones that haven't yet been published to friends, or to the charity store. They're the ones that make me feel guilty. "Read us!" they cry. "Please, we're really good, honest we are. Your quote could make all the difference to our chances of success . . ." Actually, that last part probably isn't true. In fact, if I look back on all of the books to which I have given supportive quotes, hardly any have made any kind of an impact at all. It may even be the case that a supportive quote from me is the kiss of death for a forthcoming book. I'm starting to suspect that even I wouldn't want a quote from me on one of my books.

Nevertheless, I feel like I've done my duty this year, because although I gave only - only! - four quotes, I've read at least twice that many forthcoming books. Some of the ones to which I didn't put my name were quite good, or at least interesting, but they didn't really make me want to enthuse about them to others. That's the key, I suppose. You have to ask yourself if, in the normal course of events, you had bought this book, and read it, would you press it into the hands of people you knew and liked on the grounds that they had to, simply had to, read it. If the answer is 'no', then you shouldn't blurb the book. Okay, so writers don't always adhere to this: they'll blurb a book because they like the writer's work, even if the book in question does not display the writer's talent at his or her best, or because an editor or publisher has put them on the spot, or because the writer in question is a friend, and they'd like to maintain that friendship. It's a complicated business, blurbing.

In two cases, I read the books that I'd been sent because an editor or writer broke the First Rule of Blurb Club: you never, ever ask if the writer has read the book that he has been sent, or even if the book has been received. It's like putting a message in a bottle. You throw it into the sea, and you just hope that somebody replies. You don't send another bottle asking if someone has received the first one. That way lies madness. Still, some people insist on breaking the rule, and then the recipient of the advance copy and subsequent rule-breaking e-mail has to squirm a little, and either come up with some excuse for not reading the book, or play dumb, or simply read the blasted thing while nursing a grudge for being pressured into doing so.

You see, I do try to read as many of these books as I can and, at last count, I think I've given quotes to four books already this year, and that's probably quite enough. If my name appears on many more books, I'll start to feel like James Patterson. It's also a question of trying to make a quote worthwhile. After all, if your name appears on every second book announcing that it's the greatest thing since Tolstoy looked at a pen and thought, you know, I might give this writing lark a go, then readers will have a right to feel suspicious. This is known as being a 'blurb whore', and blurb whoredom is the writer's equivalent of being the girl (or boy) who can't say no. You get a reputation. You're anybody's for a cheap meal, or a couple of free books. A certain amount of ego may enter into the equation too. It's quite nice to be asked to give a quote, because it implies that you've moved up a little in the rankings. Your name is worth something on the cover of someone else's book because you have a relationship with your own readers, and maybe they trust you enough to believe you when you say that another book is good. That can go to a boy's head, and pretty soon your name is popping up all over the place, blurbing stuff that even the author's mother won't read, and suddenly folk don't respect you any more, and you're forced to wear a pair of scarlet letters on your breast. BW: hang your head in shame.

But the other problem is that I buy lots and lots of books. I like buying books. By investing my money in them, I'm kind of promising myself that I will also invest the time required to read them, as well as supporting the industry of which I am a part. I even buy books published by my own publishers, even though I could get them for nothing if I asked. Except for books by a handful of authors whose work I love more than most of my own limbs, I'm less likely to read a book that I've received for nothing than a book for which I've paid. It's a curious thing, but there it is. With that in mind, the bookshelf in my bedroom, which is generally where my purchased books end up, is currently piled high with unread material that I really, really want to read. I buy a couple of books a week, on average, but rarely get to read more than one, so the pile keeps growing at a faster pace than I'm reading, and then all of these other books arrive each week that I haven't bought and which might be good but, then again, might not be, and . . .

Well, you see where I'm going with this. We only have so much time on this planet, and I'd like to spend as much of it as possible reading books that I know I'm going to enjoy, or in which I was sufficiently interested from the off to purchase. It may be a sign of the slow encroachment of some crushing conservatism that will eventually lead to a dementedly right-wing mindset, causing me to read only non-fiction books about the Raj, and begin sentences with the words "You know, Hitler did a lot of things wrong, but . . ." Then again, it may simply be the case that reading shouldn't feel like homework, and while some of the advance copies I've read this year have given me immense pleasure, and I've indicated as much by putting my name to them, I've generally enjoyed the books I bought far more.

Do I want people to stop sending them? Sometimes. Then again, I know there's the possibility that one may catch my eye, perhaps a book that I might not otherwise have read, and I'll read it and think, hmmm, that was good. Maybe I should tell someone about it.

Still, eighteen. Eighteen books, none of which are now likely to be read.

And more on the way . . .


A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin


Weather Report, Stan Getz, and George Benson. Hey, it was a jazz week . . .

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Children's Book Tour

This week saw the end of the first lengthy book tour that I've done for a children's book: in this case, Hell's Bells. While I did some kids' events for The Gates a year or two back, this was a much more comprehensive affair, taking in two and sometimes three kids' events most days. Generally they took place in school libraries, or in local libraries to which the schools brought the kids.

So what were they like? Well, it was the hardest work that I've ever done: the most rewarding when the events went well, but the most soul-destroying when they did not. On one level, it was like returning to my early days as an adult mystery author. Back then, nobody really knew who I was, or what I was trying to do. I mean, there are large numbers of people who still don't know who I am, and could care less about what I'm trying to do, but at least when I do an adult event most of the people in attendance will know something about me, and may even have read some of the books. With kids, though, I'm still at the level of just about being better than double maths, and I get about five minutes of grace from them before I have to start proving myself. True, there were some schools in which the kids had been primed, and a number of them had read at least one of the books, but there were lots of other schools where I was an unknown quantity not only to the the kids themselves but to their teachers and their school librarian. It's hard to stand up in front of an audience that has no conception of who you are, and try to convince them that you're worth their time not only while you're talking, but afterwards in the form of the book you've written.

Halfway through the tour, I found myself waking up each morning with a pain in my mouth and neck. I realized that I'd been clenching my teeth while I was sleeping, and my neck was taut. I've never really been nervous before doing events, mostly because I enjoy doing them, but I was nervous throughout these past two-and-a-half weeks. In part, it was because there was no way of knowing quite what to expect from the kids or their school. If I arrived and there were 200 (or sometimes more) children packed into the school hall, then I knew I was heading for disaster. You can't communicate with 200 plus kids for any length of time. It's impossible. There's also the likelihood that nobody will really have told them who you are, or why you're there. They won't have read the books, or even Googled your name. You're just a bloke standing at the front of the room, usually without a microphone, shouting at them in a strange accent.

Those days were horrible. I felt like a comedian dying on my feet during an act, facing a crowd that wasn't laughing, or even listening. No books would be sold and, for the most part, you'd be ignored by both kids and teachers. After doing two such events in a row in one day quite early in the tour, the rep just left me to wander disconsolately around the city in the hope that I might decompress a little. That was the start of the clenching and the taut neck.

I started to learn that a law of diminishing returns applied when it came to talking to the kids. 60-70 was probably the maximum, 30-40 ideal, although my final event was at a lovely high school in London more than 100 children. They were great - attentive and funny - but I did have to roam back and forth across the room quite a bit so I could maintain as much eye contact as possible. It was also clear that I was happier talking to younger kids. Older teenagers had no real interest in a book like Hell's Bells, but by the time I realized that I was halfway through an event with older teenagers, and it was rather too late to rescue myself. Subsequently, I tended to talk to the older kids about The Book of Lost Things, or even the crime novels, and kept the Hell's Bells-related stuff for those aged 13 and under.

Overall, though, the positive experiences far outweighed the negative ones. I've never had as much fun as I did talking to kids in places like Leicester and Peterborough, Norwich and Ilford, Broughton, Bury and Boston. They made me laugh, and their questions forced me to think on my toes faster than any that have been thrown at me by adults. At the end of those events, my adrenalin would be coursing, and I'd leave the school with a smile plastered on my face. Occasionally, a small person would call out 'Goodbye, John!' as we drove away, and I would be very happy indeed.

Then I'd immediately nod off as my energy levels plummeted.

Some great questions from kids:

1) Why do you talk so fast?
2) Are you rich?
3) What kind of car do you drive?
4) When you were a kid, did you want to be a private detective?
5) If you were a detective, what mystery would you solve?
6) You write about Hell? Have you ever been anywhere like Hell?
7) What was the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you when you were young?

There will be more such events to come. The US tour for The Infernals begins in October, and there will be more books for young people to come. I love writing them, and I've loved chatting with kids about science and books and reading and life over these past few weeks. I'll take the odd event that doesn't work as the price to be paid for all of the ones that do. And to all of the kids who came along to events, and to the teachers and librarians who encouraged them to do so -

Thank you!

This week John read

Roseanna by Sjowall and Wahloo
Satori by Don Winslow

and listened to

Director's Cut by Kate Bush
Feel It Break by Austra

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Win an advance copy of HELL'S BELLS!

With just over a week before the first events for HELL'S BELLS start, we're giving away an advance copy to one lucky member of the website forum. Make a contribution — leave a comment, start a thread — anywhere on the forum between now and midnight GMT Tuesday 19 April, and your name will be entered into a random drawing for an advance copy of HELL'S BELLS.

One entry per person — though of course you can post as often to the forum as you'd like — and spam doesn't count. Jayne, our lovely forum moderator, will delete any posts she considers inappropriate, and her discretion is final. And no, she is not susceptible to bribes.

Good luck!


Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Displacement Activity

I should really be doing something else right now, but then most of the time I feel that way. For the moment, though, my guilt centres on the final step to be taken in sending the revised manuscript of THE BURNING SOUL back to my British editor.

Receiving editorial notes is a funny business. They're always welcome, but I tend to open the envelope with a degree of trepidation. There will be a covering letter, usually praising me as some kind of genius (my editors do know how to butter me up, I'll give them that) and promising that, upon my eventual demise, statues will be raised in my honour so women and small children (presumably not my own, but you never know) will have somewhere to prostrate themselves in grief, tearing their hair at the loss I represent to literature and, indeed, manhood in general, while stern chaps stand behind them and discreetly wipe manly tears from their eyes.

Or words to that effect.

Inevitably, following all the stuff about posterity and deathless prose, there will be a 'but' somewhere around the third paragraph. That 'but' will speak volumes. Sometimes, it isn't even a proper 'but'. It will be disguised as something less potentially damaging to my fragile ego, such as 'I have only a few small queries . . .', or 'Perhaps you might like to look at . . .' It's at this point I realise that I'm probably not going to get the statue, or the wailing women, or the stout fellows with handlebar mustaches commenting upon how I was the best of them, and quite the chap, and how they wouldn't have minded if I'd slept with their wives. Far from it, in fact: they'd have been flattered, and their beloved spouses would have been happy to oblige. No, none of that for me, not now. Perfection has eluded me once again...

Actually, the editorial notes were relatively incident-free on this occasion. They mainly amounted to some grammatical errors - darn it, and I thought I was positively Banvillesque in my command of English - and a suggestion that I shorten two anecdotes, while perhaps considering offering the reader less about the intricacies of the wholesale fish business. (Well, I thought it was interesting, and I don't even like fish.) Last time out, with THE WHISPERERS, my editor and I differed on the whole philosophy and structure of the book, and ultimately we had to agree to differ. I wasn't sure that I could make the changes she wanted while writing the book I had set out to write. Thus it was less an argument over quality - at least I hope it wasn't, although I know that THE WHISPERERS will never be her favourite among my books - than about the nature of the book itself. Still, the discussion was worth having, and we've known each other for too long now to fall out over something like that.

On a related note, I've encountered two writers in the last month who were discussing the nature of e-books and self-publishing. One of them was a gentleman (Lee Goldberg), while the other, who shall remain nameless, is, at best, a half-decent self-publicist with a chip on his shoulder about mainstream publishing. The Self-Publicist, in his discussion of the future of publishing, took the view that all a writer really needed was a decent copy editor (essentially, someone who checks spelling, grammar and consistency, and adds instructions for the typesetter) and a cover designer, e-publishing rendering any other input unnecessary as far as he was concerned. At no point did he mention the importance of an editor rather than a copy editor and, more particularly, the relationship between an editor and a writer that, in my case, now spans 15 books. Most writers are not very good at editing themselves, and no book has ever been made worse by the input of an editor. Even Raymond Carver, that exquisite writer of short stories, benefited from the editorial changes of his editor Gordon Lish, if one is to judge by the recently published original versions of the tales later contained in WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT LOVE, the 1981 collection that arguably made Carver's reputation. The stories in the original form are more discursive, and arguably less poetic, at least in the sense in which that word is most frequently used when it comes to Carver's work, and they are certainly less minimalist. Lish was undoubtedly a heavy editor, but one might legitimately ask if Carver's work would have been quite so immediately acclaimed following the publication of that collection had the stories remained in their original form.

Anyway, all I know is that my books would have been immeasurably poorer without the advice and gentle touch of my British editor, Sue Fletcher, and my American editor, Emily Bestler, who have been looking after my work for fifteen and fourteen books respectively. Maybe the Self-Publicist is the exception to all this. If so, he, and not I, deserves to have that statue raised in his honour. Still, it's depressing to hear so much of the debate about e-publishing being conducted only in terms of increased income for writers, with little regard for issues of quality. Writers need editors, and the longer a writer and an editor work together, the better that writer's work will be.

Still, I had begun to make significant changes to the manuscript even before my editor's formal changes arrived, which lends credence to the view that a book is never finished, merely abandoned. THE BURNING SOUL, like all of my Parker books, had a prologue and an epilogue, but in this case I had doubts about their merits. In part, the prologue was a hangover from a period when the book was to have been written entirely in the present tense. It was, I thought, a nice piece of writing in its present tense form, but that's not the best reason to allow anything to stand in a book, and the prologue arguably hampered the reading of the novel. THE BURNING SOUL required the reader to be thrust immediately into the circumstances surrounding a child's disappearance so, almost as soon as the book went to my editors, I began to wish that I hadn't sent it off without first sorting out the issue of the prologue. Shortly after that, I met my editor at a dinner in London. Almost her first words referred to the prologue, but at least I was able to say that I had already recognised, and begun to wrestle with, the problem.

So the prologue has gone and so, of course, has the epilogue, because you shouldn't have one without the other. After that, I sat down and made most of the changes my British editor had requested. I always tend to disagree with one of her suggestions, if only to allow myself the illusion that she might be fallible too. In this case, I declined to remove four lines about a court case. When I read back over the typeset manuscript in a month or two, or even glance at the finished book, I'll probably feel that she was right in the first place. She usually is. Meanwhile, my American editor's suggestions are due to arrive in the coming weeks. In addition to editorial changes, my lawyer friend John read the manuscript and spotted some legal areas that needed work, and the book is not only more correct because of his advice, but has been improved too. The manuscript is also in the hands of a private investigator and a Maine police detective. They will find errors, or suggest alternative, better ways for the plot to work. I'll make those changes too.

All that remains is to transfer the manuscript from Apple Pages into MS Word, correct all of the reformatting that seems to occur, and send off the revised version. I should be doing that now instead of writing this blog. So why the displacement activity?

Simple: once it goes, I have to decide what to do next.

Playtime is over.

This week John read

THREE STATIONS by Martin Cruz Smith

and listening to

C'MON by Low

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

First look: THE BURNING SOUL's UK cover!

It won't be out until September 1 — but here's the cover of the next Charlie Parker novel, THE BURNING SOUL, to be published by Hodder in the UK, Ireland and Australia.


More information to come in the months ahead!




Friday, March 25, 2011

This Weekend at the Tennessee Williams Festival

A full weekend booked at this year's Tennessee Williams Festival in New Orleans. Passes are required for most events; details at http://www.tennesseewilliams.net/.>

Friday, March 25
1 P.M.
Come hear Festival authors read from their latest works and sign their books. Join John Connolly, Declan Hughes, and Gerard O’Donovan as they thrill, entertain, educate, or stimulate the literary mind with that most powerful instrument: the written word.
Regal Suite at the Royal Sonesta, 300 Bourbon Street.

Sunday, March 27
11:30 A.M.
Young adult novelist M.H. Herlong moderates a panel that includes John Connolly, Patty Friedmann, Greg Herren, and Lish McBride.
Muriel’s Jackson Square Restaurant, 801 Chartres Street.

Sunday, March 27
1 P.M.
As part of a program with Culture Ireland, which funded the travels of these writers, the Festival is proud to present a panel of bestselling Irish crime writers—John Connolly, author of the Charlie Parker mysteries, Declan Hughes, author of the Ed Loy series, and Gerard O'Donovan, author of The Priest. They'll discuss the intricacies of their art and what it is that sets Irish crime writing apart.
Panelists: John Connolly, Declan Hughes, and Gerard O’Donovan.
Moderator: Diana Pinckley.
Muriel’s Jackson Square Restaurant, 801 Chartres Street.

Sunday, March 27
2:30 P.M.
Bestselling Irish writers Declan Hughes and John Connolly serve up an annotated reading list.
Muriel’s Jackson Square Restaurant, 801 Chartres Street.


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

At the 67th St. Library in NYC tonight...

The 67th Street branch of the NY Public Library welcomes John Connolly tonight at 5:30, as part of the Imagine Ireland program. All are welcome, admission is free. Details at http://www.nypl.org/events/programs/2011/03/22/author-nypl-presents-john-conn.... [CL]

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Hell's Bells/The Infernals Excerpt & Videos Now Online

The first chapter of HELL'S BELLS (THE INFERNALS) and two short videos about the series are now online! Check them out at http://www.johnconnollybooks.com/novels-hells-bells.php


Sunday, January 09, 2011

Twenty Mysteries You Must Read Before You Die

As promised, here is the list of TWENTY MYSTERIES YOU MUST READ BEFORE YOU DIE, as Declan Hughes and I decided to call it when we first set about compiling it.  This isn't quite the same list, as Declan and I inevitably disagreed on certain books, so when we present the list together publicly it tends to be a compromise arrangement with each of us sacrificing a couple of titles.  Nevertheless, there is no disagreement between us about the first ten books, while the second ten is more personal to me, with a couple of exceptions.  With luck, this list will form the basis of book club discussions on my forum, Twitter, Facebook, etc.  We'll keep you notified.  At the very least, it will provide you with some fine reading, and some enjoyable nights in your favorite chair . . .

1.THE GLASS KEY-DASHIELL HAMMETT (1931). Also RED HARVEST (1929), where the western becomes the PI novel, and THE MALTESE FALCON (1931) 

2.THE LONG GOODBYE-Raymond Chandler (1953), the most nuanced of his books, closely followed by FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (1940) and THE BIG SLEEP (1939) 

3.THE CHILL-Ross Macdonald(1964). Often regarded, unfairly, as being in Chandler's shadow, this novel has one of the greatest twists in mystery fiction. Also THE DOOMSTERS(1958), THE UNDERGROUND MAN (1971), SLEEPING BEAUTY (1973),  THE GOODBYE LOOK (1969), and THE GALTON CASE (1959)

4.DEEP WATER-Patricia Highsmith (1957). She has a grim view of the human condition, and this is quite, quite chilling. Also THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY(1955) 

5.THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE-George V.Higgins (1972). Greatest dialogue ever in a crime novel. See also Robert B.Parker and Dennis Lehane. For those interested in the art of writing, Higgins's book ON WRITING (1990) is worth hunting down.

6.THE TIN ROOF BLOWDOWN-James Lee Burke (2007). The greatest living mystery writer tackles post-Katrina New Orleans. Genius. Any of the Robicheaux books are worth reading, although the first in the series, THE NEON RAIN (1987) is actually untypical of what follows, and one could argue that Burke really finds his feet with the second book, HEAVEN'S PRISONERS (1988).  Also BLACK CHERRY BLUES (1989), DIXIE CITY JAM (1994) and THE GLASS RAINBOW (2010)

7.THE LECTER TRILOGY-Thomas Harris. RED DRAGON (1981),SILENCE OF THE LAMBS(1988), HANNIBAL(1999). Ignore HANNIBAL RISING. It's awful, and is basically a novelization of a film script.  While HANNIBAL received some terrible reviews, and its ending was particularly lambasted, there is an internal logic to the first three novels that makes the ending of HANNIBAL inevitable.  I'm quite happy to discuss this in a bar, as long as someone buys me drinks first.

8.STRANGER IN MY GRAVE-Margaret Millar (1960). Wife of Ross Macdonald, and unfairly neglected. Brilliant on women, and the class divide.  Also BEAST IN VIEW (1966).

9.LET'S HEAR IT FOR THE DEAF MAN-Ed McBain (1972). The father of the modern police procedural, with half a century of 87th Precinct Books.  Without him, there would have been no HILL STREET BLUES, and arguably no HOMICIDE or THE WIRE.  The mid-period novels (1960-1980) are probably the best, including FUZZ (1968), BLOOD RELATIVES (1975). 

10.THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD-Agatha Christie (1926). Another great 'twist' novel, and one that raises fascinating questions about the relationship between detective and criminal, a question that finds its ultimate answer in the Poirot book intended for posthumous publication, CURTAIN (1975)

11. THE NAME OF THE ROSE 1980) by Umberto Eco. Arguably his only readable novel, and certainly his most enjoyable, and that includes the pseuds' fave, FOUCAULT'S PENDULUM

12. MORALITY PLAY ( 1995) by Barry Unsworth. A group of travelling players investigate a murder, and inadvertently invent the modern theatre. 

13. THE BLACK ECHO (1992) by Michael Connelly. Still one of the greatest mystery debuts of all time, and the first glimpse of Detective Harry Bosch. Also THE CONCRETE BLONDE (1994) and THE LAST COYOTE (1995)

14. THE CRYING OF LOT 49 (1966) by Thomas Pynchon. The Californian crime novel's postmodern re-imagining as absurdist conspiracy thriller. 

15. THE BIG BLOWDOWN (1999) by George Pelecanos. The first of the DC Quartet from a modern master, set in post-WWII Washington. Also KING SUCKERMAN (1997), THE SWEET FOREVER (1998) and SHAME THE DEVIL (2000).

16. WHAT THE DEAD KNOW (2007) by Laura Lippman. Her finest novel; one of a pair of missing girls reappears after 30 years.

17. HAWKSMOOR (1985)  by Peter Ackroyd. Twin narratives link 20th century child-killings with a Satanic 17th century architect. Quite chilling, and you'll never quite view the city of London in the same way again.

18. FAST ONE (1932) by Paul Cain. Landmark hard-boiled novel by an almost forgotten master of the genre.

19. MIAMI BLUES (1984) by Charles Willeford. If Beckett had written a hard-boiled novel about a cop trying to find his missing gun...

20. THE LAST GOOD KISS (1978) by James Crumley. The first great post-Vietnam mystery novel by the late Crumley, a writer held in much esteem and affection by his fellow mystery writers.

Take Ten

Ten 'Getting To Know You' Questions from the recent edition of Ireland's RTE Guide.  Death and Jam will be the title of my autobiography . . .


What is your earliest childhood memory?


We lived with my grandparents, who had the downstairs rooms while my parents and I lived upstairs.  I can remember sitting on my grandparents’ kitchen floor as a very small boy, surrounded by homemade jam that I’d smeared everywhere after opening one of their cupboards.  And I don’t even like jam.  I think I was just being willfully destructive.  I can also remember our dog being run over by the binmen, and my grandfather dying.  Death and jam: those are my childhood memories.

Who was your first pin-up?


I suspect that it was Elisabeth Sladen, who played Sarah Jane Smith in Doctor Who.  (“Mummy, the lady makes me feel funny.”)  Actually, she still looks pretty good now, and she’s 62, which I find hard to believe.  She’s kept her dignity as well: Katy Manning, who played her predecessor, Jo Grant, was once photographed naked with a Dalek for a magazine called Girl Illustrated.  It was probably neck-and-neck between Elisabeth and “Wuthering Heights”-era Kate Bush.  I’m not sure what I would have done if they’d both started fighting over me.  Expired, probably.

Which of your peers do you most admire, and why?


I’m not sure that he’s my peer as he’s both older than me, and far better at what he does, but James Lee Burke was one of the writers who made me want to write mysteries.  He’s the greatest living mystery writer, bar none.  Jack Nicholson once said of Marlon Brando that, when he dies, everybody else moves up one.  Burke is our Brando.

What would you be doing with your life if you hadn’t chosen this career path?

Initially, I wanted to be a vet, but I suspect that I’d just read too many James Herriot books, and I didn’t really want to spend my afternoons with my forearm buried in a cow.  I’d probably still be a journalist, which would be no bad thing, except possibly for journalism.

Can you reveal one of your guilty pleasures?


You know, I’ve reached the age where I’m beginning to doubt the whole concept of ‘guilty pleasures’, aside from maybe touching farm animals inappropriately.  Still, given the fact that I’m pretty careful about exercising regularly, it would probably be a warm cinnamon bun in Simon’s Place at the George’s Street Arcade in Dublin. I live in fear of Gary Ranford, the guy who trains me, passing by while I’m stuffing my face, and shaking his head in disappointment.

Who would like to see cast in the movie of your life?


I’d like to see Colin Firth, but they’d probably cast Steve Buscemi.   As long as it’s somebody thin . . .

Who are you following on Twitter?


I’m a recent convert to Twitter, but I’m a big fan of Phill Jupitus.  I’m currently reading his book on being a DJ, Hello, Nantwich, which is almost as enjoyable as Dave Fanning’s autobiography, which I really liked.  His continued enthusiasm for music is very lovely indeed.

What’s the first thing you would buy if you won the Lottery?


I have an old Ford Mustang that I don’t really get to drive very much, as I don’t have off-street parking, so I’d buy a garage closer to my house.  I’d also buy one very expensive piece of art, and then worry about someone stealing it.

What would you pack for your desert island?


An iPod, a solar charger, the complete works of P.G. Wodehouse, and Jennie, my other half, although I suspect she’d brain me with a coconut before one week was out.  I’m not very keen on the whole desert island business because I’m not very good at lounging around.  I suspect that I’d get a bit bored, and a bit annoying.

What’s at the top of your ‘things to do before I die’ list?


Not die.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

On James Lee Burke

I recently contributed the introduction to the lovely Scorpion Press limited edition of The Glass Rainbow by James Lee Burke, and thought people might like to read it.   After all, it's James Lee Burke...

For many of my generation of mystery writers, James Lee Burke is the greatest living author in our field, and one of the most accomplished literary stylists in modern American letters.  For better or worse, I would not be writing without his influence, and all that I have written, I have written in his shadow.  To borrow a phrase used by Jack Nicholson of Marlon Brando: “When he dies, everybody else moves up one.”

            Burke’s preeminence is due, in no small part, to the manner in which he came to the mystery novel.  Before publishing, in 1987,  The Neon Rain, the first book to feature the recurring character of Dave Robicheaux, he had read little in the genre, the work of Raymond Chandler and James Crumley apart, so he approached the task of writing a mystery largely freed from any obligation to the perceived requisites.  The books that have emerged in the decades since are, in a sense, only incidentally mysteries: they are, first and foremost, literate, literary, socially engaged novels.  To read them is to encounter a great novelist applying his gifts to a sometimes underrated  form, reinventing and reinvigorating it by his presence.

            On this basis alone, he deserves his place in our Pantheon, but underlying the elegance and beauty of his prose, and an engagement with the natural world that is virtually unrivalled in modern fiction, is a profound moral sensibility, one that is informed by Burke’s own personal struggles and convictions.  Burke is a liberal (that much abused word, utilised as an insult by those who least understand its meaning) in the classic Steinbeck/ Dorothy Day mode, with a passionate hatred of social injustice, and a hardwired instinct to take the side of the weak and the powerless.  As a consequence, compassion and empathy infuse his work, while his political and social commentary, although consistent, is carefully, and subtly, couched.  For example, references to the war in Vietnam in the novels, a defining moment in Robicheaux’s past, act not only as markers to that period but as metaphors for later, dirtier conflicts, particularly those in Central America in the 1980s and early 1990s. 

            Equally, Burke has made no secret of his own demons: his early difficulties with alcohol, his frustration at being out of print for most of his thirties while struggling to raise a family, and the resulting bitterness that almost tipped him into nihilism.  His salvation was no simple matter.  Strengthened by the love and support of his wife, Pearl, he attained sobriety through the 12-step program, and rediscovered his childhood Catholicism.  He also found himself published again when The Lost Get-Back Boogie, which had been under submission for nine years, and had been rejected more than a hundred times, was finally published by the Louisiana University Press in 1986. 

            Knowing something of Burke himself better enables us to understand how his greatest literary creation came into being.  Dave Robicheaux is a complex character, both humane in his judgements, and intensely, movingly human in his failings.  His intolerance of wickedness can, at times, make him seem as stern as the God of the Old Testament, but this, I suspect, is a reflection of Burke’s own belief that there are no little evils: sins, both major and minor, mortal and venial, are born of the same mother, and great wrongs grow from small seeds.  As Victor Hugo once wrote, “Men become accustomed to poison by degrees”; or, as Burke himself has put it, rather more wittily, “Give the Devil an air-conditioner, and you’ll never get him out of the office.”

            Yet an intolerance for evil is not the same as an unwillingness to forgive sins.  Robicheaux, like his creator, is too aware of his own frailties to pass sentence rashly upon others, and, similarly, Burke is too nuanced a writer to allow Robicheaux to carry the sole moral authority in his books.  Clete Purcel, his former partner, is given crucial opportunities to question Robicheaux’s occasional inflexibility, and similar criticism is permitted to be leveled at Robicheaux by the women who love and respect him.  But it is also those closest to him who recognise that the person who is hardest on Robicheaux is Robicheaux himself, and such intense self-criticism, if left unchecked, can itself become a form of vanity. 

            Ultimately, what Robicheaux and those who act alongside him understand is the truth of the words of their creator’s namesake, the Irish writer and philosopher Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”  To stand by while others suffer is to be complicit in their sufferings; to attempt to bring those sufferings to an end, and thus remove a little of the evil from the world, even at great cost to oneself, is an act of empathy and justice that, if one believes in God, brings us closer to the Divine and, even if one does not believe, makes one a better person for the effort. 

            The Robicheaux novels are one of the crowning glories of mystery fiction, and The Glass Rainbow is a worthy addition to their number.  Long may Burke continue to write, for I’m in no hurry to move up that one place . . .