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Any questions?

This past spring the filmed version of Alan Glynn’s novel Limitless took theaters by storm.  Last week, Picador’s paperback edition of Glynn’s novel Winterland hit the shelves, a book George Pelecanos called  “A terrific read”, and John Connolly characterized as “timely, topical and thrilling.”  Here, Alan discusses the genesis of Winterland, architecture as metaphor, and the real life heart of darkness that informs his next novel, Bloodland.

“Where did you get the idea for your book?”

Whenever I’m asked this question I try hard to give an honest answer but I generally end up feeling like a bit of a fraud, as though I’ve come up with something on the spot just to keep the conversation moving. Because the thing is, by the time I arrive at the end of a book I usually find I’ve forgotten how it got started, its origins obscured somewhere in memory and almost inaccessible now through thickets of notes, outlines, obsessive but often unnecessary research and a seemingly endless process of re-writing.

Thinking back on answers I’ve given in the past, though, I do see a pattern emerging. The account I offer will either be fine-sounding and rational, or slightly random and intuitive – left brain, right brain stuff. Both do the job, and neither, I suspect, is actually untrue. It’s just that I can never be sure which came first . . .

For example, when asked about my first novel, The Dark Fields (now republished as Limitless) I would say either one of two things. I would say that it arose from an interest in the scandals of the late 90s regarding performance-enhancing drugs in sport, and that it was a sort of ‘what if . . .’ story – what if there existed a performance-enhancing drug for lawyers or businessmen or politicians? Out of which came questions about that very American theme of the perfectability of man and the notion of a latter-day Gatsby whose impulse for self-improvement has been reduced to a pharmaceutical commodity.

Or I would say that it arose from . . . not much at all, from a desperate scrambling around inside my own brain for SOMETHING TO WRITE ABOUT. So . . . a situation. Maybe two guys who bump into each other on the street. One is a bit desperate (like I am at the time) and he meets . . . who? His ex-brother-in-law? Someone he hasn’t seen in nearly ten years? Yeah, that’s the ticket. But now that I have them together what are they going to talk about? “What have you been up to? Still dealing?” “Not exactly. How about you? Still a loser?” One thing leads to another and before you know it they’re having a conversation, and possibilities are opening up.

Continue reading “Any questions?”

Insulting Your Intelligence (“Just gimme some noiriness”)

toys'r'usI sometimes wonder if the popularity of noir isn’t largely due to the fact that no one seems entirely clear on what the hell it is.

Not that a busload of perfectly smart people haven’t ventured a definition or two. A great deal of thought is expended on virtually a daily basis trying to pin this sucker down, but it’s proved too supple a creature for that. One might even say noir’s ambiguity is its genius.

Is it?

Noir’s resurgence hasn’t taken place in a vacuum. Call it noiriness. So-called reality programming has become the middlebrow darling of TV executives and viewers alike. Not only has documentary filmmaking enjoyed a renaissance as well, its techniques have infiltrated TV comedy: consider The Office, Modern Family, Parks and Recreation.

There’s a trend here: a desire for the lowdown, the real deal, the inside dope. A craving for the authentic — or at least its veneer.

Noir responds to the same impulse, though the underlying need is edgier. Trace the trend back, and you’ll find Frank Miller reinventing the Daredevil and Batman franchises in the 1980s, and Alan Moore creating Warrior and V for Vendetta. And before that, in the late 1960s and early to mid-1970s — when Lennon was belting “Just gimme some truth” — the lunatics were running the Hollywood asylum, giving us such neo-noir masterpieces as Mickey One, Bonnie and Clyde, King of Marvin Gardens, Scarecrow, Klute, Mean Streets, Midnight Cowboy, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, The Sugarland Express, Thieves Like Us, Dog Day Afternoon, Taxi Driver, and Chinatown.

I use the term neo-noir grudgingly. It’s become a truism that these films were in the noir tradition, but in fact many were simple, honest tragedies. Just as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman falls prey to the delusion of making it in America, Jake Gittes in Chinatown is betrayed by the mistaken belief that we can figure things out (in Polanski’s reworking of Towne’s script, anyway), and Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy is misled by his conviction that a perfectly devised mask can shield him from the pain of being unloved.

Nearly all these films had tough, blatantly tragic endings, and even the ones that didn’t had a sense that if the hero survived, he did so through luck or guile, not virtue. These stories appeared in the context of the Vietnam War, when America was searching for a deeper understanding of itself, something that would remain once you tore away the paranoia and the swagger and the teary, knee-jerk flag-waving. Watching wood-hut villages napalmed before our eyes on nightly TV, we were obliged to confront a much different America than we’d grown up to believe in; it showed in our art.

Here, yes, neo-noir echoed classic noir, which was rooted in the Second World War and its aftermath, when soldiers stripped of their illusions returned home to a country desperate for normalcy. Inwardly, many of these vets recoiled from their portrayals as heroes, for they knew what it took to survive combat, and often it was luck, or something much darker, not fit for a chat with the wife and kids or Reverend Tim.

And the graphic-novel noir of Miller and Moore simply continued this thematic thread, yes?

Not exactly.

Continue reading “Insulting Your Intelligence (“Just gimme some noiriness”)”

Once Were Mysteries

The former chairman of the Booker Prize committee said last month,

“A mystery has as much chance of winning the Booker as a donkey winning the Derby.”

I ask myself, in pretty much all honesty, Who won the Booker last year?

Um…

I can rattle off who won the Edgar, the Hammett. But you could say my interest lies solely in mystery.

My daily reading consists of an eclectic mix of biography, and books on writing, poetry, philosophy, psychology. Because I’m fascinated by all of them.

John Arden, the acclaimed playwright, activist, author, recently domiciled in Galway. On the publication of The Devil, he met me after a signing, not a literary critic on the horizon, said,

“Crime novels are the new social conscience.”

I wrote a children’s book, was assaulted on most all sides by

“What?”

“You’re selling out?”

“You can’t write a children’s book .”

And you really have to smile, move it from drama to light entertainment.

I ask my own self,

“Have you ever heard of a literary writer transcending the genre and writing a mystery novel?”

Um…yes.

But their excursions into the second grade are excused by terms, no kidding, like

“Slumming.”

Yah gotta love ’em.
Continue reading “Once Were Mysteries”

A Donkey in the Grand National

Congratulations must go to crime novelist Peter Temple who last month won the Miles Franklin Award, Australia’s oldest literary prize. But before we seal and send that particular “well done, mate” package, let’s just drop a sharply delivered head slap in there, too. Because as much as Mr. Temple obviously deserves his accolade, he’s also prompted an additional round of Booker bleating.

For those of you not in the know, I’ll keep it brief — the Man Booker Prize is a cash award (originally £5k, now a whopping £20k) for the best novel written in the English language, written by a Commonwealth or Irish citizen, and published in the UK. It’s arguably the most prestigious literary award in Blighty, and for some reason crime writers want in on the act. The difficulty is, of course, that publishers have a limited number of entries, and according to former chairman of the Booker judges John Sutherland, if publishers were to nominate a crime novel, “There’s a feeling that it would be like putting a donkey into the Grand National.”

Which, y’know, if you want the press to go pestering Ian Rankin and Val McDermid for their already well-recorded thoughts on the matter, then that’s a fine way of going about it. The problem is crime novels have consistently made the Booker shortlist, along with other genres. In the past ten years alone we’ve seen Margaret Atwood’s 2000 winner The Blind Assassin (crime), Peter Carey’s 2001 winner The True History of the Kelly Gang (crime), Tim Winton’s Dirt Music (thriller), Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (sci-fi), Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal (thriller), David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (sci-fi), Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (sci-fi), Aravind Adiga’s 2008 winner The White Tiger (crime), and Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger (horror).

Now, yes, maybe I’m playing fast and loose with genre definitions there, but I still believe that whatever line there is between literary and genre, it’s easily blurred by quality. Case in point, and homework for you if you want it: compare and contrast the work of Richard Price and George Pelecanos with a particular reference to genre bias. Price’s first novel was a coming-of-age story about gang warfare; Pelecanos’s, a considered contemporary spin on the PI novel. Both have written extensively for The Wire, and both have had their most recent books branded with The Wire graphics, at least in the UK. Price’s novels frequently have cop protagonists and some kind of street-level mystery to be solved; Pelecanos has written variously of cops, PIs, and music-store clerks and tends to eschew mystery, especially in his later novels. So the question is, why does Richard Price have the popular literary label, while Pelecanos remains apparently stuck as a crime writer? Quality isn’t a factor — both are accomplished novelists. Is it a stylistic issue? Are Price’s prose pyrotechnics what make him literary? Do we still attribute being prolific with being poor? Pelecanos has written almost a book a year since his debut in 1992; Price has written four books since that time. Or is it simply geographical snobbery, where New York is seen as more artistically credible than Washington? Or is there an artistic glass ceiling, a real “us and them” situation? Because I have to say, I’m beginning to think it’s more just an “us and us” situation.

Continue reading “A Donkey in the Grand National”

Why Mark Billingham is a Badass

Viaduct, Birmingham, England 1982Mark Billingham has been a crime-fiction sensation in the UK since his first novel, Sleepyhead, was published in 2001 to great acclaim and success. The protagonist of that book, Detective Inspector Tom Thorne, has appeared in many subsequent novels and is now a beloved figure in British crime lit.

Billingham earned his success. Raised in Birmingham, he has been an actor, screenwriter, and stand-up comedian for most of his adult life. He continues to work in those fields, but it’s obvious from reading his books that his major love is writing novels. He’s ambitious in the best way; he wants to write good books, and, like any author worth a damn, he’s getting better at it over time. I’ve enjoyed all of Mark’s books to varying degrees, but I do think his last few have been flat-out fantastic. Bloodline, which Mulholland Books is bringing out in the States, is one of my favorites.

In Bloodline, a series of violent deaths are linked by relation to the work of an infamous, long-deceased serial killer. Thorne and his coinvestigators (Hendricks, Holland, Kitson, et al.), an intriguing bunch, all finely drawn, methodically go about the task of finding the murderer who is committing the deadly tribute. Mystery and police procedural aficionados will be very satisfied with the proceedings and will also be treated to a rich character study and a heady snapshot of contemporary London. The dialogue is drolly, organically funny, and the plot speeds to a gripping denouement. It’s a boss performance by Billingham, through and through.

This fall a television series based on two of the Thorne novels, Sleepyhead and Scaredy Cat, will be broadcast on British television. It stars David Morrissey as Thorne, Aiden Gillen (Tommy Carcetti on The Wire) as Hendricks, Sandra Oh, and Natascha McElhone, memorable from John Frankenheimer’s excellent Ronin.

Billingham’s books are as compulsively readable as Michael Connelly’s. I’m on record as saying that Connelly is the best mystery writer in the world, so I can’t give you a more respectful recommendation than that. Don’t let the British milieu or slang scare you; trust me, you’ll get it. American readers will be highly rewarded by giving Billingham a try.

George Pelecanos is the author of fifteen crime novels set in and around Washington, D.C. He is an award-winning essayist who has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, GQ, Sight and Sound, Uncut, Mojo, and numerous other publications. Esquire magazine called Pelecanos “the poet laureate of the D.C. crime world.” He was a producer, writer, and story editor for the acclaimed HBO dramatic series, The Wire, winner of the Peabody Award and the AFI Award. He was nominated for an Emmy for his writing on that show. Pelecanos lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, with his wife and three children. He is at work on his next novel.

See You in the Darkness

Barbara Stanywck and Fred MacMurray - Double Indemnity 1944One chilly February evening back in 2008, mystery writer Alan Gordon drove me home from a book launch for Queens Noir (Akashic, 2008), an anthology of dark tales set in my home borough. Both Alan and I live in Forest Hills, a pretty serene neighborhood set deep into Queens. As we approached the police precinct at the corner of Yellowstone and Austin that night, we noticed a burst of activity out front, including TV cameras and roving reporters. The next day, Alan e-mailed me: “So, all those camera crews at the precinct last night were about the arrest of the orthodontist’s wife for contracting his murder. My wife said, ‘I always knew she was crooked.’ ”

I knew the case vaguely. Back in October 2007, Daniel Malakov, a local man the newspapers described as a “prominent member” of Forest Hills’s Bukharian Jewish community, had been shot and killed in a nearby playground in full view of his four-year-old daughter. Ultimately, his estranged doctor-wife, Mazoltuv Borukhova, was convicted of first-degree murder and conspiring with a distant cousin to kill Malakov, with whom she was embroiled in a fierce custody battle. The key piece of evidence: a homemade silencer discarded at the scene. The silencer was traced to Borukhova’s cousin, whose fingerprints were on file for evading a subway fare. Shortly thereafter, police found that an astounding ninety-one calls had been made between the cousin and Dr. Borukhova during the three weeks preceding the murder. The jig was up.

In my reply to Alan’s e-mail, I remember noting that the whole story was in fact the classic noir tale — wife hires man to kill husband, only to find herself trapped in her own web of deception. Double Indemnity come to life. But, of course, beneath the genre staples, the case speaks to something far more elemental about the enduring attraction of crime fiction — particularly noir, with its emphasis on the fickle finger of fate. There is a tendency to dismiss crime novels as lurid, as trivial, as escapist. These dismissals always strike me as anxious attempts to diminish the genre’s actual, visceral lure. That, instead of being disposable yarns to be consumed quickly and tossed aside, crime novels speak to our very essence, to the often painfully compelling (impelling) emotions that, for all the layers of “civilization” and modernity that lay atop us, still can’t be soothed. Desire. Greed. Wrath. Envy. Revenge. These are timeless drives. Universal ones.

Continue reading “See You in the Darkness”

Mark Billingham and Laura Lippman on themselves and everything else

I’ve known Mark Billingham since 2002, but I feel as if we’re lifelong friends. When I heard he was going to move to Mulholland, I was sad for our mutual publisher but happy for Mark, if that makes sense. We share several enthusiasms, including the music of Elvis Costello and beer. I guess I should also mention that Mark is the author of the award-winning series of police procedurals about Tom Thorne, and a stand-alone, In the Dark. A stand-up comedian, he also is one of the funniest people I know. My new book came out in the United States on Tuesday, August 17, and Mark’s latest, From the Dead, is out in the United Kingdom on Thursday, August 19. When Mulholland asked if I wanted to inhabit its online real estate for a day, I suggested that Mark and I chat via Facebook. This is a lightly edited version of that chat.

MB: So, Laura, the new book is out in a couple of days. This is another stand-alone, right?

LL: Yes, another stand-alone. It’s called I’d Know You Anywhere, and it’s about a woman who’s contacted by the man who kidnapped and raped her when she was fifteen.

MB: Are you into any kind of pattern with the stand-alones and the series? A Tess Monaghan, then a stand-alone?

LL: There was a pattern, but it was broken because I wanted the book that was serialized in the New York Times magazine — The Girl in the Green Raincoat, the one with Tess’s pregnancy — to go out into the world before I resumed her story. That will finally happen next year.

MB: You’ve said that in some ways the new book is a companion piece to Life Sentences.

LL: After writing a book about a high-strung type who wrote the kind of book that book clubs discuss, I wanted to write a book about the kind of woman who belongs to a book club. Does that make sense?

MB: Absolutely. So would you say it’s less of straightforward mystery novel than you might write if it was a Tess book? Or should I say less of a crime novel?

LL: Less of a straightforward mystery, but very much a crime novel.

MB: So many writers, when they’re as many books in as you, start talking about feeling certain pressures to deliver the genre goods. Is that something that bothers you at all?

LL: Nick Hornby has a great line about how writing a good novel within a genre category is harder than writing a mainstream novel. I think it ups the ante in a very exciting way. It helps that I never did big twists. Weaknesses can become inadvertent strengths. I’ve never delivered huge twists (although some readers of What the Dead Know might disagree) so readers don’t expect me to take the tops of their heads off.

What do you think? Your Thorne books and your stand-alone seemed to me to be centered in real-world situations, where things are surprising, but never out-of-the-blue-didn’t-see-that-coming. I have to say, I think the dedicated reader, the one who wants to solve things, should be able to see things coming. You?

MB: Yes, I agree. I’ve actually started to grow tired of books where there is twist after twist. You can never actually invest in the story, because you know that so much of it is going to get pulled from under your feet. There’s a danger of it becoming nothing more than a technical exercise.

LL: I think at some point we have to choose between being clever and being — I’m stuck for the best word. Grounded? Credible? I’m not saying the latter is better than the former, just that it’s hard to do both in the same book. Presumed Innocent managed it. But it’s hard.

MB: If your book stands or falls on a reader being able to figure out a twist, or who the killer is, then it’s probably not much of a book. There has to be something more going on than that.

LL: I talk to young writers (or just new writers) about role-model books, the books that one aspires to write. Did you have such books? You know, “If only I could write a book like [Title] I would be so happy.”
Continue reading “Mark Billingham and Laura Lippman on themselves and everything else”