John Rickards lives on the south coast of England. He has published four novels - Winter's End, The Touch of Ghosts and The Darkness Inside, all featuring his series character Alex Rourke. His latest novel is Burial Ground.
John Rickards goes Under Interrogation
What was the first crime novel you ever read? I'm buggered if I can remember. Probably one of the Holmes ones, although I don't know which. I read all of them when I was a kid. Or one of Poe's stories, as my gran had the collection of them all. My mum used to - and still does - have a load of crime books in the house, but they were too cosy - Christie, Martha Grimes - for my tastes even back then. But there was a big lull between the last one I read when I was young and the first I read as an adult who knew the differences between genres. That one would've been 'Red Dragon'. Very cool.
Who is your favourite crime writer? Bloody hell, I've no idea. Chandler is certainly a strong contender. Lee Child, although he's more thrillery. Ken Bruen would be up there fighting for top slot. And Brian Michael Bendis, come to that. I tend to like a lot of different things from a lot of different writers. Chandler I love for the style of his prose, the quick one-liners and the wit. Child is very economical and pacey, not a word wasted and never a dull moment. Bruen's style is spare in the extreme and he does a character at war with themselves like no one else. And Bendis' grasp of dialogue and snap characterisation is brilliant.
I like a lot of people, basically. Each of those guys are ones who I've read more than a couple of, and that's rare for me. I tend not to be much of a repeat customer when it comes to reading.
Which crime novel do you wish you’d written? The Silence of the Lambs because I would now be rich beyond my wildest dreams. I'd use the money to build something like the Playboy Mansion, only more noirish. Be dead by the age of 30 in a haze of hookers and cocaine.
Seriously, hmm... probably American Psycho (unless Fight Club could somehow squeeze under the bar for crime). The style of the book took me a little while to get used to, but once I did, it was just brilliant. Really, really good stuff. However, if it had been me that had wrote it, I would've given it an ending of some sort. The last page remains one of the biggest let-downs I've ever had while reading, made worse by the brilliance of the rest. 'THIS IS NOT AN EXIT', my arse.
Why did you choose to write crime fiction? Crime - and that covers a huge area - includes lots of really juicy things for a writer to get their teeth into. Horror, tension, real deep characterisation, humour - gallows or otherwise, and an array of possible characters, settings and stories that you could play with all your life without repeating yourself. Mostly, I like it for the blood and the killing, though.
Has any thriller ever made you sleep with the lights on? Nope. I sleep like a baby. Which is to say, I wake up every two hours demanding to be fed. The creepiest I've read has been The Lost Girls by Andrew Pyper, but even that was no more than a vague shiver. And I don't sleep so well with the lights on. It would take a lot to make me want to ruin a decent night's sleep like that.
There have been plenty of thrillers that have made me stay up rather than going to sleep just so I can finish them. I seem to remember reading the last five of the Sin City books over the course of one night. I didn't get to sleep until about four in the morning.
If you were stranded on a desert island – which fictional character would you most want to be stranded with and why?
Robinson Crusoe. His valuable experience in the field of desert island survival would be an immense benefit to me. Although I suppose if I'm going by those standards, I might just as well say “Superman” because I'd be home again in no time. Failing that, maybe Nancy from ‘Sin City’ – it’d certainly make living off coconuts and shellfish for years on end more bearable.
I really am completely incapable of giving a straight single answer to questions, by the way. This isn't an act - it's a genuine affliction.
If you had to compare your books to any author, who would it be? I refuse to answer this question on the grounds that it would give away the books I plagiarise mercilessly.
(Joke - the real answer is probably John Connolly, for my first two books at least, although he's a much better writer than I am and he's much heavier on the weird shit.)
When you begin – do you already know the end? Pretty much, yeah. Although the end I know isn't necessarily the one I end up using. But I always need to have a vague idea what I'm shooting for.
What is the most outlandish plot idea you’ve come up with – and did it become a book? Probably - and anyone who's seen the shite I come up with online will know just how much competition there is for this - the idea of Jesus as a hard-bitten, violent, alcoholic, womanising detective. Hardboiled Jesus may, by the time you read this, have already appeared as a series of pulp short stories online, or it could equally have remained just a product of my addled brain. But as a book, no, certainly not. Oh, and there's an idea for a bad guy in a friend of mine's book, which I keep encouraging him to write in because I think it'd be cool. But every time I mention it, I get shocked looks and people telling me to stop, so it's probably best not to go into details here. Suffice it to say, the friend has yet to go along with my idea and a brilliant bad guy is therefore due never to see the light of day.
What are you working on at the moment? At the time of writing, the fourth Alex Rourke book, going under the working title of TWELVE ("12 people. 12 secrets. 12 murders. 12 hours." - catchy, eh?). At the time of reading, I hope I'll be working on my beer gut, relaxing after a job well done.
First person or third person? First.
US or UK? US.
Marple or Morse? Neither. Nuke the site from orbit, it’s the only way to be sure… OK, Morse if I have to chose one.
Amateur sleuth or DCI? Don’t care.
Paperback or hardback? Paperback. Easier to carry.
Past or present? Present.
Series or stand-alone? Stand-alone, probably, but I don’t much mind.
Chandler or Hammett? Chandler.
Please give your top three crime writing tips:
1) Even if you're doing a police procedural, remember this is still supposed to be a story. If lying convincingly about procedure (to skip the boring bits, say) will make for a much better story, don't forget you have that option. Willing suspension of disbelief is your friend.
2) Everyone has a motive for what they do. Every motive has reasons behind it. 'Just because I want a cool bad guy' isn't enough unless you're clever enough to pull it off with no one noticing.
3) Don't be afraid to be different. The good guy doesn't always have to win. The cop needn't be an alcoholic loner with personal problems. The bad guy needn't be a genius. There's more to crime than sticking with all the genre’s conventions every time.
What do you know about the people you see every day? Really? Just in passing?
You go swanning into the local Kentucky Fried McBurger King on the way back from the pub, or queue up for a couple of minutes for an evening of cinematic gunfights and explosions (or a four-hour epic in Polish about the decline of the wicker industry, if that’s more your cup of tea). You exchange the usual half dozen customer-worker sentences in conversation. A nice guy or a pretty girl gives you a smile at the bar, or you get chatting with someone in the queue at Sainsbury’s who happens to share your opinions on what constitutes a decent sausage. And then you’re off on your way and you never think about those people again.
Or – since you’re reading this on the internet and I assume you’re at least aware of the vague details even if you’ve never indulged in it yourself; this is, after all, an age when Sweden can open an embassy inside a virtual world whose first millionaire has just been mobbed with an a flock of animated dancing penises at an official news conference (an outrage top analysts describe as “very, very funny”) – you’re watching porn or seeing a picture of some half-naked girl in a newspaper. Even though you may be seeing them in mid-simulated intimacy, you know absolutely nothing about them, and maybe it doesn’t even occur to you to wonder any more about their lives than it does when you’re ordering a 12-piece McWhopper Bucket from someone in an unconvincing baseball cap.
But the odds are fairly good that, at some point, one of those people who’ve sailed in and out of your life like proverbial ships in the night has been, or is still, reported as missing from home or family.
Now, chances are if they were, it was a teenage runaway case and not some full-blown child abduction. Such tragic crimes are rare, in both the US and the UK. Far rarer than public perception or media portrayal would have you believe (people who quote figures saying that one child is abducted/disappears every X seconds don’t usually go on to say that the majority of those are temporary teenage runaways or one separated parent snatching the child from the custody of the other).
But still, you’ve seen them and you didn’t even know it. Now, suppose they vanished when they were just a kid. Even if you’d known them well, would you recognise them now?
Now, obviously this is a very long preamble to some talk about child abductions which basically boils down to “buy my book, it’s terribly good and interesting and everything”, but stick with me. Imagine, for a moment, bearing in mind you’ve probably already seen a missing person you didn’t know, how it would feel to learn that you’d seen a missing kid you did know. And that it was just in passing, they’re gone now and you have no idea where they’d be.
Not nice, I’d bet. Is it even possible? We’re talking years and years here, after all.
There are few things more depressing than seeing the appeal for help for a missing child on the news. A snippet of home video footage, a holiday photo showing them – well, usually her – at their best and brightest, the standard police press conference appealing for the missing girl to get in touch, for anyone who has her to come forward, for witnesses to call the officers dealing with the case.
By the time that conference, that news story, those appeals come round, it’s a sad fact that chances are she’s already dead. The FBI’s own statistics show that in child sexual abduction purposes, three quarters of the victims are dead within six hours, nine out of ten within 24. By the time that press conference appears on the news, the police certainly know the chances, the press probably do if they know their subject matter, and the family… well, who knows? It’s a terribly hard thing to do, giving up hope.
Unfortunately, it’s also not always possible to catch the person responsible, certainly not very quickly. Evidence is usually thin on the ground in the early stages of these investigations. A time of disappearance. A vehicle make or colour, maybe even a very, very vague description of the man responsible. At best, some grainy CCTV footage of a car. While this all helps narrow down the suspect list, it’s not much to start from. No physical evidence, nothing conclusive, few angles to work from. Until the body is found, weeks or months later.
And all that time the police, other families, everyone’s wondering if there’s going to be another one. Another child snatched. And the family of the first may still be clinging to the faint hope of seeing their kid return. It’s a genuinely horrible scenario.
Sometimes, of course, they do. Last year saw Natascha Kampusch found after 8 years in captivity. The last two of Mark DuTroux’s victims were found alive, one of them having spent nearly three months trapped in his basement dungeon. Tanya Kach, abducted at 14, was found last year after 10 years imprisonment. Teenagers run away from home and can turn up months or years after the event. But if they’ve been gone that long, it’s rare. If they’ve been abducted, doubly rare.
Now put yourself in the shoes of someone investigating one of these disappearances. You’ve got to deal with the family, families if there’s more than one. You’ve got pressure from all sides to get it solved. You’ve got a faint, faint hope of finding the victim alive. And you’ve got the gnawing feeling that you won’t have something solid to work with until they show up dead.
The complications don’t stop there, of course. Even if you’re successful, you have the psychological effects on the victims and their families, you have to deal with a perpetrator whose actions place them beyond the pale as far as the rest of humanity is concerned, but who you still have to at least try to understand if this sort of thing is to be stopped in the future.
Chances are, of course, that you won’t be. Not completely. Things of this sort rarely work out entirely. Usually, by the time anyone’s aware of the true extent of the crime, it’s too late for someone, somewhere.
So next time you’re in GeneriCoffee paying the server’s hourly wage for a decaff latte, or you see a young woman, strangely forlorn, sitting by herself in a parked car, or a stranger smiles at you in a bar, take a moment to wonder about who they are, how they got there. Where they’re heading.
John Rickards, author of the hugely popular Winter’s End, talks about his love of Alex Rourke, the main character, and his latest novel The Touch of Ghosts, how he sees his own books and why he chose such an obscure part of the US to base some of his characters.
So John, what gave you the idea for Winter’s End?
You know that bit in every cop thriller where they’re interrogating the suspect, and one of them switches on the tape recorder and says, “State your name for the record”? I started wondering one day what happens if the suspect refuses. Between that and the idea for the opening scene in the storm, which was the first thing that came to me, Winter’s End was born.
Why pick such an obscure part of the US as a setting? I had a simple criteria for picking a location – I needed a sparsely-populated area where local law enforcement would be small enough to make the need to bring in outside help from the private sector a realistic one. As I figured the Southwest had been covered plenty of times, that only really left the Pacific Northwest and northern New England as options. And when I was ‘scouting’ locations online, I saw the website for the Aroostook County Sheriff’s Department and knew I’d got what I wanted. They really do have a patrol division of just six people and three cars to cover 11,000 miles of highway and over 100 settlements. Winter’s End, for the record, isn’t a real place, or even based on a real place. It’s entirely fictional.
Where did you get the idea for Alex as a main character?
A lot of people like Al as a character, but as a writer you don’t sit down and say, “Right. I’ll add an element of X to this character, and a dash of Y, and then he will be popular and sympathetic to the readers”. Basically all I did was figure it’d be nice to have a main character who wasn’t The Greatest Detective Ever, nor someone who had rafts of hideous personal problems and ‘issues’ like the traditional ‘maverick cop’. I wanted him to be a basically nice guy, pretty ordinary, fairly quiet, who’d done an admittedly far from ordinary job with the FBI and who hadn’t taken well to the pressure, and consequently acquired a few pretty realistic problems. Kind of an ‘everyman’ character, or at least that was the aim.
What about Nick?
Nick was a fun bad guy to write, but I had to be very careful not to have him turn into a Hannibal Lecter clone. Both of them are well-spoken and intelligent, but that’s the limit – no Chianti here. And I had to work hard to keep up his air of mystery early on in the book, and to give him room to be all nice and evil later on without turning him into a caricature. Which hopefully I’ve managed.
The villain or villains in my new book The Touch of Ghosts are totally different from Nick. I’m trying to avoid rehashing old ideas for bad guys, which can be a problem in some crime fiction. Touch wood, I’ve managed it so far.
Are you going to be reusing the setting or characters in later books? Alex, Gemma and Rob all feature in The Touch of Ghosts as well, and the core group remains the same in the as-yet-untitled third in the series, which I’m working on at the moment. However, I’m not likely to be revisiting northern Maine. ‘Ghosts’ is set in and around another fictional town in Vermont, and the third is primarily set in Massachusetts. Hopefully, the differences between rural Vermont and rural Maine are pretty strong, and should give the two books different senses of place. Vermont in particular has some amazing buried secrets, which I’ve plundered liberally to construct Bleakwater and the surrounding area.
Although Alex and the agency he works for will remain the focus of the series, the supporting cast should be different in each one. Ideally speaking, ‘Ghosts’ should be able to be read on its own, without reading Winter’s End first, and the whole ‘standalone sequel’ model is one I’m planning on sticking to.
How many Alex Rourke books are there likely to be?
The series will end when it looks like I’ll end up repeating old plots or old characters. And the actual ending to the series is already planned out, and it’ll be very cool to write, easily the biggest ending for any of the series. But I don’t have an overall plan for the number of as-yet undreamt Rourke novels.
How would you classify your books?
So far, I’ve seen them described as police procedurals, psychological thrillers, mysteries, ‘crime thrillers’, and more. I have no idea what they should be classified as, as they stand over the dividing lines between categories. For instance, although they could be called police procedurals, I freely take liberties with actual, realistic, police procedure if it’ll improve the story or allow me to do things that just wouldn’t happen in real life. The entire premise of Winter’s End wouldn’t happen that way in the real world – the sheriff’s department would hand the case over to the Maine State Police who have far higher staffing levels and many more resources of their own, including expert interrogators. But I wanted Alex to be a non-cop, so I had to set things up so that it was believable that the sheriff’s department would handle the case themselves (it was their arrest, after all) and would call on an outsider for help. But if it’s believable and it works, it’s all good to me.
Talking ‘bout my generation
Why don’t more people my age read crime? It’s a question which has bothered me for some time (although as the years go by and I grow older I suppose it’ll become less of an issue). It’s a truism backed up with the occasional patchy statistic that crime’s readership demographic is massively dominated by people in their forties or older. An eyeball estimate of just about any crime or mystery convention – Harrogate, Bouchercon, Left Coast Crime – bears this out.
So where are my lot? I’m 28. Every time I go to one of these events, the portion of the crowd within my generational band can be counted on my fingers and they’re usually the same bunch, the same faces you see every time one of these rolls around. Most of them are friends.
This isn’t to have a go at the rest of crime’s readership – partly because it’s a bad idea to shit where you sleep, and mostly because the rest of the readership are perfectly cool, nice people. A thoroughly decent crowd who have never been less than fun to get to know.
But it would be nice to see more of my contemporaries in the genre.
It’s another truism that the younger someone is, the less likely they are to be a regular reader of anything much. But of those in the 20-30 range who do read, most don’t touch crime. SF and fantasy dominate, some of the weirder and snappier ‘general fiction’ of the Chuck Palahniuk mould. Not crime.
And when they read a lot, they read just as obsessively as anyone else. A big SF convention will be rammed to the gills with many more people than the equivalent crime one. The internet has a far larger community in those genre areas than crime. Bouchercon, the biggest crime convention in the world, attracts about 1,500 people if it’s lucky.
Compare this to Comicon, the biggest gathering in the world of comics and the younger fan crowd who read them. 100,000 visitors. Even if there are counting irregularities (counting visitors each day of a multi-day event and adding them together for a total, ignoring the fact that someone there for four days would be counted four times), this is still a massively higher number.
Hell, Brighton, just down the coast and hardly one of the UK’s biggest cultural meccas, managed 1,500 visitors to a fledgling comic convention last year that wasn’t even especially international but very much dominated by the UK.
Sci-fi and fantasy gatherings attract many more people. Internet forums and portals in these genres attract many more people. Sarah Weinman’s ‘Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind’ is probably the most heavily-trafficked crime site on the net, with, from memory, 8,000 visitors a day. There are dozens, hundreds of SF/F sites with much higher traffic and a larger user base.
And while there certainly are readers of all ages in these genres – just as there are in crime – the slant, in particular within the ‘active’ fanbase, the crowd who go to events and make noise online, is very much towards the younger end of the spectrum.
I’ve broached this subject on the net before now, wondering why this happens, what the problem is with crime and the younger readership. Some of the responses have been very interesting.
Cornelia Reed (I think, and apologies to her if it was someone else) suggested that crime’s problem might be the preponderance of stories in the genre with the police as good guys, which just isn’t cool with the kids. The rogue, the renegade and the downright criminal are the heroes of youth. The rebel as good guy, before years of being a cubicle jockey or working on a production line drain all the fight from them and they start taking an interest in community policing and being able to walk safely through the local park. GTA rocks on toast. The Agatha Raisin stories… well, not so much.
OK, I’m being a little flippant there (apart from the GTA/Raisin comparison, where I’m being entirely serious). But I think there’s some mileage in that suggestion, that for a cop to be attractive to a younger readership they’ve got to be rougher around the edges, more antihero than perfectly straight-laced. More TRAINING DAY, less Reg Wexford.
Given the sheer number of police procedurals in the market – and the type of intra-office relationships and politicking that most of them cover in large swathes of their stories, and the age, personality and background of most of the protagonists… Well, it’s hardly surprising that it’s not until readers reach an age where they’re engaging in much the same sorts of things themselves (apart from hanging out around all those corpses, of course) to find them attractive as stories.
There are issues of marketing and design. Not universal, but they’re there. A book cover to a crime story has got to be pretty damn cool to attract the eye of a younger reader – the kind of person who’ll snap up anything directed by David Fincher at the cinema but who has no idea who Simon Kernick is when they walk into a bookshop.
There are certainly, for example, plenty of writers whose characters and stories are very much of the sort to appeal to a younger market – the male side of it, at the very least. But they’re rarely if ever pitched as such, and you wouldn’t know it from the jacket designs or copy; they’re aimed instead to fit in solidly with the rest of the crime section, play it safe within the genre’s comfort zone.
Another author – one of those people in my generation I could count on my fingers – writes stuff that might be described as “alternate world” crime stories of exactly the sort to appeal to that younger crowd. But his publisher pushes him, again, in with the regular crime section both in promotion and in book look and design. Al Guthrie and Ray Banks - the latter another on the fingers, the former looks as though he’s barely out of school, but is actually nearing 80 and has to constantly be reminded where he is, let alone what he’s doing. Again, very likely to appeal to the other end of the demographic age range – too nasty, too violent, too many dead dogs for the older end. And great fun because of it. Here, their publisher (Polygon) has adopted a less common – brighter, punchier, more active – look for their covers, and hopefully this’ll bring them to the demographic that’s really suited to them.
I do know one writer whose books were pitched straight at the younger demographic – ads and reviews in FHM and the like - and saw it horribly backfire. Admittedly, the way he tells it, there were a lot of problems with the way his books were handled and the whole ugly business had a Titanic-like inevitability to it.
The problem for individual authors who might try to pitch themselves at a younger crowd could be that the genre itself has quite a serious, conservative, ‘so grown up it’s looking at retirement cottages in the Cotswolds’ image, and that this weight of existing reputation, perceived or genuine, is enough to end any fledgling widespread interest there might be amongst that demographic.
Note that when I say “serious” I’m aware of the raft of comedic, light-hearted and off-the-wall crime there is, and by “conservative” I mean that the genre as a whole rarely embraces what marketing parlance calls “high concept” fiction. It is possible to publish a series of books featuring a dinosaur detective, or a novel where the protagonist keeps the souls of a dozen dead people in his head to call on at will, but it’s difficult, rare, and it always lacks the kind of publisher support a series about a divorced policeman in Leeds would enjoy.
SF is very much all about the flight of fancy high concept story. Fantasy may tread the same formulaic ground very heavily, but it’s happy to include the most bizarre elements imaginable within that setup. Comics and graphic novels are the only place I’m aware of where long-form (albeit serialised) ‘concept’ crime not only flourishes but is, in many ways, the norm. All three genres have a strong readership in that 20-30 range. Crime, by and large, does not.
Even if the genre as a whole wasn’t a little more open – and, to be fair, what sells is what, presumably, people want to read; as I said before, I’m in no way criticising the current readership, just looking for ways to add newcomers to the mix – maybe events or promotional activities by writers and publishers could be. Less of the staid, regular formats and functions which we see on a regular basis, more – and better promoted, in the right places – varied and interesting events of the sort that would attract people who don’t normally read the genre. Perhaps tie-ins with other events where such potential readers already go, for instance; surely there’s enough horror or vaguely SF-ish crime to justify making a push at the various fantasy/SF/speculative conventions held every year? Michael Marshall Smith, for instance, attends these due to his past SF works and fanbase, and I’d be surprised if those readers didn’t also pick up THE STRAW MEN or its sequels.
Maybe it wouldn’t be a success. Who knows. But I, certainly, would be happy to see more of my peers taking an active interest in crime fiction, and it can’t hurt to try.
Shades of Noir by John Rickards
Noir fiction has been enjoying something of a resurgence of late. Sure, there’s an argument that it never started to fade in the first place, but either way you can’t deny that there’s been a lot of good, new noir writing come out in the past few years. A new wave of writers are carving out a name for themselves as the most recent heirs to the crowns of Thompson, Chandler and co.
But is the pendulum swinging too far? Is the subgenre in danger of feeding on itself, writers working within it plastering on the pain and the misery in bigger and bigger doses with every book, outdoing themselves and their contemporaries with every fresh try to the extent that basic things like story and characterisation suffer?
Back up a second. What do I mean by noir? That’s an argument that’s occupied more and better people than me, and it’s not one to which I think there’s a definitive answer. It’s a subgenre which naturally gravitates towards the unpleasant. The brutal, the seedy and the hopeless. For my purposes here, I’m referring to a brand of crime fiction in which bad things happen to good people in a bad world, none of the main characters are white knight figures and are often just as much utter bastards as the bad guys, the hero doesn’t necessarily get the girl at the end, and generally speaking things either don’t end at all well, or aren’t neatly wrapped up to the satisfaction of all concerned.
And even that’s a lousy definition. Work with me here.
Noir is to gentler fare what H.P. Lovecraft is to slasher flicks. In your slasher horror story, the plucky teens eventually manage to overcome the villain and the couple of survivors walk away from the finale accompanied by a nice indie rock soundtrack to go off and screw like rabbits safe in the knowledge that no one’s going to knife them mid-shag. In Lovecraft’s stories, everything anyone does to stand against the horrors lurking in the dark is essentially futile as all of humanity is irrevocably doomed, everyone knows this and most of the characters end up dead or insane because the universe is simply too big, too horribly uncaring and too alien for any human mind to comprehend or survive. There is no victory, only degrees of defeat.
Give it a cigarette and a gun, and that’s noir.
The problem, as I see it, is that as a genre which effectively thrives on misery, there’s a danger of pushing too far. Of making each story just a succession of emotional and physical traumas, each more terrible than the last, with the character doomed to becoming an utter wreck right from the very start. This becomes a problem once we stop caring about the characters, or never have a chance to do so in the first place before things start falling apart for them.
This problem is compounded by the nature of the noir-writing crowd, especially in the States. People who write it, read it (and I’m no exception here), because they like it. And with every fresh book of theirs or a friend’s comes the temptation to push the envelope that little bit more. In Book A, our hero is drugged by a hooker he picks up in Vegas, robbed and left by the side of a highway with no way of getting home and with the terrible prospect of explaining himself to his wife and family. In Book B, he’s drugged and robbed, but not just of his own money, but also that of a friend who turns out to be a mobster who wants him dead. In Book C, the mobster wipes out his family before the end of the story – after he’s had to admit he cheated on his wife. In Book D, the hooker gives him AIDS first. In Book E, she also takes his kidneys and maybe a foot.
It’s a result of the “that’s so cool!” impulse. We all do it. We’ve all read books where we’ve thought, “That’s such a cool idea! Wait… it’d be even cooler if (insert extra thing here) happened as well!!”
(I am, even as I type this, adding “Cthulhu only with cigarettes and a gun, and maybe a kidney-stealing hooker” to my list of random plot ideas.)
But it can leave characters and situations cold. There’s one book which came out in the US last year, for instance, which has drawn a lot of plaudits. A well-liked American writer of the new noir wave, nice guy, good writer, hopefully a long and successful career ahead of him… and I found I couldn’t give a rat’s arse for the character in the book. A succession of worse and worse things happened to him in that ol’ uncaring universe, and I felt nothing at all. It was too much. One thing after another after another.
It’s not a given with the genre, of course. Read Sara Gran’s excellent DOPE or Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor books and you’ll get as good a dose of emotional damage noir done well as you can expect to find. Both are characters you care about and form an attachment to, and it makes for great storytelling. In part because there are ups as well as downs. They’re given time to grow as characters between the bumps.
Don’t get me wrong – I like doing horrible things to characters as much as the next guy. More, even. Emotional, mental, physical, shocks and events that make you think “Oh no!” as you’re reading are all to the good. But there has to be some substance to back up the style. Something to hang all that grief on.
Fads come and go in fiction. Remember the deluge of serial killer/profiler stories that emerged post-SILENCE OF THE LAMBS? Or, going back to the roots of most modern crime, that rash of lone, trenchcoat-clad PIs stalking the mean streets of America? The birth of ‘tartan noir’? And on. All those types of story are still around, but they’ve all seen an initial peak of popularity followed by a tailing off (or repeated peaks and troughs).
Back in the mid to late 80s, a similar thing to the ‘new wave’ of noir happened in the world of superhero comics. THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and WATCHMEN were adult, complex and in-depth stories with characters that were far from some of the four-colour simplicity that had preceded them. More adult stories followed, but the bleakness and dark nature of the originals carried over to their descendants. They launched a period of 10 years or so of stories that were darker and darker, nastier and nastier, where you could barely have your hero stomping around the place unless he’d first been repeatedly raped as a child and had a horrible compulsion to do nasty things to the neighbours’ pets. And then had their own children and/or pets equally brutalised over the course of each tale.
(According to anecdote, Frank Miller (who later wrote SIN CITY) has said that he regrets the fact that it was his book which created this bout of joyless, character-less stories of misery and suffering for misery and suffering’s sake.)
Comics have since grown out of that little phase, for the most part, and the crime, and noir, scene in that medium is varied and solid (or as solid as anything is in that market).
I’m hoping we don’t see something similar happen in prose crime. It sounds like a daft thing to worry about – there are so many writers and so many publishers that even if it did happen in some sections of the industry, they’d be easy to avoid. But the market is more centralised than ever before around a few key sellers and publishers are keeping a beady eye fixed carefully on sales numbers, and the one can lead the other.
And the new wave isn’t so large in numbers that a bunch of us don’t know each other. We all hang out at conventions and we chat, and we read each others books, and we think, “Yeah, that’s cool. But why not kill off that person’s mum as well?”
I imagine some writers’ conversations can be odd things to catch snatches of. People proudly explaining how they cooked someone’s skin off with a steam iron and bemoaning the fact that they were asked to take out that scene where the family dog is put through a mangle. In other circumstances, you’d be committed for saying that sort of thing.
But I digress. Doing horrible things to characters is fun. Writing stories in which horrible things happen to people and characters get put through the wringer is fun. Anyone who says otherwise is a liar and probably shouldn’t be trusted. But we’ve got to be careful not to get caught up in the nasty and forget about things like plot, characterisation and having the reader identify with the people we’re writing about.
Everyone needs a holiday and our authors are no different. Some have had scorching holidays and some quite frankly were too unsavoury to let you into. From dream holiday destinations and holiday horror stories to top holiday survival tips and summertime memories we’ve got the low-down and we’re willing to share…
What’s your favourite summer memory?
Being caught by my old English teacher having lunch and a beer – I was 15 – at a pub in the middle of nowhere while me and a friend were out mountain biking. The beer garden was busy and two women – one presumably the mother of the other – asked if we’d mind sharing a table. Then an old guy came out with a tray of drinks. And then, while we’re sitting there, nursing our pints, we hear a thick Yorkshire accent from behind us: “’Ey up, lads.” It turned out to be Mr O’Neil, his wife and parents out for a Sunday stroll. He didn’t say anything about the fact that we were wildly underage, apart from when his wife said, “If we’d known, we should’ve asked the boys if they wanted something while Dad was at the bar.” Mr O’Neil glanced at us. “Oh no,” he said. “We wouldn’t want to encourage them to drink now, would we…”
And your dream holiday destination?
Anywhere where I’ve got something I know I want to do. I’m dreadful at planning holidays. I go to places without the foggiest idea what to do, what to see, where to go once I get there. Even a New Year trip to Venice with my girlfriend – which is packed with places to go and see – was filled with entirely random wandering through the city. Fun, though.
Any top holiday survival tips you can pass onto our readers?
Take a good book or two with you. Seriously. Flights, sudden bad weather when you’re there, there’s plenty of times you need something to do in the meantime.
What do you always pack for summer hols?
As little as possible. I always try to take my entire holiday kit in a bag small enough to class as hand luggage. I’m a great believer in travelling light, as it tends to work out a lot less hassle in the long run.
What place in the world do you think everyone should visit at least once? Venice would be up there. It’s totally unique – a European city that is still entirely Medieval in its layout and structure, with no great new buildings apart from the train station and the car parks at its edge. The streets make no sense at all and you have to navigate by landmarks. It’s more or less tourist-only, but it’s still a strange place.
It’s a massive summer for sport – will Euro 2004 make you euphoric, will you be following the England Rugby team on their tour to the southern hemisphere or is Wimbledon more you thing? Or, does the idea of sport make you want to run away and hide?
Euro 2004. I’m a big footie fan.
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