Friday, June 29, 2007

Neo-nah ...

I dunno.

After reading a spate of recent books by some of the more highly touted (or is that highly tooted?) practitioners of the “new noir,” I’ve noticed something.

Not in all of them, mind you, but in enough of them to be disturbed by what seems to be a developing trend. I hope not. Maybe I just hit a bad string of books (and no, I don’t want to name them). But ...

Many of these books have increasingly little to do with the classic noir films and novels their authors all claim to admire and adore so much (but may never have actually read).

If the original noirs were usually about normal, or at least identifiable characters being drawn into the darkness, that’s an era that is long gone. So many of the recent noir novels I’ve read are populated by amoral sociopaths who are already plenty dark.

Like, really, really, dark.

In the original noirs, the main characters were usually just more-or-less regular joes: migrant workers, insurance salesmen, professors, news hawks, coffee-shop waitresses, B-girls, cut-rate private eyes, mildly bent cops, low-level crooks. The sort of people you’d meet in a bar or on the street. Or getting off a hay wagon. Just regular schmucks, with more-or-less normal levels of intelligence. And their fall was presented as tragedy, with one bad decision, one moment of weakness, one fatal flaw serving as the catalyst that ignites a world of hurt.

Nowadays, though, the characters are more often big-shot celebrities, serial killers, globe-trotting hit men, cannibal dope fiends and the like--over-the-top sociopathic cartoons who seem to exist mostly in fiction. And these guys are usually criminally clueless. These books aren’t presented as morality plays, but as clusterfucks of stupidity and venality. These characters come pre-doomed and pre-damned; dumbshits who seem compelled to make one obviously bad decision after another--the sort of stupid choices that owe more to plot machinations than anything else.

What happens to them isn’t some slow, inevitable tragic fall from grace into the darkness of the abyss, but more a turned-to-11 amplification of atrocities and bad luck, betrayals and misunderstandings and coincidences that, again, exist only in fiction.

Certainly, things are more graphic and there’s far more obscene language, violence, and sex in these new books than in the old noirs, which is to be expected, I guess. But so much of it just seems strained and self-conscious; like a bunch of little boys trying to out-do each other. These neo-noirs aren’t presented as tragedy at all, but as comedy of the cruelest sort, the “grown-up” equivalent of slipping a frog down a girl’s back.

And what’s with all the torture and mutilation going on? Is Dick Cheney secretly moonlighting as an acquisitions editor?

Chainsaws! Woodchippers! Crucifixion!

Like, “You fed a guy’s testicles into a Waring blender? Fine, I’ll do that, too, but I’ll toss in some Coors Light and then make my guy drink it! And then gerbil him to death!”

I may be imagining this, but it seems to me that there’s also a growing contempt among the authors for their own characters, a kind of mean-spiritedness that’s creeping in--a condescending sort of self-righteous authorial stance being adapted that says, “Yeah, they’re all scumbags, so I make them go through all kinds of shit. Cool, huh?”

The old noir characters, whatever their flaws, had souls of some sort. Hell, the books themselves had soul, and you got the sense that the authors--and readers--cared about these characters on at least some level. The characters who inhabit this cynical new breed of noir novels too often are unlikable two-dimensional cardboard cutouts who exist only in order that they can be put through their paces by an author with one hand down his (or her) pants for the edification of their like-minded buddies.

All the meanness and carnage of these soulless wallows comes off more like pornography than noir, at least to me.

Makes me wonder who’s getting off on it.

(Cross-posted from The Thrilling Detective Blog.)

They’ve Got Your Number

With an unusual 30 minutes of spare time on my hands today, I decided to check out, an subsidiary that compiles information about Web site traffic. I wanted to know which are the most popular crime- and thriller-fiction spots on the Internet.

As it turns out, The Thrilling Detective Web Site--created and edited by Kevin Burton Smith, a contributor to both January Magazine and The Rap Sheet--occupies the No. 1 position on that list. It’s immediately followed by Shots, the British Webzine for which I also write. Keep in mind that does not track blog traffic, so The Rap Sheet, Sarah Weinman’s Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind, and other popular sites are not included in this list.

In any case, the top-20 rundown of crime- and thriller-fiction Web sites looks like this:

1. The Thrilling Detective Web Site
2. Shots
3. Crime Time On-Line
4. New Mystery Reader
The Mystery Place
6. Over My Dead Body
7. Crimespree Magazine
8. Deadly Pleasures
9. Mystery Readers Journal
10. Black Mask Magazine
11. The Strand Magazine
13. Nefarious
14. Sherlock
15. Hardluck Stories
16. Plots with Guns
17. Orchard Press Mysteries
18. The Gumshoe Site
19. Mysterious Women
20. Mysterical-E

If we extend this list out just a bit more, the 21st position is occupied by the Web site for ThrillerUK, a small-press fan magazine for pulp lovers. It’s followed by January Magazine’s Gumshoe Award-winning crime-fiction section, which is also edited by The Rap Sheet’s J. Kingston Pierce.

If you’d like to browse through more rankings related to this genre, click here.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Get Around Round Round I Get Around*

Variety reports that James McTeigue, who assistant-directed the Matrix flicks before getting his break directing V for Vendetta, has been tapped to create a Hollywood production of John Burdett’s Thailand-based crime thriller Bangkok 8, the first in a series of novels featuring cop Sonchai Jitpleecheep. Variety reminds us that in Burdett’s 2003 book, Sonchai “tracks the murderers of his partner, and also a U.S. Marine. The trail leads through Bangkok’s drug and sex trade, and corrupt colleagues.” Millennium Films’ intention, says the paper, “is to adapt several of the books and shoot in Thailand.” Since the publication of 8, the author has penned two more Sonchai outings: Bangkok Tattoo (2005) and the recently released Bangkok Haunts. Read more here.

• “So,” Damien Gay challenges his readers at Crime Down Under, “hands up all those who can name more than one New Zealand crime writer--and you’re not allowed to include Ngaio Marsh.” Hey, don’t feel bad if no names came to mind; I couldn’t think of anyone, either. Which is why Gay’s introduction to five recent releases by Kiwi wordsmiths is so interesting. Paul Cleave? Vanda Symon? I’ve got a lot of reading to do. Meanwhile, find Gay’s wrap-up here.

• From New Zealand all the way to South Africa: Glenn Harper reviews Deon Meyer’s new novel, Devil’s Peak, in his International Noir Fiction blog.

• Fans of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. rejoice: TV Shows on DVD reports that Time-Life and HBO Video have licensed that 1964-1968 spy series from Warner Bros. and will release all 105 episodes in a boxed set, similar to what they did recently with the full, 138-episode run of Get Smart. According to the site, this set will be “sold via direct-response (TV ads and online). We’ve also been told that the show won’t go to retail until the fall of 2008, giving Time-Life approximately a 1-year exclusive window.” Stars Robert Vaughn and David McCallum are said to be involved in assembling bonus material for the set, including a joint interview. Find out more here.

• “HarperCollins plans to reissue all eight of [Lawrence Block’s] novels about the sleepless spy Evan Tanner,” beginning this month, writes John Kenyon of Things I’d Rather Be Doing. The full skinny can be found right here.

• Wyoming novelist Craig Johnson submits his latest Walt Longmire novel, Kindness Goes Unpunished, to blogger Marshall Zeringue’s Page 69 Test.

Shots’ U.S. correspondent, Michael Carlson, this month re-evaluates the writing career of Robert B. Parker, concluding:
I’m not sure, given his prolificacy and the relative thinness of his books, that Parker ever receives his due for his ability to sketch in believable characters with just a few strokes of dialogue, or for his way of keeping a plot going through a series of set-piece scenes, driven by that dialogue. Sure it’s formulaic, and sure it can be irritating to be lectured about relationships, responsibility, restaurants, or the joys of psychoanalysis by a private detective, but I suppose that’s the price we pay.
Click here for more of his commentary on Parker.

• Dutch blogger Jochem van der Steen quizzes Nick Stone on the latter’s new novel, King of Swords. You can find their exchange here.

• Ian Rankin tries to explain the appeal of crime fiction in his introduction to Barry Forshaw’s new Rough Guide to Crime Fiction, excerpted in the London Times.

• And finally, two notes that aren’t strictly about crime fiction, but that will likely appeal to the same audience: (1) The series finale of Aaron Sorkin’s too-short-lived Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip will be broadcast tonight at 10 p.m. EST/PST; and (2) actor Timothy Olyphant, who played sheriff and store owner Seth Bullock on the outstanding three-season HBO-TV series Deadwood, tells fans (yours truly included) who were very disappointed by that show’s cancellation--and were only appeased by news that executive producer David Milch intended to make two feature-length TV-movie follow-ups to the series--that such plans are very much up in the air. Cinematical quotes Olyphant as saying, “I, for better or worse, have the perspective of ‘don’t hold your breath.’” I could insert a string of blasphemous execrations here, à la Al Swearengen, but since I can’t improve on The Rap Sheet’s existing NC-17 rating, why bother?

*Yeah, you know the words. Sing them with me!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

A Stand-up Crime Writer

I first bumped into Mark Billingham way back in 1999, when he was a still-unpublished British crime writer standing in a lengthy queue outside London’s Murder One Bookstore, waiting for the release of Thomas Harris’ sequel to The Silence of the Lambs (1988), Hannibal. I encountered him again a year later at the Dead-on-Deansgate conference, after his debut novel, Sleepyhead, was published. We shared a few beers, and I took some photos of the young Mr. Billingham before he went off to interview American writer George Pelecanos. After enjoying Sleepyhead, I was captivated by his follow-up, Scaredy Cat (2002), a sweaty novel about two serial killers working “in concert.” But of course, those slayers didn’t stand a chance, when pitted against Billingham’s series protagonist, Detective Tom Thorne, who would go on to win his creator a Sherlock Award at the Crimescene 2003 conference in London.

In the years since, Billingham has been juggling his composing of the Thorne series with his stand-up comedy work, his writing for television, his acting, and his efforts as one of the organizers of the annual Harrogate Crime Writing Festival. Not an easy set of responsibilities to handle, but he’s done it. And did I mention that he was once also a contributor to Shots, back when it was an in-print magazine, rather than the Web publication it is today? It was the dry-witted and insightful Billingham, in fact, who convinced me to join editor Mike Stotter at Shots (a memorable moment I captured on film). As his renown has risen, Billingham has himself become the subject of a Shots interview.

Anticipating this month’s paperback release in the UK of his sixth Thorne novel, Buried, and a hardcover version of that same book finally being due out in the States at the beginning of August; and with his latest novel, Death Message, debuting in Britain on August 23, I tracked down this award-winning Birmingham-born writer for The Rap Sheet, and talked with him about his works-in-progress, his extracurricular activities, and his history as a humorist.

Ali Karim: It’s been a while since I saw you last, so let me begin by asking: What it’s like having a successful police-procedural series under your belt?

Mark Billingham: Yeah, it’s been a while, Ali, nice to talk to you again. It’s brilliant that the Thorne books are doing so well. As a massive fan of series crime fiction, it’s great to be part of the gang. That’s how [Ian] Rankin describes the crime-fiction community and I think it’s spot on. We’re outsiders to a degree, but within our own ranks there’s an amazing amount of great work being done, and it’s a supportive place to be.

AK: I’m looking forward to seeing Death Message. Can you tell us something about that seventh Thorne outing?

MB: I’m very excited about it. It’s a book that draws a line under several of the issues that have been developing over the last few books. It sees the return of one of the nastier characters it’s ever been my pleasure to create, and on top of that, something that has haunted Thorne for a while is finally sorted out once and for all. It seemed like a good place to take a break.

AK: That’s right. You’re set to publish your first standalone next. What’s that story about?

MB: I’ve nearly finished that book. It’s called In the Dark and will be published simultaneously here and in the U.S. next year. I’ve always admired those writers, like Michael Connelly [The Overlook] who can step away from a series and write fantastic standalone stuff. I think, if you can do that, you come back to your series re-energized. This was a story that had no place for Thorne (though he moves briefly through it) and was something I was desperate to write. I’d done seven Thorne novels on the bounce and I knew the time was right to do something else. There’s a voice in your head that lets you know these things and you can’t ignore it. If you do, you’ll end up hearing the same thing from readers, by which time it’s probably too late. It’s been scary stepping out of that comfort zone, but also really liberating. This is not a procedural novel at all. Broadly speaking, it’s about how a fatal car accident affects the lives of three very different people. The main character is a woman, and I’ve had to do some research into the latter stages of pregnancy, but I drew the line at writing while wearing false breasts.

AK: So what about poor old Thorne. He’s not going the same way as [John] Rebus, is he?

MB: Well, I don’t think any of us know which way Rebus is going to go! My money’s on a sex change, and I’m very much looking forward to the continuing adventures of Joanna Rebus, the female cop with the suspiciously hairy hands. As for Thorne, I certainly haven’t killed him off and he will be in the next book, which I think will be called The Life Thief. I’m just giving the old bugger a break, you know? When the time comes to put him out to pasture for good, I may just let him retire to the countryside and make jam and annoy the neighbors by playing Hank Williams at three in the morning.

AK: And your UK publishers? How have they taken to this hiatus from the Thorne series?

I’ve been very lucky in that Little, Brown have always been hugely supportive of everything I’ve wanted to write. They see nothing until the book is delivered. They’re very keen on the standalone. Actually, a change of direction, as well as being liberating for an author, can make the job of marketing and publicizing a book a bit easier. It’s hard sometimes when all you have to say is “it’s another Thorne novel,” whereas “the first standalone from the author of the Thorne novels” can give people more to play with.

AK: And what of your American publishers?

MB: They’re actually very excited about the standalone, which is why they’ve decided to publish simultaneously with the UK edition, which is fantastic. It’s hard to turn U.S. readers on to a series which is already a good way down the line, so a standalone thriller makes more sense, I think. If people enjoy the standalone, then obviously we hope they go back and pick up some of the Thorne novels, all of which should be able to stand on their own. That’s the plan, anyway.

AK: You have been linked with Harrogate Crime Writing Festival. So tell us a little about your involvement with that annual event.

MB: I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in some way with every one of the festivals, and last year I was invited to chair the programming committee. This basically meant that I could ask all my favorite authors to come, and the whole thing felt rather like a huge party that was all over far too quickly. The festival has a great atmosphere--very informal and enthusiastic--and readers and writers spend the whole weekend together. There are no multi-track events, so everything is very well attended and there are also events played strictly for laughs, which makes it pretty unique, I think. I had a ball chairing the festival and I’m really looking forward to taking part again this year, when the festival is being chaired by Natasha Cooper.

AK: What have been the highlights of Harrogate for you?

MB: I was thrilled that George Pelecanos came across as our special guest and that not only was his sell-out event a huge hit, but he then proceeded to sell every single copy of each of his books in stock at the festival bookshop. The standing ovation for P.D. James was pretty special too, and I also enjoyed doing the quiz on the last night. I will always remember asking the question, “How does Hercule Poirot die?” and hearing a horrified voice in the audience whispering, “Oh my God … he dies?”

AK: And you seem to spend a lot of time on the forum at your Web site. Why start such a forum, when many other writers have closed theirs down?

MB: I thought long and hard about it, but I’m glad I decided to do it. I think the key is having a really great moderator, which I have. She keeps on top of things and ensures that everything runs smoothly. The people who contribute are real enthusiasts of the genre, and enjoy the fact that a number of other writers drop by and post on the forum. We’ve recently started a monthly book club, which is really taking off. I suggest a book each month and then the writers come on board for a couple of days and respond to comments. So far the likes of Laura Lippman, John Harvey, John Connolly, and Chris Brookmyre have taken part, and I think they all had a good time. That’s what they told me anyway …

AK: Are you still working the comedy circuit?

MB: I’m still keeping my hand in, but not much more. It’s hard to find the time to write material when I have books to write, and it’s even harder to be away from home doing shows when I spend more time every year on the road with the books. I still love it, though, and can’t quite kick the habit. Sometimes, after a day spent writing about death and darkness, it’s nice to get out and tell a few cheap jokes. It cheers me up, if no one else.

AK: How integral is humor in your writing then?

MB: Well the books are pretty dark, you know that, but there is certainly humor in them. There has to be. Sometimes the funniest things happen at the darkest times, and I try to reflect that in the mood of the books. You’ll close a chapter with something painful and kick the next one off with a joke, because life is like that. Also, the people I’m writing about have the blackest sense of humor. You want to hear jokes flying about, go to a crime scene.

AK: Have you ever fancied going for the Carl Hiaasen or Colin Bateman full-on comedic sort of crime novel?

MB: I considered doing that, early on, and I’m a big fan of those writers; but in the end it felt too much like a busman’s holiday, you know? I tend to prefer the darker stuff and I have something approaching a full-on allergic reaction to any book that could be described as a “caper.”

AK: Like many writers, you tour and promote your work. So tell us about some of the funny moments you’ve had on the road.

MB: I did an event with Stuart MacBride last year, and afterwards we went out for dinner with his agent. We were joined by a guy who just wandered across with us from the bookshop, and of course we were all far too British and polite to ask who he was. He sat and drank with us and then ate dinner with us, and finally got up and walked out without paying. Actually, I kind of admired his chutzpah. I always prefer to do events with somebody else. They can be very hit and miss and it’s always nice to have someone to share the misery with. I’ve had some great times out and about with the likes of John Connolly and Chris Brookmyre, and l’ll be touring this year with Peter Robinson, which I’m really looking forward to.

AK: Some writers absolutely dread the self-promotion side of book publishing. What’s your take on promotional work and the commercial aspects of being a novelist?

MB: Well, nobody has a gun to your head, but I think, unless you come out in a cold sweat at the thought of doing it, you need to get out and promote your work. It’s not digging a ditch, is it? Most of the time you’re very nicely looked after and it’s a pleasure to sit there and meet readers and talk about your stuff. Of course, there are always events you’d rather forget, but most of the time I really enjoy it. If you spend nine months sitting on your own writing this stuff, it’s positively therapeutic to actually engage with people. You’d go a little bonkers otherwise. For me, it comes down to promoting the books, or running mad with a rifle in Starbucks.

AK: With a body of work to your credit, tell me what motivates your writing nowadays.

MB: I don’t think I need too much motivation. It’s the dream job and I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing. Well, there was that thing with Halle Berry, but she wasn’t interested ... I think every writer is always trying to write a better book, so each time you sit down there’s a bit of you hoping that this will be the one. And it’s important to treat it like a job, I think, to sit down each day and go to work.

AK: I heard a rumor that you’re setting a future book in the USA and have been researching U.S. police methods. Is that true?

MB: No more than a rumor. It may have been something I thought about for two minutes and it somehow ended up in print. I think I’ll leave that to the likes of Lee [Child] and John [Connolly]--oh, and the hundreds of American writers who do it rather brilliantly.

AK: As a lover of translated crime fiction, I see you were guest of honor at the Scandinavian Crime Writers Association and attended the Glass Key Award ceremony. Would you care to tell us a little about the event?

MB: I remember lots of pickled fish, and equally pickled Scandinavians. And I have a vague memory of tottering about in a karaoke bar in Helsinki with a very drunk Icelandic writer and singing “Jambalaya” before they threw us out. Everything else is a blur.

AK: And what books have passed over your reading table recently?

MB: Laura Lippman’s new one, What the Dead Know, is an amazing book, as is John Connolly’s The Unquiet. I really enjoyed Sebastian Junger’s A Death in Belmont, too. A few others have passed very briefly across the table, in that I abandoned them. I’ll give up on a book if it hasn’t got me by 50 pages or so, and I would fully expect anybody reading one of mine to do the same thing. Life’s too short and there are too many good books out there.

I just want to thank you for giving us this time, and send you back to your writing.

MB: No problem. Now I must go and feed chocolate to the team of elves I employ to actually write the books.

READ MORE:Mark Billingham’s Top 10 Fictional Detectives” (The Guardian).

In Full Color

“Readers who take this novel to the beach this summer will never make it into the water,” Anthony Rainone cautions today in his review for January Magazine of Whitewash, the latest standalone from Nebraska author Alex Kava. Whitewash, Rainone opines, is a “white hot” thriller.

Kava’s tale, as Rainone (a regular Rap Sheet contributor) lays it out, builds around both the development of a thermal conversion process, which “converts refuse and other waste material” into oil, and the people who either want to take credit for that development--or want to stop it in its tracks. Players in these pages include the scientific head of a northern Florida alternative-fuel production facility, who’s recently gone missing; a U.S. senator who hopes to be recognized “as a frontrunner on environmental issues,” but whose future may have been compromised by his hardworking chief of staff’s one-night-stand with another senatorial aide--a liaison that put the man in place to become a murder suspect; another scientist at the fuel plant, whose curiosity about unusual activities there makes her the target of a very “human and comical” hit man; and a Middle Eastern terrorist who plots to make a political statement that will convince America not to withdraw its longstanding investment in his homeland’s oil industry.

You can read all of Rainone’s January Magazine review here.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Interesting Job You Guys Have

I’ve come to know many literary agents over the years, and have even been represented by one--London’s Curtis Brown--back in the 1980s. These agents are often very informative when it comes to tracking new developments in the genre that comprises crime fiction and thrillers. And one of the biggest names in that field is Jane Gregory, owner of the UK’s Gregory and Company.

For those who don’t move in this circle, Gregory is not only a literary agent but a pillar of London’s publishing community, and a huge crime-fiction enthusiast. She and her team handle sales to publishers in Britain and the United States, as well as to film and television producers. Before setting up as an agent, Gregory was a rights and contracts director for publishers. She’s a co-founder of the UK’s Orange Prize for Fiction, sits on the programming committee of the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, and co-founded the career support group Women in Publishing.

I have known Jane Gregory for many years now, and have found her to be a larger-than-life personality--warm, generous, and very, very funny. So I was flattered to find myself invited (along with Shots editor Mike Stotter) to last week’s 20th anniversary celebration of Gregory and Company, held at London’s Fulham Palace.

The invitation said that the dress code for this affair was “Drop-Dead Gorgeous,” and that there would be a band and dancing late into the night, fueled with champagne and canapés. So, mischievously, Stotter and I decided to make a special effort for this literary soirée. We wigs, false mustaches, and matching sideburns to go with our sunglasses, black ties, white shirts, and black suits. The idea was to arrive first as the Men in Black (that’s us in the photo above) and, after tipping back a few to get our courage up, donning wigs and other pieces of hair to transform ourselves into the Pulp Fiction duo.

While preparing for this event, I wondered which of Jane Gregory’s notable clients would show up. Maybe even the controversial Tony Blair? Or perhaps his successor in the Prime Minister’s office, Gordon Brown, who--little-known fact--is a big crime-fiction enthusiast. (Brown appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Open Book last Sunday to talk about his passion for the genre. That program is archived here.)

Sadly, neither of those gentlemen was in attendance. But as the cab dropped us off at the Fulham Palace gate, we were greeted by Julia Wisdom from HarperCollins UK and the award-winning novelist Val McDermid (Beneath the Bleeding), who were leaving early, since McDermid had to be off to the Continent for a literary festival. And no sooner did we say our good-byes and enter the palace, than we were handed flutes of chilled champagne and directed to a giant marquee, where we just caught the end of Gregory’s speech welcoming everyone and explaining that this fête was her way of thanking us all for supporting Gregory and Company over the last couple of decades. A huge round of applause erupted and we raised our glasses in celebration.

There must have been 200 to 300 guests at this party, a Who’s Who’s of British publishing notables, together with some international names. I had a chance to chat with the managers of next month’s Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, as well as Natasha Cooper (A Greater Evil), this year’s events organizer. I was amazed to hear that at this stage, there have already been more tickets than ever before sold for the festival, which means it will be a crowded but exciting event.

A bit later, I fell into conversation with Chris Simms, whose work I’ve followed ever since the 2004 publication of Outside the White Lines, his debut novel about a serial killer who stalks his victims on the motorways veining Great Britain. Simms was there with a representative from his German publisher, the pair discussing the recent promotion of Simms to a spot on the list of Waterstone’s top 25 new talents (a rundown that also includes both Nick Stone and Richard Morgan). This subject apparently makes the Manchester author blush, but only makes me more excited to see his next novel, Savage Moon, which is due out in the UK this fall.

Roaming the crowd, I saw some of Gregory’s more established authors, including Mo Hayder (Pig Island), who wound up at one point dancing with her agent (see the photograph above, with Gregory on the left), as well as such up-and-coming talents as Dreda Say Mitchell, a John Creasey Memorial Dagger winner, and Caro Ramsey, whose debut novel, Absolution, has been enjoying terrific press notices. One interesting thing about crime fictionists such as Simms, Hayder, Mitchell, and Ramsay, is that while their stories might be dark and menacing, they’re actually the most genial people you’re likely ever to meet. They just kill and maim in their imaginations.

Also putting in a showing here were Zöe Sharp and her husband, Andy Butler, who were preparing for a trip to the States, during which Sharp will be promoting her latest offering, Second Shot, and attending ThrillerFest in New York City.

By the end of the evening, Stotter and I were exhausted. So, after thanking the Jane Gregory team for their hospitality, he and I headed off in our Pulp Fiction getups, bound for our hotel and nursing the beginnings of world-class hangovers. I remember muttering, “We’re getting too old for this shit ...” in my best impression of Samuel L. Jackson. Stotter, though, was incoherent by this stage, and could only express his agreement with a single but loud belch.

The Long, Long Rise

In an interview with Julia Buckley of Mysterious Musings, the underappreciated Gar Anthony Haywood (Firecracker, All the Lucky Ones Are Dead) talks about his development of African-American P.I. Aaron Gunner; his upcoming standalone novel, Cemetery Road, and his debts to Ross Macdonald’s work; his appreciation for Los Angeles; and the real source of his first name.

Read their full conversation here.

M-E to S-E-E

Mysterical-E is up with its Summer 2007 issue, which includes new short stories from Courts Mroch (“Cause Célèbre”), Gerald So (“Lonely Too Long”), Ed Lynskey (“Next of Kin”), and Molly MacRae (“Wilder Dancing”); the opening installment of a series by Lew Stone (“Sweeper”); a profile of author Kris Neri (Never Say Die); and Jim Doherty’s tribute to Dick Tracy, who is currently celebrating his more than three quarters of a century in law enforcement. The full contents can be found here.

READ MORE:The Celebrated Cases of Dick Tracy--Chester Gould,” by James Reasoner (Rough Edges).

How Do We Rate?

This is what happens when a blogger suddenly has a wee bit of unexpected free time on his hands ...

Taking my cue from New Jersey novelist Dave White (When One Man Dies), I submitted The Rap Sheet to a “blog-rating” diagnosis provided by the online dating site This is an obvious gimmick to get bloggers and others clicking over to, where they might meet a mate--but it seems to be working, as I’ve seen these ratings mentioned on several blogs of late. I’d heard that Sarah Weinman’s Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind won an R rating, and that other noteworthy sites had been awarded PG ratings, all based around the use of perfectly good English words that somebody, somewhere apparently finds objectionable, such as “hell,” “knife,” “sex,” “dick,” and even “pain.” (These are evidently the same terms by which films are currently rated in the United States. A pretty lame basis of judgment, if you ask me.) Anyway, I sicced this software on The Rap Sheet, and it delivered up an NC-17 rating--the highest caution (“No One Under 17 Admitted”)--based on the presence of the following locutions: death (16x), murder (12x), hell (4x), shoot (3x), suicide (2x), and kill (1x). Of course, for a site about crime fiction, none of these words seems that easily avoided.

It appears that this software assesses only the blog’s front page, as those same terms are even more prevalent in The Rap Sheet’s archives. And the filter doesn’t catch all potentially distasteful words. Just as an experiment, I inserted “cocksucker” and “motherfucker” into one of the posts on this blog’s front page, and it raised no red flags whatsoever with the software. Go figure. Then I applied this same software to The Rap Sheet’s sister publication, January Magazine, which--just as I had anticipated--won a softer R rating (“Under 17 Requires Accompanying Parent or Adult Guardian”), based on the presence of these words: dead (5x), hell (3x), death (2x), and knife (1x).

None of this really teaches us anything. But it can be fun to plug in blog addresses and see what rating is rendered. For instance, I sent this software to inspect the popular conservative blog Ace of Spades HQ, and it came back with the same NC-17 rating that The Rap Sheet got. On the other hand, AMERICAblog, which is one of the finer liberal sites on the Web, received the milder R rating. So much for talk about Republicans upholding “family values,” eh?

If you want to do some experimenting yourself, the blog-rating software can be found here.

No End in Sight

So, is there or is there not a missing 22nd Travis McGee novel just waiting to be published? Rumors have circulated for years that John D. MacDonald, who died in 1986, left behind a book entitled A Black Border for McGee, possibly narrated by his economist neighbor, Meyer, in which salvage expert and ladies’ man McGee dies. But novelist, editor, and author Ed Gorman features a note in his blog from a friend of one of MacDonald’s closest friends who says that “As far as anyone I know has been able to determine, there is no manuscript.” Will this finally put to rest talk of Black Border? Unlikely, as long as the McGee series (which concluded with The Lonely Silver Rain in 1985) continues to be read and relished. Which, let’s hope, will be a very long time, indeed.

Just Sign on the Dotted Line

Ken Bruen called it “one adrenaline-pumped novel,” and Random House UK obviously agreed, as it snapped up Scottish author Tony Black’s debut novel, Paying for It. Black landed a two-book deal negotiated by London agent Judith Murdoch this week--an arrangement that puts him among a select contingent of writers for the new Trevor Dolby imprint at Random House under editorial director and industry legend Rosie de Courcy.

The 35-year-old Edinburgh-based Black will see Paying for It--which features a washed-up hack turned private investigator--published in hardback and trade paperback next June, with a mass-market paperback to follow later.

Black, a former Young Journalist of the Year, told the Rap Sheet: “After the initial, ‘can you say that again?’ bit, it was punch the air time! Judith [Murdoch] really knows her stuff and always sounded confident of a good sale, but as an unknown you just don’t expect to be bought by Random House. I’m honored, and blessed, to have found a home for Paying for It with such a prestigious imprint.”

It didn’t hurt that Bruen was in his corner. Elaborating on his fondness for Paying for It, the best-selling creator of Irish private eye Jack Taylor (Cross) said it was “as moving and compassionate as it is so stylishly written. ... The writing is a joy, in your face, with that wondrous dead-pan humor that only the Celts really grasp. The narrative blasts off the page like a triple malt.”

Black basks in the attention. “To hear a writer of Ken Bruen’s status--a man I regard a genius--say he likes my work is mind-blowing! I've been reading Bruen for years with nothing but awe, so his big-hearted remarks felt like God himself had whispered to me ... I’m just stunned, rapt, ecstatic he liked my book!”

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Running the Circuit

• “[H]e may be one of the best L.A. mystery writers you’ve never heard of,” Los Angeles Times staffer Josh Getlin writes of John Shannon,” whose latest novel is The Dark Streets. What makes Shannon’s crime fiction stand out, Getlin says, is it’s courageous plumbing of L.A.’s cross-cultural undercurrents:
Imagine a noir thriller where a cynical cop turns to a private eye and says: “Jake, it’s Koreatown.” Picture a Southern California mystery series where the hero chases intrigue not in Hollywood but in Glendale, in the Armenian community; in Orange County, among the Vietnamese; among satanic cults in Bakersfield; and surfers in Palos Verdes.

In John Shannon’s literary world, the neo-noir thriller is more than a lazy weekend read. He charges into Los Angeles neighborhoods where few mystery writers venture, shining a light on the city’s sprawling, multicultural enclaves. And unlike many of his brethren, he has a political chip on his shoulder, telling taut, fast-paced stories about underdogs and big shots through the eyes of an aging, disillusioned ’60s lefty.
Will Getlin’s story incite more readers to find Shannon’s work? Let’s hope so. Read all of that story here.

• Far less in need of the publicity, but still worth reading more about, is 64-year-old Martin Cruz Smith, who converses with The Wall Street Journal about the disappointing films made from his books, the birth of Moscow cop Arkady Renko, and his latest Renko novel, Stalin’s Ghost. You’ll find that exchange here.

• One other interview worth reading: At Murderati, Mike MacLean quizzes Hard Case Crime honcho Charles Ardai, author (under the pseudonym “Richard Aleas”) of the July novel Songs of Innocence, about his move from the dot-com world to book publishing, what he likes about pulp fiction, and why he’d like to have Philip Roth write a suspenser for Hard Case. (Hey, we’d like to see that too!) The best thing about interviewing Ardai, though? It gives you a chance to feature lots of Hard Case’s sexy book jackets. You’ll find those and much more here.

• Other than the fourth season of Foyle’s War (the second episode of which airs tonight on PBS), I was expecting this summer to offer nothing--zero, zilch--in the way of interesting new TV series for fans of crime and espionage fiction. But I’m starting to think that USA Network’s Burn Notice, starring Jeffrey Donovan and Gabrielle Anwar, just might be worth taking in. Debuting this coming Thursday, June 28, at 10 p.m. EST/PST, it features Donovan (Touching Evil) as a spy who is suddenly left out in the cold by his usual intelligence contacts--no explanation forthcoming--and takes up freelance investigating while he tries to figure out what happened. British actress Anwar, who stole my breath away in 1992’s Scent of a Woman, appears as an ex-IRA op and Donovan’s former girlfriend, while Sharon Gless (formerly of Cagney & Lacey) plays the “burned” agent’s neurotic mother, who is only too happy to have her son back in Miami for a spell. Bruce Campbell (The Adventures of Brisco County Jr., Jack of All Trades) has a role here, as well, playing “a washed-out military intelligence contact who’s being used by the feds to keep tabs” on Donovan’s character, according to press materials. The preview (found here) suggests this series will have action, humor, and plenty of young lovelies in tight bathing suits--and what more can you really ask for, anyway? “What really sparks ‘Burn Notice,” says Variety in a review, “is Donovan’s Rockford-like mix of comedy, action and roguish charm, augmented by a dry narration through which he delivers a kind of ‘how-to’ guide to spying--explaining his preference for fighting in bathrooms, for example, because they have ‘lots of hard surfaces’ into which one can slam an opponent; it’s easier on the knuckles.” The only trouble with all of this? Burn Notice is set to show this summer in competition with the final episodes of Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which I have no intention of missing. Thank goodness for TiVO and videotape machines.

• Peter Abrahams submits his new novel, Nerve Damage, to Marshal Zeringue’s Page 69 Test. “Not fair,” complains Abrahams. “In Nerve Damage, page 69 leads off Chapter 9, and is therefore shorter than a normal page.” Read the rest here.

• Continuing its picks of this summer’s best reads, Salon posts short reviews of Three Bags Full, by Leonie Swann; Mr. Dixon Disappears, by Ian Sansom; Up in Honey’s Room, by Elmore Leonard; and Body of Lies, by David Ignatius.

• Writing in The Guardian, Sara Paretsky analyzes the employment of loners in crime fiction--both as detectives (in which case it can be good to be an intuitive, “self-sufficient hard guy”) and as wealthy malefactors (who “have retreated into their own isolation, a place where they try to use money and power as a shield between themselves and the rest of the world”). While she opines that the world could use a few loner heroes, in place of the “reckless cowboys who are galloping across the world’s range today,” Paretsky concedes that her own fictional sleuth, V.I. Warshawski, “couldn’t survive with so much loneliness.” Her full Guardian essay can be found here.

• “[T]he great lost [James] Bond movie”? “Bond aficionados have always vaguely known about [Warhead],” writes Brian Pendreigh in The Scotsman. “But only now has it become apparent just how close it came to being filmed in 1977. And the full extent of [Sean] Connery’s involvement--not just as the star, but also as producer and in the unfamiliar role of scriptwriter--is only now clear.” You’ll find the details here.

• Prolific Sydney, Australia, detective novelist Peter Corris talks with ABC Radio National’s Ramona Koval about his characters, his writing pattern (two hours a day with a word processor and a glass of wine), and his conformity to Ross Macdonald’s convention about past disorders surfacing in the present. In addition, he reads from his 31st (see why I call him “prolific”?) Cliff Hardy novel, Access Denied. Listen to their conversation here.

Who the Hell Loves This, Baby?

Greek-American actor Telly Savalas is best remembered for his starring role in the 1973-1978 TV cop drama Kojak, though some also know him as the godfather of lovely actress Jennifer Aniston. Far fewer recall him being a singer, though Wikipedia says he became one in 1974, and was quite good at it. You’d never know that, however, by watching the video below, which shows him crooning the Bread song “If.” It almost makes William Shatner’s interpretation of “It Was a Very Good Year” look good. Almost.

(Hat tip to TV Squad.)

“A Charming Ghost”

With publisher Serpent’s Tail now bringing back into print several works by 20th-century English noir writer Derek Raymond (né Robin Cook), Los Angeles Times columnist Richard Rayner today reacquaints us with this author’s troubled life and dark, groundbreaking fiction. He makes special note of Raymond’s 1984 novel, He Died With His Eyes Open, which was the first in his so-called Factory series of police procedurals:
All this was fitting, in a way, for if “He Died With His Eyes Open” marked a new beginning--and it did--that beginning was dark, maybe desperate. From its opening chapter, in which a careworn detective is casually handed a murder case his superiors don’t want, the book refuses to behave like the police procedural it purports to be. The dead man, Staniland, has left behind a taped journal in which he reveals himself to be a thoughtful and interesting writer, and the detective, as he follows the trail, finds himself drawn into just the same mistakes as the victim. He knows the case will end badly for him. He almost wills it. “I write about what people do to each other,” Cook wrote later in his strange autobiography, “The Hidden Files.” “It isn’t pretty.”
You can read all of Rayner’s tribute to Raymond here.

Variations on a Theme

The second edition of the pulp-fiction mag Out of the Gutter has only just reached mailboxes, and already assistant editor D.Z. Allen is advertising two fiction contests for Issue #3, the “War Is All Hell” edition. He’s looking for flash fiction (700 words or fewer), that completes this line: “I hated the man, and he was going to die from his wounds at any moment, but I found myself listening, nodding and preparing to do exactly as he said.” Allen is also in the market for short stories (1,000 and 8,000 words in length) to accompany a pulpy picture (found here) of a man with a pistol-packing brunette, the latter of whom seems more in danger of losing the rest of the buttons on her shirt than anything else.

“We will be taking contest submissions until 08/01/07,” Allen explains. “Winners will be announced by no later than 08/14/07. Winners will get a contributor’s copy of Out of the Gutter 3 ...”

Friday, June 22, 2007

“Trouble” Bound

It’s been a crazy old week here, intensified by the fact that it’s finally summer and I would much rather be outside than inside batting away at a keyboard. Nonetheless, I’ve persisted in keeping track of things roiling in the crime-fiction sphere. Some of those recent developments:

We’ve mentioned before the talk about English actor Clive Owen (Children of Men) portraying Raymond Chandler’s iconic series detective, Philip Marlowe, in a future cinematic presentation. But now comes solid news of this production from Variety--and it seems like good news. Apparently, comic-book artist and writer Frank Miller (Batman: The Dark Knight Returns) has been hired to script the film, which will be an adaptation of Chandler’s 1939 short story, “Trouble Is My Business,” a tale that originally featured John Dalmas rather than Marlowe. (The protagonist was later changed for book re-publication, after Marlowe became a hot commodity.) Variety explains that “‘Trouble Is My Business’ was chosen partly because it provides the actor with a … chance to frame the narrative with a compelling voiceover, using Chandler’s hardboiled prose as hard-drinking private eye Philip Marlowe cracks cases, busts heads and romances femmes fatales in 1940s Los Angeles.” Owen, who previously worked with Miller on the 2005 film Sin City, is quoted as saying that “Frank Miller knows more about noir than anyone I have ever met, and clearly the writing of Raymond Chandler has been an enormous influence on his life and his work. Miller adapting Chandler seemed like a perfect match.” I have to confess, I’m not entirely cynical about this project. Miller does seem like he could handle Chandler’s source material with care and complexity, and the idea of Owen playing Marlowe is growing on me--just so long as the actor can expunge those euphonious British vowels from his voice.

Murderati reports that Irish novelist Ken Bruen (Cross) “will be presented with the first ever David L. Goodis Award at NoirCon in Philadelphia, PA. The conference, slated for April 3-6, 2008, follows in the footsteps of last year’s GoodisCon, with plans for an annual celebration of the past, present and future of Noir in all its forms.”

• The latest willing victim of Ben Hunt’s “10 Questions” interrogation over at Material Witness is Alafair Burke, daughter of James Lee Burke (Tin Roof Blowdown) and author of the new novel Dead Connection. Read her responses here.

• Speaking of questions, the ever-funny Duane Swierczynski (The Blonde, Severance Package) answers more than 10 of them for Lance Carter of Murder & Mystery Books 101. My personal favorite quote is in response to Carter’s question, “What is a typical writing day for you like?” Says Swierczynski:
It’s more like a typical writing “night”--most of my fiction is written from about 9 or 10 p.m. until whenever. And then I do block out some weekend mornings, too. If you were to videotape me writing, it’d be the most boring thing ever to appear on a screen: a pale, doughy Polish dude typing away on an iMac, sometimes with a pair of headphones wrapped around his oversized head. Writing: it’s damn sexy!
Yeah, we’ve all been there …

• For The Guardian, master British anthologist Maxim Jakubowski picks up today on The Rap Sheet’s recent post about the proliferation of trees crime novel jackets. In his piece, he recounts how one of his own books wound up sporting a tree on its cover--to the benefit of both publisher and editor, it seems. Read his report here.

• And finally, Alaskan author Dana Stabenow (A Deeper Sleep) shares her TBR list with us at Writers Read.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

From the Yangtze to the Thames

We are nothing if not international-minded here at The Rap Sheet. So let me introduce Shanghai-born St. Louis resident Qiu Xiaolong, a very interesting novelist now celebrating the British paperback publication of his third mystery, When Red Is Black, and looking forward to the November 2007 release in the States of his fifth novel, Red Mandarin Dress.

As many of you probably already know, Qiu is a very interesting writer who sets his Chief Inspector Chen Cao mysteries deep in the Far East. I first discovered his work thanks to a profile of the author, written by Caroline Cummins shortly after the publication of Qiu’s second novel, A Loyal Character Dancer (2002), and posted in January Magazine. Cummins’ description of detective Chen in that piece makes him seem very much like the gentle man who gave the character literary life:
In his books ... Qiu writes about the kind of life he might have led had he stayed in China. His detective, Chief Inspector Chen Cao, is another Shanghai native who, as a bored youth, also tried to practice tai chi in the Bund. He, too, gave it up one day--in his case, when he came across a battered English textbook lying on a bench. Like his creator, Chen is a poet with a fondness for the modernist writers of [T.S.] Eliot’s generation. He likes mysteries, as well, and even earns a little side income translating Western crime fiction into Chinese.

But after Chen earned a degree in English, he didn’t become a professor or a writer. Instead, the government assigned him to the Shanghai Police Bureau. As a detective and member of the Communist Party, Chen is in charge of the “special case squad,” a police division responsible for handling any crime involving politics. Naturally, the politics tend to trump the police work, and Chen’s life is a delicate dance between trying to be an honest cop and trying to stay on the right side of the Party.

Having since become familiar with Qiu’s fiction, I was pleased recently by the chance to talk with the author (a meeting arranged by Henry Jefferies of Sceptre Publishing), while he was here in London promoting When Red Is Black.

I said before that Qiu Xiaolong (pronounced “chew-shao-long”) is interesting, and much of the reason for that derives from his background. Selected for membership in the Chinese Writers’ Association, he published poetry, translations, and criticism while he lived in his native land. But since 1989, he’s resided in the United States, picking up two degrees--an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature--from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. His writing has been published widely in American literary magazines and in several anthologies. For his efforts, Qiu has received the Missouri Biennial Award, the Prairie Schooner Readers’ Choice Award, and a Ford Foundation Fellowship.

Despite the political machinations in his criminal tales and the interjection of poetry into his prose, Qiu’s books have become popular in the English-speaking world. That his fourth novel, A Case of Two Cities (2006)--which finally reaches bookstores in Britain this summer--was set primarily in America probably didn’t hurt his U.S. sales any, either. In Two Cities, Inspector Chen Cao is instructed by the Party to lead a highly charged corruption investigation. The tentacles of that corruption have spread through the Shanghai police force, the Chinese civil service, and the vice trade, and reach deep into the criminal underworld. The principal suspect in Chen’s investigation has long since fled with his family to America, beyond the Chinese government’s reach. But the criminal network he created remains intact, and it’s only a matter of time before it becomes stronger than before. In a twisting case that reunites him with his counterpart from the U.S. Marshals Service, Inspector Catherine Rohn (first introduced in A Loyal Character Dancer), Chen must find a measure of justice in a corrupt, expedient world.

Assessing A Case of Two Cities for Reviewing the Evidence, Andi Shechter wrote not long ago:
Telling a crime story set in a foreign country requires the author to ‘translate,’ to offer the story in a way that makes sense to the reader who may never have been to that country. Certainly, relatively few Americans are likely to have visited China but author Qiu provides us with an accessible narrative. That this tale takes place in part in America provides another angle. While the author has lived in the U.S. for over 15 years, he’s Chinese, born in Shanghai and knows the culture and the country. The changes in recent years are manifold and Qiu shows that understanding them isn’t the easiest thing for those who live with them.
During our interview, I talked with Qiu about those changes, as well as about his authorial inspirations, his next Chen book, and his present-day reception in China.

Ali Karim: Welcome to London, Qiu. What have you been up to during this visit, and is this your first trip to London?

Qiu Xiaolong: Thank you, Ali. Well, I met my editors here for the first time. We had only written e-mails to each other before. It’s a wonderful experience. Also, I had a fantastic reunion with a friend of mine; we had not met for about 20 years. And, actually, it’s my second trip to London. I came here first four or five years ago.

AK: I see that Chief Inspector Chen is interested in tai chi, as you were as a boy. So, let me ask you the inevitable question: Is your detective’s life based upon your own?

QX: I share some experiences with Chen, but not all of them. He’s a better tai chi player, though I also studied English by myself and practiced tai chi for a short while in Bund Park. But I never was a cop or a Party member.

AK: OK, then, where did Inspector Chen come from?

QX: Chen did not come from one particular individual. Chen’s becoming a cop may have come from a friend of mine. Like me, he majored in literature in college, but upon graduation, he was assigned to a job in the Shanghai Police Bureau. And he has since been a cop all these years. Also, I have some friends who have been trying hard to do things in China, within the system--so I have got something from one, and something from another, you know. And sometimes I cannot help imagining what I could have done had I stayed in China, especially in such a transitional period [as we’re in now]. In that sense, I may have sort of projected myself into Chen, but not that much.

AK: How is your work received in your native China?

QX: I think that my books have been received in a mixed way there. The government did not want people to talk too much about them, so some reviews in the mainstream newspapers were taken off. While some positive reviews talked about my work being the first mysteries in China, the negative ones questioned my writing in English, implying that I cater to the Western readers. For me, a meaningful response has come from the younger generation. For instance, my nephew asked me whether these things really happened in China. The government wants people to forget about the Cultural Revolution [which sought to expunge “liberal bourgeoisie” elements from China]. There’s hardly any mentioning of it in the textbooks. That’s like a random harvest to me.

AK: Can you tell us a little of your early time in China, and how you ended up in America?

QX: I grew up in what was termed a “black family,” as my father was a “capitalist” in his class status. During the Cultural Revolution, our family suffered a lot. It was not until after the end of the Cultural Revolution, that I was allowed to study in a college. I started writing in Chinese and translating during my college years. Among other things, I translated a collection of Eliot’s poems, which was a “bestseller” at the time and earned me a prize.

I went to America in 1988 as a visiting scholar. I had originally planned to stay for only one year there. But then the Tiananmen [Square] tragedy occurred and my name was mentioned in the Voice of America as a poet raising money for students in Beijing. I had no choice. So I stayed on and switched to writing in English. It was out of the question for me to write and publish in Chinese at the time. One thing led to another, and here I am.

AK: And what was your path to publishing the first Inspector Chen novel, Death of a Red Heroine [2000]?

QX: After I finished the manuscript, I made some inquiries. I was told that it could be as difficult to get an agent as to get a publisher. So I simply sent the manuscript directly to publishers, and I got the response in a couple of weeks. That’s it, basically.

AK: Did you realize at the outset that the Inspector Chen books would become a series?

QX: No, I did not know that when I finished Death of a Red Heroine, but my American publisher wanted me to sign a contract for three books--a series of Inspector Chen books. I was flattered, but after signing the contract, I had no choice. So one book after another. I’m working on Book Six at the moment.

AK: Given the lyrical nature of your work, I was not surprised to see you publishing poetry. So tell me about your interest in that field.

QX: I started writing poetry in Chinese in the early ’80s. Because of my translation of T.S. Eliot, I came under the influence of modernist poetry. I was selected for membership in the Chinese Writers’ Association. After 1989, however, I started writing in English. I received several prizes for my English poetry, including the Missouri Biennial Award. I also published a collection of poetry entitled Lines Around China. In my novels, I have Inspector Chen write poems, some of which are mine, as you know. It’s in the tradition of classical Chinese literature for poems to appear in novels. In addition, I have Inspector Chen complain that he does not have enough time for poetry; for Inspector Chen, poetry is like “the moon palace”--he knows he cannot stay there for too long, but staying there for a while still makes the necessary difference. And you may say that it is true in my case too.

AK: I detect in your work what seem to be the Western influences of Raymond Chandler. Am I write about that? And who else influenced your direction in writing crime and mystery fiction?

QX: I read Raymond Chandler. You’re right about that. But Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, with their sociological emphasis, influenced me more than others in the writing of mystery fiction.

AK: I can understand the international appeal of your work--not unlike the appeal of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books. Other than the United States and the UK, in what other countries are your novels published?

QX: France, Germany, Italy, Japan, China, Spain, Russia, Israel, Norway, Hungary, Sweden, Holland, Finland, Denmark. Perhaps one or two more.

AK: What are the differences you find between UK and U.S. publishers, and others?

QX: I don’t think I know enough to tell you the difference, but as far as readings and book-signings are concerned, there are some differences. In China, you simply sit in the bookstore and sign your books. In the U.S., you read and talk and sign your books. In Germany, it is like a performance. Usually, there is an actor (in my case, an actor who plays cops) doing the reading, and I will do the questions and answers with an interpreter before book signing. In France, I once did a reading in a department store. Also, there seem to be more festivals in European countries. Having said that, I have to say that I can tell only from my own experience.

AK: What can we expect from Inspector Chen’s fifth outing, which I believe has just been released in France?

QX: It has been just released in France. The English title is Red Mandarin Dress, but the French title is changed to De Soie et de Sang. It is about a serial-murder case in contemporary China, but it goes back to the Cultural Revolution, and to the archetype of the femme fatale in Chinese culture as well. Personally, it is my favorite in the series.

AK: Have you been back to China, or would political issues prevent your doing so?

QX: I have been back to China many times. Since my first trip back to China in 1996, no political issues have prevented me from going back. However, political issues have prevented my novels from being translated in Chinese in an unabridged way. According to my Chinese editor, they had to do “major operations,” including the change of Shanghai to “H city” in the Chinese text.

AK: Food is mentioned heavily in your work, and I get hungry just reading it. Are you a “foodie”? And do you do a lot of cooking?

QX: I like good food, and I cook too. I wrote about food, partially because I missed the authentic Chinese food in the United States, and to write about it offered a sort of compensation, almost like Proust reliving his past experience through recalling his favorite cookies.

AK: One last question: Of contemporary writers, who have you managed to read recently?

QX: In London, I have been reading Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Recently, I also read Ian McEwan’s Saturday, partially because of the poem “Dover Beach.”

READ MORE:Qiu Xiaolong, Interviewed by Cara Black” (Mystery Readers International).

(Author photograph provided by Hodder & Stoughton.)

Rippin’ It Up

As of this writing, author-critic Mike Ripley’s latest “Getting Away with Murder” column doesn’t yet have a link from the front page of Britain’s Shots e-zine. But since we have read it already, and are feeling particularly generous, let us provide you with that link here. In Ripley’s latest compilation of news, gossip, and wit, he skewers Barry Forshaw’s Rough Guide to Crime Fiction for what it doesn’t include, applauds octogenarian authors for their new works, remarks on the “comic-strip editions” of eight Agatha Christie novels (huh?), and champions what he expects will be a fine but ignored new “western mystery” from Thomas Eidson, Souls of Angels. (Well, not ignored completely: I just ordered a copy.)

Ripley is a clever soul, and his monthly maunderings are invariably worth spending a few minutes reading (preferably, by the pool).

As I said, the page can be found here.

Inspector, the Moving Van Awaits

Sacrebleu! First, London’s Bow Street Magistrates’ Court closed its doors, after almost 270 years of operation. Now, the Criminal Division of France’s Sûreté in Paris is preparing to quit its home at 36 Quai des Orfèvres--a building well known to generations of crime-fiction fans. Reports the Belfast Telegraph:
Inspector Maigret and Inspector Clouseau are to lose their legendary, evil-smelling home on the banks of the Seine. The Paris Brigade Criminelle or “Crim” is to quit the dark and pokey headquarters at 36 Quai des Orfèvres that have served as its headquarters for almost 100 years for a hi-tech building in another part of the city.

To lovers of police fiction, this will be the greatest crime against romanticism since the Metropolitan Police abandoned the original Scotland Yard in 1967.

The Quai des Orfèvres, on the Ile de Cité, close to Notre Dame cathedral, was made famous by the 75 Maigret novels written by Georges Simenon between 1930 and 1972. Its dark, cramped offices and lino-covered staircases, smelling of sweat and cigarettes, are familiar to every generation of Paris detectives--as well as killers and gang leaders--since 1912.

Now the new Paris police chief, Michel Gaudin, wants the Brigade Criminelle to enter the 21st century. “It was no longer possible to make a case for staying there,” said Olivier Foll, head of the “Crim” from 1995 to 1997. “You just had to go to the headquarters of the FBI in Washington or to New Scotland Yard to grasp what was needed.”
(Hat tip to Sarah Weinman.)

Straight to Video ... er, Audio

The second annual ThrillerFest convention (to be held in New York City) doesn’t even begin until mid-July, but organizers from the International Thriller Writers (ITW) are already planning for what comes next. The ubiquitous Sarah Weinman writes in GalleyCat that the ITW is teaming up with Audible, the New Jersey-based audio book publisher, to produce a serial novel in audio format, provisionally titled Serial Thriller. It will be edited by New York author Jim Fusilli (Hard, Hard City) and launch “sometime this fall,” according to Audible’s director of content, Steve Feldberg.

Weinman writes that the book-length Serial Thriller will be “written in series by some of the genre’s top names and emerging talents. Jeffery Deaver will author the opening and closing chapters; others announced as adding intervening 14-odd chapters include Lee Child, Lisa Scottoline, David Hewson, and Joseph Finder. Once all the chapters are written (something that Fusilli says should happen by the beginning of July) Audible will recruit a single narrator to record the entire serial novel, which Feldberg adds is tentatively scheduled to be released two chapters at a time over the course of eight weeks.” There are no plans yet for a print edition, but one seems likely. After all, why not make the most of the talents being collected for this novel project?

Read more about the ITW’s Serial Thriller here.

The Gang’s All Here

I haven’t even found a copy yet, but Rod Lott of Bookgasm already has plenty of nice things to say about the second issue of Out of the Gutter, editor Matthew Louis’ collection between covers of “tough-as-nails fiction,” crime-related non-fiction, and “amusing filler, including sidebars, an R-rated poem, fake ads and comics.” Lott is especially complimentary of a short story by Christa Faust (author of the upcoming Hard Case Crime novel Money Shot) and of this issue’s centerpiece, a “Gangland” section “with four pieces of fiction involving gangs and Mafia types. It begins with John Rickards’ tongue-in-cheek ‘Vengeance of Mine,’ whose lead character is Jesus Christ. No, really--Jesus Christ, as in the guy who died for your sins, ‘so show a little fucking respect.’ Ken Goldman takes the prize, though, with ‘Fat Larry’s Night with the Alligators,’ a classic gangster tale of dead-body disposal, double-crossings and devilishly hungry reptiles.” You can read all of Lott’s gushing here.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Who Likes Short Shorts?

Good fiction should include more than just the high points of action or emotional conflict. I don’t know how many times this subject has come up in my weekly writers’ group, and here I am raising it again in the context of a most unusual Web launch, that of The Minisode Network. A joint venture from Sony Pictures and MySpace, this enterprise offers severely edited versions of the episodes of older TV shows, trimming out character development and any sort of binding action in order to present stories for those folks gifted with the attention span of a gnat. At least that’s my read on it.

What used to be hourlong eps of T.J. Hooker, Starsky & Hutch, Police Woman, and Charlie’s Angels are now available at The Minisode Network site in segments lasting no more than 3.5 to five minutes apiece. Hey, at that rate you could watch a whole season’s worth of a TV series in less than two hours. Talk about efficiency! Of course, abbreviating these shows so rigorously isn’t going to enhance their reputations one iota. Pare down T.J. Hooker to five minutes, for instance, and all you get is a plot sketch and star William Shatner playing a tough guy. There’s no camaraderie among the police academy recruits, little of the humor that once balanced Shatner’s moralistic speechifying on the show, and painfully few opportunities to appreciate Heather Locklear, then in her early 20s, prancing about in gym shorts or stalking suspects with gun drawn. (Man, she was something when she was younger, wasn’t she?)

If Sony’s message with The Minisode Network is that installments of Charlie’s Angels and Starsky & Hutch weren’t worth the full hour some of us spent watching them in the first place, and weren’t worth the millions of dollars the networks shelled out for their production, what does that say about U.S. television’s value, in general? Or Sony’s estimation of the intelligence of American viewers? Nothing good, that’s for sure.

When I’m sitting in front of a computer and suddenly feeling nostalgic for old TV, I would much rather watch full episodes of Spenser: For Hire or The Man from U.N.C.L.E. at AOL’s In2TV site. But hey, maybe that’s just me. I’m not a frickin’ gnat.

READ MORE:Short Cuts,” by Jessica Winter (Slate).