Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Critic’s Life, Part II: The Poetry of Crime

(Part I of this three-part report can be found here.)

Following our lunch with Canadian author Linwood Barclay (No Time for Goodbye), hosted by those tremendous people at Orion Publishing, author-critic Maxim Jakubowski and I went back to his bookstore, Murder One, for a coffee.

Jakubowski’s specialty store is celebrating its 20th year of trading, and has become a hub for crime, mystery, and thriller readers. Located in the “bookstore district” of Charing Cross Road, it is ideally situated right in the middle of London’s bustling West End, so attracts vacationing crime readers from all over the world. A couple of years ago, following a dreadful flood, Jakubowski had to move his establishment from the opposite side of the street. But in its new position, it continues to promote this genre.

I love independent bookstores and I support them as much as I can. The market for these shops is tough, though, what with rising rents pushing costs up, competition from Internet distributors, and supermarkets that enjoy bigger economies of scale. The independent sector has to work harder to stay afloat.

While I was in Murder One, filling my trolley with books that looked interesting (and to me, almost everything does), Jakubowski was surprised to see poet and now best-selling crime novelist Sophie Hannah enter the store, accompanied by a representative of her UK publisher, Hodder and Stougton.

For those of you not familiar with Hannah (shown above, with Jakubowski on the left), I should note that her fifth collection of poetry, Pessimism for Beginners, was shortlisted for the 2007 T.S. Eliot Award, and her latest collection of short stories, The Fantastic Book of Everybody’s Secrets, is being published next month by Sort of Books. But of course, my interest in her work is not her poetry, but her ability to create edgy psychological thrillers. The first of her crime novels was Little Face (2006), longlisted for the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award, and longlisted for the IMPAC Award. She followed up that genre debut with Hurting Distance (2007), and just this month we’re seeing the release of Point of Rescue, which again boasts a claustrophobic plot revolving around the games some people play in their relationships.

Hodder and Stoughton describes the plot of Point of Rescue thusly:
Sally Thorning is watching the news with her husband when she hears a name she never thought she’d hear again: Mark Bretherick.

It’s a name she ought not to recognise. Last year, a work trip Sally had planned was cancelled at the last minute. Desperate for a break from her busy life juggling her job and a young family, Sally didn’t tell her husband that the trip had fallen through. Instead, she treated herself to a secret holiday in a remote hotel. All she wanted was a bit of peace--some time to herself--but it didn’t work out that way. Because Sally met a man--Mark Bretherick.

All the details are the same: where he lives, his job, his wife Geraldine and daughter Lucy. Except that the photograph on the news is of a man Sally has never seen before. And Geraldine and Lucy Bretherick are both dead ...
I read Little Face a few years ago, and enjoyed that chilling tale of domestic crimes. So I was pleased when Jakubowski introduced me to its author. I was also interested, as I spotted her picking up a copy of Swedish novelist Stieg Larsson’s newly translated The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo from Murder One’s shelves. As it turns out, she’d read my review of that haunting book and had an anecdote to share about it. Since I had my tape recorder handy, I whipped it out for a short interview with Hannah about her work and how she’d turned from being an award-winning poet to the darker art of crime writing.

Sophie Hannah: I first heard of the [Larsson] book from my mother, but I didn’t fancy it as the title put me off; but then while in Rome last week, I was sharing a taxi to the airport with Stieg Larsson’s Italian publisher, and she me told me that Stieg Larsson’s original title was Men Who Hate Women, and as soon as she said that, I thought, actually that sounds much more interesting. It started me thinking that the only reason why a publisher would change a title [in translation] would be, presumably, because they want to sell more copies. But for me [the new title] actually put me off, as I would much rather read a provocative title Men Who Hate Women to one called The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. If it wasn’t for the chance meeting of Larsson’s Italian publisher, I would never have thought of reading it.

Ali Karim: I enjoyed your debut novel, Little Face. But tell us a bit about your newest, Point of Rescue.

SH: It’s about a woman watching the TV news with her husband and she hears the name of a man who she had a “fling” with the year before. He’s in the news, because his wife and daughter have been found dead in suspicious circumstances in their house. When an image of the grieving husband and father appears on the screen, she realizes it’s not him, not the man she had the fling with. So obviously she doesn’t know if that has any bearing on the deaths, or whether she met and slept with the “real one,” or if the man in the TV is the “real one.” And she doesn’t know if she should risk going to the police, in case her husband finds out, and [it] therefore ultimately threatens her own family and marriage. I guess you could call it a woman-in-peril novel, as she does indeed investigate to find out exactly what is going on--and in so doing puts herself in danger, terrible danger.

AK: You are a renowned poet. How did you find yourself working in the crime-fiction field?

SH: I’ve always wanted to write crime fiction. One of the reasons why it took me so long was that I wanted to wait until I felt I could write a really good crime novel. When I was 18, I wrote two really bad crime novels, and it was obvious that I couldn’t do it at that point in my life. But I knew it was something that I always wanted to do, as I am an obsessive crime reader. I read practically nothing but crime fiction. I just love the crime-thriller genre.

AK: So what books have you favored in this genre, and who influenced your evolution from reader to writer?

SH: I think it’s easier to say who you like, rather than who you are influenced by. I am huge fan of Agatha Christie. Apart from Enid Blyton with her “Secret Seven” books, Christie was the first crime writer I read; in fact, I read all her books and I collect her work. Then I went from Christie to Ruth Rendell; I read all of hers and again collected all her books. Those two writers have been my biggest influences.

AK: And what about Rendell’s several books written under her pen name, Barbara Vine?

SH: [Laughing] We were just talking about her, in fact. They [Vine’s novels] are much darker and unfold at a different pace, but [are] equally brilliant. In fact, my favorite of Rendell’s work is a Barbara Vine novel, A Dark Adapted Eye [1986], which for my money is probably the best crime novel ever written. I am also a big fan of Nicci French.

AK: The pair of journalists who’ve combined their real names, Sean French and Nicci Gerrard?

SH: [Laughing] I try to forget that, as it confuses me. Nicci French is probably the author I most want to read when they release a new book, more than any other writer. I find the French novels completely captivating.

AK: And are you scheduled to participate in any panels at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival this summer?

SH: Yes, I’ll be there, but I’m coming as [a member of the] audience. I go every year, as it is [held] close to where I live, and I enjoy it immensely. In fact, I’ve noticed you around many times, and ... I recall chatting to you at 3 a.m. one morning about crime-fiction!

AK: [Laughing] I couldn’t possibly comment without my lawyer!

So I thanked Sophie Hannah for her time and insight, and left her to pay for her copy of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. At that point, I checked the time and realized that I had to make a rapid move, as I had planned to meet up with Shots editor Mike Stotter in Covent Garden, prior to the evening’s Orion Publishing Party. So I said my good-byes to Maxim Jakubowski and headed downtown.

(The third and final part of this report can be found here.)

1 comment:

Fiona said...

i admit i far prefer "the girl with the dragon tattoo" to "men who hate women"... the original title sounds too much like being hammered with a cudgel, too much like a feminist empowerment self-help book, to much like an essay...