Monday, September 29, 2008

Escape from the Ordinary, Part I

(Editor’s note: This is the opening segment of a two-part pre-Bouchercon report submitted by British correspondent Ali Karim. The second installment will follow later this week.)

A simple act of lunch: (counterclockwise) R.J. Ellory, Ali Karim, Mark Timlin, Chris Simmons, Angela McMahon, Jake Kerridge, and Barry Forshaw.

Needing at least a brief respite from news of the world’s economic woes, I took a day off work recently to wander the bookshops of London. This mini-holiday was also motivated by an invitation I had received, asking me to join Angela McMahon of Orion Publishing for a lunch with some of my fellow London crime-fiction reviewers, all to celebrate the debut of A Simple Act of Violence, by British wordsmith Roger Jon “R.J.” Ellory. After lunch, I planned to attend a cocktail party with representatives of iconic UK publisher Faber & Faber, and then share a late dinner with Shots editor Mike Stotter.

So after a morning spent browsing the shelves at Murder One on the Charing Cross Road, I headed to Covent Garden for the midday meal.

Many of you already know about my appreciation for Ellory’s work. I’ve been championing him ever since the release of his first novel, Candlemoth, which I added to January Magazine’s gift guide selection in 2003. Knowing of my fondness for his work, Orion was kind enough to send along an advance copy of A Simple Act of Violence, together with this synopsis of its story:
Washington [D.C.], embroiled in the mid-term elections, did not want to hear about serial killings. But when the newspapers reported a fourth murder, when they gave the killer a name and details of his horrendous crimes, there were few people that could ignore it. Detective Robert Miller is assigned to the case. He and his partner begin the task of correlating and cross-referencing the details of each crime scene. Rapidly things begin to complicate. The victims do not officially exist. Their personal details do not register on any known systems. The harder Miller works, the less it makes sense. And as Miller unearths ever more disturbing facts, he starts to face truths so far-removed from his own reality that he begins to fear for his life. This is a novel about trust, loyalty, and beliefs that are so ingrained which, when challenged, they leave people with nothing. Vast in scope, A Simple Act of Violence is an exposé of the brutality of covert operations, the power of greed and the insidious nature of corruption. It is also a story of love and trust that somehow managed to survive the very worst that the world could throw at it.
What I like about Roger Ellory is that, despite his now being an über-author, thanks in large part to his last novel, A Quiet Belief in Angels, having been tapped as a Richard & Judy pick, he still remembers the folks who reviewed him when he was starting out. In fact, Ellory will be accompanying me to Bouchercon in Baltimore next week. (Be sure to say hello if you find yourself in Charm City and spot us in the hotel bar.)

Angela McMahon had booked a table at the plush Bertorelli’s restaurant in Covent Garden. I was delighted to see, already seated across the table, two of my friends, Crime Squad editor Chris Simmons and Mark Timlin, a novelist and reviewer for The Independent on Sunday. While we waited for our hosts and the other guests, Timlin finally confessed to me that he is “Lee Martin,” the pseudonymous author of a racy work of crime fiction called Gangsters’ Wives (2007). Now, in hindsight, this doesn’t really seem so surprising, as Timlin has been prolific not only in writing thrillers, but also in composing erotic novels under several pen-names. Timlin went on to tell me that a sequel, Gangsters’ Widows, is nearing completion--and yes, like Gangsters’ Wives it features British-Asian cop Ali S. Karim. He also ribbed Simmons and me about our defeat at the hands of Mark Billingham and Robert Crais during this summer’s famed Harrogate quiz.

Not long after that, Angela McMahon, Ellory, Jake Kerridge of The Daily Telegraph, and Barry Forshaw of Crime Time joined us at the table. A wine list was presented (much to Timlin’s pleasure), and we peppered Ellory with praise for his latest novelistic accomplishment; despite its size--512 pages--A Simple Act of Violence is a fast and furious read. And Ellory, in turn, told us how pleased he is to find himself slated on a panel at
Bouchercon. (For those attending the events in Baltimore, he’ll be part of the “Born Under a Bad Sign” session, scheduled for Saturday, October 11, at 1:30 p.m.)

Ellory’s previous suspense novel, A Quiet Belief in Angels, has been nominated for a Barry Award--though he acknowledged that his competition in the Best British Crime Novel category is very tough, indeed. I assured him that just being nominated was a hell of an achievement, but that statement always sounds a bit hollow when you say it out loud. Quickly, our luncheon devolved into mutual congratulations. I wished Forshaw luck with his nomination for a 2008 Macavity Award (for The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction). He reciprocated with best wishes to both Rap Sheet editor J. Kingston Pierce and myself, as we’ve been nominated for Anthony Awards.

As Ellory signed my proof copy of Simple Act, the lot of us discussed this new novel. Timlin described it as a “doorstop,” based on its size and storytelling scope. Ellory indicated that the work had been heavily edited, since the original manuscript could have been published in two substantial volumes. And we chatted about conspiracy theories--a favorite topic both of mine and Ellory’s--since at the heart of Simple Act is a conspiracy involving U.S. security services. Such conversations among readers and writers of thrillers are not uncommon, as we’re often more prone to see real-life events through the lens of intentional conspiracies. Call it an occupational hazard.

Our meals were delightful, and as we dug into them McMahon made conversation by telling us that Linwood Barclay’s No Time for Goodbye, an Orion title, has already sold more than half a million copies in the UK, and it remains in the top-10 sections of bestseller lists on this side of the Atlantic. Furthermore, Barclay’s previous novel, Stone Rain (2007), has been nominated for a Shamus Award this year. It’s certainly been a good 12 months for Barclay. All of this reminded me to tell Ellory that our tickets for the Private Eye Writers of America Shamus banquet had arrived in the post. I look forward to seeing PWA honcho Robert J. Randisi again; it’s been five years since we last clinked glasses.

Then we discussed the recent Harrogate Crime Writing Festival. By this time, Timlin had consumed a goodly amount of wine and become rather loud. Hoping to get a rise out of yours truly, he kept asking again who had won the Harrogate quiz. And the sixth time he inquired, I gave him a surly and sinister whiplash smile worthy of Nick Sharman. It seemed to do the trick, though Timlin did get rather excitable at one point and his language turned blue, which the rest of us put down to his having given up the smokes and still wishing to perpetuate his bad-boy image.

We went on to rib Jake Kerridge about The Telegraph’s proclivity for making argument-producing lists, such as one of the top 50 crime writers you must read before you die, and last week’s rundown of the top 50 literary villains. He told us that his newspaper’s editorial staff always have great fun working on these lists. Kerridge admitted that in the end those lists are primarily designed to provoke a reaction and fuel debate--and looking at the comments on the Internet, it’s obvious they do just that.

Before I knew it, I looked at my watch and realized it was 4:30 in the afternoon. We’d been dining and talking for close to four hours. With a stomach full of wine and fine cuisine, it was time to say our farewells. After thanking Orion’s McMahon for an excellent repast, we all went our separate ways, some of us agreeing to meet up later that day at the Faber & Faber party.

As I tottered off, I reflected on how appropriate it is that the two panels I shall be sitting on at Bouchercon--one on Thursday, October 9 (“I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down”), about “booze, hootch, and firewater and its place in crime fiction,” and the other on Friday, October 10 (“Money Back Guarantee”), about “books we love that you should too”--relate to my enthusiasms for (a) alcohol in moderation and (b) crime fiction in excess. The first of those two panel discussions, by the way, should be especially interesting because Irish writer Ken Bruen has changed his travel plans in order to attend, and he’ll have sometime co-author Jason Starr in tow to talk turkey and, well, Wild Turkey. Considering the reputation Bruen and I have when it comes to discussing crime and cocktails, it should be a lively debate. Stop by if you’re at the conference. And don’t fret, as we have organized security for the event.

(To be continued)

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