Monday, March 14, 2011

Rip and Read

Reading Mike Ripley’s Shots column, “Getting Away with Murder,” is like standing beside a psychiatrist’s couch while the doctor stretches out and tells you a little about what’s been keeping him busy recently. Then again, if you don’t read Ripley’s monthly round-up of news and crime-fiction reviews, you should start looking seriously for a psychiatrist.

The talented Mister Ripley has written 18 novels and reviewed more than 980 mysteries and thrillers (“having read some of them all the way through,” he adds) over the last 20 years. We’d already enjoyed a few of his books and were eager visitors to his regular slot in the Shots e-zine when we met him for the first time last summer at the Heffers store in Cambridge during the invigorating annual “Bodies in the Book­shop” jamboree. Ripley stands out in a distinguished crowd for three very good reasons: he knows everything, and he knows everybody. The third reason? He’s an affable guy with a great sense of humor.

The problem, when interviewing him, is where to begin. Over the course of our recent discussion, we covered every subject from his fiction writing to the source of his column’s “voice,” his defense of forgotten authors, his recovery from a stroke, his opinions on the current wave of Scandinavian crime fiction, and his notorious name-dropping.

Michael Gregorio: Mike, it feels like I’ve been reading “Getting Away with Murder” (GAWM) ever since I was in short pants. How long has the column been running? When and how did the idea come to you?

Mike Ripley: The fact that you are now actually wearing pants is a good sign, Michael. Still, the column hasn’t been going that long. The inspiration for “Getting Away with Murder” came after a particularly savage night in the [original] Academy Club in London with my fellow boulevardiers Auberon Waugh and Gore Vidal, tasting a consign­ment of fire-damaged gin.

MG: [What does “fire-damaged gin” taste like, you dearly wish to ask. Which fire did it come from? And how did Waugh and Gore react to it? But that way madness lies. The fact is that Mike Ripley has met more writers than you or I could probably name. So instead, one tries the question again.] Mike, how did GAWM originate?

MR: Version 2 for the serious? Well, back in the 1990s I was the crime-fiction critic for The Daily Telegraph, but that meant writing about books after they’d been published. I wanted to tell readers about interesting books that were coming up and try my hand at talent-spotting new writers, so I began a “preview” column for the trade newspaper Publishing News (now defunct). Around 1998, PN decided that such things would be better (cheaper) covered in-house, and they dispensed with my four-times-a-year column. I happened to be speaking at a Sherlock Holmes convention with Harry [H.R.F.] Keating (who knows a lot about Holmes, whilst I know nothing) in Sussex at the home of [Arthur] Conan Doyle and I must have mentioned the fact in passing. Afterwards, I was approached by David Stuart Davies, editor of the quarterly Sherlock Holmes: The Detective Magazine, who asked if I would like to transfer the column there. I agreed and I came up with a new title: “Getting Away with Murder.”

MG: A happy ending, then?

MR: Well, GAWM ran in Sherlock for about six years--and we launched the Sherlock Awards (for mystery characters, not their authors!)--until the magazine changed proprietors and (disastrously) editors, and the column became homeless. It was Mike Stotter, the editor of Shots, who suggested an online home in 2006, though my connections with Shots had been infrequent since the printed version ended. My “Angel” books featured on the cover of the proto­type edition, which was launched at a Shot in the Dark convention in 1994. Despite that fact, the magazine was still going strong ...

MG: Better than strong, I’d say. Shots is now the UK’s biggest Internet site for crime fiction, and GAWM is one of its major attractions. But let me ask you about your Angel books. Mike Ripley, crime novelist, life number two.

MR: Were it only two lives! The voices in my head tell me it is so many more. I was probably the last big-game hunter to bag a white rhino in Hampshire.

MG: I read a bio saying that you are “the author of 18 novels, co-editor (with Maxim Jakubowski) of three anthologies featuring new UK crime-writing, a former scriptwriter for the Lovejoy series on the BBC, one of the presenters of the Super Sleuths series on ITV3, and a consultant for BBC2’s Murder Most Famous.” I’ve left out all the stuff about teaching and lecturing on the subject.

MR: I was also an air-ace with 134 confirmed kills (though I have since dropped the “von” from my family name); and the archaeologist who discovered the site of Queen Boudica’s royal mint (even if the dispute still rumbles on in academic circles) ...

MG: By which you mean that you were working until recently as an archaeologist in England’s East Anglia region, and that you have actually written historical thrillers: Boudica and the Last Roman (2005) and The Legend of Hereward the Wake (2007).

MR: Wasn’t that what I was just saying?

MG: Regarding your novels ... Angel Touch (1989), the second installment in your Angel series, won The Last Laugh Award for “best humorous crime novel first published in the British Isles.” Angels in Arms (1991), your fourth entry, picked up that very same commendation. That’s an amazing run of successes.

MR: Angel Hunt also won something called the Angel Award for Fiction--though no one believes that--and one of [the books] was voted “Shot of the Year” (at least I think that’s what they said) by readers of Shots magazine. I was very lucky in the early days. Readers and reviewers were very kind.

MG: The series features Fitzroy Maclean Angel, who has been described as “one of the best creations in modern crime fiction.” Would you care to tell us something about the character and that series?

MR: Angel was always meant to be an outsider, so that he could better observe the lunacies of life, particularly life in London in the late 1980s, when Thatcherism ruled, greed was good, and all people worried about was where the next BMW was coming from. He didn’t get a back-story and a family history until book number seven, and he is never physically described. The early books are being reissued by Telos Publishing--in fact, two came out this month--and they’re also doing e-books of them, whatever those are.

MG: Let’s return to the subject of your monthly column. What I find particularly fascinating about “Getting Away with Murder” is the voice of Mike Ripley, columnist, better known as “Duke Ripster of Ripster Hall.” Where did that amazing persona come from?

MR: From me, obviously. All I have done is turn the truth up to 11 and exaggerate like mad. I’ve been lucky enough to meet some talented and very interesting people in my life, so I played on that. I was born in a coal-mining village in the West Riding of Yorkshire (my father was a miner) and I was lucky enough to win a scholarship to a very minor public school, whose most famous old boy was John Haigh, the “Acid Bath Murderer.”

MG: Is that true or false?

MR: It’s true. Well, most of it’s true (apart from the bit about Gore Vidal being my darts-playing partner). As a teenager, I moved to Cambridge, where I was taught Russian History for a while by Tom Sharpe, who had only just been published. He was the first author I ever knew. I managed to talk my way on to Varsity, the university newspaper, where the editor was Charles Clarke (later to be Home Secretary), and I became their jazz critic. Not clever enough to get into Cambridge, I went to the University of East Anglia to read Economic History, and there I met Malcolm Bradbury, the second “proper” novelist I got to know, though I was less interested in his Creative Writing program (in fact, not interested at all) than I was in persuading the local newspaper, the Eastern Evening News (famous old boy: Frederick Forsyth) to give me a monthly humorous column on student life.

Journalism seemed a natural career on graduating--it was easier than working--and I did my apprenticeship on local papers in Yorkshire, before defecting into public relations, first for the University of Essex, then in London for The Brewers Society, where I promoted, defended, and drank British beer for 21 years until downsizing and the offer of redundancy led to a mid-life career change and I became an archaeologist, which seemed a perfectly logical thing to do at the time. Had it not been for my stroke, I would probably be one still.

MG: You wrote a book about that experience, too, didn’t you?

MR: Surviving a Stroke (ISIS Publishing, 2007) was written from my personal experience to give stroke survivors hope. It’s possible to get some, if not all, of your old life back. I did what worked for me. It won’t work for everyone, but the principle’s the same: find something you really want to do again and go for it. With me it was writing novels, and in particular finishing off the book I was writing when so rudely interrupted. Using an old typewriter to get my hand and arm working seemed perfectly natural to me, because I have always used typewriters. For other survivors it may be something completely different, but it’s important to find something to hang onto and use it as a lever to get back to normality.

MG: And where does the voice of “The Ripster” come from, Mike?

MR: I’m proud of the fact that a “scholarship boy” from a family of Yorkshire miners, with no connections and precious little talent, can find himself discussing the merits of Carlsberg Lager with the Duke of Edinburgh (twice!); have lunch in the House of Lords with Lord Willis, the creator of [the long-running TV series] Dixon of Dock Green; be invited onto the set of a James Bond movie by Pierce Brosnan; be introduced to Bergerac Blanc by Auberon Waugh; personally work with some of the great names in British brewing (Mr. Whitbread, Mr. Boddington, Mr. Adnams, and so on); be published by the legendary Elizabeth Walter (Agatha Christie’s last editor); meet one’s schoolboy heroes (Michael Caine, Len Deighton); and become good friends with writers who are really talented, such as Colin Dexter, Reginald Hill, and Minette Walters.

MG: You are a first-rate name-dropper, Mike, I’ll give you that.

MR: I know I am, so when searching for a “voice” for The Ripster, I decided to take this personal pride and expand it for comic effect. Thus, the writer of “Getting Away with Murder” has been everywhere, done everything, met everyone, and name-dropping is second nature to him. Because of my irritation at the short-term memory of many in the publishing industry, I gave the columnist great age and wisdom, and because I have always lived in the country (although many thought I lived in London), he naturally had to have a massive estate covering most, if not all, of East Anglia.

MG: Ah, the idea of an evening spent sipping sherry at Ripster Hall ...

MR: Sherry? Sherry’s for wimps!

I can’t remember who first called me The Ripster, but it was thriller writer Nick Stone who christened me “Duke,” when he discovered to his jealous fury and sneaking admiration that I had once met [pianist and band leader] Duke Ellington. Did I mention that? Thus, Duke Ripster of Ripster Hall emerged to fight the good fight, take to task unfeeling publishers, prick the inflated egos of writers who have written more books than they have read, and keep the flag flying for writers who do not deserve to be forgotten. And to have a few laughs along the way.

MG: About Duke Ellington ...?

MR: Myself and three friends had been to his concert in the north of England. It was 2 a.m. when it finished and the mini-cab we called for never turned up. It was snowing like fury. We were put out onto the street as the club closed, and we stood there shivering. A Rolls Royce emerged from the car park and pulled up. The rear door opened and there was Ellington telling us to get in out of the cold, so we did. I got his autograph, but I don’t think I said much, I was so tongue-tied. What a gentleman! Incidentally, so was [film director-screenwriter] Quentin Tarantino, though the first time I met him I hadn’t seen Reservoir Dogs [1992] and I had to bluff it. Did I mention meeting Quentin?

MG: Gawm blimey! OK, Mike, so you had an editor, a voice, and the column ...

MR: ... just seemed to slide naturally into a monthly timetable, though that was never planned. Some people refer to it as a “blog,” though I’m not really sure what a “blog” is. People who work in publishing have started to refer to it as my monthly “newsletter”; I don’t mind and have been astonished at the reach of my ramblings. Thanks to the jolly old Interweb (sic!), I now have readers in the USA (where my novels were rejected by publishers for being “full of slang” which the Americans wouldn’t understand!), Canada, Australia, Japan, South Africa, Spain, Denmark, Sweden, Portugal, Holland, even Italy.

MG: And you keep on dropping names every month in GAWM.

MR: When it comes to dropping “famous names” of crime writers, The Ripster does it in spades. But there is a reason for this. Although my crime-writing career, such as it was, is behind me now, I was very proud to have been an extremely small part of a long and noble tradition, and I regard ignorance of that tradition as a sin. Not recognizing good writing when it’s under your nose really gets my goat. I have no time for writers who refuse to accept that another writer can be as good as, or better than they are. I remember shocking an audience into silence when I described “my generation” of crime writers, and said that Ian Rankin may be the best plotter, but Michael Dibdin was “the best writer of us all.” My audience had never heard a writer say someone else was a better writer before. (Please note: I said that he was a better writer than me; I didn’t say he was funnier.)

MG: You do make a point of recommending names from the past.

MR: There are so many unjustly forgotten crime writers--and there’ll be many more as publishing becomes even more ruthless in its pursuit of the next Stieg Larsson or Dan Brown--that it makes me weep.

MG: Can you recommend one forgotten author in particular?

MR: Just one? If I had to pick, I’d say P.M. Hubbard, who wrote slow, atmospheric, and very spooky novels from 1963 up to his death in 1980. He dropped off the radar with frightening ease within two or three years and is now only remembered by die-hards like myself, or in histories of the genre. I defy anyone who has read Hubbard to dispute that he was a totally unique stylist who could conjure up a feeling of unease like few others before or since.

MG: While fighting for the “forgotten” generation and promoting new writers, you don’t seem to be particularly impressed by the Scandinavians.

MR: It may be thought that I have a natural resistance to Scandinavian crime writing, but I’d dispute that. I bow to no man in my appreciation of the Swedish duo Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, whose 10-book series of Inspector Martin Beck books was written between 1965 and 1975. Theirs was an achievement which will never be matched, let alone surpassed. They were not only good crime novels, they also provided a comprehensive Marxist critique of Swedish society.

What really irritates me is the publisher, publicity assistant, bookseller, or even the reviewer, who seems to think that the Scandinavian crime novel was invented by Henning Mankell. They probably think that Whitney Houston invented jazz.

I’m not saying that there aren’t many laughs in Scandinavian crime fiction--there aren’t any--but that’s OK, if you prefer doom and gloom. What irks me is the sheer lack of heart and generosity of spirit in them.

Now, this is not to knock Henning Mankell, per se. The early [Kurt] Wallander books were well written and probably well-enough translated; they’re just not to my taste. I even quite liked one of the Swedish TV adaptations, but I could not suppress a chuckle when The Daily Telegraph’s crime critic said: “Looking for a light-hearted, comic crime novel? Read a Henning Mankell, and then anything else you read will cheer you up.” I didn’t write that, but I would have done.

To be fair, Mankell’s books have been successful in English for 20 years now, but it was the posthumous phenomenon that was/is Steig Larsson which sent UK publishers scurrying for their checkbooks in the hope of signing up every Scandinavian who could leave a coherent note for the milkman.

I have met people who have told me that [Larsson’s] Millennium Trilogy was “a life-changing experience,” though admittedly some of the same people can’t understand why The Da Vinci Code didn’t win the Booker Prize. I have to admit that I never finished the first book and have not been tempted to try the other two, or see any of the films, which just seem to keep on coming. It seemed to me that the book screamed out for an editor (one of the old school who actually edits) and that the female heroine (“the hacker chick,” as an American friend calls her) was far from the original character many were claiming that she was. Call me old-fashioned and patriotic (or just old), but I reckon Lisbeth Salander owes an awful lot to feisty, kick-ass, computer-literate, sexy heroines of British crime fiction of the late 1980s/early 1990s created by writers such as Val McDermid, Sarah Dunant, Denise Danks, Lesley Grant-Adamson, and Stella Duffy.

MG: I didn’t manage to finish the first volume of the Millennium Trilogy, either. Nor did I bother with books two and three. It’s one of those things that you don’t really want to confess for lots of reasons.

MR: To suggest in public that the Larsson trilogy might in any way be overblown and derivative is akin to smoking in church, and the legions of Larsson fans (as in “fanatics”) turn on you like-- as Gore Vidal would have said--members of the Donner Party at an all-you-can-eat-buffet. I suspect it is because the books were published posthumously. Any hint of criticism is dismissed with the charge “you’re jealous of his sales figures.” Well, honestly, I am not jealous of the late Mr. Larsson. What is there to be jealous of? I’m still alive.

The beatification of Larsson led Scandinavian crime fiction to become the Holy Grail of British publishing. Anything with a Nordic twist seems to get published and heavily promoted--I am anxiously awaiting the first crime-writing sensation from the Faroe Islands; it’s bound to come. All I try to do is prick the huge Scandinavian bubble with a very small, blunt pin--because, let’s face it, all artificial bubbles need pricking, and that goes for the egos of writers, myself included.

Still, whenever I subject Scandinavian crime fiction to one of my flea bites, you’d be surprised at my mail bag. There’s hate mail from readers and publishers, of course, but also an awful lot of messages from writers worldwide saying “you’re dead right, but I would never dare say that.”

MG: Any other pet aversions, Mike?

MR: Lots! Established writers too arrogant to help or encourage debutante authors; debutante authors so full of themselves that they think they don’t need advice ...

[At this point in our exchange, the magnetic tape unwound creakily from its plastic spool. Fans will be happy to know that Mike Ripley will be “spooling” and “spieling” again in “Getting Away with Murder” next month on the Shots Web site.]


dick adler said...

Well worth the space. I bet this is what Jeff Pierce wants to be...

Kiwicraig said...

Excellent interview Michael, thanks for sharing it with us all.

I had the pleasure of dealing with 'the Ripster' last year when I was helping establish the Ngaio Marsh Award (NZ's first crime fiction award). He was very generous with his time and advice, and we were rapt to have him on board as one of our judges for the inaugural award.

Robin said...

I'm straight onto Amazon to check out PM Hubbard.

Winifred said...

Great stuff. Thanks for the link to the Getting Away with Murder e-zine. A really great laugh and a massive addition to my book list.

Many Thanks!

kathy d. said...

Very good interview.

Agree wholeheartedly on Sjowall and Wahloo: unsurpassable. The only problem with reading their books is that there are fewer left to savor, and savor one does.

Would also say that on the whole, Scandinavian books are not funny, with the exception of Hakan Nesser's Detective Van Veeteren, who can knock out a reader with an unexpected stroke of wit. One sits there saying, "What? I didn't see this one coming? What just happened"? And then a laugh out loud.