Saturday, January 05, 2008

Betting on Black

Last year I bumped into Tony Black in London while I was out drinking with Ken Bruen, celebrating the recent release of Bruen’s Cross. At that stage, Black was still scribbling away on a novel entitled Paying for It, while also helping out at the Webzine Pulp Pusher. We chatted for a while, and it was obvious that Black, who lives and works in Edinburgh, knew the crime-fiction genre well. He then put together a few pieces for the e-zine Shots, one of them an insightful article about Ian Rankin (Exit Music). But I kept telling Black to concentrate on his fiction, as I had read the opening of Paying for It and found his prose stark and compelling, not unlike his short fiction, which has found homes in various publications, including Out of the Gutter.

It seems he did just that, though probably not simply on my advice. I heard from Random House the other day that it will be publishing Paying for It this coming July.

So what’s this cheerful tale of the Scottish underworld all about? Random House sent me the following synopsis:
Gus Dury once had a high-flying career as a journalist and a wife he adored. But now he is living on the edge, a drink away from Edinburgh’s down-and-outs, drifting from bar to bar, trying not to sign divorce papers. But the road takes an unexpected turn when a friend asks him to investigate the brutal torture and killing of his son, and Gus becomes embroiled in a much bigger story of political corruption and illegal people-trafficking. Seedy doss-houses, bleak wastelands and sudden violence contrast with the cobbled streets and cool bistros of fashionable Edinburgh, as the puzzle unravels to a truly shocking ending.
To learn more, I tracked down the 35-year-old Black--who I found recovering after his hometown’s Hogmanay New Year’s festivities--and asked him a few questions about his debut novel.

Ali Karim: So tell me about your background, because your lead character, Gus Dury, shares your vocation. Isn’t that right?

Tony Black: Like Gus, I’m a trained hack. Fortunately I’ve managed to avoid some of the career ups-and-downs of Gus, but my work has provided quite a bit of inspiration for my writing. I think it must have been soon after the Scottish government devolution that the idea for Gus started to germinate. I remember having to deal with a new layer of B-list politicians who were clearly enjoying the limo lifestyle a little too much. One particular encounter with a government minister who turned up for a press call with an entourage to put Queen Victoria to shame still vividly sticks in my mind.

A lot of Gus’ motivation comes from a desire to right wrongs, and expose falsehoods and corruption. I’d like to think I share a lot of his moral impulses ... but of his thirst for a good dram, I couldn’t possible comment!

AK: So tell us a little about what Gus gets up to in your book.

TB: At the start of Paying for It, Gus is content to drink himself to oblivion; but when his surrogate father-figure, Col, asks him to look into the brutal killing of his son, Billy, then Gus knows he must help out a friend in need. It’s true that Gus thinks he’s washed-up and is past helping himself, but the more he uncovers in the case, the more his moral compass guides him to the solution. It’s almost a journey of discovery for Gus; I think he realizes by the end of the book that he isn’t the failure he thinks he is.

When Gus was growing up, his father was a bit of a sporting celebrity, a footballer he describes as “a studs-first sweeper that would have made Vinnie Jones look like a shandy drinker.” Unfortunately, he didn’t leave his aggression on the pitch, and Gus and the rest of the family were often victims of it. Throughout the book, Gus battles with this, it’s his main demon.

AK: And why set the story in Edinburgh? Especially as John Rebus casts a long shadow.

TB: Well, Edinburgh is a truly inspiring place, it has everything you could possibly ask for in a setting for a crime novel. There’s the sheer beauty of the buildings, there’s a castle on the main drag, c’mon! The split-personality of the place, with the twisting closes of the Old Town and the geometric precision of the New Town. The Gothic traditions, the history, the multicultural Edinburgh ... I tried to get in the head-banging frustration of the little man in the face of a wider established order, but I don’t think it’s just Edinburgh society I’m targeting. The “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” mentality pervades every society, it’s human nature. What Edinburgh society has is a very old, very established cadre of privilege, which the vast majority of people are excluded from; however, from time to time it will rear its head. Gus Dury detests that old-school-tie slipperiness, and I’m sure exposing its follies are every bit as much a motivator as righting wrongs … it’s all wrong to him.

* * *

To borrow a line from the 1992 Wesley Snipes film, Passenger 57, I’m betting on Black. But I am not the only one. Edinburgh’s Evening News this week named Tony Black as a novelist to watch (along with fellow Edinburgh writer Alexander McCall Smith, whose novel The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is being made into a film).

Since we started this post with Ken Bruen, let’s end it in the same way. What does the dark star of Galway think of Paying for It? As he says in a cover blurb, “The narrative blasts off the page like a triple malt.” I’ll drink to that.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

writing wrongs--my kinda guy.
July? I'll be readin it in Jersey with me firecrackers in the sand.
All the best with the debut, Tony.