Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Critic’s Life, Part I: Lunching with Linwood

Last year, you may remember, I was captivated by Canadian journalist and crime-fictionist Linwood Barclay’s novel No Time for Goodbye. It was such a powerful book, that I devoured it in one sitting. What hooked me was the story’s opening and its cast of real people trapped in a terrifying and totally extraordinary situation. This novel marked Barclay’s debut in the UK, as he’d finally been picked up by Bill Massey of Orion Publishing, Britain’s biggest crime-fiction publisher. After reading No Time for Goodbye, I decided to find out more about its author, and tracked him down through my friend, the literary agent Helen Heller. Barclay agreed to a short interview for The Rap Sheet, following which I ordered his Zack Walker novels (most recently, Stone Rain).

Not long ago, I learned that Barclay was coming over to London to attend the Orion Publishing Party, to be held at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. As the people at Orion were very excited to have his novel augmenting their extensive crime list, Charlotte Cosic from the company’s public relations department organized a literary lunch during Barclay’s visit. I was flattered to be invited to this affair at the swanky restaurant Incognico in Shaftesbury Avenue, and to join my old chum, writer, critic, and bookstore owner Maxim Jakubowski in welcoming the Canadian novelist to our town. I rarely find time to indulge in the literary lunching scene, but I made an exception in order to talk with Barclay and to discover what Orion had planned for him, especially as editorial director Bill Massey would be joining us, and he would certainly be the man in the know.

Since I knew I would be drinking not only at lunch, but also at the Orion fête later that night, I left my car behind and took the train in to London, bringing along Kevin Wignall’s excellent existential identity thriller Who Is Conrad Hirst? This short novel kept me riveted until my arrival in the West End. There, I met up with Jakubowski at his store, Murder One, on Charing Cross Road, and we walked across the street to the French brasserie Incognico. We were greeted in the restaurant by Cosic and Massey, and escorted to Barclay’s table.

The author proved to be quite droll, and we chatted for a bit before I got down to some mild questioning. I noted that No Time for Goodbye had been issued in the States six months before its debut in the UK, and asked Massey whether there had been any changes made to the British edition. He said that, apart from some minor tweaks, it was pretty close to the U.S. version. Barclay smiled and said that there had been a little debate over the italicized sections that preceded each chapter. These were dialogue sections between two people, the significance of which is only made clear at the book’s resolution. Apparently, there was lengthy debate about whether these sections should be excised from the UK edition, but Barclay fought to retain them, as they present clues related to the story’s final twist, and he didn’t want readers to feel cheated. In the end, it was decided to leave them in.

Massey revealed that Orion plans to reissue Barclay’s Zack Walker books in the UK this coming autumn as paperback originals, the same way this publisher did with Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar series, after the success of Tell No One in 2001. We then talked about the difficulty of publishing nowadays, and I was encouraged to hear that No Time for Goodbye is in its fourth printing. We all agreed that the British cover of Barclay’s book (shown at left) is excellent, and portrays the story’s mood perfectly. Jakubowski added that he’s been impressed with Orion’s generally moody covers. He noted, as an aside, his amusement at reading recent articles in The Rap Sheet about the proliferation of copycat book covers and the extraordinarily blatant duplication exhibited on the fronts of novels by John Rickards and Jim Kelly.

Jakubowski and I discussed the complicated issue of reviewing books and then meeting the writers we’ve reviewed, how that can lead to some awkwardness. Fortunately, no such problems were presented in meeting Barclay, since we’d both appreciated his work. We went on to share a few of these “war stories,” which brought great guffaws from Massey and Barclay. Unfortunately, I can’t repeat the anecdotes without first consulting a lawyer.

After dessert, as we sipped from our coffee, I asked Barclay about his long-ago relationship with American private-eye novelist Ross Macdonald (né Kenneth Millar) and the influence that California writer has had on his career. Barclay said he knew early on that he wanted to be an author, and had read the works of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett; but it was Macdonald’s novels that struck a deeper chord in him. Barclay went into a journalism career, because he thought it would aid his entry into the writing world, but at night he would compose fiction and read Macdonald’s yarns for guidance.

You know, it’s interesting: Over the years I’ve met and talked with so many contemporary crime writers, and they often cite Macdonald and his creation, Los Angeles gumshoe Lew Archer, as major influences. Michael Connelly once told me that The Underground Man (1971) had helped him define his own detective’s back story, while George Pelecanos dismisses a familiar criticism of Macdonald’s work. “They say that Macdonald wrote the same book over and over again,” Pelecanos said, “but it was a damn good book. The Galton Case [1959] is my favorite.”

I asked Barclay whether he has his own favorite Macdonald novel. He did a bit of head scratching before he finally picked The Chill (1964). He added quickly, though, that Find a Victim, The Underground Man, and Black Money also hold special places in his heart. Such was Barclay’s passion for the Lew Archer novels, that he wrote a letter to Macdonald via his publisher, Alfred A. Knopf. In the letter, Barclay asked if he could send Macdonald some of his own prose for a professional opinion. He was amazed when not only did Macdonald reply, but he also encouraged Barclay to send his completed manuscript, which Barclay did right away. Macdonald’s feedback was encouraging, and even to this day Barclay recalls his excitement in holding Macdonald’s letter in his hands. Eventually, Barclay had the chance to meet Macdonald and is wife, fellow novelist Margaret Millar, during a university tour. And Macdonald came to Barclay’s hometown in southern Ontario in 1976. Barclay recalls that “my feet did not touch the ground when I shook Macdonald’s hand.”

Over the next five years, Barclay explained, he was in regular contact with Macdonald, and his literary mentor was always extremely generous with his time, offering advice and passing an early manuscript of Barclay’s on to Knopf. Barclay felt sad when we he last meet Macdonald, in 1979, because he noticed that the legendary author’s mental faculties were not what they had been. In fact, Macdonald was starting the slow and painful decline into Alzheimer’s disease, and he finally passed away in 1983. Many years later, Barclay loaned his collection of letters from Macdonald to Los Angeles critic-author Tom Nolan, who was writing a biography of Macdonald.

This is one of the reasons I so enjoy the literary lunch. It’s an opportunity to talk about books, writers, and our own latest readings. Listening to Barclay chat about Ross Macdonald was a wonderful way to spend the afternoon. Later, he graciously signed my collection of his work, which I shall enhance in the fall when his next novel, tentatively titled Too Close to Home, appears in bookstores.

After thanking Bill Massey and Charlotte Cosic for their hospitality, and bidding Linwood Barclay good-bye, Jakubowski and I headed back to Murder One, where we were to meet another writer and then go on to the Orion publishing party.

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

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