The Absented Mr Ripley
It is with huge pride that I take up temporary residence in Ripster Hall as crime columnist locum tenens while Mike Ripley is away in Italy, enjoying the hospitality of his old friend and quaffing partner Silvio Berlusconi. Mike, as many of you will know, is collaborating with Signor Berlusconi on his forthcoming crime novel Beryl the Heartbreaker about an unscrupulous exotic dancer who falsely and maliciously accuses a much-loved elderly Italian politician of various types of inappropriate behaviour.
Much to his distaste and regret, Mike will be forced to spend some time attending so-called Bunga Bunga parties in the course of his research. So in order to avoid alerting the celebrity-hungry Italian paparazzi to his presence at these gatherings, please would all readers be as discreet as possible and, if asked, repeat the “cover story” that Mike is in Italy to chair the inaugural Chianti Crime Festival in Tuscany. God willing, he returns to this slot next month.
The Unbe-Deaver-ble Truth
It’s a pet theory of mine that crime novelists are so popular partly because they respond so quickly to topical events. But some writers are so on the ball that they can produce a novel that becomes topical in the actual week of publication.
This happened a few weeks ago with The Kill Room (Hodder & Stoughton), the 10th of Jeffery Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme thrillers, which eerily anticipates many of the issues brought to light by the Snowden affair. There are thoughts on the rights and wrongs of whistleblowing (“Are you a patriot or a traitor?” Rhyme asks of one Snowden-esque character at one point, a question that’s been asked many times over the past few weeks) and the morality of the state snooping on its citizens for the greater good.
I much enjoyed talking to Jeff about the book in front of an audience at Waterstones Piccadilly recently, although sadly all our memories of the event were wipe—using Men-in-Black-style mind-erasers—by the two federal agents who now follow Jeff around wherever he goes. Still, as William Hague says, if you’ve done nothing wrong you’ve nothing to worry about.
It’s several years now since I first championed the work of the German novelist Jakob Arjouni, and sadly he still remains a minority interest in the UK (though hugely popular in Europe). It’s surprising as his novels about the Turkish-German private eye Kemal Kayankana manage to pull off the rare double act (they’re rare enough as single acts) of being genuinely dark and genuinely funny.
Tragically, Arjouni died of cancer in January this year aged 48, but there is some consolation in the form of a final novel, Brother Kemal, to be published by No Exit Press in September. As usual the translation is by the great Anthea Bell, who, as the co-translator of the Asterix comic books, must hold some kind of record for most puns translated in a career. I’m sure it will be a treat, and there is more information about Arjouni here. http://www.noexit.co.uk/jakobarjouni/
The (Long) Life of Brian
The intrusion into this column of Brian Aldiss may be against the Ripley rules, as throughout his 60-year career as a novelist, short-story-writer, poet, playwright and critic he has never, I think, published a crime novel. Brian is best-known for his science fiction, of course, and now at the age of 87 he has published what he says will be his last sf novel The Finches of Mars (although there are more novels to come in other genres, he says).
It is a typically ingenious and thought-provoking book on what has come to seem an ever more urgent theme—humans fleeing a dilapidated Earth and colonising Mars—and I hope and rather suspect that there will be as many “final” sf novels from Brian as there were farewell tours from Sinatra.
I was honoured to join the great man recently for a dinner to celebrate the publication of the book, which the staff at his publisher, the Friday Project, had obviously taken considerable care over—witness what appears to be an outsize copy of the novel on the table in front of Brian, but was in fact a cleverly decorated cake. And there was plenty of crime fiction chat too as, unsurprisingly over his long career, Brian has encountered some giants of the genre.
I was delighted to have him confirm for me a story I first heard him tell on Desert Island Discs a few years ago about the working methods of Agatha Christie. Dame Agatha sat next to him at a meal once and informed him that she always wrote a novel without making the slightest effort at planning, then would get to the penultimate chapter, decide which character seemed the least likely to have committed the murder, and then go back and adjust the story accordingly. I choose to believe it even if you don’t.
Brian was also drinking buddies with Bruce Montgomery (1921-78), aka one of my favourite writers of ‘Golden Age’ detective stories, ‘Edmund Crispin’. Their fellow boozer Kingsley Amis would apparently do a magnificent impression of Crispin for the benefit of the company whenever he had trotted off to the bar or the loo—so maliciously good in fact that Brian would be reluctant to leave the gathering even for a moment for fear of getting the same treatment.
Still, Brian does a pretty mean impression of Amis himself, re-enacting how he would down a Scotch and bawl, “Imagine how many of these we’d drink if we actually liked the taste!”
For Your Consideration
I must admit that when I agreed tohouse-sit here at Ripster Hall I had not anticipated that Mike’s famously extensive drinks cabinet would have been padlocked, or that everytime I ventured near it his faithful factotum Waldo would give a cough and glance menacingly at the blunderbuss hanging above the fireplace.
Nevertheless Mike has proved a generous host in one respect, leaving some mouth-watering new crime novels on the bedside table in the guest bedroom. First up is Falconer and the Rain of Blood (Ostara), the ninth entry in Ian Morson’s series of medieval mysteries featuring the Oxford academic William Falconer. This one is set in 1275 in an Oxford beset by the plague, although it seems another killer is also at work, this one human.
I’m also looking forward to Dead Woman Walking (Cornovia Press), a welcome return to crime fiction by Jessica Mann, who, as the outstanding crime critic of Britain’s best book magazine the Literary Review, is somebody who knows her crime onions. The book looks like something special not just because it is Jessica’s first novel in some seven years (she has been preoccupied with non-fiction, notably The Fifties Mystique, her much-praised polemic-cum-memoir debunking nostalgia for the 1950s) but also because it takes up the story begun in her very first novel, A Charitable End (1971).
Finally, I am drawn towards A Song from Dead Lips (Quercus), a crime debut from the journalist William Shaw, set in London in that most thrilling of years, 1968, and taking in everything from Beatlemania to Biafra. It has received enthusiastic praise from the master of the historical thriller CJ Sansom, and if it’s as striking as its cover it will be one to remember.
Ol’ McIlvanney’s Back in Town
The most cheering development in the crime fiction world this year has to be the rediscovery of the three classic crime novels of William McIlvanney—Laidlaw (1977), The Papers of Tony Veitch (1983) and Strange Loyalties (1991)—all newly republished by Canongate Books. You have only to read them to see why every Scottish crime writer proclaims him to be the father of “Tartan Noir”—the whole manner and means of much of modern crime fiction starts there in his books.
I was lucky enough to interview the 76-year-old McIlvanney at Crime Fest in Bristol recently alongside Denise Mina, and he held the audience spellbound—one American visitor confided to me afterwards that “I hung on his every word—even though I only understood about one in three.” (A Glaswegian interpreter required for benefit of the Americans next time?) Sadly for Willie, in a bit of a comedown the only person they could find to interview him at the Harrogate Crime Festival a few weeks later was some geezer called Ian Rankin.
Embarking on a life of crime…
It’s well known that crime writers are all deranged misfits living miserable existences, but nevertheless there never seems to be any shortage of people wanting to join their number. And if you are an aspiring crime novelist, then lean closer, I have something very interesting to tell you.
The Daily Telegraph, the newspaper for which I have the honour to be crime fiction critic, is running a competition to find a new star crime writer. If you’re an unpublished novelist, enter the first 5,000 words of your crime novel plus synopsis before 30 November and you could win a book deal with publisher Harvill Secker. NB the novel must have an international element of some kind. There are details on how to enter in the article at the bottom of the Crime Writing Page on the Telegraph Website. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/crime-writing-competition/
The page will also be updated every week with video and written masterclasses on writing crime fiction from Harvill Secker authors including Jo Nesbo, Henning Mankell, Susan Hill, Oliver Harris, Stuart Neville and Arne Dahl, which will be well worth looking at even if you’re not planning to embark on a life of crime fiction. Please note, I am not one of the judges, so will have to return all bribes undrunk.
They’re Looking Green Down Under
It may be tempting fate to write this as we embark on the third Test, but there are few reasons to envy the Australians at the moment. Here’s one though. Penguin Books have recently reissued 50 classic crime novels in Australia, in the wonderfully evocative green jackets that adorned Penguin crime novels in the 1940s and ’50s.
The books chosen range from classics by Buchan, Chesterton and EC Bentley by way of Chandler and Chester Himes to such 21st-century favourites as Scott Turow and Nicci French. Far be it from me to kick the Aussies while they’re down but it’s a shame that no Australian author seems to have cut the mustard, although aptly there are three books by the great Michael Innes who started writing his very English detective stories to remind himself of the home country when he was teaching in Adelaide.
I was pleased to see the late HRF (Harry) Keating (above) commemorated by the inclusion on the list of the first of his many Inspector Ghote mysteries, The Perfect Murder. Incidentally, I recently enjoyed talking to Sheila Keating, Harry’s widow, when she presented the inaugural HRF Keating Award (for best biographical or critical book related to crime fiction) to our old friend Professor Barry Forshaw for his British Crime Writing: An Encyclopedia.
Sheila tells me that she has nearly completed a biography of Harry and is looking for a publisher, which raises the intriguing prospect that she may one day soon end up presenting the award to herself.
Denise Does the Double
For legal reasons this column does not usually report from the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival at Harrogate, Shots staff being notoriously unwelcome after years of abusing the sponsor’s hospitality when it comes to the complimentary beer served at the opening night party. Nevertheless I donned my Groucho Marx moustache and glasses and sneaked in through the tradesman’s entrance of the Old Swan Hotel this year, in time to see the great Denise Mina have her Hilary Mantel moment and win the Novel of the Year award for the second year running, for her marvellous book Gods and Beasts.
Denise also seems to have been the author whom I quoted most in my notebook over the course of the weekend’s panels, surely an even greater honour. Among her quotable quotes were her view that “I’ve stopped caring what critics say about my books now because I know in ten years time a man will do what I’m doing now and everybody will say he’s a genius” and a remark about negative literary influences being more likely to spur people to write than positive ones—“most first novels are acts of hatred.”
Surprisingly the writer Tom Wood, who is used to getting people’s adrenaline pumping—his novel The Game is one of the most exciting thrillers I’ve read this year—reveals that his Harrogate highlight was “the lady snoring her head off while David Mark & I discussed James Bond”—I can’t believe such a thing could be possible. This and other Harrogate highlights are to be found on an excellent round-up of the festival by soon-to-be-debut novelist Eva Dolan at http://www.crimefictionlover.com/2013/07/from-harrogate-with-love/ .
Bashing the Bankers
Nobody ever risked unpopularity by saying nasty things about bankers, my old friend Fred Goodwin said to me the other day as he stood me a sparkling water at the Carlton Club (it’s all he can afford now, poor chap). So perhaps Kate Rhodes’s new novel A Killing of Angels (Mulholland Books) will go down a storm with the book-buying public as it features a serial killer bumping off bankers, with a postcard of an angel from the National Gallery and a handful of white feathers left at the scene of every crime.
In any case the novel, the second to feature psychologist Alice Quentin following last year’s Crossbones Yard, deserves to be a huge success simply because it combines excellent storytelling with sharp psychological depth. Still, I doubt the publishers will be sending a copy to Sir Fred… sorry, Mr Goodwin.
Saint David of Cecil Court
I’ve got this far without making an “I’m actually JK Rowling” joke so you can indulge me now. The most heartening thing about the Rowling/Galbraith affair—apart from the fact that it’s always nice to see lawyers in trouble—is the news that David Headley, the genial overlord of the superb independent bookshop Goldsboro Books (find it in Cecil Court just off Charing Cross Road) has refused to profit from it at the expense of his customers.
David, always a champion of new crime writing, bought in several copies of The Cuckoo’s Calling—signed by “Robert Galbraith”—before he knew of the author’s true identity, but despite the fact that signed copies are now being hawked on the Internet for absurdly large sums, David has refused to sell his for more than the retail price of £16.99.
Already regarded as a model of how an independent bookseller can attract and retain customers, David must surely now be on the fast track to sainthood. Those who point out that somebody must perform an authentic miracle before they can be canonised should note the fact that David hosts an annual Crime in the Court party outside his shop, always on an English summer evening—and it has never once rained.
New Kids on the Block
The Royal Family are not noted for being crime fiction fans, and my advice to any crime writer hoping to attract the attention of a regal patron is to put plenty of horses in your books, as Dick Francis did to the great delight of the late Queen Mother. Who knows, young Prince George may grow up with a taste for literary murder and mayhem. Fingers crossed!
Those crowds thronging outside Buckingham Palace awaiting snippets of baby news have a crime-fiction equivalent: the audience for the annual New Blood panel at Harrogate, expertly curated by Val McDermid. We all sit eagerly looking at the fresh faces who may one day become the monarchs of the world of crime.
This year’s panel consisted of (l-r, flanking Val McDermid in the middle) Anya Lipska, whose scintillating Where the Devil Can’t Go (Friday Project) is a mystery set among London’s Polish community; Derek B Miller, whose quirky and moving Norwegian by Night (Faber) is—so far—my crime novel of the year; Colette McBeth, whose Precious Thing (Headline) is being hailed as a British Gone Girl; and Malcolm MacKay, whose “Glasgow Trilogy” about a reluctant hitman is unique and unforgettable—the second volume, How a Gunman Says Goodbye, has just been published by Mantle.
There was a sad absence: the Candian author ASA Harrison had also been picked to be on the panel, but died in April aged 65. The depiction of the breakdown of a relationship—with lethal consequences—in her brilliant novel The Silent Wife (Headline) is full of suspense and delicious irony, like a cross between Patricia Highsmith and Richard Yates. An ideal book to give as a gift to someone who isn't your long-term partner.
Incidentally, during the panel discussion Derek B Miller gave the most convincing answer I’ve ever heard to the oft-asked question of why crime writers are so damn nice. He suggests that it’s because crime writers don’t like crime—all the nasty violence and so on—but they are passionate about justice. So only nice, fair types write crime fiction. Food for thought.
I don’t think I have ever received a more welcome compliment than MC Beaton’s recent declaration on Twitter that I am “the last properly shaved man in Britain”. Certainly it is an honour to receive kind words of any sort from the phenomenally popular MCB, author of the two cosy crime series featuring respectively Agatha Raisin and Hamish MacBeth—although I have to be careful as Ms Beaton does not like the term “cosy” and recently threatened in a magazine interview to give a “Glasgow kiss” to anybody who used it to describe her work. Perhaps a beard would cushion the blow…
Anyway, Ms Beaton’s admirable publishers Constable & Robinson are no doubt hoping to replicate her success with a new series of cosies by GM Malliet about an ex-MI5 agent turned vicar called Max Tudor. The first volume, Wicked Autumn, will see the peace of the village of Nether Monskslip shattered when the president of the Women’s Institute is found dead at the Harvest Fayre.
I was lucky enough to get a copy when I met GM at Harrogate along with crime panjandrum Professor Barry Forshaw and novelist Margaret Murphy, although I had to supply my own tea and crumpets: the necessary prerequisites for full enjoyment of a cosy.
Also at what Reginald Hill used to call “the Jane Austen end of the crime writing spectrum” is Invitation to Die by Helen Smith (Thomas & Mercer), in which a US blogger and reviewer ends up being murdered at the annual conference of the Romance Writers of Great Britain—a far more dysfunctional group than the Crime Writers’ Association (but totally fictional, of course). It’s delightful stuff, although I find the notion that anybody would murder a reviewer in very poor taste.
Not So Cosy
The latest novel by Stav Sherez, who was recently described by the author Stuart Evers as “the UK’s most important, underrated crime novelist”, is Eleven Days (Faber), and deals with the aftermath of a fire that rips through a tiny London convent, leaving eleven people dead—even though there should only have been ten nuns in residence.
It’s typically dark, topical, provocative fare from Sherez, so I was interested to discover at Harrogate that he regards it as his attempt at a “cosy crime” novel, or at least its mind-bending variant, the “locked room” mystery (he could indeed have given it the title of the cosy-queen Ellis Peters’ first Brother Cadfael mystery, One Corpse Too Many). This raises the intriguing and unlikely possibility of Stav one day appearing on a cosy crime panel at Harrogate.
Incidentally, Stav ought to have been a shoo-in for the coveted Shirt-Most-Likely-To-Be-Seen-From-Mars Award at Harrogate this year, but sadly at the last moment chickened out and refused to wear the sartorial masterpiece seen above, only showing us later on Twitter what we were missing. So for the 11th year in a row, the award goes to the great Val McDermid. Incidentally, talking of predictable victories, can anyone remember who won the Harrogate quiz this year?
You Heard It Here First
I’m sure we were all promised that we would be flying around on jet packs and having our ironing done by robots by the year 2014, but never mind, next year has even better treats in store.
The Amber Fury (Corvus) is the first novel, out in March, by the broadcaster and ex-comedian Natalie Haynes, about the tragedy that ensues after a woman begins teaching a Greek Tragedy class to the troubled teens at a Pupil Referral Unit in Edinburgh. It sounds like it has a whiff of The Secret History—what better recommendation could there be?—and I have high hopes, particularly as Natalie’s blog on TV detectives is quite the best thing on the Guardian website since Nancy Banks-Smith hung up her pen.
Two more debuts to look out for early next year: crime fiction blogger Luca Veste’s Dead Gone (Avon), about a serial killer who performs a series of unethical psychological experiments on his victims; and Someone Else’s Skin (Headline), a police procedural tackling domestic violence by the award-winning short-story-writer Sarah Hilary. With all these to read, we wouldn’t have time to go messing about on our jet packs anyway.
Around the World in Five Novels
When it comes to foreign crime fiction this column has always exercised a measure of positive discrimination in favour of non-Scandinavians, as a rebuke to those publishers who bring out any old tosh as long as they can market it as being the work of The New Larsson, Mankell or Nesbo.
Non-Nordic treats newly available include The Good Suicides (Doubleday), Antonio Hill’s superb sequel to The Summer of Dead Toys, which investigates the effects of economic crisis on the well-heeled middle-class residents of Barcelona and sees the return of Hill’s wonderfully melancholy cop Hector Salgado; and Maurizio Giovanni’s hugely enjoyable The Crocodile (Abacus), which sees honest Sicilian policeman Giuseppe Lojacono framed for corruption by the Mafia and demoted to a non-job in Naples “in the flabby belly of a city that was decomposing”—until murder intervenes to rescue him from boredom.
You should also seek out Nele Neuhaus’s deliciously creepy Snow White Must Die (Macmillan) in which a 30-year-old man returns to the sinister German village of Altenhain after spending ten years in prison for murdering two local girls (although their bodies have never been found); and Black Star Nairobi by Mukoma Wa Ngugi (Melville House), a tale of terrorism and murder that is both a searing indictment of Kenyan politicians and a glorious celebration of all that’s good about the country.
Finally, if you’ve ever wondered what the Scandinavians think of us, try the weird-but-enjoyable Cold Courage by Finland’s Pekka Hiltunen (Hesperus), set in London and kicking off with that most typical of British crimes, a prostitute being run over by a steamroller.
New Kids on the Block (II)
Assuming the multi-coloured Mantle of Val McDermid for a moment, I feel there are a few more debut crime authors worth drawing your attention to.
James Oswald is hardly in need of a mention from me as his first two Inspector MacLean novels, Natural Causes and The Book of Souls, both newly out in paperback from Penguin, are riding high in the book charts. James currently lives in a caravan in Fife, where he farms Highland cows and Romney sheep, but he recently enjoyed a few days of luxury at Harrogate’s Old Swan Hotel, where artist and writer Sarah Higgins snapped him at the very moment he discovered he had just made the Sunday Times bestseller list.
Hanna Jameson’s Something You Are (Head of Zeus)—which takes its title from the question posed in American Psycho, “Is evil something you are? Or is it something you do?”—is another remarkable debut, a work of noirish heightened realism with a totally distinctive flavour. This first volume in Jameson’s “London Underground” trilogy reads a little like a non-fantasy version of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, with its sense of a parallel London running unnoticed alongside the one we live in, populated by hitmen, dealers and junkies inflicting terrible violence on each other.
Abigail Haas, the author of Dangerous Girls (Simon & Schuster), is not really a debut author, having published several novels under the name Abby McDonald, but qualifies for my list on the grounds that this is her first thriller for young adults. It tells the not-entirely-unfamiliar story of Anna, an American teen who finds herself on trial for murder abroad after her friend Elise is found stabbed to death, with the global media becoming obsessed with the case.
This is a ferociously good novel about the intensity of teen relationships and the hypocrisies of adults, and Haas does not spoon feed us the answer to every question the book raises, so that you have the pleasure of cogitating over who exactly was lying to whom and when for some time after you’ve finished it.
No writer apart from Andrew Taylor has won the Crime Writers Association’s Ellis Peters Dagger for Best Historical Crime Novel twice, so you might think it’s a bit grabby of him to have now bagged it a third time for his novel The Scent of Death (HarperCollins), set in New York during the American War of Independence. But I was a judge for the award this year and I can confirm it’s a worthy winner.
My only regret was that we judges had to pass over such brilliant books on the shortlist as William Ryan’s The Twelfth Department (Macmillan) or Imogen Robertson’s The Paris Winter (Headline), which could have easily won in any other year. Meeting these two runners-up in the bar after the awards to commiserate, my pain was greater than theirs: although this may have been because they knocked me to the ground and started kicking me in the ribs.
Joseph Conrad described Central Africa as the Heart of Darkness, but I’m starting to think that the term might be better used to describe the Isle of Man after reading Safe House, Chris Ewan’s excellent thriller set there.
Chris’s latest novel Dead Line (Faber) is set in Marseilles but as a resident of the Isle of Man he will be in conversation with me at the British Hotel, North Quay, Douglas, on 5th September at 6.30pm. Stav Sherez will also be joining us if his choice of shirt does not get him quarantined by the Isle of Man customs on arrival. All crime fans welcome, at the cost of a measly £3. Tweet @chrisewan for more details.
As the years pass I realise with regret that I will probably never be funny enough to achieve my last remaining ambition and have a joke printed on the letters page of Viz.
Nevertheless I was overjoyed to see in the latest issue of that fine organ a picture of somebody reading what appeared to be a copy of my review of Dan Brown’s Inferno.