Self-confessed crazy old hobo Ray Banks holds forth about British politics, British crime fiction, his latest Callum Innes novel No More Heroes, and what life after Cal might hold. Don’t say you weren’t warned…
Damien: From No More Heroes: ‘It’s easier to believe in a cliché because…they’re comfortable, and God help us if we make anyone uncomfortable’. How accurate a statement do you think this is of the state of contemporary UK crime fiction?
Ray: Ha! Absolutely. Crime fiction is such a broad church, but you wouldn't necessarily know it to look at the kind of books we're getting in the UK.
Pretty much every single new successful crime series in the UK will have a middle-aged detective, usually a detective inspector, in some largish city, involved with his current case – some kind of overly brutal murder where someone's had their heart replaced with a Creme Egg or something – whilst simultaneously brooding over a cold case that may – and let's face it, it more than likely will – be linked to the current one. Perhaps he'll be something of a drinker, or have some kind of foodie-type passion. Either way, he'll probably be a character defined by his choice of music, something that's supposed to be obscure or idiosyncratic, but which actually reveals a kind of conservative mainstream.
And yes, that's a gross generalisation, but when you're writing in the genre, you do try to read and support the genre. And while there are some people really knocking it out of the park every time – Charlie Williams, Allan Guthrie, Cathi Unsworth, for instance – I'd argue that a vast majority of UK crime fiction confirms every single prejudice of their target audience, whose biggest worry is the state of the housing market, or whether their company'll spring for a new Volvo next year.
So yeah, sometimes it feels like I'm in the minority with what I write. Can't say it bothers me too much, though. I'm a contrarian by nature.
Damien: Could you ever write from a police perspective?
Ray: I doubt it. Of course, I say that and I find that DS Donkin's taking over the fourth Innes book, so I suppose I am writing from a police perspective. If you mean do I think I'd ever do one of those series I've been having a pop at, I don't think so, but never say never. At the moment, the research required in police procedure would bore me too much, and there's this filter thing that bothers me. If you're writing about crime from a policeman's point of view, the reader is having all the information about that crime filtered through what is ostensibly a professional point of view. Also, by virtue of the fact it's an investigation, that particular event is seen in the past, not the present, which is another distancing device. So you've got all these barriers set up to what I think is the most interesting thing – the actual crime. There's a kind of nannyish quality to it that I don't really like. I'm an adult, I can take it. But in some cases I think it's just lazy writing – it's easier to write about a murder in a cold, forensic capacity than it is to deal with the emotional lead-up to that murder. I have a tendency to deal with marginalized people – hopefully without being too obvious or needlessly political – purely because that's where I see the drama.
I don't want to come off all "I hate police procedurals", by the way, because that's not the case. There are plenty of police procedurals that I love. Just off the top of my head (and bookcase), there's McBain, Bruen, Wambaugh and Beall, all great writers. It's just as a reader, I tend to be more interested in the criminal than the cop, so that's what I write.
Damien: ‘Too obvious or needlessly political’. You don’t think writers should play with politics?
Ray: Well, okay, if you've been reading a series for a while, chances are you have a good idea of the author's politics. If then that author trots out what is an obvious political message, there's a bloody good chance you'll agree with his or her position. So where's the value in preaching to the choir? I mean, you confirm someone's political views, you're further entrenching them in their own prejudice. And getting caught up in some reader-author political circle jerk isn't something I'm interested in.
Damien: Can crime be a legitimate form of political or social protest?
Ray: Of course. It works both ways, too – very often political or social protest is perceived as a criminal act. And the law isn't in place for those who break it – it's there to maintain standards of living for those who abide by it. So I think we have a tendency to criminalize things that society doesn't deal with very well, and in many cases that thing happens to be an otherwise non-criminal lifestyle. Rave culture was based first and foremost on the music and yet, by the mid-nineties, a gathering of over a hundred people listening to repetitive tunes was legally linked to drug abuse on a massive scale. Certainly not the first time there's been a moral panic about aspects of youth culture involving drugs. Just as it's easier to condemn than understand, it's easier to criminalize than investigate.
As to whether you're asking that a bloke nicking a CD from a shop, say, or kicking the shit out of someone on the street, is a political or social protest – again, I'd say absolutely. It's a reaction against what society has deemed morally correct, and more often than not there's a reason for it, conscious or otherwise.
Damien: You’ve said before that the social and political content of your novels is purely background. But No More Heroes tackles race relations, an issue you already addressed in a Cal Innes short story. Are race relations an important issue for you? Is No More Heroes your first bona fide ‘political’ novel?
Ray: Taking the second question first, I think I'm quite reactive when it comes to writing in that most of the starting points of the books I've written so far are in response to something specific. In the case of No More Heroes, I really wanted to do an "issue book" without the politics, write something that was ostensibly about a political issue but which presented that issue without bias. Guys like Pelecanos and Price are brilliant at that, and so I kind of wanted to take that idea and put my stamp on it. I still wouldn't say it's a political novel; if anything, it's an apolitical novel. But then even being apolitical is political, right? The old George Orwell thing of every issue being a political issue comes to mind again.
And you're correct in that I have had a look at this before in 'Take Down The Union Jack' (which also happens to feature Jeffrey Briggs), but the immigration 'problem' is a smokescreen in that story, and the racial tension stems from economic marginalisation, where you have people living in poverty and looking for someone to blame. I wouldn't say it was a particularly important issue to me, but it does represent a kind of grand diversion when it comes to Politics with a capital P.
The only politics I'm really interested in are personal. It's a lot easier to be optimistic if I take people on an individual basis. And I am optimistic. I do believe in an inherent human decency. But I also believe that history has a habit of repeating itself, and that hell is making the same mistakes over and over again.
Damien: When crime authors write series characters, readers often confuse the two. Are you Cal? Is he the sort of person you’d hang out with in the pub?
Ray: Christ, no. On both counts. Cal's a miserable bastard at times – I can't see him being much fun down the pub. There's an obvious connection that people make – the fact that all the books so far have been first person narratives doesn't help, though nobody confuses me with Mo Tiernan. And I can't 100% deny that there aren't aspects of me in Cal. He shares my sense of humour, for instance. Can't write stuff that's supposed to be funny if I don't find it funny myself. And to be absolutely honest, I think our moral compasses are in a similar place, you know?
Ray: Yeah, what's the matter with that? I know we all like to think we're good people, but we've all had our lapses. People don't always do the right things for the right reasons and vice versa, and Cal's a good way of exploring that for me. Oh, and both Cal and I are transplanted Scots in England, lost most of our accents, so we're men without a country. But we used to have more in common, I think.
Damien: So who’s changed – you or Cal?
Ray: Me, definitely. One year to him is four to me, and these last four years have been particularly eventful.
Damien: In the novel, Callum and Daft Frank have a nice comedy double act going on. Was that deliberate?
Ray: Frank was knocking around my head for a while. Mainly I brought him into the book because I needed something to temper Callum. The problem with Cal is that he can be dour and dark and a touch self-justifying, and his moral compass can be a bit skew-whiff. So he needed someone to soften and lighten him up a bit. He needed a kind of friend, and Frank's a decent guy. You know he's going to probably do the right thing, even if it means getting himself in trouble. He's the human decency we were talking about.
Damien: Why do you write?
Ray: I don't know. When I was younger I wanted to be Martin Scorcese. Well, not actually be him, but be an auteur film director like him. I have a lot of love for the iconoclasts of the 70s – not just the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls stuff, but the guys working on the fringes of it like Larry Cohen and Monte Hellman. But I swiftly realised that to be that guy you had to have lots of friends, get a load of money together, and you needed to learn a bunch of technical stuff. Writing, on the other hand, was something I could do by myself without anyone else's help. And I always liked the idea of a book being like a movie in your pocket. So I suppose I write because I'm horribly antisocial and want to create, I don't know. That sounds really precious, doesn't it? Sorry.
I know if I don't write, I get really pissy and antsy. So despite the Piper Laurie in my brain screaming "They're all gonna laugh at you!" I keep doing it. I also know that I'm not wired right to work for someone else the rest of my life.
Enough reasons for you?
Damien: You are infamous for having more US literary influences than British—
Ray (shouting): Ted Lewis! My British influences are Ted Lewis and Derek Raymond! Next!
Damien: –so I won’t bother asking you about that. But you were clearly influenced by movies. What other non-literary influences do you have? I think I detected some references to UK TV series Spaced in No More Heroes?
Ray: Yeah, I liked Spaced a lot. Loved Shaun of the Dead. But then when it comes to references, I think someone like Edgar Wright [director of Spaced and Shaun of the Dead] is of a similar age so we have the same cultural touchstones. I try not to drop as many as I used to, because I don't want the book to turn into a pub quiz. Like I said, I'm a big 70s movie fan because I believe there was a bigger moral complexity in those movies, they were more geared towards the anti-hero. Other than that, I'm a big fan of those British TV drama practitioners of the 70s and 80s – Alan Clarke, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Alan Bleasdale, Dennis Potter ... I still have nightmares about that fucking greenhouse.
DS: Do you have plans for any non-Callum Innes novels after the fourth, Beast of Burden is released?
RB: Well, they're all going to be non-Callum Innes novels after Beast of Burden, because it looks like the fourth book's going to be the last. I always said it would be a short series, because I had limitations from the beginning – a first person narrative is essentially limiting, there are still PI sub-genre conventions that limit, and I committed myself to showing realistic and permanent effects of violence. Not to spoil No More Heroes, but I've already been asked if it's possible for Cal to go on at the end of that book. The answer is yes, just not very far.
As for what comes after that, I have two things that are both crying out to be written, but that's two out of twenty possible books and life has a way of kicking any plans squarely in the teeth, so I don't think I can discuss anything until the ink's dry.
I do have a novella coming out from Five Leaves on the Crime Express imprint this year, though. It's called Gun, and it should be out sometime in November. Just in time for Christmas.
DS: If Cal is so limiting, how come you ended up writing him in a series?
RB: Saturday's Child became part of a two-book deal with Polygon, which then became a four-book deal, and Cal was the only thing I could seriously consider writing at the time. Besides, I wanted to see what I could do with a short series. It was a challenge at the time. I won't know how well I've done until I've been finished for a while.
DS: Tell me about your blog, The Saturday Boy
RB: It's not really a blog. I just put it there because I needed a web presence. And it's my way of reconciling that infrequent need I have to write shite with a place where people can find out a little more about the books, should they so wish. I used to have a proper blog, but the pressure to post every day was just ridiculous, and while I know I'm probably supposed to adhere to that author-as-best-friend marketing, I can't be arsed. And you know, most people aren't that interested. I get like 200 hits on a very good day, and that's probably my wife hitting refresh at work, trying to make me feel better.
I'm not that bothered, though. I've learned that it's all ephemeral apart from the books, and even they can slip out of print.
No More Heroes is published by Polygon An Imprint of Birlinn Limited (8 Feb 2008) Paperback £9.99