Last year Ali Karim bumped into Tony Black in London while drinking with Ken Bruen to celebrate the release of Cross. At that stage, Black was scribbling away on a novel entitled Paying for It while also helping out at PulpPusher. We chatted and it was obvious that Black knew the crime genre well. Black then did a few pieces for us at Shots Ezine including an insightful piece on Ian Rankin. I kept telling him to concentrate on his fiction as I read the opening to 'Paying for it' and found his prose stark and compelling, like his short fiction which found homes at various zines such as Out of The Gutter. I just heard that Random House are publishing Paying for It this summer, so what's this cheerful tale of the Scottish Underworld all about? Random House kindly sent me this 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
I tracked Black down, who was just recovering after the Hogmanay festivities and decided to ask him a few questions on his debut work.
Ali: So tell me about your background because your lead character Gus Dury shares your vocation I guess?
Tony: 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 [from Westminster] 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's motivation comes from a desire to right wrongs, and expose falsehood 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!
Ali: Tell us a little about what Gus gets up to?
Tony: 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 realises 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.
Ali: And why Edinburgh Especially as Rebus casts a long shadow?
Tony: 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.
And like the line from the Wesley Snipes movie, Passenger 57, I'm betting on Black, but don't just take my word for it - as the Edinburgh Evening News this week named Tony Black as a novelist to watch out for [together in surreal fashion with fellow Edinburgh based crime-writer Alexander McCall Smith] - click here for details. So as we started with Ken Bruen, we'll leave the last word to the gentle Celt. So what did Bruen think of Black's debut novel? "The narrative blasts off the page like a triple malt." The only response to that is "I'll drink to that" and Ken Bruen and I did.
An edited version of this article first appeared at The Rap Sheet