After all the excitement that followed Nick Stone’s blistering debut ‘Mr Clarinet’ – it’s been a long wait, but finally the follow-up, King of Swords paperback is finding its way to bookstores all over the UK, while its hardcover release appears in the US this December. Shots Magazine decided to track down Stone to find out a little about what he’s been up to and what we can expect with King of Swords, which for this reviewer was [a] A night of lost sleep and [b] Nightmares, when I did find my bed.
King of Swords is a prequel to Mr Clarinet, with Miami cops Max Mingus and Joe Liston investigating the escape of some monkeys from Primate Park. This is an omen because soon they find themselves embroiled in a brutal series of murders; and all cards seem to lead to the man in the darkness, the epitome of evil whose name is only heard in whispers - Solomon Boukman. The only solution for Mingus and Liston is to navigate the Miami underworld looking for a fortune teller as well as a slimy pimp who together may hold the key, but confronted with corrupt cops, black magic the cops realize that Boukman is far worse than the rumours that circle his existence and he seems to hold all the cards, including The King of Swords – Ali Karim
Ali It’s been quite a couple of eventful years for you since releasing your debut ‘Mr. Clarinet’ so how do you feel being a key writer in the crime genre?
Nick Am I a “key writer”? If I’m considered as such after two books, it’s really flattering, but I’m just getting warmed up here. As it says on Frank Sinatra’s tombstone – “The best is yet to come”.
Ali Well winning the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger, The Macavity and the ITW best Debut novel Awards was a real achievement, so can you tell us what these awards mean to you?
Nick It was a great honour, but it was also incredibly humbling too.
Ali So did you feel pressure to follow-up your debut with the difficult ‘second book’ syndrome?
Nick Not at all, no. I knew where I was going with the second book and what I wanted to do.
Ali I’ve seen you around at several conventions and conferences so can you tell us your experiences at these events such as Thrillerfest, Harrogate, Crimefest, Littérature Policière in France etc?
Nick All conventions start very differently and end exactly the same way - authors getting wrecked and talking gibberish at 3.00 AM, Sunday morning.
Ali King of Swords is a prequel to ‘Mr. Clarinet’. Can you tell us why you decided to go back and detail Max Mingus’ past as opposed to exploring his future?
Nick I wanted to write a book about a voodooesque gang and a pimp with oedipal issues set in “Scarface”-era Miami (1980-82). And I did. It’s called King of Swords.
Ali Your work is rather visceral in parts and not for the faint of heart, so can you tell us you take on violence in crime-fiction?
Nick If it’s necessary to the story, then it’s fine. Otherwise it’s gratuitous. I think Mr Clarinet was far more violent than King of Swords is. But King of Swords is a far darker book than Mr Clarinet.
Ali King of Swords features Max’s partner Joe Liston a great deal – how crucial are secondary characters for you in telling the story and how crucial is Joe Liston to the Max Mingus series?
Nick Joe Liston is Max’s conscience. And I wouldn’t call him a secondary character in King of Swords, because he’s its moral anchor. Although he himself is deeply conflicted about what he’s doing. He’s constantly weighing up the price of doing the right thing against the easier option of looking the other way.
Ali The key figure who again hides in the shadows is Solomon Boukman, so can you tell us a little about the genesis of this Uber villain?
Nick Solomon is inspired by Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Haiti’s most ruthless dictator.
When I was growing up in Haiti, Papa Doc was the bogeyman. Everyone lived in fear of him, people spoke in hushed tones whenever they mentioned his name, because you never knew who was listening and who was an informant. Mothers used to tell their kids to behave or else Papa Doc would come and get them.
He killed something like 50,000 people – including most of the population of a town called Jeremie. He kept control over people with a mixture of violence and a perversion of voodoo. He mythologized himself and claimed he had magic powers.
Ali And the action this time around is firmly rooted in Miami, so why does this city appeal to you so much?
Nick I’ve been going there since 1979. It’s ever changing, forever evolving. It’s a melting pot and a flashpoint. It’s two places for the price of one. It’s gone through great highs and deep lows. And it’s still shrouded in mystery.
Ali As King of Swords is firmly rooted in the 1980’s it has a ‘Scarface’ flavour so did you spend any time in Miami during the writing of King of Swords?
Nick Yes. I went there three times in eighteen months. I finished it on the beach, between the Loews and Royal Palm hotels. That epilogue is pretty much what I saw on the beach that early evening. Then I went back to my room, typed it up, emailed it to my editor and took my wife out dancing in Little Havana.
We’re going to be in Miami for the election. Can’t wait to go there. You know, the first time my wife and I went there together, in 2006? Well, I was so happy to be back (it had been nine years since my last visit), that I got down on my knees and kissed the ground. This security guard ran over and asked me what I was doing. I explained. He said: “Sir, you must REALLY love this place, ‘cause I’d sooner Frenchkiss a gator than kiss that floor”.
Ali Are you under pressure from your publishers to continue Max Mingus as a series character [as many publishers like the commercial comfort of series novels] or are going to do a stand-alone?
Nick There really is nowhere else to go with Max Mingus after this next book. As I've explained to you before. I never intended to write him as a series character at all.
A couple of people have suggested “extending the Mingus franchise” (their words – “franchise” – like I’m writing burgers not books, here), but I think that would be cheating the readers and also, for me, it would turn into another office job.
The next three books I write will be standalones. Then I plan to write a series, but it will have an interior clock. When the clock stops that’ll be it for that series. And I’ll move on to the next big thing I’m doing.
Ali There has been recent discussion on publishers pushing their writers for a book-a-year, so what’s your stand on output in terms of quality vs. quantity?
Nick: For some reason certain (though by no means all) publishers seem to think that quantity is the new quality. You know, get a new book on the shelves every year on the dot, regular as clockwork and Christmas. I understand the commercial reasoning behind it – up to a point (JK Rowling and Thomas Harris don't write a book a year - Thomas Harris never did that at all) – but, said publishers tend to forget the most important part of the equation – THE READER. You have to keep the readers happy. At all costs.
The thing is, when you’re a writer on that book a year treadmill, you have six months to produce a book. For some writers that's just fine and they write according to those constraints and produce great work. But, for other writers, who'd maybe like to spend longer on their books, the process is hell. And it usually results in a quality “crack curve” – a quick, sharp peak (say the first two or three books), followed by a long ruinous descent (the rest). The books tend to read increasingly like tired contractual obligations, poor photocopies of a poor photocopy of a poor photocopy. The plots blur into one, the characters are empty vessels and the prose is a delivery mechanism for thrills and spills by rote. You can't fool your readers. They know when you're phoning it in. And they are ultimately your judges. They condemn you with their closed wallets and bad word of mouth.
Publishers should remember the following maxim: if you feed your golden goose laxative you’ll just get shit.
Ali So will Max Mingus ever come to the UK?
Nick What? Leave Miami to come here? Are you kidding? I was actually contemplating sending him to Brazil for the current book. I have a couple of very good friends in Rio and in Sao Paulo. Both criminal lawyers.
Ali Your love of the music of Bruce Springsteen is evident in King of Swords, so did you manage to see The Boss on his recent tour and what was he like?
Nick I did indeed. Saw him twice at Emirates Stadium in London. He was absolutely superb both nights – possibly the best shows I’ve ever seen him play, and I’ve been going for twenty years. He’s pushing sixty and playing three hour shows, changing the setlists quite radically night after night. Quite incredible. The great thing too is that his audience is actually getting younger. So there’s hope for the world yet. Or not - depending on your tastes.
Ali And what books have passed your reading table that have impressed you?
Nick I liked Child 44, as you know. Tony Black’s Pay For It was great, as was John Hart's Down River and Dreda Mitchell’s Killer Tune, which I re-read because it’s superb. I’ve also read a couple of cracking non-fiction crime books – TJ English’s The Havana Mob, about Meyer Lansky in pre-Castro Havana, and John Leake’s The Vienna Woods Killer.
Ali Any update on the film rights to Max Mingus?
Nick Nothing concrete happening as of yet. I think the generic term for nothing concrete happening as of yet is “in development”. So it’s in “development”.
Ali You are quite a film buff so what recent films have excited you recently?
Nick No Country for Old Men, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, The Orphanage, There Will Be Blood and In Bruges. The latter is I the first Colin Farrell film I’ve liked since Minority Report.
Ali And are you working on Max Mingus #3 and if so care to drop any hints where his travels may take him?
Nick Yes I am. But, no, sorry. I’m not talking about it. It’s going very well though. Expect to read it sometime in 2010.
Ali As an avid follower of the US elections, do you care to comment on who you think will take over the Bush administration this fall and why?
Nick I think, barring some unforeseen event, Barack Obama will be the 44th President of the USA. He has the wind at his back, the sun on his face and Rupert Murdoch’s endorsement. I don’t think there’s been a single Western politician in my lifetime who’s been this popular anywhere. He also has the media in his corner, willing him to achieve something only Hollywood writers have cooked up.
Ali How has your father the historian and academic Norman Stone taken your success as a commercial writer of crime fiction?
Nick I think he’s delighted about it. He always wanted me to write. I remember when I told him I’d quit my job to write in December 2002, he was over the moon! I mean it was a pretty risky decision I was taking – turning my back on a glorious career in headhunting (actually, it wasn’t glorious at all – it was Sartre’s Hell – for morons), and I thought he was going to start lecturing me on social responsibilities and laying that Glaswegian Presbyterian/Jewish work ethic shtick on me, but no, he was very supportive, said it was the right thing to do.
My dad was actually instrumental in getting me to quit my job. When he wants to tell me anything of a serious and sensitive nature, he’ll speak in parables.
Back in September 2002, I met him for a drink at some shitty bar in Victoria Station. I’d just come from work. He took one look at me and told me I looked “as miserable as a turkey at Christmas”. Then, over drinks, he told me about the father of a student of his. The man could play piano like a maestro and had always wanted to be a concert pianist. He could quite easily have done that, but, instead, chose to follow convention. He became an insurance salesman. He was as bad at that as he was great at piano. The job got to him, as did his disappointment with the way his life had turned out, and he keeled over and died of a heart attack at the age of 53.
I understood exactly what he was trying to tell me. I quit my job in December 2002. That was a very happy day.
Ali Thank you for your time.
Nick And I appreciate your interest in my work.
More Information –
Shots Interview with Mr Clarinet
Rap Sheet Interview with Nick Stone
Nick Stone’s website
Read the Shots review for King Of Swords
All photos © 2008 H. Stone