December 07, 2012

The Next Big Thing ... at last

I've been a bad boy, twice over.

I agreed to participate in a blog post round-robin, where as a poster you answer a number of questions about your writing and then 'tag' five other writers, who would also answer the questions and tag 5 more posters each ...

Well, first up I couldn't find 5 other crime writers to tag - mainly because the ones I asked were already linked up to someone else in the same project, or were too busy promoting their own books, rightly.

Secondly, I've just come to France from the UK and spent a few days reacclimatising - for which, read 'working in the house' - and forgot to post the blog on the 5th December.

So here it is, late and tag-less:

1. What is your latest work on sale?
My latest book available is called The Private Lie, and is available from Amazon Createspace as a paperback or in Kindle format.

2. What is it about?
My private eye, Sam Dyke, tries to find a missing girl and gets caught up in the machinations of two thuggish Liverpudlian gangsters.

3. What are you working on now?
The third book in the Sam Dyke Investigations series is finished except for a couple of minor changes. It's called The Hard Swim.

4. What is it about?
Sam Dyke helps a girl who is being pursued by rogue government thugs. They're trying to get hold of a diary in her possession which the main bad guy believes holds information about the sinking of a ship transporting nearly 700 Jewish refugees to Palestine in 1942. The story begins in Edinburgh Zoo and finishes in a small French village.

5. Fans of which authors should like your books as well?
I started in the Private Eye/Hard-Boiled genre, so I would think readers of Chandler, Hammett, Robert Crais and Robert Parker might find something to like. In this book, though, I move more into the thriller/suspense genre as well, so readers of Lee Child and Harlan Coben might be amused too.

6. What's the best thing about being a writer?
Being able to make stuff up and then make it seem real. Exercising a creative muscle is about the best exercise you can get.

7. What's the worst?
It takes a long time to get to an ending - for me, it takes a lot of preparation and thinking and planning; then the writing itself is often quite long-winded, taking several months. Perhaps I'll get quicker.

8. Which authors should we be reading we might not have heard of?
My new favourite is an Australian writer called Peter Temple. I haven't even read any of his 'Jack Irish' police novels yet, but his standalone thrillers like The Broken Shore and In the Evil Day are terrific - subtle, pacy, psychologically compelling and exciting. Also, if you haven't come across him there's a writer from the 60s who was operating up until relatively recently called Lionel Davidson, who wrote great thrillers set in a variety of locations.

November 27, 2012

Lee Child - still reaching

In an alternative universe, I could have been Lee Child. We're almost exactly the same age and were brought up in Coventry. I suspect, however, that he's brighter than me. He got himself a job in TV production and when he was 'let go' he moved to America to write thrillers, which he's done to staggering success.

When you come across your first Jack Reacher book it's a hell of a ride. Reacher is logical to the nth degree and can think his way out of almost any situation. And when he can't, then he's 6'5" tall and has hands the size of plates - so he can batter his way out.

And that's it ... that's the plot of his last seventeen books. Reacher travels the country with a toothbrush and a credit card, buying clothes when he needs them, falling into dangerous situations every couple of months or so. He finds some bad guys and some good guys and makes everything OK. Crucially, these situations are usually somewhere out in the American sticks, where Child can create the world in which Reacher can move and have his being.

November 09, 2012

Live by Night - a retro delight

Dennis Lehane, author of the Kenzie and Gennaro detective series, has started to broaden his remit. First came Mystic River and Shutter Island, both made into commercially successful films, then came The Given Day, a historical novel set during the time of the Boston Police riots after the first World War. Live by Night continues the story of the Coughlin family begun in The Given Day, this time focusing on younger brother Joe Coughlin and his rise through the criminal ranks of the emerging Mafia.

Another interview

Some while ago I was interviewed for the blog site No Wasted Ink. Here's the interview. The questions were particularly interesting, I thought.

October 23, 2012

Jefferson Parker - getting better and better

Jefferson Parker's Renegades is the second in a series of (so far) five books about US lawman Charlie Hood.

Operating on the border between Southern California and Mexico, Hood is currently working for the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department as a patrolman. After an incident that I can't disclose, he's asked to work for Internal Affairs to investigate the incident. This involves him questioning his colleagues and also pursuing an investigation into drug-running between Mexico and the United States.

September 26, 2012

Online interview

I've recently been interviewed by a couple of online blogs. The first is by the very interesting crime fiction site, Sons of Spade (as my character is called Sam, this is a title that goes down well with me!)

The site reviews new books and also carries interviews, obviously. You can find my interview here:

September 18, 2012

Is James Lee Burke the greatest crime writer alive?

Well I guess I've nailed my colours to the mast with that heading ... I am definitely a fanboy when it comes to James Lee Burke.

His latest book is Creole Belle, and continues the story of his bruised and battered cop hero, Dave Robicheaux and his friend Clete Purcel. In this instalment of their ongoing history, Dave is trying to find a girl who came to him while he was recovering from the wounds received at the end of the previous novel, The Glass Rainbow. He doesn't know at first whether the appearance of the girl was a medically-induced vision or whether she was in fact real. She leaves him an iPod with music already installed, but when others try to play the particular tracks on which she sings, they can't find them. This captures one of Burke's strengths - the ability to create an atmosphere in which reality and sur-reality intermingle. Robicheaux's consciousness is one in which the present and the historic past constantly mingle, so that his actions are always tinged with a recognition of their provenance in the past.

September 03, 2012

What makes great dialogue?

A couple of weeks ago I published something on Amazon's 'So you'd like to ... ' function. This is an opportunity for anyone to make out they're an expert on anything under the sun and then tell others what to do. Never one to pass up that kind of chance, I thought I'd put something together on dialogue, which is a feature of writing and reading that I spend a lot of time thinking about. Here's the piece - it's a bit long for a blog post, so settle down and get a cup of tea or coffee first ...

August 28, 2012

A chip off the old Burke?

Alafair Burke is the creator of two series of books featuring strong women - the Ellie Hatcher series and the Samantha Kincaid series. Never Tell belongs to the former, where Ellie Hatcher is a police detective in New York investigating the suicide - or was it murder? - of a young girl.

Like Peter Leonard in my post about his book, Burke labours under the weight of a famous writing father - in this case, James Lee Burke, one of the most celebrated authors - never mind crime authors - in the US. Where Leonard went into the past to escape comparison with his father's current work, Burke has traveled into the big city, thus separating herself from her father's association with rural Louisiana and Montana.

August 16, 2012

Why I read/Why I write

Why I Read

As a young boy I was insular and liked a quiet space. I had friends and played sports, especially in the summer months, but the worlds of the imagination seemed so much richer and colourful than the real world I lived in. We had a small house with two downstairs rooms, with two bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs.  As one of the downstairs rooms was the ‘front room’, it was rarely used except when we had visitors.  So usually, there was no getting away from people – that is, the other people in my family: mum, dad, younger brother.  We’d be squeezed into the back room with the kitchen sink, the pantry, the kitchen table and the television. 

And the armchair I sat in to read.

From the age of about four, I read everything I could lay my hands on – well, everything I could understand. I have vague memories of Janet and John books being read to me by my mother.  And after that I remember the Arabian Nights (read under the bedclothes while it was still light outside) and being given a copy of The Scarlet Pimpernel for Christmas. 

Then came the comics: Hotspur, the Hornet, the Beano. And American ones too, with glossy covers – Superman and Batman, naturally, and the characters with different super-powers: Green Hornet, Flash, Atom,The Justice League of America. Marvel comics were dark even then – Daredevil, Iron Man, the Hulk ... and often they left you disappointed because you had to buy the next issue to find out what happened next.

And this led to a teenage fascination with science-fiction. Finding Dune in my school library at the age of sixteen was probably the greatest single reading highlight of my teenage years. Suddenly reading wasn’t just about action and adventure (thanks, Biggles) but was about depth – introspection, subtlety, relationships. Next stop, The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Gatsby, Catch-22.

What strikes me is that I read for almost exactly the same reasons now as I did then. I want a hero who is strong but understands how other people think; I want a story I can believe in but is full of surprises; I want to smile or laugh at regular intervals; I want an ending that wraps everything up but is poignant; I want to enter a world I know little about but am fascinated by. It’s not about escapism – it’s about seeing reality from another angle so that it makes more sense. Imaginary worlds are not completely separate from the one we live in – they offer hope and can act as aspirations. I read now to recapture that hopefulness of youth, still believing that everything will turn out fine once the hero has overcome his or her struggle. 

Why I write

Writers often say that they write because they have to – there’s a kind of internal pressure that they can’t resist to get words on paper. 

I understand that pressure. I went almost twenty years without writing anything for myself. I wrote every day for the various jobs that I had, but nothing ‘made up’ for my own enjoyment. And then I couldn’t resist the pressure any longer and started writing my Sam Dyke series of books.

If you’ve ever tried to write fiction and given up, you’ll know it’s not something that always comes easy. But if you’ve got the bug, you’ll also know that there’s immense pleasure from writing a scene that’s full of suspense, humour, drama and conflict. For a short while, you have a grasp on how people think, how they talk, what’s important to them and what they want. And – however briefly – you’ve got the technical ability to put into words all the subtlety and nuance that are in your head.

That’s why I write – to prove to myself that I can do something that most of the time I don’t believe I can. 

Like a good fictional character, I’m succeeding against the odds and creating the world afresh.

Special offer!

That makes my books sound like a cheap import from Hong Kong ... but no! My two books, Altered Life and The Private Lie are now on Special Offer on the Amazon Kindle store for 99 cents (or 75p in the UK). Hurry along now - the offer only lasts for ... as long as I want it to. Probably a week.

July 23, 2012

The game of the name - Peter Leonard's escape into the past.

Peter Leonard is the son of the Great Elmore Leonard, and in case we were in any doubt, there's an encomium from his dad as the preface to Voices of the Dead. In it, Leonard senior praises Leonard junior for having read his Ten Rules of Writing, especially the one about leaving out the parts that readers find boring.

Well, that's certainly true here. Voices of the Dead moves along like a steam train, barely pausing for breath (if a steam train breathes ... ). Set initially in 1971, it tells the story of Harry Levin, a Detroit scrap metal merchant, who finds himself hunting down an ex-Nazi who he remembers from the war, and who is still roaming the world killing Jews who might incriminate him. The story moves back to Dachau in 1942 for some key scenes that explain Harry's actions and give context, perhaps, for contemporary readers who don't know what went on in the concentration camps.

July 13, 2012

The Night and the Music: the seductions of Lawrence Block

Lawrence Block's The Night and the Music has a kind of finality to it that his many readers will be sorry about. Not a finality suggesting that he's about to hang up his pen, but that it might be closing time for his most famous creation, Matt Scudder.

Scudder is an ex-cop who gave up the Job when he accidentally shot a young girl while in pursuit of a felon. Since then he's lived on the edge of police-work by helping people out - sometimes people he knows; often those who know about him. He doesn't take a fee, but he does like his expenses to be covered. As he isn't a cop - and not even a licensed detective - he doesn't have the authority of the law behind him, so he has to grease a few palms or buy a few drinks. Or even 'buy a policeman a hat' - which appears to be slang for giving a cop 25 dollars in order to get some official info.

June 24, 2012

Come back to the raft ag'in, Sue Ellen ...

The American critic Leslie Fiedler wrote an essay called 'Come back to the raft ag'in, Huck Honey!', in which he suggested that much classic American literature contained a submerged theme of homoeroticism. He used Huckleberry Finn as an example of this kind of book, and Joe R. Lansdale's Edge of Dark Water seems to merge both of these texts, so that a trip by raft down river in a southern state of America fuses emerging sexuality, racial issues and death ... all wrapped around the story of a crime of passion.

June 19, 2012

Another freebie...

Just a quick self-publicising post ... I've now put The Private Lie on a free promotion for Kindle. So if you read Altered Life and liked it, you can have the second in the Sam Dyke series for free. You can get it here if you're in the UK:

And here if you're in the US:

To all of you who've bought either of these already, thank you very much. It's made the books something of a success and is very encouraging!

A post will follow soon on Joe R. Lansdale's Edge of Dark Water.

June 15, 2012

Inexplicable but fun

Sales of my first book, Altered Life, have blossomed since I gave it away for free ...

In the last few days it has risen to no. 2 in the 'hard-boiled' section of Amazon Kindle crime fiction, and no. 105 in the overall best-seller list. Just a few more would push it into the top 100, which would be great! It's a whole new ball game then ...

In other news, I'm close to finishing Joe Lansdale's Edge of Dark Water which, as other critics have said, is a modern take on Huckleberry Finn, one of the Great American Novels.

June 11, 2012

Altered Life makes number 1

Just a quick post to say that my exercise in offering Altered Life as a free download has brought some success. It's currently number 1 in the UK 'hard-boiled' mystery list on Amazon. I know it was free, but then so were all the others! This link will doubtless change as the numbers change ...

Free Kindle 'hard-boiled' mystery best sellers

EDIT: Now the promotion period has ended the book doesn't show on the best-seller lists. But it's still available for purchase at a very low price. Follow the links on the right of this page to buy.

June 07, 2012


Time to get on the marketing wagon ... Gotta join that million-selling Kindle club.

So, from tomorrow my first book, Altered Life, will be available free on the Kindle for 5 days. It's said this boosts sales, somehow, later.

Secondly, I've made a 'Preview' in Amazon Createspace for my second book, The Private Lie, which you can see and comment on here.

Let's see if those sales spike now!

June 04, 2012

What it Was - How it Is

Like Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the inspiration for Apocalypse Now, George Pelecanos' short novel What it Was is a tale told by a narrator who is partial though he appears objective. Conrad's narrator, Marlowe, tells the story of Kurtz, who ventures into the African jungle and meets himself, and his fate. The hero of What it Was, Derek Strange, tells the story of his own journey into manhood and responsibility.

Readers of Pelecanos will know Strange from previous books, first a trilogy where we met him as an older private detective working in Washington DC; then in Hard Revolution, a book set during the Washington Riots of 1968, when Strange was a street cop. Strange is perhaps well-named for, like Kurtz, he is an anomaly in his environment - a black cop in a largely white police force. Throughout the sequence of books he sees himself as an outsider, which allows Pelecanos to throw an objective light on the environment in which he works. In other words, we side with Strange and see the situations he encounters 'from the outside'. This is emphasized in What it Was by the fact that Strange narrates the book as a long story to his friend Nick Stefanos ... ironically another character in a separate series of books by Pelecanos.

May 28, 2012

He's all Hart

John Hart's Iron House is his fourth novel and seems to be a culmination of the stylistic tics he developed in the previous three.

Hart specializes in people under pressure, at the limits of their ability to cope with the rough stuff life has thrown at them. The stories usually play out in a sub-Tennessee Williams environment, where close family relationships are fundamental and nothing must be allowed to cast them asunder. In his first best-seller, The King of Lies the lead character has to discover who murdered his father and to protect his sister from accusations or murdering him. Similarly in Down River and The Last Child, the heroes struggle to protect their families or to find out 'The Truth' about what happened in the past. We're in the same territory in Iron House, with all kinds of family secrets being hidden and exposed, hidden and exposed, hidden and ... well, you get the picture.

May 23, 2012

Elmore Leonard on writing

The Great Elmore Leonard describes how he developed his writing style. With extracts from Get Shorty, with John Travolta. It's a shortened version of his famous 10 Rules, but it's good to see him talking about the origins of some of his methods. I think it dates from 2006. Sorry the video is a bit choppy.

May 22, 2012

A sweet mystery - Sandford's Stolen Prey

Stolen Prey is John Sandford's 22nd book about Lucas Davenport, an investigator with Minnesota's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. All of the books have 'Prey' in the title, which distinguishes them from his other series about Kidd, a software expert and thief, and about Virgil Flowers, an investigator who actually works for Lucas Davenport but largely operates on his own.

The Prey books are masterly expositions of how crimes get solved through police procedure. Davenport is extremely bright and intuitive, but Sandford shows time and again how he uses police resources to find the bad guys. He has a researcher, he has street-level snitches, he has friends in High Places. And he uses all of these to provide him with information that he synthesizes to arrive at his deductions and leaps of imagination. What's more, Sandford shows how cops talk to each other - exchanging information, building up their view of the case, sniping at each other or just bantering.

May 17, 2012

A plot with a Hole in it

Jo Nesbo's Phantom continues the adventures of rogue Norwegian policeman Harry Hole.

Returning from Bangkok to Norway, Hole is intent on proving that Oleg, the son of his former girlfriend, Rakel, is not guilty of the murder with which he's being charged. As usual, the plot involves corrupt policemen, underworld Mr Bigs, and a twisty, turny plot that Nesbo uses to manipulate our sympathies.

Translated from Norwegian by the author's usual translator, the prose has its typical clunky effect. The problem with translating - I speak from a little experience - is that when you come across a phrase in the original that, when translated into English, seems a little odd, it's often difficult to know whether that was the author's intention or not. So for example:
But when he went back to the front door the boy had hopped it.
The phrase 'hopped it' reeks of the 1950s, and is given to us as representing the thought of a policeman in 2011. Does Nesbo want this slightly dated turn of phrase to represent this policeman? Or is it an attempt by the translator to be a bit casual and different, rather than using a simple expression like 'run off' or even 'legged it'? If nothing else, if I were Nesbo, I'd wonder whether my American readers would understand the usage ...

May 08, 2012

In it for the long Hole ...

Long time since I posted ... trying to get through Jo Nesbo's latest, Phantom.

I think the word to describe Nesbo is 'dogged' - he tells you all there is to know about his hero, Harry Hole, and the numerous bad guys, too. In fact, more than you need to know.

What's striking me about this book - and in retrospect, the previous Harry Hole books - is that it's the structure of his plots that build the suspense. He has several sub-plots going on at once and you need to keep reading in order to see how they all come together. He's very detailed about giving you facts - what music is playing in a bar, for instance - but his prose is a bit leaden. Of course it's translated into English from the original Norwegian, so that probably doesn't help, but even so ...

On another topic, how good is Justified, the US TV series based on an Elmore Leonard short story?
Very good, is the answer you were looking for. Witty dialogue, fast-moving plot, dispensing with characters at will (usually with a gunshot blast) - the show gets better and better. And in Raylan Givens, it has a hero who is smart, funny, good with a gun and brave. But like all good heroes, he has a flaw ... for him, the job takes over his life to the extent that his relationships suffer.

And let's not forget the great Walton Goggins, so good in The Shield, who is now excelling as Boyd Crowder - charismatic, cunning, violent when necessary and inspirational to his troops (when he's not shooting them, that is ... ) If you're not already watching it, do so!

April 29, 2012

Unbroken Excellence

Some crime writers are very obvious: there's a crime, an investigator, a criminal and finally a solution that includes a resolution. The prose takes you along briskly with perhaps some incidental commentary on society or the immediate environment in which the story is taking place. The investigator is brave, wry, cynical.

Then there are crime writers who are not obvious, but tangential: the originating crime is perhaps minor, the criminal is unclear, the solution doesn't really offer a resolution. And the investigator is uncertain, not brave, and not particularly cynical. The story emerges piece by piece, because the investigator is dogged and shrewd and is good at pattern recognition. Martin Cruz Smith with his Arkady Renko books has been, for me, the chief architect of this type of crime novel. But there are times, as in Wolves Eat Dogs, when it's hard to know exactly what has happened - the storytelling is so tangential as to be obscure. You have the sense that you're reading something good, even excellent, but you also think you must have missed something and have to go back to check up.

Peter Temple's The Broken Shore is another first-rate entrant into this sub-genre, with a style that is also tangential in the way it accumulates detail but is crystal clear in its use of imagery, character and dialogue.

April 25, 2012

Truth and fiction

I was surprised to read a report in The Guardian that mirrors almost exactly a key plot development in Peter Temple's The Broken Shore.

In the book an Australian police unit try to arrest some youngsters in a car, but it goes wrong ... I won't add any spoilers here. The story in The Guardian echoes not just the event but the placating noises made by the police commissioners and the calls for police sanctions from prominent members of the Aboriginal community. Were the book not four years old you'd think Temple had read the headline and just copied it out ...

I guess this happens more often than one thinks. I know from my own experience that I've written something and a while later I've seen a similar incident on the news (or a similar plot development in something I've read or seen) ... and the feeling is one of both smugness and bitterness. Smug because in a sense you've 'predicted' the event; bitter because your moment of insight has been stolen by someone else (to include, possibly, God ... )

They say (or at least Christopher Booker does) that there are seven basic plots. Appallingly, maybe that's true in life, too.

April 23, 2012

Defending the Indefensible

William Landay's Defending Jacob is a very odd book. Narrated in the first person, it tells the story of an Assistant District Attorney whose son, Jacob, is accused of murdering a fellow pupil at school. The form of the book is that the narrator, Andy Barber, is providing some kind of deposition before a Grand Jury. The narration moves from him answering questions in making the deposition, to a straightforward first-person voice.

This sets up an odd situation for the reader - there are stretches of prose where this first-person voice is telling us the story ... and this is suddenly interrupted as we're whisked back into the courtroom:
The cop hesitated, appealing to Duffy with his eyes. Why waste time?
"We do it again,” Duffy repeated. “Like the man says.”
Mr. Logiudice: They never got the chance, did they? The detectives never got back into the interrogation room with Leonard Patz that day.
Witness: No, they did not. Not that day or any other day.
Mr. Logiudice: How did you feel about that?
Witness: I thought it was a mistake...

April 18, 2012

New Bond alert

Good news that William Boyd is to write the next James Bond book. The last one, Carte Blanche, by Jeffrey Deaver was a disaster. The villains were not particularly villainous, the action perfunctory and often just plain silly. What's more, it was sometimes hard to work out exactly what was going on. And it was all told in Deaver's lifeless, clerical prose.

Boyd, on the other hand, can tell a good story, has an interesting prose style and knows how to build surprises into his plots. I particularly liked Brazzaville Beach.

Also, I think I sat opposite him once on the Dockland Light Railway to Greenwich.

April 16, 2012

Suburban Angst

There seems to be a sub-genre of crime fiction developing that I'll call Suburban Angst. This genre of books is marked by the creation of a milieu that is white, middle-class, professional and populated by characters who still hark back to their glory days as jocks or cheerleaders. Harlan Coben in his non-Myron Bolitar books is an exponent of this sub-genre, as is Greg Iles, Linwood Barclay and the writer whose book I'm currently reading, William Landay.

The titles of these books are usually commonplace phrases - Fear The Worst, Tell No One - and they focus on commonplace people caught up in events beyond their experience. Often they involve children going missing, or husbands/wives finding something out about their spouse's past. Typically they don't involve private eyes or the police (except in a tangential way) and it's down to the resourceful ex-jock-now-lawyer or ex-jock-now-journalist to find out Exactly What the Hell is Going On.

If nothing else, these books offer a fascinating view of what middle America thinks is 'ordinary' or 'typical', because it's these ordinary worlds that are threatened by the disastrous events of the book, and therefore these worlds that the main characters struggle to reassert. And of course what the books also show is that beneath any display of the 'ordinary' there is usually a dark secret place that has always lay beneath the norm - a place where addiction, passion and violence lie dormant but are only waiting for the opportunity to rise again.

Most crime novels are based on the premise that the criminal act undercuts or questions the current status quo, and it's the role of the detective or policeman to weed out the criminal and therefore restore the world to its harmonious balance, where everyone knows their place. The difference perhaps in the Suburban Angst novels is that the disruption of the status quo is laid out so clearly - we don't need to use any literary critical faculties to infer that the world has been disrupted: we're told as much in so many words. This makes them rather naked in their ideological position and sometimes makes them difficult to read because we're expected to identify with characters who are leading such 'perfect' lives. Perhaps that makes them peculiarly American, and why I'm struggling to think of any parallels amongst UK crime writers.

April 13, 2012


Graham Greene's The Ministry of Fear (1943) was written in the middle of World War II and is filled with very specific detail of what it was like to be living through the blitz. The central character, Arthur Rowe, finds himself accidentally caught up in some kind of (ill-defined) Nazi plot and spends most of the book trying to find out exactly what is going on around him. His confusion is compounded after a bomb explodes close to him, producing several weeks of amnesia, a period during which he is spoken to and treated as though he were someone else.

Greene is celebrated for his creation of what people have punningly called 'Greeneland', an odd melange of real geography and an unknown spiritual terrain. His characters travel not only through real places, accurately described, but through memories, dreams and psychological habitats. In The Ministry of Fear these journeys are evident and almost crude, as Greene is here writing one of his 'entertainments', books intended to garner sales rather than critical kudos. As a result, the internal journeys are externalised - Rowe's voyage to discover himself, and the hero he wants to be, is rendered through action as well as internal dialogue. His passage is physical as well as psychological.

April 12, 2012

What you learn from reading

I've recently returned to writing my third novel after a gap of some months. In the interim I've been reading assiduously for this blog and reading in a different way - reading to learn instead of just reading for pleasure. Now of course writers say - and beginning writers are told, endlessly - to read and read and read. That's fine, but you have to read differently, critically, if you're to learn from what you read.

For example, you must try to keep an eye out for how the plot is working. When you're reading for pleasure (RFP) you get caught up in What Happens Next. When you're reading to learn (RTL), you might be saying, 'Right, I see what you did there ... you led us up to a revelation at the end of the chapter. Then in the next chapter you cleverly took us to the sub-plot.'

Here are some more differences:

April 09, 2012

Populism or snobbism - who wins?

James Hall, a writer of some very good crime novels, has written a contentious article in The Wall Street Journal. He suggests that those who dismiss popular literature as inferior just because it's popular are exercising a literary snobbery that can't really be excused. Judging from some of the comments beneath the article, he's going to have a hard time convincing some people of that fact:

Beware Literary Snobbery: Why we should read best-sellers

April 08, 2012

Entertaining Mr Greene

I've started reading Graham Greene's The Ministry of Fear, one of his so-called 'entertainments' (as opposed to his serious works, I suppose).

I'm reminded very much of Conrad's The Secret Agent so far. I think it's the prosaic nature of the London life described by both Greene and Conrad, together with the larger-than-life characters who are Hitchcockian in their secrecy and the sense of foreboding that they bring. It's something to do with the way they say one thing while seeming to imply another, as if their personalities, if not their whole lives, are simply a front that you're supposed to take at face value without questioning what goes on behind. In the case of both of these books, that's rather true in that they're both about conspiracies in which 'ordinary' people are involved - again, as in many of Hitchcock's films.

I've just remembered that when I was at Sussex University I took an option and studied Conrad under Professor Cedric Watts. At the time, he was helping Norman Sherry research and write his multi-volumed biography of Greene. And looking at Sherry's books on Amazon I see that he's actually edited many of Conrad's books. So perhaps there's more similarities between Conrad and Greene than I had thought ... Hmm, I feel a learned paper coming on ... quick, nurse, the screens ...

April 06, 2012

Plod the policeman

In the UK, 'the Plod' is sometimes used as shorthand for the Police, presumably because they're seen as deliberate, slow-moving, conscious of detail: plodders.

Well that could certainly be used to describe Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's homicide squad in Roseanna, their first novel in the Martin Beck series, published in 1965 in Sweden and translated into English a couple of years later.

The plot revolves around the discovery of a dead girl in a canal in Borenshult. She is naked and there's no way of identifying her. The story then shows the slow process undertaken by Beck and his squad to identify her and find the killer. Unlike many contemporary crime novels, the investigation takes place over several months.

This is both the strength and the weakness of the book.

April 05, 2012

Getting there ...

Only about another 60 pages to finish in Sjowall and Wahloo's Roseanna. It seems to have been a long read, and I think it's because it's a very detailed police procedural, where every aspect of the pursuit of a killer is laid out in an undramatic fashion. In fact, 'undramatic' is the perfect word to describe the events of the book. The murder happens off-stage and Martin Beck, the policeman in charge of the investigation, is not exactly an action figure.

But funnily enough, you don't get the tension you had when reading - for example - Forsyth's Day of the Jackal, which was equally detailed but somehow more exciting. I think Sjowall and Wahloo's Swedish cool keeps the temperature down, whereas Forsyth's over-excitable personal temperament kept you on the edge of your seat, wanting to know what happened next. A style review will follow soon!

April 03, 2012

SJ Rozan's Sagging Middle

Rozan has written a series of books about the detective pairing of Bill Smith and Lydia Chin. In an interview here she talks interestingly about the ways a writer can help her or himself get through the tricky middle section of a book:

Thanks to for the video.

April 01, 2012

Swedish beginnings

I'm reading Roseanna at the moment, a crime novel by the Swedish partnership of Maj Sjowall And Per Wahlöö. It was written in 1965 and is dated to some extent (no DNA, no computers, international telephone calls a nightmare ... ). I'll write about it later, but coincidentally my colleagues at have also posted on this couple and their books:

Sjowall and Wahloo

March 31, 2012

Harlan Coben - Up close and personal

Stay Close is Coben's 22nd novel and is one of his standalone books rather than being part of the Myron Bolitar series.

In the standalone books, Coben's particular tactic is to use the 'close' third-person technique. This means that when describing a character's inner life, he moves very quickly from observing the character from the outside to giving us direct access to the character's thoughts:

Ray had gone back to that damn park and snapped pictures. Dumb, but he did it every year. He couldn’t say why. Or maybe he could and that just made it worse. The camera lens gave him distance, gave him perspective, made him feel somehow safe. Maybe that was what it was. Maybe, somehow, seeing that horrible place through that oddly comforting angle would somehow change what could, of course, never be changed.

March 30, 2012

New video

Google blocked my Youtube trailer for Altered Life because I'd used 'Bad to the Bone' by George Thoroughgood as the soundtrack.

So I've taken that soundtrack off and added a 'free' one from Google ... which means adverts now pop up at the bottom. Ho hum. That's the nature of life in the twenty-first century, I guess.

March 29, 2012

New publisher

I've just moved my books (printed versions) to Createspace, Amazon's Print-On-Demand outlet. They were with for a number of years, so let's see if the sales figures go up when they're under the same roof as the Kindle versions. You can find them here:

Altered Life

The Private Lie

March 27, 2012

The Trouble with Harries

I've written my first blog for Mysterytribune, about the Harries Bosch, Hole and Dirty. You can find it here:
The Trouble with Harries.

It's a nice site, presented like an old-fashioned newspaper. You should go visit and give my regards to Ehsan.

March 26, 2012

The pleasures of writing

Ian McEwen has been interviewed this weekend as part of the Guardian's Open Weekend festival. It's nothing to do with crime writing, but his description of the 'happiness' that can arise from the act of writing is one of the best I've heard:

Coben's voice

I'm reading Harlan Coben's latest, Stay Close, at the moment. I'll write more on it later, but I'm fascinated by how he draws you in.

Unless they're part of his ongoing Myron Bolitar series, Coben's books frequently feature 'ordinary' people caught up in extraordinary events. Of course this was Hitchcock's trick, so it's nothing new, but Coben does manage to capture the everyday-ness of life, especially for a particular kind of middle-class, middle-wage, middle-age American. You get the impression that Coben has been there himself - hell, he's probably still there.

But then something out-of-the-ordinary happens to his characters - someone goes missing, or the lead character discovers something that they never knew, or they're attacked for some reason that they can't understand ... Coben's uber-conversational style (he often addresses the reader directly) makes you feel the oddness of the situation and the panic it induces in his ordinary-joe characters.

Seventy pages in and I'm already rooting for the three main characters as they try to figure out what's going on in their various lives. That's quicker than Dan Brown managed ever, as far as I was concerned.

March 24, 2012

Moving the story on

I'm reading a long short-story by The Great Elmore Leonard at the moment - a continuation of his stories about Carl Webster, the Hot Kid, who is some kind of federal agent. The series started before WWII, but the current story is set towards the end of it, with Carl investigating the alleged suicide of a German prisoner-of-war in a camp in the US.

One of the reasons Elmore Leonard is so great is because he doesn't hang around. He gives you just enough physical description of locations and people so that you have a general idea of where you are, but he lets the dialogue do the rest. This is a scene where Carl is interviewing a waitress who has met a German P.O.W. who continually escapes his prison but then gives himself up when, it seems, he gets bored. Carl spends a good part of the story investigating this prisoner, Jurgen, because he feels there's something going on that he doesn't yet understand. Norma, the waitress, describes the moments before Jurgen was last arrested in her cafe:

March 21, 2012

Chandler and Hammett

On the left of the blog there's a new link to a longish article on Chandler and Hammett, two of the giants of American crime writing. This is largely the text of a talk I gave to a literary group here in France, in Montmorillon, the Cite de l'Ecrit. The article looks at what Chandler and Hammett did to create the private eye genre and suggests some reasons for why detective and crime fiction has become so popular since they were writing.

Reading their books now is a strange experience because they're both very lively and their plots - especially Hammett's - are amazingly complex. There's no doubting, however, that the social context has changed dramatically and that some of the attitudes and prejudices of the writers - and their detectives - are uncomfortable for modern readers. Because we identify so strongly with Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, when we see them demonstrating prejudices that we don't like, it's hard to stomach. We have to put it down to 'changes in society' ... but that seems somehow to diminish them.

March 20, 2012

Walter Mosley - elements of a style

Walter Mosley's When the Thrill is Gone is the third of his series featuring black private-eye L.T. McGill. Mosley is probably best known for his first series about Easy Rawlins, the first of which - Devil in a Blue Dress - was made into a film starring Denzel Washington.

Mosley is interesting because his style is both sophisticated and crude at the same time. It's sophisticated in that his characters are all individuated clearly and seem to have lives outside of the stories that Mosley tells about them. His style is crude to the extent that he uses dialogue tags very oddly. Take the following few examples:

“It’ll be eleven years before I put him in the ring,” the brightskinned young thief opined ... "

I hailed a cab and we piled in. Tally gave the driver his address after we both closed our doors.
“I don’t go to Brooklyn,” the foreign white man told us.

“A message?” this middle-aged woman from the middle of Middle America said.

“Hi, Dad,” the dark-olive-skinned Asian girl said.

March 16, 2012

Making characters real

What makes you believe that the character you're reading about is a real person? And what makes you want to find out more about them?

For me, these are two crucial factors for a fiction writer to consider. If you don't believe in the character, you won't be interested in what they're doing or care what happens to them. And if you don't want to find out more about them, then the story will have no real 'guts'.

So how do you establish a level of characterisation?

Good cop dialogue, bad cop dialogue ...

I like good dialogue in a book.

It brings the characters alive, moves the story on, adds depth to the milieu in which the characters move. And to me, good dialogue always involves conflict. Take this example, from James Lee Burke's Sunset Limited. Our hero, Dave Robicheaux, is a cop in Louisiana, and he's about to take delivery of a suspect. This portion of dialogue could have been omitted or it could have been a straightforward exchange where Dave takes the suspect from the deputy and says thanks. Instead, Burke uses it to characterise Dave and the deputy, and the deputy's attitude towards Dave:

A uniformed deputy picked up Cool Breeze in front of a pawnshop on the south side of New Iberia and brought him into my office.
'Why the cuffs?' I said.
'Ask him what he called me when I told him to get in the cruiser,' the deputy replied.
'Take them off, please.'
'By all means. Glad to be of service. You want anything else?' the deputy said, and turned a tiny key in the lock on the cuffs.
'Thanks for bringing him in.'
'Oh, yeah, anytime. I always had aspirations to be a bus driver,' he said, and went out the door, his eyes flat.