Isn’t it great when you find a great range of books branded from one imprint? I love these books, even though I’ve only read a few. They’re imports from the US-based imprint Soho Crime. Some are out of print classics of the genre, some are translations, others are more recent English language releases. All have pretty cool cover designs, too. I noticed the local Waterstones in Nottingham had previously stocked a few editions, but I was delighted when I saw this display of them the other week – and I celebrated my delight by buying another three. Anyway, they’re well worth checking out should you come across them.
More crime, more studying the form. One book of note in my attempt to dig ever deeper in the psyche of the genre – The Return of the Dancing Master. I don’t know why, but lately I’ve found crime (and spy thrillers) to really float my boat. The engine of the novel keeps the logic-driven part of my mind entertained, while the rest of me relaxes to enjoy the prose or characterisation. All the time, I’m still picking apart methods, plotting, cause and effect. It’s fascinating because I’m conscious I’m now directly overlaying fantasy and crime in my own writing to see where the genres fall apart, so this sort of study is central to my reading at the moment.
The Return of the Dancing Master, by Henning Mankell, centres on a man called Lindman. He’s a police officer who goes on sick leave when he’s diagnosed with a form of cancer, and while he’s not actually at work decides to keep on going anyway, elsewhere in the country, where he looks into the death of a strange former colleague Herbert Molin. Actually, death really doesn’t do this murder justice. It’s brutal – more of a horrific, slow torturing and eventual butchering. Bloodied footprints are left – prints that form the tracks of a tango where the killer had danced with the corpse.
Of course, there’s the set-up: there’s the drive that keeps things ticking over. Why would an old man who lives in a remote part of the Swedish countryside be killed in such an unusual manner? I often find that the more curious the start of a crime novel, the more the reader will continue reading: surely the job of any thriller writer. Hence the combination of a retired old man and his horrific ending. Clearly, it’s what he did in his past that led to the death, but already the reader is being prompted to search their mind: what could he have done to warrant this end?
Though not a Wallander novel, this is unmistakably Mankell: an almost distant, cold prose that allows him to get deep into his characters’ heads. Environment is key, feeding the plot and never merely being a thrown-up aesthetic.
One of the most impressive, and rarely covered traits of Mankell’s crime novels, is that he always sets a couple of plots running side by side – the issue of Lindman’s cancer testing and how it is affecting his personal life, juxtaposed alongside the murder investigation itself. Though Mankell puts a rare happy, chuckling character in the novel – Giuseppe Larson – as a local police officer informally working with Lindman, it’s really Lindman who this novel is about every bit as much as the murder victim.
Mankell is perhaps the gold standard at the combination of the personal and the professional narrative strands. Often themes overlap, sometimes they don’t, but the way they play off each other is fascinating. Mankell is very clever at working the book like this. It’s precisely because of this that he easily creates a page-turner without it ever resorting to the cheap tricks that belittle the phrase.
I’ve very much enjoyed the new season of Wallander, on the BBC. I prefer Kenneth Branagh’s portrayal of Kurt Wallander over any of the international versions. What’s more, this adaptation is visually beautiful. The unusual shots, the strange colour tone, the wonderful vistas – it’s immensely pleasing to the eye.
I am a big fan of Henning Mankell’s books, on which the series is based, and Branagh seems to fit the character perfectly. He might be a bit too handsome and lean, but in terms of the psychology, he’s there. There was an interesting interview a while ago where he talked about that misery:
And I felt as though my skin was sagging. I felt as though the gravitational weight of Wallander was starting to have an impact.’ When filming finished on the first season, Branagh had to recuperate. That is, undertake a burst of exercise, of stretching. ‘I felt as though I had to uncoil from this preoccupation with dark matter. And two weeks after I’d finished I felt about three inches taller and six inches slimmer.’
I wonder, though, why Wallander’s misery is so engaging. It goes way beyond feeling sorry for him – I remember reading one of the books years ago and the level of misery thrown at Wallander almost became comical. Maybe with crime series the audience has surrendered itself to expecting a certain level of blood and gore, yet that’s still not really what Wallander’s about. The gore is not dwelt upon, yet the mood remains intense and heavy throughout. When there is violence, it’s used sparingly but powerfully (I reckon there’s another blog to be written on that topic).
Is the appeal of such misery simply rooting for someone to do well in life? Is it the search for where someone’s breaking point can be found? As someone who creates characters, I find it difficult to create genuine Wallander-scale misery. Sure, bad things can happen to your characters – a relationship breakdown, loss of career, and so on – but this is something else entirely. This is relentlessly depressing, remarkably bleak stuff, yet it’s so engaging. It’s not merely misery for the sake of it, either – the misery is compelling, meaningful and conveys a sense of direction for Wallander’s character.
But how can such a depressing character be so successful? There’s no wish-fulfilment here, no happy endings for him. Where’s the appeal in this? I’m not sure I understand myself, but I would say that a lot of it is down to that part of the craft of writing that can’t be explained – both from Henning Mankell and the screenwriters who bring such misery to life (apparently Mankell has worked closely with the screenwriters). I find the new series irresistible, for its cinematography, acting, but most of all knowing that I’m going to be dragged into a dark place for a while. Such drama makes us feel something profound.
Hidden Depths, by Ann Cleeves wouldn’t have been the most likely novel for me to pick up recently, but over the past few years I have been (on and off) trying to become more familiar with different sorts of crime fiction. I’ve come across some wonderful reads such as G.I. Bones by Martin Limón, Inspector Imanishi Investigates by Seicho Matsumoto, and Nightfall by David Goodis. This genre every bit as diverse as science fiction and fantasy – and is not merely the cliché of noir that gets mentioned so often. I imagine the overuse and incorrect use of that word must really piss-off crime readers much in the same way that those who say all fantasy fiction is like Tolkien would piss-off fantasy fans. Anyway, I thought I’d give one of the more modern, traditional crime novels a go – so I picked up Hidden Depths. Well that, and my editor, Julie, keeps banging on about this series on Twitter.
It was actually pretty good. There’s no new territory here. I imagine that’s far more difficult to achieve in crime fiction. To me, the crime itself is merely the engine of a novel: it’s what keeps readers interested, driven to turn pages. Sometimes I think too little attention is given to the mechanics of the crime; sometimes it isn’t cerebral enough, but then again how many crimes are that well thought through? I don’t know the answer to that, but this feeling probably explains why I really appreciated Jonathan Creek mysteries. As a writer who, in a forthcoming series, is dabbling directly in crime fiction, I’m very much interested in the how-dunnit, as much as the who-dunnit.
I get the impression that what distinguishes crime novels from each other, for the most part, is the setting and the characters. Setting is more important than you’d think – you only have to go into a large bookshop, or on Amazon, to see that, for example, there’s a healthy Scandinavian crime section. You don’t really get that for any other fiction genre. When you think about it, that’s remarkable. I’d like my fiction arranged by location, please. And a detective is the perfect vehicle for introducing readers to a particular location, since such characters will have good reason to visit all sorts of people and places without it feeling inappropriate or shoe-horned in.
As for character – well, we all must know that it’s the detective or investigator in question that lends a series its name. When a book makes the transition to TV, people understand it by the detective more so than the plot. We’ve all got our favourites, too – for me, it’s most definitely Kurt Wallander. Nothing much needs to be said on that front.
Anyway, back to Hidden Depths: at first this came across as something of typical cosy crime novel set in Northumbria (for anyone not in the UK, that’s in the far north of England). A woman called Julie Armstrong gets back from a night on the town and finds that her son, Luke, has been strangled, and left in the bathtub – but the body is arranged in a way so that it has been covered with flowers. Later there’s another murder – Lily Marsh, an attractive young teacher is found dead in a rock pool along the coast, again surrounded by flowers. The victim had previously linked a few of the characters together and things get a little more exciting.
Inspector Vera Stanhope comes on the case to investigate. Stanhope is a strong character and takes no shit. Probably not your average detective, she is (as my grandparents might say) broad about the beam, middle-aged, a little miserable. She likes a drop or two (basically, an alcoholic without portraying it as such). There’s a good heart under all her bluster.
The rest of the cast are varied, the types you’d get from any northern town, each of them with enough to make them vaguely credible suspects. I suspect when you prise open any remote community, one finds plenty of unusual behaviour. The task for Stanhope is to link everything together, to find out who’s not telling the truth – and whether or not such lies matter. There’s a wide range of human emotion on display, too, from bereavement to lust.
Cleeves’ prose zips along, though doesn’t opt for much in the way of flair. I do like the way that the third-person really takes on the thoughts of characters with gusto – not many authors do that. The pace is well controlled; it’s a well-engineered book from that respect. Crime is certainly a genre where the trained eye can really see the cogs in motion, and in Hidden Depths, the cogs were functioning perfectly. So, nothing new here. It’s a very traditional crime novel and there’s nothing wrong with that, and ultimately it’s a very satisfying novel.
So, that’s a wrap. I’ve sent in the finished manuscript for the first Drakenfeld novel, tentatively titled A Death Divine (though that’s not confirmed yet).
What’s it about? Well, if I could summarise that in a paragraph, I probably wouldn’t have written a book; so I take it as a good sign that I can’t. Essentially it’s about a guy called Lucan Drakenfeld. He’s an officer for an organisation responsible for enforcing the law that binds a continent, and kings and queens, together in a royal union. It’s pretty much his story – he returns to his home city of Tryum when he receives news of his father’s death, and there’s lots for him to cope with on arrival such as burying his father’s ashes, and he spent most of his life living in his shadow. That’s the backstory. From there, Drakenfeld and his assistant are summoned in the middle of the night to investigate a very high-profile murder, which takes place in a locked room (or locked temple to be precise), where despite hundreds of potential witnesses, no one saw anything related to the killing. From there, all sorts of stuff happens.
The aesthetics for the world, as you might have guessed from various blog posts over the past year or two, is very much borrowed from the ancient world. The more I examined classical cultures – Greece, Rome, Byzantium, Carthage – I was increasingly surprised. These were staggering cultures, massively more sophisticated than I’d ever realised, and even though they were very distant, they feel uncomfortably close to our own. Fantasy writers often borrow from history, usually the middle ages for the most part, whether it’s a conscious or unconscious act. Using classical culture as the starting point allowed me so much more freedom.
A few very general notes about the book:
- Whereas I tended to work forwards for the previous series of books, I had to start at the end and work backwards for this one. That’s because at heart it is a crime novel. I didn’t want to write a pastiche piece of sub-noir crime fiction either, since the crime genre is vast and nuanced. Imagine an author who wanted to write fantasy and ended up writing the usual fantasy-by-numbers? Indeed, fantasy fans would be pretty pissed-off. So this book had to function perfectly as a crime novel, too, which meant I had to change my approach to planning.
- One aim of this book was to write a mature piece of fiction that did not rely upon violence alone to get its thrills. That’s not to say it isn’t rough at times, but there’s been a noticeable trend in fantasy fiction in particular to try and gross-out or be full-on in graphic violence, a celebration of death, which is a stark contrast to our real-world attitudes. I’ve often said that violence really, really does not make a book mature, so instead of mouthing off about it, I wanted to plug that idea into a book. It ended up with Drakenfeld being cerebral in a world full of macho posturing, where he tests his logic and faith against matters, rather than hitting out with a sword. After all, people are far more useful to him when they’re alive.
- This is the first time I’ve written in first person, and I’ve found it far more natural than writing in third-person. It started off as a challenge to myself, but first-person seems so much more useful, especially for a crime novel. As a result, I enjoyed it: perhaps because of its intimate nature, I really connected with the story, themes and characters more than previously.
- I’m far more aware of not white-washing a cast of characters than I ever used to be. There’s been some great debate online in recent years which, if authors care to take it all in, they can learn a lot from. Previously in my work race has been split down the species line, so this time I had to be more accurate.
- As mentioned before, I wondered if I was relying too much on weirdness for the excitement of novels, rather than the excitement and cool coming more from the structures of story. I also am increasingly convinced that readers tend to be put off by really surreal characters or events in fiction, and it prevents them from taking in certain ideas or themes. The challenge, then, was to get my kicks from elsewhere.
And personally I believe this book far better than anything I’ve done before, from the prose itself (more sensual than brutal) to the structure. Writers can learn a lot with each book they write, so with a series done, hopefully I’ve done just that. If anyone was put off by previous work, I like to think this book is different enough, and far more considered, that they’ll give it a shot.
I’ll probably have more details over the next few months, but I think we’re currently looking at a publication date for summer next year. And thanks to those of you who read early drafts to give feedback. I’ve not really done that before, so you were an immense help.
Martin Limón’s G.I. Bones is an immensely enjoyable and smart novel. Set in 1970s Korea, it follows two military police investigators, Sergeants Sueño and Bascom; they’re on the trail of a deceased US soldier in order to locate his bones. This is to help a Korean fortune teller, so she will not be haunted by the dead man’s ghost any longer. It’s a pretty cool set-up to a novel, with the right amount of mumbo-jumbo versus logic. Soon enough our investigators – guided by the first person narrative of Latino soldier Sueño – are plunged into the dark and exotic world of 70s South Korea, from the local gangs to the red light district, to the US military camp and the tropical villages. The world and culture is brought to life with phenomenal eye for detail. I often think that the crime is rarely central to the success of a crime novel – it’s merely what binds the rest together. The rest comes down to location, character, narrative skill, prose and so on.
So I don’t want to linger too much on the plot – though it is indeed nicely sophisticated. But I do want to mention the what makes Sueño particularly interesting as a character: he is a lead who manages to be respectful to women, different races, local culture and so on, in a world and period (and, we’re led to believe, of a type of soldier), where this sort of thing just isn’t the norm. Sueño’s non-mysogenistic and tolerant presence is a really interesting contradiction to those detective novels for whom women are simply plot points or wet dreams for the author or detective in question. And that makes Limón a very interesting writer. For a really good review of this novel, go here. I thought this was an excellent novel, full of style, acute observations and possesses a wonderful understanding of people.
What can really be said about one of the defining books of the classical age that hasn’t been said already? For those of you who don’t know, Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars is a collection of biographies of some of the defining figures of Ancient Rome, and arguably one the most famous families in history. Beginning with the conquests of Julius Caesar and ending with Domitian, second son of Vespasian, it offers commentary on the qualities of these emperors (and dictator), their legacy, and their performance on the world stage – as well as in the bedroom.
It is, as you would expect, a lively old book, but surprisingly readable for something that was published in AD 121. It’s rather sensational at times, particularly when Suetonius discusses the antics of Caligula and Nero. It is, of course, hard to say what was real or what was gossip – and some of it does seem rather outrageous (but when you’re one of the most powerful men the world has ever known, pretty much anything goes…). Whether or not you believe much of what Suetonius writes about, it’s clear from reading other contemporary authors that his influence on our knowledge of the period is profound.
There’s a brief chat with me over at Rowena Cory Daniels’ blog, in which I say Many Things, and talk a little bit more about the new series:
The lead character, Lucan Drakenfeld, is a bit like a young lawyer-slash-detective, and certainly the polar opposite of a private eye (if anything, he’s a public eye). I’m really trying to steer away from noir pastiche because I feel that would be disrespectful to crime readers. The book is as much a crime novel as it is a fantasy novel. Imagine a mainstream writer trying their hand at a fantasy novel, and filled it with a paint-by-numbers story – they’d be strung up by the fanbase, which is why I’m not doing a paint-by-numbers crime novel, either.
There’s a video interview with my agent, John Jarrold, for those of you who are interested in tales and tips of publishing.
And I review a book about making compost for the Ecologist. More interesting than you might think…
Bella Pagan, Senior Commissioning Editor at Tor UK, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, has acquired world rights to the first two volumes of a fantasy series by Mark Charan Newton. The agent was John Jarrold.
The first book in a series provisionally titled DRAKENFELD introduces the eponymous hero, an investigator. The series is set in a fantasy world, but will appeal to fans of historical mysteries. In this opening volume, Lucan Drakenfeld is called home after the death of his father – but is immediately thrown into the investigation of a royal death. He also finds that his father’s demise is not as clear-cut as it at first appears…
Pagan said ‘Mark writes compulsive adventures set in utterly convincing new worlds – he’s a terrific writer. I couldn’t ask for a better start to my new position at Tor UK than this first deal’.
Tor UK have successfully published three fantasy novels by Mark in the Legends of the Red Sun series since 2009, with a fourth to appear in the summer of 2012. They have been strongly acclaimed by China Miéville, Peter F Hamilton and reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic.
The first book in the new series will be published in 2014.
Contact John Jarrold or Chloe Healy for further details:
Chloe Healy: e-mail: email@example.com phone: 020 7014 6000 twitter: @UKTor
John Jarrold: e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org phone: 01522 510544
21st November 2011
A little more? It’s very much a fantasy novel, but equally a crime novel, with a locked-room mystery at the heart of it. Whilst I’ve dabbled with the odd crime sub-plot before, it was mainly a pastiche – Drakenfeld is much more committed to the crime genre, perhaps along the lines of the CJ Sansom novels. (It needs to be rewarding for readers of both genres.) The world is very much a classically inspired setting (Ancient Rome in particular), and there virtually no weirdness. I’m also really enjoying writing the Drakenfeld novel, much more so than any of the previous series, and especially the locked-room element: the impossible crime.
The publication date is provisional: as a book-a-year writer, I presume that would be a 2013 release, but I think there’s a bit of flexibility, what with this being a new series and Pan Mac wanting to get everything set-up properly.
David Goodis’ 1947 novel, Nightfall, is a surprisingly psychological noir thriller. It follows James (Jimmy) Vanning, who’s laying low in NYC, all paranoid and edgy, trying to pass as a freelance artist. It turns out people are after him – a bunch of crooks think he’s got their $300,000 dollars from a bank job across the country.
Meanwhile Detective Fraser, a detective who has recently become interested in psychology, is observing Vanning from a distance, watching his every move, following him about the city, knowing full well who the man is, but isn’t utterly convinced he’s a guilty man. He doesn’t seem the sort to kill a guy and steal hundreds of thousands of dollars.
There’s not much more to it than that. We basically have a short novel that consists entirely of chase scenes, conversations in the shadows, and flashbacks. There’s a blonde involved and a seemingly innocent/guilty guy – it could be anyone at the centre of this novel – trying to cling on to his life and his own inner reality.
But! It’s good. The dialogue is superb. The descriptions are deeply poetic without straying from the the convention of minimalist noir prose. Here we’ve got everything that seems typical of genre, yet there’s fascinating, complex psychology at the heart of it – those shadows and backstreets heighten the sense of alienation – and it is all very well orchestrated. Goodis also has a habit of making his characters have profound conversations in bars or apartments.
What makes something so rich in suspense, I think, is not the immediate situation and what might happen on the other side of the page, but what’s at stake for every character involved, and that’s what strikes me as important about Nightfall. From Fraser to Vanning, to the crooks and the blonde, we’re constantly informed of what they’re doing what they’re doing, what could transpire should all the events in the book work out in their favour: prison, life on a yacht spending money, or simply settling down with a family. They’re big life-changing events and they have significance.
And that’s why Nightfall is a great novel: everything means something.
Before I stumbled into writing, music was my thing, ever since I was about six years old. I played various instruments over the years – keyboards, bass guitar, guitar, clarinet, and a weird spell on the french horn that didn’t last long. One of the things I loved about music – especially performing it at whatever level, even just in front of friends – was the joys of spontaneity. The kind of connection you get with an audience, mutually acknowledging a sweet note, or just seeing where improvisation leads you.
Writing doesn’t really do that. Writing is something that is done behind closed doors, showing few people until you’re ready; polishing, discussion, labouring the point, editing, proofing – and then, eventually, putting it in front of an audience. There’s a time lag of up to a year between the finished product leaving your hands and it appearing in someone else’s.
Writing doesn’t do spontaneity well. It doesn’t do improvisation. It doesn’t have that two-way interaction with an audience, and it’s one of my enduring frustrations with the art. The little creative thrills are limited to a good scene you just thought of, or a smart line that has you smiling, but even then, the instant sense of self-satisfaction is probably not a good thing (people can easily hear their own good riffs or bad notes, but not so much a good paragraph – one of the reasons terrible writers can’t always see that they’re terrible).
However, something I’m working on at the moment does kind of recapture some of this two-way ground. It brings writing into being a pseudo-performance (even though the delay until publication could be a year or so). I never like talking about unpublished things (because they could forever remain unpublished), but I’m really enjoying creating a plot that revolves around a locked-room mystery.
Becoming conscious – at a highly pedantic level – of deception, trickery, of showing the reader something that’s impossible, brings back that sense of interaction with an audience again, much more so than when I’m writing a standard plot. In fact, the audience is much more central to my thinking because of the locked-room mystery at the heart of matters. It’s not direct feedback from the audience, I’m kind of splitting my mind into thinking on behalf of the audience, but because of that new sense of pseudo-interaction, I haven’t had this much fun in years.