Suck it and see…

…as the old saying goes

I know a lot of you folks seem to be a little reticent to download links to my novel, so you can finally view the first few chapters in your browser and try before you buy.

I guarantee you, once you start reading you’ll be turning these pages faster and faster!

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Permanent price reduction of The Gamblers

Just as I was starting to get some kind of sales momentum going with The Gamblers I decided to up the price – silly me! My reasons were more a case of market testing than anything else, to see if there’s any point at which the British and US public will stop buying. Well, ha ha, I found it pretty quickly in the case of the British market (if it goes over £1, and unless you’re an established author, you are buggered – people lose interest in Indie books over that magical barrier and stop buying). The US seems to be different, as I managed to sell a couple of copies at $1.99. It’s an interesting thing to find out a little bit about the mindset of your customers, and what they think is a ‘fair’ price. The US Kindle top 100 has a lot more expensively priced books on it than the UK one does, and I think they are happier to pay top whack for something they want than the British are.

Anyway, lesson learned, folks; from later today The Gamblers will be down to its permanent price of 86p and $0.99.

A brilliant Raymond Chandler paragraph…

…which slays me every time. I just found it whilst looking for another file on my computer…

It’s from The High Window. It only really works in context with an advert that Philip Marlowe reads earlier in the story, but I’m including it anyway – because I love it:

Why worry? why be doubtful and confused? Why be gnawed by suspicion? Consult cock-eyed, careless, clubfooted, dissipated investigator, Philip Marlowe, Glenview 7537. See me and you meet the best cops in town. Why despair? Why be lonely? Call Marlowe and watch the wagon come.

My all-time favourite crime fiction writers (in no particular order):

Georges Simenon: His most famous creation is the gruff, persistent and wonderfully likeable police detective Maigret – and for those novels alone his entrance into the crime fiction pantheon would be secure. But in addition to his Maigret mysteries (which are a lot less cosy than their reputation might lead you to believe), he also wrote some utterly brilliant noir fiction, or as he put it roman durs. Dirty Snow (aka The Stain in the Snow), The Strangers in the House and The Man Who Watched Trains Go By are utterly superb, cold-hearted fiction, and must have had an impact on that other great French crime novelist Jean-Patrick Manchette. His prose was tight, but densely layered, and his storytelling immaculate. He could tell a complex story in less than 150 pages and not leave the reader feeling in any way cheated – a skill most writers would kill for.

Jim Thompson: Despite what some people might think, Jim Thompson didn’t invent noir fiction, but he sure as hell mastered the art. Plenty of writers got in before Thompson (James M Cain, Cornell Woolrich and, only just, David Goodis, being among the main players) but, at his best, Thompson somehow made the style his own. His worldview was darker than Cain’s, his prose was sparer and his plots less ludicrous than those of Woolrich, and his range was wider than the very narrow territory that Goodis generally ploughed. His best novels are like a surge of amphetamine to the brain; providing the kind of rush that few other authors are capable of: The Getaway, The Killer Inside Me, The Grifters and Pop 1280 move so quickly that the bitter, haunting endings seem all the more potent, staying with you a lot longer than it takes to read them.

Raymond Chandler: Some of his plots can be a little scruffy (dead chauffeur, anybody?), but his best novels make you forget about all that. Farewell, My Lovely and The Long Goodbye are as good as anything you’ll find anywhere else in crime fiction, and Chandler created a character in Philip Marlowe who is as memorable as anything in any kind of fiction. Marlowe is the perfect blend of hard-boiled quips, bitter philosophy, toughness and compassion. When you add in the fact that Chandler wrote some of the best prose of the twentieth century and his style is still aped by crime fiction writers to this day, what you have is one of the most influential writers of all-time. Few writers can evoke a sense of place or personality the way Chandler could and even fewer had his facility with simile and metaphor. Whenever I’ve suffered a few bad books in a row, I pick up a Chandler again and remind myself just how it should be done.

Dashiell Hammett: A brilliant crime novelist who, along with Hemingway, pretty much put the Henry James school of flowery prose to bed for good. His clean, spare camera-eye prose and superb sense of pacing made him the best of his day, and he’s still among the greats to this day. His short stories, mostly featuring the Continental Op, are excellent but the novels, oh wow, the novels (with one exception) are brilliant: Red Harvest, The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key are among the greatest crime novels ever written with The Thin Man only a tad behind. The one duffer in his back catalogue The Dain Curse is still decent, but it doesn’t scale the same heights as the rest of his work. If you haven’t read any Hammett please do so immediately.

James Ellroy: He can often come across in interviews as a complete ballbag but there’s no doubting his brilliance. For the LA Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz) alone he would be guaranteed immortality as a writer, but then he wrote the Underworld USA trilogy (American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand and Blood’s A Rover). His short, punchy sentences (particularly in the later works) can take some getting used to, but his sense of pacing is among the best and there are few better writers of action around (try the prologue of Blood’s A Rover if you don’t believe me), added to which his ability to handle plot strands is unparallelled. His worldview is wonderfully grim and if you have the stomach for it I can’t recommend his novels highly enough. However, I have one caveat; his short stories are shit (as is his recent memoir The Hilliker Curse), so avoid those like the plague.

Elmore Leonard: Leonard is the reason I got into crime fiction in the first place, so his place on my list was always guaranteed. Few writers on the planet can write dialogue like this guy, and even fewer writers can make characters stand out with such spare descriptions – his harder than hard-boiled prose makes Hammett look as flowery as Henry James in comparison. The fact that Leonard makes it seem so simple is a testament to his brilliance; writing this spare can come off as childish in the wrong hands. He has written a few less than brilliant novels (especially recently), but novels like LaBrava, Stick, $WAG, Rum Punch and 52 Stick-Up are a good indication of just how good the crime genre can get.

Derek Raymond: It is only in recent years that Derek Raymond has received the credit that has been due to him for a long time – as one of the finest British writers of crime fiction ever. His ‘Factory’ novels (He Died With His Eyes Open, The Devil’s Home On Leave, How The Dead Live and I Was Dora Suarez) are up there with the best of any  crime fiction, never mind the British stuff. The narrator is damaged, mostly by the murder of his child by his mentally ill wife and by the job itself, but at the beginning of the series has some hope for humanity, as the series winds on this hope turns to bitterness and open clashes with his superiors, some of which are hysterically funny (Raymond was a fine writer of dialogue). By the time the last novel came along, the notorious Dora Suarez, the narrator barely cares about anything but providing justice for the victim. Raymond’s prose was often superb, his musings on modern life were equally sound and few writers wrote pub scenes with half as much life as he does. He edges Ted Lewis as my favourite British crime writer by the thickness of a paperback page!

Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake): The early Stark novels are magnificent stuff. His hero, Parker, is low-life scum. and yet Stark manages the difficult task of making him seem likeable, of making him worthy of carrying an entire series of novels. The recent resurrection of Parker was less successful, in my humble opinion, because his rough edges and his nastiness appear to have been smoothed away ever so slightly, but the early novels are slam-bang entertainment which few other authors are even capable of. Once you pick up a Stark novel I defy you to try and put it down. And writing as Donald Westlake; well, the Dortmunder novels aren’t too shabby either!

Lawrence Block: Few writers are able to straddle the many branches of crime fiction the way that Block does. My personal faves are the brilliant Bernie Rhodenbarr series of novels (wonderful humorous crime creations each and every one of them) and the Matt Scudder series which, like Derek Raymond’s ‘Factory’ novels, charts the changes in the character as the series progresses. His novel Small Town is also a fine crime thriller and one of the few literary responses I can think of that directly deals with the effects of 9/11. A fantastic writer.

There are plenty of other crime fiction writers who I love (far more than I can list here), but I’m simply listing the ones who really take me there – the ones who’ve somehow shaped my own writing and appreciation of the art of crime fiction.

The second novel, or the second novella…

…which one will get there first?

I’m 44,000 words into my second novel (roughly halfway, by my current calculations), which will be the first in a series of three novels featuring a pair of Teesside thieves who steal only from drug dealers and other criminals. These novels are very much in the hard-boiled mould rather than noir. They are also in the first person, which is a new one for me (as third person is normally my thing).

However, they are also the stars of a few short stories that I have written recently and a novella, which is currently about 5,000 words in and moving at a faster pace than the novel in terms of words per day.

I hope to have first drafts of both done by mid-August. With draft revisions through August and September and a tentative publication date (for the novella, at least) of early October. The second novel will probably have to wait until

In the meantime, I will make the short stories available for free as and when they have been proofed and edited.

I intend to go travelling in October, and this is a deadline set in stone (the tickets are booked, for one thing), so I know I need to pick up the pace. I want to have another piece of writing available for sale by the time I go travelling, so I can enjoy my travels without fretting about the stuff I haven’t finished.

Exciting times!

Some classic noir reading suggestions

Further to yesterday’s post I thought I’d add a few classic noirs up here and why I think they’re so bloody good. Some are in yesterday’s list, with some explanatory notes as to why they’re included, but others are not and some are titles that people might not think are noir, but are. After all, noir’s an attitude as much as it is a style. Enjoy!

Double Indemnity: My favourite of all James M. Cain’s novels. It basically works on the old maxim of be careful what you wish for; and in this case the narrator ends up with everything he wanted, but ultimately realises that the price he has to pay is too high. Superbly written and paced, as dark and bitter as a double espresso, and with an ending so dark (when the hero discovers just how fatale his femme is) it will haunt you for days. The Billy Wilder movie is good, but the novel is off-the-scale brilliant.

Jack’s Return Home (Get Carter): Ted Lewis’ novel is a stone-cold classic. Brutal, spare, cinematic, and with such a bitter view of humanity that it could only have been written by one of life’s outsiders. The film is superb but the book is, once again, better. The ending is a lot more ambiguous than the film, but equally as dark.

The Getaway: Jim Thompson’s novel is a perfect blend of characterisation, action, story and lean prose. What makes it truly brilliant though is the ending. An ending so good, so utterly poetic, ironic and dark that you’ll be thinking about it for days; an ending that just simply can’t be filmed (which is why Sam Peckinpah, hardly afraid of the dark ending, didn’t bother to try in his film adaptation of the novel). Don’t bother watching the film (it’s not very good), just read the book instead.

I Was Dora Suarez: Derek Raymond’s fourth Factory novel moves from hard-boiled into pitch-black noir. It takes the narrator on a tour of Hell disguised as London, pits him against one of the most unpleasant and deranged killers ever to be committed to the page, and gives a picture of just how sleazy Soho was before it got all gentrified. The ending gives the hero no respite and no hope. However, this very bitter pill is sweetened by the narrator’s humanity and several very funny interchanges between him and his superiors in addition to a few blackly funny interrogation scenes. Warning: it is not for the faint of heart and is best read as part of the Factory series (though it does work as a novel in its own right).

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold: John Le Carre’s brilliant cold war spy novel is pure noir. The hero is a washed up spy who is manipulated by both his allies and his enemies. Double crosses abound, and the ending is savage in its bitterness, as the hero realises that he has been manipulated and that nothing is what it seems. The antithesis of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, showing espionage to be a vile and immoral business. If you haven’t read it yet, do so. It is brilliant.

The Secret Agent: Joseph Conrad was a writer way ahead of his time. And this novel shows just how far – it works on just about every level; as satire; as thriller; and finally as noir. The main protagonist, Verloc, is nobody’s idea of a hero (pornographer, secret agent, anarchist and idle layabout); his wife Winnie is a tragic figure, whose love of her brother and her need to keep the family together (the mentally slow and unstable, Stevie) ultimately leads to the act that will tear it apart forever. The tone is pitch black throughout and the ending is pure noir.

The Big Nowhere: The second novel in James Ellroy’s LA Quartet is by far the darkest and bleakest of his novels. Each of the main characters gets what they want, but ultimately it destroys them. Anybody with even the faintest hint of goodness is annihilated by Ellroy’s bleaker than bleak LA where only the bad survive. However, read it as part of the series, rather than as a one-off – it will only make you like it all the more

The Criminal: Probably the most underrated of Jim Thompson’s back catalogue. It deals with the rape and murder of a young girl in a small town. The local press boss turns the whole thing into a circus for his own gain and destroys the lives of quite a few people in the process. It is a novel of voices. It is a novel of power. It is a novel about the sheer futility of good in the face of evil. It is one of the darkest tales Thompson ever told and it is superb.

They Shoot Horses Don’t They? Horace McCoy’s painful and tragic novel is pure noir.  It begins with the sentencing of a man for murder. The novel then jumps between the summing up by the judge and the man’s fateful meeting with a woman who is at the end of her tether. They enter a dance marathon along with a load of other young couples who are down on their luck during the depression. They enter for the $1,000 prize money and the free food. The marathon gets more and more nightmarish and the man’s dance partner more and more bitter until the final dance and its aftermath, when the the novel’s cryptic title is given its full meaning. It’s more drama than crime fiction, but it is a truly dark examination of humanity and deserves its place on this list

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And should you read these and like them, you could also give my novel The Gamblers a go. It shares the dark sensibility of the novels above, but gives them a modern urban twist. Though I’m not promising it will be as good, mind you 😉 However, if you enjoy noir fiction I think you’ll like it.

The Ten Commandments of Noir

People often mistake noir fiction for hard-boiled fiction, and it’s an easy mistake to make for the uninitiated – as they both travel similar territory. The difference, as always, is how they travel it. The ten commandments below will help you avoid making that mistake in future. Let’s just say that Jim Thompson, James M. Cain, David Goodis and James Ellroy are noir whilst Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard and Richard Stark are hard-boiled. All will be explained below:

1) Your main characters do not have to be likeable: In fact, if you want to be ultra-purist about it your main characters should not be likeable. David Goodis’ characters rarely broach anything even approaching likeability: wretched and whiny and too full of self-doubt and self-pity to ever rise above the gutter they are lying in. One of the best reviews (not actually written, sadly) of my book describes Kandinsky (ostensibly the main character of The Gamblers) as ‘the lesser of many cunts’. You have no idea how pleased that made me. You can empathise with the main characters, or even understand, but you don’t have to like them. This rule can be broken, obviously, and works well to ironic effect.

2) They are doomed: Any noir worth its salt knows that the main characters are doomed from the very beginning. They may survive at the end but they should still be doomed – damned by the very flaws that got them into their mess in the first place. No matter how clever a character thinks he is (and the main characters in noir are nearly always men) he will always be tripped up by his own greed, pride, self-pity and venality. If your main character survives at the end, or has a glimmer of hope, it ain’t noir, it’s hard-boiled. If it has to be summed up in a sentence then this encapsulates it perfectly: Life’s shit and then you die.

3) It doesn’t have to be a thriller: Noir fiction doesn’t have to be a thriller. The fact that more than 90% of noir are thrillers is neither here nor there, they don’t have to be. David Goodis’ The Blonde on the Street Corner is pure noir (the lead character is a truly pathetic self-pitying loser, who might have something approaching a life if he wasn’t so willing to give up when things get tough); his moment with the titular blonde at the end might have been a defining moment in any other novel but in this one it’s just simply another moment on the slide to damnation.

4) It should be a one-off (at the very most two): If you’re writing a series of novels then it ain’t noir it’s hard-boiled. See Commandment 2 for the reason why.

5) It should trawl the gutter: Noir isn’t about sparkly fucking vampires or boy wizards and it sure as hell isn’t a Cozy mystery. Noir protagonists are often ordinary, though deeply flawed, people, but the situations they are in are usually extraordinary and usually stretch them to breaking point, or break them completely. The only way to do that is to send them trawling around the gutter. Indebted to loan sharks; addicted to substances or gambling; in love with the wrong woman; or loving the right woman, but being too weak to leave the wrong woman (or alternatively, to change his ways). In many cases noir is just the stuff of real life but with a better plotline.

6) Irony: Noir endings don’t have to be ironic, but it helps. The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity and The Getaway are classic examples of the ironic ending. The main characters get what they wanted only to find that this is what will destroy them. Leading nicely on to…

7) Sometimes what you want is not what you need: Often, a good noir will have the main protagonists chasing a dream (be it money, woman, power, or some other vain hope) only to find that once they have it it brings them little comfort, or leads to their damnation. If they’re still alive at the end, and if they’re halfway smart, they may realise this.

8 Nothing is ever what it seems: The sweet-natured girl with pretty smile; the best friend you’ve known for years; the decent dim-witted sheriff/police officer; the scarlet harlot; all will probably have a skeleton in the closet – watch out for ’em!

9) It won’t be pretty: Noir isn’t for the faint of heart. Often, a decent character (they do exist in noir) will do a bad thing for a good reason and it will lead to more bad things and inevitably to their destruction/damnation. Watching this unfold won’t be pretty and may lead to frustration for readers. It’s the main reason why noir doesn’t sell as well as hard-boiled fiction. The hard-boiled hero/heroine can ride off into the sunset with their beloved – the noir protagonist never will. Get used to it!

10) A good enough writer can bend or break most (but not all) of these commandments! If you’re a reader of these rule breakers then I congratulate you, as you’re probably reading a stone-cold classic!

Suggested reading for those unfamiliar with noir (you lucky things, you have it all to look forward to): The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, The Getaway, The Killer Inside Me, Shoot The Piano Player and The LA Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz).