Special interests section…

Noir (regardless of whether it’s classic, neo or psycho) is a niche market, I think we all know that (readers and writers alike). If you are tuned into its wavelength then it’s the wildest ride you can go on. But the fact is that most readers aren’t tuned in, or if they are they’re only tuned in halfway, so that the interference mixes it up with a load of other stuff. It only takes a bit of extra tuning to turn the wavelength all the way.

Harlen Coben, for instance, takes the ordinary man in waaaay over his noggin (a noir staple) and puts a different slant on it; more positive in outlook, more likeable characters, more emphasis on milking all possible suspense and action from the scenario. In the wrong hands this might turn into total crap, but Coben’s got a master’s hand, so he makes it work beautifully, and the audience loves him for it, in droves.

Lee Child takes the hardboiled, laconic, tough as nails hero and sends him into action. Jack Reacher really is just Kells in A Fast One, or Mike Hammer, or any number of hardboiled and western heroes, but put inside a modern-day shell. Readers love him for it, and again in droves.

Elmore Leonard is a great example of a writer who has taken elements of noir and hardboiled fiction and made a tidy audience from it and his publishers have packaged his work superbly, especially in the wake of Jackie Brown (Tarantino’s adaptation of Rum Punch).

George Pelecanos effortlessly straddles noir and hardboiled styles and sells rather well too.

All the elements are there in noir to connect with a modern audience, but somehow the use of the term almost certainly dooms most of its practitioners to the section marked ‘special interests’ or, more bluntly, ‘weird stuff’. You know, that special place that guarantees very few sales.

Then I had a thought, why the hell can’t noir sell in the modern market? Part of the problem is perception: the notion that noir is niche being the main problem; the way it’s sold to the audience is another; and the fact that the Big Six publishers really don’t give a damn about anything other than giving the audience what it thinks it wants is also an issue.

Hard Case Crime seemed like a good start, and I was really excited about a comeback for noir, until I saw those covers. Frankly, they’re not the answer. Don’t get me wrong, they’re nicely designed and illustrated but the whole enterprise screams NICHE! That style of illustration was of its time and it helped sell copies way back when, when you needed to make an instant impression on a concessions stand in a bus or train station, but what is it honestly likely to achieve in this day and age? It’ll sell to people like us, the folks who buy Cornell Woolrich, Jason Starr and Ken Bruen anyway, but what about Mr and Mrs Random Browser? Will they be compelled to buy based on these covers? Somehow I’m not so sure. I hope they succeed, I really do, because I love noir; I love reading it, writing it, watching it; and if they can make it work then maybe they can bring some of those long forgotten masters into the modern age. But I’m still not convinced by their approach.

Personally, I think the right covers and the right kind of marketing can make bestsellers out of anything. The levelling of the playing field by ebooks and the fact that, at the moment at least, Big Publishing can’t compete in price terms means the opportunity to revitalise noir is probably the best it’s ever been.  Sell the readers a wild ride (even if it is a down slide) and there’s no reason why noir can’t make a comeback. Sell readers the kind of crazy shit that only noir can deliver, in spades, and on this new level playing field there’s no reason why we noir practitioners can’t have bestseller after bestseller.

There’s a new age upon us…

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My favourite crime novels – No.18

A Fast One — Paul Cain’s A Fast One is, quite frankly, a novel that should be better known, more widely read, than it is. In fact, it’s rarely in print in the UK, which is a bloody dreadful state of affairs (although I think it is available at the moment, though I haven’t checked). Cain was a pseudonym for a novelist and screenwriter George Sims (who wrote his screenplays under the non-de-plume Peter Ruric). He wrote very briefly for Black Mask under Cap Shaw (between 1932 and 1936) and left the magazine when Shaw was fired. A Fast One was years ahead of its time. It is completely unsentimental and has a heartlessness to it that makes Dashiell Hammett look like a soppy chick-lit author in comparison. A Fast One is very violent and the action rarely flags, and the moments of calm are usually brief respites before yet another storm of bullets. It also has a terseness to its prose that makes me think of Ellroy’s LA Confidential at times, with Cain paring back description and sentences to their barest essentials. He also reminds me of George V Higgins in that most of the explanation of the story or what a character is feeling is driven by the dialogue. It has a pace to it that even now, in this fast-moving 140 character age, will pin you to your chair with the sheer G-force of its narrative drive. In fact, it’s so bloody good that even Raymond Chandler, who seemed to hate most of his contemporaries, said of Cain’s masterpiece: “Some kind of high point in the ultra hard-boiled style…”

Buy it before it goes out of print again and cherish it; I promise you that you’ll re-read it, and often. Try his short collection Seven Slayers too while you are at it…

The Hunters now has a cover…

Here’s the cover for my novella The Hunters, which will introduce the world (a very small portion, most likely) to the Stanton brothers a pair of Teesside villains who steal only from other villains.

The cover pretty much describes what’s going to happen inside — guns, bloodshed, a general air of brutality. Or at least that’s what I hope is the case. Comments about the design (by yours truly) is most welcome. If you like it, tell me why. And if you think it’s a hideous bag o’ shite, then share you reasons for that too!

By the way, the novella is pretty bloody close to a finished first draft. A short break will ensue, for reflection and to get back to my second novel, and then it’s time for revisions and redrafts.

Mark it in your diaries: The Hunters will be unleashed on the world in December.

My favourite crime novels – No. 17

Devil in a Blue Dress – Walter Mosley’s triumph takes the LA of Raymond Chandler and turns it on its head. Easy Rawlins is an out of work black WWII veteran with a house to pay for and debts that are slowly racking up. He is sitting in a bar when a white man named DeWitt Albright walks in and offers him a job to find a woman named Daphne Monet. Monet, a young white woman, is rumored to be frequenting African American bars and Albright needs Easy, who knows a lot of people in these places, to find her. From here the plot takes several major twists and turns involving stolen money, ethnic identity and an examination of what it meant to be black in America during that period. It is tightly plotted, beautifully written and gave readers a look at a side of LA that wasn’t covered by Chandler. It is also a tight, fast-paced and short read, almost (but not quite) too short considering the shenanigans that occur during it.

Easy Rawlins is a superb character, and has a great narrative voice, capable of extreme violence when pushed but ultimately he’s an normal man who tries to be a good guy. The scene-stealer though is his sidekick Mouse Alexander – a psychopathic scumbag who Rawlins’ is forced to turn to when things start getting out of hand, even though he ultimately doesn’t trust him – who rains destruction on those foolish enough to cross his path.

The later novels deepen Rawlins’ character, but Devil is ultimately my favourite Mosley. I love the easy-going narrative voice and I love the insider’s view of an LA that is reduced to a lot racial epithets in James Ellroy’s outsider’s view of it.

October 1st

This is my self-imposed deadline for the publication of my next piece of work, a novella entitled The Hunters. I am about two thirds through it and the first draft should be finished in about ten days or so. I’ll let it sit for a fortnight, print it out and then revise it. After this, I’ll hand it off to a couple of trusted folks for comment and then do a final revision. In the meantime I’ll work on my second novel, which is at the halfway point and try and get that to something approaching a conclusion.

The reason for the rush is that I am travelling to south-east Asia on October 8th (for four months) and I want everything to be done before I go. I know the novel won’t be in a publishable form by this point, but the novella, and a short story collection, will be.

I will quite literally be travelling into the unknown. I have asked for a sabbatical from work, but even if I don’t get it I am travelling anyway. This means that there’s the distinct possibility that I’ll have no job to come back to upon my return. No job and no flat, as my girlfriend and I aren’t going to renew our lease. For somebody as risk averse as me this is is HUGE.

There’s the possibility of living at my parents’ place in Spain for a couple of months whilst we try and find other work, but the future is hazy, very hazy.

Sweet Jebus, I’m doing this…

A snippet from my upcoming work ‘The Hunters’ – due in October

Here’s a snippet from my latest piece, a dark novella called The Hunters, set in Teesside. It’s due to be published in October (Kindle and paperback). As its still in progress, what you read here will undoubtedly be given a spit and polish. Comments are welcome. Enjoy…

We were in the kitchen, which was dark and stank of old grease and takeaways. I used my mobile phone to light the way. The kitchen was small, made smaller by the fact that Brodie had filled most of the space with a huge dining table. We wound our way through the obstacle course of carelessly discarded wrappers and cartons that were strewn across the floor. We reached the living room door. There was no band of light coming from beneath it, which meant the lights in the living room were off. I listened for voices or the snuffling of a second dog, but there were no noises at all. I opened the door carefully. My heart was beating quickly now, boom-boom, boom-boom, boom-boom, and sweat nestled uncomfortably in my eyebrows. I wiped it away with the sleeve of my jacket and moved into the living room.

I illuminated the room with the mobile phone, bracing myself for an attack from Brodie or one of his people. The room was empty though. The light from the phone threw everything into deep shadow, like badly lit film noir, and gave the furniture a sinister quality. The room was tidier than the kitchen, but not much. The furnishings were minimalist. There was a sofa in front of the living room window, a flat screen TV was fixed to the wall above the fireplace and in the centre of the room was a large circular coffee table, which was awash with crushed beer cans, lighters and other pot smoking paraphernalia. I stopped at the table, picked up a couple of spliffs and put them in my pocket for later. To the left of the sofa was the door that led to the stairs. I opened it and looked around the corner. The staircase was dark and silent. I gave the area a quick flash with my mobile. It was clear. We crept up the stairs slowly, carefully, hoping that they didn’t creak. We got lucky. At the top of the stairs I nudged my brother and whispered, “Gimme the gun back.”

“Why?”

“I’ll lay good odds Frank’s the kinda bloke that sleeps with one eye open and with a weapon nearby.”

“So?”

“I’m a better shot than you.”

“Are you fuck.”

Dave butted in, “He is, you know.”

My brother turned and looked at Dave. “Who the fuck asked you?”

I elbowed my brother in the ribs. “We don’t have time for this shite. Gimme the gun.”

My brother hissed, turned and rubbed his ribs. He handed me the gun, which I snatched away from him. “The fucker’s probably awake now, thanks to you.”

My brother hissed under his breath, like an angry snake, profanities mostly. I let it slide – I had bigger problems to deal with. I had no idea which bedroom Brodie was in, but I figured that the door to our left was probably the best bet. It was above the living room, so was probably the largest bedroom and I figured Brodie to be a master-bedroom kind of bloke. I crouched low and to the wall side of the door and worked the handle slowly. All went well until I pushed the door. A piercing shriek from the hinges gave Brodie a warning. I rushed through the door, crouching low. Brodie was already moving, reaching towards his bedside table, his right arm outstretched. I dropped down on to my left knee, both hands on the gun, squeezing the trigger. A blinding flash of light burned Brodie’s silhouette onto my retinas. His silhouette glowed brightly for a moment then started fading as the room plunged back into darkness. I couldn’t see a thing but I heard him screaming. The lights went on but my retinas still burned and it was hard to focus. The only things I could make out were the blurry figures of my brother and Dave as they beat Frank Brodie into unconsciousness.