Yes, I know what I said …

… no more novels after the last, Darkness, Darkness, the final book in the Resnick series that was published in 2014, and certainly nothing more involving retired police detective Frank Elder, who last saw the light of day way back in 2006 in Darkness and Light [bit of a theme going on there] but it seems as if Frank’s retirement is pretty much as water tight as mine, and I’m truly delighted to be able to say the manuscript of a new Elder novel, the fourth, has been delivered and happily accepted, the deal has been done and William Heinemann will publish the new Elder novel, Body & Soul, in April, 2018.

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Listening to Jazz, 4

So, appropriately in the light of the centenary of Thelonious Monk’s birth, here’s the last of four extracts from my work chosen by Sascha Feinstein for the summer 2017 issue of Brilliant Corners. This comes from the novel, In a True Light, which is set partly in New York in the 50’s, partly in London in 2001.

Sloane, skinny in Levis and a plaid shirt, had stood on line at the Five Spot for the best part of an hour and missed most of the first set. Inside, the only seat he was able to find squashed him close to several others on a table right up against the stage. Monk soloing against the rhythm, fingers held stiff above the keyboard then jabbing down, the bright percussive sound chiming through the buzz of conversation, clink of glasses, the occasional shout of laughter from the back of the crowded room.

Monk wearing a pale jacket loose across his shoulders, pale green, silver and grey striped tie knotted snug against the collar of his white shirt, dark hair neatly, recently trimmed, no hat tonight, no hat, goatee beard and moustache, dark glasses shielding his eyes. Fingers rolling a little, feeling  for a rhythm in the bottom hand, rocking back upon the piano stool and then thrusting forward, elbows angled out, playing with his whole body, and the drummer, seated at Monk’s back, following each movement, listening to each new shift and shuffle, quick and careful as a hawk. Monk’s foot, his right foot, skewed right and stomping down, punctuating the broken line as, stationed at the piano’s curve, the bassist, eyes closed, feels for the underlying pulse. And Coltrane, John Coltrane, horn hooked over his shoulder, head down, fingers fluttering from time to time over imaginary keys, stands mute, focussed, waiting his time.

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Listening to Jazz, 3

This is the third of four extracts from my writing chosen by Sascha Feinstein to illustrate his interview with me which appeared in the Summer, 2017 issue of the journal, Brilliant Corners.

The first shot had struck her in the chest, close to the heart, the second had shredded part of her jaw, torn her face apart …

Finally, in the living room, he burrowed through the shelves of albums and CDs, searching, not for something calming, consoling, nothing that might trigger a memory, happy or sad, but this: the Eric Dolphy/Booker Little Quintet Live at the Five Spot, New York, 16 July 1961. Track three. “Aggression.” Sixteen minutes and forty seconds.

Resnick in the middle of the room, listening, slowly racking up the volume.

Louder, then louder.

Still listening.

By the time it reaches Dolphy’s solo, the bass clarinet screaming, squawking, keening – the sound so fierce, so intense – he is no longer capable of thought, just feeling.

Fists clenched tight, absorbing the music’s anger, he takes it for his own: this stuttering expression of anger and pain.

from Darkness, Darkness, 2014

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It Was 50 Years Ago …

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I’m reminded today, with much coverage in the media of this being the 50th anniversary of the release of Sergeant Pepper, that, some good few years ago, I was in a men’s clothing shop on Bridlesmith Gate in Nottingham when one of the assistants came up to me and introduced himself as a former student of mine at Heanor-Aldercar secondary school in the 60s. “You won’t remember me,” he said. And I promptly apologised, because that was, indeed, the case.

One thing I’ll always remember about you, he said, you came into our English class one day with the record player and said, Right, you’ve got to listen to this, and played the whole of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band all the way through.

It would have been around the same time that the Head of English at the school, Gordon Leake, and myself, inspired, I think, by having seen The Mersey Poets – Messrs Henri, McGough and Patten, along with Heather Holden – performing at the Co-Op Theatre,
decided to suggest to the students in our top set of 13/14 year olds that they ask their parents for the money to buy individual copies of the recently published Penguin Modern Poets 10 : The Mersey Sound for themselves. This despite being wary of possible parental complaints about some of the contents once the books were taken home, though, in the event, we need not have worried. No words of complaint were forthcoming. And when, happily, I met up with another former Heanor-Aldercar student, Mel Cox, many years later – 2014 – at a reading in Derby Waterstones, he had brought his well-thumbed copy of The Mersey Sound with him, along with a copy of Prévert’s Paroles, which I’d signed back then and given him as a prize.

None of that would likely happen today, I suspect, at least not in the same way – aside, of course, from teachers begging money to buy books. Plenty of that still around.

Denis Johnson, 1949 – 2017

JesusDenis Johnson, poet, short story writer, and novelist died on the 24th of May.  Although his Vietnam novel, Tree of Smoke – sprawling, busy with moments of brilliance and confusing and difficult to grasp as the war itself – won the US National Book Award in 2007, for me his best work is to be found in his shorter fiction, Train Dreams (2002), set in the American West at the turn of the century, the fast and nourish Nobody Move (2009), and the collection of incendiary short stories for which I suspect he will always be best known, Jesus’ Son (1992), from which these short extracts are taken.

The Vine had no jukebox, but  real stereo continually playing tunes of alcoholic self-pity and sentimental divorce. “Nurse.’ I sobbed. She pour doubles like an angel, right up to the lip of cocktail glass, no measuring. “You have a lovely pitching arm.” You had to go down to them like a hummingbird over a blossom. I saw her much later, not too many years ago, and when I smiled she seemed to believe I was making advances. But it was only that I remembered. I’ll never forget you. Your husband will  beat you with an extension cord and the bus will pull away leaving you standing there in tears, but you were my mother.

 

It was there. It was. The long walk down the hall. The door opening. The beautiful stranger. The torn moon mending. Our fingers touching away the tears. It was there.

 

And then came one of those moments. I remember living through one when I was eighteen and spending the afternoon in bed with my first wife, before we were married. Our naked bodies started glowing, and the air turned such a strange colour I thought my life must be leaving me, and with every young fibre and cell I wanted to hold on to it for another breath. A clattering sound was tearing up my head as I staggered upright and opened the door on a vision I will never see again: Where are my women now, with their sweet wet words and way, and the miraculous balls of hail popping a green translucence in the yards?
We put our clothes on, she and I, and walked out into a town flooded ankle-deep with white, buoyant stones. Birth should have been like that.

And, finally, a poem …

PASSENGERS

The world will burst like an intestine in the sun,
the dark turn to granite and the granite to a name,
but there will always be somebody riding the bus
through those intersections strewn with broken glass
among speechless women beating their little ones,
always a slow alphabet of rain
speaking of drifting and perishing to the air,
always those definite jails of light in the sky
at the wedding of this clarity and this storm
and a woman’s turning – her languid flight of hair
travelling through frame after frame of memory
where the past turns, its face sparking like emery,
to open its grace and incredible harm
over my life, and I will never die>

Sadly, not true.

Listening to Jazz – 2

 

 

This is the second of the extracts from my writing dealing explicitly with jazz, chosen by Sascha Feinstein to accompany his interview with me which appeared in the Summer, 2017 issue of the journal of jazz and literature, Brilliant Corners.

 

Sloane, skinny in Levis and a plaid shirt, had stood on line at the Five Spot for the best part of an hour and missed most of the first set. Inside, the only seat he’d been able to find squashed him close to several others on a table right up against the stage. Monk soloing against the rhythm, fingers held stiff above the keyboard then jabbing down, the bright percussive sound chiming through the buzz of conversation, clink of glasses, the occasional shout of laughter from the back of the crowded room.

Monk wearing a pale jacket loose across the shoulders, pale green, silver and grey striped tie knotted snug against the collar of his white shirt, dark hair neatly, recently trimmed, no hat tonight, no hat, goatee beard and moustache, dark glasses shielding his eyes. Fingers rolling a little, feeling for a rhythm in the bottom hand, rocking back upon the piano stool and then thrusting forward, elbows angled out, playing with his whole body, and the drummer, seated at Monk’s back, following each movement, listening to each new shift and shuffle, quick and careful as a hawk. Monk’s foot, his right foot, skewed wide and stomping down, punctuating the broken line as, stationed at the piano’s curve, the bassist, eyes closed, feels for the underlying pulse. And Coltrane, John Coltrane, horn hooked over his shoulder, head down, fingers fluttering from time to time over imaginary keys, stands mute, focused, waiting his time.

It comes from a stand alone crime novel, In a True Light, which was originally published by William Heinemann in 2001. Beginning with the release of its central character from prison …

They let Sloane out of prison three days short of his sixtieth birthday. Three years for deception, reduced on appeal to two; six months in Brixton, the remainder in Ford open prison.Naturally lean and wiry, Sloane walked out through the gates a fitter man than when he’d walked in.

A painter, the particular deception of which Sloane was found guilty was that of forgery; of late, he had found other people’s work, in his own exact interpretation, more saleable than his own. The novel works on two time frames, one in the present, following Sloane to New York in search of the daughter he never knew he had, the other tracing him back to the late 50s when he was a young, aspiring abstract expressionist painter in Greenwich Village – which is where and when he gets to listen to Monk.

In my opinion, it’s not a wholly successful novel – I’m not sure now well the different parts fuse together, the contemporary crime scenes in particular – but it does have some scenes of which I’m very fond and even, dare I say it, some writing of which I’m proud. And, of course, it gave me the opportunity to think and write about the art, jazz and poetry of New York during a period that has long held a strong fascination. Frank O’Hara, Jackson Pollock, Helen Frankenthaler, Thelonious Monk.

“Lonely Hearts”: Resnick at the Beginning

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A quick check on AbeBooks.com suggests that copies of the Viking Press, 1979, first edition of Lonely Hearts, in fine to very fine condition, signed, can be snapped up for between $350 and $450. Whereas, anyone wishing to read the same novel on kindle, can do so, from today until June 26th, for a mere £1.99, thanks to Amazon’s Start a New Series promotion.

You pays your money, as the saying goes …

One of the questions I used to get asked quite regularly in those far off days when my publishers used to send me out on tour, my American publisher Henry Holt especially, was did I always think Lonely Hearts was going to be the first of a series? The answer being, well, yes and no. Yes, in that most of my formative pulp days had been spent working on series so it was what I was used to. [Even the novelisation of Herbie Rides Again sprouted Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo.] And no, in that it had been hard enough to get this one book published, how much harder was it going to be for a bunch of them? Also, I should add on the plus side, the two most obvious [to me] and relevant inspirations for the novel were both television series, the long-running Hill St. Blues and my own relatively short-lived Hard Cases, which was, in most respects, Hill St. relocated to Nottingham and centred around the probation service rather than the police.

Which sort of takes me to a second frequently posed question: who, if anyone, is the character of Resnick based upon? To which the response used to be, he’s a lot like Captain Frank Furillo from Hill St. Blues, but dressed like Peter Falk in Columbo. A more specific model, following the Peter Falk example, would be the wonderfully fallible, hard drinking and sentimental Sgt. Valnikov, as played by Robert Foxworth in Harold Becker’s film The Black Marble, based on Joseph Wambaugh’s novel of the same name.

Like Furillo, I saw him initially as a kind of middle-management copper, holding together, through a mixture of firmness and inspiration, a fairly disparate group of younger officers. As the series developed, however, Resnick stepped out increasingly front and centre, in part due to the fact that I was increasingly enjoying writing about him, and in part down to the positive response to him from readers.

But here’s a little taste of Charlie as he initially appears at the beginning of chapter two …

Standing under the shower, Resnick massaged shampoo into his hair as vigorously as he dared: eyes closed tight, face tilted upwards, he lowered the temperature of the water until it reached minimum. When he looked into the mirror, his breath came back to him a mixture of German beer and sweet pickled gherkins. He was the usual eight pounds over on the scales. Cats swayed around his bare legs, slid under his feet as he pulled on his dark grey trousers, dark grey socks.

And this is the first impression of him from the social worker, Rachel Chaplin, with whom he becomes involved …

He was an overweight man in his early forties, whose narrow eyes were bagged and tired, and who couldn’t find the time to drop his tie off at the cleaners.

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Listening to Jazz 1

To accompany his interview with me that was published in the summer 2017 issue of Brilliant Corners, editor Sascha Feinstein chose extracts from four of my books as examples of the way I write about jazz … and the ways in which my characters, most often Charlie Resnick, listen to it.

This is Charlie and the Vic Dickenson Septet from Easy Meat

“Old Fashioned Love.” The opening growl from Vic Dickenson’s trombone sounds like the fanfare from a fairground barker, but once piano and bass have settled into their gentle stride, he nudges the melody along respectfully enough, just the odd hint of jauntiness to keep sentimentality at bay; then, rolling out from the lower register with that tart huskiness that marks his playing, Edmund Hall takes the tune through a second chorus before the clipped notes of Ruby Braff’s trumpet start to lengthen and unwind. Which is as far as Resnick gets, because now the phone is ringing and he reaches awkwardly toward it, fiddling the remote onto pause and then dropping it into his lap, where an aggrieved cat wakes with a start and jumps to the floor, one paw tipping the saucer that holds a half-finished cup of coffee growing cold …

Resnick retrieved his cup and rose to his feet, releasing the pause into the beginning of Sir Charles Thompson’s piano solo. Bud’s head nudged repeatedly against the backs of his legs as he stood there listening, the cat urging him to sit down so that he could jump onto his lap. Only after the second trumpet solo and Dickenson’s closing trombone coda, lazy but exact, did Resnick open the tray and drop the CD back into its case, switch off the stereo, carry cup and saucer into the kitchen to rinse, open the fridge on a well-honed impulse and lift out a slice of ham, warp it around the last half-inch of Emmental cheese, something to nibble while he put on his coat and hesitated in the doorway, patting his pockets for his wallet, money, keys.

The Vic Dickenson Septet recordings from the early 1950s, along with the first of the Buck Clayton Jam Sessions, the one with “The Hucklebuck”, were amongst the recordings my friends and I listened to most growing up, prime examples of what was then called Mainstream Jazz.

As for the novel from which this extract is taken, I always used to say, when asked, that Easy Meat [Proie Facile in France] was my favourite of all the Resnick novels and I think that just about stands – my favourite from the first ten, at least. And why? I used to say it came closest to fulfilling my intentions when writing (though there’s a major assumption there, that I knew what those intentions were). But I do think that overall I like it because it’s the most downbeat and unforgiving and also I allow myself to say I love the ending, those closing pages in which Sheena and Dee-Dee and their pals run amok outside the bowling alley. These are the final paragraphs …

Sheena staring at the blood beginning to swell up around the man’s white belly, fascinated, and Janie, out of her head beside him, laughing.

“Come on, girl! Move it!”

Running then, leaving Janie to face the music, the first sounds of a police car approaching at speed along Canal Street and Sheena, as she allowed herself to be dragged away, turning now and stumbling, looking back and thinking, awesome, truly awesome. I mean, absolutely fucking brilliant! Brilliant, right?

And how about this cover for the Henry Holt edition? One of my absolute favourites, and designed by Raquel Jaramillo – credit where credit’s due.

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Criminal Favourites

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Hmm, a friend remarked after perusing my recent listing of the 50 books I’d most enjoyed reading since the turn of the century, not a lot of crime fiction here – for a crime writer, especially. To which I might have replied, that in itself might be reason enough. And besides, if you stretch the definition a little there are five. No, wait, six.

But here, to set things right, or achieve some sort of balance, at least, is the list of my favourite relative recent crime novels, ones I’m likely to read again … and again.

1. Megan Abbott: The End of Everything
2. Kent Anderson: Night Dogs
3. Andrew Coburn: Voices in the Dark
4. K. C. Constantine: The Man who Liked Slow Tomatoes
5. James Crumley: The Last Good Kiss
6. Stephen Dobyns: The Church of Dead Girls
7. Jamie Harrison: The Edge of the Crazies
8. George V. Higgins: The Friends of Eddie Coyle
9. Bill James: Roses, Roses
10. Dennis Lehane: Mystic River
11. Elmore Leonard: LaBrava
12. Laura Lippman: The Innocents
13. William McIlvanney: Laidlaw
14. Bill Moody: Looking for Chet Baker
15. Walter Mosley: Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned
16. Jefferson Parker: The Blue Hour
17. George Pelecanos: Shame the Devil
18. James Sallis: Drive
19. Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo: Roseanna
20. Neville Smith: Gumshoe
21. Peter Temple: The Broken Shore
22. Peter Temple : Truth
23. Ross Thomas: The Fools in Town Are On Our Side
24. Brian Thompson: Ladder of Angels
25. Daniel Woodrell: Give Us a Kiss

Two of those, you’ll notice, published by the late lamented Slow Dancer Press. The marvellous cover design the work of the excellent Jamie Keenan.

Angels

 

Reading Week …

… well, more Reading Fortnight, to be accurate. It was intended to have much the same function as I guess it does during university terms: a chance to take a breather, stand back from ongoing work and take stock – and actually read a book or two.

I’d reached somewhere around the 40,000 word mark in the manuscript I’m working on, a first draft of the new Frank Elder novel, Body & Soul, and needed some space in which to step away from what I’d done and consider what was to come. A chance also for a few trusted others – my agent, my partner and our daughter – to read through the existing pages and tell me what they think. Plus point out some basic errors, such as the  incorrect spelling of ‘vicious’. My other trusted and much-respected reader is, of course, my publisher, but her opinion is SO important, I have to get things in better shape before passing them before her well-honed eagle eye.

So, given the time, what was I going to read? A visit to Nottingham’s Bromley House Library provided me with Sarah Baume’s A Line Made By Walking and Eimar McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians; Waterstones’ hip Tottenham Court Road branch was the source of Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, Speedboat by Renata Adler and Lee Child’s Night School.

All of which I read [well, almost all] and some of which can be dealt with quite swiftly. Although I’d found the Joycean language of McBride’s first novel, the prize-winning A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing, difficult, its intensity lived with me in a positive yet disturbing way; by the time I’d reached page 77 of The Lesser Bohemians, however, I realised that I was finding the detailed accounts of her young drama student protagonist’s drinking, smoking and sex life of less interest than my recognition of the many north London street names that were frequently mentioned. Time to stop and move on.

I chose Saunder’s Lincoln in the Bardo, his first novel, because I’d enjoyed – and admired – many of his short stories so much. The first few pages of the novel are pretty good, too. After which it becomes simply irritating, any attempt at narrative flow being cast aside in favour of a succession of brief extracts from the presumably fictional works of memoirists and biographers, so that, in reading, you find yourself stepping awkwardly down page after page as if participating in some half-arsed attempt to show there is no such thing in fiction as one true point of view. Really? I never would have realised. Back to the short stories, George.

Heavens, you must be thinking, you must have enjoyed something?

Well, yes. And I didn’t think I was going to like A Line Made By Walking at all [even though I do like very much the piece of land art by Richard Long from which the title is taken] and had, in fact, borrowed it so that my partner could read it. I mean, the story, told in the first person, of a former history of art student who retreats to her late grandmother’s country cottage because she’s finding urban life too difficult – and then takes pictures of dead animals which are reproduced here and there in the text – Come on!

Reader, I loved it! Well, okay, liked it a great deal. Without having the same off-the-wall, up-yours humour, it kept reminding me of Claire Louise-Bennett’s Pond, which, as anyone familiar with this blog will know, was my favourite novel of the past twelve months or so. Another book about a young woman who chooses solitude and writes about it. That aside, I’m hard-pressed to say why I enjoyed A Line Made By Walking as much as I did. It’s something to do with the clarity of the prose, the direct description of experience; something to do with the slow unveiling of her feelings; a great deal, I imagine, to do with the fact that inside me there beats the slow but strong desire to follow in Baume’s protagonist’s footsteps and hie myself off to an otherwise empty cottage in the middle of nowhere [the Penwith Peninsula and the North York Moors come to mind] and do nothing much more than tramp around and generally indulge myself in a greater degree of self-absorbed thought than is usually the case. [isn’t that why writers become writers anyway?]

As if to prove I don’t only respond well to books that are clearly written, relatively straightforward and non-experimental, I also very much enjoyed Renata Adler’s Speedboat. [Not to mention, in the past, and more than once – or twice – the novels of Virginia Woolf, clear, direct and, in their day, experimental.]

Like the later Pitch Dark, Speedboat comes close to not being a novel at all [or, at least, a novel as E. M. Forster or Walter Allen would have understood it]. Ostensibly following the jagged progress of a journalist across the United States, it does so by way of a series of not always clearly connected observations and anecdotes that ricochet off one another. A mode of writing that might seem to be in danger of falling into the same trap which swallowed up Saunders in his stilted peregrinations around Lincoln. But the writing is too sharp for that, the observations too brilliant, too funny, too savage.

In his Afterword, Guy Trebay refers to the French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud, who said that the dominant cultural figure of our time is the deejay (DJ?), an suggestion Adler apparently responded to positively. “It is easy to miss the point,” Trebay says.”that Speedboat got there well before e-mails or Facebook or Twitter. … Speedboat is a book without suspense or anything like a distinct plot, a novel whose protagonist is one whose telephone conversations often sound like dialogue from Beckett … a book in which time and tense are unstable, event is compressed, morality subject to constant revision … ”

Adler herself said ” “I wanted to write the kind of book I like to read – which is narrative, thrillers, with plots, suspense, and dialogue, with characters and things going on, things which you wish to happen and things you do not. I found I didn’t seem to be doing that. I thought, ‘Well, now what do I do?'”

What she did, it seems to me, was to create a style more or less all her own, and, in Speedboat and Pitch Dark, two distinctive books that repay re-reading.

What she might have liked to have written, if her remarks are to be taken at face value, could well be something like the Jack Reacher novels of Lee Childs, of which Night School is the most recent and the twenty first. “I know I say this every year … ” Karin Slaughter is quoted on the cover … “But. Best. Reacher. Ever.” Her caps, not mine, and sadly, far from true.

I’ve read almost all the Reacher books and enjoyed them a great deal; you know what you’re going to get and what you get is pretty damn good. [For interest’s sake and since you’re bound to ask, my personal favourite is The Hard Way.] But Night School just doesn’t do it for me. Set mostly in Berlin in the mid-1990s, there’s a sub-LeCarre espionage plot that doesn’t quite convince and too many conflicting layers of US secret service and security from the West Wing on down than are usefully necessary. I appreciate the need Childs must feel to find new territories and different situations for his hero, but this takes Jack Reacher too far out of his comfort zone and somehow it doesn’t really work. Which won’t stop me reading number twenty two, the first chapters of which are conveniently packaged in the back of the paperback edition of Night School, and show Reacher back on more familiar ground.

Finally, since I’ve mentioned packaging, let me point to the New York Review Books editions of the two Adler novels, both featuring details from Helen Frankenthaler paintings. Beautiful, just beautiful.

S'boat

P Dark