Listening to a selection of recordings by Lester Young the other day reminded me of several occasions on which he crops up in my writing – quite frequently, in fact, in the Charlie Resnick novels – if not as frequently as Thelonius Monk.
Here’s one occasion, from the second Resnick novel, Rough Treatment …
During the years since Payot Rivages published the first Resnick novel – Coeurs Solitaires – Lonely Hearts – in France, I’ve been fortunate in both the depth and breadth of reviews that have appeared there, both in print and on radio. With the publication of Le Corps et l’ame – Body & Soul – in early January, I’ve been well served again. What follows are extracts from three reviews, rendered into English through a shaky combination of Google Translate and my ancient schoolboy French [Advanced level, Failed].
TELERAMA Christine Ferniiot
Thriller writer John Harvey says goodbye to his heroes …
In 2014, in Darkness, Darkness, British writer John Harvey decided to abandon his famous hero, Chief Inspector Charles Resnick. He did not kill him off, preferring to watch his figure blend into the landscape; leaving him on a bench, a cup of coffee in hand, outside Nottingham Town Hall, daydreaming of a recording by Thelonious Monk – an ending suited to his image: melancholy, poetic and discreet. At that time, John Harvey explained that he wanted to devote himself, in a personal capacity, to poetry and jazz. We believed this to be the case, but luckily writers can change their minds. Here he is again, with Le Corps et l’Ame, a new thriller, one last lap in the company of Frank Elder, a retired police officer. This time, the book does sound like a farewell from this major author who began his career in 1976 under several pseudonyms, writing detective novels and westerns.
It was François Guérif, then editor of Rivages/Noir, who enabled French readers to discover John Harvey in 1993 and to follow him for almost thirty years. “Another British writer, the formidable Robin Cook, spoke to me one day about John Harvey, telling me to read Lonely Hearts, the first investigation by his hero Charles Resnick. I immediately loved this character, full of humanity and compassion, but also the elegant writing of John Harvey, very inspired by the jazz he loves.”
…. Consider the title of this novel in its original edition : it is called “Body and Soul”, like the title of a song by Billie Holiday which dates from 1957. ** One of those jazz tunes imbued with melancholy, blues, both sad and beautiful, oscillating between different emotions, leaving you alone facing the sea (as on the front cover), as if, finally, to better understand life, you sometimes had to let it rock you with nostalgia. .
The intimate, beautiful, poetic, musical writing (with many and magnificent references) won me over. It has a “je ne sais quoi” that is sublime. Suffering is faintly present between the lines: it inhabits the novel but is not painful because of the way Elder carries it, certainly like a burden, but it is not allowed to dominate the story, because it is mentioned with discretion, finesse and intelligence. The style is sober, calm, each word (especially in the dialogue) carries meaning.
The author talks about art, the complex links between models and artists; about the difficulties of family relationships when a person has mental health problems; the role of parents, of friends. The whole book is imbued with a bittersweet vibe that charmed me. Like jazz, it captivates you, captivates you, and stays with you for a long time …
**Billie Holiday first recorded “Body & Soul” in 1940. The 1957 recording, with Ben Webster on tenor saxophone, was one of her last.
LIVRESSE DU NOIR LE CORPS ET L’ÂME – NADIA DI PASQUALE – 5 JANVIER 2021
… A dark novel, full of atmosphere where the contrast between the rural landscapes of Cornwall and the urban settings of London is striking. Family relationships are at the heart of this story, the author explores the father-daughter relationship … A father assailed by doubts, devoured by guilt, plagued by demons from the past; a very touching father who tries to reconnect with his vulnerable daughter, a father ready to do anything to defend and protect her.
A very realistic plot, tightly wound in 300 pages, which advances at its own pace and captivates us from start to finish. The construction is rigorous, we oscillate between the meticulous investigation, the procedures, a few well-placed twists and small touches of decor and atmosphere. The characters occupy a central place; John Harvey has the art of searching their souls and complexes with great depth and a beautiful humanity. His pen is very elegant, the style classic while leaving a lot of room for darkness; the dialogue is sharp and subtle.
And then, an unexpected finale, tinged with a certain sadness. Goodbye! I’m happy to have discovered Frank Elder. An excellent reading moment!
On Twitter recently, I offered signed copies of the penultimate Resnick novel, Cold in Hand, in exchange for donations to Médecins Sans Frontières – or Doctors Without Borders – an international medical organisation working in conflict zones and countries affected by endemic diseases. The take-up was pleasing enough to send me scouring the shelves in search of other gems with which to broaden the offer.
Here’s the deal: email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, giving a mailing address and letting me know which book you want and if you’d like a dedication as well as a signature. Then, once I’ve confirmed the book is still available, you make a donation (a tenner?) to MSF. and I send you the book. Simple.
And these are the books …
BODY & SOUL Pegasus Books (US) hardcover edition, 2018. The fourth and final book in the Frank Elder series
“When he’d said he’d drive in and meet her at the station, she’d said there was no need, she’d catch the bus. Lengthening his stride, he was in time to see its headlights as it rounded the hill; time to see her step down and walk towards him – ankle boots, padded jacket, jeans, rucksack on her back – uncertainty flickering in her eyes seen as she summoned up a smile. ‘Kate . . . It’s good to see you.’ When she reached out her hands towards his, he struggled not to stare at the bandages on her wrists.”
BLUE WATCH Troika paperback, 2019. A ‘Young Adult’ novel set in London 1n 1940, during the heart of the Blitz, it follows the adventures of Jack, a fifteen year-old Fire Brigade messenger, and his friendship with Lilith, a young refugee. A good read for anyone of secondary school age and beyond – quite a few adult readers have liked this a lot.
“It was one of those nights when it seemed as if the whole of London was on fire.”
OUT OF SILENCE New & Selected Poems Smith|Doorstop, 2014 New poems – well, new in 2014 – along with Peter Sansom’s selection from two earlier collections, Ghosts of a Chance & Bluer Than This.
Driving through Camberwell the rain slides down black across the windscreen and as we pass the lights for the third time you push a cassette into place the click and hiss of tape and then it’s him: Rhythm-a-ning. Charlie Rouse on tenor, Sam Jones on bass, Art Taylor at the drums. New York City, February, 1959 . . .
… and still some copies of
COLD IN HAND Harcourt (US) hardcover edition, 2008 The penultimate book in the Charlie Resnick series
“At first he thought what he heard as he stepped into the hall was the sound of a car backfiring, then knew, in the same breath, that it was not.“
Watching Ronnie’s, Oliver Murray’s excellent documentary about Ronnie Scott and the club that bears his name, my mind, inevitably, ran back over the many evenings spent there, some blurred by time, others, like a particular evening when Ronnie himself was playing – and playing beautifully – I remember more clearly. Here’s Charlie Resnick sharing that memory in the novel, Living Proof.
Betty Carter was singing ‘Body and Soul’ on the car stereo as he drove, mingling the words and tune with those of a second, similar song, so that the final, climactic chorus seemed forever delayed, but that wasn’t it. Not exactly. More confusing still, the words of yet another song were worrying away at some part of Resnick’s mind. ‘Send in the Clowns’. He had heard Betty Carter live just once. A rare trip to London, a weekend in early spring, and she had been at Ronnie Scott’s. A striking black woman, not beautiful, not young; warm and confident, good-humoured, talking to the audience between numbers with that slight slow-business bonhomie that set Resnick’s teeth painfully on edge. But when she sang … He remembered ‘But Beautiful’, ‘What’s New?’, the way she would move around the stage with the microphone, her body bending to the shapes of the words with a combination of feeling and control that was unsurpassable. Scott himself, nose like a hawk and gimlet-eyed, his sixty-odd years showing only where the skin hung thinly at his neck, had been leading his quartet through the support slots on the same evening. Tenor saxophone, piano, bass and drums. After several rousing numbers, Scott had played a two-chorus version of Sondheim’s ‘Send in the Clowns’, almost straight, bass and drums dropping out, the tone of his saxophone ravishing and hard, one of the best ballad performances Resnick had ever heard, silencing the club and striking him straight to the heart.
When the book was published, I sent a copy to Ronnie Scott, along with a tape (!) on which I read some of my poems with accompaniment by the band, Second Nature. Here’s his reply …
I’ve always relished the opportunity to write for radio, whether adapting another writer’s work – I’ve been fortunate enough to be let loose on such as Graham Greene, A. S. Byatt and Paul Scott – or dramatising my own. The process of reducing a novel or short story to its essentials before beginning the process of building them up again in a different form is a task I’ve always enjoyed. A task for which I was unknowingly prepared by all those grammar school English lessons in which we were called upon to summarise a longer and usually very dull piece of writing into something succinct that captured its essence – the art, in other words, of précis. [I doubt, nowadays, if even the idea of it is allowed through the school gates. Though I’d like to be proved wrong.]
Having stripped the story down to its bare bones, its skeleton, the next task is to build it up again in a manner which does as much justice as possible to the original author’s style and intention; a task which, a certain amount of voice over narration and the occasional internal monologue aside, is achieved almost entirely through dialogue. Dialogue which has the function of revealing character and situation while propelling the story forward.
Where bringing Resnick to the radio is concerned, I was fortunate to work throughout with an experienced and sympathetic producer, David Hunter. We began in 1995 with a 2 part dramatisation of the fifth Resnick novel, Wasted Years, and then, a year later, a triple episode version of the third novel, Cutting Edge.Slow Burn, broadcast in 1998, was from an original two-part script, set in and around a Nottingham jazz club and later published as a short story, and this was followed in 2001 and 2002 by two single plays, Cheryl and Bird of Paradise.
All in all, a fair run, and Radio 4 Extra has been generous in lining them up for not infrequent repeats. Cheryl, in fact, is due to be heard again on Friday, October 30th. And they are all, as from today, October 22nd, available as an Audio Download from BBC Audio with the added attraction (?) of my stint as a guest on Radio 3’s Private Passions.
Quite frequently, repeat broadcasts bring forth a small flurry of questions. The theme song in Wasted Years, for instance: who is the singer and where can I get hold of a copy? And why on earth are there so many different Resnicks?
Last things first. in 1992/3, Tom Wilkinson had played Resnick in the televised adaptations of the first two books – Lonely Hearts and Rough Treatment – that were produced by Colin Rogers of Deco Films & TV for the BBC, and he seemed the perfect choice to continue in the role on radio. After Wasted Years, he was pencilled in for its radio sequel, Cutting Edge, but film work interceded and the role went to Tom Georgeson, who was familiar with the character, having played one of a pair of cat burglars in the TV version of Rough Treatment
[Keeping up so far … ?]
Phillip Jackson, complete with authentic East Midlands accent, was Resnick in Slow Burn, followed three years later by Keith Barron, who played Charlie in both Cheryl and Bird of Paradise, reuniting in the first of those with his sparring partner from the long-running television sitcom, Duty Free – the wonderful Gwen Taylor.
Which brings us, finally, to the music in Wasted Years. The lyric and melody were written by the fine folk singer, Liz Simcock, whose demo was the basis for the version heard on the programme, which, appropriately, is sung by Gillian Bevan who plays the singer Ruth Strange.
A quick check suggests my fiction has been translated into twenty plus languages by thirty or so different publishers and with contrasting results. A strong commitment has, unsurprisingly, proved more successful in terms of sales, whereas a single book, slipped like a wary toe into the water, has tended to make a mere ripple before withering away, forgotten. Worse still, there was a time when I was concerned about the effect I was having on the Italian publishing industry: no sooner, it seemed, had a contract for one or more of my books been signed than the business failed and went into administration.
No such problems, thankfully, in France, where Les Éditions Payot & Rivages have published and strongly supported all of my work, beginning in 1993, when the first Resnick novel, Lonely Hearts, made its debut as Coeurs Solitaires in the Rivages/Noir collection under the direction of François Guérif, up to the final book in the Resnick series, Darkness, Darkness / Ténèbres, ténèbres. And in January, 2021, they will publish Body & Soul / Le Corps et l’âme, the fourth and final novel in the Frank Elder series – and my final novel all told.
Mon dieu, how I love that cover!
By way of introduction to the novel, there is a short video made by Molly Ernestine Boiling, in which I talk about the novel’s beginnings in an unshakable dream, then read a section from the first chapter.
Jerzy Grabianski, as I mentioned in a recent post , first appeared in the second Resnick novel, Rough Treatment; one half of a skilled team of cat burglars, a bulky, perhaps surprisingly humane man with a propensity for falling inappropriately in love. Too interesting a character for me to leave alone; not least for the similarities – physical and genetic – between Resnick and himself. So, after a gap of some years, he featured prominently in the short story, Bird of Paradise, first published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and collected in Now’s The Time (2002) , and appeared again in 1997, in the ninth Resnick novel, Still Water.
And it’s to Still Water that we go for a little of Grabianski’s background …
Grabianski was thinking of his father; the half-sister, Kristyna, he had never seen. The family had fled Poland in the first year of the war – and a slow, cold fleeing they’d had of it, walking, occasionally hitching a lift, hiding beneath the heavy tarpaulin of a river barge: Czechoslovakia, Austria, Switzerland. Kristyna had drowned in the waters of Lake Neuchatel; she had been eleven years old.
His father, a textile worker from Lodz, had flown as a navigator for both the French and British forces; parachuted out over the Channel, plummeting towards the black, unseeing water with images of Kristyna, her stiff, breastless body, trapped tight behind his eyes.
He had survived.
Jerzy Grabianski had been born in South London, his mother a nurse from St. George’s, his father sewing by electric light in the basement room in Balham where they lived. Weekends, when his mother was working, his father would walk him to Tooting Bec Common, sit with him in the Lido, dangling Grabianski’s flailing legs down into the shallow water, never letting go.
And here, in the opening paragraphs of Bird of Paradise, is Grabianski, ornithologist and burglar, first sighting the woman with whom he becomes infatuated …
It was still surprisingly cold for the time of year, already well past Lent, and Sister Teresa kept her topcoat belted but unbuttoned, so that the lower part of it flared open as she strode through the stalled traffic at the corner of Radford Road and Gregory Boulevard, revealing a knee-length grey wool skirt and pale grey tights which Grabianski, watching from the window of an Asian confectioner’s, thought were more than pleasingly filled.
He popped something pink and sugary into his mouth and smiled appreciatively. One of life’s natural observers, he never failed to enjoy those incidental pleasures that chance and patience brought his way: a brown flycatcher spied on the edge of Yorkshire moorland, the narrow white ring around its eye blinking clear from its nest; a chink of light just discernible through the blinds of a bedroom window, four storeys up, suggesting the upper window may have been left recklessly unfastened; the stride of a mature woman, purposeful and strong, as she makes her way though the city on an otherwise unremarkable April day.
Casually, Grabianski stepped out on to the street. He was a well-built man, broad-shouldered and tall, no more than five or six pounds overweight for his age, somewhere in the mid-forties. His face was round rather than lean and freshly shaved; the dark hair on his head had yet to thin. His eyes were narrowed and alert as he angled his head and saw, away to his right, the woman he had noticed earlier, passing now between two youths on roller blades, before rounding the corner and disappearing from sight.
Dressed in civilian clothes as Sister Teresa was, Grabianski would have been surprised to have learned she was a nun.
The order to which the good Sister belongs is The Sisters of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, as detailed in chapter four of Still Water …
The Sisters of Our Lady of Perpetual Help lived in an undistinguished three-storey house midway between the car park for the Asda supermarket and the road alongside the Forest recreation ground where the local prostitutes regularly plied their trade.
There but for the grace of God, as Sister Bonaventura used to remark, bustling past. Whether she was referring to whoring or working at the checkout, Sister Teresa and Sister Marguerite were never sure.
All three of them were attached to the order’s outreach programme, living in one of the poorer areas of the city and administering as best they could to the unfortunate and the needy, daily going about the Lord’s business without the off-putting and inconvenient trappings of liturgical habits but wearing instead civilian clothes donated by members of the local parish. Plain fare for the most part, but ameliorated by small personal indulgences.
Sister Marguerite, who came out in a painful rash if she wore anything other than silk closest to her skin, purchased her underwear by mail order from a catalogue. Sister Bonaventura stuck pretty much to black, which she relieved with scarlet Aids ribbons and a neat metallic badge denoting Labour Party membership. “Who do you think He would vote for, if he came back down to reclaim his Kingdom on earth?” she would ask when challenged. “The Conservatives?”
And Sister Teresa, whose mother had stopped measuring her against the kitchen wall at fourteen when she had reached five foot seven, was forced to make her own arrangements as the kind supply of cast-offs rarely matched her size. Regularly, she would bundle up a pile of pleated skirts and crimplene trouser suits and take them to the Oxfam shop where she would exchange them for something more fitting.
When Grabianski and Sister Teresa finally get to speak, in a scene from Bird of Paradise, it is when he rescues her from being physically attacked by a fiercely angry man whose battered wife she has been trying to help.
Hearing the sound of someone at his back, Palmer half turned and met the heel of Grabianski’s outthrust hand full force upon his nose. The snap of cartilage was dredged through snot and blood.
“Don’t … ” began the woman, easing herself up on to all fours. “Please, don’t … ” as she levered herself back against the wall, head sinking gingerly forward till it came to rest against her knees.
“Don’t what?” asked Grabianski gently, bending down before her.
“Don’t hurt him.”
He recognised the dull sparkle of the ring upon her hand. Why was it they always defended them, no matter what? One of her eyes was already beginning to close.
“A beating,” Grabianski said. “No more than he deserves.”
“No, no. Please.” She fumbled for then found his wrist and clutched it tight. “I pray you.”
Something about the way she said it made Grabianski think twice; he recognised her then, the woman who had been striding out in shades of grey, and felt a quickening of his pulse. Somehow instead of her holding his wrist, he was holding her hand. Behind them, he heard her attacker scurry, slew-footed, away.
The muscles in the backs of Grabianski’s legs were aching and he changed position, sitting round against the wall. Sister Teresa, blood dribbling from a cut alongside her mouth, was alongside him now, shoulders touching, and he was still holding her hand.
She found it strangely, almost uniquely, reassuring.
She said, “Thank you.”
He said it was fine.
She asked him his name and he her’s.
“Teresa,” she said.
And she had to think. “Teresa Whimbrel,” she said and he smiled.
“What’s amusing?” she asked.
“Whimbrel,” Grabianski said, “it’s a bird. A sort of curlew.” The smile broadened. “Notably long legs.”
He looked, she thought, decidedly handsome when he smiled – and something else besides. She wondered if that something – whatever it was – might be dangerous.
She was looking at the fingers of his hand, broad-knuckled and lightly freckled with hair and curved about her own.
“I think you should let go,” she said.
“Of my hand.”
“Oh.” He asked a question instead. “Was that your husband? The man?”
“Not mine, no.”
He could feel the ring on her finger, no longer see it. “But you are married?”
“In a way.”
Grabianski raised an eyebrow. “Which way is that?”
“A way you might find difficult to understand.”
Back, finally, to Still Water, in which Grabianski, learning that Sister Teresa is interested in visual art, invites her to join him in London to visit the exhibition of Degas’ paintings at the National Gallery ….
It barely seems possible, but thirty years have passed since the second Resnick novel, Rough Treatment, was published. I’d like to say it seems like only yesterday, but that would be to belie the truth; with a memory like mine nowadays, I’m lucky if yesterday seems like yesterday. 1990, though – the year, I do remember, that Notts County – the team with Mark Draper and Tommy Johnson [the Jack Grealish of his day?] – were promoted to the old Division One. Some things just seem to stick.
Rough Treatment, though: a glance at the first page brings it back …
“Are we going to do this?” Grice asked. Already the cold was seeping into the muscles across his back, January he hated with a vengeance.
Milder than usual days, Grabianski thought, you expected nights like these. “A minute,” he said, and started off towards the garage. For a big man, he moved with surprising lightness.
Grice and Grabianski, cat burglars by profession; Grice a small, ratty little man, short on temper and a lifelong supporter of Leyton Orient; Jerzy Grabianski, in both his size and his Polish heritage, a deliberate echo of Resnick himself – a soft-centred man who will pause in making his escape from a house he and Grice are burgling to give CPR to the unfortunate house owner who has just had a heart attack, and who will fall in lust with another of their victims, Maria Roy, when she comes across him unawares …
The man was still in the same position, almost leaning against the jamb of the door but not quite. He was a big man, nothing short of six foot and stocky, wearing a dark-blue suit with a double-breasted jacket that probably made him broader than he actually was. He didn’t say anything, but continued to stare at her, something in his eyes that was, well, appreciative of what he was seeing.
Round about this time, I’d been reading, and hugely enjoying, the novels of Elmore Leonard, and my two burglars were a nod in his direction, a combination, hopefully, of humour and criminal – sometimes violent – behaviour. It works, I think, quite well on the page, but perhaps better still when brought to life by Jim Carter and Tom Georgeson, as Grabianski and Grice respectively, in the 1993 Deco Films & TV version for the BBC.
We had a little difficulty, I remember, casting the part of Maria Roy, mainly due to one of scenes I’d carried over from the novel into my dramatisation …
Maria Roy lay back far enough for her breasts to float amongst the scented foam which covered the surface of the water. In the pale light from the nearby nightlight they were soft-hued, satin, the darker nipples hardening beneath her gaze. Harold, she thought. It didn’t help. Softly, she rubbed the tip of her finger around the mazed aureoles and smiled as she sensed her nipples tense again. What kind of marriage was it if after eleven years they only place you had ever made love was in bed? And then, not often.
“Never mind,” she said to her breasts softly. “Never mind, my sad little sacks, somebody loves you. Somewhere.”
And easing herself into a sitting position she gave them a last, affectionate squeeze.
“Never mind, my sad little sacks of woe.”
While some we spoke to, otherwise keen to play the part, drew the line at the above, we were delighted when the wonderful Sheila Gish seized the opportunity with, shall we say, both hands.
Probably an age thing, but I’ve never been one to rummage around online, searching for references to myself or my work; I’ve never, for instance, looked up any reviews of my books on Amazon or similar, and when my publicist sent one of my novels out on a Blog Tour a couple of years back, I had to exert severe self-discipline before I could bring myself to read what the various and worthy bloggers had to say. No disrespect to them, the fault – if such it is – lies with me. [Pauses to consult Guardian Style and emerges still uncertain, except that now I think it should be ‘lays’, ‘lays with me’. More advice welcome.]
Anyway, what I was getting around to saying, was that until I was put in the know by one of my more dedicated readers [hi, Andrew], I had no idea that a goodly number of interviews and the like in which I’d taken part can be viewed online. Without too much searching, I found a dozen or so, dating back to the Bouchercon Mystery Convention which was held in Baltimore in 2008.
Here they are …
Book Talk with librarian Chris Jones, 2020
Inspire Culture/Nottingham Libraries
In Conversation with Alison Joseph at CrimeFest, Bristol, 2019
Talking about writing crime fiction, 2012
At home, in the garden, walking on Hampstead Heath
Open Road Media for Mysterious Press
Interviewed by Otto Penzler at the Baltimore Bouchercon, 2008
… and just for a taste of something different, here I am with the band, Blue Territory, at West Bridgford Library in Nottingham in 2014, reading two pieces about the tenor player, Lester Young; first, unaccompanied, an extract from the short story, ‘Minor Key’, and then a poem, ‘Ghost of a Chance.’
And now I’ve watched them all – all right, ‘fess up, I might have nodded off once or twice during the 59 minutes plus at Baltimore – I feel in a position to make recommendations. So if I were only going to catch one, and were – shall we say – a little pressed for time, I’d plump for the Open Road video from 2012, which is very professionally shot and edited, with the extra bonus of watching my whiteboard work – a skill that goes right back to my teaching days when I was once awarded a special commendation for my blackboard skills while on teaching practice.
For some years – a period that, for me, encompassed the first ten Resnick novels – Lonely Hearts to Last Rites – Daniel Woodrell and I shared the same publisher in the States, the redoubtable Marian Wood at Henry Holt & Company. Address: 115 West 18th St., New York 10011 – I remember it well.
Whereas Marian would have worked closely with Dan from the first draft manuscript on, with Resnick she would have bought US and Canadian rights to books that already existed in published form. For many publishers that might mean little more than commissioning a new jacket, scouting out some blurbs that would mean something to American consumers, and maybe – just maybe – sending a junior through the manuscript with the task of Americanising those ‘difficult’ British terms which might defeat US readers – ‘elevator’ for ‘lift’ and ‘sidewalk’ instead of ‘pavement’. Not so Marian. She was as eager to get to grips with the text as would have been the case were she the primary editor, and, more importantly, she was keen to make suggestions as to how the series and its central characters might best be developed, pointing out weaknesses that should and could be avoided. When, in Easy Meat, for instance, I ventured to set Resnick up in a relationship with a teacher named Hannah Campbell, Marian argued quite fiercely that I should make her a far stronger character than she first appeared to be, more conscious of the feminist issues of the time.
Most importantly, she championed my books, just as she did Dan’s, in the face of sales figures that would have had Holt’s accountants sadly shaking their heads. We were her authors, her boys, and she believed in us, which didn’t mean she was above putting us in our place if she thought it was deserved; the only reason I can get away with publishing the pair of you, she pointed out on more than one occasion, is because I also publish Sue Grafton.
I first met Dan Woodrell in St. Louis, probably the largest city close to the Ozarks, the vast rural area of Missouri where he had been born and continued to live. Both with new books out – Dan’s Give Us a Kiss (the one that gave birth to the term Country Noir) and my 8th Resnick, Easy Meat – we were due to appear at Big Sleep Books, then under the management of Helen Simpson. I assumed that, in the normal way of things, I would read an extract from my novel before chatting amiably to would-be customers and, finally, signing as many copies as I could lay my hands on – the usual malarkey – and I’d imagined Dan would do the same. But no. Dan doesn’t read, Helen said. He just doesn’t. Ever. He’s shy. Which would have left me showcasing, while Dan sat quietly in the corner, nursing a beer. It didn’t seem right. Okay, I said, tell him if he won’t read then I won’t either. [Clearly, to anyone who knows me, a barefaced lie: given an audience in excess of one I’ll read till someone finally puts out all the lights and jiggles the keys.] To Helen’s surprise, however, Dan agreed. Perhaps he was being polite to a fellow author visiting from across the Atlantic. And, of course, he read brilliantly, bringing out every nuance of the language, every ounce of humour, every frisson of sexuality, and left me thanking the heavens I’d read first!
Give Us a Kiss is told in the first person, its central character, Doyle Redmond, is Ozark born and bred, a writer who – like so many of us at times – feels his work is both undersold and misunderstood. Dan getting some of his frustrations out into the open. Here’s a couple of examples …
I always get called a crime writer, though to me they are slice-of-life dramas. They remind me of my family and friends, actually. I hate to think I’ve led a “genre” life, but that seems to be the category I’m boxed in.
… and …
I sat up, crossed my legs beneath me. “When I’m dead they’ll say I was ‘passionate and ruggedly self-reliant,'” I claimed.
“Oh, Doyle.” Lizbeth’s lips had that puffy, tenderer look lips get from deep kissing someone new. “They’re not going to talk about you when you’re dead.”
That sealed the end. That comment. This was the sorest spot she could gouge at, my life’s work to this point being four published novels nobody much had read, let alone bought or reviewed prominently. This sore spot of mine had yet to quit oozing since the last book had been met with a great, vicious silence, and for her to stick me there meant it was over for sure.
Some time after our meeting in St. Louis, Dan and his wife, the novelist, Katie Estill, moved, temporarily, to San Francisco, which is where my partner, Sarah, and I got to hang out with them a little. One of the reasons Dan had been attracted to San Francisco was its associations with Dashiell Hammett, a writer he greatly admired; Hammett had lived there in the 1920s, and it was there, in a top floor apartment on Post Street, that he had written the bulk of The Maltese Falcon. So, in honour to both Hammett and his private eye, Sam Spade, we went to John’s Grill, which has long traded on its association with The Maltese Falcon, and ordered the over-priced but tasty lamb chops, as briefly featured in in the novel …
He went to John’s Grill, asked the waiter to hurry his order of chops, baked potato, and sliced tomatoes, ate hurriedly, and was smoking a cigarette with his coffee when a thick-set youngish man with a plaid cap set askew above pale eyes and a touch cheery face came into the Grill and to his table.
“All set, Mr Spade. She’s full of gass and rearing to go.”
We also went to Burritt Street, where Spade’s partner, Miles Archer, was lured to his death by his seemingly innocent client, Brigid O”Shaughnessy, and not shot and killed, as she had claimed, by one Floyd Thursby.
Spade said” “Miles hadn’t many brains, but, Christ! he had too many years’ experience as a detective to be caught like that by a man he was shadowing. Up a blind alley with his gun tucked away on his hip and his overcoat buttoned? Not a chance. He was a dumb as any man ought to be, but he wasn’t quite that dumb …
He ran his tongue over the inside of his lips and smiled affectionately at the girl. He said: “But he’d’ve gone up there with you, angel, if he was sure nobody else was up there. You were his client, so he would have had no reason for not dropping the shadow on your say-so, and if you caught up with him and asked him to go up there he’d’ve gone. He was just dumb enough for that. He’d’ve looked you up and down and licked his lips and gone grinning from ear to ear – and then you could’ve stood as close to him as you liked in the dark and put a hole through him with the gun you had got from Thursby that evening.”
Finally, before leaving the subject of Daniel Woodrell, it’s worth noting that of his nine novels, three have been turned into films: not a bad ratio. Woe to Live On was filmed by Ang Lee in 1999 under the title, Ride With the Devil; Debra Granik made Winter’s Bone in 2010; and Tomato Red was filmed by Juanita Wilson in 2017. Of the three, it seems to me that Winter’s Bone is the most successful. In part this may be due to the fact that it was largely filmed in the Ozarks, where the novel is set, and Dan, I believe, helped both with the locations and in persuading some of the locals to take part. Without losing on the finer points of atmosphere and characterisation, Granik never allows the pace of the narrative to slacken, and she secures a compelling performance from Jennifer Lawrence in her ‘breakthrough’ role.