Short Stories 2: “Blue & Sentimental”

A blog post or so back I wrote about the business of writing short stories and the first – my first – “Now’s the Time” – in particular. Well, the arrival from the States of the US edition of Ten Year Stretch, published by Poisoned Pen Press, brings me to my most recent published story, “Blue & Sentimental”. Title courtesy of Count Basie this time, rather than Charlie Parker. And in place of Charlie Resnick, the central character is my London-based private detective, Jack Kiley.

Stretch

 

Ten Year Stretch brings together twenty stories commissioned to celebrate the tenth anniversary of CrimeFest, the Bristol-based festival of crime writing and writers. Edited by Martin Edwards and Adrian Muller and published in the UK by No Exit Press, it features a broad range of contributors, from Ian Rankin to Sophie Hannah, Lee Child to Simon Brett, Ann Cleeves to Mick Herron and James Sallis to Zoe Sharp.

My story had its beginnings in a lunchtime meeting in Dalston, East London, with a long-time friend, now living in Ireland, and her daughter Lucy, and is dedicated to Lucy and her partner, Anna. Just around the corner from our lunch spot is the Vortex, a jazz club I’ve been patronising in its different guises for some little while. Aside from the good music upstairs,  Nicki Heinen runs a monthly poetry and jazz session in their downstairs bar where I’ve read on a couple of occasions. All of which set the story in motion. This is how it begins …

Kiley hadn’t been to the Vortex in years. A celebration of Stan Tracey’s 75th birthday, December, 2001. Bobby Wellins joining the pianist on tenor sax, the two of them twisting and turning through In Walked Bud before surprising everyone with a latin version of My Way which, for the duration of its playing and some time after, erased all thoughts of Frank Sinatra from memory. Now both Tracey and Wellins were dead and the Vortex had moved across east London, from Stoke Newington to Dalston. A corner building with a bar downstairs and the club room above, which was where Kiley was sitting now, staring out across Gillett Square, waiting for the music to begin.

The call had come around noon the previous day, just as he was leaving the flat, his mind set on a crispy pork bahn mi sandwich from the Vietnamese place across the street from the Forum. The 02 Forum, as it was now less fortunately called, Kiley old enough to wish for things to be left, mostly, as they were.

“Am I speaking to Jack Kiley?”

He’d assured her that she was.

“You find people who’ve gone missing?”

“Once in a while.”

“That doesn’t sound too encouraging.”

“I’m sorry.”

There was a silence in which he guessed she was making up her mind. If he moved the phone closer he could hear the faint rasp of her breathing.

“Can you meet me?” she said eventually.

“That depends.”

“Tomorrow? Tomorrow afternoon? Somewhere around four? Four thirty?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“You know the Vortex? It’s just off … “

“… Kingsland High Street. Yes, I know.”

“I’ll see you there.”

She rang off before he could ask her name.

Out in the square a group of elderly black men were sitting quietly playing dominoes, oblivious to the cries of small children and the bump and clatter of skate boarders negotiating a succession of mostly successful pirouettes and arabesques.

Behind Kiley, the musicians who had been arriving, haphazardly, for the past ten minutes or so, stood chatting, shrugging off their coats, freeing instruments from their cases, starting to tune up. On stage, the drummer finished angling the last of his cymbals correctly and played an exploratory paradiddle on the snare. With the concentration of someone threading a needle, one of the saxophone players fitted a new reed into place.

Gradually, the composition of the ensemble took shape: rhythm section at the back, piano off to one side; three trumpets; two, no, three trombones; the saxophones, five strong, down at the front of the stage, one – the bartitone player – leaning back against the side wall.

The leader stepped forward, called a number from the band’s book, signalled with his hand: four bars from the piano then four more and the sound of fifteen musicians filled the room.

Smiling, Kiley eased back in his chair.

The repertoire mixed original compositions with new arrangements of the tried and tested; after an extended work out on Take the A Train, Kiley got up and made his way to the bar.

Only one woman sat alone amongst a scattering of couples and a dozen or more single men; smartly yet casually dressed, dark hair swept back, Kiley wondered if she might be the person he was meeting, but when he passed close by her table she gave no sign, and by the time he’d paid for his beer she’d been joined by a stylishly bearded thirty-something energetically apologising for being late.

Back at his seat by the window, Kiley saw that a woman wearing a bottle green apron over a brightly patterned floor-length dress had stationed herself behind the domino players and was busily cutting hair, a short but steadily lengthening line of clients waiting their turn. A quartet of youths criss-crossed the square on scooters, revving noisily, while on stage the band strolled its way into the interval number, a slow rolling blues that climaxed all of ten minutes later, electric guitar ringing out over a volley of brass.

As the applause faded, the musicians began to set their instruments aside, the taller of the two tenor players unclipping her saxophone from its sling before crossing the room.

“Jack Kiley? I’m Leah Temple.”

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CrimeMag on “Body & Soul”

BODY&SOUL

Alf Mayer’s review of Body & Soul appeared online in the June 2018 edition of CrimeMag.
Anyone wishing to read it in the original German, can do so here, otherwise you must contend with my faltering, but, I hope, basically accurate translation …

Here goes …

Often you sit there and all you can think is: Masterly!

On April 19, William Heinemann published John Harvey’s novel Body & Soul, the fourth and last book featuring former police detective Frank Elder. It is a swan song – in several ways. Harvey confirmed on his blog that this would be his last book. “Jump of your own accord,” he said, “before being pushed.”

Harvey will be 80 on December 21st of this year – something to be clearly stated and celebrated. In March, he made public that he is being treated for aggressive prostate cancer, and does not want to hide the fact that he receiving chemotherapy. “It’s important,” he wrote to me, “that you’re not ashamed of that. We need a different way of dealing with illness in our society, that is my clear opinion.”

Before Elder there was his detective Charlie Resnick, whom Harvey followed through twelve novels, one of which, Darkness, Darkness [Unter Tage, 2017], he adapted for the stage in Nottingham – see my CrimeMag interview from 2016.

Darkness, Darkness 1

 

Cover_Harvey_Unter Tage

Playhouse

But having set Elder aside, as he had thought for good, Harvey mentioned that he had a new idea for him which he wanted to develop in order to see what happened. And now that idea has become a farewell that has everything.

A hammer of a book!
Had John Harvey only written this one, we would remember him forever.
Jump before being pushed indeed!
Old and tattered but still full of juice.
Not a gram of fat too much.
Poetic and brutal.
An ending that freezes the blood.
Chords that reverberate for a long time. Like a masterly piece of jazz that will not be forgotten and which one knows on first encountering will always return.
Body & Soul.

John Harvey, like Elmore Leonard, began his career with Westerns. It’s been over 40 years now. He talked about it In his first column on CrimeMag. He was one of the “Piccadilly Cowboys”, with, amongst others, a series called Hart the Regulator, ten volumes published by Pan in paperback between 1980 and 1983. “In those days we wrote ‘em fast!” Hard, short, fast stuff. Pulp.

hart

But not only that. Not many crime writers, like him, have published three volumes of poetry. Not many people know and understand as much jazz and can write about it. [Recently here at CrimeMag: “Looking at Lester”] And not all of them have such slender-beautiful language. Pulp. Poetry. And jazz.

Ghosts

Whooosh, the brushes dabbed across the drum skin. Broiing, the deepest string on the double bass. And then the tenor saxophone. All this is Body & Soul. Harvey knows how to pluck strings, when to use which instrument. When and how the resonance chamber of his novel fills with strength-grief-pain-beauty-hardness-heart. Often you sit there and all you can think is: Masterly!

“Oh Frank, it’s just a song.”

Frank Elder is the dark side of Charlie Resnick. His somewhat short-tempered patience tears easily. After a police career in London, a demoralizing divorce and a fierce family tragedy, he has retreated to far-off Cornwall, where he occasionally helps the local police. When his alienated 23-year-old daughter Katherine comes to visit – “No questions, Daddy! Otherwise I’ll be gone,” – he has to control himself so as not to stare at the bandages on her wrists. Even more, not to ask. He goes to a pub with her, maybe there’s music there. What kind? Jazz, probably, he says. But you don’t even like jazz, says the daughter.

Frank Elder is not Charlie Resnick, sitting on a park bench at the end of Darkness, Darkness, pondering on Thelonious Monk and how well he can paint pictures on the piano. Instead, Harvey gives Elder a scene in which he walks away from a bar singer called Vicki, who has taken an interest in him, and who sings, as if just to him, the Billie Holiday version of the book’s title, Body & Soul.

My days have grown so lonely
For you I cry, for you dear only
Why haven’t you seen it
I’m all for you, body and soul …

I spend my days in longing 
I’m wondering why it’s me you’re wronging …

My life a hell you’re making
You know I’m yours for just the taking
I’d gladly surrender
Myself to you body and soul.

A piece about perseverance, about spurned love in defiance. Charlie Resnick would ponder whether the instrumental version by Coleman Hawkings of October 11th, 1939, or the later version by Ben Webster would be better. Elder leaves as Vicki sings the lyrics, goes down to the water, his hands and thoughts numb until Vicki comes and stands beside him. Here is the beautiful passage …

A blues next, then an up-tempo chase through, ‘What a Little Moonlight Can Do’, and then … 
 “This is a song I learned from a recording by Billie Holiday that she made way back in nineteen forty and which I first heard when I was eighteen or nineteen and I’ve been plucking up the courage to sing it ever since. So fingers crossed and here goes. ‘Body and Soul.’”
A few bars of sparse piano and the lyric … My days have grown so lonely … Nailing Elder from the first line, a threnody of helplessness, love and despair. Vicki’s voice by the final verse, the final chorus, beaten, defeated, little more than a whisper. Silence. And then the applause. Elder walked out in the night.
Walked towards the harbour, lights on the water.

Oh Frank, Vicki says to him, as she stands beside him and looks for his hand, it’s just a song, it does not have to be true love, at our age. When he puts an arm around her waist, he does not have to look at her to know she is smiling. Shall we go in your car, she says, or mine?

On another occasion, these two life-worn adults talk about how movies, books, and songs tell us about our own broken hearts, how they teach us what we should feel – Ernest fucking Hemingway, as Elder calls him, and all the others who have shaped our ideas of love and pain. And how, in the end, we are alone.

And all the more painfully, we experience through Harvey’s art a young woman being sacrificed again: Frank Elder’s daughter, kidnapped and tortured and raped at sixteen, barely escaping from death, saved by the father, though ultimately that was of little help; now she is twenty three and strangely ambivalent; sometimes seeking help yet dismissing closeness; rugged, leaping, vulnerable. And most importantly: just mute.

“That’s my daughter, you sick fuck!”

From Chapter 5, Harvey changes the narrative more often. We no longer follow only the ex-cop Frank Elder, but also his daughter, and then an increasing number of police officers, men and women, as the narrative strands increase, setting the heart racing. At first, the adrenaline rushes are isolated and controlled until, in Harvey’s hands, this tremendously taut book leaps alive like a wild animal. It is a long time since I have felt my heart beating as strongly when reading as here.

Frank’s daughter, Katherine, has been having an affair with a painter twice her age for whom she has been modelling and this has opened up old psychic wounds, throwing her off balance. Frank Elder travels from Cornwall, five and a half hours by train to London, wanting to be closer to Katherine. He visits an exhibition by this painter, Anthony Winter, and recognizes his daughter. Painted on large format canvasses. Exposed. Spread. Tied up. Like a prisoner. In front of one of these pictures his nausea rises as he stares at a thread of blood running from the young woman’s vagina.

“That’s my daughter, you sick fuck!” He roars, knocking down the painter. A few days later he is under suspicion of murder, the artist having been killed in his own studio. A father who sees his daughter naked like that in a painting – of course, he gets angry, says Elder at his interrogation. “It was the paintings. His. Winter’s. There on display. ”

Then there are new developments. Surveillance cameras show a female figure near the studio; it could be Elder’s daughter, suspicion weighs heavily upon her. The conflicts are piling up. But just half way through the book, when everything is already violent enough, once again there’s a strong drum roll. Adam Keach, the 30-year-old convicted murderer, kidnapper and rapist who previously assualted Katherine, has escaped in an accident involving his transport between prisons. And immediately he is on a mission. He wants to take revenge on Elder, who put him in prison seven years before, and he wants to grab his daughter again. Finish what he did with her then.

“No last minute rescue this time, Frank …”

So the past returns with lightning and thunder. The emotional mutilations of that time overlap with acute lines of conflict; Kate’s rude relationship with the despotic and now dead painter is but one of the unequal power relations in the book. Harvey, however, does not paint everything black and white, he varies his themes within the orchestration of his novel. There are other readings of unequal and uneven relationships, be it the ex-girlfriend of the murdered painter who has returned from Cyprus, be it Elder’s relationship with his own ex-wife or with former colleagues. In many shades the shadows and wounds of the past push into the present, reflecting the psychological costs of crime and the smaller malignancies that one experiences in everyday life. “How do you cope with this, how can you forget what this girl has experienced?” – “You cannot do it.”

In many variants, it is always about how to deal with life. Father-daughter relationships are questioned, and also how parents and children move away from each other. As the epigraph of the book, from Grahams Greene’s Our Man in Havana,  states “The separating years approached them both, like a station down the line, all gain for and all loss for him “.

Charlie Resnick had jazz for such moments of nothingness and Harvey offers this kind of music to Frank Elder as well, but in this dark universe it is only of limited help. “No last minute rescue this time, Frank …”

You sit with this book and, as you read, marvel at how John Harvey, master and commander of language that moves between the dust-dry of the everyday and poetic oscillation, achieves his means. There are ultra-tough police interrogations and word battles, the agonizing silence between parents and children, the professional talk of police officers surveying their cases; there is the world of galleries, models and the genius of artists; and there is the sophisticated and soulful police novel – manhunt, thriller. There are discreet and hard sounds. There’s a lot of lacuna. Poetry. There are landscapes, city and provincial. There are many inspiring miniatures. Art galleries, art house cinemas, old colleagues, an investigator who is half of a lesbian  couple: all of these disciplined and economically set in an exciting style.

Glancing at her again, Hadley was struck by an image, a flicker of memory, one of those films from the sixties she and Rachel luxuriated in once in a while – or had before Hadley’s promotion to detective chief inspector cut their leisure time by half. Glistening black-and-white, 35-millimeter prints at the BFI Southbank or the recently refurbished Regent Street cinema, a cocktail in the bar beforehand, supper afterwards. Rachel, a film buff since her university days. Bergman, Bresson, Godard, Kieslowski and Kaurismaki. And Alice, Hadley thought, was almost a dead ringer for Jean Seberg in “À Bout de Souffle” : the wide eyes, the dark eyebrows and off-blonde elfin-cut hair. Alice wearing black as usual, black jumper, black trousers, black shoes. Glancing now at the GPS, two more turns before drawing up outside the Wilton estate.

… Then the two investigators are with Katherine and the tone of the book changes. As it does quite often. Again and again. Like a breathtaking concert with John Harvey as the conductor, guiding our responses.

F&B 1

The Body & Soul UK hardcover also features the first few chapters of Flesh & Blood, John Harvey’s first Frank Elder novel, which is now back in paperback. One will want to re-read everything immediately after finishing this.

Alf Mayer

John Harvey: Body & Soul. William Heinemann, London 2018. 304 pages, GBP 14.99.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More Criminal Openings …

Going back to the opening of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest as I did in my last post, made me think of the distinctive ways in which other crime books begin. Some, like the Hammett, are short and punchy, grabbing the attention at the same time as having a close to perfect satisfaction of their own … others are longer, a deliberately complex sentence that winds you along its length and so into both the style and the narrative, others are paragraph length that draws you in more carefully and often then stays in the memory, sometimes after the book itself has been read, enjoyed and set aside.

Here is a selection of my favourite single sentence beginnings,some of which will be familiar, others perhaps less so …

They threw me off the hay truck about noon.

James M.Cain : The Postman Always Rings Twice

Cain

Jackie Brown at twenty-six, with no expression on his face, said that he could get some guns.

George V. Higgins : The Friends of Eddie Coyle

Higgins

When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.

James Crumley : The Last Good Kiss

Crumley

Much later, as he sat with his back against an inside wall of a Motel 6 just north of Phoenix, watching the pool of blood lap toward him, Driver would wonder whether he had made a terrible mistake.

James Sallis : Drive

Sallis

When she was killed by three chest knife blows in a station car park, Megan Harpur had been on her way home to tell her husband that she was leaving him for another man.

Bill James : Roses, Roses

James

And here are two of my favourites of the longer variety, each humorous in its own way; the first is, of course, a well-known classic, the second by Brian Thompson, a writer whose forays into crime writing, Bad to the Bone [Viking, 1991] and Ladder of Angels [Slow Dancer, 1999] deserve to be better known and appreciated than I think they are.

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid-October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard set rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blu suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

Raymond Chandler : The Big Sleep

Chandler

Mrs Evans was teaching me the tango. As it happened, I already knew the rudiments of this exciting dance, but never as interpreted by Mrs Evans, naked save for her high heels and some Mexican silver earrings – a present, she claimed, from Acapulco. The high heels were there to add grace and I suppose authenticity, but even with them on, the lady’s head barely reached my chin. We swooped about the room, exceedingly drunk, to the most famous tango of them all, the Blue one. It was past two in the morning and the rain that had been forecast had arrived as grounded cloud, moping blindly about the streets, tearful and incoherent. But we were okay – we were up on the third floor, looking down on the damned cloud and having a whale of a time. Mrs Evans was warm and sit to the touch and her make-up was beginning to melt. For some reason a piece of Sellotape was stuck to her quivering bottom, and as we danced I tried to solve this small but endearing mystery. It came to me at last; it was her sister’s birthday and earlier in the evening she had parcelled up a head scarf, some knickers and a Joanna Trollope paperback.

Brian Thompson : Ladder of Angels

Thompson

Criminal Openings … Dashiell Hammett

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A recent retweet by writer Megan Abbott took me back to the opening sentences of Dashiell Hammett’s first novel, Red Harvest, published in 1929 …

I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit.

It’s all there: the directness, the way it buttonholes you instantly, a hand taking hold of the lapel of your jacket while the voice speaks confidently, not over-loudly, into your ear. And the poetry, the poetry of the vernacular, the rhythm of real speech.

The first sentence in his first novel. I wonder how many times he rolled the sheet of paper out of the typewriter, read it through, tossed in over his shoulder, lit another cigarette, set a fresh sheet in place and tried again? I wonder if he’d been testing it in his head at a little after four, four-thirty, those mornings it was impossible to get back to sleep? I wonder if he had it all pat from the start?

Hammett’s first novel, thirty-five years old. He’d been an operative for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, a private detective working for an vast organisation with government connections. He had twice enlisted in the army, WW1 & WW2, and it was during the first of these periods that he was diagnosed with the tuberculosis that would seriously affect his well-being for years. When he was no longer with the Pinkertons, realising, perhaps, that henceforth he would be physically less active, he enrolled at a Business College and set about learning the business of writing. The timing was right. A new pulp magazine called The Black Mask printed his first story, “The Road Home”, in 1922 and a year later the first of a number of stories featuring his nameless hero, the Continental Op. It is the Op around whom the action centres in Red Harvest and its successor, The Dain Curse, a bluff and largely unforgiving figure who would be to some degree romaticised as Sam Spade in Hammett’s best known novel, The Maltese Falcon. Sam Spade, private eye:  shamus, a private dick.

For just twelve years, from 1922 to 1934, he wrote stories set firmly in a world he knew.  Then it was over. Whatever had drawn him, driven him to writing had gone. Perhaps it was simply that there was no longer any financial need. Perhaps, for a while, Hollywood fame following the success of John Huston’s version of The Maltese Falcon starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, seduced him. Perhaps his on-again, off-again, alcohol-ridden relationship with the playwright Lillian Hellman, in some creative way, emasculated him. He tried to write ‘straight’ novels, but they faltered into failure,unfinished; he set out to write plays but only succeeded in assisting Hellman in shaping hers. Or was it, more simply, that he had done all he could as a crime writer, all that interested him, and after five novels and over a hundred stories there was no place for him to go?

 

“Body & Soul” Reviewed

B & S Front

The fourth and final Frank Elder novel, Body & Soul, was published in hardcover by Wm. Heinemann in April. The Arrow paperback will follow in January, 2019. The majority of reviews have been positive, crowned, perhaps, by Marcel Berlins choosing it as his Book of the Month in The Times. This is part of what he had to say …

“The whodunnit plot is searingly effective in describing a bruised father-daughter relationship. The depth and conviction of emotion is also a hallmark of Harvey’s 12 novels featuring DI Charlie Resnick, a jazz-loving detective in Nottingham with a difficult love life. Elder and Resnick are both greats of British crime fiction.”

Read more here …

Laura Wilson: The Guardian

“Written in an economical style, this is an expertly plotted and moving final act for an old-school investigator of the best sort, from a true master of the genre.”

Read more here …

Mark Sanderson : Evening Standard

“Body & Soul is a clever thriller … that will leave you stunned and staring at the last page in disbelief. … It makes a brutal end to a brilliant career.”

John Cleal : Crime Review

“Harvey’s strength, apart from the superb reportage combined with a trademark sparse, but measured, lyricism and poignancy which make him a true master of his craft, is that his stories highlight the seediness of crime through superb characterisation and a complete lack of glamour.”

Read more here …

Geoffrey Wansell : Daily Mail

“This is wonderfully atmospheric crime writing – a tribute to Harvey’s exceptional talent.”

Read more here …

David Prestidge : Fully Booked

“Body & Soul takes an unflinching look at how love in itself is sometimes not enough – or possibly too much”

Read more here …

Michael Carlson : Irresistible Targets

“Harvey is very good at the small nuances of people’s everyday behaviour; alonside the tension of suspense comes the equally telling tension of their lives.”

Read more here …

Woody Haut ’s Blog

“Harvey’s characters are believable, his locales evocative, and his humanity crystal clear”

Read more here …

Aruna : The Literary Shed

“Harvey’s beautifully pared back writing, tight plot and careful characterisation raise Body and Soul above the bar of what’s merely good crime fiction … His prose seems effortless, the prevailing feeling of the book one of perfectly pitched melancholy, accented by a soundtrack of eclectic, carefully referenced music. Cornwall and London, the main settings for the book, feature prominently; the author’s evocation of rural and urban landscapes both detailed and true.”

Read more here …

 

My 30 (or so) Crime Fiction Favourites

Saturday’s Guardian Review, on the back of this year’s Theakston Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival – coming in July – asked the festival’s programming chair, Lee Child, and 21 other writers to nominate a crime novel everyone should read. Top writers, as it says on the front page, choose the perfect crime.

Undeterred by not being included in this merry band of 22 – after all, hadn’t the same publication called me “a true master of the genre” just the week before? – I set to and came up with a list of my own. Thirty (or so) crime novels I count amongst my personal favourites and which I pull down from the shelves and re-read with pleasure from time to time, and all of which I wholeheartedly commend.

end-everythingCoburn 1CainChandlerCoburnCrumley

1. Megan Abbott: The End of Everything (2011)
2. Kent Anderson: Night Dogs (1999)
3 James M. Cain: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934)
4 Raymond Chandler: The Big Sleep (1939) The Long Goodbye (1953)
5. Andrew Coburn: Voices in the Dark (1994)
6. K. C. Constantine: The Man who Liked Slow Tomatoes (1982)
7. James Crumley: The Last Good Kiss (1978)

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HigginsJames21671

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8. Stephen Dobyns: The Church of Dead Girls (1997)
9. Dashiell Hammett: The Maltese Falcon (1930)
10. Jamie Harrison: The Edge of the Crazies (1995)
11. George V. Higgins: The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1970)
12. Bill James: Roses, Roses (1993)
13. Dennis Lehane: Mystic River (2001)
14. Elmore Leonard: LaBrava (1983)
15. Laura Lippman: The Innocents (2011)
16. Ross Macdonald: The Way Some People Die (1951)

McIlvanneyMankellMoodyMosley698931Peace
17. William McIlvanney: Laidlaw (1977)
18. Henning Mankel: Sidetracked (1995) The Troubled Man (2009)
19. Bill Moody: Looking for Chet Baker (2002)
20. Walter Mosley: Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned (1997)
21. T. Jefferson Parker: The Blue Hour (1999)
22. David Peace: The Red Riding Quartet (1995-2002)

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23. George Pelecanos: Shame the Devil (2000)
24. James Sallis: Drive (2005)
25. Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo: Roseanna (1965)
26. Neville Smith: Gumshoe (1971)
27. Peter Temple: The Broken Shore (2005) Truth (2010)
28. Ross Thomas: The Fools in Town Are On Our Side (1970)
29. Brian Thompson: Ladder of Angels (1999)
30. Daniel Woodrell: Give Us a Kiss (1996)

ThompsonWoodrell

 

 

 

 

Peter Temple 1946 – 2018

The Australian writer, Peter Temple, died on the 8th of March; he had been seriously ill for some little time. I first got to know Peter’s work through his Jack Irish novels and was fortunate enough to get to know him a little personally, initially meeting him at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival and then, later, in London, at the home of Sarah Lutyens, the agent who represented us both. Peter was, as someone recently suggested, one of the last great curmudgeons of our time, and great company, as long as, if his caustic ire was aimed in your direction, you were prepared to duck.

Peter’s last two books are, I believe, two of the best, if not the best, contemporary crime novels of this century. The Broken Shore, published in 2005, won the CWA Gold Dagger for Best Crime Novel. That was followed in 2009 by Truth, which was the first ever crime novel to win, in 2010, the prestigious Australian Miles Franklin Literary Award. They were the first pair in a planned loosely linked trilogy, the last of which will never now, all too sadly, appear.

After reading The Broken Shore, the novelist and journalist John Lanchester wrote …

Ever since I read The Broken Shore, I’ve been hopping up and down in anticipation of Peter Temple’s next book. The Broken Shore is a masterpiece, as good as any new novel I’ve read in the last ten years. I had a sneaking thought that it might prove impossible to follow; I’m delighted that Peter Temple has and I can’t wait to read Truth.

I felt the same and I have to confess that when I first got my hands on a proof copy of Truth and read it greedily, too much so, I was vaguely disappointed. It wasn’t as good as its predecessor, surely? Then I read it again and realised I was wrong. I had been wanting something the same and this was different; it was tighter, tauter; a trap for careless readers. Each sentence, each conversation, however brief, however truncated, holds meaning; the things unsaid, unexpressed, hold meaning. I’ve read it now at least half a dozen times and each time with pleasure and still a sense of another writer’s wonder: how does he DO this? How does he do this so bloody well? Peter, you cantankerous old bastard, you were just, bless you, too bloody good!

When John Connolly and Declan Burke asked me to contribute an essay to Books to Die For, in which 119 authors choose and write about their favourite crime novels, I jumped at the chance to write about The Broken Shore. This is how my piece ends …

… there is one further thing that, for this reader, anyway, resonates from the title: the echo of Robert Hughes’s 1987 account of the founding of Australia, The Fatal Shore. For this novel is not just expertly set in a particular country – a particular area of county, a particular place – permeated by generations of history; it shows both the shifts and virtual disintegration of some communities, and the rabid racial discrimination – shockingly outspoken in some instances here – that demonises the Aboriginal people as belonging to a feral underclass.

When it was published, I was happy to be quoted as saying: “Put simply, Temple is a master, and The Broken Shore is a masterful book.” Nothing, in the four or five times that I have since read it, has given me cause to change my mind.

What was it Raymond Chandler said about Dashiell Hammett? Something about him taking murder out of the Venetian vase and dropping it into the alley. No longer the candlestick in the library, but the sap to the back of the head going the wrong way up a dingy one-way street.

Real crimes committed by real people.

Chandler didn’t do a bad job of that himself.

Neither, closer to hand, did Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo with their ten books featuring the Swedish policeman Martin Beck; nor William McIlvanney in his brilliant and inspirational 1977 novel, Laidlaw, set in Glasgow.

Whether Temple has read McIlvanney or Sjowall and Wahloo, or whether he’s read George Pelecanos, say, or Walter Mosley, is neither here nor there. What is relevant is that they all utilize the crime novel in similar ways: telling a story, yes, and a story about people, some of whom you come to care about, care deeply, but also – more importantly? as importantly – they use it as a tool, a tool with which to open up and expose a small area of society for us to examine and understand.

“I am drawn to the sparse and the dry and to the idea that if you concentrate you can do powerful things with a few sticks and stones.”

Peter Temple’s own words. The Broken Shore is very powerful indeed.

Peter’s obituary in the Australian newspaper, The Age, ends …

When his Miles Franklin-winning novel Truth was published, British crime writer John Harvey told The Age that Temple used the crime novel to strip away layers of hypocrisy. ”Truth was a pretty apt title for one of Peter’s books,’’ he said. ”He has a knack of pinning down the day-to-day nature of people’s lives and laying bare their weaknesses and obsessions.’’

The whole business was about truth, Temple once told me, creating the illusion of truth.

”If there’s going to be truth in it, it’s about the emotional response, it’s not about the accuracy of the detail. It’s about the fact that it spoke to you.’’

Sadly for readers everywhere, Temple will speak no more truth.

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“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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Scott Mitchell Returns!

There’s a feature in the Guardian Saturday Review in which authors describe their working day. Mine, over a period of time, has progressed (regressed?) from starting around 6.30/7.00am and finishing, after appropriate breaks, somewhere between 3.30/4.00pm, to starting at 7.00/7.30am and finishing at 12.30/1.00pm. As a general rule, one thing has become clear: the shorter the day the better the work.

But back in those heady days of yore, somewhere between 1976 and ’77 – and in the midst of co-writing the Herne the Hunter Western series – I wrote four crime books featuring Scott Mitchell. As the cover blurb described him – The toughest Private Eye – and the Best.Well, that’s blurbs for you.

And now, after a number of years during which the original Sphere paperbacks could be bought for surprisingly large sums on the internet, the toughest private eye returns. Mysterious Press in the States, having successfully published the Resnick titles there as Ebooks, have recently brought all four of the Scott Mitchell titles – Amphetamines & Pearls, The Geranium Kiss, Junkyard Angel & Neon Madmen – out as Ebooks, simultaneously publishing them as dual-title paperbacks, two yarns for the price of one.

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Here’s part of the introduction I wrote for the republication of the titles …

American pulp in a clearly English setting, that was the premise. A hero who was a more down-at-heel version of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade; a style that owed a great deal to Chandler and a little, in places, to Mickey Spillane. Forty years earlier, I could have been Peter Cheyney selling his publisher the idea for Lemmy Caution.

‘Amphetamines and Pearls’ – the title borrowed from Bob Dylan – was duly published by Sphere Books in 1976, John Knight’s gloriously pulpy cover design showing a semi-naked stripper reflected in the curved blade of a large and dangerous-looking knife. 144 pages, 50,000 words: £500 advance against royalties: you do the maths.

But, I hear you asking, is it any good?

Well, yes and no. Reading ‘Amphetamines and Pearls’ and the other three books again after many years, there were sequences that left me pleasantly surprised and others which set my teeth on edge like chalk being drawn across a blackboard.

Chandler is a dangerous model. So tempting, so difficult to pull off. Once in a while, I managed a simile that works – “The phrases peeled from his lips like dead skin” isn’t too bad, but otherwise they tend to fall flat. What I hope will come across to readers, though, is how much I enjoyed riffing on the familiar tropes of the private eye novel – much as I have done more recently in my Jack Kiley stories – and how much fun it was to pay homage to the books and movies with which I’d grown up and which had been a clear inspiration. An inspiration I would do nothing to disguise: quite the opposite.

As an example, quite early on, there’s this …

What I needed now was a little honest routine. I remember reading in one of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels that he began the day by making coffee in a set and practised way, each morning the same. It also said somewhere that Marlowe liked to eat scrambled eggs for breakfast but as far as I can recall it didn’t say how he did that.

What I did was this. I broke two eggs into a small saucepan, added a good-size chunk of butter, poured in a little off the top of a bottle of milk and finally ground in some sea salt and black pepper. Then I just stirred all of this over a medium heat, while I grilled some bacon to go with it.

They say that a sense of achievement is good for a man.

And later, this

I didn’t know whether she was playing at being Mary Astor on purpose, or whether she’d seen ‘The Maltese Falcon’ so many times she said the words unconsciously.

But I had seen it too.

Inter-textuality, isn’t that what they call that kind of thing? Metafiction even?

Much of the success of the book depends on how the reader responds to its hero. In many respects, Scott Mitchell fits the formula: men are always pointing guns at him or sapping him from behind; women either want to slap his face or take him to bed or both. When it comes to handing out the rough stuff, he’s no slouch. Anything but. He is the toughest and the best, after all. But, personally, I find him a little too down on himself and the world in general, too prone to self-pity. On the plus side, he does immediately recognise Thelonious Monk playing Duke Ellington, as well as knowing the difference between Charlie Parker and Sonny Stitt and having a fondness for Bessie Smith.

The scenes in the novel that work best, for me at least, are those in which the attempts to sound and seem American are pulled back, letting the Englishness show through. That only makes sense: it’s what I know, rather than what I only know at second hand. And what I know, of course, London aside, is the city of Nottingham, destined to be the home of the twelve novels featuring Detective Inspector Charlie Resnick.

It had been so long since I last read ‘Amphetamines and Pearls’ that I’d forgotten that’s where quite a lot of the book is set. And in the chapter where Mitchell visits the city’s new central police station, there’s a description of urban police work that points the way pretty clearly towards the world Resnick would step into a dozen or so years later.

Men in uniform and out of it moved quietly around the building. Policemen doing their job with as much seeming efficiency as men who are worked too hard and paid too little can muster. From room to room they went, sifting the steadily gathering detritus of the city night: a group of drunken youths with coloured scarves tied to their wrists and plastic-flowered pennants on their coats; the first few of the many prostitutes whose soiled bodies would spend the remainder of their working hours in custody; a couple of lads – not older than fifteen – who had been caught breaking into a tobacconist’s shop and beating up the owner when he discovered them; a sad queen who had announced his desires a little too loudly and obviously in the public lavatories of the city centre; and the car thieves, the junkies, the down-and-outs.

You couldn’t work in the midst of all this without it getting to you. it didn’t matter how clean the building was, how new. The corruption of man was old, old, old.

And down these mean streets … well, you know the rest.

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Crumley’s Last Good Kiss

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The fact that, not before time, an enterprising publisher – Transworld – had opted to reissue James Crumley’s idiosyncratic and marvellous novel, The Last Good Kiss (and that Waterstones have had the nous to install it as their Thriller of the Month) sent me back to a piece I wrote for Peter Messent’s Criminal Proceedings: The Contemporary American Crime Novel * in 1997. Here are the opening paragraphs …

I know that the first Crumley novel I read was The Last Good Kiss, but can’t remember too clearest when this was, nor the exact circumstances which resulted in my possession of a RandomHouse, hardcover first edition. But here it is, a little soiled now and ragged, behind Stan Zagorowski’s slightly surreal jacket design – a section of Western town, all brash signs and Hopper colours before a backdrop of towering, featureless mountains and, hanging above Mary’s Bar, a pair of full-blooded red lips that seem to have floated off from a Max Ernst canvas in an outsize offer of sexual promise and threat.

I suspect the year was 1978 or 1979.Not long off a brief series of mawkish, London-based, sub-Chandler private eye novels (James Ellroy was right: follow old Ray down those mean streets and sumptuous sub-clauses at your peril!), and embarked upon a sequence of ten paperback Westerns featuring Hart the Regulator, reading The Last Good Kiss affected me in the same way as listening to Philly Joe Jones when I was trying to be a drummer. All the things I hd wanted to do, plus several I hadn’t thought of, and all with such apparent ease. if I hadn’t already signed the contract, my electric typewriter might well have followed the drum kit into the small ads columns of the local newspaper.

I instinctively knew this was the best private eye novel I’d read since Robert B.Parker’s The Godwulf Manuscript, some five years before. I think I knew that Crumley’s book had elements over and above the freshness of Parker’s debut, and that these were something to do with the Western setting and something else I had yet to identify. Whatever the case, having read it once, I immediately set to read it again and have enjoyed reading it every few years since. And even if I still don’t understand the poem it works – or the final playing out of the plot – if there’s a more singular and compelling PI novel to have been written in the past, almost, twenty years, I don’t know what it is.

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  • “The Last Good Place: James Crumley, the West and the Detective Novel” in Criminal Proceedings: The Contemporary American Crime Novel, edited by Peter Messent, Pluto Press, London & Chicago, 1997