Monday, October 27, 2008

Emperor of All Men, Scourge of God, Ruler of Heaven

The Outcast (out on November 6, remember...) has a climactic scene set in the preparations for the annual Naadam Festival.  Just to get you in the mood, here's a fascinating description of one of the local Naadam Festivals.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Primates and problem chimps

I was slightly startled yesterday to find, in the Daily Telegraph of all places, an article on the great Half Man Half Biscuit, perhaps the finest band ever to emerge from Birkenhead.  Even more bizarrely, the columnist Sam Leith made a (possibly slightly desperate) attempt to align them with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams.  I couldn't quite follow the argument, and my understanding is that Dr Willams's tastes tend more towards early Incredible String Band.

Nevertheless, it's always pleasing to stumble across a HMHB fan (another is the former English cricket coach, David 'Bumble' Lloyd).  I've been an admirer of the band from their early days, but in recent years I've gradually come to the conclusion that their leader, Nigel Blackwell, is one of our finest living songwriters.  We fans are a small but select group, with our Joy Division oven-gloves and our biro-scrawled slippers (if this is incomprehensible to you, I'd suggest a look at the HMHB website), but we do our best to spread the word.  The Biscuits, as no-one calls them, are playing a rare gig in Manchester in January and I expect to be there. 

The only crime fiction link, I'm afraid, is the title of their latest CD, shown above, which might appeal to Martin Edwards, author of the excellent Lake District Mysteries...

Friday, October 17, 2008

Casting out

Always an exciting moment - I've just received advance copies of The Outcast, the third Nergui book, which comes out (I think I might have already mentioned this) on 6 November.  Quercus have gone for a slightly more dramatic cover this time, and I think it looks pretty splendid. 

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Driving violin and wailing Hungarian vocals

Well, what else would you call a Mongolian jazz festival other than Giant Steppes?  And, in case you were wondering what an angklung looks like, that's one on the left. 

Monday, October 6, 2008

The definition of cult success

One of the joys of the internet is that, if you'll pardon the expression, it facilitates serendipity, bringing together unexpected collisions of people and topics.  Regular readers of this blog (if any exist) may recall that I've written on here before about my enthusiasm for the songs of Pete Atkin and Clive James.  It's often a surprise for people to discover that Clive James, as well as being a poet, critic, novelist, broadcaster and controversial crime fiction critic, is also a song lyricist of some distinction.  Atkin and James made half a dozen fine albums in the 1970s, before abandoning their musical endeavours while Pete went off to make his name as a radio producer and Clive went off to become Clive James.  Then, a decade ago, thanks to the efforts of one Steve Birkill is setting up a superb website devoted to their work, they began writing and performing together again. 

The serendipitous aspect of this is that a few days ago, in my posting for the Carnival of Criminal Minds, I made reference to David Hepworth's blog.  The following day, Mr Hepworth unknowingly repaid my attention by referring to a podcast he'd just recorded with the aforementioned Messrs Atkin and James.  Better still, you can download that podcast here.

I should add that Pete and Clive are currently doing the rounds promoting a newly-available CD, Live in Australia, which is a recording of the two of them performing, well, live in Australia.  If you want a taste of their earlier work, Pete Atkin has recently released an excellent re-recorded selection of the best songs from the sadly unavailable 1970s albums, Midnight Voices.  Both CDs are available from Pete's own Hillside Music, as well as from the usual sources. 

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Googlegangers

I understand that's what they're called - all those people out there in cyberspace who share your name (I think one of the oddest experiences is to put your own name into Google Images and find endless pictures of people who might easily have been you in another life). 

This was all brought to mind because someone drew my attention to this page for The Shadow Walker at the Abunga.com bookstore site.  The page helpfully informs us that 'Michael Walters is the Vice President of Information Technology at Laramie County Community College in Cheyenne, Wyoming'.  I'm sure he is, but unfortunately he didn't write The Shadow Walker.  That was a different Michael Walters. 

Friday, October 3, 2008

A Sumo on thin ice, and the Supermarket of Tricks

The always-entertaining Harry Pearson writes in The Guardian about the current domination of Sumo by non-Japanese, including the Mongolian champion, Asashoryu (who appears, by and large, to live up to Peter Rozovsky's interpretation of his name).  Pearson thinks that the state of Sumo is eerily reminiscent of the English Premier League (soccer, that would be, for the non-Brits).  I think you'd be staring at Asashoryu for a long time before you thought of Didier Drogba or Robinho. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

A Wicked Wakes Fortnight; or The Carnival Returns to Northern England

I should explain that headline for non-UK readers, and probably for a few UK ones as well.  In the industrial north of England, we didn’t have carnivals, at least not in the sense they’d understand them in Rio or Sao Paulo.  Instead, we had the Wakes Week, when the factories would shut down, working folk would decamp to the seaside, and the ‘wakes’ or funfair would come to town.  So, as Barbara Fister’s splendid Carnival of the Criminal Minds heads across the Irish Sea from its previous pitch at Declan Burke’s Crime Always Pays, its character mutates to adapt to Manchester’s dark satanic mills (see right).  And it’s here for two weeks or, as we say over here, a fortnight. 

If that’s all clear, I can slip off my clogs and get on with things.   When I first offered to host the Carnival back before this non-existent summer, I did wonder what I might have to say by the time the tents and caravans pitched up.  After all, most of my favourite crime fiction blogs have been well-covered by previous incumbents in the slot.  Fortunately, the ever-resourceful Declan Burke made a similar point and suggested that perhaps, from here on, we shouldn’t merely promote blogs, but also begin to discuss why we’re all here in the first place.  Well, fair enough. 

As Declan points out, the value of crime fiction blogging is that it provides space and resource to deal with a strand of fiction that generally receives limited, often ghettoised coverage in the mainstream media.  Mind you, we perhaps shouldn’t overstate that particular grievance – I’m very conscious that, by dint of the specialised crime fiction columns, my first two books received coverage in the mainstream press that many first-time literary novelists would kill for.  But there’s no doubt that many excellent blogs provide coverage that could simply never be offered by the conventional media.  And their influence is growing, as more readers discover them and publishers begin to recognise that this is a phenomenon that can’t be ignored. 

I’m intrigued also by Declan’s suggestion that we’re still in the process of developing a critical language to discuss crime fiction.  I think he has a point.  Earlier this week, BBC4 showed a retrospective of the BBC’s former arts programme, The Late Show, which included David Hare’s infamous ‘Keats vs Dylan’ interview (Dylan for me, incidentally, since you ask).  An accompanying skit, based on The Frost Report’s ‘class’ sketch, contrasted High, Popular (exemplified by a reference to Raymond Chandler providing a ‘ripping good yarn’) and Low Culture.  The punchline was that the High and Low Culture representatives went off to commission an arts show together, while the poor old Chandler enthusiast was left behind, ignored. 

That was from 1995, but I’m not sure much has changed.  My impression is that novels which display the traditional virtues of plot, character and atmosphere (but especially plot) remain undervalued by the mainstream media and that, conversely, many reviewers still display something of a cultural cringe towards what is perceived as ‘literature’.   I was struck by a passage in James Lasdun’s unenthusiastic review of Benjamin ‘John Banville’ Black’s The Lemur in last Saturday’s The Guardian.  In  preparing the ground for his pejorative comments on Black’s latest, Lasdun refers more positively to Black’s first two books, while accepting that ‘the solution to the various puzzles ...is fairly obvious, fairly early on, and intentionally so’.  His conclusion is that ‘both books leave one with the sense of a highly skilled literary novelist using the mystery format on his own terms and shaping it to his own purposes’.

Well, maybe.  I must confess that I was left with the sense of a highly skilled literary novelist who just isn’t particularly good at one aspect of crime fiction –  creating a tightly constructed plot with unexpected revelations that raise the narrative game.  Lasdun himself later acknowledges that the final twist in a crime novel should make ‘the villainy seem suddenly larger and more chilling than you ever imagined’.   There’s no particular reason why Banville – who’s a wonderful writer in other respects – should be good at this, any more than we’d expect Agatha Christie to be a fine prose stylist or to create complex rounded characters.  But let’s give credit where it’s due, and withhold it where it isn’t.  One might even begin by asking why The Guardian thought it worth devoting half a broadsheet page to a negative review of what is, by any measure, a pretty slight novella.

For all the constraints that Declan rightly highlights, the best bloggers are doing an excellent job in giving credit to crime fiction.  In turn, it seems to me, much crime fiction is doing a better job than its literary equivalent at writing about the world we live in.   Just thinking back on my reading over the last few months, I’ve found books dealing with Palestinian politics (Matt Rees’s The Bethlehem Murders), the tensions of a divided Ireland (Brian McGilloway’s Borderlands), sexual politics and violence (Steig Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), the Chinese occupation of Tibet (Eliot Paterson’s The Skull Mantra), the lingering legacy of World War II in Europe (Jo Nesbo’s The Redbreast amongst others), the relationship between personal and political oppression (Christian Jungersen’s The Exception), colonial wars (Chris Simms’s Savage Moon) and international surveillance (Peter Temple’s In The Evil Day) – and that’s just a list produced without stopping to think.  Not all are great novels – though some are very good ones – but overall they display an engagement with modern life which makes much mainstream fiction seem positively escapist. 

 As a snapshot of the quality and quantity of the blogging coverage available, I’ve restricted my evidence just to material posted in the last few days.  Let’s start with Karen Meek’s extraordinary labour of love, Eurocrime, which posts a weekly selection of reviews.  Not only does the site devote considerably more space to the reviews than would be available in any generalist publication, but the reviews themselves are typically detailed, balanced and thoughtful.  Selecting any individual example is invidious, but as illustration consider this current one by Maxine Clarke of Petrona or this one by Sunnie Gill of Sunnie’s Book Blog.   The reviews are sometimes less polished than one might find in a conventional magazine, but there’s a refreshing care and honesty about the  critical responses.   There’s a similar thoughtfulness in Uriah Robinson’s latest posting on his Crime Scraps blog – a review of Philip Kerr’s March Violets which not only tells you everything you need to know about the book but also links it pertinently to the recent Austrian elections.  And, finally, another example of scrupulous reviewing – the always excellent Glenn Harper at International Noir.  In his most recent post, Glenn reviews Blood of the Wicked by Leighton Gage.  He doesn’t like it, but rather than using that simply as the basis for a smart-aleck review, he analyses, with some care, just what it is he doesn’t like.   I can’t imagine many reviewers taking the trouble to do that, just as I can’t imagine many journals giving them the space to publish the results, but it makes very interesting reading.  And, perversely, it makes me want to read the book.

So – a random snapshot reveals some excellent reviews of a kind that probably wouldn’t find houseroom in any traditional publication.  Peter Rozovsky’s Detectives Beyond Borders is, as always, a slightly different kettle of crime.  Peter doesn’t often provide straight reviews, but he regularly uses his insightful comments on books or authors as a springboard to provoke thoughtful and challenging debate.  Take a look at this recent posting, which riffs on Garbhan Downey’s book Running Mates (including some terrific quotes), to kick off a discussion beginning, with characteristic ambition, ‘What’s comedy?’  Not only that, but Peter also conducts some great interviews, like this one with John McFetridge.  Again, it’s  difficult to imagine many conventional publications devoting that much space to an interview with anyone this side of Barack Obama, let alone with a crime writer, but it’s all excellent stuff.  

I should, finally, spare a word for authors’ blogs.  We blog, of course, partly because we want to promote our books, but most of us are smart enough to realise that nobody really wants to read about that.  So we find ways of writing about other things, and throw in the odd reference to our own works when we think no-one’s looking.  I’m fortunate, in that the blog gives me the chance to introduce readers to the innumerable delights, curiosities and challenges of life in Mongolia, where my books are set.  That’s satisfying because it means I can provide more context to the events and themes I write about (and get good value from all the quirky research that never quite makes it into the novels). 

Others take a different approach.  My Cheshire neighbour, Martin Edwards – another former host of the Carnival – writes entertainingly about his own literary and other enthusiasms, particularly ‘golden age’ crime writing.  John Connolly tends to write mainly about the act of writing itself, but in a way that is never less than fascinating.  Declan Burke, as we’ve seen, is single-handedly promoting the entire Irish crime fiction scene.  Stuart MacBride just writes hilariously about whatever's in his head (some of which I'd be inclined to keep quiet about).  And my favourite is probably Colin Cotterill’s Diary – Colin’s a cartoonist as well as a writer, and his diary is not only very funny, it’s also brilliantly drawn.  All these writers are doing an excellent job, not only at promoting their own work, but also at promoting an awareness of the genre in a way that just wouldn’t be possible without the internet. 

Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with conventional journalism or criticism – it’s just that it’s operating within the commercial constraints inevitably associated with conventional mass media.  And some journalists do also maintain excellent blogs.  One of my favourites is the blog produced by David Hepworth, one of the driving forces behind the UK’s estimable Word magazine (which has a fine blog of its own).  It’s not a crime fiction blog – Hepworth just writes, entertainingly, about whatever takes his fancy.   But this typically excellent piece on The Wire brings us back into moderately familiar territory - and, since it was originally published in Word, demonstrates that the new media doesn’t have it all its own way. 

Okay, then, this fairground owner’s off to play the villain in an old episode of Scooby Doo.  Next time, the Carnival’s off to another amazing single-handed enterprise, Gerard Brennan’s terrific  Crime Scene NI.  And to all of you who are virtual visitors to these western margins of Europe, I can only say: sorry for all the rain.