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 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. 


1. Barbara said...

This is great, Michael. I'm with you on Benjamin Black - and I've just added some books and blogs to my reading list.

2. Michael+Walters said...

Thanks, Barbara - glad you enjoyed my ramblings. I must say, I liked the first two Black novels in lots of ways (haven't got round to 'The Lemur' yet - and probably won't) - I just thought they weren't particularly good crime novels. One of the things I enjoy about the best crime fiction is seeing skilled practitioners genuinely working with (and sometimes subverting) the discplines of the genre to produce something distinctive.

3. Barbara said...

Oh, meant to say ... those dark satanic mills sure cleaned up nice.

4. Michael Walters said...

Sure did. Ironically, Manchester benefited enormously from a major bombing by the IRA in 1996 (seems a lifetime away now), which fortunately killed no-one but destroyed large parts of some of the city's least-loved buildings. The rebuilding has, in my impartial option (I'm not a native Mancunian) turned it into one of the most visually striking cities in Europe. The triangular building in the picture is, appropriately enough, Urbis, a museum devoted to the idea of the city.

5. Maxine said...

Very intereresting post, Michael, and thanks for the kind words. I do agree with you about the value of independent editing and also that a blog stands or falls by its blogger, irrespective of whether that person is also an author of books.
As others have written, some good leads here to both blogs and books, so thank you again.

6. Martin Edwards said...

Fascinating post, Michael. Thanks for the kind mention and also for pointing me to Colin's blog, which I hadn't seen before.

7. Michael Walters said...

Thanks to Maxine and Martin for their comments - it's very gratifying to receive positive input from two of the best bloggers around!

8. Norman+Price said...

Michael, thanks for your kind comment about Crime Scraps. Just being mentioned alongside such a talented group of bloggers made this old amateur's day.

9. Karen M (Euro Crime) said...

Many thanks for the Euro Crime praise. I'm lucky to have found such good reviewers!

10. Michael+Walters said...

Thanks, Karen and Norman. I'm just constantly impressed by how much work goes into yours and others' blogs - and how good the results are. And I think that's 'amateur' only in the sense of not being paid...

11. Maxine said...

OK, Ok, enough of this nice stuff - you do write about crimes after all so let's get mean. How about putting the screws on your publisher for a copy of The Outcast, which I've been eagerly awaiting for some time, i.e. ever since I closed the final page of The Adversary? I hope those lovely people at Quercus are susceptible to persuasion.

12. Michael Walters said...

I'm sure they are...I haven't got a copy myself yet, but I'll see what I can do. Hope you find it worth the wait, though! And sincere thanks for all the support.

13. Glenn said...

I was out of town and incommunicado when the Carnival opened--so I'm only now seeing your kind comments on my blogging. Blogging can be a lonely enterprise without a little feedback, plus such good leads for other blogs and books to look for.

14. Michael Walters said...

Thanks, Glenn. I'm always impressed by your blog, which strikes me as one of the best around.

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