Tag Archives: Raymond Chandler

The Intel: John Sweeney

 

John SweeneySo you know John Sweeney. He’s the award-winning investigative reporter guy on the telly. He’s seen a lot of stuff, been to a lot of dangerous places. John’s work has taken him around the globe covering conflict – from Russia, to the Ukraine, to undercover investigations in North Korea and Chechnya.

And – guess what – he’s a hell of a writer, too. His first Joe Tiplady thriller Cold is published today by Thomas And Mercer, and it’s a corker.

Tiplady is a man with a dark past. A sardonic Irishman with a love of his dog and his whiskey, Joe has a burning desire for truth and unwavering compassion for those in need — and he’ll play by his own rules to see justice served.

In Cold, a chain of events is in motion that will make him a priceless target. A retired Soviet general hunts for his missing daughter after a series of brutal murders. A ruthless assassin loses something so precious he will do anything to get it back. And in the shadow of them all lies Zoba, strongman ruler of Russia and puppet-master of the world’s darkest operatives.

Sweeney is an engaging fellow and in this fantastic intel interview he gives us the lowdown on his mysterious protag, his romantic first novel and the Cold Road To Hell.

Tell us about Joe Tiplady…

Joe Tiplady was an IRA bomb-maker sent to a terrorist camp in North Korea to learn how to better kill the British. Once there, he realised the ordinary people were brainwashed and, in turn, he came to realise that he, too, had been brainwashed by the IRA. Joe’s based on an actual IRA man I met in Belfast, whose trip to North Korea was the start of his divorce from violent Irish republican nationalism. The name, by the way, comes from a great friend of my son’s who died at the age of 25 by a heart attack. His family said: ‘let our hero be your hero.’

 In Cold, Joe becomes the target for a dangerous assassin – what kind of murky goings-on does he get himself involved in?

That’s a tricky question without giving too much of the plot away. Suffice to say his dog Reilly vanishes, then he accidentally sees it again and it hurries back to him. But the consequences are that suddenly all hell breaks loose. Why? Well, read the book. It’s not a whodunit but a whydunnit.

Your first novel Elephant Moon was a romantic fiction – why the change of pace?

True, Elephant Moon did hit number one on amazon.co.uk’s historical romance section, hugely to my shame. I never saw myself as king of the bodice-rippers. Moon is set in Burma in 1942. There are many bleak, historically accurate scenes in it and although it has a central love story, I don’t think of Moon as romance. But I did want to write a classic spy thriller and that’s Cold. To be honest, I love telling stories. I don’t really care about the genre: the story is the pan-galactic ruler.

COLD Cover ImageA few years ago, in the post-Soviet world, critics were proclaiming that the thriller was dead, but the world seems a more dangerous place than ever – is it difficult to keep up with the ever-changing political climate?

Difficult? You’re telling me. In my head I have a Joe Tiplady trilogy, Cold Road to Hell. I’m writing the second, Road, now and it’s inspired by the war in Syria and ISIS. It’s soooooooooooo hard to keep up with the inhumanity spewing out of Raqqa. At the same time, as a journalist I can’t go to ISIS-stan because they might kidnap me and weaponise me against my own society. As a thriller writer I can go there inside my head and take the reader with me and that’s incredibly exciting.

As a BBC journalist you’ve reported on a number of tyrannies – where are some of the most-dangerous places you’d like to take Joe?

In Cold, Joe crosses the Atlantic – but not by flying, less the people after him find him. In Road, Joe goes to Syria. In Hell, to North Korea.

How did you start writing?

At school. I’ve never stopped.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

Having faith in yourself. I’ve written seven non-fiction books but novels are harder. It took me more than a decade to write Elephant Moon. It started selling very slowly, through word of mouth, and now it’s sold more than 150,000. Writing a story, a book is like planting a tree or having a child: you plant something living in the world and that is smashing.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

Raymond Chandler – crisp writing on a corrupt LA; Seamus Heaney – magical lyricism about Irish soil and humanity; and L Ron Hubbard for his pan-galactic insights. One of these replies is a joke.

Give me some advice about writing…

Try and write one thousand words a day. When a new character turns up, describe him. If you’re writing a thriller, end every chapter on a cliff edge.

What’s next for you and Joe?

Road, then Hell, and then I will have trilogy, Cold Road to Hell.

 ***

Cold by John Sweeney is out today, 1st July, published by Thomas and Mercer at £8.99.

 

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The Intel: Michael Kurland

Kurland-210You’re way too young to remember the Thirties — I mean, look how young and vibrant you are — but you probably know it was a hell of a time for crime fiction in the US. Think Chandler and Hammett, and Cornell Woolwich and James M. Cain. But it was also a time of glamour, of Broadway chorus girls and Jazz Clubs and the Algonquin set.

In his second Alexander Brass novel, The Girls In The High-Heeled Shoes, Michael Kurland’s newspaper columnist protag Alexander Brass and sidekick Morgan Dewitt investigate a series of disappearances in 1930s New York City.

Two-Headed Mary, the philanthropic panhandler is missing. So is Billie Trask, who disappeared from the cashier’s office of hit show Lucky Lady with the weekend take. Could either of them have followed a third Broadway babe, chorus girl Lydia Laurent — whose dead body has been found in Central Park?

Kurland is the author of more than thirty novels, but is best known for his Edgar-nominated mystery series featuring Professor Moriarty, including The Infernal Device and The Great Game. He has also edited several Sherlock Holmes anthologies and written non-fiction titles such as How to Solve a Murder: The Forensic Handbook. He lives in Petaluma, California.

In this intel interview, Kurland discusses the writers who influenced him to write a series set in the Thirties and the hardest lesson he learned about writing…

The Girl In The High-Heeled Shoes sounds like it would make a great Broadway show – what was the inspiration for it?

Well, Alexander Brass was already an established character with the first book, Too Soon Dead, and I liked him, so I wanted to see what other adventures he would share with me. The character Two-Headed Mary is based on a real con-woman of the same name. As for the title, it comes from a 1930s toast my mother told me:

‘Here’s to the girls in the high-helped shoes
Who eat our dinners and drink our booze
And hug and kiss us until we smother –
And then go home to sleep with mother!’

What made you want to write a series set in the 1930s?

The period always seemed both glamorous and innocent to me. And it was full of the most amazing people.

It was a turbulent time, full of glamour and gangsters – how influenced were you by the classic movies and novels of the period?

I think my image of the 30s was developed by the mystery novels of Sayers, Stout, Hammett and Chandler certainly, along with Tiffany Thayer, Robert Benchley, Leslie Charteris, and a lot of early science fiction. As for movies, perhaps the Marx Brothers movies and such films as Boy Meets Girl, My Man Godfrey, Casablanca, M, The Thin Man and its sequels, The 39 Steps, and anything Fred Astaire did.

HighHeelIf you could meet one iconic figure from the 1930s who would it be?

Just one? I would have to roll the dice to pick among George Gershwin, Oscar Levant, Dorothy Parker, Dashiell Hammett, James Thurber, Dorothy Sayers, Robert Benchley, Groucho Marx, Winston Churchill, Gypsy Rose Lee, Rex Stout, and Eleanor Roosevelt. With three dice I could extend the list. Certainly Eleanor’s husband would be fun to chat with.

You’ve written more than thirty novels, including your acclaimed Professor Moriarty series, and you teach mystery writing – what’s the one piece of advice to anybody who wants to write?

Set aside a time to write each day, sit down and don’t do anything else for that period of time, even if the writing doesn’t come. And read my book, “It’s a Mystery to Me” (plug).

How did you start writing?

When I was 12 years old I told my mother I was going to be a writer. I think I was reading Benchley at the time, along with Alexandre Dumas. Then when I got out of the Army I moved to Greenwich Village and fell in with a bad lot – Don Westlake, Randall Garrett, Harlan Ellison, Phil Klass (William Tenn), Terry Southern, full-time writers all. And they made it seem, if not easy, at least possible.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

That it never gets any easier. When someone asked Raymond Chandler how he wrote, he said he rolled a fresh sheet of paper into the typewriter and stared at it until the blood formed on his forehead. Well, now I use a computer but aside from that I agree.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

I’ll stick to defunct ones, so I don’t insult any friends. Mark Twain, because he was brilliant, wrote without clutter, fought the prejudices of his day, and, most difficult of all, was funny. Alexandre Dumas, Rex Stout, Dorothy Sayers and Don Westlake for creating characters I would like to meet. Poul Anderson and Jack Vance, for creating worlds I would like to visit. Philip MacDonald, Agatha Christie, and Dashiell Hammett for telling wonderful stories. Phil Klass, Joe Gores, and Richard Condon for making the most difficult job I know look so easy.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a pre-WWII political spy novel tentatively called The Bells Of Hell, as as getting started on the third Alexander Brass: Death Of A Dancer.

***

The Alexander Brass Mystery The Girls In The High-Heeled Shows is available in paperback and ebook, published by Titan Books.

The Intel: Chris Lloyd

I’m guessing you didn’t just turn up here by mistake. Nobody comes this way, along that rickety bridge, down into the gaping ravine and then through those caves. Nobody in their right mind would make that journey, not with all the stories about what lives in the woods, not unless they’re really interested in new crime authors and new crime books. Or unless they’re deluded.

Chris LloydBut, look, now you’re here, don’t feel bad about it. We’ve got a real treat for you. Chris Lloyd is the author of the new thriller City Of Good Death. It’s the first of a new series about Catalonian detective Elisenda Domènech. who must battle sceptical colleagues and bureaucratic stonewalling to catch a killer who is prowling the myth-soaked streets of Girona.

Author Chris Lloyd lived in Catalonia for over twenty years. Now back in South Wales, he works as a Catalan and Spanish translator. A generous and fascinating interviewee, Chris gives us the intel on Elisenda, Catalonia’s turbulent past, and how, as a writer, you have to make friends with the delete button.

Tell us about Elisenda Domènech…

That’s a tough question as I’m still learning about her. Initially, she’s very straightforward and down-to-earth, but the things that have happened to her have made her tremendously complex. At first glance, she’s a middle-class, well-educated Catalan woman who loves her family, is loyal to the people she cares for, has a huge respect for her culture and traditions and longed to return to her native Girona after years in Barcelona. But when I dig deeper, I see that even with all of that, she’s rebelled in her own way against other people’s expectations of her. She was expected to have a glittering career as a lawyer, but chose instead to go against everyone’s wishes for her by joining the newly-formed Catalan police, one of the first women to enlist, at a time when most middle-class, well-educated Catalan women still had to be convinced it was the career for them. She’s irreverent and sharp-witted, a hater of hierarchy and ceremony, but so much of her nature, her innate sense of fun and enjoyment of life, is hidden under layers of grief and guilt at the death of her daughter.

How did you get the idea for City Of Good Death?

Really, it was a series of moments that found their way to each other. I was researching in the municipal archives in Girona when I came across the history of the Virgin of Good Death, a statue over one of the old gateways into the city. In medieval times, she was there to bless convicted criminals as they were led out of the city to be executed. The statue was not far from the archive, so I went straight outside to look at her and I was immediately enchanted. I couldn’t help wondering what she had witnessed over the years. The same week, in the same archive, I also discovered dozens of legends about the city I’d never heard before. One was about a face carved into a wall, which I found, and showed to a friend, someone from Girona, who’d never seen it. Those two finds pretty much sowed the seed of the idea of how easy it is to forget the stories of our own culture, and of how someone might act in an extreme way in the face of that.

All of this happened at the same time that policing was being devolved to Catalonia. Essentially, a new police force was being put in place. They knew how they wanted the police to be and were working hard at breaking with the past, but they were still finding it difficult to change history and the perceptions of their role. And they were having to learn as they went along, handling change the best they could. It just seemed the perfect counterpoint to the whole idea of change versus tradition and the rights and wrongs of them both.

You lived in Catalonia for twenty years – why is it such a good place to set a crime series?

There should be an easy answer to that, but it’s so hard to pin down. And that’s probably why it is so perfect as a setting. I think it boils down to contradictions. Once in Girona, I saw two cars parked side-by-side being loaded, one with skis and the other with an inflatable boat. The first was two hours from the Pyrenees, the second was half an hour from the beach. For me, it sums up a variety – or a contradiction – that I think you’d be hard pushed to find in many places in the world. Catalonia’s had a turbulent past, it’s known wealth and poverty, supremacy and oppression, and that breadth of experience and history distils into a character and a mood that’s so abundant in stories and that can switch from one extreme to another. On a purely practical level, it also means I can base one story in a beautiful and bustling medieval/modern city, with all the contradictions inherent in that, and the next on an isolated winter headland overlooking the Mediterranean.

City Of Good DeathWhat kind of crime fiction and authors are really popular in Spain?

It’s changed greatly over the years. Spain never really had a tradition of police procedural novels, or heroes, and that’s largely because of the way policing was seen for so long. Throughout the Franco era and for some time after, the police weren’t perceived to be there to solve crime or protect the public, but as a force for control and punishment. And I think that was reflected in what readers chose for their crime fiction. People wanted escapism. So, when I first went to live in Spain, there was a taste for cosy crime stories, a real escape from reality. Agatha Christie was hugely popular, as were the more traditional or established British crime writers, such as GK Chesterton and Conan Doyle. Probably more so than the American writers, although the greats like Chandler and Hammett were popular. Home-grown writers were few and far between, and for years Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, with his very politicised private detective Pepe Carvalho, writing against a backdrop of post-Franco changes in Barcelona and beyond, was very much a lone voice. And a sign of what was to come, I think.

But as the country’s changed, so have tastes. Spanish society and the roles in it have shifted. As the country prospered and became more confident, so readers were more open to trying new writers and new sub-genres within crime fiction. Things shifted from the cosy to the socially critical. From the tea-and-deduction type of fiction to the more hard-boiled and realistic, with modern British and American writers, along with the Nordic authors and new generations of Spanish writers. And this has deepened since the financial crisis. Now, instead of books that escape reality, we’re seeing a taste for fiction that uses it as the setting. Interestingly, we’re at the point where we’re seeing a lot of home-grown police procedural crime fiction. On the one hand, cops are steadily becoming more acceptable as heroes, and on the other, readers in Spain want stories that reflect the reality of their own country, more so at a time when there are so many problems. Crime fiction is a way of trying to understand what’s going on in tough times.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

Patience. With yourself and with the process. First of all, you have to be patient with yourself: it was a shock to realise that I was never going to write a 90,000 word novel in one sitting! I’ve had to learn how to break the story down and concentrate on the bit I’m working on, then move on to the next bit and then the next bit, and keep going until I have a first draft. And you have to be patient with yourself when you have those moments where you write 2,000 words one day and delete the lot the next. You also have to learn patience with the whole process, over which you have no control. Once you send out your work, you simply have to get on with a new story. Don’t sit around waiting because everything takes a lot longer than you think it will, and you can drive yourself up the wall trying to second-guess what’s happening to your manuscript.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

For crime, I’m a great fan of the Nordic writers, especially Mons Kallentoft and Arnaldur Indridason. I love their sense of place and how that forms the character. The same holds true for my other favourites, Stuart MacBride, Val McDermid, Ian Rankin, Philip Kerr, David Downing. They all have an extraordinary ability to create a powerful protagonist and a world that’s unique to them. I also admire writers who can break down the conventions of crime, like Malcolm Pryce with his amazing stories set in an alternative Aberystwyth, and Christopher Brookmyre, who is constantly surprising.

For non-crime, I love the exquisitely layered stories of Jonathan Coe and Robertson Davies, the intense atmosphere of Milan Kundera and Michel Faber, and the off-the-wall world of Hunter S Thompson and Tom Robbins.

Give me some advice about writing…

You have to learn to kill your babies. And to save them. That beautifully-crafted piece of prose simply might not work in your story or a character you love writing might just be getting in the way, so you have to make friends with the delete button. But before that, learn to use the paste button. I save everything I cut in files in an offcuts folder and check back from time to time in case something there gives me an idea for later on. One of the characters in City of Good Death was a development of one I cut from an earlier draft but saved in the offcuts folder. A snippet of dialogue helped form the basis of another completely different scene.

What’s next for Elisenda and her team?

They’re still reeling after the events of City of Good Death and still fighting for the survival of the unit, so Elisenda is doubly annoyed at being given a cold case, which she sees as a forerunner to their being closed down. But the case, a thirty-year-old murder that echoes an ancient Iberian form of ritual execution, proves to have repercussions today. It throws up a trade in illicit antiquities, while also revealing a past practice under Franco of destroying archaeological sites if they didn’t fit in with the official history, or simply because of economic expediency in the hotel building boom of the early tourist industry. The people who benefited from that want to protect the secrets of the past.

***

City Of Good Death, published by Canelo, is available as an ebook from places like this.

The Intel: Piu Marie Eatwell

Piu Marie EatwellIf macabre Victorian litigation is your thing then you’ll be kicking yourself for forgetting to read our review of The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife And The Missing Corpse. But don’t despair, take your head out of your hands. Simply scroll down a bit, a little bit more, nearly there, to see that triumphant review. Alternatively, click here.

The Druce Portland affair was one of the most drawn-out legal sagas the Uk has ever seen, and Piu weaves an eccentric tale of tunnelling dukes, desperate widows and dirty, rotten scoundrels, spanning the Victorian and Edwardian eras. So — and you know where we’re going with this by now — Piu is here to give us the intel on the whole lurid affair.

Born in Calcutta and raised in the UK, Piu has lived in Paris for the last decade, where she found the inspiration for her first book, about the French, called They Eat Horses, Don’t They? Liu talks double lives, intensive research and slogging…

Tell us about The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife And The Missing Corpse

The Dead Duke, his Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse is a historical true-crime story. It re-tells the fantastic story of the alleged double life of the 5th Duke of Portland, a Victorian eccentric who burrowed a maze of underground passages beneath the family seat of Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire. A celebrated court case of the time alleged that the Duke had lived a double life as a businessman in Baker Street. It dragged on for ten years. Was it true?

The story has as many twists and turns as a novel —  how did you come across this Victorian cause celebre? 

I was snooping around some second-hand bookshops looking for a new story, when I came across this in a tatty, 1970s book about ‘Victorian Scandals.’ I was hooked.

What does the whole affair tell us about the Victorians and Edwardians, do you think?

It tells us a lot about the duplicity and hypocrisy of the era. The Victorians prided themselves on their strict sense of ‘morality’ and high standards of honour in public and private life: the reality, of course, was very different.

The book is packed with a delicious cast of scoundrels and chancers – which of the participants in the case really came alive for you as you researched them?

I have to admit to a secret crush on the 5th Duke of Portland. Even after all this research, I still don’t know what made him ‘tick’. Why did he dig hundreds of miles of tunnels under his estate? Was he a genius, or just plain crazy?

The Dead Duke, The Secret Wife And The Missing CorpseHow long did it take you to research the affair?

It took me about a year to research and write the book, with three visits to the Manuscripts and Special Collections Department at Nottingham University to review and make notes on the documents. Following such a long and complicated case was a huge undertaking.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

Dedication and self-motivation. Also, the sheer craft of writing. People tend to think of writing as ‘inspiration’, but actually it’s about 5% inspiration and 95% sheer slog: writing, re-writing, putting pen to paper when you’re tired, complying with deadlines, being rejected, and plodding on. I always say – when people tell me they have a ‘book in them’ – to write three, rip them up, put them in the bin, and then write another! If you can do that, you might have a chance….

Who are the authors you admire, and why? 

There are so many! I tend to be influenced by people I’m reading at any one time. At the moment I’m reading a lot of American literature as research for my next book (set in 1940s California), so I would say Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep), John Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath), and Truman Capote (In Cold Blood). All of them capture the strange ‘doubleness’ of America: on the one hand the American dream, and on the other, the American nightmare.

Give me some advice about writing…

All the points made above about craft, determination, and diligence.

What’s next for you?

I like to alternate true crime with books about France (where I live). So I’ve got a new trivia book about France coming out next Spring, and a project on the Elizabeth Short/ “Black Dahlia” murder, which took place in Los Angeles in 1947, in the pipeline.

The Intel: Tom Callaghan

Tom Callaghan

Earlier in the week we walked the charming streets of Bishkek in Tom Callaghan’s excellent debut, A Killing Winter, which features the debut of Inspector Akyl Borubaev. Callaghan’s brutal post-Soviet noir is brutal and muscular and funny. In a corrupt state full of bad eggs, Borubaev is as hardboiled as they come.

We promised you Tom Callaghan would give you the intel on Borubaev, Kyrgyzstan and his writing, and here at Crime Thriller Fella, we deliver. Born in the North of England, Callaghan is quite the gadabout. An inveterate traveller, he divides his time between London, Prague, Dubai and Bishkek. Me, I get a nose-bleed crossing postcodes.

Tell us about Akyl Borubaev.

Inspector Akyl Borubaev of the Bishkek Murder Squad in Kyrgyzstan is tough, honest and dedicated. Having recently lost his wife to breast cancer, he is in mourning, unsure that he does any good, caught in a deep depression. But the murders continue, and he has to solve them.

Where did you get the inspiration for A Winter Killing?

I’ve always loved crime fiction, hard-boiled noir for preference, and so that was always going to be the kind of book I’d write. But who needs another crime book set in NYC, or LA, or Miami? Kyrgyzstan is an unknown place, with a lot of problems – what more could a crime writer ask for? As for the plot; (whispers) I made it up.

In the novel, Kyrgyzstan is a state engulfed by gangsters, corruption and sleaze – what do you think the good citizens of Bishkek would make of it?

After two revolutions in ten years, it’s clear that the Kyrgyz will put up with a lot as long as there is food on the table, but when corruption becomes too overt, they act.

A Killing WinterWhat’s your own relationship with the country?

I was married to a Kyrgyz woman, I have a Kyrgyz son, and a home in Bishkek. It’s a country I love, for its beauty, for its culture, for its people. It’s a unique place, in an increasingly homogenised world.

It’s a very timely novel, what with many of the post-Soviet satellite countries afraid that Russia is flexing its muscles again. What do you think the future holds for Kyrgyzstan?

Now that the US air base at Manas has closed, following troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, and with Kyrgyzstan signing trade agreements with Russia over import and export tariffs, people are worried about a decline in living standards. Only time will tell. But I don’t see Putin moving eastwards.

How did the spellchecker on your computer cope with some of the more challenging, consonant-heavy names?

I ignore it: I know how to spell, to parse a sentence and the rules of grammar. Orwell’s rules are ones I live by.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

Laundry and doing dishes always seems more important when you stare at a blank screen.

How do you deal with feedback?

As a professional writer, I have no problems with other people reading what I’ve written. I like to think I’m reasonable and open-minded to fair comment. At the same time, I’ll defend my work if I think I’m right. If I can improve my work through someone else’s suggestions, I will.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

The Classics: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Jim Thompson. Murder taken out of the drawing room and put down a dark alleyway, where it belongs.

The Hard-Boiled Americans: Lawrence Block, James Lee Burke, Robert Campbell, Michael Connolly, Robert Crais, James Ellroy, Carl Hiassen, Joe R. Lansdale, Elmore Leonard, Ed McBain, George Pelecanos, Peter Spiegelman, Andrew Vachss. Crisp dialogue, more twists and turns than an electric eel, great locations.

The Bold Brits: Mark Billingham, John Connolly (alright, Irish, but I had to list him somewhere), John Harvey, Mo Hayder, Simon Kernick, Val Mcdermid, Ian Rankin, Peter Robinson. Murder doesn’t just happen in the USA, you know.

Foreign Settings: John Burdett (Thailand), Sebastian Fitzek (Germany), Stieg Larrson and Henning Mankell (Sweden), Jo Nesbo (Norway), Mike Nichol (S Africa). Because murder happens to non-English speakers as well.

What’s next for you?

The sequel, A Spring Betrayal, is with my agent and publisher, both of whom are very encouraging, and I’m plotting the third book now. Both of them feature Akyl Borubaev. A Killing Winter is already out in German, UK paperback and US publication is in the autumn, and Spanish and Portuguese editions follow next year.

Give me some advice about writing…

Don’t talk about it  –  nothing diminishes the desire to write as quickly as having told everybody the story. Read a lot. I mean a LOT. Read every day. Write every day. Ask for criticism, not praise; that’s what mirrors are for.

Follow Kingsley Amis’ advice: apply the seat of your trousers to the seat of your chair. Learn to spell and use grammar correctly; if you can’t make yourself clearly understood, how is your reader going to cope? Love one genre, but explore others; everything is an ingredient, to use or not, as you see fit.

Try not to be afraid of the blank page/screen, but don’t be over-confident either.

A Killing Winter – Tom Callaghan

A Killing WinterI think we can safely say that we’ve hit peak Soviet Detective — been there, done that, let’s move on –- but Tom Callaghan’s hugely enjoyable debut A Killing Winter puts new meat on some old bones.

His debut detective Akyl Borubeav walks the mean post-Soviet streets of Kyrgyzstan —  and the streets of Bishkek are meaner than most.

The blurb needs a snifter:

‘The Kyrgyz winter reminds us that the past is never dead, simply waiting to ambush us around the next corner’.

When Inspector Akyl Borubaev of Bishkek Murder Squad arrives at the brutal murder scene of a young woman, all evidence hints at a sadistic serial killer on the hunt for more prey.

But when the young woman’s father turns out to be a leading government minister, the pressure is on Borubaev to solve the case not only quickly but also quietly, by any means possible. Until more bodies are found…

Still in mourning after his wife’s recent death, Borubaev descends into Bishkek’s brutal underworld, a place where no-one and nothing is as it seems, where everyone is playing for the highest stakes, and where violence is the only solution.

Bishkek, as filtered through Tom Callaghan’s wicked imagination, is a brutally corrupt place where everything and everyone is going to hell in a handcart. Borubaev finds himself caught between vicious gangsters and the implacable cruelty of the toxic state apparatus, which busies itself with clinging to power. Its citizens are dropping like flies thanks to a poisonous new drug called Krokodil, which literally makes bits of you fall off.

The foul stench of corruption pervades every page of A Killing Winter — after sampling some choice Bishkek nightlife over a couple of chapters, you’ll be scratching your groin and brushing your teeth to get the fetid stench of vodka off your breath.

The melancholy and cynical inspector Borubaev, our first-person companion,  is, of course, a kind of compromised old knight in the noir style. Following the death of his beloved wife, he’s trying desperately to pull his shit together. He’s the only person trying to stay off the vodka in a society which is drowning in it, as he trudges through the snow-covered streets moving from one consonant-heavy place to another, meeting charming ladies and gentlemen. Callaghan flips a few other noir archetypes on their head in the shape of the deadly femme-fatale Saltanat and Borubaev’s amiable gangster chum Kursan.

Kyrgzstan is a terrifically compromised state, forever on the verge of the kind of revolution that inevitably puts the same people back in power, bickering with its Uzbek neighbour,  and – very topical, this – attempting to stay under the radar of the Russian and Chinese superpowers that border it. What the good citizens of Bishkek must make of Callaghan’s portrayal of their city, which is both repellent and sentimental, god only knows

If the central mystery stumbles towards the end, then the journey is still hugely enjoyable. Callaghan is a hell of a writer, with a tremendous sense of pace and an arch ear for juicy dialogue, and the pages flies by. On the basis of this novel, however, I will not be saving up my air miles.

Many thanks to Quercus for the review copy, and I’m delighted to say that Tom Callaghan gives us the intel on Borubaev, Kyrgzstan, and the business of writing, later in the week.

The Intel: Luke McCallin

Luke McCallin’s debut novel The Man From Berlin offers a unique take on the World War II conflict – moving away from the Holocaust, D-Day landings and British Home Front and turning to murderous events in Sarajevo, Bosnia.  It follows military Intelligence officer, Captain Gregor Reinhardt, as he investigates the brutal murders of a beautiful socialite and a German officer, threading a careful route through a minefield of political, military and personal agendas.

Published by No Exit, The Man From Berlin has drawn comparison with Philip Kerr, Dan Fesperman, CJ Sansom and Martin Cruz Smith. The first of a planned series about Reinhardt, it’s out now as a paperback, or ready to download to your Device from here.

Luke’s work is imbued with his experience working for the UN as a humanitarian. He’s been incredibly generous with his answers for The Intel. He talks about how Reinhardt walked into his dreams, about the evolution of The Man From Berlin, his writing process and his best-ever moment between the posts…

Luke McCallinTell us about Gregor Reinhardt…

Gregor Reinhardt is a German intelligence officer, a former Berlin detective chased out of the police by the Nazis. When you first find him in The Man From Berlin, he is haunted by what he has seen, tortured by recurring nightmares, wearing the uniform of an army he despises, and has ever fewer reasons to live.

He is a son, a soldier, a husband, a father, a friend, a policeman, a patriot… He is all of those things, and not defined by one of them more than another. He is a man formed by his times. He is a man much like any other. Sometimes strong, sometimes weak. Sometimes able to do the right thing, and sometimes too scared to. Sometimes shaped by events, sometimes able to shape them to him. Sometimes introspective to the point of paralysis, but with the intelligence to see past the veil of illusion and propaganda that has been pulled across his time, and thus perfectly aware of how his inactivity and fear make him complicit in the spiral of chaos around him.

Someone once said they would cross the road to talk to Henry V, or King Lear, but they wouldn’t cross the room to talk to Hamlet. I like to think Reinhardt’s a bit like that. He’s Hamlet. He feels his times very keenly. He feels his own inadequacies more keenly still. What I wanted to do in creating and writing Reinhardt was to find a way to look at a tempestuous and tendentious period of history, to create a character and make people think that he could be you. An ordinary man in extraordinary times, still trying to behave and believe in what makes sense, but so painfully aware of his own fears and limitations, and still knowing what is right and what is wrong. If you give someone like that an opportunity to do something, be someone, what would he do? What would you do…?

So, if you crossed that proverbial room — maybe at a reception or a cocktail party — if you got him to loosen up and talk to you, if he trusted you enough, he’d have quite a bit to say about himself, and his times. I think you would find him interesting. Somewhat taciturn, with a dry sense of humour and very self-deprecating, and I think you would find yourself opening up to him in turn.

Why do we find compromised heroes so compelling?

I suppose at its simplest, a compromised hero is someone who is not where they would otherwise want to be. As readers, we want someone to root for: someone who has something to lose. As an author, I want my character to move, and grow, but if we take ourselves as examples, our growth and development as people — as human beings — is not linear. But what works, or even doesn’t work, in life does not always work on the page. You have to come up with a character and a journey that lets you start at one point, and finish at another, and that allows you to show how the character has grown and changed.

In Reinhardt’s case, he is an officer in an army he detests, and he is a man who has allowed his fear to overcome his sense of wrong and right. He is compromised by his inaction, and by his participation — however unwilling — in the war, but however low he feels or thinks he is, there is always lower to go. He knows that, so the watchwords to Reinhardt’s character and story are probably ‘change’ and ‘consequence.’ Reinhardt’s story is a thread woven into a tapestry of a continent in upheaval. He goes through those times initially just trying to keep his head above water and survive, but he changes. It’s impossible not to. I think you have to make people interested in those changes, interested in the consequences of those changes, and you have to make people believe Reinhardt has something to bring to the table, so to say. You need to make people care about him, and to survive is not enough.

Where did the inspiration for The Man From Berlin come from?

It may sound clichéd, but Gregor Reinhardt walked into my dreams one night, and then sat quietly to one side for months and years, not saying much, not doing much, just waiting for me to find the time and the courage to start writing his story.

I was a political advisor to the United Nations mission in Bosnia when Reinhardt appeared. I worked with people from all walks of Bosnian life. With policemen and judges and lawyers, with mayors and town councilors, with priests and imams, with refugees and people still living in ruins, with war criminals and those who survived them, with those who had lived the war and those who fled from it, with women holding families together, and men who had fallen adrift of life. I began to build up a collage in my mind. I kept wondering, asking myself, what would I have done in their place, and I began weaving that human and historical tapestry, which is one of the most complex and fascinating you can imagine, into a story, and then into a book, albeit into another time, that of the Second World War, and the book had at its heart a man on the edge of despair at what his life had become, and his name was Gregor Reinhardt.

The Man From BerlinYou’ve described the city of Sarajevo as an iconic character in the book – what is it about the city that made you want to write about it?

Setting Reinhardt’s story in the Balkans was actually a late decision. The novels were originally to be set in Berlin, a city I’ve never visited and about which I know practically nothing. I spent years trying to research it, until I had something of a road to Damascus moment and Sarajevo offered itself up as a location instead.

Immediately, so many things fell into place. The story made more sense, I could say so much more about the themes I wanted to develop, and describe a city and people I have deep, deep affection for. I could entice readers with the promise of adventure in the Balkans — a part of the world known to most as a by-word for intrigue, or treachery — so it was a chance to show readers another side of that region. It was also to make readers more keenly interested in the characters. They’d have to be tough or resourceful to survive the Balkans, right?!

It was also because I think that with mysteries, time and place are almost characters in and of themselves. I spent six years working in Bosnia, and you can’t live there or in Sarajevo for long without it seeping into you. As much as it’s an overused analogy, Bosnia and Sarajevo really are historical and cultural crossroads, and are so contested. They defy any simple explanation, just like the finest puzzle or book or question. No matter the need to reduce and simplify them, there’s no one way to read or play them, and a place and time like that gives you so many options as an author: for drama, action, reflection; for asking big questions and trying out the answers to them.

What’s next for Reinhardt?

My original conception of Reinhardt’s stories was an initial set of three stories, a trilogy, each novel focusing on a particular theme (and I’m pretty sure my (un)conscious choice of a trilogy was influenced by all the fantasy novels I read!) The Man From Berlin was about redemption. The Pale House was about resistance. The third novel, which I’m writing now, will be about reconciliation. That novel will complete the initial Reinhardt trilogy. The fourth novel will be set in Reinhardt’s past, during the First World War, and will tell the story of an investigation in the trenches. I’ve always wanted to write a WWI novel, and I think Reinhardt will let me say some of the things I’ve always wanted to say about it.

I know there are at least half a dozen stories, including the two I’ve written so far, that contain specific things I want to say about Reinhardt the character, and his times and places. Places are very important to me. Like I said, they’re characters in their own right. That comes from my background, growing up in Africa, and my work with the UN. I’m fascinated by places, what they can do to you… I’ve ideas for novels in pre-WWII Paris, in Marseille, in Berlin, and even an idea for a Reinhardt novel in Panama!

You’ve traveled widely in your life – how do you think that has influenced your writing?

More than the travelling, it’s living and working in many places. I was born in Oxford to parents that had a humanitarian vocation. We moved to Africa when I was five. My father worked for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and my mother did work with child soldiers. That upbringing was inspirational, and engendered in me a desire to do something similar. I’ve worked for a range of UN organisations around the world, and now work for the UN based in Geneva. All the places I’ve lived and worked — in Africa, in Russia, in Haiti, in Pakistan, in the Balkans, especially — taught me something, or I saw something, or felt something. About what happens to people — ordinary people — put in extraordinary situations.

I’ve seen a lot of human suffering and violence, but also a lot of human dignity and kindness, and we can too easily forget about the latter when faced with the former. I feel compelled — inspired, if you like — to give voice to those impressions, feelings and observations. That’s not to say my writing’s about those places, although my first two books were set in WWII Sarajevo, but those experiences taught me a lot about how people can act in such situations. There is so much dignity and so much anguish in the human situation when confronted with war or natural disaster. No one really asks to become a war criminal, or to get conscripted, or deny other humans their basic human rights, or to try and raise a family in a refugee camp, but it happens. And at the same time, as we see right now in Ukraine, it does not take much for people to move so far so fast from the paths their lives were taking: for postmen, for bakers, for bank clerks, for miners to become gunmen, to become warlords, for them to turn on their neighbours of decades and believe the worst of them, to expect the worse of them, and so to mete out the worst before it befalls them.

What does it take for a man to turn on his neighbour? What does it take for another man to stand up for someone? Trying to understand the human motivations or conditions in all that, that’s what inspires me to write. I’ve found that no amount of work that we, as humanitarian workers, can ever really do will suffice to overcome those impulses. You are always going to be frustrated in what you achieve, to only get halfway to where you want to be, and often — far too often — the guilty get away with it. I think with my writing I’m trying to find some way of coming to terms with that. I don’t write about white knights on white horses — Gregor Reinhardt is certainly not one of those — but I try to ask those questions that seem to haunt me, and I try to find answers, and a sense of closure.

Take us through a typical writing day for you?

If only I had one! I have a full time job and a family so my writing time often ends up being done in the dogwatches. Curtailed, as Dr Maturin said in one of the O’Brien books! I try to do a bit each day, if only an hour, and it’s mostly in the evenings, but I recently started a new job with a lot more responsibilities. I’m finishing each day a lot more mentally fatigued than I used to, so the energy to write is not quite there even if the time is.

I get quite a bit done at weekends, usually when I’ve set up all the props. That would be black tea, by the litre, and some music! I like quiet, but only relative. I work to music a lot. I have a particular soft spot for West African music, especially music from Mali. I used to work in Mali and it’s a musical goldmine, a gift that keeps on giving!

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

Harper Lee, Erich Maria Remarque, Vasily Grossman, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Isaac Babel were great influences who found and rendered the human amidst tumultuous backdrops. Cormac McCarthy and Peter Mathiessen are extraordinary modern American writers, with the first volume in the latter’s Shadow Country trilogy a master class in story-telling from multiple viewpoints, replete with ambiguity and with the ‘truth’ held tantalisingly just out of reach, just like real life. Mathiessen is also a writer who exposes the truth of a place, and I admire the way he is able to show many of the realities beneath the American dream, and put in perspective — and to sometimes hold dearer as a result — all that has been built in that country.

I admire Sebastian Barry for the lyricism of his writing, such that I’m sure he has to be the reincarnation of an Irish bard! Rosemary Sutcliffe’s books (she always said she wrote for children aged eight to eighty!) about Roman Britain were magical, almost fairy tales, and her descriptions of Britain’s beauty and wildness were and are inspiring. Hilary Mantel, Patrick O’Brien and Alexander Fullerton I love for the sheer depth of their historical research and, particularly for O’Brien, the sheer beauty of his writing and the creation, in Aubrey and Maturin, of one of the best fictional double-acts ever.

Growing up, it was science fiction and fantasy I read most. Tolkien, CS Lewis, and Stephen Donaldson, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, then Neal Stephenson, William Gibson, Scott Lynch and R. Scott Bakker. I love all the world-building that goes into science fiction and fantasy, the intricacy of it. As much as I read a lot of history and current affairs, I don’t have a particular favourite writer of it — I tend to focus on periods or themes, more than authors — but AJP Taylor was, and remains, immensely readable. Joe Sacco’s graphic novels about Palestine, Goražde, and WWI are works of art as well as works of political analysis and conscience. Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel changed the way I look at the world, as did Mike Hulme’s Why We Disagree About Climate Change. Hew Strachan’s work on the First World War is magisterial. The Washing of the Spears and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee are classics that look at different instances of the imperial experience. The Isles is the single best book I know about Britain.

I’m reading a lot of crime, espionage and mystery, partly to familiarise myself as this was never the genre I thought I would write in! There are the giants like Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy, Len Deighton and John Le Carré. Then the contemporary authors I’ve discovered are Philip Kerr (of course!), William Ryan, Alan Furst, and David Downing. Seeing as I’m fascinated by what places and times can do to you, I especially like James McClure’s Kramer and Zondi series about a pair of detectives in apartheid South Africa.

Give me some advice about writing…

There’s a suitably acerbic anecdote from Ernest Hemingway that fits this question. Once asked what the best training for an aspiring writer would be, he replied: “Let’s say that he should go out and hang himself because he finds that writing well is impossibly difficult. Then he should be cut down without mercy and forced by his own self to write as well as he can for the rest of his life. At least he will have the story of the hanging to commence with.

Write, and don’t be afraid to write badly, or with difficulty because, as someone once told me, there are no good writers, there are only good re-writers. Just write. Don’t wait for the perfect idea, or the most ingenious plot. Don’t be afraid to show what you’ve done, and show it widely. Writing is a lonely business, so it’s important that you as a writer get out and about, and that you show your work to people, as many people as you can. You want criticism, and you want that exposure of yourself and your work. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. There are all kinds of resources out there: workshops, writers’ groups, online courses and coaches, some of them right in your neighbourhood. Make friends with writers so that you have a community. I benefitted enormously from an online coach, who taught a great course on plot development.

What else…? Read outside your genre and comfort zone, and read widely and voraciously because you’ll never know what you might find, and where you’ll find it. Observe what’s going on around you. When you’re out and about, watch people. Watch them having conversations, watch them walking down the street, eating, laughing. Watch the sky, watch the play of light on water or glass, watch the street’s reflection wash over the yellow chassis of a New York taxi. Watch how water flows, what it flows around, how it flows around.

Take time to plan, but remember there’s a fine line between planning, and planning as prevarication. I used to just dive in and write, but what I’d end up with were lots of disconnected scenes and ideas. Sometimes I’d be able to join them up, often not. Planning — research, plotting, a synopsis, knowing the ending before you begin — can really help.

You play in goal for the UN football team – what’s the best save you ever made?

What a great question! There are so many great saves I made (tongue firmly in cheek), how to chose one… Well, there was one I’m particularly proud of because it was, I think, a sort of amalgam of all the goalkeeper’s arts — anticipation, observation, positioning, technique, reflexes and a spot of bravery. We were playing in a semi-final, and we needed a win. About five minutes from the end, we were leading 3-2, and the other teams two forwards made a clean break through into our half. There were no defenders with them, just me. The striker with the ball had already scored twice, so he was on a hat trick. I figured he’d want that third goal for himself more than for the team, so I made it ‘easy’ for him, and gave him plenty of space away from the other striker, who was screaming for the ball. Sure enough, the one with the ball tried to go round me, but I managed to close him down and went down at his feet, got a hand to the ball and knocked it away, and then got up for the rebound and saved that one too!