Monday, 24 March 2014

Declan Burke on being phoney

Declan Burke is the Irish author of the Harry Rigby series.  The latest book in the series
being Slaughter’s Hound, which was shortlisted in the Ireland AM Crime Fiction Category for the Irish Book Awards 2012.  The first book in the Harry Rigby series is Eightball Boogie (2003) which was also shortlisted in the Crime Fiction category at the Irish Book Awards, 2003.  The Big O (2008) was shortlisted for the Goldsboro ‘Last Laugh’ Award in 2009.  His novel Absolute Zero Cool won the Goldsboro ‘Last Laugh’ Award at Crimefest, 2012.  It was also shortlisted for the Crime Fiction category at the Irish Book Awards, 2011.  In 2011, he edited Down These Green Streets, a collection of essays, memoir and short stories written by Irish crime writers about the current wave of Irish crime writing.  With John Connolly, Declan Burke is the co-editor of Books To Die For (2012), a collection of essays on the greatest crime and mystery novels written by the greatest living crime and mystery authors.  Declan Burke is also a freelance journalist and critic.  He has written and continues to write and broadcast on books and film for a variety of media outlets, including the Irish Times, RTE, the Irish Examiner and the Sunday Independent.  
Am I the only person who immediately thinks of Holden Caulfield every time – and that’s every time – I hear the word ‘phoney’?
            I doubt it.
The Catcher in the Rye seems to have fallen out of favour with the cognoscenti these days, so I guess I can only give thanks that I read it long before I understood that you were only supposed to like books the cool people liked. And maybe, okay, if was to read again now, it mightn’t have the same impact. At the time, though, I was absolutely blown away by Holden Caulfield – the way he dropped in “all that David Copperfield crap” in the very first sentence spoke absolute volumes about who and what he was.
            ‘Spoke’ being the mot juste. Because The Catcher in the Rye was, at the time, easily the most compelling voice I’d ever heard in books. I was in my late teens, and a voracious reader, but until then I’d pretty much always read for story. Now, here was a story that was utterly compelling not for what was happening but for how it was told.
The next time I can remember being gripped that way was the first time I read The Big Sleep. When Marlowe told me that he was “neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it”, I keeled over right onto my fainting couch.
            What a voice. Not only that, but there was a hell of a lot going on, too. All writers are readers first and foremost, readers so deranged by what they read that the only way to cure the fever – temporarily, and on a daily basis – is to write it out of their system. The Big Sleep was the book that so deranged me that I finally sat down and started typing. The result, eventually, was Eightball Boogie (2003), a Chandleresque homage (koff) set in contemporary Ireland, but I honestly believe that if Raymond Chandler had written romances in that voice, or science fiction, then I would today be trying to write romances, or science fiction.
            The same principle applies to Elmore Leonard, who heavily influenced The Big O (2007) and my new book, Crime Always Pays. The first Leonard I ever read was Freaky Deaky, which may not be his finest moment but certainly danced rings around anything else I was reading at the time, mainly because it all seemed so deceptively, casually conversational. “Chris Mankowski’s last day on the job, two in the afternoon, two hours to go, he got a call to dispose of a bomb.” Boom! And we’re off …
Leonard, of course, wrote westerns before he turned to writing crime, so had I read an early rather than a mid-career Leonard, The Big O and Crime Always Pays could just as easily have been westerns (or romance and / or science fiction). 
Of course, it’s not just about the voice. As with The Big Sleep, and Chandler’s novels in general, Freaky Deaky – and all Elmore Leonard’s novels – combined a masterful voice with a hell of a lot going on, story-wise.
If you’re an aspiring writer, that’s really all the advice you need. ‘A masterful voice with a hell of a lot going on, story-wise.’ It really is as simple, and almost impossible to achieve, as that.

Declan Burke’s Crime Always Pays is published by Severn House. He blogs at Crime Always Pays.

No comments: