I’ve recently had the opportunity to read the debut novel from a new Irish-Australian author by the name of Dervla McTiernan. She’s from County Cork originally, but she’s a West Australian nowadays and has produced her first book. The Ruin is set in Galway and sits nicely in the noir crime genre.
It’s a great read! Entitled The Ruin, we see a Dublin city detective Cormac Reilly returning to his rural home town to take up a post in the local Galway Gardaí. He’s got some emotional baggage (of course, this is noir crime!) and is drawn back into a case from when he was first on the force – the death of an alcoholic drug addicted mother, and the institutionalisation of her two young children. It shifts to 2013 and the now-adult son has been found dead in the city river, but there are suspicions around what exactly happened. His sister (who has been working in the Australian outback) has returned to Ireland and slowly builds a case that the gardai refuse to engage with. With the help of her brother’s recently pregnant girlfriend and Detective Reilly searching from the other end of the investigation, they seek the truth, uncovering scandal, corruption, and small town parochial mindsets.
McTiernan writes with good pace, interesting character development, and a very strong sense of place – you may find yourself shivering as she describes the sideways sleeting of winter Galway! It’s a good blend between a police procedural and a whodunnit, all the ingredients are there, and she delivers a good read.
The Rúin sees a new addition to the noir crime genre, a genre that is ever-expanding and increasing in its quality as it incorporates new cultures and inspirations. It contains all the ingredients for good crime fiction; an unsteady detective, darkness and winter, a who-can-you-trust sense of uncertainty, and an intricate plot of twists and turns – everyone is under suspicion! And it got me thinking about countries outside of Scandinavia who are producing quality noir crime literature. We know the depth of Scandi Crime and there seems to be an endless source of sinister criminal imagination coming out of that region, but what about the rest of the world?
So if you like books like the ones listed, there’s a big chance you’ll like this new author and will soon be awaiting her next… and her next… and her next book!
There’s Scotland’s Ian Rankin; his Rebus novels have grown to unimaginable heights for crime fiction. They’re dark and disturbed, and feature a flawed detective barely holding on to his own sense of worth. A twisting plot line and some harrowing criminal acts
Australia has the recently deceased Peter Temple; The Jack Irish books (and films!) are first class crime fiction, offering a look at the dark underbelly of Melbourne, Australia. His use of language in particular make his characters very deep and believable, and his plots are twisting and his characters are never quite out of danger – exciting and full of regional levity. As the blurb says; “Melbourne in winter. Rain. Wind. Pubs. Beer. Sex. Corruption. Murder.” What’s not to love about that sentence!?
How about our own Paul Cleave? Who knew Christchurch could be such a hotbed for underworld sinister occurrences! His police procedural novels featuring detective Theodore Tate are gripping, dark, and give the reader a look into the fictionalised seedy side of Christchurch, New Zealand. He has written other stand-alone novels too and continues to produce dark and sinister stories to revel in from the comfort of your armchair.
There’s plenty of dark mystery set in and around our own region and for a first book The Ruin is a solid start, and should create a great foundation for the author to build on. I’m looking forward to more from her! Give it a go…
by Dervla McTiernan
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
The Woman in the Window is a stone cold blockbuster. Even Mr Sir Stephen King has been singing its praises. In Library Land, holds/reserves are a good indicator of how popular a book is. 164 people are waiting to read the book, and 27 are waiting for the eBook. That is POPULAR.
I don’t read many thrillers or crime books, but this had me glued to the couch with nowt but copious cups of teas and Easter eggs to sustain me. Here are five things that make it cool.
It is Classic Noir
The story of The Woman in the Window is classic film noir. Anna is a child psychologist suffering from agoraphobia, and she takes photos of her neighbours and noseys at them. So far, so Hitchcock. But it isn’t just the premise that is noir-ish. Old movies are part of the story, and Anna is often watching one, remembering previous viewings, or encouraging other people to enjoy them.
A recent thread on Twitter asked women to ‘Describe yourself like a male author would’. I doubt you will see A.J. Finn quoted in this thread, because he has managed that rare thing – made a convincing female lead character. Anna Fox is a compelling, nuanced character. You don’t hear much about her looks, because women don’t tend to go around thinking about how big their boobs are, or lustrous their locks. Oh, and she is a woman. Not a girl.
Anna Fox’s world is a lonely one. She is stuck in her apartment, dosed up on medication, and drinks a lot of wine. This creates a sense of woozy uncertainty which plays with your mind, like it does with Anna’s.
So many. So good. This is the Nürburgring of thrillers! More twists than you find in a pack of Twisties!
More twisty than a pack of Twisties! Sat on the couch and read The Woman in the Window by A. J. Finn in one sitting. Could. Not. Stop. pic.twitter.com/uuDoSdsotS
It’s always a sad day when you hear of the death of someone whose work you have appreciated over the years. For me, this time, it’s Peter Temple; Australian crime author who died from cancer at his home in Ballarat on the 8th of March, 2018 at the age of 71.
Peter Temple was born in South Africa but immigrated in 1977 due to his anti-apartheid political stance. He moved to Germany at first and then two years later he arrived in Australia and began on his journey to becoming one of Australia’s great writers – and it was lucky for Australia!
He’s most famous for his books featuring Jack Irish; the loveable, roguish lawyer/drinker/debt-collector who likes a flutter on the nags and to prop up the bar at his local Fitzroy watering hole. The character of Jack Irish and the excellent use of language to convey the very matter-of-fact communications of the Australian working class male made these books a tremendous success and highly influential in the Australian crime writing genre. The books are entwined with plot twists and intrigue, corruption and politics, are very well paced, and perfectly capture the social nuances of Australian life. As do the television series that they have been turned into, featuring a who’s who of Australian acting and Guy Pearce as the main man Jack Irish. The producers really nailed the casting, the style, feel, and sense of place and the books really were celebrated in this particular telly treatment!
Peter Temple’s other books also saw critical acclaim. In 2010 he landed Australia’s most prestigious literary award, the Miles Franklin Award, for his novel Truth – sequel to The Broken Shore. For a crime writer to win the Miles Franklin was quite a coup and his acceptance speech was trademark self-deprecation and wry humour, inviting the judging panel to “…take the flack for giving the Miles Franklin to a crime writer”. His third book in this new series has not been presented to his editor as yet, but perhaps sometime on the future another Australian literary great will take the final steps and finish the story and we will see the results. Possibly a posthumous award to go with his Miles Franklin, his five Ned Kelly Awards, and his Duncan Lawrie Dagger!?
For now I suggest we kick back, appreciate the fact that our region has produced another great writer, and for fans I suggest a nostalgic re-read.
Or if you’ve never tried his books before, get stuck in, mate!
Well the new year is underway and it’s another year of excellent reading ahead!
But if you’re struggling to get back into the rhythm of reading, or if the idea of a thick tome after weeks of recreation has you daunted, then I’ve got an idea for you; why not try a novella or two!?
A novella is a mid-length story that fits somewhere between a short story and a full blown novel. Many great authors have produced great works through this medium (some of them feature in this list!) and it’s a format worth celebrating, so here’s a list of stories in…
Not quite a novel but longer than a short story; here’s a list of great reads in the shorter form of a novella and ranging from all over the world, across many genres and eras. There’s some big names (authors) in this list and a great way to read some classics without committing to a hefty tome! From Voltaire and Kafka, to Jack London and John Gardner – there’s something here for all tastes and all easily knocked over in one or two sessions.
The Daylight Gate – A dark and violent story of witchcraft, witch-hunting, and human frailty. A stunning read by a great writer! It’s 165 pages will transport you back to the brutal times in 1600’s Lancashire
The Forensic Records Society – A group of men decide to create a society for the forensic appreciation of 7″ vinyl records, each taking turns to share their chosen song in silence. That is until a newcomer has different ideas as to how the society should work – are the originals open to change!?! Very humourous and insightful book by one of my new favourite authors. 182 pages.
McGlue – A sailor with the mother of all hangovers tries to reassemble the happenings of the previous night. He’s now locked up and on a murder charge so things must’ve gotten out of hand. Amazingly dark and vivid descriptive writing from a Man Booker Prize shortlisted author. Just over 100 pages for this character to grasp some metaphoric life-raft of decency.
The Old Man and the Sea – The classic and one of my all time favourite books. If you haven’t read this yet then do so now, it’s beautifully written and explores ideas of humanity, life, death, and more – all in under 130 pages!
Hunger – Published in the 1890s, this is about the abject poverty and desperation in he life of a young writer struggling to stay alive in the freezing streets of Oslo. Absolutely stunning writing and descriptive writing and a hidden classic that should be held in much higher regard than it is! This one’s a bit bigger at 232 pages, but well worth the extra time.
The Subterraneans – A group of young wasters in NYC drift about doing not much else except try to find themselves and discover who they are. He’s a good writer and this is one of his best imho. Only 110 pages but crammed with quality.
Fifteen Dogs – The Greek Gods are a troublesome lot and two of their order have a bet about the nature of “intelligence”, so they bestow self-realisation upon fifteen dogs due to be destroyed. What happens after is shocking, funny, violent, heart-wrenching, and amazing. Great book at 170 or so pages.
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward – Classic horror right here with a young man drawn to the dark arts of witchcraft in Rhode Island. His dabbles with Hell become increasingly dangerous and with he himself becoming more deranged by the day. What’s going on behind his closed door at night and what are those strange lights…?!?! 127 pages will leave you freaked by the evil that men do!
Grendel – The Beowulf Tale but told from the perpective of the monster… but what if you had a deeper understanding of Grendel, about his feelings, his motivations – is he still so monstrous or are the monsters elsewhere!?!? This is an outstanding book beautifully written. So much in it for only 123 pages!
The Peculiar Life of A Lonely Postman – A curious tale of a postman who develops a love of haiku, and starts a poetic dialogue with a stranger that gets deeper and deeper. Maybe a case of mail fraud and stalking but delivered in such a light hearted and charming approach and only 119 pages.
The Call of the Wild – A classic novella with the hardy Buck as our hero. A timeless and ageless adventure and survival story. It’s about love, loss, power and control, and the will to endure hardship through sheer inner strength. An amazing 79 page story for all ages.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – A harrowing yet beautiful look at 24hrs of life in a Stalinist Russian prison and labour camp. Our central character strives hard to maintain dignity in the face of inhumanity. Seemingly ordinary objects take on great significance in the quest for one’s own survival. A bleak and hard hitting read and a cult classic. 142 pages of grim determination.
Animal Farm – Another book that everyone should read. It’s very famous story of farm animals in revolt against their perceived oppressors is nowadays part of our very culture. If you’ve not read these 104 pages then do so now!
Metamorphosis and Other Stories – A man awakes to find himself transformed…. into a bug, and his (and his family’s) attempt to adjust to his new form. It’s about identity, social isolation, alienation, and loads of other heavy allegory that you don’t need to be aware of when getting into the 64 pages of weirdness and exposure!
The Death of Ivan Ilyich – Explore the stages of grief with Ivan Ilych, who has just been diagnosed with an incurable illness that will soon see the end of him. He and his family travel the rocky roads of denial, anger, and finally acceptance over the course of the 114 pages. A great work by a great writer.
The Time Machine – H.G. Wells is a giant in the world of fantastical sci-fi, and The Time Machine is arguably his greatest work. An eccentric inventor loses his beloved and seeks to travel through time to save her, but what he finds throughout the depth and breadth of human history is shocking, disturbing and thoroughtly inhuman. A brilliant piece of work in 118 pages.
The Third Man – Rollo is a writer. He writes cheap paperbacks. When his friend, Mr Lime, invites him to Vienna he jumps at the chance for an interesting journey. But Mr Lime has been killed before Rollo arrives and Rollo finds himself embroiled in a post-war Vienna noir thriller. A good suspenseful novella of 195 pages.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Other Stories – Another classic horror story that is so familiar to us nowadays, but if you’ve never read the book then you only know half the story! With lines like; ““I slept after the prostration of the day, with a stringent and profound slumber which not even the nightmares that wrung me could avail to break.” – how could you not love every word in its 110 pages…!?
The Outsider – A story in two parts; the first follows a young man on the fringes of identity with no aims or plans, when an incident occurs. The second part is the resulting consequences of that incident. French author Albert Camus is the king of the novella and this one is a beaut place to start if you’re new to his writing. 126 pages of thought provoking text.
Candide, Or, The Optimist – Candide is a well balanced young man who has been raised to see the best in the world, until he becomes embroiled with a local girl and is ousted from his wealthy family home. What happens next is a road trip like no other with adventurous deeds and arduous ordeals. A brilliant story in 135 pages.
Slaughterhouse-five – Butchery in the service of authority is the theme of this classic novella. It’s post-war absurdity, humour, and tragedy, and quite brutal – a great read in 185 pages!
Craig Sisterson is a writer and reviewer, and a fan of great crime writing. He’s the force behind the Ngaio Marsh Awards celebrating New Zealand crime writing, starting the Awards in 2010 and now serving as the judging convenor for the prizes.
Read our interview with Craig where he talks Kiwi crime, #yeahnoir, the Ngaio Marsh Awards, and libraries.
This year, you can join in as Scorpio Books and WORD Christchurch present The Great Lit Quiz & Ngaio Marsh Awards! To celebrate NZ Bookshop Day, put together a team of book enthusiasts for a quiz of crime novels and other genres! All tickets gain entry to the invitation-only Ngaio Marsh Awards cocktail party, where the winners will be announced. Hosted by crime writers Paul Cleave and Vanda Symon.
The Bone Line wine and nibbles provided. Saturday, 28 October, 5.30pm Ngaio Marsh Awards; 7pm Great Lit Quiz
$80 per table (up to 5 players) by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
How did the idea for the Ngaio Marsh Awards come to you?
It was a culmination of a lot of little things. I’d started reading a lot while backpacking through Latin America for six months, picking up dozens of novels from hostel book exchanges and the like to pass the time on 24-hour bus rides in Argentina and Chile. The hostels tended to have plenty of ‘popular fiction’ (crime, romance, sci-fi, action thrillers etc), and I gravitated towards the crime novels, having loved mystery tales since I was a kid devouring The Hardy Boys adventures when I was at Richmond Primary School in Nelson.
Then when I was in Canada I went along to an Arthur Ellis Awards event at the Vancouver Public Library (a crime author panel where the finalists for their national crime writing awards were also announced). I met some really cool Canadian crime writers, including the great William Deverell, and had a really good chat with him afterwards about recognising and celebrating quality writing, and how the crime genre was much deeper nowadays than the stereotype of old-fashioned mysteries, potboilers, and airport thrillers.
As an aside, I spoke with the Canadians about the state of New Zealand crime writing (they were curious), and even lamented that other than Dame Ngaio and Paul Thomas’s series, and one-offs from the likes of Simon Snow, Nigel Latta, and Michael Laws, we didn’t seem to have as many crime writers as you’d expect for a country that has some really great writers (Oscar-nominated screenwriters, Man Booker listees, fabulous children’s authors, great longform journalists, etc). Or at least we didn’t have many ongoing series or crime writers putting out multiple books. It’s embarrassing to look back on that discussion now, because NZ does have a greater crime writing history than I knew about at that time, but perhaps the fact I was a keen reader who still wasn’t aware of that was telling too?
When I returned to New Zealand in October 2008, I popped into the Papatoetoe Library my first weekend to keep feeding my reading habit. By chance, a couple of crime novels on the recently returned shelf caught my eye. I picked them up, was taken by the backcover blurbs, and was surprised to read they were set in New Zealand: Cemetery Lake by Paul Cleave and The Ringmaster by Vanda Symon. Not only were they modern NZ crime novels, but each was from an author who’d published more than one novel!
I read them both that weekend, before I started my new job at a legal magazine (I was a lawyer before my overseas adventures). Both were terrific, really top quality stuff. Great characters and writing, coupled with page-turning action and suspense. And both books were as good if not better than many of big-name international bestsellers I’d been reading on my Latin American journey.
So my thoughts about the state of NZ crime writing began to shift. Then my new boss asked if I’d read any good books lately, as a review for our magazine hadn’t come in before deadline. So I wrote reviews of Cleave and Symon’s books, and took off from there. Soon afterwards I was reviewing crime fiction for Australian magazine Good Reading, as well as some other publications. I reviewed a few dozen crime novels for them over the next year, including Kiwi authors like Cleave, Symon, Lindy Kelly, Neil Cross, and Paddy Richardson. The Kiwi crime novels stood up really well against the well-known international stuff, and I started thinking ‘why aren’t we talking about our crime writers more?’ On top of that, I realised that while Canada, Australia, the UK, the USA, and many other countries had crime writing awards, New Zealand didn’t. Our popular fiction writers were unlikely to be listed for the NZ Book Awards, but at least our romance, sci-fi and fantasy authors had their own associations and awards. So did our children’s authors.
Our crime writers did not. That kept niggling at me the more reviews and features I wrote about the genre, and when I raised the possibility of a New Zealand crime writing award with authors, publishers, reviewers, and others in the book industry, pretty much everyone thought it was a great idea in principle. There was a gap between principle and putting it into practice though. And in the end I just got to the ‘ah bugger it, I’ll just start them myself then’ stage. By then I had lots of contacts in New Zealand and overseas, and called on various people for advice. Crime Writers Canada and the Australian Crime Writers Association were very generous and shared with me how their awards started, evolved, and were run. I cherry-picked various things to create our own awards.
How hard was it to set up a literary prize?
How long is a piece of string?, as my mother would say. It’s really hard to answer your question. Looking back it all seemed to go quite smoothly, though that could be my rose-tinted glasses! At the time there were plenty of bumps in the road, for sure, but we just rolled with the punches, adapted, and kept on going (how many cliches can I fit in a paragraph?). We were creating something new, so there was no blueprint (other than advice from overseas peers), so if something wasn’t working or went wrong, I just changed it.
My core concern was to make sure that the awards had a good level of credibility, even if we weren’t offering the winner a big amount of prize money. I just really wanted the awards to be sustainable, not a one-off, and to have some ‘heft’, for want of a better term.
That was achieved (I think) thanks to the really top-notch judges we’ve had from the beginning, and the support of WORD Christchurch. We have a large judging panel for the Best Crime Novel prize; seven judges from New Zealand and overseas. All are crime fiction experts, so we had people who were connoisseurs of the genre and read an awful lot, weighing up the quality of our local crime tales. In the first years we had the likes of legendary British reviewer Mike Ripley (who was the Daily Telegraph’s crime reviewer for 17 years), Vice President of Crime Writers Canada Lou Allin, and doyen of the Kiwi books scene Graham Beattie on the panel.
More recently Janet Rudolph (editor of Mystery Readers International), J Kingston Pierce of Kirkus reviews, top Australian crime reviewer Karen Chisholm, and award-winning Icelandic crime writer Yrsa Sigurdardottir have served on the judging panel.
These people may not be household names, but they are extremely highly regarded within the global crime writing world, and their involvement has given the Ngaios a lot of credibility on the global stage. They read a massive amount of crime fiction, from the biggest names to new authors and many in between, and when they say our Kiwi authors are world class, that carries a lot of weight.
The other main pillar of the Ngaios from the beginning was the involvement of what is now WORD Christchurch. I wanted a cool event for our first ever Ngaio Marsh Awards presentation in 2010, and Ruth Todd and Morrin Rout of the Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival really came to the party. They were so supportive, and planned a terrific event for the Saturday night of their festival, which even included the Court Jesters doing an improv murder mystery, before the inaugural winner would be announced. The festival also put up some prize money for the winner (adding to the handcrafted trophy created by sculptor Gina Ferguson and selection of Ngaio Marsh books donated by HarperCollins, Dame Ngaio’s publisher). As Dame Ngaio was a Cantabrian herself, it was a perfect fit.
Then the September earthquakes struck, the festival was cancelled, and our event postponed. Not the greatest start! But Ruth and Morrin continued to be so supportive, even as they were dealing with all the property damage and other concerns. We had offers from other festivals to hold an event in other cities, but stuck with Christchurch. We had a cool one-off event in a temporary venue that November, where the pseudonymous Alix Bosco won the inaugural prize for Cut and Run (fittingly, an author whose identity was then a mystery won our first-ever Kiwi mystery writing prize).
I get a lot of credit for starting the awards, but in truth there have been so many people involved, and it is the mana of those people that have made the awards what it is. Along with our authors, judges, and the libraries who’ve come on board with our Murder in the Library series that started in 2015, I’d like to give a nod to Marianne Hargreaves and Rachael King of WORD Christchurch, who’ve done amazing things and had to deal with me flitting about all over the world and not being the easiest to work with. Because of all those great people it hasn’t seemed all that difficult to set up and run a literary prize, even if there have been difficult moments.
What is it about Aotearoa that make us bat above our weight in the crime writing stakes?
Hmm… I think we have some great writers, across all different styles of storytelling. So our talented crime writers are just part of that wider group of great authors. (Seriously, whatever type of stories take your fancy, you can find great Kiwi books; compelling, page-turning, thought-provoking tales. Give some of our authors a go, whatever genre you love.)
In terms of crime writing in particular, I think our Kiwi authors often have a willingness to push the boundaries of the genre. Check out Adam Christopher‘s Ray Electromatic series that’s pure 1960s LA noir, just with a robot detective, or some of our literary-crime crossovers like Tanya Moir’s The Legend of Winstone Blackhat and Fiona Sussman’s The last time we spoke, or Paul Cleave’s latest A killer harvest which you’d call magic realism if he was a literary author. And that’s just a few examples.
Our authors certainly don’t feel constrained by the traditional tropes of the crime genre. Many of our Kiwi crime novels also have a great, subversive sense of humour, even the tales that are dark and serious. Many of our authors also have a good touch for landscapes, whether countryside or urban. But in the end, even if many people think of crime fiction as being primarily plot-focused, the best crime fiction often comes down to character – and our Kiwi authors have created some really terrific crime characters!
Can you suggest 3 titles that epitomise #yeahnoir for readers who haven’t tried Kiwi crime?
Instead, I’m going to choose three other books that are really great, and very ‘Kiwi’ crime reads:
Bound Vanda Symon: the fourth tale in a really terrific series starring young Dunedin detective Sam Shephard. A successful businessman is murdered during a brutal home invasion, with his wife tied up and left to watch. Sam’s colleagues zero in on two local crims who’ve been on the police hit list for a while, but she’s not sure it’s so cut-and-dried. Sam is a terrific crime character, and the whole series is great, but I particularly like this instalment. Vanda Symon has a nice balance of plot, character, and setting, creating a page-turner with plenty of character depth. Sam has that maverick, trouble-with-superiors essence of crime fiction top cops like Harry Bosch (Michael Connelly) and John Rebus (Ian Rankin), but as a younger woman she layers in plenty of freshness too. There’s a great sense of humour in these books, and Sam is a fierce southern lass who’s her own woman.
Hunting Blind Paddy Richardson: like her fellow southern crime queen, Richardson has written several really terrific crime novels, but unlike Symon she has focused on standalones rather than series books. Hunting Blind is a great place to start, a chilling thriller which centres on Stephanie, a psychiatrist whose sister vanished from a lakeside picnic seventeen years ago, fracturing the family and community. Then a new patient tells an eerily similar story, causing Stephanie to reexamine her sister’s disappearance, and sending her on a dangerous and emotional journey around the South Island, searching for long-hidden answers. This is a really terrific novel that was a Ngaio’s finalist in 2011 and really wowed our international panel. Richardson is a master at crafting layered characters who resonate with the reader, and delivers a terrific flavour of the south.
The Sound of her voice Nathan Blackwell: a superb tale from a new author who’s recently joined the #yeahnoir ranks (the Twitter hashtag for NZ crime fiction created by Steph Soper of the NZ Book Council). Blackwell is the pseudonym for a former Auckland detective who was involved in covert operations and investigated very serious real-life crimes. Whoever he is, he’s certainly hit the ground running in the crime fiction world, with a belter of a debut. Detective Matt Buchanan is burnt out, worn down by a succession of tough cases, and haunted by the unsolved disappearance of a young girl years before. Some fresh leads give him hope, but also threaten to draw him across lines that shouldn’t be crossed. Blackwell showcases the courage of Kiwi crime writers in tackling tough issues, giving readers a dark, authentic insight into the stresses the police face.
What do you think about libraries?
In short, libraries are bloody awesome!
I was a sports-loving kid growing up in Nelson, but I also loved spending time in my school and local public library. I discovered so many wonderful authors and books thanks to the librarians, and they cemented my lifelong love of reading. Libraries are so vital to communities, providing information and entertainment, cultivating learning, bringing people together. They’re egalitarian and democratic, opening up doors for anyone regardless of your background or means. Yeah, I think they’re pretty cool.
More about Craig, Ngaio Marsh, and the Ngaio Marsh Awards
Ian Rankin was born in Fife. I was born in Fife. Ian Rankin studied at Edinburgh University. I studied at Edinburgh University. Ian Rankin writes successful, suspenseful and gritty crime fiction. Nope, nothing. But I am most affirmatively a mahoosive fan-lassie for his thrillers set in the Athens of the North a.k.a. Edinburgh and featuring Mr Booze John Rebus.
Last night Christchurch played host to Ian Rankin as the opening event of the WORD Christchurch Autumn Season and it was a full house at the Charles Luney Auditorium of St Margaret’s College. It was also a slightly more blokey audience than most book events attract, albeit it in a very metro, groomed and grizzled with grey fashion. Marcus Elliott, the Christchurch coroner, was asking the probing questions.
Rankin claims most crime writers would rather be rock stars than writers. Aged 12 he created a band called The Amoebas. With no musical ability himself – and no friends who actually wanted to be in a band – The Amoebas were entirely fictitious, but Rankin still managed to create world tour itineraries, lyrics for top 10 hits and music press interviews.
Writers are shy, nerdy kids who create worlds
he said, and while for most people the adult world draws a halt to childish imagination, for writers it keeps going. Rebus is his imaginary friend, but one who wouldn’t like Rankin in the real world. Rankin claimed Rebus would label him “a wishy-washy liberal”.
The first Rebus novel, Knot and Crosses is celebrating its 30th anniversary and Rankin said the character of Rebus leapt “fully formed” into his head. He didn’t entirely realise he was writing a crime novel and was a little perturbed to see what he thought was the next great Scottish novel appearing in the then “not sexy” crime section of his local bookstore.
He was aware early on he needed help with creating an authentic police world and wrote to the then Lothian Police to get some advice. He was also briefly a suspect in a missing person/murder case!
Asked if he counted policeman amongst his fans, Rankin said “weirdly yes”. Everyone likes a maverick and Rebus is his own man but also on the right side. His novels represent authentic investigations but with all the boring bits taken out, a streamlined version of a real investigation.
Rankin added that keeping the series fresh wasn’t too challenging as Edinburgh, Scotland and Rebus had all changed. Rebus has retired, and after years of booze, fags and fried food, his body is starting to wind down. Rankin has recently gifted Rebus Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) but added he needs to work hard at remembering new story elements, for example he forgot he’d written in a pet dog for Rebus and then had to re-write and add the pooch in later!
Rankin said he likes to explore different social issues and each novel starts with a theme: immigration, people trafficking, xenophobia, banking crisis or business scam – but he is mindful that he also needs to create an exciting read. He says he doesn’t plan too much and sometimes the ending changes because the narrative knows better and he has to “trust to the muse”. All his books end before the criminal trial because, he says, he knows nothing about the Scottish criminal system and is too lazy to do the research.
Marcus Elliott asked about the TV versions of Rebus, and Rankin said there was early interest from the actor Leslie Grantham better known as Dirty Den of Eastenders’ fame. Later the BBC wanted the rather rotund Robbie Coltrane to play Rebus, and Rankin was like “Jesus you know he (Rebus) was in the SAS”! He recently got the rights back and would like to see them filmed in a more leisurely Scandi-style rather than the breakneck a-novel-condensed-to-an-hour speed of the ITV series. Writer, and fellow Fifer Gregory Burke is involved and the actor Ken Stott may even reprise his role.
There was time for a few questions from the audience, and it was the usual mixed bag with questions that aren’t questions and some sneaky self-aggrandisement. Rankin was asked about his love for the music of the late Jackie Leven, a prolific Scottish singer-songwriter, who he collaborated with on a CD and series of stage performances. He was also asked how he researches and makes authentic the criminals that appear in his fiction. He has spent time in prisons particularly through literacy in prison programmes, but was recently shocked when a fan described his recurring crime boss “Big Ger” Cafferty as a “big, huggable, loveable bear of a guy”. He fears he has perhaps over-identified with Big Ger and is going to make him horrible again.
The session started to wind up but Rankin still had time to apologise for Donald Trump being half-Scots and to warn us of the seething rage and stabby darkness carried inside romantic fiction writers. This was a witty and polished session with truck loads of well-executed anecdotes and crime fiction insights.
Now it’s confession time … I’ve never read an Ian Rankin novel.
In my years working in public libraries, Rankin’s books have been ever-present and always on the move. Their uniform cover design makes them stand out really well among the larger collection and they all portray a sense of grim foreboding and cold realism.
Rankin’s name is always the first and largest text (before the title) and this is tribute to his popularity. And speaking of popularity, his Rebus novels in particular have a huge following of readers, some of whom have regularly suggested that I read his work. But I’m afraid I’ve never gotten around to it (so many books, so little time!), UNTIL NOW!
I’ve just begun his first Rebus novel Knots and Crosses, and already I’m loving it. All the elements of a good noir crime story are there — an overworked under-appreciated borderline protagonist, a system of bureaucracy to overcome, the doggedness to get to the truth, and a series of gruesome crimes committed by a dangerous and difficult-to-understand sociopath … it’s gripping!
I’m now an “almost-fan” and really looking forward to hearing about the author’s background, inspirations and where he’s headed to next in his writing. My experience at his talk may go either way for me in regards to my reading further works by him, but I’m excited at the prospect of gaining some extra knowledge to fuel my new reading. Who knows I might get all the way through the series! There’s currently TWENTY ONE titles in the Rebus series so it’s a decent list to invest in, and the latest Rather Be The Devil has his loyal readers queuing up for our library copies!
So, if you’re like me — a lover of gritty noir crime, but have never picked up a copy of an Ian Rankin book — then I would implore you to do so. You won’t regret it. If you’re already one of his legion of loyal followers, then come and see the man himself at 6pm on Sunday 14 May.
If you are at all into thrillers, you have probably heard of this New York Times bestselling author of Orphan X and its sequel The Nowhere Man.
But did you know his skills extend way beyond the crime genre? He’s also a Shakespeare-tragedy scholar and a writer of comic books. Gregg will be interviewed by local crime reviewer Ken Strongman. After the talk, there will be an audience Q & A and book signing, with books available to purchase on the night. Book your tickets now.
Gregg has a contract for three more Orphan X novels, and Bradley Cooper’s production company has picked up the film rights. Gregg has experience writing for television, so he is on screenwriter duties for this movie adaptation.
I asked my Dad – who is thriller and crime buff – a few questions about Gregg:
You’ve read books by Gregg. Tell me a bit about them.
As mentioned I have read three of Gregg’s books over the past year. My first taste was Don’t Look Back about a year ago. A great story about a single mother on an adventure tour group to Mexico, concerns over being trapped by a dangerous predator and secrets wanting to get safely back home to her son. Great “edge of the seat” stuff to keep you glued to the pages.
I then noticed the highly acclaimed Orphan X which I read next a few weeks later. Evan Smoak is the man. Taken from a group home and trained in undercover operations it has more potential thrills, twist and turns you think you could handle. It is no surprise Bradley Cooper is signed up for the movie.
I was hooked by now, so read one more of Gregg’s books to confirm my theory. I read Tell no Lies in May of last year and this one was based in San Francisco, a counsellor with ex cons and suddenly anonymous threats from a killer. No rest again as the action is maintained.
He is bleeding good, one of my favourites.
What are the best things about his writing?
The joy of his books is the immense variety, realism yet excitingly dangerous and ever changing scenarios. Some people may only like to read them during the day as those noises from inside your house could be the precursor to something evil.
Are you keen to see him in person? What would you ask him?
If I happened to meet Greg my question would be how hard is it to switch from comic book to a serious badass thriller.
Crime writing has evolved from the puzzle-like mysteries of Agatha Christie and Christchurch’s own Ngaio Marsh to modern novels delving deeply into people and places. It is the world’s most popular form of storytelling.
2016 Ngaio Marsh Awards entrants Ray Berard, Katherine Hayton, and Deborah Rogers will discuss what drew them to crime writing, how they craft memorable characters and page-turning stories, and the impact of our New Zealand setting on tales of crime and mystery.
The industrial revolution had seen people rush to cities to chase a better standard of living that never eventuated. More often than not, workers were forced to live in squalid conditions with little reward for long and dangerous working conditions. Not surprisingly, crime soared. Throughout the 19th century major trials were followed avidly in the courtroom, in the newspapers, and at public hangings. True crime literature captured the attention of all classes, with murder ballads and penny dreadfuls sold in the streets. The development of the police force, particularly detectives and forensic techniques, were also subjects of interest. At the same time the judicial and penal systems were being reformed which led to such practices as transportation to the colonies.
This digital archive covers all of these developments and more with a broad examination of crime and culture in the 19th and early 20th century. It reflects the causes and effects of the rise in crime, the development of the police and the public’s fascination with sensational accounts of crime. It also contains a searchable collection of materials from prisoner photographs to trial transcripts and police records. It even has police gazettes from Queensland, Australia. These gazettes contain fascinating content including information on convicts and criminals who absconded from prison, reports on criminal activities such as murder, and reports on missing friends and relatives. So if you are interested in this time period, the development of the judicial system we can recognise today, or maybe just looking for dodgy relatives then there is plenty to learn and enjoy from this archival gem.