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Archive for the 'Thrillers & Crime fiction' Category

Solitude, coffee, music: Ian Rankin on how he writes

As mentioned before a while ago, I am a big fan of Ian Rankin, the Scottish crime fiction writer. Therefore I was fascinated to read this article by him in The Guardian about how he writes:
Ian Rankin: ‘Solitude, coffee, music: 27 days later I have a first draft’

I found particularly interesting his different approaches to the first, second and third drafts of his novels and that he does not research too much early on.

Incidentally, his taste in writing music matches mine pretty well, as does his need for solitude and coffee… I live in hope of emulating some of his success!

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Sherlock meets Doctor Who

Having thoroughly enjoyed the start of the new Sherlock series on New year’s Day, I was intrigued by the article in the Guardian about how Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, writers for both Sherlock and Doctor Who, need to beware of catering too much for the obsessive fan base and not for the broader audience.

I certainly enjoyed the in-jokes about the fans of Sherlock, although for me it did border on going just a bit too far.

The delight of the article though was the link to the fan mash-up video of Sherlock meeting the Doctor. Very neatly done and worth watching if you like these series.


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Review: “Snuff Tag 9” by Jude Hardin

This crime / thriller is the third in a series about an ex-musician turned private eye / security consultant called Nicholas Colt. I picked it up through a Kindle offer as I thought the idea intriguing: someone turns a computer survival game called “Snuff Tag 9” into a real-life challenge to survive. However, I was sadly disappointed by the end result. I am reviewing more as an analysis of why it did not work.

The story set-up is straight-forward. Nicholas Colt, the protagonist, dismisses the threat in a letter brought to him by a new client but, for the money, checks out the invitation to participate in the game (with dire threats if not accepted). He finds his client killed and himself substituted to participate. The main problem with this is that the story is told in first person from his point of view so the reader knows he will survive, dampening a lot of the effect, and being about how, not if, he will survive.

The antagonist is a bored billionaire who refers to himself as Freeze, the ultimate control character in the game. However, rather than interesting he is just a two-dimensional selfish psychopath with too much money and who never comes alive as a character, instead wavering between stereotype and caricature.

The late-entering ninth character in the game, we are told, is someone significant to at least one of the players. Given Colt is a late substitute and the weakest player in the line-up, not expected by Freeze to survive the first day, why are both candidates for the role people close to him? Because the plot needs it, I guess and strikes as lazy writing.

While Colt’s back story is well brought in for readers like me entering part-way through the series, the same points about his past are brought up several times in the story. This is another irritant with the story: the repetition is not just back story either. As one reads this novel whole paragraphs are rephrased and re-used sometimes back-to-back. To repeat the point as laboriously as the author, he says the same thing a different way without adding new information. Why? It is more lazy writing, as if Hardin is padding the story to reach a word count. Given this is professionally published novel, what happened to the editor? Given the repetition is worse and more noticeable the further one gets through the story, it is as if the editor was under time pressure and skipped or got fed up at eliminating it.

All in all, a disappointing read but it must give hope to new writers that if this can get published professionally the barriers to entry are not as high as one expected!



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Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing

The death earlier this week of Elmore Leonard is sad news: the passing of a giant in the crime fiction genre. Great stories and excellent dialogue. A brilliant writer who understood what it took to write well. However, his ‘Ten Rules of Writing’ apply not just to crime writing but to any genre.

If you have not come across them, check out this Guardian article about them.

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Review: “Bruno: Chief of Police” by Martin Walker

This novel, the first of a series, is set in the Dordogne area of South west France, the next major river valley north of where my family lives. The book itself was recommended to me by a local English friend and I had been hoping to find a great new series to read, based in an area I know well.

The first book in the series is only £1.80 for a Kindle download from Amazon so it was a good way to sample without splashing £7 on a paperback. I was even able to start reading on the Sunday it was recommended to me, deep in South West France. The internet is a wonderful tool for instant gratification.

To the story, which I went to read WANTING to like, yet I came away disappointed.

Probably the most important thing in a crime novel is the plot, and this works so I was able to read this through to the end. It is the story of a typical sleeping rural town, where there is a murder that appears to be a hate crime. Of course, nothing is that simple and the investigation unfolds down through a number of twists and turns, relatively conventional but to a clear conclusion.

Martin Walker, a Guardian journalist, lives part of the year in the Dordogne so I assumed the research and setting would be up to scratch. It is, but in a way that makes it one of two weaknesses of the novel; the other being the characterisation. Had I not known that Walker had published a previous novel I would have assumed this is a first novel, with the associated faults and weaknesses.

The two main problems go hand in hand. The best way I can describe them is to say this story is “murder in ‘A Year In Provence'”. There are lots of colourful French characters but they verge on or move into caricature. Most irritating is the new head of the Gendamerie for the Commune, who does not develop and is merely there to be a persistent hurdle the protagonist, Bruno Courrèges, must overcome at every step of the investigation. I did like Bruno, Chief of Police because he is the only local policeman in the town, but most of the villagers who appear as characters were two-dimensional.

The setting itself is a typical rural town in the area but rather than letting it unfold naturally, with French terminology the reader can look up if they don’t recognise it, every time a new term is introduced it is explained, interrupting the flow and making it feel like one is reading a travel guide not a novel.

It is true I have an advantage over many readers in that I am familiar with the local structures and political complexities and rivalries between the various police forces in France but many of the target audience could have a passing knowledge from news and holidays in France. Description and information should not be at the cost of the flow of the story and to the level where it is intrusive and irritating.

Another irritant was the black-and-white antipathy of the villagers to Government bureaucracy in Paris and Brussels. It felt like we were being treated to the author’s prejudices rather than a rounded view. After all, the rural farmers expressing their ire are the same French small farmers who do so very nicely out of the EU agricultural support mechanisms – yet that never had a mention. The few English characters, well-to-do and single – one becomes the ‘love interest’, seem to be there more for an English audience than because they serve a really necessary part of the story.

So, all in all, disappointing. A rating of 3 out of 5 – I finished it. But with the rest of the series all being over a fiver on Kindle download I will not be investing in more of the series. A shame because, as I said, I really wanted to like this.

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Merry Christmas? Not for Jack Bauer

Don’t you just hate those cute-sy Christmas videos?
Here’s a slightly different Christmas video (for fans of “24”). Jack Bauer interogates Santa for the names of the reindeer:

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Discovering new authors with Kindle: Jilly Paddock

One objective in acquiring a Kindle was to try to broaden my reading, finding new authors or tracking down hard-to-find or out-of-print titles. While I feel the latter objective has not been met (my first experiment – and failure – was based on assuming that all of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series would be easy to find and download from Amazon!)

I have subscribed to magazines that are difficult to find in UK and downright impossible when living in rural France unless one signs up for a late-arriving postal subscription. Since obtaining my Kindle at Christmas I have been enjoying Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld and Lightspeed – all with free trial and reasonable subscription rates.

I have also discovered my first author totally new to me, but one whose work I will look out for in the future: Jilly Paddock. I downloaded two of her stories when they were on a promotion through Amazon (another benefit of the Kindle is the chance to experiment at no or low cost).

First I read “The Spook and the Spirit in the Stone” – this is a combination of SF setting on a colonised world and police procedural around the kidnapping of the 9-year-old daughter of an Earth diplomat. The story is told from the PoV of a local detective, Jerome, not entirely human and just reassigned from Fraud to Homicide division to work with Afton, a difficult to work with detective inspector. The characterisation, particularly the relationship between Jerome and Afton and Jerome and the kidnapped girl, work very well. Add into the mix an extremely unpleasant kidnapper and equally unpleasant Terran agent with psy-powers (the spook of the title) plus a nasty underground guardian (the spirit, a near-fantasy element) and what sounds like quite a mish-mash of genres actually works remarkably well. The story moves briskly and with good touches of humour to leaven the, at times, distressing tale of the kidnapping of young girls. I would estimate this is novella length and I believe (and hope) this is the first of a series of “Jerome & Afton” stories. I will certainly be looking out for more.

The second Kindle story by Jilly Paddock is quite different. “No Earthly Shore” is set on a colony world, Calvados, where some 30 years after arrival, there are indications that one of the local life-forms, the invertebrate “sea-quilt”, may be sentient if the report by 12-year-old Boadicea Nantucket is true. Junior member of the verification team from Earth, marine biologist Dr. Zuzana Aaron-Jones, suspects that her colleagues want to come up with a negative result in order not to impact a fruitful colony. The leaders of the team, Major Burgoyne and Dr Moya Kent, border on stereotype characters, impeding Zuzi as she tries to communicate with and understand the squilts. However, the main human characters, Zuzi, her new-found colleague, Mooney – who has an ill-defined mission role – and Boodie. are well drawn but the stars of the story are the squilts, particularly “Drunkard’s Path”, who are a delightful invention. The story is told with humour and humanity (in its broadest sense) – what does it mean to be sentient? I’ll not spoil the story by giving more of the plot away – it is well worth reading.

Both Jilly’s stories are available on Amazon for 77p each – good value as both would hold their own on the pages of either Asimov’s or Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine and demonstrates to me the new market opportunities opening up for good authors through e-readers.

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Ian Rankin on writing

The “First Fictions” weekend at Sussex University kicked off with an interview with Ian Rankin by local thriller writer Lesley Thomson. Given the theme of celebrating and championing first novels, past and present, Rankin read an extract from “Summer Rites”, his first novel. A black comedy with some fantasy elements, set in a hotel in Perthshire, it is unpublished (and, he says, will remain that way).

He also spoke about his early attempts to write, his first Rebus novel, the first Malcolm Fox novel and his first graphic novel (200 pages, four frames per page and which required at least a page of text per frame so he wrote about a 1,000 pages – so much more than a conventional novel).

When he started his “aim was to be a Scottish literary author not a crime writer” – he did not read crime fiction. He wrote his first three novels while doing (or instead of writing) his uncompleted PhD thesis on Muriel Spark. (Apart from “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” he highlighted that he liked “Loitering With Intent” which is about writers.)

In responding to questions about how he writes, Rankin made it clear he does not fall into the disciplined, timetable writer model. He works better with a deadline. “If my days are loose and baggy I can’t write, when I had a job I got more done.” With time allocated to writing he “did research: reading the paper, watching TV or DVDs – it’s all research!”. He noted that he “writes best in the afternoons and evenings” and although he had written some 20 to 25 novels “it isn’t getting any easier”.

In talking about the structure of a crime novel (crime / start; investigation / middle; resolution / end) he noted a significant difference between American and British audiences. “American readers are impatient. They want a murder on page one and a firm resolution at the end. In the UK you can have a more ambiguous ending.” He noted that one of his Rebus novels (I didn’t catch which one) has an additional chapter written for the US edition, specifically to address this. (Rankin is not the first author I have heard comment on this. Christopher Priest’s excellent novel “The Glamour” would only be published in the US after a rewrite of a lovely, challenging and ambiguous ending in the UK first edition.)

On being asked his writing tips he summarised these as:
– write every day: as good discipline and to keep the story and characters fresh in your head
– read a lot, write a lot
– don’t be afraid of criticism: read what they say but don’t react to everything
– don’t change your style just to fit to fashion
– get lucky, stay lucky!
– stick at it.

As an aside, I was lucky to get a chance to speak to Ian after his interview and in talking about living in South West France (he lived for a while in the north-east of the Dordogne while I am in Lot) he mentioned liking our local Cahors red wine! Good endorsement!

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Avoiding the “new Stieg Larsson” syndrome

One thing that irritates me about publishing is the “band wagon effect”.  Once an author is established as a bestseller, particularly if they have mined some new vein of gold, then new authors in the same or similar sub-genre are, on the publisher’s blub hailed as “The New <INSERT AUTHOR NAME HERE >.

The unfortunately early death of Stieg Larsson compounded this effect because he opened up “Scandinavian Noir Thrillers” but left readers wanting more but this is unlikely to be fulfilled (unless the possibly mythical fourth book actually exists). There has been a stampede to fill this gap, at least by publishers if not with the active support of the authors caught up in this.

Jo Nesbro writes good police procedurals but, despite book covers to the contrary, is not comparable to Stieg Larsson.  As mentioned in an earlier post, to me he is more a Scandinavian Ian Rankin.  There are other good Scandinavian crime and thriller writers out there who have suffered, in my view, from this sort of comparison.  It may help short-term sales but does not necessarily assist them establish themselves in the British novel market as writers with their own distinctive “voice”.

Last week I found myself at Gatwick Airport, waiting for a flight, only to discover I had left the novel I was in the middle of behind. While this could be a good incentive to reach for the laptop and write myself, there are times when this is impractical or forbidden on a flight and I hate having “dead time” when I could be reading.  A quick visit to WHSmiths and I emerged with “Burned”, a Scandinavian thriller by Thomas Enger.

Enger is a Scandinavian writer and this is his first novel. Nowhere on the covers or the interior quotes is there any mention of Larsson.  There are some similarities: while Enger is  a former journalist like Larsson (but he is Norwegian and the story is set mostly in Oslo whereas Larsson’s Millenium trilogy is set in his native Sweden) and journalists provide the main protagonist’s point of view (PoV) in both authors work.

However, the books are sufficiently different. Enger does not dwell on violence towards women in the same way even though the opening is a particularly unpleasant ritual killing of a young female university student.  Enger’s plot starts down a Muslim fundamentalist route, only to twist and turn along the way to a satisfying twist at the end; not completely a surprise as implied in the blurb but it works well and is true to the set-up while not being overtly telegraphed.

Henning Juul, the journalist PoV in “Burned” has a past and is realistically drawn, especially in how he suffers from the after-effects of the fire which killed his daughter.  There is a follow-up novel scheduled for mid-2012 and the ground-work for this has been laid without in any way spoiling the satisfactory conclusion of this novel.

So, Enger is not the new Stieg Larsson. He is a good author in his own right and his debut novel is recommended as such.

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Novel series – what works? what doesn’t?

For relaxation, as well as fantasy and SF, I tend to devour thrillers and crime novels.  It is always a joy to stumble onto a new series and explore the world the author created for the characters over a period of time.

Recently, some series that worked for me include Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium / Dragon Tattoo” trilogy and Philip Kerr’s “Berlin Noir” series about PI Bernie Gunther and which are set in 1930’s and 1940’s Germany.  Series that haven’t worked so well for me include Jo Nesbro’s “Harry Hole” novels and Karen Rose’s “romantic thrillers” (a new sub-genre for me!).

That is not to say I disliked the latter two series nor imply I could not read them, I just found them less satisfying, particularly over a number of novels.  This started me wondering about what worked and what didn’t when an author is producing a series of novels.

Nesbro’s work suffers from the publisher’s blurb calling him the “new Larsson”.  He is not – apart from being a Scandinavian author.  His characters and setting have more in common with, say, Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels, police investigation of crime, rather than Larrson’s journalist-focused thrillers.  Unfortunately, with Nesbro’s world the part that really bugged me is Harry Hole, his main character.  A near-alcoholic who keeps relapsing after being on the wagon for half a novel, Hole is intensely frustrating to follow – I feel like screaming at him to “get a grip”.

I have  a different problem with Karen Rose’s novels.  Her novels do have a number of strengths. Beyond the common-or-garden serial killers that are the antagonists in the early novels, she tackles difficult subjects, such as the aftermath of gang rape, child abuse, white-slavery and under-age prostitution from the point of view (PoV) of the victims.  These are, I feel, handled well, and make her stories interesting and not run-of-the-mill.  She works effectively in Greg Iles territory. She brings in new characters to provide PoV in each novel but characters from earlier in the series pop back up and one finds out what happens to them after their (always traumatic) experiences that were the focus of a prior novel.

The problem for me is in the structure and predictability of her novels.  She has a template: there is a “hero” and a “heroine” who provide most of the PoV narrative, there is a “bad guy” who crosses their path and makes life hell until the final scene.  Just when they seem to have resolved their problems, one of other of the hero / heroine will be trapped by the bad guy.  The other heroine / hero will save them.

Rose’s novels are categorised as “romantic thrillers” so the other predictable part is both hero and heroine are singletons, doubt they can find the “love of their life” and find the chemistry of their contact with the other setting off all the bells – but there is always misunderstanding and misinterpretation seen through both PoVs so “the course of true love is never smooth”. Hmmm! The sex scenes between hero and heroine tend to be “same-y” and boring so can be skimmed to get to the next plot twist.

In different ways, both Nesbro’s and Rose’s writing is formulaic. In neither does it feel like the main characters are developing a real human beings.  The strength of both Larsson’s and Kerr’s work is in the characterisation.  Supporting this is the believability of the world they construct for these characters to interact in.  Sex, when it occurs, is appropriate to the stage the story is at and is not boring either. The characters change, neither being as frustrating as Nesbro’s Hole nor as cardboard as Rose’s, who are interchangeable between novels.

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