Thursday, April 24, 2014


If you're in Dunedin, NZ next Wednesday you can come see me in a Q&A with the great Liam McIlvanney (All The Colours of the Town) at the Centre for Scottish and Irish Studies in Otago University. Dont let the dour middle aged man below fool you, it'll be free wheeling and interesting and good craic, I promise. I am a big fan of Liam's writing and of course his father's classic Laidlaw was one of the first crime novels I ever read. (BTW this isn't, I think, the greatest pic of me but I love the fact that the Crown Bar is in the background - a pub which featured in the Carol Reid classic Odd Man Out and which has appeared, so far, in six of my novels).

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Where and When of Game of Thrones

GOT cast on the lash at my old local Lavery's in Belfast
My piece from The Guardian of a fortnight back on the where and when of Game of Thrones - yes, I am this geeky...

In 2010 I got a call from a wannabe actor friend asking if I'd heard of a book called A Game of Thrones, as he was auditioning as an extra for the upcoming TV show and wanted advice "on the look". I told him that I had indeed read the novel, and that it was basically a reimagining of the Wars of the Roses in a Tolkienesque fantasy world.

"Olden times then?" James asked.
"Yes, olden times," I agreed.
James grew a beard, didn't wash his hair for a week and got the job.

But while it's true that George RR Martin was heavily influenced by the age of chivalry, the Wars of the Roses and JRR Tolkien (that's where the RR in his name comes from), the Song of Ice and Fire series also has a different, more interesting provenance, one that could suggest the Game of Thrones universe is located not in the past at all, but in the future.

Building on the work of George Macdonald, William Morris and Edward Plunkett, what became known as high fantasy was more or less invented by JRR Tolkien. Tolkien's Middle-earth is a reimagined prehistoric Europe with languages based on old Norse, old Welsh and old Irish, but that's about the only similarity to the real old Europe. Tolkien's version of Europe (or Eurasia) exists on a planet in a parallel universe where (according to The Silmarillion) the sun went around the Earth and the world was originally flat. This is not the history of our planet Earth, but an alternative mythological history of a planet with a passing resemblance to our own.

High fantasy as a genre exploded in the United States in the 1960s after the paperback publication of Lord of the Rings, but followers in Tolkien's tradition were not remotely consistent (thank goodness) as to where and when their books were actually taking place. Sometimes the fantasy writers set their novels in an ancient Earth; sometimes a parallel Earth; or quite often they offered no explanation at all as to the temporal and geographic location. A neat trick by Julian May in her Saga of the Pliocene Exiles was to use time travel, setting her series before humans (or even great apes) had evolved. The Conan books of Robert E Howard also took place in a rather less carefully reimagined prehistoric Europe. My favourite device of all is Stephen R Donaldson's in the Thomas Covenant series, where the reader (and protagonist) can't be sure whether the strange magical universe exists only inside the hero's own head.

The vast majority of these novels had swords, horses, kings, blacksmiths and inhabitants speaking "the common tongue", but where was it all happening? Apart from the extraordinary cartography in Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea series, the early maps of these fantasy realms weren't exactly brilliant: West Land cropped up quite often, as did the Great South Forest, the Long Road, the Wide Sea …

But a different approach to fantasy writing had already been developed by the prolific science fiction author Jack Vance. Vance had no time for faux-medievalism and suggested instead that dragons, swords, magic, different races of men and so on would all actually be possible on an Earth millions of years hence, when the continents had changed shape, technology had failed and human and animal evolution had continued along its merry way.

The apocalyptic future has, of course, been a trope in Western literature since biblical times, but it was the vision of a far future in HG Wells's The Time Machine that inspired Vance. Vance set many stories on his forbidding Dying Earth, and a host of other science fiction and fantasy writers followed suit. Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, set in an entropic, bleak, run-down, used-up future where the sun itself is about to sputter out, is probably the best exemplar of this genre. On Wolfe's wonderfully grim Earth, a professional torturer walks the land seeking what we're all seeking: meaning, redemption, somewhere to put our oversized broadsword and a bed for the night.

I am an admirer, too, of the almost entirely forgotten Road to Corlay series by Richard Cowper, set in a post-apocalyptic, drowned, pastoral England thousands of years from now. This gentle little series was slammed at the time as boring, but has influenced the likes of Isobelle Carmody and Colin Meloy.

The Dungeons and Dragons universe also largely takes place on a future Dying Earth (my favourite module, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, being the giveaway here). Of course, many of the fantasy novelists who began writing in the 1980s and 90s were childhood D&D players – George RR Martin among them. Martin was also a friend of Gene Wolfe, and such a fan of the late Jack Vance that he edited a tribute volume of stories explicitly set in Vance's world.

It seems to me, then, that it makes more sense to regard Game of Thrones as taking place not in some canned version of our medieval past but in the far future when the continents have shifted and some humans have evolved extraordinary physical and mental abilities which, to paraphrase Arthur C Clarke, are indistinguishable from magic.

All but the most basic technology has been forgotten (A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller Jnr is the book to read here), so battles are fought between humans with swords and shields. Dragons have evolved or been genetically engineered from lizards and the more useful animals such as cows and horses are still around. As the sun expands, Earth's orbit becomes more eccentric and massive variations in climate are to be expected, resulting in stretched-out summers and long, deadly winters.

Michael Moorcock has famously criticised the Tolkien school of fantasy writing as depoliticised, war-glorifying, silly, illogical "Epic Pooh". While this accusation won't bother the casual reader, who can still happily regard A Song of Ice and Fire as a cod "olden times" fantasy, more thoughtful readers could argue that the books' provenance is a lot richer and deeper than that.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Barry Awards

I hate to sound like Sarah Palin (I never thought I'd begin a sentence with those words) but when the mainstream media ignores you it's very nice to get the odd award nomination to prove to them that they were wrong. By mainstream media I mean of course the mainstream media in the United States. Despite getting reviewed (and, ahem, well reviewed) in every other market in which it was available (Ireland, the UK, France, Australia, NZ, Germany, Canada and just last week in El Mundo in Spain) my novel I Hear The Sirens In The Street wasn't reviewed by a single newspaper in the United States*. I'm completely baffled as to why this was. Were the reviewers put off by the subject matter or the American cover or do they just not review paperback originals when there are so many wonderful new hardback Norwegian mystery novels to squeeze into the paper? Oh well, fuck you American reviewers and editors I Hear The Sirens In The Street, that little engine that could, has been shortlisted for the 2014 Barry Awards in the Best Paperback Original categoryHere's the full list of shortlisted authors and books

2014 Barry Award Nominations

Best Novel

TAP ON THE WINDOW, Linwood Barclay
SUSPECT, Robert Crais
ORDINARY GRACE, William Kent Krueger

Best First Novel

JAPANTOWN, Barry Lancet
THE BOOKMAN’S TALE, Charlie Lovett

Best PBO

THE RAGE, Gene Kerrigan
FIXING TO DIE, Elaine Viets

Best Thriller

DEAD LIONS, Mick Herron
GHOSTMAN, Roger Hobbs
RATLINES, Stuart Neville
THE DOLL, Taylor Stevens

Congrats to Stu Neville and Ian Rankin who are friends of mine and to Gene Kerrigan, a fellow Mick. 

If you want you can get I Hear The Sirens on, here.

*I did get a nice profile in the WSJ and I'm eternally gratefully to Nancy Pearl ("America's librarian") who went on NPR and declared The Cold Cold Ground one of the best mystery novels she'd ever read. You betcha, as Ms Palin might have said. 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

William Burroughs: A Life

My review of William S Burroughs: A Life by Barry Miles in last weekend's Melbourne Age and Sydney Morning Herald. (See if you can spot the not 1, not 2 but 3 obiter dicta sarky remarks about Bono)
William Burroughs would have been 100 this year. Not that it ever seemed likely that Burroughs would reach a century. From his early 20s onward he began regularly taking heroin, cocaine, methadone, tobacco, amphetamines and marijuana. When he couldn't get proper drugs, like the hero of his most famous novel, The Naked Lunch, he injected himself with bug spray, sniffed household solvents and drank rubbing alcohol.
   You'd think that Burroughs was escaping an unhappy childhood but in fact he was born into a wealthy St Louis family in 1914, in a house with three black servants, an Irish cook and a Welsh nanny. The latter two apparently filled the young boy's head with such convincing tales of the supernatural that he believed them all his life.
   Heirs to the Burroughs Adding Machine fortune, the family comfortably survived the Wall Street Crash and sent young Bill to the Los Alamos Ranch School, New Mexico, the most expensive boarding establishment in America. Harvard followed and a grand tour of Europe before Burroughs fell in with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and later Neal Cassady in New York. All four of them wanted to be writers and when Kerouac was published first their circle became known as the ''Beat Generation'', influenced as much by jazz rhythms as by classic literature. Bisexual, hedonistic, low-rent and self-important, the Beats broke the mould of what it meant to be an American writer in the 1950s. Authenticity was the great thing: you wrote about drugs and sex and your feelings, not about corporation shills in ties being unfaithful to their Betty Draper wives in the identikit suburbs.
   All of Burroughs' early literary experiments, however, failed miserably and he moved to Mexico where there was easy access to heroin and boys. One drunken night in Mexico City while attempting to demonstrate his marksmanship, he shot and killed his surprisingly tolerant wife, Joan Vollmer. The Burroughs family hired expensive lawyers and Bill was released after less than two weeks in jail, with a sentence of probation and a few churlish complaints about the cold prison beds.
   He moved to New York and then to Tangier and began to write in earnest, as an attempt to exorcise the ''Ugly Spirit'' that he said had forced him to kill Joan. Junkie was published in a paperback edition that sold 150,000 copies. The Naked Lunch followed soon thereafter and, like James Joyce's Ulysses, had the great luck to be condemned by the United States Post Office as obscene, thus assuring its place in the counterculture.
   Barry Miles, drawing on the previous research of James Grauerholz and his own 30-year friendship with Burroughs, has produced an encyclopaedic and staggeringly well-researched book. In William S. Burroughs: A Life we discover Bill in his Scientology phase attempting surreptitiously to tape record L. Ron Hubbard. Paul McCartney shows up to write Eleanor Rigby in Burroughs' basement. Bill is there when a drunken Kerouac is famously destroyed on American television by William F. Buckley. And in the funniest episode in the book, Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg visit a paranoid Louis-Ferdinand Celine, who assures them his snarling attack dogs are trained only to go after the postman.
   Throughout the '60s and '70s the Burroughs cult grows. He appears next to Marilyn Monroe on the cover of The Beatles' Sgt Pepper album and on a 1981 episode of Saturday Night Live, supermodel Lauren Hutton introduces him as the ''greatest living writer in America''.
    Burroughs writes, paints, acts in movies and becomes very famous indeed. Once the hippest guy in the room, Burroughs in his later years, however, becomes something of a bore, playing with guns and babbling about magic and the occult. His reading material consists of the magazines Gun WorldGun TestsGun DigestUFO Universe and Soldier of Fortune. He becomes a cuddly ''national treasure'' and does ads for Nike. He suffers fools gladly and the usual parade of sycophants and groupies make the pilgrimage to his dreary Kansas compound. One morning it's Michael Stipe standing there holding the milk, the next Bono's cuban heels come click-clacking down the drive. Bono becomes a repeat offender house-guest, which almost makes you believe in karma.
   Burroughs finally dies of a heart attack in 1997, four months after Allen Ginsberg, 30 years after Kerouac and Cassady. Barry Miles thoroughly documents all of this; perhaps even a little too thoroughly, for there are only so many houses, hotels, boyfriends, liaisons, orgies, drugs, drug cures, cults, cult cures, favourite guns, least favourite guns, that the reader can handle before becoming a little overwhelmed. But in lieu of a shorter, deeper, more pointed book, Burroughs: A Life will almost certainly remain the definitive biography for many years to come.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Most Creative Place On Earth - Iceland

a post from last year...They have more professional musicians per capita than any other country in the world. More authors, more poets, more screenwriters, more directors, more playwrights per capita than anywhere else. One in every ten Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime - in Reykjavik the percentage is even higher. The Scandinavian crime writing boom has been a feature of the mystery scene for half a decade but what is even more remarkable is the fact that Iceland with a population of 300,000 (an over estimation because many Icelanders live abroad) holds its own with Sweden, Norway and Denmark who have thirty times, twleve times and fifteen times as many people respectively. Halldor Laxness won the Nobel Prize for Literature and Arnaldur Indridason won the Golden Dagger Award for mystery writing. One of my favourite bands in the 80's was the Sugarcubes, in the 90's Bjork came along, in the 2000's I only stopped listening to Sigur Ros when I discovered that Gwyneth Paltrow had given birth to their album Takk which ruined that record forever. One of my favourite current bands is Reykjavik's own Of Monsters and Men who were, of course, hugely influenced by Bjork (right in a BBC doc)
I think I've proved that Iceland punches well above its weight in the arts, the question is how it does this. I don't know the answer but I have some theories based more on Wikipedia than my own brief visit to Iceland at the end of the 90's. According to Wikipedia Iceland has more bookstores and libraries per capita than anywhere else in the world and the average Icelander reads more books. Long dark winters certainly would encourage book reading or practicing a musical instrument or writing a book (or drinking heavily). I also think it helps that Iceland does not have a strong culture of sport. Iceland has no professional football league (of any code) and this is a good thing. Spectator sport is a massive time suck, time that arguably could be spent better doing something creative for yourself. People who have a job only have a finite amount of leisure hours a week so it stands to reason that the crazier a place is about sport the less creative the population. Other theories? 1) Sagas. Iceland's literary tradition of Sagas goes back 1000 years and I've been told that many Icelanders of the older generation can still narrate and perform tales from the Sagas from memory. 2) TV. I don't know what the TV situation is in Iceland but I'll bet Icelanders watch less television than Americans or Europeans. 3) Weather. The poor weather in Iceland encourages indoor activities like reading, practicing with your garage band, writing poetry etc. (I'll bet you good money that more poetry books are bought in Reykjavik than in Miami or Rio despite the vast population differential.) 
Is there a lesson here for other countries? I don't know. Iceland's success seems to be due to its unique geography and literary history, but maybe if we could encourage kids to seek out their local bookstore or library it would help. Having children learn a musical instrument is also good idea and when schools in the UK, Australia and America stopped having kids memorize poetry by heart it was, in my opinion, an enormous mistake. Finally it's nice that young people play sport but watching sport on TV is, let's face it, not a terribly productive use of their time. 
If you ask me it all comes back to the bookshops and the libraries. Books fire imaginations. Cicero said that a room without books is like a body without a soul and one of my favourite quotes on creativity is from Werner Herzog - when someone asked Herzog how he could become a film-maker like him some day Herzog replied instantly: "Read. Read. Read." Quite. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Ben Wheatley's High Rise

My buddy Scott told me today that my favourite director is making a film of a book by my favourite author. This has got me pretty excited. My favourite director at the moment is Ben Wheatley who is one of the best British directors of his generation. He's made 4 films, 2 of which are utterly brilliant and the other 2 aren't bad. The brilliant ones are Kill List and Sightseers. 
My favourite author, of course, is JG Ballard who also just happens to be the greatest English novelist since WW2. A surrealist satiric poet often pigeon holed as a science fiction author, Ballard's reputation has only grown since his death five years ago. When you read Graham Greene or Kingsley Amis or Ballard's other contemporaries these days their novels feel like period pieces whereas Ballard somehow is as fresh and exciting as ever. That's a clue that he's the real deal. 
The great Ballard period was 1972 - 1979 when he produced award winning collections of short stories and a run of novels, all of which became classics: Crash, Concrete Island, High Rise and The Unlimited Dream Company. Ben Wheatley is making a film out of High Rise and if he's allowed a good budget it could be one of the great British films of this decade. A great film like Sightseers or Fish Tank I mean not tourist board rubbish like the Kings Speech. High Rise is the story of a group of people who live in a high rise apartment building that gradually descends into civil war between floors while the inhabitants at least initially continue to commute to their day jobs in the city of London. Its a classic Ballard conceit carried out with all the iron logic you'd expect from a master surrealist with a sense of humour, qualities Wheatley has in abundance too. Please don't let me down Ben.    

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

If Scotland Secedes Should Shetland Skidaddle?

this blogpost I wrote over two years ago has apparently helped ignite a secession movement in Shetland...oops
If Scotland leaves the UK in 2014, it would make a lot of sense for the Shetland Islands to secede from Scotland. An Independent Shetland would have roughly the same population as the Faroe Islands but it would be much wealthier as most of the UK's North Sea oil reserves would lie within Shetland's territorial waters. Shetland's bonds to Scotland are tenuous. Until the fifteenth century Shetland was part of the Kingdom of Norway and the last of the Norn speakers did not die out until late in the nineteenth century. Shetland is closer to the regional Norwegian capital Bergen than it is to Edinburgh (if my estimate on Google maps is correct); Norway you'll recall is the only country in Europe which has weathered the recent financial storms with aplomb because of its vast Government Pension Fund which will have assets close to a trillion dollars by 2019. Shetland would be foolish to join Scotland which will probably have a great deal of difficulty making ends meet, like Ireland (or God save us, Northern Ireland). Independence or some sort of reunion with Norway would make much more sense culturally and especially economically. 
And of course as Shetland goes so presumably does Orkney. And it wasn't that long ago that the entire Western Isles were part of the Kingdom of Norway either. Kintyre used to be part of the Scottish-Irish kingdom of Dalriada and why shouldn't the Gaeltacht in the north and west have its own country rather than be dominated by Scots speaking lowlanders? The UK government is already looking at the idea of declaring part of former Dalriadan land as UK sovereign base territory... It all gets rather complicated doesn't it? Look, I'm not saying that the Scots shouldn't vote for independence this year but once the secession box is open who knows what might come out of it. If the Shetlanders have any sense they'll keep that lovely North Sea oil for themselves.
But then again maybe some long term thinking would help. Nationalism is a vulgar eighteenth century phenomenon and its sinister stepchild jingoism came along in the nineteenth century just in time to wreak havoc in the twentieth. I believe that a few centuries from now nation states and nationalism will seem like a curious and utterly pointless phase in the history of mankind and all those people who died for the honour of nations will be mourned anew as victims of an ugly meme invented in post Renaissance Europe that sadly went on to infect the entire world. We'll see.
April 2014 update: apparently the referendum being mooted in the Shetland Islands will include 3 options: staying with Scotland if Scotland secedes, remaining with the UK if Scotland secedes, independence...According to The Independent there are even plans to include an option for reunification with Norway.  I say again...once the secession genie comes out of the bottle who knows what else will come out...

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Sydney Morning Herald Reviews Duffy #3

at least the French love me
I was thinking today how strange it is that my books seem to get reviewed in every country in the world except America. Apart from the review from the great Daneet Steffens in The Boston Globe it doesn't look like I'll get any other US papers to review my new Sean Duffy novel. I wonder why that is. The Sean Duffy books have been reviewed in all the major (and minor) British, Irish, French, German, Spanish and Australian newspapers out there but from the entire series in only 2 American ones: Duffy #1 was reviewed in the Arizona Republic and Duffy #3 was reviewed in the Globe. It's a little odd, no? I have several working hypotheses as to why this is: 

1. Blame the publisher. While its true that my small independent American publisher (7th Street Books) doesn't have much money for PR purposes they have done their job well. They've sent out review copies to all the appropriate media and as far as I can see it's not their fault that no one has bitten the hook. 
2. Blame me. I'm not young or hip and I don't live in Brooklyn which is what you have to be to get editors excited these days. However I do have a bloody interesting story to tell and no one who's ever interviewed me has complained that I was boring. Did you know that I got my face smashed open in a fight in school and had to get 17 stitches across my eye? Or that I got knocked down by an RUC Land Rover in a hit and run? Or that I used to get a lift to school every morning by an army major who had to check and see if there was a bomb under his car? Or that last January when I was visiting my mum I ran into a full blown riot down the road from her house? Yeah, well, there's plenty more where that came from...
3. Blame The New York Times. Despite starred reviews in the trades, stellar reviews in the British media, multiple award nominations and award wins my Duffy books have never been reviewed by Marilyn Stasio - the crime reviewer of the NYT. Why? You'll have to ask her that one. But the NYT is important because its a kind of gate keeper. Once the Times reviews you, other papers follow suit and if the Times never reviews you, you're more or less dead in the water. 
4. Blame Irish America. You buy too many dead Irish writers and not enough living Irish ones. Oh, and you also buy Benjamin Black....hmmmm. 
5. Blame Nordic Noir. Nordic Noir peaked three years ago. Its the dregs of the barrel now but many reviewers and readers aren't nimble enough to see that. And the avalanche of Nordic Noir sucks all the oxygen out of the room...
6. Blame nobody. The blame game is for whingers. It's just what it is, mate.  
and the Germans
Anyway not sure how I got sidetracked onto this...I got another great review for Sean Duffy #3 (I haven't had a bad one yet) in last weekend's Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age, below:  

Sue Turnbull

In the Morning I'll Be Gone

I love a good opening - one that establishes character, situation and style in a few swift moves. In the Morning I'll be Gone, Adrian McKinty's third police procedural to feature Detective Sean Duffy of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, has these down pat. It's September 1983 and Duffy's insistent beeper is advising him of a Class I Emergency (previous incidents of similar magnitude include a Soviet invasion and an ''extra-terrestial trespass''). Duffy couldn't care less, given that it's his day off and he is way too busy on his Atari 5200 games console dealing with a Galaxian space invasion of his own. He's also as ''high as Skylab'' on some home-baked Turkish black cannabis resin. McKinty is good with the period details that permeate even his metaphors. Skylab, NASA's manned space station, was launched in 1973, eventually falling to Earth some six years later out west on the Nullarbor Plain. The Atari 5200 was released in 1982, and Galaxian, produced by the Japanese company Namco in 1979, apparently belongs to the ''golden age of arcade video games''.

Born in Belfast in 1968, McKinty would have been in his mid-teens at the moment of Galaxian supremacy and probably much happier defending Earth from alien invaders than living in Northern Ireland while The Troubles raged around him. We're still only on the second page when we learn that the current Class 1 incident involves a mass breakout of IRA prisoners from the Maze prison (previously known as Long Kesh), and that Duffy expects double time if required to report for duty, which he dutifully does. Duffy is a good detective, however reluctant he might appear. Things get personal when Duffy discovers that the criminal mastermind behind the breakout is his old school chum, Dermot McCann.

This is how a civil war works, Duffy wryly observes, senselessly dividing friends, families and communities while inadvertently slaughtering the innocent. In the village of Bellaughray, the absurd border dividing north and south runs down the middle of the main street. When the army opens up on the Maze escapees hiding in the reeds, they massacre only an exhausted flock of Greenland geese ''who had foolishly touched down on their journey to the south of France''. McKinty does funny and sad, often in the same sentence.

even the Spanish are on board, so what gives America?
Sidelined for a manufactured misdemeanour, Duffy is seconded to MI5 to track down his former school pal, McCann. Frustratingly, the one person who knows where to locate McCann will only divulge the intel if Duffy solves the enigma of her daughter's death. Four years earlier, Lizzie was found with a broken neck after ''apparently'' falling from the bar of the family pub after lock-up while trying to change a light bulb. Her mother does not believe it was an accident. Nor does the doctor who first examined the body.

Structurally, In the Morning I'll be Gone is gemlike, embedding a clever locked-room murder mystery within a terrorist thriller. The essence of the former, the affable but well-read Chief Inspector Beggs tells Duffy over a pint, ''is to assure the reader that the room is hermetically sealed when in fact there may be another way in''.

Edgar Allen Poe's archetypal story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, is invoked, although Beggs is of the opinion, based on his French mother-in-law's sleeping patterns, that the story hinges on an unlikely premise. So what about the body in the pub? Duffy must solve this puzzle before he can proceed to the more pressing problem, tracking down Dermot McCann and his next IRA target. Expect a big finish. McKinty does those with a flourish, too.
Other newspaper reviews of Sean Duffy #3, here.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Newcastle Writers Festival

If you're in Newcastle, NSW this weekend you can come see me at the Writers Festival. I'll be doing two events on Saturday and Sunday. The details of which can be found at the Festival site here.   This, I know, is the wrong Newcastle...

Monday, March 31, 2014

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again

a post from last year...
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again is a collection of essays by the late David Foster Wallace that includes several of his most famous works in the form. DFW was, in my opinion, a better essay writer than he was a novelist, but that's not as harsh a criticism as it sounds as I think DFW was one of the best American essayists of the twentieth century. In fiction DFW takes himself a little too seriously for my taste even when he's being humorous, but in non fiction, he's funnier, sharper, deeper and more observant. In A Supposedly Fun Thing there are good essays on television and writing (and a rather boring one on tennis) but my favourite piece in this collection is the one about David Lynch that he wrote for Premiere Magazine where he profiles the director without actually meeting him and reviews one of his masterpieces, Lost Highway, without actually seeing the completed movie. You might not think that this would be a successful strategy for a piece of reportage, but it is. The Lynch essay is a work of genius, up there with the best American movie criticism: just as literate as something from Cahiers Du Cinema but much funner and funnier. 
The piece I really want to discuss though is the title essay which concludes the book. A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again is the story of a cruise DFW took around the Caribbean with Carnival. Although not a deliberate humorist in the style of Mark Twain this essay is probably David Foster Wallace's comic masterpiece. Just as it was a great idea to send the landlubber Twain off on the USS Quaker City, it occurred to Colin Harrison, the editor of Harper's at the time, to send the even more nautically challenged DFW off on a vessel named the MV Zenith (that DFW rechristens the Nadir). He was sent on this cruise by Harrison with the aim I think of showcasing American crassness and vulgarity on the high seas but the essay is richer and more compassionate and more interesting than that. While not exactly blue collar himself DFW has sympathy for blue collar aspirations and most of the time he is not a snob. A lot of the essay, clearly, is a pack of lies but lies for comic effect which I think is entirely forgivable especially in a tall tale of the sea. Jonathan Franzen has criticised his friend DFW for making shit up in his non fiction, but I think DFW was pledged to what Werner Herzog calls ecstatic truth - a kind of emotional truth that is truer than what actually actually happened. (Franzen has only been as funny as DFW once when he too had a very funny scene coincidentally set on cruise ship.) A Supposedly Fun Thing has moments of high comedy, low comedy, slapstick, sarcasm, dry humour and of course dead pan irony. 
As I say the editor for this essay was Colin Harrison who was my editor for four books at Scribner and the general editor for the one article I wrote for Harper's. Harrison does a pretty good job here. One wonders how long the first draft DFW handed in actually was because the final version runs to over two hours (for an essay) on audiobook, but, I should strees, it's two hours that fly by. I can't predict anyone else's sense of humor but I laughed out loud many times listening to this piece and there were quite a few Sedarian moments of wry amusement too. If I had to fault DFW and Harrison for one thing its the use of the word 'vector'. If you were to have a vodka shot or a glass of wine every time something is being vectored in Fun Thing you would be pretty much shitfaced by the end of it.
If you want to check out a riposte to A Supposedly Fun Thing you can read Tina Fey's Bossy Pants which apparently includes a positive cruising story that riffs on DFW. You can read it. I think I'll give it a miss.  

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Necessary War

Historian Niall Ferguson has been peddling the line for many years now that WW1 was a strategic blunder from a British perspective because 1 million men died, the economy was destroyed, WW1 led to WW2 and here we are 100 years later with German domination of Europe anyway. Its a neat argument but I think fallacious. Andrew Roberts has written about what a German victory in WW1 would have meant for Europe and this documentary below by Max Hastings also presents a good counter argument. The BBC ran it the same night as Ferguson's documentary arguing his case (alas that one isn't on youtube otherwise I would have included it here too). ... I find Hastings' argument not just more convincing but also, naturally, more personally significant. My grandfather (my mum's dad) fought on the Western front for 4 years and saw dozens of friends killed around him. It would be unnerving to think that all of that death and destruction was ultimately for nothing. Maybe it was, but I'm not convinced.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Chelsea Hotel - Inside The Dream Palace

My review of  Sherill Tippins: Inside The Dream Palace - The Life And Times Of New York’s Legendary Chelsea Hotel from the Sydney Morning Herald (I was particularly proud of getting the adjective Gormenghastian and the slightly risque Janis Joplin reference into the newspaper).

In the early nineties I spent a night in New York’s famous Chelsea Hotel just so that I could say that I spent a night in the Chelsea Hotel. It was not an entirely pleasant experience. The ancient, spring-less bed was infested with bugs, armies of cockroaches marched in formation across the floor, the heat pipes clanged alarmingly, and at two in the morning the man in the room above began alternately screaming and sobbing.
But I got out alive which was more than can be said for Sid Vicious’s girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, who he stabbed to death in room #100 under the influence of heroin. Dylan Thomas too didn’t quite survive his sojourn at the Chelsea, his reputed last words “I’ve just had 18 whiskies, I think that’s the record,” were uttered in room #205.  
The Chelsea Hotel was built in 1884 by architect and speculator Philip Hubert as a kind of urban utopian community. Originally 80 elegant spacious flats, the venture went bankrupt in 1905 and was reborn as a residential hotel frequented by artists, writers and other ne’er-do-wells. The flats were subdivided many times and the décor went to seed. 
In her delightful, painstakingly researched history of the Chelsea, Sherill Tippins takes us through its many ups and downs and the cast of characters who called the Chelsea home. We meet Jackson Pollock losing his liquid lunch in front of Peggy Guggenheim and her carefully selected coterie of upmarket art buyers. We find Arthur Miller pacing the halls after his divorce from Marilyn Monroe. Bob Dylan goes to the Chelsea to write Blonde on Blonde. Allen Ginsberg hunkers down to work out bits of Howl, Andy Warhol digs on the whole scene and shoots the influential art film Chelsea Girls there. Around the same time Arthur C Clarke pops into the Chelsea to work on the screenplay and novel of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Each artist’s space was enjoyably eclectic: Miller’s rooms were stuffed with books and papers, Clarke wrote in an austere environment, George Kleinsinger, the composer of Tubby The Tuba, filled his flat with palm trees, parrots, monkeys and a giant iguana.
Tippins also steers us towards some of the building’s lesser known eccentrics and outsiders. Not everyone was famous or talented and the Chelsea had more than its fair share of horrible painters, wannabe poets and drug dealing hangers on. Occultists dined with nonagenarian widows and the trust fund children of deceased rock stars played ping pong in decaying Gormenghastian corridors.   
The Chelsea became legendary too for its celebrity couplings: Gore Vidal and Jack Kerouac doing it for “literary history” in a squalid rented room, and no one can listen to Leonard Cohen’s Chelsea Hotel #2 without thinking of Janis Joplin’s wicked grin. As the building corroded throughout the 1980’s and 90’s Tippins unpacks the failed deals and broken promises which were always about to return the Chelsea to its glory days. Parts of the building got scaffolded over and one day all the art - taken in lieu of rent - disappeared from the walls “for safe keeping.” Inside The Dream Palace ends on an elegiac note: one plan has the Chelsea redeveloped as a tasteful, dull, upscale hotel, but more likely it will be snared in perpetual legal complications and whither on its own rotten timbers. In either case the Bohemian debauches and artistic epiphanies seem to be in the building’s past. We are however extremely fortunate that Tippins has ferreted out the stories and given us this very enjoyable momento mori. 
       When asked if the Chelsea was a good place to stay in New York Arthur Miller warned a foreign friend that it was less a European Grand Hotel and more a sort of “Guatemala or Outer Queens,” and perhaps it was, or maybe Miller just wanted to keep a good thing for himself.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Why Jared Diamond Is Wrong About "Ecocide" on Easter Island And What This Means For The Green Movement

Easter Island attracts crackpots like no other place in the world. In a best selling and widely influential book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond (a more respectable breed of crackpot) took several cases of what he called prima facie ecocide and drew wide ranging conclusions from them. The case he devoted most space to was that of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) which he said was a gloomy portent of what could happen to planet Earth if we didn't get our act together. When the Polynesians immigrants arrived on Easter Island c. 1000AD they found a small volcanic rock covered with a dense palm forest. Over the next five hundred years the palms were cut down for slash and burn agriculture and for the timber logs needed to move the massive Moai statues all over the island. Diamond makes much hay of this Moai building claiming that the forests were denuded purely for ceremonial and status reasons - in effect for luxury goods. The effect of the deforestation led to crop failure, famine, war, cannabalism and a massive reduction in Easter Island's population from 15,000 to just over a 100 people by the end of the nineteenth century. Diamond goes on to draw the obvious conclusion: this could happen to spaceship Earth if we are as blind and shortsighted as the Rapa Nuians. Collapse was reviewed ecstatically in Science magazine by the prominent Australian environmental writer Tim Flannery (my daughter is in Tim Flannery House at her Melbourne school) and by the likes of Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker. It has been cited hundreds of times since then by environmentalists both as paradigm case of man's eco foolishness, and as a prophecy of what could happen in the future...
There is only one problem with all of this. A big problem. Diamond's book is almost certainly complete bollocks. Diamond spent no time doing original botanic or archaeological work on Easter Island, was not an expert in the field and thus based his research on secondary sources. Recently a book was published by scientists who actually work on Easter Island and they tell a rather different story. Carl Lipo and Terry Hunt from the University of Hawaii and U California argue that yes Easter Island was deforested (probably by a spike in the rat population) but when Europeans arrived the Rapa Nuians had adapted to the deforestation and were farming other crops in unique and clever ways, were still fishing and were healthy and happy: there was no evidence of cannablism, no evidence of war or of mass starvation. In their book The Statues That Walked they even debunk Diamond's claim that the Rapa Nuians had committed ecocide just to move their Moai around - the statues they say were almost certainly moved by ropes. The tales of cannabilism were invented by the usual suspects (French missionaries) to denigrate the old religion. 
In a BBC documentary I watched last night (shown here in Australia on SBS) Jago Cooper very carefully unpacks the ecocide argument and finds the Rapa Nuians not guilty. Interviewing all the relevant experts on Easter Island (scientists who actually do field work there) Cooper argues that yes Easter Island was deforested but also yes the population continued to thrive even after the forests had gone. How? Well through ingenious rock gardens, semi subterranean agricultural plantations, fishing, harvesting of bird life and many other unique and smart ways. When the Dutch arrived in 1722 the population was not starving but thriving and this was a hundred years after the last of the forests had gone. However fifty years later when Captain Cook came to Easter Island he found a population on its legs and almost completely wiped out. What happened? Well, the clue if he'd bothered to look, was in Jared Diamond's first book: Guns Germs and Steel. The Dutch brought European diseases which reduced the population of Easter Island by 90%. The rest of the Easter Islanders were carried away in slave raids. The final straw was the introduction of sheep at the end of the nineteenth and the effective imprisonment of the remaining Rapa Nuians. 
You can watch Jago Cooper's documentary on SBS here and make up your own mind. (I dont know if this link will work outside of Australia.) But I'm convinced by the scientists. The eco parable is wrong. On Easter Island human ingenuity saved the Rapa Nuians until the Dutch brought measles and the Spanish and Chileans brought guns. And thus, a fortiori, Diamond's argument about human ingenuity, climate change and planet Earth? Yes climate change is going to be devastating in the twenty first century, but human ingenuity is going to come up with many clever solutions to carbon fuel and carbon pollution...there's probably a kid in Africa right now who is going to become the solar energy Bill Gates...
(I don't know if it's a coincidence or not but Jared Diamond, Tim Flannery and many of the other eco catastrophists were not trained as scientists (Both have BA's and only switched to science for their research degrees). I'm guessing that a BSc imposes a scientific rigour on the mind that you just don't get in an arts degree.) 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Boston Globe Reviews In The Morning I'll Be Gone

My first and hopefully not my last US newspaper review by the brilliant Daneet Steffens in The Boston Globe: 
It’s Belfast, September 1983. Police officer Sean Duffy starts every day — every drive, really — the same way, checking under his car for bombs before setting off to work.
Recently and humiliatingly demoted from detective inspector — officially for breaking some rules, in reality because he’d run spectacularly afoul of the FBI — Duffy is spending most of his downtime lost in a haze of cannabis-and-tobacco smoke and the Galaxian game on his Atari 5200.
Some of that changes when 38 prisoners escape from the notorious Maze prison, including Dermot McCann, Duffy’s old schoolmate who is now a major IRA operative. (Their history includes a pivotal moment in which McCann talked Duffy, then a hot-headed youngster, out of joining the IRA.)


Adrian McKinty
Seventh Street
Number of pages:
315 pp.
Book price:

Duffy is still busy anesthetizing himself with vodka gimlets, Black Bush Irish coffees, and the Velvet Underground, when MI5 pops in with a proposition: temporary reinstatement as detective inspector if he’ll help them track down McCann.
Though he initially balks at the “temporary” aspect, Duffy feels his interest rising: “restoration to the police? To my former rank? To be a detective again? The old thrill was coming back.” It beats drunken brawls and early retirement in Spain.
Adding grist to this thriller’s mill is a four-year-old, locked-room mystery that has Duffy and his colleagues kicking around sparkling and very amusing references to locked-room literary classics; one of the funniest scenes involves a fellow cop adeptly poking theoretical holes in a basic premise of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.’’
With his Sean Duffy Troubles Trilogy, of which “In the Morning I’ll Be Gone’’ is the third installment, Adrian McKinty places riveting police procedurals in the political context of The Troubles, sharply ratcheting up the tension and fear as depictions of conspiracy, murder, and violence rise up from the page.
But it’s not all grit: McKinty’s novels are also shot through with a smart, crackling humor that manages to be both dark and witty. (Check out a police department’s list of arrested burglars, officially recorded as Michael Mouse, Dick Turpin, and Robin Hood.)
Each book is a solid standalone, but it’s even better to ride the entire trilogy roller coaster with Duffy as your intimate companion. And why not?
He is a rare Catholic on a primarily Protestant police force with an appreciative knowledge of Jim Rockford, Kojak, “Star Trek,’’ and “Doctor Who.’’ Because of his dad’s bird-watching obsession, he knows his eider ducks from his rock doves. He’s a whiz at crossword puzzles — his boss leans on him for clue solutions all the time — is a dab hand at lock-picking, and thanks to his barber, notary public, and neighborhood gossip, Sammy McGuinn, Duffy is hooked on Radio Albania.
Duffy also has discerning taste in music: He’s partial to Arvo Pärt and Pink Floyd, considers Rimsky Korsakov’s “The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh’’ “good head-clearing music,” keeps a Blind Willie Johnson cassette in his car, and loyally tries to find something to like on Robert Plant’s “Principle of Moments.’’
No stranger to violence, Duffy doesn’t suffer fools, but he is always polite to his over-the-fence neighbors, Mrs. Campbell and Mrs. McDowell. He shows his compassionate mettle — indelibly so — during an investigative visit to McCann’s mother and sister, and demonstrates an even softer touch by tracking down a copy of Dr. Spock’s “Baby and Child Care’’ for a terrified father-to-be.
Duffy is far from perfect. “ ‘You’ve got manic depressive tendencies,’ ” an old girlfriend tells him. “ ‘You have alcohol dependency issues. You don’t eat properly or exercise. You smoke too much.’ ”

Maybe so, lady, but you left out the bit where Sean Duffy strikes what balance he can between survival and integrity, the respect he inspires in his colleagues and the fact that he is utterly and pleasurably human. I rest my case.

Monday, March 17, 2014

A Saint Patrick's Day Question: Where Did The Irish Come From?

I won't draw out the suspense...the simple answer is Spain. I think the evidence is now pretty definitive that Ireland was populated from the Iberian peninsula fairly soon after the ice retreated at the beginning of the current Holocene Epoch. In the last five years DNA evidence has shown convincingly that from an Ice Age refuge somewhere in the current Basque region the original founder population of Ireland migrated up the Atlantic coast before settling along the Irish littoral. The great Irish neolithic monuments are the work of these people. But you don't just have to rely on the DNA evidence. A little noticed paper published in the journal PLOS ONE about snails also gives credence to this Spanish story. Apparently edible white lipped snails are found only in two places in Europe - the west of Ireland and the Basque Country. Scientists doing DNA research into these snails have concluded that they originally came from Spain and were carried to Ireland by migrating populations as a food source around the time that the first people also entered Ireland.
All of this should be familiar to people who have read the work of historian Barry Cunliffe who has long spoken about an Atlantic civilization and ancient sea links between the British Isles, western France and northern Spain. Cunliffe turns the map of Europe on its side and points out that the Atlantic and the rivers flowing into the Atlantic and the North Sea were the most efficient way for ancient peoples to travel in a Europe that was covered by dense forests. Cunliffe argues that rather than seeing the Atlantic coast on the edge of Europe (as we do today) we instead should see it - as Neolithic people saw it - as an important sea lane between cultures. I find Cunliffe's work compelling and I wasn't surprised to see it referenced favourably in Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways. Macfarlane notes the similar folk traditions on the Celtic fringe of Europe's western periphery from Galicia to Orkney and speculates that it represents a unified culture connected by ancient sea routes that transcends the current temporary arbitrary national boundaries. 
If you're not convinced by the DNA evidence, the snails or Barry Cunliffe's Atlantic civilization, you could also rely on Irish mythology and oral histories (written down much later) that speak of the "Milesian Peoples" who apparently were the last invaders of Ireland. The Milesians were a dark haired civilization who came from Spain. Long discounted as completely fictional these "Invasion Myths" perhaps reflect a folk memory that goes back thousands of years when the first peoples from Spain arrived in Ireland not too long after the retreat of the glaciers. 
And who were these hardy Ice Age survivors? They were the descendants of the homo sapiens who first entered Europe about 40-50,000 years ago from Africa. The cave painters of Lascaux and Chauvet, the makers of bone flutes and the carvers of ivory jewelry and the Venus of Willendorf. People who'd entered a Europe filled with rhinos and lions, zebra and antelope, that didn't look that different from the place where they'd travelled from. So, ultimately, of course, the answer to the question of where the Irish came from is where we all came from: the savanna lands of The Great Rift Valley in East Africa.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

A Belfast Noir Update

In case you don't know I'm editing a volume called Belfast Noir with Stuart Neville for the prestigious Akashic City Noir series. We got some good news this week: we've got a preliminary cover (right) which I think kicks ass and Johnny Temple, the series editor, told me that Belfast Noir is going to come out as a simultaneous audiobook when the hardback is published later in the year. A quick Nate Silver style analysis reveals that only about 1/3 of the City Noir books actually become audiobooks too, so this I think bodes quite well...
Just to remind you we were delighted to get stories from Glenn Patterson, Eoin McNamee, Garbhan Downey, Lee Child, Alex Barclay, Brian McGilloway, Ian McDonald, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Claire McGowan, Arlene Hunt, Steve Cavanagh, Lucy Caldwell, Sam Millar and Gerard Brennan. A pretty impressive list I think you'll agree. 
With the success of the new BBC drama The Fall and the best seller status of a surprising number of crime writers from Ireland I think the wheel may finally turning towards Northern Irish fiction. For years the words "The Troubles", "Northern Ireland" and "Belfast" caused book buyers, programme makers and publishers to either shrug with indifference or shudder in horror; but the new generation of writers coming out of Belfast is so good that a previously reluctant audience has had their interest piqued. I've been saying on this blog for the last three years that the Scandinavian crime boom is going to end and the Irish crime boom is going to begin and I still believe that. The depth of talent is there. All it needs is a spark, hopefully Belfast Noir will add kindling to a growing fire...
Incidentally Steve Cavanagh, one of our contributors, identified this (right) as Upper Church Lane in central Belfast and says - on twitter - that he used to hang out in the very portico where the dudes are hanging out in the picture. Why was he hanging out there? I'll leave you to speculate on that gentle reader...
Are you still reading all the way down here? Boy are you patient, well I might as well plug me then: The Boston Globe reviews Sean Duffy #3, today, here

Monday, March 10, 2014


Longbourn is the story of Pride and Prejudice told from the perspective of the servants. It may seem like a gimmick but it's so well written that I think it was one of the best novels of the year in 2013. If I had written Longbourn it probably would have been an angry, unreadable, pseudo-Marxist screed, but Jo Baker is a much more even tempered character than I am and what she has done is to produce a satire on Pride and Prejudice that I think is almost as delightful as the original. The story of the two servant girls, their new footman, the housekeeper Mrs Hill, Mr Hill and their interactions with all the beloved characters in the book is told with grace and subtlety and eloquence. Baker mirrors the P&P central conceit with a clever one of her own with a few postmodern touches here and there. The nightmarish clothes washing scenes in Longbourn reminded me of Jack London's Martin Eden (a book nobody reads anymore?) and we are continually shown how precarious life must have been for England's poor in the early days of the nineteenth century before the Factory Acts, Child Labour laws and Poor Law Relief. We get the Napoleonic wars, the slave trade (there's a bit of Edward Said in there too) but like I say nothing TOO heavy. Jo Baker wants to tell a good story not to rant and rave about the coming revolution...
As you may know P&P is one of my favourite novels and I'm pretty protective of the book, which is why I was not a fan of P&P& Zombies or even of PD James's Pemberley (although as I said in my review of that one, if I'm as sharp as PD James is at 91 (when she wrote it) I'll consider myself very blessed indeed). I listened to Longbourn as an audiobook and I loved it so much that I went out and bought the paperback and gave it to my missus. She liked it to so much that she passed it on to our 11 year old daughter (a Pride and Prejudice fan) who is currently reading it now.    

Saturday, March 1, 2014

In The Morning I'll Be Gone

In The Morning I'll Be Gone is released in North America and on audiobook format this week. I didn't want to do another blog about me, me, me but there have been so many newspaper reviews for Duffy #3 I hope you don't mind me reposting them here (I don't have any other website). Suffice to say that In The Morning I'll Be Gone is becoming the best reviewed book of my short crime fiction career. Still America is a VERY tough nut to crack so I'd appreciate it if you could leave me a review somewhere (amazon, good reads, audible etc.) or pass a copy to your mate who just happens to be the editor of The New York Times. I'm going to keep this post up for a week or so in case a curious newbie googles my name and comes here so feel totally free - regular blog readers - not to check back for 7 or 8 days. Anyway here's those reviews, I reckon it's a book most people will enjoy, although if you are upset by sturdy Chaucerian language now considered to be profane or you don't enjoy black humour or any kind of nuance in your Irish fiction then I urge you strongly NOT to buy this book...If you're on Amazon, or Audible or Good Reads, B&N, etc. please leave me a review if you get the chance. Thank you. 

A locked room mystery within a manhunt killer [is] a clever and gripping set-up that helps makes Duffy's third outing easily his best so far. 
The Sunday Times

Each book is a solid standalone, but it’s even better to ride the entire trilogy roller coaster with Duffy as your intimate companion.
The Boston Globe

Not content with constructing a complex plot, McKinty further wraps his story around a deliciously old-fashioned locked room mystery, the solution to which holds the key to Duffy’s entire investigation. Driven by McKinty’s brand of lyrical, hard-boiled prose, leavened by a fatalistic strain of the blackest humour, In the Morning I’ll Be Gone is a hugely satisfying historical thriller. 
  The Irish Times

This is the third in the series and, for me, the best, for it contains a locked room mystery at the heart of a drama about a major terrorist escape from the Maze prison, Belfast in 1983. Written in spare, razor-sharp prose, and leading up to a denouement that creeps up on you and then explodes like a terrorist bomb, it places McKinty firmly in the front rank of modern crime writers.
   The Daily Mail

[A] superb trilogy reaches its finality...The hunt for [Duffy's quarry] begins and ends spectacularly. McKinty is particularly convincing in painting the political and social backdrops to his plots. He deserves to be treated as one of Britain’s top crime writers.
    The Times

An action movie view of the Troubles...a fast and thrilling ride from the reliably excellent McKinty.
The Mail on Sunday

It's a sad day for fans of Adrian McKinty's smart 1980s-set procedurals featuring mordantly charismatic Belfast cop Sean Duffy. Not because his latest, In the Morning I'll Be Gone is any sort of let-down, but because it concludes what has been a hugely enjoyable trilogy. In some ways, Duffy resembles Iain Banks's young male heroes – crass and impetuous, but also wickedly funny and capable of an intense, redeeming empathy.
The Guardian

An older, more sobered Duffy, still unconventional and willing to take chances, but more reflective, more Sherlock Holmes. His growing maturity result in fewer bedroom scenes but there is plenty of excitement and suspense elsewhere in this intelligent and gripping yarn.
      The Irish Independent

Sardonic Belfast cop Sean Duffy [in] another terrific Troubles-set thriller 4.5/5
      The Sun