Woody Haut
Credit: Laura Hynd

Born in Detroit in 1945, Woody Haut grew up in Pasadena, CA, attended San Francisco State University, and has lived in the UK since the early 1970’s. Presently a London journalist, he has worked as a college lecturer, cab driver and cinema programmer. Having also written the critically acclaimed Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood, Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War, and Neon Noir, along with a fine novel, Cry for a Nickel, Die for a Dime, he is now widely recognised as a leading authority on US Noir.

‘From Paranoia to the Contrary’ is, I think, an apt title in that it goes some way to describing Ellroy’s evolution as a writer, one that is, of course, far from complete. It also implies a path that goes from portraying and critiquing the more deranged elements of the culture to something approaching a kind of iconoclasm. Which isn’t to say that Ellroy these days is simply smashing icons, but, for me, he isn’t as in the pocket as he once was, at least when it comes to covering the more paranoid extremes of the political and cultural terrain. Perhaps that’s the result of complacency, or maybe it’s what happens when a writer is co-opted by Hollywood. Or it could simply be that this is a different era, one which calls for a slightly different mode of enquiry and attack. And, of course, it could partly be the result of Ellroy’s inherent contrariness, his grandiose claims and hilarious, I’m just fucking with you attitude. Nevertheless, Ellroy, moving between the personal and the political, is, even at his least effective, more than capable of shedding light on the culture, whether charting the noir history of L.A., with its corruption and sleaze, or uncovering the stories behind the stories of significant national events, from JFK’s assassination to the founding of Las Vegas, events which Ellroy tends to portray as competing conspiracies fighting for dominance. But to get an inkling of how Ellory’s work has moved from the Paranoid to the Contrary, one has to venture beyond the hype and the contrarian attitude, to tease out the helter-skelter evolution of his novels.

If you weren’t around in the early 1980s, it’s difficult to comprehend the impact Ellroy’s work had when it first appeared, at least on readers desperate for high stakes crime fiction in keeping with historical fact and fiction, as well as what was going on in both the streets and the suites. Remember, back then culturally engaged crime writers were fairly thin on the ground. Suddenly there was James Ellroy, who, from Clandestine and the Lloyd Hopkins books (Blood On the Moon, Suicide Hill, Because the Night) to the L.A. Quartet, would make the most significant revision of the genre since Chandler, one that stands in sharp contrast to the whodunnit, the police procedural, the social investigations of Ross Macdonald, and the hardboiled private-eye narratives written by various descendants of the Black Mask school. To come across Ellroy back then was to encounter a writer far more political than he’s given credit for then or now, probably because he was able to deflect that particular interpretation by proclaiming his right-wing credentials. Which only proves that he was already on the road to becoming a politically incorrect contrarian. Political, if nothing else, because those early novels spoke directly to male anxieties, particularly when it comes to women, and the degree to which America was becoming an increasingly violent and paranoid place, with women more often than not the object of that violence and paranoia.

When Brown’s Requiem appeared in 1981, Reagan was in the White House, and supply-side economics was about to take a deep and lasting bite into everyone’s lives. By the final book in the L.A. Quartet, White Jazz, in 1992, Clinton was set to assume power, accompanied by proclamations of tough love, and the institutionalisation of that ruse known as trickle-down economics. You can sense something of that transition in the increasing paranoia of Ellroy’s subject matter and his writing, as it moved from the strictly linear to its more fragmented counterpart. And although he was writing about an era three or four decades in the past, he was also, regardless of how he claimed to live out of time, writing about the present: two eras separated by a common pursuit of corruption, sleaze and the psychotic desire for power. It’s also important to note that the period from Brown’s Requiem to White Jazz was a time when feminism appeared to be making inroads into the wider culture. I’ve said elsewhere, and I think it holds true, that the resurgence of hardboiled crime fiction in the 1980s, grew, on the the one hand, out of the Vietnam war, and writers associated with it, and, on the other, was a reaction to that wave of feminist writers, not in a negative sense, but as a way for certain male writers to create a space in which they could address the culture, including issues of masculinity. And even though his work takes place in a predominantly male environment, Ellroy revels in pushing his male characters – Lloyd Hopkins, Buzz Meeks, or Dudley Smith – all of whom suffer from a severe sense of entitlement, to extremes, to expose their foibles, weaknesses and perverse fantasies.

When Ellroy’s writing career began in 1980 with the semi-autobiographical private-eye novel Brown’s Requiem, the competition, as I mentioned, barely existed. Though Ellroy had not yet fully matured as a writer, it was, nevertheless, a year that saw the publication of Elmore Leonard’s City Primeval, George V. Higgins’s Kennedy For the Defense and James Crumley’s Last Good Kiss. You probably know the story about Brown’s Requiem: Ellroy sent the manuscript to agent Nat Sobel along with the claim that he, Ellroy, was the greatest ever writer of crime fiction. Sobel wrote back saying he would take him on as a writer even though he didn’t necessarily agree with Ellroy’s assessment of himself or of his work. So Ellroy was pretty much Ellroy from the beginning. No more willing then than he would be later on to mark time, he quickly moved into a higher gear, turning his back on the private-eye novel, just as he would later turn his back on serial killers after his for-profit Silent Terror / Killer On the Road, and the traditional crime novel, instead opting wholeheartedly for the dark crimes and sleaze of history.

It’s those crimes and that sleaze that would entice and, for personal reasons, obsess Ellroy. Of course, it would also sustain his writing career, the apogee of which still has to be the L.A. Quartet. At the centre of those books sits the notorious Dahlia murder, an event Ellroy has always conflated with his mother’s brutal death, which, by his own admission, he would exploit up to, and including, the publication in 1996 of the non-fictional My Dark Places, his most personal but by no means his most effective piece of post-mortem prose. Oedipal issues aside, his mother’s death functioned as a key that opened the door onto the city’s dark terrain, one that stretches from 1947, the year before Ellroy’s birth, to 1959, a year after his mother’s death. And, in doing so, allowed Ellroy to launch an investigation into the city’s redevelopment, its political alignments and its hidden conspiracies.

Geneva Hilliker Ellroy’s murder became, for Ellroy, an irresistible calling cared. While his mother’s death has, in itself, ceased to be all that interesting, it’s impossible to ignore in discussing Ellroy’s work. This even though it tends to hide more important matters, specifically, Ellroy’s ability to read the culture and delve into the historical record, which, one could say, he would not have done had it not been for his mother’s brutal death. But let’s sidestep Ellroy’s shameless exploitation of that event, his claims and accusations, not without merit, that he is not beyond dabbling in the pornography of violence. Because however much to the contrary, Ellroy, despite his faults or maybe because of them, is still pushing the genre to extremes, his words and sentences still coming out in clipped and stinging onslaughts, sometimes as pulp poetry, while, at other times, as something closer to pulp banalites. Influenced by tabloid and scandal sheet journalism, as well as by police reporting, it’s as though he’s saying that, in writing about middle and high-ranking low-lifes, the public record can function as a literary mode in its own right, one in which crimes and any ensuing guilt assume an even greater level of meaning.

Given Ellroy’s revisionism, it’s not surprising that he would soon be influencing an entire flock of crime writers, all claiming, or hoping, to tap into the culture. Without Ellroy, it’s even hard to imagine such noir heavyweights as George Pelecanos, Megan Abbott or Walter Mosley, much less all those blood-soaked Tarantino-type film directors. Nor should it be surprising, in an age of excess and simulation, that Ellroy should spawn numerous imitators who, responding to the demands of the market, operate under the illusion that certain aspects of Ellroy’s work can be easily co-opted, and the violence he depicts arbitrarily applied.

While it’s arguable whether Ellroy has maintained a consistent level of analysis as he transitioned from representing the paranoid to what appeared to be a more contrarian position in his short-story, non-fiction and Gangsterland books, the two weakest and wildest of which, Bloods a Rover and Cold Six Thousand, were, coincidentally or not, written during Bush Two’s lawless reign, one can’t fault Ellroy’s desire to evolve. It’s a desire blatantly displayed over the course of the L.A. Quartet, whose first book begins in a fairly conventional manner with The Black Dahlia, but ends with a cryptic noir vision that encompasses White Jazz:

“I pulled the trigger – click/click/roar – muzzle flash set his hair on fire.
This scream.
This huge hand snuffing flames out – stretching huge to quash that scream.
A whisper.
“We’ll stash him at one of your buildings. You do what you have to do, and I’ll watchdog him. We’ll work an angle on his money, and sooner or later he’ll spill.”
Smoke. Mattress debris settling.

In other words, Ellroy was willing to throw everything into the mix, to create something new and confrontational. It’s a dystopian, if not apocalyptic, vision as inevitable as yesterday, today and no doubt tomorrow. At the same time, Ellroy has never shown the least interest in, or regard for, Chandler’s slick observations, easy moral imperative, and petit-bourgeois perspective, intertwined with statements regarding the city’s mean streets where “a man must go who is not himself mean… neither tarnished nor afraid.” Ellroy’s L.A. might be romanticised but it bears little relationship to Chandler’s take on the city, much of which transpires during the same period. Chandler’s pithy comments might cut to the bone, but Ellroy’s verbal onslaughts seek to destroy everything in their path, to create, and own, a more-than-tarnished space representing the writer’s personal Los Angeles, which, having succumbed to greed and redevelopment, barely exists these days except as ghosts and remnants of the past. It’s a template that goes back at least to Roman Polanski and Robert Towne’s film Chinatown, which hit the screens in 1974, a decade before the first part of the L.A. Quartet appeared. And ironically, given Ellroy’s self-confessed politics, it could even be argued that his is a leftist, possibly post-modern, interpretation of the city’s history. For Ellroy, redevelopment arrived in tandem with the rise of the cultural spectacle, be it the film industry, the opening of Disneyland, the construction of Dodger Stadium in the Chavez Ravine area, or the creation of the freeway system. Which makes Ellroy’s take on post-war L.A. not far removed from the urbanologist and Ellroy’s one-time nemesis Mike Davis, who charts that same territory, and offers a similar critique, in City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear.

Of course, Ellroy’s perspective is darker, his stories more convoluted and his characters considerably more warped than the acquisitive and machiavellian figures that populate Davis’s non-fiction. Furthermore, Ellroy’s obsessives go out of their way to inflict their distorted agenda on others. And the more they’re impeded, the more violent they become. Repelled as well as attracted by difference, their chaotic world is invariably thrown into crisis when confronted with incongruities, whether in the form of Elizabeth Short’s dismembered corpse in The Black Dahlia, the promiscuous Communist organiser or the zoot-suit riots in The Big Nowhere, and also feature in The Black Dahlia, or the surgically altered individuals who populate novels like L.A. Confidential and Perfidia.

With every tarnished dream based on a nightmare, the Walt Disney-like Raymond Dieterling in L.A. Confidential, builds his Dream-a-Dream-Land, while making animations for his son, who lives in his own dream-a-dream-land as a psychosexual killer. Clearly, when Ellroy’s characters lash out, they do so with a vengeance, seeking, in their rage, to blind or dismember their victims. Consequently, when Vogel, a cop in The Black Dahlia, contracts syphilis from a black prostitute, he takes revenge by visiting a Watts brothel where he ejaculates into the eyes of the women who work there. And when the body of Elizabeth Short is found, cut to pieces, it becomes fodder for tabloid journalists and emblematic of the era, her dismembered body resembling a map representing the city’s various subdivisions.

“A large triangle had been gouged out of the left thigh…the flaps of skin behind the gash were pulled back: there were no organs inside… the breasts were dotted with cigarette burns, the right one hanging loose… the girl’s face…was one large purpled bruise, the nose crushed deep into the facial cavity, the mouth cut ear to ear into a smile that leered up at you, somehow mocking the rest of the brutality inflicted.”

Short’s death pushes detectives Bleichart and Blanchard further into L.A.’s underbelly. Moving from lesbian bars on Crenshaw to Howard Hughes’s fuck-pads, they’re aroused by Short’s scented death-trail. When Bleichart tracks down Short’s alter-ego, he turns her into a Black Dahlia simulacrum, not dissimilar from what Ellroy would do in reality (that is, if there is a reality outside his fiction), when he and his first wife, the feminist critic and novelist Helen Knode, she dressed in Dahlia regalia, would, on anniversaries of Elizabeth Short’s death, revisit the relevant sites of the Elizabeth Short case. Significantly, The Black Dahlia ends beneath the famous Hollywood sign, on property developed by silent film mogul Mack Sennett and the land speculator who might be the simulacrum’s father.

Mixing fact and fiction is, for Ellroy, a combination as potent as it is intoxicating. In My Dark Places, studying photographs of his mother’s death, he tries to touch the story beneath the picture, to make a connection, admitting everything, but knowing the bargain he struck means there’s no such exoneration, though that too might be nothing more than artifice:

“I thought I could touch the literal horror and somehow commute my life sentence.
I was mistaken. The woman refused to grant me a reprieve. Her grounds were simple: My death gave you a voice, and I need you to recognise me past your exploitation of it.”

My Dark Places – “A book to calm the waters after the storm of White Jazz, says the Parisian female police inspector in Karim Miské’s recent Arab Jazz – is, in equal parts, a reconciliation, an incantation, a recollection, and an attempt to deconstruct the author’s past work and his relationship with 1950s SoCal culture: “That weekend is etched in hyper-focus. I remember seeing The Vikings at the Fox Wilshire Theatre. I remember a spaghetti dinner at Yarnocelli’s restaurant. I remember a TV fight-card. I remember the bus ride to El Monte as long and hot.”

It’s a bargain first negotiated in Clandestine, which, in 1982, was also, in a sense, Ellroy’s first historical novel. Though it would be The Black Dahlia, five years later, that would take that event, intertwining it with the history of post-war Los Angeles, to its furthest extreme. To locate the subtexture of that journey, one only has to note the quotes prefacing those books. In The Black Dahlia this arrives in the form of a quote from the poet Anne Sexton that reads “Now I fold you down, my drunkard, my navigator,/My first lost keeper, to love or look at later.” Having acknowledged his mother’s absence, Ellroy, as the opening lines of the book suggest, isn’t ready to lay her memory to rest: “I knew her in life. She exists for me through others, in evidence of the ways her death drove them. Working backward, seeking only facts, I reconstructed her.” It’s true, Ellroy resurrects his mother’s death best when he feeds it into his fiction, however obliquely, exploiting it, acknowledging it as his initiation into the textual history of Los Angeles, which, in turn, will alter his life by turning him into a writer whose texts reflect back on his beginnings.

The Big Nowhere, published in 1988 in the final year of Reagan’s presidency, is set, appropriately enough, against the Hollywood Red Scare of the early 1950s. Appropriately, that is given Reagan’s role as New Deal liberal who morphed into an anti-communist HUAC informant. Here Ellroy relies on Joseph Conrad to articulate the novel’s subcurrent, and, it might be said, Ellroy’s modus operandi: “It was written that I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice.” Which suggests that Ellroy will move even further into the darkness of post-war Los Angeles, yet he can’t stay away from his favorite subject: “Part of him knew it was just a dream – that it was 1950, not 1941, that the story would run its course, while part of him grasped for new details and part tried to be dead still so as to not disrupt the unravelling.” Like the author’s pre-literary life – a trifecta of breaking and entering, drug consumption and a pulp fiction jones that which would lead to his downfall, i.e., a life submerged in noir fiction – Ellroy’s characters exist in their own pubescent purgatory, trapped between their dreams and the knowledge that they would be better off leaving those dreams alone.

Moving further into the abyss, LA Confidential begins with a quote from Los Angeles novelist Steve Erickson: “A glory that costs everything and means nothing.” An apt description of Ellroy’s obsession, combined with a series of grisly murders, the construction of that Disneyland-like park, and the warped perspective of various cops and politicians, represented by Ellroy at tabloid level: “Press clippings on his corkboard: ‘Dope Crusader Wounded in Shootout’, ‘Actor Robert Mitchum Seized in Marijuana Shack Raid.’ Hush Hush articles, framed on his desk: ‘Hopheads Quake When Dope Scourge Cop Walks Tall’…” (L.A. Confidential)

“Narrative is my drug,” said Ellroy in an interview some years ago. And, no doubt about it, his narratives can be fairly labyrinthine. But that’s the point, and why, in LA Confidential, Captain Ed Exley, LAPD’s Mr Clean, rises through the ranks because, in his 114 page report, he’s the only person able to articulate the narrative, one that he, of course, has altered to his advantage. The advantage going to the person who understands the narrative on whatever level – whether LA Confidential as a book or the arc of history that it represents. Moreover, unraveling a narrative is what investigations, whether criminal or literary, are about, even if that means manipulating it to suit one’s own particular agenda. So the corrupt Exley is not only credited with solving the “Night Owl” murder, but he’s succeeded in burning the evidence, keeping the case files and money, saving the careers of his erstwhile colleagues, and assisting his father in his bid to gain the Republican gubernatorial nomination. No wonder he is thought of as Mr Perfect.

The last book of the quartet, White Jazz, a novel I’ve elsewhere called ‘the Ulysees of crime fiction’, goes even further in combining police reportage, personal confession and smut magazine sensationalism. The origins of the style being the result, so Ellroy told me, of having to cut the book down to a readable size, though it could just as well have been an early attempt at a kind of pulp poetry. In fact, Ellroy becomes a different, and perhaps an even more radical, writer if one thinks of him as a poet, frustrated or not, rather than as simply a hyperactive and obsessive crime writer. But this time Ellroy begins the book with a quote from the classic crime writer Ross Macdonald – who’s practically as father-obsessed as Ellroy is mother-obsessed: “In the end I possess my birthplace and am possessed by its language.” Birthplace, language and, in the end, death: these are the tools and the ponderables that are driving his narratives. Meanwhile, the prologue that follows marks out the parameters of his guilt:

“All I have is the will to remember. Time revoked/fever dreams – I wake up reaching, afraid I’ll forget. Pictures keep the woman young.
L.A. fall 1958.
Newsprint link the dots. Names, events – so brutal they beg to be connected. Years down – the story stays dispersed. The names are death or too guilty to tell.
I’m old, afraid I’ll forget:
I killed innocent men.
I betrayed secret oaths.
I reaped profit from horror.”

The will to remember. No wonder, after White Jazz – for Ellroy a term meaning “a twisted plan hatched by white guys” – he decided to venture beyond the confines of crime fiction as such, just as he’d progressed beyond novels about serial killers, private-eyes and vengeance-seeking cops, to court literary legitimacy through a series of long, dark political novels. But, in a way, those beginnings are all one needs to know: that his work is sanctioned by the will to remember and dream. That the crimes described can be reduced to a single event, and ensuing guilt. In that context, Ellroy will deploy whatever he might have at his disposal: memory, fact, fiction, autobiography and a language part-poetry and part-obscenity. All to reconcile himself to the fact that he has reaped profit from horror and betrayed secret oaths. With the past having infected, if not cursed, the present, nostalgia, so often the province of crime fiction, becomes little more than a sick joke. For Ellroy, like for Faulkner, the past is neither dead nor past. And that will be the case so long as corruption, sexual obsession and violence continue to infect and motivate the historical record.

But let’s momentarily return to Ellroy’s politics. When I asked him what his right-wing politics consisted of, Ellroy said, “More capitalism, free speech and libertarian type attitudes. Time has proved that communism stinks and it didn’t work. It’s like those guys in The Big Nowhere who gradually get disgusted… and realize that the people they’re investigating are no harm to America.” Hardly the ravings of an extremist in pursuit of virtue. However, there are those, such as Mike Davis, who regard Ellroy as a kind of proto-fascist whose sensibility undercuts the very genre he’s writing in. Even though Mike is not altogether wrong when he says The Black Dahlia is “the symbolic commencement of the post-war era… concealing a larger, metaphysical mystery,” he misunderstands Ellroy and the extent of his revisionism when he adds, “Yet in building such an all-encompassing noir mythology… Ellroy risks extinguishing the genre’s tensions, and, inevitably, its power. In his pitch blackness there is no light left to cast shadows a evil becomes a forensic banality. The result feels like the actual moral texture of the Reagan-Bush era: the superannuation of corruption that fails any longer to outrage or interest.”

Could it not be that the Quartet feels like the moral texture of the Reagan-Bush era because it actually derives from the moral texture of the Reagan-Bush era? Furthermore, to say Ellroy’s “all-encompassing noir mythology” destroys the genre’s tensions is to misread how the genre, or, at least, the genre according to Ellroy, has altered since the days of Ross Macdonald much less Chandler or Hammett. Accordingly, any serious reader of the Quartet will be aware that the origins of political corruption in these novels are perversely personal, and that Ellroy has never been one to separate the historical and political from the perversely personal. After all, in the end, there’s escaping the era in which one writes or the skin in which one lives. Not only are Ellroy’s misreadings of history no worse than anyone else’s, but, by focusing on warped obsessions as a prime motivating force, he is probably closer than most to explaining how history and the social dynamics of power actually work.

So often overblown, or, at any rate, over-the-top, Ellroy’s characters move history as much as they are moved by history. This in a genre that seeks to manipulate the reader as much as the author manipulates his or her protagonist. With their own manufactured trajectories, Ellroy’s characters are never less than expendable, burning themselves out for the sake of the narrative, after which the author disposes of them without a twinge of conscience. Like the twisted and tormented hero of his earlier novels, Lloyd Hopkins. Too much a typical protagonist, his exit signalled the end, so far as Ellroy was concerned, of a particular kind of warped decency. For Ellroy, avenging angels, no matter how right-wing or psychotic, are easier to eliminate than their devilish counterparts. That’s the case with the machiavellian Dudley Smith, whom the reader encounters for the first time some hundred pages into Clandestine. Dudley remains a constant throughout the Quartet, rearing his raging but younger head most recently in Perfidia. Described as someone who “scared the hell out of guys who scared the hell out of guys,” Smith, an Ellroy favourite, builds a formidable power base through fear and manipulation, willing to kill, whether in or out of the line of duty. Personifying everything loathsome about law enforcement, he is, as Buzz Meeks in LA Confidential says, “smarter than everyone else.” An old school cop and racist, who emigrated from Ireland, Smith carries a secret agenda the size of greater Los Angeles. With his hand in everyone’s pocket, he possesses a personality to fit the occasion; on the one hand, he’s pure Irish blarney, telling folksy stories about his family or offering fatherly advice to young officers; while, on the other hand, he’s a hit-man for LA crime boss Mickey Cohen. A minor character at the beginning of the Quartet, he ends up a major player and the personification of LA’s noir narrative, ethically-challenged but morally consistent.

It’s not only Dudley who’s given a pre-Quartet life in Perfidia, but the likes of Blanchard and Bleichart, Claire De Haven and, most significantly, Kay Lake, the “red princess” from The Black Dahlia. Arguably the moral centre of the novel, Kay understands that the era’s paranoia is based, as she reports in her journal, on “The lie that race defines human beings. The lie that dissent defines sedition….The definitive lie of fearful hatred.” Taking place just prior to, during and after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Perfidia, despite lacking the impact of Ellroy’s earlier work, manages, if nothing else, to add substance and meaning to the original L.A. Quartet, still a few years in the future. Moreover, Perfidia succeeds in walking a tightrope between the paranoia of Ellroy’s earlier writing and the contrariness of his non-fiction and Gangsterland novels. What it lacks in intensity, it more than makes up for in political insight and sense of history. As the narrator says, “The city would build up and out after the war. The war gave him L.A. ablaze with crazy purpose.” Political, because how could a novel about the treatment of Japanese-Americans post-Pearl Harbor, with its obvious comparisons to 9/11 and its aftermath, but with Japanese-Americans instead of Muslims as the objects of public vitriol, not be political? Though it should also be noted that, according to at least one L.A. Japanese-American crime writer, Naomi Hirahami, Japanese-Americans, no matter how brilliant, would not be hired by the LAPD until the late 1940s. Though I’m more than willing to give Ellroy, usually fairly scrupulous in terms of history, a degree of poetic, or, at any rate, noir, license on this matter, regardless of how it might otherwise impinge on the accuracy of his narrative.

As a typically hyper-driven memory theatre, overflowing with forensic detail, fevered declarations and obsessive musings, Perfidia, and the three books that will follow, might well be Ellroy’s final elegy to the city. Without the narrative drive, urgency and paranoia of earlier novels, Perfidia, nevertheless, further substantiates Ellroy’s revision of the genre and his sense of the city. At the same time, its publication comes in a decidedly different era, one in which Ellroy’s portrayal of male anxiety no longer holds the same impact, while the psychogeography of his native city (with an emphasis on psycho) has now been gone over countless times. Which makes any paranoia regarding the failure of trickle-down economics, corruption, hegemonic decline, political correctness and gender politics, a given rather than a substantial and innovative critique. Conspiracies? What else is there other than human weakness, duplicity, betrayal, money-hungry land-grabs, and a society tearing itself apart through fear, racism, nationalism and capitalism. And even though Ellroy’s stock might have fallen from the bull market of the late 1980s and early 1990s, it is still the case that he knows his city’s history as well as anyone, and remains as intent as ever to squeeze everything he can from it. As the narrator says in Perfidia, “The war let him love L.A. one last time as it was.” While at the same time, wingnut cop Carl Hull, issues a caveat, warning Dudley Smith, and perhaps the reader, that there is more nastiness to come, because “The real war starts when this one ends.”

Whether investigating the Dahlia killing, the Red Scare, Mickey Cohen, the founding of Las Vegas, Howard Hughes, the machinations of the Kennedy family, or the plight of Japanese Americans in the early 1940s, Ellroy’s interpretations are as personal as they are plausible. Basing his plots and counter-plots on how obsessive behaviour creates history, Ellroy has spent four decades expurgating the past in order that he might, whether he realises it or not, critique the present. Despite his fictional characters, their failings and their crimes, Ellroy is not so much interested in shaping events as in reconciling himself to the paranoia of public facts and private obsessions. With a gargantuan ego and formidable writing skills, Ellroy, even as a contrarian, might yet, and against form, be delivering much more than he claims.

Otto Penzler: “Look, noir is about losers. The characters in these existential, nihilistic tales are doomed. They may not die, but they probably should, as the life that awaits them is certain to be so ugly, so lost and lonely, that they’d be better off just curling up and getting it over with. And, let’s face it, they deserve it. Pretty much everyone in a noir story (or film) is driven by greed, lust, jealousy or alienation, a path that inevitably sucks them into a downward spiral from which they cannot escape. They couldn’t find the exit from their personal highway to hell if flashing neon lights pointed to a town named Hope. It is their own lack of morality that blindly drives them to ruin.”

Ellroy’s definition: Noir is “bad men doing bad things.”

Influences: Don Winslow, Megan Abbott, Lavie Tidhar (A Man Lies Dreaming)

-I’ve interviewed Ellroy a number of times, though, since we were both raised in the San Gabriel Valley at around the same time, we mostly end up talking about some obscure boxer, like Pajarito Moreno, or San Gabriel Valley crime.
-I was twelve, living in the San Gabriel Valley, when Ellroy’s mother was killed. I remember a night that I can’t help but associate with her death, when the police swooped down on Colorado Blvd and set up roadblocks, then told a bunch of us kids to go home.
-When I interviewed Ellroy for H&V, he told me that Helen was publishing a novel on Sammy Davis Jr and Kim Novak’s affair. When I looked her book up to order, I discovered that she was indeed publishing a novel, but it had nothing to do with Sammy Davis Jr and Kim Novak. I found Ellroy’s lack of knowledge about his wife’s forthcoming book amusing, but I’ll leave any further interpretation to others.

The Ellroy Paradox – There are some who under-estimated and some who over-estimate him. Perhaps all of us are guilty of this. In either case, Ellroy is both better and worse than one thinks he is. He delivers both more and less than you think he is doing. If you think he’s great, he’s probably not that good, and if you don’t think he’s great, he’s going to be be better than you think. The same with his book on women, as much as he wants to say how much he loves and respects women, the worse or creepier his gender politics seem. On the other hand, he’s not totally the chauvinist he is portrayed as. Neither is he a fascist, though he does qualify as a sensationalist, which is, in a sense, a type of fascism. What he always is, is interesting, paradoxical, contrary.

To delve into Woody Haut’s own fiction, click here:

Typically, the noir novel avoids both length and judgment as it tells the story of an outsider with little or no agency who is – or soon will be – alone, afraid, angry, amoral, and alienating. The author of such a novel typically tells his or her story with little exposition and no resolution, but with a lot of fragmentation and disorientation, and thus breaks up any residual sense of cause and consequence with a non-linear narrative, the narrator’s limited perspective, and his or her questionable reliability.

Stereotypically, the noir novel focuses on how the five attributes listed above lead to the disintegration of the outsider’s sense of self as he – for the noir protagonist is stereotypically a man – doggedly makes his way through a dark world that has been the ruin of many a poor man, a world of jive-talking cynics, wise-cracking criminals, and tired salesmen still trying to sell non-noir futures under neon signs advertising 24-hour liquor stores as silent strangers form faceless night-time crowds in silhouetted asphalt jungles forever obscured by clouds and rain, jungles in which anonymous men float in and out of late-night bars wreathed in thick cigarette smoke, vainly hoping to bed some sultry femme fatale sheathed in a thin cocktail dress which will later inevitably be discarded among another man’s sweaty bed sheets while down in the dimly lit streets of this eternal purgatory shots ring out and broken human beings die like vermin – pointlessly, instantly forgotten, and never to be mourned.

What is mourned is a past which never was, and what that soon leads to is existential dread, inarticulate resentment, radical disengagement, desperate self-annihilation, and rapacious eroticism, none of which in turn leads anywhere near a happy end. That, of course, should come as no surprise, since the noir novel with a happy end has never been written, nor can it be, because it is about life’s losers – people who lose, lose repeatedly, and lose big. Some do so because their authors decide to defeat their best efforts by setting their stories in a negatively predetermined universe, others because they make their own decisions yet are denied either the intelligence or the independence they would need to make good ones, and since they are all driven by an ever-increasing desperation, they make one bad decision after another in a life which is little more than a struggle for survival. In both cases, then, things start bad and end worse.

Now, if this quick run-through of noir stereotypes seems as well-worn as a highlight reel of Hollywood pictures from the mid-20th century, it does so for an interesting reason. Literary noir has a shared history with film noir, and though these days the two art forms have little more in common than their name, over the years enough writers have filled their pages with the clichés developed on screen to create a superficial association even in the minds of otherwise educated audiences. This goes back as far as the 1940s, when a fertile, cross-Atlantic discourse started which was to span several decades. As the preeminent scholar of film noir, James Naremore, recaps, “The discourse on American film noir was initiated by two generations of Parisian intellectuals, most of whom declared the form extinct soon after they invented it… Eventually, as old movies became increasingly available on television or in retrospectives, a European image of America was internalised by the Americans themselves. By the 1990s, noir had acquired the aura of art and had evolved into what Dennis Hopper describes as ‘every director’s favourite genre’.” In the meantime, enough writers had borrowed from the dramatic motifs and narrative techniques of those directors for literary noir to be both re-popularised – and in many places re-marketed en masse – as a literary version of film noir, its very own brain child to which it had given birth all those years ago by providing material for movie adaptations.

As a result of this retrospective focus on the halcyon days of film noir, countless cinematic images have been projected on to the term ‘noir’, so much so that two historical facts have often been overlooked: one, as indicated above, most literary noir looks nothing like those cinematic images, and two, most of the material which was eventually adapted and re-adapted in noir’s cross-fertilisation process was created a long way from the silver screen. As the author and critic Barry Graham points out, “Even while Arthur Conan Doyle was writing his Sherlock Holmes cozies in the 19th Century… his brother-in-law, E.W. Hornung, was writing the dark tales of Raffles, Victorian gentleman and cricket star who moonlights as a burglar. Raffles seems to be a gentleman of leisure, but it’s all about surface appearance and desperate avoidance of losing his upper crust status… he is always one theft away from destitution.” This border state – noir’s raison d’être, its belief that those worth writing about are only ever one step away from the abyss – has become both a popular aesthetic attitude and a counter-cultural space for the most subversive of minds.

Buoyed by the surge of sensational American pulp fiction – which was primarily addressed to working-class men and popularised in the 1920s – and buoyed further by the surge of the literary crime novel – which was promoted by middle-class book clubs and popularised in the 1930s – tough guy writers like Carroll John Daly and Dashiell Hammett pioneered a prose style in those early decades of the 20th century which soon became known as ‘hard-boiled’. Throughout the remainder of that century, this heightened passion for literary toughness was channelled into books and screenplays about the lowest reaches of human nature by such notable writers as James M. Cain, Horace McCoy, W.R. Burnett, Cornell Woolrich, Erskine Caldwell, Day Keene, Dorothy B. Hughes, Jim Thompson, James Hadley Chase, Chester Himes, Charles Williams, John D. MacDonald, David Goodis, Charles Willeford, Patricia Highsmith, Peter Rabe, Gil Brewer, James McKimmey, Elmore Leonard, Derek Raymond, Donald E. Westlake, Lawrence Block, Ted Lewis, and James Ellroy. Together, these noirists paved the way for 21st century noir by processing a growing awareness of violence in the period around World War II, a return to consumer economies, a rise in crime rates, the ideological tensions of both the Red Scare and the Cold War, and a widespread popularisation of psychoanalysis.

Before I go on, however, I ought to clarify something. Though it is occasionally useful for reference purposes, and often inevitable for practical reasons, it is also potentially misleading to discuss noir as though it was a specific cycle of films or fictions associated with a particular aesthetic period or national tradition, i.e. one readily defined and easily agreed creative and critical concept. In truth, the only thing which is not debatable about noir is that it is the French word for ‘black’. Everything else, from its chief influences to its generic conventions, has been debated ad nauseam, often with the laudable intention of saving arguably underrated work from obscurity, but just as often with a lamentable tendency towards antiquarianism. The problem, as Naremore explains, is this: “a concept that was generated ex post facto has become part of a worldwide mass memory.” So, as the noir writer Joe Lansdale concludes, “You can’t point at noir and call it one thing.”

This, of course, does not mean that the term should not be used to describe or discuss art which is identifiably noir. It simply means that we need to think of noir in broader terms. “Noir,” as Naremore reminds us, “functions rather like big words such as romantic or classic. An ideological concept with a history all its own, it can be used to describe a period, a movement, and a recurrent style.” And as this broadening of the term suggests, the on-going discussions about how to define such ‘big words’ arises from an old confusion about the way in which all generic concepts are formed. To be clear, people do not form them by grouping things objectively. They create extensive networks of relationship between things which are often produced in different periods and places by using their subjective forms of association. Thus, over time, several more or less authoritative definitions enter our cultural discourse.

In Scotland, rather confusingly, the noir novel did not start, nor did it reach its pinnacle, with ‘the King of Tartan Noir’, Ian Rankin. Saying so, I hasten to add, betrays neither a literary value judgment nor an attempt to court controversy. It is simply a statement of fact. Rankin does not write noir. Rankin writes police novels based on the far from noir premise that the legal, political, and social systems which govern Scotland are, ultimately, worth defending. So, although his cops have to bend or break the occasional law to preserve order, preserve it they do, and although they have the odd minor flaw, they manage it like the heroes they are. If Rankin wrote noir novels, his cops would not be bending or breaking any laws to preserve order, because there would be no order. If Rankin wrote noir novels, his heroes would not have any flaws, because he would have no heroes, just protagonists. And finally, if Rankin wrote noir novels, his protagonists would not care anywhere near as much about laws or flaws. They would be far too preoccupied with their noir fate of being alone, afraid, angry, amoral, and alienating.

So, how has somebody who does not even write noir come to be known as the King of Tartan Noir? As Rankin was happy to explain when I asked him that very question, he was given this unofficial title by James Ellroy, the notorious American noirist, before Ellroy had even read any of his writing:

“I met him at a crime fiction convention in Nottingham many years ago and I wanted to get him to sign a book for me. I was explaining to him that I was a crime writer as well, and wrote about Edinburgh and the darker side of Scottish life. I said, ‘You could call it Tartan Noir.’ He laughed and signed the book to ‘the King of Tartan Noir’. So then I pretended that he’d invented it. But in fact, I told him and then he wrote it down.”

After Rankin told a version of this story in public – minus the final admission, which he added only recently – people started parroting Ellroy and using his authority to lend credibility to a literary movement which Rankin had invented in jest, ‘Tartan Noir’.

Within a few years, Rankin had become the form’s internationally recognised figurehead, and this has had some rather long-lasting consequences. On the one hand, it has moved some actual noir from the margins of Scottish literature to the mainstream, because, along with Rankin’s popularity, the demand for Tartan Noir has risen dramatically. In response, the market has been flooded with literature promoted as such, and this has included some actual noir. On the other hand, however, it has also included some falsely labelled literature, the kind which merely gets labelled noir because it is a bit dark, not because it is noir in the aesthetic meaning of the word. Rankin’s false promotion as a noirist is one such example. Other examples – similarly famous and similarly false – are the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and George Douglas Brown, whose occasionally dark-ish detective fiction and social realism is often cited in an attempt at locating the earliest – or worthiest – starting point of noir in Scottish literature. Yet while this may seem like a harmless vanity project, such false genre genealogies can have unfortunate consequences. Whenever they remain uncontested, they offer muddled minds models for even more mislabelling, so it is time to look at a few examples of actual, Scottish Noir…

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Louise Welsh is an award-winning writer living and working in Glasgow, Scotland.

She is the author of six novels: The Cutting Room (2002), Tamburlaine Must Die (2004), The Bullet Trick (2006), Naming the Bones (2010), The Girl on the Stairs (2012), A Lovely Way to Burn (2014), and Death is a Welcome Guest (2015). She’s also produced many short stories and articles and written for radio and the stage including a libretto for opera.

Her awards to date include a Scotland on Sunday/Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Award, a Corine Internationaler Buchpreis: Rolf Heyne Debutpreis (Germany), a Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year Award, a Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Award, and a Crime Writers’ Association John Creasey Memorial Dagger.

Seeing as your novels are enjoyed by readers who wouldn’t usually share a taste in literature, can you say what brought you to crime fiction?

Yeah, it’s an interesting one, isn’t it? I never really know how well I sit within the genre. I’m really happy to be put in the genre; I think it’s done me a lot of good. When I started to write my first novel,The Cutting Room, I thought I was writing a Gothic book, and I was very conscious of the Gothic conventions and tropes in it. I didn’t want to write a horror novel, but I did want to draw on that Gothic tradition which has always been allied to crime – the idea of exploring the victim, the way that we portray the victim, but also the urge to have a strong narrative and not to concentrate on these things but somehow have them as part of a strong story, which crime lends itself very much to.

At that point, I was very conscious of the portrayal of women’s bodies, and I think it’s something crime fiction often does quite badly, quite offensively – the use of the naked female form to turn the plot often lacks respect for victims, which is perhaps more to the fore in television adaptations where you see this prone naked female body. I wanted to explore that. Maybe it’s quite naive in some ways, but in that book the use of photographs is an attempt to somehow distance us from the body and to ask the questions: “Is somebody dead? How do we know they’re dead?”

The thing to remember about first novels is that you never know anyone’s going to read them. So you have this huge amount of freedom. You can go for it and should go for it. I wanted this to be published – I actively pursued publication – but I wasn’t ever sure that it would be published. There wasn’t a commercial angle to it. I actually thought it wouldn’t be sellable because of the location, because it’s very firmly set in Glasgow, and you can’t really imagine that other people are that interested in the city you live in. Also the sexuality: Having a strong gay character at the centre, I could imagine gay men reading it, I could imagine some women reading it, but I couldn’t really imagine straight men reading it. So it wouldn’t be commercial for those reasons. I was really pleasantly surprised when it came out. I was astounded, actually.

Ian Rankin said he felt he was writing in a Scottish literary tradition, so he personally moved Knots and Crosses out of a book shop’s crime fiction section. Are similar feelings at the heart of your refusal to write body-in-the-drawing-room crime fiction?

Ha! That’s funny. When I started The Cutting Room, I was reading Elaine Showalter, who has written some really interesting Feminist history, and I was conscious that I did not want to reproduce that kind of sexualised female body in my book. I think this connection between Eros and Thanatos is human nature: the attraction of the woman once she’s quiet – you get it all the time in advertising, these passive women in perfume ads – and what could be more quiet than being dead?

I wanted people to see the body. I wanted them at points to be disgusted or to be worried or scared, but I didn’t want this sexualised form. Although I often write in a male voice, I consider myself a Feminist, and I think the body is often absent from the books. In Tamburlaine Must Die, we do have a death, but really it’s Marlowe’s death we’re waiting for, and we don’t see that death. We know it’s going to happen, but we don’t actually see it. I was very interested in G.W. Pabst’s movie Pandora’s Box, based on Frank Wedekind’s plays Erdgeist and Die Büchse der Pandora. There’s a very beautiful, lively dancer: She makes love to men, she makes love to women, and she seems completely amoral – she lives for fun. She commits a murder by mistake, and in the end she goes to London. It’s very atmospheric, and she’s murdered by Jack the Ripper, because she has to be killed in the end.

For the sake of poetic justice?

Yes, exactly! So in The Bullet Trick I wanted to play with that and have that supposed death, but there isn’t a death. There’s a resurrection, and it’s all part of some illusion. In this book, Naming the Bones, there is a death, but we’re not sure how that came about. There are several deaths, but they’re not conventional murders.

Have you always been intrigued by the unconventional or why do you seem so comfortable in the Scottish literary tradition?

That’s a nice thing to say. I don’t think this is peculiar to Scotland, but I do think we have a tradition of working class intellectualism. You can have a good and inquiring conversation with somebody you met 10 minutes ago in a pub, somebody who wouldn’t necessarily have gone on to further education but will nevertheless be informed through their own reading. When I had a bookshop, we couldn’t keep philosophy books on the shelves, and it wasn’t purely students we were selling them to. We were selling them to guys in overalls, to guys who were going to the pub, looking for something to read. There’s still a respect for learning. That is a strong part of a Scottish tradition I respect, that I’m pleased by.

Alcohol, of course, is a big part of it. I myself am labouring under a slight hangover at the moment. Ha! There’s this idea that we’re often looked down on as a country because of how much we drink, yet I think we should be compared to the Scandinavians, because a lot of that has to do with the weather.

Aren’t they also celebrating a literary renaissance in their crime fiction?

Yeah! I was going to ask you about that, actually.

Is it fair to say that the worse the weather gets, the better writers drink and drinkers write?

Ha! I just wonder – we’re natural allies in that way. The further North you get, you get shared behaviour and a shared sense of humour. I find them a lot of fun anyway.

Have you noticed the mileage they’re getting out of the reverend Robert Louis Stevenson?

Yeah, the thing about the light and the dark, the Jekyll and Hyde – I actually worry a little bit about that. Maybe it exists, but maybe we talk about it too much.

Might the actual commonality be your sideways reflections of extremes?

Might well be, actually. I guess it’s true: We are drawn to extremes. This idea of extremes is a very good one. Obviously, as writers you don’t get much say in how you’re marketed or what goes on your jacket, but I think that’s a very nice plus point of somehow being identified as this genre of extremes. With this new book, Naming the Bones, I kept the tone quiet for quite a long way through. I wanted to experiment with that – a little bit like the actor coming on stage and seeing how long they could hold the silence for. Part of what enables that is the idea that the reader has this foreknowledge that something is going to come. I think we’re on page 300 or somewhere pretty far in before we get a body. That’s fun, and it’s quite delicious to be able to do that.

How important is humour to crime writing?

It’s really necessary, I think.

How important is humour to character development in The Bullet Trick?

Part of what I wanted was for William to go to a place that isn’t actually so different from home. I think we have a lot of shared culture between Germany and Scotland, and yet there are differences, so there’s just that light wrong-footedness you get when you think you’re on solid ground and suddenly realise: “Oh, I just got that wrong. I got that completely wrong.” Maybe humour is a part of that, because it’s also him as an individual. He’s not a confident person, and his lack of confidence makes him a bit unattractive to people at points.

Also, the cabaret scene is genuinely active in Berlin; it’s not frozen-in-aspic. There are actually some quite fun, quite interesting avant-garde things going on there. So that place was where William could operate as a professional. There’s a straightforwardness about things that is very attractive to us, because we don’t have it.

Does this deep structure tend to be on your mind when you write or when you edit?

Gosh! It all becomes the same, especially a few years on, because inevitably you’re working on something else. I’m thinking about starting a new novel just now, and I start very much with notebooks – trying not to recognise what a big task it is, not to scare yourself, to take lots of little notes, and to read around things. The Pabst thing in The Bullet Trick was very conscious. I’d wanted to write about that for quite a long time. The Gothic was very conscious in The Cutting Room.

Were you conscious of the cultural context of Tamburlaine Must Die?

That’s probably the most researched book, just necessarily because it was about Marlowe.

Were you conscious of the controversy about Marlowe and his death when you started Tamburlaine Must Die?

No, no, not at all. I didn’t study English literature, and this is going to sound really ridiculous: I wanted to write about Marlowe because I’d shared a flat with somebody who was doing theatre studies, and they’d been very interested in Marlowe. We talked a lot about Marlowe, and then I went to see just about every version of Doctor Faustus I could see in Glasgow. I really, really loved it. That was part of my life, and I’d moved on, and when I came to think about writing about Marlowe, I didn’t realise how interested lots of other people were.

I didn’t know that, for instance, there was a Marlowe society, although I did know there were people who said that Marlowe had written all of Shakespeare’s plays, but I didn’t realise they had the society and were so serious about it. If I had, who knows, it might have put me off – it might not have.

In the end, you showed how crime fiction can defy genre scepticism with cultural consciousness. Were you at all politically motivated?

Aw, that’s a nice thing to say. You know, I was conscious of being political in that book. What is the point in writing something historical if it doesn’t somehow pertain to our times? At that point, I was interested in Dungavel prison, an asylum seekers prison. There were children being locked up and all sorts of awful things going on. That was very much part of my consciousness when I was writing Tamburlaine Must Die, that and the Elizabethan period and its hatred, fear, and distrust of outsiders and immigrants. That was the idea, but it’s very much embedded. It’s not at the forefront of the book, but nevertheless that concern is there.

Perhaps, if I’d realised how brilliant he is, I possibly wouldn’t have written this book in his voice. I think I found out a lot as I was doing it, and I still have a huge affection for Marlowe. I was very worried about writing a false history, because I studied history at university, and I was a really bad student, but I thought: “No, if I add a bibliography it suggests that this is a learned book.” So I said: “I got a lot of information from this book and that book.” I mentioned two or three books that had been good sources for me, but I didn’t put in a bibliography, because I thought it would be showing off. All we have to give interested readers is three books. They’ll find their own bibliography.

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Born in the Kingdom of Fife in 1960, Ian Rankin graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 1982, and then spent three years writing novels when he was supposed to be working towards a PhD in Scottish Literature.

After university and before his success with his Rebus novels, Ian had a number of jobs including working as a grape-picker, a swineherd, a journalist for a hi-fi magazine, and a taxman. Following his marriage in 1986, he lived briefly in London where he worked at the National Folktale Centre, followed by a short time living in France, before returning to Edinburgh.

Ian’s first novel Summer Rites remains in his bottom drawer, but his second novel, The Flood, was published in 1986, while his first Rebus novel, Knots & Crosses, was published in 1987. The Rebus series is now translated into twenty-two languages and the books are bestsellers on several continents. In addition to his Rebus and Malcolm Fox novels, he has also written standalone novels including Doors Open, which was televised in 2012, short stories, a graphic novel – Dark Entries, and a play (with Mark Thomson, the Royal Lyceum Theatre’s Artistic Director) Dark Road, which premiered at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, in September 2013. There are also a number of novels under the pseudonym ‘Jack Harvey’ and in 2005 he collaborated with singer Jackie Leven on a CD. His non-fiction book Rebus’s Scotland was published in 2005.

Ian has been elected a Hawthornden Fellow, and is also a past winner of the Chandler-Fulbright Award. He is the recipient of four Crime Writers’ Association Dagger Awards including the prestigious Diamond Dagger in 2005. In 2004, Ian won America’s celebrated Edgar Award for Resurrection Men. He has also been shortlisted for the Edgar and Anthony Awards in the USA, and won Denmark’s Palle Rosenkrantz prize, the French Grand Prix du Roman Noir and Germany’s Deutscher Krimipreis. Ian is also the recipient of honorary degrees from the universities of Hull, Abertay, St Andrews and Edinburgh as well as The Open University, and he has received an OBE for services to literature, opting to receive the prize in his home city of Edinburgh, where he lives with his wife and two sons.

‘Tartan Noir’ – was that your idea?

Ha! ‘Tartan Noir’ is a term I’m confident I invented, but I gave it to James Ellroy. I met him at a crime fiction convention in Nottingham many years ago and I wanted to get him to sign a book for me. I was explaining to him that I was a crime writer as well and wrote about Edinburgh and the darker side of Scottish life. I said, “You could call it Tartan Noir.” He laughed and signed the book to ‘the King of Tartan Noir’. So then I pretended that he’d invented it. But in fact, I told him and then he wrote it down. Chris Brookmyre nicked it after that and started using it.

Didn’t he call it chromatically impossible?

Yeah! Well, it is. It’s an oxymoron. Tartan can’t just be black otherwise it’s not a tartan. Anyway, I’ve still got my James Ellroy book upstairs so I can prove he wrote that on the book. Or somebody wrote it on the book… I can’t prove it was him.

Can you say what it means to you?

Tartan Noir – there’s no tradition of crime fiction in Scotland, but there is a great tradition of dark, psychological, Gothic horror stories. Specifically in ‘70s Glasgow, there was a move towards a realistic school of writing about working class life, writing about hard men, writing about hard lives, and writing about urban experience. So it was a move away from the ‘kaleyard’, which was this romanticised view of Scotland. I think crime fiction tapped into that very nicely, and because there was no tradition of crime fiction in Scotland it had a completely level playing field. Nobody had to be worried about writing in a certain tradition, and most of us weren’t influenced by the English.

I’d better speak for myself and not for anybody else: I certainly wasn’t influenced by the English crime novel, because I’d never read one. I’d never read any Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, or Dorothy L. Sayers, but I’d read a lot of Muriel Spark, which is very dark, and I’d read William McIlvanney, James Kelman, Alasdair Gray, some John Buchan, and Alistair MacLean, a Scottish thriller writer, very famous in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But because there was no Agatha Christie figure, you didn’t feel you were looking over your shoulder and had to write a certain kind of book.

So there’s a huge catholicism to Scottish crime fiction. If you look at the stuff Alexander McCall Smith, Kate Atkinson, and Alanna Knight are writing, and if you then look at the really dark stuff people like Stuart MacBride are writing, it seems to me there’s somebody writing in every sub-genre of crime fiction. When Paul Johnston started, he was writing crime novels set in a futuristic Edinburgh, so you have sci-fi crime fiction, historical crime fiction, you have comic crime fiction like Chris Brookmyre’s, psychological crime fiction like Denise Mina’s, cop novels like I’m writing… Other people are writing about private eyes, Allan Guthrie came along and seemed to enjoy writing about criminals rather than cops…

It just seemed there was room for all of that because we weren’t expected to write any particular kind of crime novel. But the balance has swung towards noir, quite dark fiction and I think that comes out of the fact that the current generation of crime writers has grown up with things like Hannibal Lecter, slasher movies, and Hollywood serial killers who are exaggerated in their means and motives. We’ve grown up with American cop shows on the television. We find crime fiction a very good way of writing about urban experience and society, about current affairs and politics, so we’re doing a lot more than just trying to tell a good story that will keep you engaged until the end of a train journey where you’ll go: “Ach, that’s who the killer was.” I think quite a lot of writers in Scotland aren’t that interested in the traditional notion of the English detective story, the structured novel that’s full of red herrings and in which the detective gets all the possible suspects together in the penultimate chapter to explain who did it and who didn’t do it.

There don’t seem to be many novels like that coming out of Scotland. They seem to be quite dark. They seem to be close to the Scandinavian model of crime fiction. When I read Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall, however you pronounce their names, writing in Sweden and about Swedish society in the ‘60s, it seems very modern, and it seems to me very much like a lot of the stuff that’s coming out of Scotland at the moment. It’s not a school, because there are other writers who don’t fit that, but they’re still writing crime fiction, whether they like it or not.

Given the similarities between Scandinavian and Scottish crime fiction, is your shared popularity the product of Anglo-Saxon coolness and Northern innocence?

What I find about a lot of Scandinavian crime fiction is that it’s quite politically engaged. Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall were Marxists who were trying to write about what they felt was a decline in standards and civilisation in their country. I think there are several crime writers out there who are trying to do something similar to that, writers who are saying: “Look at the terrible mess we’re in. How the hell did we get here?”

These are also introspective countries where the people are quite inward looking. If you watch Kenneth Branagh doing Wallander on television you get a sense of that. This guy is just angsty. We do like a good angsty detective, and we think of Scandinavia as a place where you can do Angst well. By the same token, I think you can do it very well in Scotland because the Scots have this Jekyll and Hyde thing going on. We can be lovely one minute, but give us some alcohol and suddenly we turn into monsters. We hide our feelings a lot of the time. It’s weird, isn’t it? We’re all supposed to be Celts, but you look at Ireland where everybody’s so chatty and friendly. Glaswegians are, but you go elsewhere in Scotland and everybody’s reserved. They’d rather say nothing than say the wrong thing.

Si tacuisses, philosophus mansisses?

It’s hilarious. I used to see it in tutorials all the time. All the students from Scottish working-class comprehensive school backgrounds would sit there and say nothing for the whole course of a tutorial. Then there’d be all these really chatty English folk who were very self-confident and self-aware, and even if they didn’t know the answer they would say something. And then all the wee working class Scots would be writing everything down that they said. It was about two and a half years before I spoke in a tutorial, but once I started you couldn’t shut me up.

Why didn’t it take you as long to find your narrative voice?

I was writing from a very young age. I was trying to do comics and strip cartoons and song lyrics from before I was a teenager, and then in my mid-teens I was writing song lyrics and poetry, so when I came to Edinburgh University, I was a poet. I’d had one poem published. I’d won second prize in a competition, so I’d been published in a magazine. That was me. I thought: “This is what I’m doing.” But the poems were telling stories. The poems were not emotion recollected in tranquillity. They were narratives. So when a short story competition was announced, I went in for it and won second prize, and then the next year I won a short story competition and thought: “Oh, I can do this!” So I moved away from poetry into short stories, and then that smoothed the way for a transition to the novel.

After a couple of novels, one of which was never published, I came up with Rebus without having really read any crime fiction at all, with the possible exception of William McIlvanney and some film tie-ins, things like Shaft and maybe The French Connection and The Godfather. I’d read those because they were films, but McIlvanney was important because of Laidlaw which came along just as I was getting an inkling of writing a dark, contemporary take on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. All the way through Knots And Crosses, you’re supposed to think Rebus, the detective, is potentially the killer – he just doesn’t know it.

Hard to fool people with that these days, when they know there are 17 Rebus novels. He’s probably not the bad guy in the first book, but it was never meant to be a series, and I was reluctant to even see it as crime fiction. At that time, crime fiction was very much the poor relation. You’d go into a book shop and struggle to find a crime section. It was tucked away at the back of the shop somewhere.

Is it true that when you first saw Knots And Crosses in a bookshop, you moved a copy from the crime section to where you thought it should be shelved?

Yeah. I wanted it to be in Scottish literature at the front of the shop beside Spark and Stevenson and McIlvanney. I went back the next day and they’d moved it back to the crime section. This is going back to 1987, so it’s going back quite some time.

After all those years, are you tired of being seen as the guy who writes Rebus?

Well, I’m not the guy who writes Rebus anymore. I wrote the last Rebus novel about three years ago. Of course, every time I do a gig I get asked if I’m going to bring back Rebus: “When are we going to see him again?” I get emails from people saying: “I like your books post-Rebus, but when are we going to get another Rebus book?”

Rebus was, and remains, a useful character. He’s a useful means of looking at society. He’s a useful prism through which you can show all the different aspects of human life, because a detective, unlike almost any other character in fiction, has access to every area, every layer of society. So if you want to write about politicians, big business, backhanders, and corruption, but you also want to write about the dispossessed and disenfranchised folk living on the edge, folk living on housing benefit, and folk with drug problems, you can do all of that with this one character, because he can explore all of that and everybody’s got to open their door to him.

So I do think a detective is a very good tool for opening up the world and exploring it. That’s what I think I try to do in the books. It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle of modern Scotland. Whether it’s local politics, national politics, the economy, the country’s history and possible future, racism, or religious bigotry, all these things can very easily be tackled in crime fiction. The slightly frustrating thing is that you can’t show that the world is also a very nice place, because your detective tends not to be dealing with happy shiny people. Your detective is dealing with suspects and grieving relatives, which is frustrating when you live in Edinburgh. I mean, look at how nice it is.

Having written about those happy shiny people in a couple of successful short story collections, would you write more of them if there was a bigger market?

Probably. The short story is a nice form. It’s like a little jewel. You can hold the shape of it in your head – you can’t with a novel – and they’re really good to read. I enjoy reading short stories or listening to them in the car, and I enjoy writing them, but I don’t know whether I could ever get enough ideas to be a fulltime short story writer. You’d want to get a story published every single week. You’d have to have 52 good ideas, whereas writing a novel you only have to have one good idea a year – maybe two: plot and subplot.

Then, at the end of two or three days’ work, you’ve got something you’ve physically made that nobody’s made before. That’s one of the wonderful things about writing. There are 26 letters in the alphabet, there are only so many words in the language, and yet everybody can write a sentence that’s never been written before. Think how incredible that is. You can sit and write a sentence that nobody in the entire history of human existence has written before. That’s the great challenge as well: trying to write something different – do something that’s not been done before.

Doing English at University, you’re told there are seven basic plots, and you go: “Well, I’m fucked then. I can do seven books and that’ll be it.” But then you learn that these seven plots are actually completely malleable and interchangeable. There might only be seven basic plots but the well of stories is inexhaustible. When I was younger, plots were flying at me. I was very receptive to them. I’d walk down the street and I’d get an idea for a story because I would hear or see something. In the end, I tried to switch off because I was getting more ideas than I could possibly use. It’s hard to sort them out and decide which ones to write and which ones not to write.

Early in his career, James Ellroy noticed he could execute anything he could envisage. Can you?

Yes, but he hit a wall. Well, did he hit a wall? He told me once that when he wrote White Jazz, the linguistic experimentation in that book was so extreme, he actually lost readers. People weren’t buying it because it was too hard to read, so he back-pedalled a wee bit after that. The narrative became more fluid and the language became slightly less opaque. But yeah, there’s no doubt that he gets big ideas and is able to execute them. I’ve got storylines upstairs that I’ve not used yet because I can’t think how the hell to do it.

Like what?

Things like, you want to write from an eight-year old boy’s point of view and I’m going: “Well, can I? Would it be realistic? Could I make it realistic? That’s awfully hard, I’ll try something else.”

Does such professionalism come with a risk?

I think you can fall into a trap. If you’ve got a very successful career in one genre with one character, it’s very easy just to keep on writing stories that are slightly different from previous stories but just different enough so they don’t put off your publisher or your reader. I’m sure every crime fan in the world can name writers who probably should have stopped by now or tried something new.

Do you regret making Rebus old when the series was young?

Ha! Limiting the life span of the series… Well, he had to be 40 in the first book, because he had to have had a previous life that he’d managed to block out. Time had to have passed. Young man, training for the SAS, something terrible happens, and he’s able to push it to the back of his mind or stick it into a compartment and not think about it again. So I thought: “How long would have passed? Probably the best part of 15 or 20 years.” I totalled that up and thought: “That makes him about 40.”

When I thought it was only going to be one book, that decision didn’t matter, but then about three or four books into the series, I decided: “He’s actually going to age in real time. He’s not going to be preserved in aspic the way a lot of detectives are in fiction.” That way I could realistically show the changing nature of Edinburgh. Some time has passed from his first adventure set in ’87,  so we get the parliament, we get the G8 coming to town, and you can show the changes that are taking place in Edinburgh and in Scottish society, but then you come up against that eventual problem: “When does he have to retire?”

I thought he’d probably have to retire at 65. It was a cop who told me: “No, it’s 60 for detectives: mandatory retirement.” So I totalled it up and thought: “Hang on, in ’87 he’s 40. That means in 2007 he’s 60. So 2007’s book has to be his retirement book.” It was as straightforward as that. I’d given myself a problem, but the answer to the problem was for him to retire. It doesn’t mean he’d stop being a cop. I know what he’s doing. He’s working in the cold case unit at Fettes Police Head Quarters in a team of four: one serving police officer and three retired detectives who look at old unsolved murders. Perfect for Rebus…

Read the remaining 10,000 words of this interview here:

James Grady is the Montana-born writer and investigative journalist known for authoring classic espionage thriller novels such as Six Days of the Condor and Last Days of the Condor.

He graduated from the University of Montana School of Journalism in 1974. During college he worked for U.S. Senator Lee Metcalf of Montana. From 1974-1978, during the post-Watergate era, he worked with pioneering muckraking investigative journalist Jack Anderson. He has contributed to Slate, The Washington Post, Washingtonian, American Film, The New Republic, Sport, Parade, and the Journal of Asian Martial Arts. Grady is best known as the author of the espionage thriller novel Six Days of the Condor, which was famously adapted to film as Three Days of the Condor starring Robert Redford and directed by Sydney Pollack. In addition to about a dozen novels and many short stories, he has written for film and television.

You’ve found a voice to express the frustrated aspirations and heroic fantasies of your generation. Was that your reason to start writing?

Insightful question. All authors are products of their times and their environments. I was one of the earliest members of ‘my generation’ to find success in literature; prose fiction. The speed and intensity of history shaped us. The prospect of nuclear Armageddon; the Birth Control Pill; the explosive growth of the middle class following WWII and the Depression; the Red Scare and McCarthyism; TV essentially in a very Marshall McLuhan fashion bringing the world into our homes; JFK – plus RFK and MLK, Malcolm X – being assassinated; Vietnam; and, not to be ignored, the birth of rock ‘n’ roll.

If I’d have had that talent, I’d have gone that way. Writing with a noir eye lets you see around the edges of the terrors of modern daily life. Writing on the edge – say a crime thriller by Richard Stark, Donald Westlake, Elmore Leonard – lets you look back at the rest of life with a perspective that sometimes shows the readers something they never otherwise would have articulated or heard articulated. And writing fiction in that vein requires you to enthral the reader with entertainment – not just dazzle him with complex sentences or observations or pontifications. The best fiction is ‘true’ – and finding truth is at the heart of crime, thriller, suspense, noir, espionage, mystery fiction.

What are your thoughts on genre divisions and literary reviews?

I think ‘fiction criticism’ should stop trying to put its subject into tidy hierarchical ghettos just so they can serve course catalogs at universities and PhD theses. Hamlet and Macbeth were popular entertainments with spies, murders, ghosts. Hammett almost lived long enough to see himself go from ‘hack pulp writer’ to ‘great American author’. Sure, some fiction is written within limits and aimed at a particular type of enjoyment. But too often critical attention is created by academics who come out of navel-gazing education and ‘criticize’ to win approval of their fellow critics.

Do formulas ever help writers and their critics?

I consider ‘formulas’ dangerous to all fiction – for example, the ‘academic novel’ so beloved by… academics, gee, what a surprise – suffers the more formulaic it is. The best three academic novels I’ve read are Lucky Jim, I’ve Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me, and The Wonderboys.

To me, the best crime or noir or espionage writers start with the necessary elements to put their work in that definition – Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, John LeCarre, Hammett & Chandler & Cain – then let their story burst beyond that. In Six Days of the Condor, for example, I deliberately chose to go against the James Bond rule of the times and make my hero incapable of doing anything I couldn’t do, actually, making him less competent than I thought I was.

How did you come to that writing philosophy?

The economic crash of industrial America – facilitated by the Reagan Administration, I would argue – triggered Steeltown. One Saturday back when newspapers were thick – early 1980’s – I saw a two sentence story in the back pages of my Washington Post that a citizens’ group president from Youngstown, Ohio, had testified to Congress that with the crash of the steel industry, the only groups with any power left in his once booming hometown were competing groups of organized crime. The convicted and bizarre Congressman Jim Traficant – Ohio, released from prison – is from Youngstown.

It was like a vortex hit me and swept me up, and I saw the novel I wanted to write, one that in part was an homage to Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest which had been written about Butte, Montana – Montana being my home state, Butte the tough “city” – we’re talking less than 100,000 when I was growing up – that dominated the state. Hammett wrote about smokestack cities on their way up in America, I wanted to write about them on their way down, and both of us used the same fictional model: crime novel.

I went to Youngstown and hung with the citizens group, labor unions, other citizens for several days. There’d been something like 58 car bombings in one year a year or so before I got there. This was 1988.  They showed me the outside of a casino that did $28 million a year in illegal biz that it took the FBI a couple more years to bust. A great reporting trip.

From the start, I knew the title of the book should be: “Stealtown” A deliberate pun, one like Hammett used in Red Harvest, and one that I thought would make customers pick up the book and wonder.

Then several things happened. My wife got pregnant with our son Nathan and I developed Graves disease – a thyroid condition that’s no big deal if diagnosed and treated, but her pregnancy was troubled, and once I realized that I was ill, shaking, trembling, dropping weight – an lb. every other day – I figured I had cancer and that if I told anyone, that might endanger the unborn baby. Author Kitty Kelley threw us a baby shower and the reaction of all our friends to the sight of me made my wife Bonnie call a doctor, who called me, diagnosed me over the phone, and all was well – or on the slow mend – almost immediately.

But before that, I’d delivered the MS to Bantam publishers. Went up to NYC still “secretly” dying – I know, how stupid and paranoid! – got double teamed by the editor and publisher who thought their “new” idea for a title was “brilliant”. They’d already rejected it specifically once before: “Steeltown.” I sat there, not able to ascertain what the stakes were, worried that if I said no to a stupid title, they’d kill the book or publish it “small.” So to get the book published and the next chunk of the advance for my family, I agreed. I would never buy a book with that title, but I sold one with it out of unfounded paranoia. Dumb.

So the city in my book became named Steeltown. I was going to keep it no named. The book starts: “Once upon a time, Steeltown worked big magic in the great American dream, but on the May morning the man flew into that city, he saw empty smokestacks rising into a clear sky.” Then it’s the private eye playing one faction off against another to gain control of the town novel. I even named chapters like Hammett. The French loved it and got it; mild sales and reviews in the U.S.

What’s the story behind River of Darkness?

River of Darkness is the noir covert history of what we call the Baby Boom generation of Americans from Vietnam to Iran-Contra, told as a cross-country chase. And it’s the closest thing to an autobiography I’ve written. Again, the only weakness is its title, which I foolishly locked onto way early in the book – I even passed by the better title in my consideration, mostly out of arrogance to recognize it when I heard it.

What was it?

Naw, don’t ask, maybe someday I’ll get to re-print it and use it then.

Is all of your writing noir?

River of Darkness is full of “social” fiction/journalism, but disguised, with the characters and plot racing through it. Mad Dogs also races through the post 9/11 American landscape. It took the French giving me an award for me to grasp that I’m a noir author – and that noir is essentially the ‘social novel’, but one in which characters must face the reality that they must choose from imperfect choices, and that though they must rebel to find themselves, they are doomed to life’s absurdities.

What makes a good social novel?

I think good crime novels are good social novels – Huckleberry Finn was about Huck breaking the law to free, thus steal, the slave Jim. I think ‘social novels’ – Steinbeck, Dos Passos, Dickens – have faded because it takes so damn long from the time your manuscript is approved – let alone sold to a publisher – the social conditions you’re writing about have been over-run by new concerns.

Authors who seek to use fiction to scream about some issue usually end up being out-dated by the time their books roll off the presses and often end up looking stupid – circa 1973, I read a book in which Nixon was an all-wise hero. Because the world moves faster and more intensely every day, setting a novel in a contemporary social structure is increasingly difficult.

Novelist, critic, academic John Gardner became famous for the not so original position that all fiction presents a moral vision, so a writer should be careful about what he does. I’ve always had a dual fascination: writing and politics. I worked in the U.S. Senate after I was a 25 year old success with Six Days of the Condor, for example. I think that writers who ignore the moral issues and complexities of their times at best are fantasy creators. What’s ironic about that is how the science fiction authors beyond Huxley and Orwell used ‘fantasy’ to mirror every social issue their neighbors faced.

Also, at least in America, crime writers are the authors most likely to actually go into the streets of neighborhoods and lives they don’t know in search of backgrounds and stories. A good novel of any categorization makes you feel and empathize with the characters, makes you feel not alone. If you’re writing a novel that’s removed from realities of society, well, the empathy becomes shallow.

All that said, when I write about a particular crime, the particulars of that crime are what’s of utmost importance. What you go for is some sort of universality: anybody can be a murder victim.

What do you hope that does for your readers?

Crime novels give us a chance to think about justice and crime in a safe fashion. I think we read crime fiction for an odd reason: we seek to escape reality often by reading fictions that we feel – or believe – somehow reflect a deeper reality than that which we face when we close the book. Which is ‘better’ for your reader to feel when he’s done with your book – “I wish that’s how it was” or “That’s how it is”? I think the answer is how much and how true you make the reader feel.

What’s the appeal of criminal protagonists?

In fiction, the better the villain, the stronger the story. Yeah, we fear – and love – Hannibal Lecter, and I think there is some level of “I wish I could just shoot people who piss me off” in every reader. People are drawn to strength, people who ‘do’ rather than ‘obey,’ and criminals by definition refuse a certain level of obedience to society. Camus’s brilliant understanding of the necessity of rebellion applies here.

But inseparable from this are issues of responsibility, narcissism, sadism, greed, arrogance, insanity. A criminal’s life requires deception, and thus is ultimately inauthentic and limited in its rewards. Today more than ever, we realize how much power we actually lack, so someone who seizes all the power he can regardless of what moral or legal or practical lines he crosses is fascinating.

How often do you think that leads to an examination of core principles of morality?

I think crime fiction by definition requires examination of “core principles of morality” – Les Miserables, for example: theft is wrong, so not stealing but letting your child starve is…? I don’t think we read crime fiction for lessons on how to act, except for a few idiots who ape TV or novel fiction to become criminals. We read to be thrilled, to escape, to be entertained, to be intrigued. I think everyone who read The Godfather at some point wanted to be in the Mafia because it felt so powerful and energetic, even if they would have recoiled in horror at doing what Mafia people do.

Speaking of social stratification and conflicting loyalties to multiple authorities, has dramatising corrupt definitions of justice had a noticeable impact on people’s real-life expectations of ‘justice served’?

Absolutely – and that’s both good and bad. Juries in America are starting to free defendants because they, as consumers of fiction, have been taught to believe that the extensions of Sherlock Holmes and J. Edgar Hoover to TV’s CSI mean that the prosecution should be able to scientifically prove everything not just beyond the shadow of a doubt but as precisely and cleanly as 2 + 2 = 4.

I think good crime fiction can help a reader understand “what might happen” so they can better understand the chaos and fears of their lives. The better the crime novel – on all levels, including action – the better portrait of reality it creates. Thus, the reader can choose to see more than just the fiction when he’s done with it, his eyes and heart and mind can have been opened, if only for an instant. What happens then is so individualized I can’t speculate.

I think a good crime novel can let a reader feel that at least in this book, things make sense. Thus, a logical next step might be: “What kind of sense can I make of my ‘real’ world using the ‘education’ gained through reading this crime novel?”

Can you define your writing philosophy?

I try to write my fiction ‘true.’ I have seen terrible things and met terrible people; I have seen wonderful things and met wonderful people. To deny the terrible cheapens the wonderful and obscures truth.

Can you recommend a fellow writer?

Richard Thompson, the folk-rock poet singer-songwriter. He is an under-appreciated author, writes novels as 3-5 minute songs. And on that note, let me say that the best author who’s my age – born in 1949 – is Bruce Springsteen. As I said in Mad Dogs: “The poets of our generation put down their pens and picked up electric guitars.” Not all poets, of course – there are great ones out there, Billy Collins, Charles Simic, etc. – and not me. But “if I could-a, I would-a.”

To read the opening pages of James Grady’s cult classic, Six Days of the Condor, click here:

Sean Chercover is a dual citizen, born to a Canadian father and an American mother. After earning a Liberal Arts degree from Columbia College Chicago, he worked as a private investigator in Chicago and New Orleans. His other professions have included television writer, video editor, support diver, waiter, encyclopedia salesman, and some best forgotten. After a series of corporate PR writing gigs drove Sean insane, he settled down in Toronto to write fiction in earnest.

He is the author of the novels The Devil’s Game, The Trinity Game, Trigger City, and Big City Bad Blood, as well as short stories that have appeared in a number of anthologies. His work has received the Anthony, Shamus, CWA Dagger, Dilys, Crimespree, Gumshoe and Lovey awards, and has been shortlisted for the Edgar, Macavity, Barry, ITW Thriller and Arthur Ellis.

Why do you think your work is both critically and commercially successful?Is the deeper structure something you feel broadens the appeal of your work, or is it what you started writing crime fiction for in the first place?

First, thank you for the kind words about my writing. I’m not sure I’m best qualified to say why people read my work, but I imagine that some read it purely for the entertainment value of the story, while others are interested in engaging with the underlying ideas. Both are legitimate reasons, and I aim to write novels that succeed on both levels.

Are the underlying ideas the reason I write? Hell, yes. As a reader, I’m interested in books that raise questions about what it means to be human, what it means to live in a society and the tension between individual morals and societal mores. And I’m interested in books that do interesting things with language. Those same values are what I strive for when I write. I’d be bored if I didn’t.

What is crime fiction?

Traditionally, most crime fiction was based on the following assumptions: The universe is a fundamentally orderly and just place. A crime occurs, which introduces disorder and tips the metaphysical scales of justice out of balance. The investigator-protagonist fights to restore order and justice to the universe by solving the crime and bringing the criminal to justice, either within the system or at the barrel of a gun. Many crime novels are still based on this premise, and some of them are very good. But crime fiction has evolved and become more sophisticated. Many crime novels today exist in a universe that is not fundamentally ordered or just.

Has the crime novel, then, replaced the social novel?

Yes. In fact, I think the crime novel is the social novel of our time, and I think that the crime novel is well suited to the task.

Do you mind putting into words how you define this ‘task’ and how crime novels fulfil it?

The good ones raise provocative questions about how we live, the compromises we make in life, and how we might otherwise live. They offer different perspectives to consider – or, as my grandmother used to say, ‘good grist for the mill’ – but the reader is the collaborator in the experience of a novel, and needs to be given room to participate. Smart readers are not looking for didactic instructions; they are looking for ideas to engage.

And finding these demands we foray into extreme situations and forms of behaviour?

Definitely, I think that is one of the strong appeals of crime fiction. Crime fiction demands certain things from the author, and guarantees certain things to the reader. By definition, it guarantees that we are dealing with human behaviour that is so universally condemned that it has been outlawed. We are dealing with behaviour that has real societal consequences, beyond the angst of the main character or the hurt feelings of secondary characters. And as a result, it puts those characters through a crucible.

It also demands that something actually happen. It demands a plot. I’ve spoken at universities where ‘plot’ is considered a dirty word. But plot is not a dirty word, unless it is independent of character. Plot is simply ‘character in action’ and crime fiction demands that characters take action. Action doesn’t have to mean car chases and gunfights. It simply means that the characters have to do something. And as a result, crime fiction rarely fails to deliver a story. This doesn’t mean that the crime novel has to unfold as a linear narrative; even an episodic crime novel will have provided a story by the time you turn the final page.

Is crime fiction about remaining true to certain core principles of morality and reassuring us when we may act against them for a greater benefit?

A fascinating question. If we have acted against our core principles – even for a “greater benefit” – then we cannot be said to have remained true to said principles, can we? And this is where crime fiction shines. The straightjacket of moral absolutes vs. the slippery slope of moral relativism. To my mind, the best crime fiction does not falsely reassure us that we are still ‘basically good’ if we betray our core principles, but neither does it shy away from the fact that we cannot always achieve a measure of justice without that betrayal. We can rationalize the hell out of the betrayal – and rationalization may be the most powerful attribute of the human mind – but in the best crime novels, there is always the crisis of praxis; when the rubber meets the road, when our principles hit the pavement.

Does that mean the genre could do with more critical attention?

If, by critical attention, you mean attention from newspaper book critics, then I think crime fiction does quite well, relative to other genres. Of course, all books are faring poorly, since the newspaper industry is in crisis and papers are cutting their books sections, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish. But if you mean critical attention from academia, then yes, I think crime fiction is overlooked.

What might be the benefit if this attitude were to change?

To crime fiction authors, aside from a possible ego boost, the benefit might be increased sales to university students now required to read crime fiction. The benefit to academia would be that the study of modern literature would now include some of the most socially relevant and politically charged writing of our time. But part of the problem stems from the artificial barriers erected by genre classification. To Kill A Mockingbird, Light In August, Crime and Punishment, Native Son, The Man with the Golden Arm, The Stranger, Hamlet… the list could go on forever. These are all considered ‘literary fiction’ – and rightly so – but they are also all ‘crime fiction’.

Where do you draw the line?

I understand the value of genre classification for selling books, but for academic study, genre seems a construct that is antithetical to the study of good writing. As Raymond Chandler – at least, I think it was Chandler – said: There are two kinds of writing, good writing and bad writing.

How do you feel about formulaic writing? Is it a liability to the genre’s reputation?

I think the conventions and tropes of crime fiction can be useful – especially to subvert – but they sometimes devolve into formula, which is a recipe for uninteresting writing. And yes, that is probably a liability to the reputation of the genre in academic circles.But I think we have to keep in mind that there are a lot of books published each year, and most of them are not very good. There are formulaic contributions to every genre, including literary fiction, and most of the bad books published each year exhibit formulaic writing.

What do you make of Scottish crime fiction?

I wouldn’t say that I’m well-read in Scottish crime fiction, but I’m very impressed by what I have read. The Jack Laidlaw series by William McIlvanney is absolutely required reading for anyone interested in crime fiction, as are the works of Ian RankinChris Brookmyre, and Val McDermid. Recent additions to the Scottish crime fiction scene that have caught my eye include Allan Guthrie, Denise Mina, and Russel D. McLean. Scotland has made – and continues to make – a significant impact, and you cannot make a thorough study of crime fiction without Scottish crime fiction.

To delve into Sean’s work, click here:

Gregg Hurwitz is the New York Times bestselling author of 15 thrillers, including the celebrated Orphan X. His novels have been shortlisted for numerous literary awards, graced top ten lists, and have been translated into 22 languages.

He is also a New York Times Bestselling comic book writer, having penned stories for Marvel (Wolverine, Punisher) and DC (Batman, Penguin). Additionally, he’s written screenplays for or sold spec scripts to many of the major studios, and written, developed, and produced television for various networks. Gregg resides in Los Angeles.

What brought you to crime fiction and what are your thoughts on the distinction between commercial and literary fiction?

I am, at heart, a story guy and a structure slut. I studied Shakespeare, particularly the tragedies, because they are terrific thrillers. Macbeth: great mob tale. Hamlet: ghost story. Othello: pre-noir. Etc. Stateside, I love Faulkner – the corncob rape scene in Sanctuary? Need we say more about lurid classifications? I collect his paperbacks from the 50s for their great pulp covers. I enjoy terrific stories where I can find them, and one can find them in all sections of a bookstore. There’s a lot of poorly written stuff as well, both ‘literary’ and ‘commercial’, the only distinction seeming to be that commercial crap actually makes the authors money. If you write in clichés, get published, and DON’T make money, well that’s an even sadder state of affairs.

I also like to point out that ‘commercial’ writing extends across the board; Updike did okay for himself. Dickens never had trouble paying the rent – and his literary reputation has survived relatively well. When Gertrude Stein came to California, she only wanted to meet Dashiell Hammett – okay, and Chaplin too, but that dilutes the anecdote.

I think crime fiction has replaced the social novel. I’d press someone to find a better practitioner of the craft than, say, Poe or Chandler or Lethem or Lehane – or to find someone who better reveals to us a city or a family or a moral conundrum. But I find it’s no use getting defensive. One can’t really win arguing that he or she should be taken more seriously. Better to write as goddamned well as one can manage, and let people sort it out a couple hundred years hence.

I should clarify: I think your and others’ efforts to draw more attention to our kind of writing is noble and an important contribution to discourse regarding matters literary; what’s the good of books if we can’t argue about them? I was remarking that authors commenting on their own work is generally less helpful. No one’s ever won an argument claiming that they should be taken seriously, or that they should be accorded more respect. When it comes to genre and respect, I like to rip off Oscar Wilde: “Books are well-written or badly written. That is all.”

Are well-written crime novels about epic perseverance in a world where there is no healing, only constant movement towards it?

That’s certainly one good take on it. I think that there are a lot of angles on crime fiction – some reads like blue-collar tragedy, some like suburban morality tales, some like social novels. They’re all over the map, which is one thing I love about it.

Does the crime writer sit at the table of literature like a transvestite cousin at a family gathering, where he is silently pardoned while his fabulous hat is studiously ignored?

Wow. I wish we had that chair at our family reunion. To be honest, I don’t give this issue much thought anymore. People forget – Camus was inspired to write The Stranger after reading James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. Dickens was paid by the word. I don’t really care what others term appropriate or worthwhile – just what I feel in my gut when I’m writing and when I’m reading. Let it all be judged a hundred years after we’re dead.

What are you interested in as a writer?

How to deal with the unknown and unpredictable… A lot of my academic work was centered on Jung, and that’s because I believe that certain narratives are selected as useful to the human race – same as opposable thumbs.

What kind of criminals are you interested in?

What interest me are the ‘one small decision at a time’ criminals that I discuss in We Know.

If crime novels are the current affairs of art, do you see yourself as a tour guide to modern culture?

Though I do incorporate aspects of modern culture in the books to make them ring true, I think that my main job is to tell a story with real characters. I’m more interested in plot, structure, and character than pop culture. But I am a pop culture junkie, so it tends to work its way in where appropriate.

Why do you write?

I think I write to figure that out for myself. Often, it’s not until I’m done with a novel that I look back at it and know what it was about for me, what drove me to write it. If I know in advance why I’m writing something, I doubt it would work out. It’s sort of like deciding the morality of what you’re writing ahead of time – that’s not writing; it’s propaganda.

Are you saying you’re concerned with structural violence?

Yes, I suppose so – not that that’s a primary motivation. But one of the great things about crime fiction is that you can punish people and social structures that make you angry. So The Program, about mind control cults, was my reaction to looking into them, and growing angrier, and angrier, and angrier…

Is it fair to say that reading and writing crime fiction is about more than entertainment to you?

Yes – absolutely. Narrative is the backbone to our culture, and to our own process of psychological development. If you removed everything I’d ever learned from stories, I’d be one useless human indeed.

What kind of relationship do you have with your protagonists?

Intimate. I live with them for years before I write them. When I’m finally ready to start, I spend more time with them than I do with my family.

If you had to start all over tomorrow, would you?

Without question and with the same enthusiasm.

To delve into Gregg’s work, click here:

Barbara Fister in her own words: In many ways, I’m an eternal undergraduate who can’t decide on a major. It’s not always easy to find the thread that runs through my various interests: crime fiction, popular literacy, the social nature of reading and research and how to help undergraduates participate, where publishing is going (and where it should go), and how anxiety shapes what we think about social issues. What ties these interests together is my curiosity about how various media shape our perception of the world and how we individually make sense of it.

After starting out with the Golden Age mysteries that my mother read voraciously, I detoured into darkness, first with a Russian Literature major (Dostoevsky swept me off my adolescent feet), then thanks to rediscovering crime fiction through writers like Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos, with current favorites including Denise Mina, Tana French, and too many others to count. I have published three mysteries and am currently working on a novel for young adults that taps into contemporary concerns about privacy and civil liberties.

So for whom do you write?

Hmmm. I guess every effective writer has an audience in mind, and in that sense, I write for people who read crime fiction and have certain expectations about what they’re likely to experience when they read a mystery. I am one of those readers. But my favorite writers manage to satisfy in terms of presenting a compelling story with characters I care about and give me something to think about and aesthetic pleasure, but don’t do so in a way so familiar it’s formulaic. So I don’t write for readers in the sense that I’m trying to deliver a product that meets certain specifications. I’m trying to write the kind of story I enjoy reading. Whether people actually read it or not is less important to me than writing something worth reading. Of course, I have a day job.

Where do you stand on the genre debate?

A few years ago we had a visiting speaker on campus, Mark Edmundson who teaches English Literature at the University of Virginia and wrote a book called Why Read? which argues that reading good books is a means of self-understanding and betterment – sort of an Oprah’s Book Club message except that he thinks the choice of what books you read for betterment should be made by experts like him rather than by television celebrities. I had breakfast with him, and we had a fairly raucous argument about the value of crime fiction; he asked whether I would teach a course on it. I said, maybe, if I had the chance. And he was disgusted: why waste students’ time with the second rate when they could be reading Shakespeare? What, plays about rape, murder, dismemberment, and feeding one’s ex her murdered children in a pie? Proper literature like The Tragedy of Titus Andronicus? Long story short, I now teach a course on international crime fiction. So there, Mark Edmundson.

Sorry, I warned you – I do go on and on! But I really should answer your question. I think part of the reason there’s a division between literary and popular fiction is that literary writers, who are often trained in MFA programs and who go on to teach in MFA programs to make ends meet, feel a bit annoyed that their hard-wrought prose doesn’t have much success in the marketplace, so they blame readers and the book industry for being too lowbrow. Quite a few readers who love crime fiction tend to return the favor, characterizing literary fiction as snobbish, boring, and full of self-absorbed characters who don’t do anything interesting, which isn’t entirely fair either. There’s good and bad in both camps. As for why thrillers – well, Patrick Anderson gives a pretty good explanation of why they are popular in The Triumph of the Thriller, though it’s mostly a run-through of his favorite (and most despised) authors in the genre. I tried to give my own answer (of a sort) in this article that appeared in Clues a while back:


Certainly in my own fiction I tend to write about things that are bugging me because it’s how I figure them out. My reading choices tend the same way, toward fiction that is socially aware and that will teach me something about the issues it engages – both in terms of information but also in terms of empathy and identification with human experience. I’m particularly fond of Scandinavian crime fiction because it treads a nice balance between the social panorama and individual character development.

Some would argue that the status of legitimacy that ‘literary fiction’ enjoys is owed to the fig leaf that a serious purpose provides. Since crime fiction is about the imminence of violent disorder, and it is hard to find a more contemporary topic, does the genre not have at least the same claim to recognition?

I do feel crime fiction (when done well, as it very often is) provides what literature always has for its readers: a reflection on our times, an exploration of human experience, an opportunity to think about ethical dilemmas through the lens of a story, and aesthetic pleasure. The fact that it is often derivative and formulaic doesn’t alter the fact that there are talented writers in the genre who write terrific fiction by any standard. I recently finished Lush Life by Richard Price that I could use as exhibit A: it’s simply a wonderful novel. There’s a lot of fiction that falls into the “literary” category that is also formulaic and derivative; that doesn’t mean it’s all rubbish. Yet many readers are uninterested in self-described literary fiction because they believe it’s more focused on stylistics than story and on exploring minutiae of personal experience through carefully-wrought descriptions of small events rather than in taking on larger social issues through dramatic story-telling.

Second, even when crime fiction isn’t particularly good in a literary sense, I think it still tells us something valuable about who we are and what we make of the world we’re in. What does it say about us that so many of our popular stories are about serial killers who stalk women, do nasty things to them, and create a public spectacle to celebrate their deviance – particularly when so many of the protagonists are themselves women and the largest audience for these stories is women? I don’t know, but I suspect it means something. To understand that, it would be interesting to explore the reading experience itself, as Janet Radway did in the 1980s for women reading romances. She went into the project thinking women were being schooled in patriarchal social relationships, which is what scholars surmised by looking at the texts, but found that compulsive readers of romance were totally hip to the absurdity of the “happily ever after” stories, but were actually sounding out their own lived experience through the contrast between idealized patriarchy and how things actually work. (Of course, Edmundson thought Radway was rubbish, that asking readers about their experiences was pointless, because what do they know? They’re not experts.)

At its best, the genre tackles social issues in a way that helps us approach important issues such as the roots of violence, the effects of crime on victims, and how social institutions function in matters of justice – or how they fail. I think crime fiction is actually uniquely suited for exploring these issues because it plays on our anxieties, which play a large role on how social issues are formed collectively.

What do you consider to be the main appeal of crime fiction?

It engages us with questions of right and wrong in a variety of arenas – relationships, social issues, environmental issues, whatever – in the compelling form of a story. It lets us get close to things that give us anxiety and get a better handle on them, but without any risk of getting hurt.

Does it offer an education?

There’s some interesting psychological research that supports the claim that fiction has a role to play in how people make meaning. For example: Victor Nell has studied the trance-like state that reading induces and found that neural processing demands are higher when reading a book than when experiencing other media. It’s not escape from thinking, it’s escape into thinking that happens to effectively block out other distractions.

Richard Gerrig studied the psychology of reading and one of his experiments tested whether people could separate the “facts” related in fiction from those relayed in non-fiction. Basically, they couldn’t; what we read in fiction enters our knowledge base, particularly when we’re reading about a topic we know little about. That to me means writers of fiction should be concerned about how accurate they are simply because we don’t mentally shelve fiction separately from non-fiction.

And a gang of psychologists write an interesting blog “on fiction” – http://www.onfiction.ca/ – also has some of their research studies posted there.

The Telegraph also recently reported on a study from Manchester and the LSE on how fiction can “explain the world’s problems” better than reports – *http://tinyurl.com/58l5df.* And a library and information science professor at the University of Western Ontario, Catherine Sheldrick Ross, has studied what readers get out of what they read for pleasure and found that readers learn a lot from books that they read for pleasure – some of it self-knowledge, some of it knowledge about the world.

What are your topical concerns?

As a reader I gravitate toward crime fiction that focuses on the choices individuals make in a world where there are a lot of ethical choices facing us. In In the Wind I was thinking about police culture in Chicago and how difficult it would be for a cop with integrity to respond to the kind of brutality that is fairly bog-standard in the CPD. It’s making a choice to not close ranks that sets up the main character’s situation. I was also intrigued by the striking similarities between government surveillance during the Vietnam War era and what was emerging in the post 9/11 environment. The constitutional issues were making my blood boil, so writing about it creatively was a therapeutic outlet.

Through the Cracks involves race and criminal justice as well as violence against women, and the debates about immigration here and the barely-concealed racism behind the rhetoric was definitely feeding my urge to write about it.

I think crime fiction provides a fertile ground for dramatizing and particularizing the ethical choices we make as a society and by making those choices the basis of a story they become more complex, more real, more compelling than when they are abstract policies or political positions. And the interesting thing is that by using people who enforce laws as the protagonists, we can see what happens when that enforcement is complicated by human nature and by the tendency for power to corrupt.

Ian Rankin’s Rebus is a wonderful fulcrum for that tension between individual morality and institutional failure. The ending of Exit Music, where we see how emotionally connected he is to Big Ger Cafferty demonstrates this nicely as the lines between crime and law enforcement have blurred.

Are you concerned with the social structures that facilitate crime?

Yes, totally. The way we deal with drugs and guns in our country, for example, coupled with the lack of opportunity for entire communities of young men ensures that there will be a certain amount of violent crime in those areas. Crime fiction often starts with the moment of violence and works backward. Uncovering the build-up to the outburst is what drives the story. Then again, some crime is nearly random. In Richard Price’s Lush Life, a kid who is holding a gun during a robbery fires it unintentionally when the victim responds in an unexpected way. But why was that kid involved in a hold-up in the first place? Why was a gun involved? Why did they pick on those people to mug? It turns out to be a very involving story though the crime itself is not complex or well-planned. Those character-driven stories interest me far more than ones that depend on elaborate plotting because they seem much more interested in the ethical issues, less in using deviance as a convenient way to set up an exciting situation.

Does such crime fiction instruct readers on how to deal with crime and the criminal in a culture that is searching for an ethical centre?

It does, and sometimes it does so in a valuable way; sometimes not so valuable. I get annoyed with the standard profiler-pursues-deviant-but-clever-serial-killer storyline because it bears so little resemblance to reality and the ethical center it presents is, to me, false. It sets up a Manichean struggle between pure evil and absolute good (represented usually by a federal agent who has to probe the elaborate deviance of the serial killer in a way that will give the reader the most thrills, which often have a misogynistic female-in-jeopardy element). It’s a mythology that is comforting, but it doesn’t tell us anything about good and evil other than that we’re excited by deviance but want to have it put back in its box after it’s done its work. For example, I think depicting torture as a legitimate and even noble pursuit in the television series 24 makes the audience complicit in a policy that is ethically wrong. It’s comforting because it excuses violence as a heroic necessity and it reinforces government power rather than asking us to question it. (It’s also entirely unrealistic about how that power actually operates.) On the opposite side would be The Wire, which doesn’t make easy excuses for the people in power and complicates our understanding of crime and ethics – and is much more realistic in depicting social institutions at work.

Do you see crime fiction as a guide to modern life? Can its protagonist be a role model for the compromises we make every day as a way to survive the modern world?

That’s an interesting thought. I suspect we see crime fiction dramatizing questions we face, but making them far more interesting than they are in our day-to-day life. Most of us don’t have jobs that matter the way we imagine a detective’s job does. Of course, in reality there’s a fair amount of boring stuff in a detective’s job, too, and plenty of frustration with delays, paperwork, dead ends, and the knowledge that making an arrest won’t stop people from hurting each other. But in fiction it’s a great frame for questions of good and evil and the choices we make.

Can crime fiction investigate moral principles and identify where they need revision?

I’ve heard a lot of readers say that they value the way crime fiction arrives at some sense of order out of chaos, that they respond to the triumph of justice, even if the characters and the choices they make are complex and more gray than black and white. I think readers want to understand questions of justice through the stories of characters enacting choices – because the empathy we develop enriches our understanding of ethical choices and perhaps helps us rehearse our own responses if we are faced with choices of our own. I think at its best it also helps us understand people with whom we may have little contact – people of races and classes other than our own or from other cultures. I felt very much better informed about Palestine after reading Matt Beynon Ress’s The Collaborator of Bethlehem, not because I learned any facts, but because of the way he depicted day-to-day life and customs and the claustrophobic feeling of being trapped in an occupied zone with fanatics playing on people’s emotions.

How would you define the relationship between our current culture of fear and crime fiction’s current popularity?

I wrote an article about that – concluding “It gives our deepest fears narrative form—but doesn’t necessarily provide simple solutions that resolve our anxiety. Jenkins has pointed out, “[f]or all the science and quantification used to substantiate a new problem, its true momentum will be located in its appeal to deep-rooted anxieties that respond poorly to rational inquiry, still less rebuttal” (Using Murder 229). He suggests that the formation of social problems can be understood through its treatment in popular culture, where our fears are given dramatic form. Since crime fiction deliberately draws us into an exploration of that which frightens us and frames our inchoate anxieties in textual coherence, it may indeed be just the place to conduct such an examination.”


Does voyeurism, that Victorian ‘virtue’, persist in the genre’s theory that every private life tells a story of secret shame and trauma?

Huh, I never considered that. I think the form that voyeurism takes in popular fiction is an interest in “entering the mind of a monster/serial killer” (though why, I’ve never been sure) – and that particular monster is largely an invention, or at least is a fascination with a kind of evil that is quite rare. In these stories the monsters only appear normal on the outside, but are secretly some other form of life, alternate life forms sneaking into our midst. It’s a way of being titillated by the idea of evil while being able to feel absolved of any connection with it. The writers who tackle the complexity of real lives – where good and evil are more complex – are voyeurs of society like Dickens when he wrote about poverty.

How would you describe your long-term relationship with your characters?

I don’t quite know how to answer that. I got burned on my first published mystery/thriller, On Edge, in that the contract was for three books and I thought I would be able to do things with a character I liked and whose story was just starting. The editor left, the publisher canned the series idea though I had two more manuscripts drafted, and my character had to take early retirement. Now I’m a little less emotionally invested – which may be maturity, or may just be that I’m gun shy. As a reader, though, I am not as interested in the development of series characters and their lives as I am in each individual story, so perhaps that shapes my attitude, too.

If you had to start all over tomorrow, what would be your last thought before going to bed?

Probably the same as always – I’d better put the book I’m reading aside before I fall asleep and it hits me on the nose.

To delve into Barbara’s work, click here:

Jason Starr is an American author and screenplay writer from New York City. He has written numerous crime fiction novels and thrillers.

Tough Luck, a novel published in 2003, was a Barry Award Winner for Best Paperback Original and was a nominee at the 2004 Anthony Awards for Best Paperback Original. Twisted City won the award for Best Paperback Original at the 2005 Anthony Awards. And in 2011, The Chill won the first ever Anthony Award for Best Graphic Novel.

Jason Starr is part of a literary circle that includes Ken Bruen, Daniel Woodrell, Wallace Stroby, Alan Glynn, Ed Brubaker, Lee Child, Bret Easton Ellis, Megan Abbott, Brian Azzarello, and Alison Gaylin.

How would you describe yourself in a sentence?

A good guy.

How would your best friend describe you in a sentence?

A funny guy.

If God exists, what will be your first words at the pearly gates?

You’ve got some serious issues, dude.

Crime fiction is at its best when…

It is honest and unflinching.

The worst literary vice is…

Too much reliance on metaphors and flowery language.

Why do you keep reading a book?

To find out what happens next and to be entertained.

Which of your books would you suggest to a first time Starr reader?

Panic Attack


Think it’s the best example of what I do.

What do you like about your writing?

That I can entertain myself.

What don’t you like about it yet?

Nothing really. I think I can always push myself in new directions, but if I didn’t think what I was doing was awesome I wouldn’t do it.

What’s your favourite word?

The name of someone who is very special to me.

Which single word would you remove from the parlance of our time?

None. I love language–the good and the bad. I don’t think any language should be censored. If there are words that offend people I think they should be used even more frequently.

Which single profession would you remove from the business world?

Paid baby killers. Are there paid baby killers?

Which single person would you remove from the planet?

One of college English teachers….I’m kiddng….Well, okay, maybe I’m not.

Which fictional character would you most like to meet in real life?

Patrick Bateman.

What’s the best one-liner you’ve ever read or written?

Love anything from Henie Youngman or Rodney Dangerfield.

An American, an Englishman, and a Scotsman walk into a bar…

and drink some beer?

Your five favourite party guests are…

Haven’t had party guests lately. My NYC apartment is too small.

Which book by another author do you wish you had written?

I never think that way. I have a lot of favorite books, but writing is personal, and I don’t wish I’d written any of the books I admire.

Sum up your latest book in no more than 20 words, including its title:

The Craving, the sequel to my fantasy thriller The Pack, coming this spring from Penguin.

What scene or theme did it start with?

A suspense sequence involving a major character from The Pack.

What happened next?

Can’t give that away. But let’s just say no one is safe in this novel.

What was the greatest challenge in writing it?

Well, it’s a sequel, so the challenge was making it suspenseful for readers of The Pack, but making it mysterious for readers who pick up The Craving without reading the first book first. It’s better if you read The Pack first, but you don’t have to.

What was the greatest moment in writing it?

Getting the perfect first sentence.

What are the greatest problems in writing today?

All the uncertainty with e-books.

What are the greatest opportunities in writing today?

E-books, authors getting more in control of their destinies.

What’s the most amusing situation you’ve found yourself in because of your writing?

Oh definitely a recent event with Ken Bruen, Camilla Lackberg, and Simon Beckett in a small town in Germany where we wound up as participants in a three-ring circus!

What do you wish you’d known when you started writing?

That I would still be doing this 15 years later. It would have taken some of the early pressure off.

To delve into Jason’s work, click here:

Paul Johnston was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1957. His father Ronald was a successful thriller writer. Paul studied ancient and modern Greek at the University of Oxford, then added an M.Phil in comparative literature to his M.A.. He moved to Greece in 1987, working on a newspaper, in shipping and then teaching English. He started writing seriously in 1989 when he went to live on the small Aegean island of Antiparos.

Paul returned to Edinburgh to do another master’s degree in 1995 and then started studying for a doctorate. Paul has come through two bouts of cancer and underwent chemotherapy until November 2008. That hasn’t stopped him from writing or from studying for a PhD in creative writing. He still divides his time between Scotland and Greece – having left Athens, he and his family now live in the beautiful seaside town of Nafplio in the Peloponnese. Paul had a third bout of cancer in 2012 (as well as the writing gene, he has one that increases the chances of him being hit by otherwise unconnected cancers), but he has recovered. He has finally completed his PhD and graduated in June 2014.

How would you describe yourself in one sentence?

A sardonic pseudo-intellectual with a crippling inability to suffer fools and interests in music, film, literature and hoopoes.

How would your best friend describe you in one sentence?

A kind and caring soul who is also one hell of a writer.

How would you describe your writing in one sentence?

Ideas-driven crime fiction characterised by satire, violence, and maverick protagonists.

How would you describe your ideal reader in one sentence?

One who is prepared to create her/his own meanings from the text rather than expect everything to be handed over on a plate.

If God exists, what will be your first words at the pearly gates?

If god exists, which I seriously doubt, I will be on Charon’s bark, asking where the nearest hellish pub is.

Crime fiction is at its best when…

it doesn’t talk down to the reader.

The worst literary vice is…

thinking you’re smarter than the reader.

What makes you keep reading a book?

The usual stuff: engaging characters, a stimulating plot, well-depicted locations, smart dialogue – oh, and as much subversion of genre, authority figures, and the establishment as possible.

What’s your favourite word?

aperandosyni – Greek for infinity/ immensity (sublime, moi?)

Which single word would you remove from the parlance of our time?


Which single profession would you remove from the business world?

Hedge funds

Which single person would you remove from the planet?

Long list, but George Osbourne currently tops it. (Excuse me while I go and rinse my mouth out.)

Which fictional character is going to be shot, come the literary revolution?

Miss Marple

Which fictional character would you most like to meet in real life?

Obvious – Sherlock Holmes (NOT BBC/ Guy Ritchie/ Anthony Horowitz versions).

What’s the best one-liner you’ve ever read or written?

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”

An American, an Englishman, and a Scotsman walk into a bar…

The Yank says, ‘I’m taking this place over’, the Englishman says, ‘Good idea, I’ll help you’, and the Scot bottles them both.

Your five favourite party guests are…

Helen of Troy, Patricia Highsmith, Aristophanes, Marilyn Monroe, and James Joyce.

Which book by another author do you wish you had written?



Because it jams all of human life into one day and remains optimistic.

Sum up your latest book in no more than 20 words, including its title:

The Silver Stain, Alex Mavros in Crete, where he gets involved in a Hollywood war movie, dope production, and antiquities smuggling.

What happened next?

Er, rather a lot of mayhem – then his crazy girlfriend turns up…

What was the greatest challenge in writing it?

Linking the horrors of the Nazi invasion of 1941 to contemporary life on the island.

What was the greatest moment in writing it?

The end – always is; you think writing novels is fun?

What are the greatest problems in writing today?

Making money from it.

What are the greatest opportunities in writing today?

Inevitably, the Internet – but I suspect it’ll be much less liberating for authors than many believe.

What’s it been like to return to Alex Mavros after seven years?

Interesting, although I cheated by keeping him the same age as he was back then; it was like waking up part of my mind that had being hibernating.

What do you like about your own writing?

That it goes for the jugular from time to time.

What don’t you like about it yet?

That it doesn’t go for the jugular often enough (cravenly, because of market considerations).

What’s the most amusing situation you’ve found yourself in because of your writing?

The first photo shoot I ever did took place on top of a five-storey building in a freezing wind, to which access was up a filthy ladder – and I was wearing a suit (I’ve never done so again).

What do you wish you’d known when you started writing?

That publishers could be so fickle, although I knew that as my old man, who was a thriller writer, had warned me and I STILL went for it – dumb, huh?

Click here for a longer interview with Paul Johnston:

© 2015 The Crime of it All Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha