Pigeonholed

I think about genre a lot. I don’t mean in the sense that I’m trying to come to some kind of deeper understanding of a swath of literature, but in the sense that I still don’t understand it after all this time. I think it came from one of my first interviews with the Scottish novelist Ian Rankin. I don’t think it made the original feature, but he talked about discovering crime fiction in the first place.

“I started reading crime fiction the final year of my studies instead of reading about Muriel Spark,” he said. “I was reading Chandler and Hammett and Ruth Rendell and P.D. James.  Immediately, I liked the strong sense of place that you get in crime fiction, the strong central character, the traditional storytelling with that strong sense of a beginning, a middle and an end.  I like the games that you can play in a crime novel.  I found that everything I want to say about the world I can say quite nicely in the crime genre, so why do anything else? They were also the kinds of books that my Dad read.  I thought, do I want to spend seven years at university writing books that are only read by people at university, like James Joyce’s Ulysses or do I want to write the kind of books my Dad would read?  It was a pretty simple answer.”

The next few features are a good example of the width and depth of a specific genre. Painted in broad strokes, all of these novels can comfortably be pitched into the mystery section or an airport bookstore and do quite well, but they’re all so very different that it’s easy to see how badly “genre” can be characterized sometimes.

The AccidentI suppose the most recent feature I’ve published is this interview with novelist Chris Pavone about his new novel The Accident. Pavone, of course, is the former cookbook editor who hit it big with The Ex-Pats, his chronicle of expatriate life that accidentally turned into a huge thriller. The Accident is another stand-alone novel set in the interconnected world of Pavone’s novels, with curious cameos from players from The Ex-Pats. As it often goes, I was surprised to learn that Pavone didn’t even know that he was writing a thriller when he set about writing his first novel. For having such a clear, propulsive voice, the author has very little knowledge or expertise in crime fiction.

“Because I don’t immerse myself in crime novels, I wasn’t following any particular formula, ” he explained. “The Ex-Pats is more influenced by good, caper-y movies than it is by crime novels. There’s something about the sort of set piece of a tight cast of characters who are all lying to one another about almost everything that felt to me a little more like a play or a movie than a book. Very often, books have far wider-ranging action and characters than the Ex-Pats did. I did have in mind – it was very cinematic to me. I was always trying to establish a visual for each sequence and have the action be very dialogue-driven without focusing on chases or violence, but just people lying to each other. I don’t read a lot of books about that kind of duplicity.”

More on guns, dames and the disappeared after the jump.
The ContractorsMeanwhile, in “Asking for Corruption,” we get down and dirty with Texas crime writer Harry Hunsicker about his new novel The Contractors, in which he posits that it’s no great stretch to go from militarized private operators working as mercenaries in America’s conflicts overseas to policing the state right here at home. It’s a vicious, staccato thriller that recalls the films of Robert Rodriguez way more any whodunit mystery. Hunsicker talked about being influenced by another “genre” writer that absolutely defies categorization, James Lee Burke. “One of my favorite writers is James Lee Burke and he uses setting so incredibly well that it’s inspiring,” Hunsicker said. “He’s just a brilliant writer. I love his books because it’s like taking a trip without really going anywhere. You feel the heat on your back and you smell the smells of the bayou. So that’s always appealed to me so I tried to put that sensibility in my own stuff.”

The Innocent SleepOver the seas and far away, my interview “Assumed Names” was published at Kirkus as well. I was very pleased to speak with Karen Gillece and Paul Perry, the two Irish novelists who have teamed up to publish the thriller The Innocent Sleep under the pen name of “Karen Perry.” It’s a fascinating collaboration that found the authors trading off chapters in writing the story of a husband and wife who lost their son, and the turmoil that erupts when the boy’s father becomes convinced that he caught a glimpse of the child among the throngs of Dublin. The book has drawn very favorable comparisons to Gillian Flynn’s spectacular success with Gone Girl as well as the novels of fellow Dubliner Tana French (who is also a great interview, by the way). We touched on the rise of the Irish crime scene.

“It’s extraordinary, isn’t it?” asked Perry. “It’s like a crime renaissance that is emerging and it’s fantastic to be part of it. I think it may have a lot to do with the kind of traumatic and massive changes that Ireland has gone through in the past 20 years. Boom to bust. It’s been absolutely tangible and visual to each citizen, whether they’re in Dublin or Galway or Limerick or Belfast. Ten years ago you could see the grotesque wealth changing the landscape, but also the personalities of people. Then the bust happened so quickly and it became pervasive in society. I think writers have recognized that arc and wanted to describe it, so crime is one way to do that.”

Black Eyed BlondeMoving on: it’s not every day you get to interview a Booker Prize winner, is it? I was thrilled to interview John Banville this month, who writes the most entertaining crime novels under the name “Benjamin Black.” I was surprised and pleased to hear that Banville had taken a commission from the estate of Raymond Chandler to write a Phillip Marlowe novel, The Black-Eyed Blonde. The character hadn’t been seen since the late Robert B. Parker tackled the lonely detective in Poodle Springs and Perchance to Dream over two decades ago.

You can read about the author’s take on Marlowe in the feature, but we also got a chance to talk about  few other subjects which didn’t make the cut. Black’s Quirke novels have recently been adapted into three feature-length films-for-television by BBC One in the United Kingdom, with award-winning Irish actor Gabriel Byrne in the role of the reluctant detective, so I got the chance to ask the creator for his take on them.

“I’ve seen all of them,” said Banville. “They’re very dark and atmospheric and Dublin in the fifties is captured with extraordinary accuracy. I think Dublin is probably the most atmospheric character in the whole series.”

I mentioned that I’ve seen several stories that refer to Byrne’s character’s first name as Garrett, which earned me a frustrated sputter.

“No, no, no, he hasn’t got a last name,” he said. “That was a mistake. There was a long piece about me and Benjamin Black in The New Yorker and while it was a very good piece, the person writing him gave him that name, which is the name of another character. This, of course, is a homage to Donald Westlake’s novels about Parker, who also has no last name. In fact, in one of the books, he tells a girlfriend his name and she laughs and covers her hand with her mouth and says, ‘I think I’ll keep calling you Quirke if it’s all the same.’”

He also offered up perhaps my favorite all-time response to the “What’s next?” question. “I’m slaving away at a John Banville book,” he said. “Like a snail, I’m crawling over the pages.leaving this horrible trail behind me, but some of the trail glistens.”

To bring it all back around, Banville echoed Ian Rankin’s take on genre fiction when I brought it up.

“I don’t like the notion of genre at all,” he admitted. “Good fiction is good fiction. Some of the best fiction of the 20th century was written in the crime genre. Just look at Simenon. Even a bad book is hard to write, you know? Nobody does it easily. Simenon used to puke himself inside out after a day’s work. He wrote novels in nine or ten days, but it is not easy. Anybody who deals with words knows that language is a very difficult medium. To find a way of shaping one’s ideas using language is a very difficult process, yet a very rewarding and beautiful process.”

That’s as good a place to end as any, yeah?

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