Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Impressions from Harrogate Crime Writing Festival #1

Apologies go out to my three regular readers – like you care – about the bloggy silence from May Contain Nuts. It’s down to a mixture of sunshine, busy-ness and a serious case of getting my sloth on.

I’m also just back from the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival.  Did I have a good time? Hell, yeah!

Here’s an example of my good time. I arrived a good few hours before the first event of the weekend – which was the prize-giving for the Theakston Crime Novel of the Year award (Lee Child won) and a Lifetime Achievement Award was to be presented to P.D.James – and I got chatting to old friends at the bar over a glass (or two)of the old laughing juice. Anywho, time marched on and I was enjoying myself way too much and it kinda slipped my mind to go inside the conference hall. #hangsheadinshame

The next day I was up and about surprisingly early. All things considered. And ate heartily of the breakfast buffet.
There were some fascinating panels and speakers throughout the weekend. One that surprised me was Penned In, with a group of writers who had all spent time in prison. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this one as I don’t really like True Crime. There is a danger of sensationalising and glamourising criminals and I don’t like the idea of these people profiting from their crimes.

Their crimes ranged from perjury to murder and what interested me was the redemptive power of the written word for each of the men speaking. Each of them were changed by their experiences and their ability to place words on the page were a huge part in this growth.  Gave me lots of food for thought. If you can come away from an event and you’ve learned something, or gained an insight – you can’t ask for much more, can you?

Another panel I enjoyed included Denise Mina (I could listen to her talking all day long – intelligent and witty) and Craig Robertson, the author of Random and Snapshot.

Craig has a similar hairstyle to me (the billiard ball look), he is about the same height and has a Scottish accent so I wasn’t THAT surprised when three separate people approached me after the event to tell me I had spoken very well. How they thought I managed to change out of a grey suit into jeans and a t-shirt and grow a goatee in the space of 10 minutes is anybody’s guess.

Bald men. We all look the same clearly.

(This is not me. This is Craig.)

The quiz on Saturday is always fiercely contested, but any team with me in it can consider itself seriously hampered. My contribution was nothing short of pathetic. The only answer I knew was Ian Rankin’s twitter name. But thanks to Russel D. Mclean, Chris Simmons and Cathi Unsworth and her partner, Mike we came in a respectable 5th.

The last event of the festival had Mark Billingham on stage interviewing Dennis Lehane. I’ve read pretty much everything that Mr Lehane has written so I was keen to hear what he had to say. He was composed, polished and humourous and an absolute delight to listen to.

Then it was out to the lawn for a coffee and a chat with the other crimesquad guys before heading north and real life.


Monday, 18 July 2011

An Interview with Tana French

To celebrate the release of Faithful Place, its talented author, Tana French has succumbed to the charms of and here is an interview I carried out on their behalf.

MM - Congrats on all the various awards that have come your way since you first became published. Are you aware of your audience or high expectations this may bring to subsequent books?

TF - Thank you very much :-). I don’t think I can afford to think about audience expectations. For one thing, it would take up too much time and focus – I’ve never read online reviews, for example, because if I start getting into them then I’ll never get the next book done! The book I’m currently writing always takes priority; the ones I’ve finished are the audience’s property now, not mine.

More importantly, though, I think focusing on audience expectations is pointless, because there’s no such thing as ‘the audience’. There are individual readers, with a huge variety of tastes. The thing one reader loves most about my books is probably the same thing that another reader hates. There’s no way I can write anything that will fit all of those tastes. All I can do is write the best book I can manage, and keep my fingers crossed.

MM - Faithful Place has universal themes (family, home and loyalty) displayed against the backdrop of a very small locale - was this juxtaposition a deliberate ploy on your part?

TF - I think a small, tight-knit place is often the best setting to explore big themes. That’s where the crucial questions become intensified, distilled. That’s also why I think murder mystery is one of the best genres in which to explore those big themes: the characters are quite literally dealing with life and death, they’re dealing with the most crucial questions of morality and humanity, so the stakes are raised sky-high and any other issue they’re dealing with becomes intensified by the context.

MM - Your bio reads that you spent much of your childhood travelling - has this impacted on your ability to have a “Faithful Place” of your own?

TF - I think my international-brat childhood played a big part in shaping Faithful Place. You’re always fascinated by what’s alien and inaccessible to you, and I’ve always been fascinated by people and places whose roots go deep – people who are part of a centuries-old, tight-knit community where every relationship is shaped by generations’ worth of interaction and knowledge. That’s not something I’ll ever have, and that’s the world where Faithful Place is set: the Liberties, an inner-city neighbourhood that’s one of Dublin’s oldest.

    At the same time, though, Dublin is the nearest thing I’ve got to a home. I’ve lived here since 1990; it’s the only city I know inside out, all the accents, all the short cuts, the sense of humour and the best pubs. In a lot of ways Faithful Place is a love song to Dublin, with all its flaws.

MM - Your bio also reads that you are an actress. How does this impact on your writings?

TF - I definitely write like an actor. Writing first-person, which is what I do, is a lot like acting: you’re seeing the whole story through one character’s eyes, through his or her preconceptions and illusions and biases, and trying to bring the audience into that character’s world. A lot of readers have told me that they end up feeling like the characters are real people, close friends whom they know inside-out; it’s the best compliment I can get.

MM - One of the many things that intrigued me about Faithful Place was how your main character, Frank had distanced himself from his family while being paradoxically highly loyal to them. This is of course the kind of inner tension that creates effective drama in a novel. Was this part of the plan, or did you discover this aspect of him through the journey of writing the book?

TF - Frank’s distanced himself from his family because he believes it’s their fault that his first love, Rosie Daly, dumped him. On the night when Frank and Rosie were meant to run away to London together, back when they were nineteen, Rosie never showed – and Frank figured it was because of his alcoholic father, nutcase mother, and generally dysfunctional family. Twenty-two years later, when the book begins, he hasn’t been home since. He thinks he’s completely cut himself off from Faithful Place, the street where he grew up.

But when Rosie’s suitcase is found in an abandoned house, it starts to look like she might not have dumped him at all. That reshapes Frank’s whole view of his past – and he’s forced to confront the fact that getting your family and your home out of your system may not be as simple as he wanted to believe. No matter how far you run, those things shape you, in one way or another. Frank’s spent years trying his best to convince himself that he’s got no ties to his family, but those ties are still absolutely real.

I had the basic premise – the suitcase forcing Frank to come home – before I started, but the rest developed along the way. I never have a real plan. I’m wildly jealous of writers who have the whole book outlined before they start the actual writing. I can’t work that way – I have to figure out who the characters are, by writing them, before I know what they’d do. So I usually start with a narrator and a very basic premise, and just dive in and hope to God there’s a book in there somewhere.

MM - In my view what gives extra interest to your books is your tactic of “almost” writing a serial while choosing a new character’s viewpoint for each outing – was that deliberate?

TF - God, no, I’m nowhere near that organised. But when I started thinking about writing a second book, I realised that what I’m interested in writing about is the big turning point in a narrator’s life – the case that changes him or her, for good. And most of us only have a few of those huge crossroads in our lives. So I figured either I could keep dumping the same poor narrator into more and more immense life-changing situations, or I could go down the usual series route of following the main character through smaller ups and downs – which I love reading, but wasn’t particularly interested in writing – or I could switch narrator every time. So I’ve ended up writing a chain of linked books, which I like. It means I get to do something new each time, because each narrator’s voice and perspective is a bit different.

MM - You have an engaging lyrical style of writing. Happy accident or is this something you worked on? Could you also tell us about your writing influences?

TF - I just work on writing as well as I possibly can – I’ve never had a specific style in mind. I’ve always loved books where words become a rich, sensuous pleasure, though. I can still remember being about six and falling in love with words when my father read me The Wind in the Willows: ‘He had never seen a river before, that sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal…’ I love Mary Renault’s rhythms, the purity of image in T.H. White’s Once and Future King, the perfect control and beauty of the language in National Velvet – I’ve got too many influences to name. I think maybe everything you read influences you. Even something really terrible can make you realise: Oh, OK, that’s why that didn’t work, I’ll keep that in mind.

MM- What’s next for you? (This question has the sub-text of asking if we will ever see Rob – from In The Woods – again?)

TF - I’ve just handed in my fourth book. It’s called Broken Harbour, and the narrator is Scorcher Kennedy, Frank’s old friend/rival from Faithful Place. He’s investigating the brutal murders of a young family in one of the half-abandoned ghost estates that litter Ireland – but did the danger come from outside the house or inside?  I’d love to come back to Rob from In the Woods someday – I loved writing him. Who knows…

My review of Faithful Place can be found HERE and copies of this excellent novel can be purchased in all the usual places.  Go on, what you waiting for? Buy a copy already.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Paranoid much?

I need to know how to kill someone without it becoming immediately apparent.

There, I’ve said it.

Eventually, suspicions will be raised and the police called to investigate. You can relax, people this is a plot device and not something more nefarious. But how do I find this kind of stuff out? You try an internet search with the words – killing methods.  Or, making enquiries at the local cop shop or library while using a sentence like the one I began this post with.

And don’t they keep an eye on these kinds of things? Isn’t there a team of eager beavers employed by M15/ FBI/ Mossad/ CIA/ News International  trawling search engines for just this kind of dangerous enquiry?
And what if I wanted to research terrorist stuff, or paedophilia?

They’d be knocking on my door quicker than you could say News of the World Phone Hackers. And I’d be in hand-cuffs and hauled off to the local council run underground bunker for a spot of water-boarding.

I’m remembering news headlines from a few years back (2003?)when Pete Townshend of The Who was brought before the beaks when his name was found on a list of people using their credit card details to download pornographic images of children. 

He was cleared but put on the child offenders’ registry for 5 years.
Townshend later explained he was sexually abused as a child and, in preparation of a possible autobiography, he was researching how easily child pornography can be accessed online, in order to argue that Internet service providers need to become more vigilant. “It must be time to do something more concrete to stop the proliferation of questionable pornography that seems so readily and openly facilitated by the Internet,” he later wrote about the experience.

He’s since been reviled across the globe but continues to protest his innocence. I’m content to go with the authorities on this one given that they presumably have all the facts, but my thought was - all that heartache in the name of research?

Incredibly naive, don’tcha think?

So good people, what research projects have you embarked on that has you looking over your shoulders?

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Blue Valentine

I got the blues. Well, I had them and it lasted till the morning after I watched this excellent movie. Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling are outstanding in this heartfelt piece of filming. They each fully commit to their roles and completely convince you about the part they play in this story about the end of a relationship.

WARNING – don’t watch on a first/second date, unless you’re a dude and you’re trying to impress your new lady friend with your “sensitivity”. Nah, even then don’t do it. In fact couples should only watch it if they have a certain level of maturity.

The film moves back and forward –beautifully timed, linked and edited BTW – between the beginning of the end of the relationship and the actual beginning. The seeds are sown in the early parts of the movie – we see 

Dean is a good guy; kind and thoughtful with a good sense of humour. Cindy is the nurturing type, looking after her grandmother, accepting perfunctory sex from an earlier boyfriend (who makes her pregnant) and we also get to see the boorish behaviour of her father at home which perhaps explains why she accepts the asshole boyfriend.

Dean and Cindy meet. They fall in love and then the movie splices back to the deterioration of their marriage and your emotions get all in a tangle. Sure, the reason they got hitched was flawed, but they loved each other didn’t they? How could a couple with such potential end in this way?

Who’s to blame? No one. Both of them. You get to decide. (And I’m wondering what the gender divide is on this one.)

There are several scenes that time will show us rank amongst the most iconic moments in cinema history. A couple in particular spring immediately to mind. Dean and Cindy are in front of a shop. Dean is singing in a goofy, Elvis voice and Cindy is dancing to his tune in her best early level tap dance. This is a heart-warming moment, full of charm. If it doesn’t make you smile you need to crack open your ribs with those thingies you see on E.R and check if there’s a heart beating inside you.

Another scene demonstrates how far they have fallen. Dean rents a room in a motel. They need to spend more time together. We see them in the shower. Cindy gives Dean the cold shoulder. Later on she invites him to join her on the floor. We can see her self-loathing, her cringe from his touch and she eggs him on to violence, demanding punishment as an act of love. Dean refuses. He’s not that guy. He can’t and won’t hit her.

This is a brave movie filled with uncomfortable moments and heightened by award-winning performances (if they didn’t, they should have) from the 2 main leads. It avoids the well-trodden tropes of Hollywood – the man is not a violent addict/ drunk spending all hours at work, the woman is not a ball-busting harridan/ addict/ drunk/ reformed prostitute. We don’t get fed the usual three act format (you know, #1 -guy wins girl - #2 guy loses girl - #3 guy wins girl back) instead we are treated to a fly on the wall examination of a couple who have simply fallen out of love. Shit happens and there isn’t always a pat reason for it and that is perhaps the bravest thing of all for this moviemaker to demonstrate.

Definitely not a picker-uper – more for when you feel the need to reflect or to get the old grey matter working. Or when you want to watch two talented actors do what they do best.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

book review - Denise Mina

There's a new load of reviews just been posted over at CRIMESQUAD and here's one wot I wrote about Denise Mina's latest - End of the Wasp Season.

What's it all about ...?

When notorious millionaire banker Lars Anderson hangs himself from the old oak tree in front of his Kent mansion his death attracts little sympathy. One less shark is little loss to a world nursing a financial hangover. But the legacy of a life time of self-serving is widespread, the carnage most acute among those he ought to be protecting: his family. He leaves behind two deeply damaged children and a broken wife.

Meanwhile, in a wealthy suburb of Glasgow, a young woman is found savagely murdered in her home. The genteel community is stunned by what appears a vicious, random attack. When DS Alex Morrow, heavily pregnant with twins, is called in to investigate, she soon discovers that behind the murder lurks a tangled web of lies. A web that will spiral through the local community, through Scotland and ultimately right back to a swinging rope hundreds of miles away.

What did I make of it ...?

This is the second book in which Denise Mina brings us the character of DS Morrow and for me is the one where she really gets into her groove with this individual. I use the word “individual” deliberately because Morrow is so well drawn she feels like a real person. Next time I’m up in Glasgow I fully expect to bump into her.

It’s in the depiction of her characters where Mina excels. A little slice of description, an action, some carefully crafted dialogue and they take flesh before your eyes. Adding heft to this is her ability to record the interaction between her characters: to demonstrate their finely nuanced behaviour.

End of the Wasp Season is ostensibly a police procedural, but Denise Mina’s talent takes it beyond any perceived limitations of that sub-genre into a multi-layered human drama. With a dollop of violence and generous helping of mystery to keep us crime addicts happy. As a reader you know pretty much from the off “who-dunnit” but that’s not the point of this excellent novel. This is people-watching on an intimate and at times uncomfortable level.

And it’s this ability to draw her characters that makes you care. Mina enlists your sympathy even for the suspected killer, despite the fact he’s spoiled rotten and given every advantage in life. Real life is never that straightforward. We life in a world of contrast, a rainbow of gray if you will, and few writers highlight that as well as Denise Mina does.

If you prefer a read chock full of red-herrings and the chance to deduce who the bad-guy is, this is not the book for you.  I can also understand if readers who are new to Denise Mina feel the pace lags in places.  For me, however, End of the Wasp Season is a vibrant, thought-provoking read and one that is an excellent addition to this talented author’s oeuvre.