Please welcome Declan Burke as he talks with Dana King about his new collaboration with John Connelly and more!
Declan Burke has written five novels (Eightball Boogie, The Big O, Crime Always Pays, and Absolute Zero Cool, which won the Goldsboro Last Laugh Award 2012 at Crimefest. His current novel, Slaughter’s Hound, was recently released by Liberties Press. In addition, he has edited the critically acclaimed examination of Irish crime writing, Down These Green Streets, and is an indefatigable voice for Irish crime writing though his free-lance work and blog, Crime Always Pays. With all that going on—not to mention a wife and daughter—Dec found time to answer a few questions from New Mystery Reader’s Dana King about his most recent effort, Books to Die For.
NMR: I could describe the book, but no one knows it as well as you do, except possibly John Connolly. Tell us what Books To Die For is.
DB: Books to Die For is essentially an attempt to establish the great canon of mystery fiction, as chosen by the greatest living crime writers. John and I asked people for a ‘passionate advocacy’ on behalf of their favourite mystery novel, the one book that, were they given the opportunity, they would press into someone’s hands and say, ‘This is the book that changed my life.’ We didn’t want a dry, academic tome, or a list of the Top 100 Mystery Novels, or anything of the sort. We didn’t even ask writers to choose the mystery novel they believe to be the best of its kind. We asked that they write about the book they love the most, the one that changed their lives. In that sense, and in many senses, Books to Die For is very much a labour of love.
NMR: One hundred twenty-one essays (not counting the introduction) and 537 pages. What prompted you to do this?
DB: Curiosity, really. Which killed the cat, and which came close enough to accounting for myself, John and assistant editor Clair Lamb during the process of compiling Books to Die For. I suppose it’s one of my favourite conversations, chatting with people about their favourite books, it’s just one of those subjects that’s so totally open-ended and subjective and endlessly fascinating. We were simply curious as to what the great list of mystery novels might look like, and even more curious as to what our favourite writers would choose as their favourite books. It was a truly intriguing process, and it certainly taught me to never second-guess another writer about where his or her inspiration had come from. In fact, the variety of answers we received was one of the most enjoyable facets of the project.
NMR: How was it decided which authors to approach for essays? What was the response?
DB: Well, we just said, ‘Let’s ask the biggest names in the business.’ We knew even before we began that we wouldn’t be able to get everyone, for different reasons, and sure enough, some of our first choices weren’t able to make a contribution due to deadline pressure, or health reasons, or whatever it happened to be. But for those who were in a position to say yes, which was the vast majority of those we contacted, the reaction was universally wonderful. What was especially marvelous about this book was the way everyone ‘got’ the idea immediately, and responded to the idea of it being a labour of love, and a way of establishing a kind of canon of mystery fiction. I suppose in hindsight it should be no surprise that they did so, because every writer is first and foremost a reader, and that every writer’s first step in becoming a writer was picking up that one book that made the crucial difference. The one that ‘spoke’ so profoundly to that reader that it prompted them to pick up a pen themselves.
NMR: I was struck while reading of the organizational challenges. Surely there must have been times when two contributors selected the same book, or when too many asked for the same author. (No author has more than two books cited.) How were these sorted out?
DB: “Organizational challenges” is the polite way of putting it, certainly, but the aspects you mention were fairly straightforward to address. I mean, if Michael Connelly wants to write about a Raymond Chandler novel, and Declan Burke wants to write about a Raymond Chandler novel, there’s really no contest. And it wasn’t that often that we had too many people asking to cover the same writer or book - a lot of the contributors, I think, assumed that we would have the likes of Chandler and Christie and Hammett et al well covered, and opted for writers or books that might not be as heavily subscribed. Oddly enough, to me at least, the most popular author was Josephine Tey, particularly with women writers. She mightn’t be as popular sales-wise these days, but she appears to have been hugely influential.
NMR: You are a tireless and selfless advocate for Irish crime fiction in your daily work and through your blog, Crime Always Pays. Your previous non-fiction editorial job was a critical evaluation of Irish crime fiction, Down These Green Streets, yet the two authors you chose to write about in Books to Die For are both Americans, Erskine Caldwell and George Pelecanos. What led you to choose them?
DB: Dana - I actually chose The Assassin by Liam O’Flaherty, not the Caldwell, as well the Pelecanos book.
NMR: Oh, damn. (Flips frantically through table of contents and notes.) Yes, you did. My bad. This will teach me to try to keep concurrent notes for the review, this interview, and what new authors and books I want to add to my To Be Read list. I suspect most of our readers are familiar with Pelecanos, but not O’Flaherty. What attracted you to The Assassin?
DB: I picked The Assassin because I think Liam O’Flaherty’s couple of novels in the mid-1920s, The Informer and The Assassin, are fascinating in terms of the evolution of the hard-boiled novel. O’Flaherty is regarded as a literary writer here in Ireland, but those two novels in particular feature the kind of staccato rhythms and anti-hero protagonist we tend to associate with the hardboiled novel. He was also widely travelled, and as far as I know he spent time in San Francisco during the early ’20s - I’d love to know if he was influenced by the early stories of John Carroll Daly and Dashiell Hammett. The Informer was published in 1925, a year before Daly’s first novel and four years before The Maltese Falcon.
NMR: Were there any essays that led you to books and authors you were unfamiliar with before starting the project?
DB: Absolutely. I thought, starting out, that I had a bit of a handle on the mystery genre, but one of the most interesting aspects of putting the book together was how many books and writers it threw up that I’d never even heard of before. Probably the most interesting fact was that it was a woman, Metta Fuller Victor, who wrote the first dedicated, full-length mystery novel - Karin Slaughter writes a very good essay on her. And I love the sound of Kem Nunn’s ‘surf noir’, which sounds like something that should be right up my alleyway. I’ll also be checking out Josephine Tey, given all the interest there was in writing about her. Megan Abbott writes a brilliant piece on Dorothy B. Hughes’ In a Lonely Place, which I’ve never read … So, yes, there was lots to learn, and at times it was a very steep learning curve indeed.
NMR: Are there any omissions you are surprised to see?
DB: Definitely, but then I think any mystery fan worth their salt will say the same. We all have our own personal favourites, after all. I’d have liked to have seen Edward Anderson’s Thieves Like Us in there, and Horace McCoy’s Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye. There are a couple by WR Burnett that could and should have made it in, and B. Traven’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. I’d also have liked to see Barry Gifford included, and Alistair McLean’s When Eight Bells Toll - although you could argue that that’s more of a thriller than a mystery. But I guess the thing about that is, if we included every book that everyone thought should have been included, Books to Die For would probably have run to a couple of thousand pages. No exaggeration.
NMR: You have released your newest novel, Slaughter’s Hound, almost concurrently with Books to Die For. You also post virtually daily to Crime Always Pays. Where do you find the time (and energy), and what’s next on the horizon?
DB: It’s been a busy couple of years, alright, but I’m planning to take it a little easier next year. I have a book I want to redraft for publication in 2013, but that won’t be as difficult - he said hopefully - as writing a new one. Right now, I like the idea of taking the year off, and spending a bit of time on family and the day job, and there are, as my wife likes to remind me, some long overdue chores around the house and garden that need doing. Hey, I might even take a holiday.
NMR: Dec, thanks for taking the time to answer these questions, and good luck with Slaughter’s Hound. I’m halfway through and loving every page.
DB: Thanks for having me over at NMR, Dana. It’s always a pleasure.