No Alibis : An Interview with David Torrans

No Alibis


 by Annika Breinig (with thanks to Portia Ellis-Woods and Dominique Jeannerod)


No Alibis : a  Bookshop to die for (83, Botanic Avenue, Belfast, BTL7 1 JL)1JL

When did you open your bookshop and what was your business idea? And your cultural project?

  • We opened the bookshop in 1997 and I will be honest, the cultural element may have been something that was an interest on a small part , but the desire to make it work financially was the main emphasis. It was a balance, a mix of both.

So, how successful are you with this bookshop, does it work out well?

  • Well, we’re still here. Which in the current climate is, I suppose as  much success as you can hope for. But, it’s a lot of work. It’s not a 9 to 5 job. So, we are successful, it provides a living, but there is a lot of extra work involved.

Why did you choose Crime Fiction?

  • If you’re going to open a shop of this size, the first thing that you have to consider is, you need to have something that is different. That is a niche, within the business model.  Of course, it helped,  that I was very interested in that subject to begin with, but it isn’t my sole interest in literature or in history or in reading . But it was a big enough interest and I thought a populist enough interest to make it work.

How did the scene of Crime fiction evolve over the years, locally?

  • In one aspect crime fiction has always existed, in literature from this part of the world. It may not have been  classified as crime fiction. It may not have been designated as genre , but there were elements of literature and fiction, that could have easily been categorized as crime fiction. And, I suppose, then as writing developed, as people’s ideas developed, as writers became confident in writing about this place within the genre, it has grown steadily from there. Well if you want to look at it that way, Colin Bateman has been the first of the genre, and it’s grown steadily in the modern age. Grown steadily from that period, from the mid 90’s probably.

Connolly & Bateman

(John Connolly and Colin Bateman in No Alibis, April 21st, 2005)

Who were the first authors whom you did invite  to a reading in No Alibis? And when was that?

  • Well, Colin Bateman, Ian Rankin, Lawrence Block, Ruth Dudley Edwards and also Michael Dibdin (who grew up in Lisburn). Block is a very fine American crime writer, authoring some fifty books, one of them a reflection on his trade, Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. Edwards, who is a historian and political writer, also authors satirical crime fiction.We are going back almost 20 years, so it is hard, but what was refreshing was that there  wealth of authors who were happy enough to participate in the running, the running and working of my shop whilst helping to promote it.  And from that moment, we always had a strong support from authors, national and international.

Who were the first international authors? The first Americans? The first non -English speaking?

  • The very first international author, would have been Lawrence Block, who came over from New York. And probably  the first non-English speaking author that we had  would have been a Norwegian writer, called Kjersti Scheen, the English translation of her first book was called “Final Curtain”. She came over about  12 years ago.

Whom did you invite the most, and how many times have they been here?

  • Possibly Ian Rankin and John Connolly. We were very fortunate that John Connolly has been here practically every year he has released a book, so we are talking about 13 or 14 times. Ian Rankin would have been here, if not in the shop than  in events linked to the shop, but outside, Ian would have been here 10 times as well.

How many readings do you organise every year on average? Has this figure evolved over the years, and how?

  • I would say 15 to 20. It has grown considerably, certainly over the last 10 years.

What part does a bookshop like No Alibis play in the local community?

  • I don’t know if we play specifically a part in the community, but we want to be part of the community. I think there is a difference , because I think to BE part of a community that means you have to be accepted and you have to have people wanting to come to you, I suppose its semantics. To PLAY a part means there is an intention to be there. And well, we are here anyway, so we have to make contacts and to encourage people to come in. So I think we benefit the community and not just this local community, but maybe broader as well, we each mutually provide benefit to each other. People have a place to come to, where they can listen to spoken word or music and then in return they support us by coming here to the shop.

Does it have an influence on Crime Writing in Northern Ireland?

  • It’s interesting, personally I don’t think we really have, in any sense. I don’t think anyone has said ‘Oh, there is a crime fiction bookshop, I’m going to start writing crime fiction.’ But some authors have said that, when we opened they started coming here to buy books and it introduced them to different elements of crime fiction, which they maybe would not have read before. So, maybe in that sense, it influences an author’s reading, therefore influences their writing, not so much the writing itself, but maybe their ideas or their theme, what we may have done. But I’m not going to take any credit.

Do you recommend books to authors? For example, what, and to whom?

  • There have been authors, who have come in and they’ve asked ‘What are you reading at the moment, what’s new, what do you think I would like?’ For example, the author Brian McGilloway came in here, right from almost the very start when we opened. I knew him as a customer and as Brian, he ultimately became a crime writer. But, he would have asked me about books and things I got, and I would have recommended things to him. It was probably James Lee Burke and Lawrence Block, something along those lines.

What were your first crime Fiction readings? When was that?

  • Strangely enough, probably the first introduction I had to Crime Fiction was through Science Fiction and the classic Science Fiction writer, Isaac Asimov. A hundred years ago, he was writing. Well, not a hundred years ago, but he would have been born maybe a hundred years ago. He was writing in the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s. But he was also a writer who wrote for the magazines, science fiction magazines, and the Pulp crime magazines of the day, he created that detective. These novels were utopian, or dystopian, depending on your viewpoint, within them he had a subgenre of detective fiction. That was how I was introduced to the genre. Actually, it was my interest in science fiction that led me to reading this work, classic science fiction, and then I discovered these two books and subsequently a series, featuring the detective called Elijah Baley. They are quite dated, quite traditional, but they are classic crime fiction, just set in a futuristic age. That was when I was probably 13 or 14.

Who were the first authors you read in the noir genre? When?

  • Probably Dashiell Hammett, some Chandler short stories, Dorothy B. Hughes, a female crime writer from America. They would have been the first that I would have read.

Which were the most important books for you? In Crime Fiction and outside?

  • I’m always suspicious of subjective statements about things, because I think whilst there are books I always enjoy, books I will reread, to say that they are favourites sort of limits you. So I’m not going to give a specific title, because there are so many of them, but I can think of a subgenre, a setting of book, or a type of book. Crime fiction, that is precise, spare, socially constructive, crime novels that actually look at individuals and people living within society, dealing with their troubles or their problems and possible solutions, that may come through action on the part of being a detective or be it a lead character, not necessarily a detective. That type of crime novel, is a novel that appeals to me.The writings of Bernard MacLaverty were quite important to me, as a young boy, growing up here and also Maurice Leitch.


How many books do you read in a year?

  • I would say 50 to 60.

How many different titles do you offer to the public in any given year? How did this figure evolve in recent years?

  • Within the bookshop probably 20,000. And the shop has grown, so initially the shop was half the size that it is now, so we have doubled our stock.

How many customers come to your bookshop in an average week?

  • I would say somewhere between 150 and 250.

What is the proportion of Local Crime Fiction (Irish& NI), of British, American, and of other countries?

  • Okay, proportion wise I would say between British and American and European I would say 30 percent each and maybe 10 percent would be from Ireland.

Did you consider Crime Fiction as entertainment or rather an interpretation of the world, which helped making sense of it? Did your view change in this respect? If so, why?

  • A bit of both, depending on your mood. For example, if you’re on a train travelling a long distance. Creative limitations aside, you don’t want to be reading rubbish, but you want to be reading something that is maybe going to take you away from your environment in a way and generally things like don’t require too much mental capacity and things like that tend to be reading more for enjoyment. But even within the sense of reading for enjoyment, reading for awareness, taking in something from social importance and awareness is equally important and the best of the novels have both.

Growing up in Belfast, what were the Crime Fiction authors whose writing you think did matter the most?

  • The writers that I would have read most, growing up, wouldn’t have been regarded as crime fiction writers, but there would have been an element of that within their works, so Bernard MacLaverty, Michael McLaverty, Maurice Leitch. They would have been novelists, who, when you read them for the first time, you realize ‘He sees what’s going on here or she sees what’s going on here’. I have to say my reading at that age would have been quite gender-specific.

How do you explain the richness and quality of Irish Crime Fiction in general and Northern Irish Crime Fiction in particular? Do you make the distinction between the two?

  • I think the authors would all be honest enough to admit that when they start writing crime fiction, certainly those from this part of the island, they attempt not to specifically deal with a political construct, when they are writing, they try to deal with a human construct as the main motivation, but it’s impossible to not bring the political into it. So I think the current grouping of young crime writer’s really are setting their message in a way that is as encompassing and as holistic as possible within the whole arena of what it is to write about this place. I think they are managing to do it very well.

Who are the up and coming Irish authors to watch? And from elsewhere?

  • I think people like Gerard Brennan have brought a freshness and a slightly different style to crime fiction within this part of the world. Claire Coughlan, thankfully there is a crime writer now from this part of the world writing from the female perspective.Coughlan has the strength and the talent to give her main character a real depth of awareness and an understanding that is significant and specific to her gender. That has been somewhat lacking, simply because their work hasn’t been published, there haven’t been as many people doing it. But Claire is definitely there.

If you would have to recommend a book to someone who is new to Irish Crime Fiction, what would it be?

  • From an urban perspective probably Adrian McKinty. His series set in Belfast in the 1980s is a superb series. Or possibly a really good introduction to this whole political, social, and literary arena here would be, I suggest, Eoin McNamee. Anything by Eoin McNamee, because he is regarded as being a literary novelist, but he deals with elements of social injustice, political injustice, criminal injustice and does it in such a beautiful spare way.


Do you recognize a difference since E-readers became more and more popular?

  • We have never really carried something you would regard as mass market crime fiction. And it’s not because we are precious about it, it’s simply because there is no point for a shop of this nature and size carrying books that you can get in every supermarket. But what we have noticed, is that even with books that are slightly more obscure, books that we would have carried, there is a slight downturn. We have definitely just completely written off mass market crime fiction because people simply buy those things for their kindle to read on the plane, or to read on holiday, and from a practical perspective, it’s much easier if you have an e-reader. Surprisingly, people always assume that I am anti-E-Reader. You know, you can’t stop technology, you can’t stop development. I have issues with E-publications, but it’s got nothing to do with the E-readers, they are due to publishers and how they market it. But yes, we have definitely seen a diminishing market. All that means now is, we search out books that are more obscure or from different arenas, from different areas, different styles or going back to the older books that are being republished, books that have a tactile attractiveness, as well as having a literary attractiveness, because a book is a thing, it’s a product, it’s a creation. Whilst at many levels just reading text on a screen is perfectly fine, when it comes to certain areas reading a book that has an element of tactile beauty to it, it is also an attraction. And the beauty of that, is you can always go back to it, so you have that physical link. It’s the aesthetics of something that is classically produced, because books are a classical production, a classic creation.

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83 Botanic Avenue

83 Botanic Avenue

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