Author: djeannerod

About djeannerod

Lecturer in French Studies at Queen's University, Belfast. High velocity fiction enthusiast.

An Interview with Sharon Dempsey

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[Dominique Jeannerod] Your debut novel appears today,  published by Bloodhound Books.  Could you tell us what Little Bird is about?

[Sharon Dempsey] Little Bird is primarily about loss: loss of a loved one, loss of identity, loss of connection.  It interests me to create broken characters and push them to the extreme and there is plenty of scope for that within the crime genre. As Ian Rankin once said you can do anything within the crime genre. It offers up all sorts of possibilities and allows you to have characters from different socio-economic backgrounds to interact. Crime and tragedy doesn’t only affect one sector of society. We are all vulnerable.

As far as the blurb goes the story concerns forensic psychologist, Declan Wells, who is dealing with the aftermath of a car bomb, that has left him in a wheelchair. Ten years after the car bomb his daughter is found murdered at a family wedding and Declan finds himself propelled into a nightmare of grief and desperation as he tries to find his daughter’s killer. Welsh Detective, Anna Cole is running away from a dead-end relationship and guilt over her mother’s death. She hopes secondment to the Police Service of Northern Ireland will provide distraction.  There is a killer on the streets targeting young women and leaving behind macabre mementos to taunt the police. Declan and Anna work together to try and solve the case before the killer strikes again.

[DJ] What aspect of the novel in particular did you think might capture the readers interest the most?

[SD] I suppose the idea of Declan being so damaged, both physically and emotionally, and then dealing with the loss of his daughter was something which appealed to early readers.

I am drawn to damaged characters who despite their difficulties are compelled to keep going. Declan’s grief is harnessed to propel him onwards. He can’t rest until he knows who has harmed his daughter. The killer’s penchant for the macabre is also going to pique interest. I don’t want to give too much away but he has a strange hobby!

[DJ] How did you come to write it? What was the original idea? When did you first think of the subject?

[SD] The original idea came about at a family wedding. I was leaving the party at around eleven; it was a gorgeous balmy night and we were in the countryside. As I was walking to my car I could hear the music coming from the dance floor, laughter and chatter, and it suddenly occurred to me that this was a great place to set a murder. I wrote the first murder scene the following week but like many ideas I let it rest for a while and then slowly the story started to form.

[DJ] You studied Politics and English at Queen’s; how did your choice of studies prepare you to write crime fiction?
[SD] Crime writing feels like coming full circle in many ways and the crime novel is an ideal arena to explore issues of corruption, social exclusion, and identity. The study of Politics is concerned with how we organize society and make it work, the ideologies that form the basis of our governments; whereas, in studying English literature I was more interested in the individual and how we respond to the world around us and find creative expression.

[DJ] Was it easy to find a publisher for this first novel? How did you pitch it?

[SD] It is never easy to find a publisher. The road to publication is paved with rejection letters. I had an agent for a while which was great regarding editorial feedback but at the final hurdle I felt let down. I made a submission pitch on my own to Bloodhound Books and they came back offering me a deal. They have proved to be fantastic to work with.

[DJ] What do you think of Irish Noir and do you think your novel fits in this genre?

[SD] I love Irish Noir – North and South. Northern Irish crime writing has really come into its own. Writers like Adrian McKinty, Brian McGilloway and Stuart Neville have led the way. We are a society ripe with stories and now, post-conflict, is the time to tell them. I feel strongly that exploring society through a fictional lens is the best way to get to the emotional truth.

[DJ] Do you consider contemporary Crime Fiction set in Northern Ireland rather as a subspecies from Irish Noir, or as a relative of the “Troubles Thriller” or as a subgenre in its own right? What are its specificities, compared with “Emerald Noir”, “Tartan Noir”, or any other forms of regional and rural noir?

[SD] Genre specific labels don’t bother me. A good story is a good story. Kelly Creighton’s The Bones of It doesn’t have those sorts of limitations.

But I do think our Northern Irish crime writing is distinctive from the Southern Irish stories. We have lots of crossover, the same with Tartan Noir and novels like Joseph Knox’s Sirens set in Manchester. Each region has its own dialect, its own challenges and its own brand of humour. The Troubles Thriller sounds a bit reductive but for publishers it has a great catch. As far as the specifics of Northern Irish Noir I think we are fortunate, if that is the right way to put it, to have the Troubles as backdrop. We can explore a damaged society and see how it has been affected by living through turbulent and violent times. The tropes of the paramilitary hold over communities, the double-crossing agents of the state, the riots and the bombs all provide an ambient backdrop.

 

[DJ] Who are the writers whom you read most, before and while writing your novel?

[SD] Tana French can do no wrong. I love her murder squad series. Faithful Place was my favourite. Louise Phillips writes great killers. Her multi-narrative voices always make for a good read. I also love Stuart Neville and Brian McGilloway; they have both been trailblazers for Northern Irish crime writing. Adrian McKinty’s dry wit is quintessentially Northern Irish and he uses it to great effect. I love John Connolly for his short stories and novellas. There are also stand out books that have stayed with me over time: Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, Tender by Belinda McKeon, and Margaret Attwood’s Alias Grace and The Hand Maid’s Tale. This year, I also thought Jane Harper’s Dry was a stand-out crime novel.

 

[DJ] Who are the authors you met in person and with whom you discussed your work?

[SD] Southern Irish crime writer, Louise Phillips has been a major influence on my work, not least because she mentored me throughout the writing of my first draft. I have always been a fan of Louise’s books so when I was successful in being awarded a grant under the Support for the Individual Arts Programme from the Arts Council NI, I used the money to engage in a mentoring programme with her. She read the first 10, 000 words and was very supportive and said that yes, she would work with me. This meant that I had a reader early on; at every 15,000-word instalment, Louise read what I had written and offered her advice. She was wonderfully supportive and I don’t think I would have completed the book without her encouragement. The Arts Council award also meant that I had a deadline to work to. I had to submit the finished manuscript to them within nine months so it was a great incentive to finish it. The award was also a great validation in me and my work and when you are writing your first novel, without a publishing deal that validation really helps you to keep going. Writing can be a lonely profession, if you allow it to be. By actually saying, I want to write and this is what I have done, I have been amazed at the community of support on offer. There are great book events to get involved in, from the Belfast Book Festival at the Crescent to the regular launches at No Alibis.

 

[DJ] One can perceive a gender imbalance in the population of Northern Irish Crime Writers. What do you think are the reasons for that? Is there a chance that changes are coming, with your generation of women crime authors ? And how could such changes impact stories told about this place, and crime fiction in general?

[SD] Yes, the male writers have to date been leading the charge up North, whereas down South the female crime writers have been selling extremely well. I do think this is about to change for Northern Ireland. Kelly Creighton, Catriona King, Claire McGowan and myself have plenty to say and our stories stand up. The gender imbalance is strange but there has been a sense that during the Troubles we were all trying to get on with living; keeping our heads down. There was so much violence and crime reported daily that we were almost fatigued by it. I certainly didn’t want to write about it until later. It has been said that women write about violence and menace so well because we truly understand fear and the sense of threat. Now is the time for the Northern Irish female voices to be heard and for our stories to take their place alongside our male peers.

 

Many thanks!

 PS Dear Reader, if you happen to be in Belfast, there will be a book launch on 3rd August at 7pm, in the Crescent Arts Centre, 2-4,  University Road. All Welcome !

Crime under the Channel

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Gilles Pétel – Under the Channel (translated by Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken), Gallic Books, 2014. Original title Sous la Manche, 2012.

A book review by Eugen Kontschenko

 

In Under the Channel, Gilles Pétel tells the story of Roland Desfeuillères, a French police officer, who is assigned to investigate a murder inside the Channel Tunnel on a Eurostar train ride from London to Paris. Experiencing several hardships in his marriage, he takes the opportunity to flee from his troubles with his soon to be ex-wife, and travels to London to find out more about the mysterious victim. As he tries to uncover and understand the secrets of the victim, he also begins to discover a different side of himself.

 

What makes a novel dealing with a crime a good crime novel?  Certainly, Pétel succeeds in evoking various elements of the genre. The premise, reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s 1934 classic Murder on the Orient Express, as well as dozens of other murder mysteries set on a train, is promisingly enough considered from the angle of an international police procedural; a dead body found between two international police jurisdictions. There are also many other thrilling ingredients such as an unusual method of murder that leaves almost no traces and a victim surrounded by one too many secrets, which all seem to make for an engaging whodunit. On top of this, we have a highly experienced police lieutenant, who in his private life is struggling with his marriage and a cross-border police investigation destined to create tension and suspense due to clashing cultural and national sensibilities. Despite these promises, the novel is marred by issues which distract the reader, and will probably even leave her somewhat dissatisfied.

 

The novel loses itself in superfluous details. Desfeuillères’ failed marriage could provide more depth to the character and serve as an intriguing side plot. Instead, the author seems to use this backstory unnecessarily and excessively, constantly falling back to mentioning pieces of it when it contributes little to the story. The same could be said for Desfeuillères’ efforts to make sense of the case as well as to make sense of his personal problems: while his descent into a growing midlife crisis makes for interesting noir soul-searching, it seems to overshadow the crime story instead of complementing it. The book as such appears to be not primarily a crime novel, but a drama about a cop trying to discover his true identity.

 

Even dramatic episodes do not necessarily grab the reader as the book does not provide any positive characters with whom readers can identify. Every character has a negative and immoral side, which often seems disturbing. Desfeuillères has many issues, beyond the marital ones and he fully neglects his superiors and children during his stay in London, while engaging into various sexual activities and alcoholism. His wife, meanwhile, begins an affair with his subordinate. Other side characters are unsavory: the elderly couple who finds the body on the train does not want to report it at first, but change its mind in order to get into the newspaper. The French police, instead of pursuing the case, presume the couple to be drunk tourists and forcefully arrest them for disturbing the peace. It seems as if that the novel oversteps the mark in the attention it pays to the portrayal of morally ambiguous characters.

 

All these issues are amplified by the slow pace of narration. Every character seems to be inexplicably waiting for something, whether it will be the victim waiting for the train in the beginning of the novel, or Desfauillères waiting for appointments in London. This needlessly lengthens the novel while lessening the motivation of the reader. While the slow pace might appeal to some readers who would relish the picturesque descriptions, it does make finishing the novel more challenging than it needs to be.

 

Despite having a great premise, the novel should not be seen as a typical crime novel. Bringing many subplots into it makes it lose focus, transforming the book into a character-driven drama with crime elements. Even though this mixture could prove to be interesting and engaging, it is hindered from being so by despicable characters and a slowly progressing plot. Under the Channel tries to be many things at once, but just ends up too entangled in its promises.

 

The Eskimo Solution

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Pascal Garnier – The Eskimo Solution (translated by Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken), Gallic Books, 2016. Original title La Solution Esquimau, 2006.

A Book Review by Eugen Kontschenko

 

“He kills people’s parents the way Eskimos leave their elders on a patch of ice because … it’s natural, ecologically sound, a lot more humane and far more economical than endlessly prolonging their suffering in a dismal nursing home.” (Page 11)

The Eskimo Solution by the late Pascal Garnier was a great success in France and has since acquired a cult status, together with its author. The novel tells two stories: One is about an unnamed crime author who, seeking motivation for his writing, retreats to a house in a small town on the Normandy coast. There he begins to tell the story of Louis, a man struggling financially to maintain his lifestyle. Inspired by the Eskimo ritual which gives the novel its title, Louis begins to violently help himself and the people around him to an early inheritance. As the stories progress, the plot of Louis’s novel intertwines with the author’s real life.

 

In this book Garnier plays with a macabre speculation : wouldn’t it be better for the next generation, if there were no seniors? Not only would the inheritance benefit the youth, but also retirement costs would be nonexistent. Just like in Eskimo legends, the elders would leave the community with their dignity in place instead of becoming a nuisance. This would be a benefit for everyone, or wouldn’t it?

 

Garnier’s outlook in this novel is almost Beckettian in its minimalism. His author’s bleak and nihilistic lifestyle befits his writing of a story exploring questions of morale and death. Despite having rented a house to have as few distractions as possible, he keeps distracting himself by staying in bed, watching TV or walking along the beach. Realizing how meaningless everybody and everything around him is, he struggles to make sense of life and existence. He only seems to find meaning in pragmatic ways, like finishing writing his book. The novel, through the complex characterization of a writer at work, becomes a study on authorship and the auctorial function.

 

On a generational and societal level, the representation of Louis’s transformation into a sort of twisted vigilante serving the interests of people who are his age against their elders is fascinating for its moralism.  It is out of a sense of duty and Kantian morals that Louis fights for financial justice against the elderly. Louis’ story is very straight-forward, but the two stories complement each other in a superb way. While Louis becomes more and more creative in relieving society of old people, the author is confronted with this exact issue in real life and is forced to face the moral side of these actions. Here Garnier explores the connection between creator and creation and life imitating art.

 

Both stories balance out well, with the author trying to make sense of his remaining life, a depleted existence full of bleakness and antisocial tendencies and Louis’ entertaining, and even funny, struggle for blood and wealth. Viewed individually, Louis’ story would lack some depth, as his actions have no effect beyond financial benefit; the police is not mentioned once and no one seems to question the many deaths surrounding him. Nevertheless, contrasted with the author’s story and his personal views on society and life, it gains more universal, existential significance and symbolism, making The Eskimo Solution a perplexing yet entertaining read.

The King of Fools

Frédéric Dard – The King of Fools (translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie), Pushkin Vertigo, 15.05.2017. Original title La pelouse, 1962

King of fools

A review by Eugen Kontschenko

“What was better? To be a murderer or a gullible fool?” (Page 145)

The King of Fools by Frédéric Dard begins in the sunny Côte d’Azur, where the story’s protagonist Jean-Marie Valaise spends his vacation after another break-up from his ex-girlfriend Denise. Due to an apparent small mishap, he meets Marjorie, a married Englishwoman, to whom he feels immediately drawn. Despite only having met her briefly, he senses she is unhappy with her husband and foolishly decides to follow her to Edinburgh. But when Jean-Marie arrives in Edinburgh, he realizes that Marjorie has secrets which are as twisted as the dark streets of the city, and equally as liable to ensnare. Continue reading

The Wicked go to Hell

Wicked

Frédéric Dard – The Wicked go to Hell (translated by David Coward), Pushkin Vertigo, 06.08.2016. Original title Les salauds vont en enfer, 1956

A review by Eugen Kontschenko

 

“I hope the good Lord above will be with you… Either the good Lord… or the Devil, because hell is where you’re going!” (Page 14)

 

The novel The Wicked go to Hell by Frédéric Dard has had a long journey. First written as a play, it was later adapted as a movie and only after that became a novel. It tells a gritty story about an undercover cop who is sent to jail to gather information from a spy. In order to get closer to and befriend each other, they are forced to share a cell. Sensing an upcoming opportunity, the two inmates named Frank and Hal plan an escape. Even though each is suspicious of the other, they form a bizarre bond as they flee from prison in search of a suitable hideout. But who is the cop and who is the spy? Continue reading

Crush

Frédéric Dard – Crush (translated by Daniel Seton), Pushkin Vertigo, 6 October 2016

(Original title :  Les Scélérats, 1959)

A book review by Eugen Kontschenko 

How low  would you be willing to fall to live  the American dream ?

Frédéric Dard’s novel Crush takes us to Léopoldville, a bleak and turbid industrial town in 1950s France. The residents of Léopoldville are mostly factory workers living simple lives. This is also the case for the novel’s protagonist Louise Lacroix, a 17-year-old girl who lives with her mother and drunken stepfather and, unsatisfied with her work at the factory, aspires to a fancier lifestyle. As she walks home after her shift, she passes by the house of the Roolands, an American couple considered wealthy in contrast with the others, due to the husband’s employment with NATO. Impressed by their house, their garden and especially their car, Louise is fervently drawn to them, envisioning an escape from her dreary life. Her wish seems to come true when the couple employs her as their live-in maid. But before long the American idyll begins to crumble. Continue reading

The Executioner Weeps

Frédéric Dard – The Executioner Weeps (translated by  David Coward, Pushkin Vertigo, 09.03.2017, original title Le bourreau pleure, 1956)

A BOOK REVIEW BY EUGEN KONTSCHENKO

“And then suddenly everything had changed. Yes, everything, and all on the account of that supine figure which had come out of the night and leapt into the bright lights of my car.”  (Page 10)

Thus begins the highly popular French crime noir author Frédéric Dard’s prize-winning novel The Executioner Weeps. The book follows the story of Daniel Mermet, a famous French painter, who is on vacation in Francoist Spain when he accidentally hits a young and beautiful woman with his car. The woman survives, but Mermet soon discovers that she has lost her memory. Taking care of her, Daniel falls in love with the mysterious stranger and goes on a quest to France to gather information on her past – a past full of lies and vice and horror, which would be better forgotten. Continue reading