The Tailor of Panama

Posted in book, review, thriller, UK writers with tags , , on August 8, 2010 by richardkunzmann

John le Carré, Coronet Books (1996)

I picked up a tatty copy of the Tailor of Panama because I’d been feeling rather ashamed for never having read a John le Carré novel. And reading just a few pages, I immediately knew I’d like the rest of it. The conversational language, the peppy tongue-in-cheek descriptions – here was a confident writer patient enough to allow a good story to unravel on its own. He doesn’t feel compelled, as many thriller writers do, to barrel from one action sequence to another, to the detriment of the characters and setting.

Harry Pendel is the proprietor of Pendel & Braithwaite Limitada, previously of Saville Row, London, and through his doors pass all of Panama’s elite. They come to have the best suits in Panama fitted and to hear the latest gossip about each others’ mistresses and the political climate. Harry also owes one of these men a lot of money and has no means of paying it back. Enter Andrew Osnard, a voluminous and manipulative British Intelligence officer, who coerces Harry into providing information about all the gentlemen he fits, particularly those who might have some stake in the US hand-over of the Chanel to the Panamanian government. As Osnard’s demands for evidence of a conspiracy grows, Pendel feels obliged to invent increasingly bizarre plots to overthrow the government and shut down the Chanel.

I have it on the authority of my friends who religiously follow le Carré that this isn’t his usual offer. It’s not so much a thriller as a satire of the West drunk on its own victory over the rest of the world. If you loved Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove or Grahame Greene’s Our Man in Havanna, you’ll appreciate this book – in fact, it seems like le Carré wrote it as a sort of homage to Greene.

There are a few sequences I especially liked. We are introduced to Harry Pendel as a meticulous man: he receives new clients in circumstances carefully orchestrated to make them feel like kings; he cuts their suits to precision in a secret room where he is his own master. Yet as the conspiracies grow larger and the lies devour his life, the tailor’s attention to detail slips. le Carré misses no opportunity to link the metaphors attached to a tailor — the clothes maketh the man, the story of the king with no clothes on, etc. — to great effect. The plots and sub-plots of the various actors are a joy to unravel. The more depressed and withdrawn Pendel becomes, the more convinced his wife is that he is having an affair with a younger woman. The vodka-fuelled scene in which her suspicions finally comes to a head is masterfully told – until that point the female figures in the novel are but bit-players, sidelined by the machismo of the men. But from then on, we realise that they are the only ones not consumed by their own egos.

The Tailor of Panama hangs together well on so many layers, it is a great read as a satirical spy thriller as well as good literature exploring our human immoralities.

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Self-publishers don’t just rob you of money, they rob you of opportunity

Posted in book, writing with tags , , on October 24, 2009 by richardkunzmann

After a long respite from blogging this summer, I return with a topic that I frequently come across when I give talks on the writing process. Many would-be writers either ask me my opinion about self-publishing or wave their newly self-published novel in my face, often with the same desperate need for recognition flickering in their eyes which drove them to do such a foolish thing in the first place. It’s as if they secretly fear that they’ve done some dirty thing – that they’re only pretending to be writers because they’ve self-published.

In my view, anyone that manages to finish a novel deserves to be called a writer, but that doesn’t mean their book is a finished product. And self-publishing is all about half-finished products.

Two examples
To illustrate: I know of at least two authors who got severely burnt. The first author, who has talent even if it is as yet undeveloped, handed me his self-published novel for review. He spent a substantial amount of money getting it printed and yet my copy fell apart before I was even halfway through. The editing was shoddy at best, cringe-inducing at worst.

The second author I met was absolutely convinced he’d hit the big-time with his story idea. His self-belief was such that he quit his job, sold his car and most of his assets, and spent the money on finishing the novel and paying for self-publication. He was a talented self-marketer, very good looking, and it wasn’t difficult to get a slot on a TV breakfast show to talk about his novel. So far so good, except when I caught up with him some months later, he was in financial dire straits and artistic despair. Why? The books were of such bad quality that the ink on the front pages rubbed off in the hands of his admiring readers who, it turned out, didn’t finish the book because of … you guessed it, the shoddy editing. Suddenly a thousand copies were returned to him by the stores who’d once supported him. He had to fork out the little money he made from sales to the shops, even though he’d already spent it all, putting him in twice the trouble he was in. When I last spoke with him, he was locked in a furious legal battle with money his parents had loaned to him. But the self-publishers had more greenback than him, better lawyers and a rock-solid contract.

It’s called vanity publishing for a reason, and it panders to that thing that is every writer’s nemesis: insecurity. Both authors had only approached one or two publishers, been rejected and turned to self-publishing out of despair. In the end, they lost doubly – they lost money in the enterprise and they lost a precious first idea.

Separating the wheat from the chaff
80% of writing is about sitting down and actually doing it. If that’s not hard enough, the next 15% is about the trial by fire, the publishing system’s cleansing ritual that rids itself of most of the chaff that’s out there. It’s not necessarily about you as an author, it’s about refining stories.

Traditional publishers know what the market wants, because they largely drive it, not consumers. They are also extremely good at spotting stories that have talent, and then developing these to such a level that they’re happy to put their brand and reputation on it. Within that process there’s an agent and editor who have your interests at heart. Why? Because if they don’t look after you and what you write they loose money and credibility when it goes to market. It means as long as you’ve not convinced them with the quality of your story, there is some lesson, some door, which you haven’t yet unlocked within yourself as an author. Self-publishers, they don’t walk that road with you. They take their money upfront and head the other way.

Self-publishing teaches you nothing
For me self-publishing’s greatest flaw is that it doesn’t teach you anything. With a traditional publisher, you’re learning something every time you get rejected, but only if you’re willing to objectively reflect on what you’ve written. And once the publishing world takes you on-board, there’s yet another steep learning curve ahead as editors slice up your manuscript to such an extent that you think you know nothing about the English language. Your agent has advice, as does the salesperson, the publicist, the copyeditor, the proof reader. If you can’t listen with an open mind to any of what they say, you’ll never learn. But that’ll be your fault. With a self-publisher, there’s none of that. No advice. No guidance. No realistic expectations. Just show me the money, babe.

Self-published novels don’t get sold in the major bookstores
Bookshops and publishers have a heavily syndicated relationship. All the big retailers decide in a distant head office somewhere what gets sold at the local bookstore, and self-published work never features on that list. This means that you pay money to a self-publisher, thinking maybe that you can convince at least ten bookstores to stock your books, except they won’t. And in the rare instances that they do, staff are pressed to position the top sellers in the best rows, the self-published novels hardly ever face cover outward, and worst of all, the poor design and paper quality sticks out like a monstrous aberration amongst the other professionally published books.

If they don’t take your book, suddenly you have little more than printed newspaper clogging up your garage.

And in the internet is not much different
To some extent, the same is true for the internet. Self-published work just doesn’t get the same exposure.

Quick test: I’m not a best-selling author on the international platform by any means, but my first novel with PanMacmillan UK comes up 23,000 times on a Google search. A first novel by someone else, with a New York-based self-publisher, comes up 634 times.

You wouldn’t give the patent to Windows to a second-hand car dealer, would you?
Don’t give away your intellectual property to someone that’s going to do a half-assed job bringing it to market. A novel idea has only one shot at becoming something; if a self-publisher fouls that up for you, your chance is gone forever. It’s hard, but it’s much better to go through the trial by fire that is rejection after rejection. It teaches you to reflect on your work, to rely on yourself for courage and determination, and forces you to hone your skills as a writer, until you’re good enough to bring out all the best elements in your story.

Am I absolutely against self-publishing?
Having said all that, I think Kindle and e-books are set to shake things up completely. We now have a medium through which an author can publish and conceivably run no financial risk as no novel needs to be printed. There’s Lulu.com, which exclusively markets self-published work and it seems to be working. Still, unless you’re absolutely confident in your skills as a writer, a professional fiction editor is invaluable, not only in shaping your current novel, but also helping you along the path of becoming a better writer.

Working your way up the foodchain: Michael Stanley talk about the slow process of becoming established writers

Posted in African fiction, crime fiction, international crime fiction, interview, police procedural, South Africa, South African writers, US writers, whodunit, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2009 by richardkunzmann

Michael StanleyI first met the writing duo Stanley Trollip and Michael Sears – who together form the nom de plume Michael Stanley – at the CapeTown Bookfair in June 2008, when Deon Meyer made sure to introduce the two authors to the South African literary scene. By the end of the year, two regular guys sitting in the crowd attentatively listening to the crime fiction discussions, were suddenly hot news: they’d hit the LA Times’ pick of the best ten crime novels of the year, were nominated for the Macavity Award, the Strand Magazine Critics’ Award and were finalists in the Minnesota Book Awards.

What makes these two authors stand out is not the fact that they’ve written a series that is set in Botswana, like Alexander McCall-Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. No, I suspect Michael Stanley sniffed a change in the wind and produced an undeniably fresh series that is as much fun as it is serious – a take on crime fiction that’s sorely needed as our collective psyche becomes exhausted with the moral fug that’s hung over us since September 9/11. There’s an intense focus on Detective Kubu and his circle of friends and colleagues, an attention to detail when it comes to Botswana that renders Michael Stanley’s work real rather than pastoral.

Richard Kunzmann: For those of us who don’t yet know who you are and how you came about such a highly likeable character as Detective Kubu, give us your summarised back story (and that of Kubu!)

Michael Stanley: Michael Stanley is the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. We’re both retired professors who have worked in academia and business. Michael is a mathematician, specializing in geological remote sensing. Stanley is an educational psychologist, specializing in the application of computers to teaching and learning, and a
pilot. We were both born in South Africa.

a-carrion-deathBecause we are both academics, our original intention in A Carrion Death was to have the ecologist as the protagonist. But we needed a policeman to run the formal investigation. And Kubu seemed to come fully created as though he was there waiting. His nickname is Kubu because of his size – “kubu” being the Setswana word for hippopotamus. Hippos in the wild spend most of the day in pools or rivers, with only their eyes and ears out of the water. They look deceptively docile, belying the fact that they kill more people in Africa than any other animal, trampling whatever lies between them and their objective. So with Kubu. On the surface he appears harmless; a convivial man with a sly sense of humor, who loves his wife, who is passionate about wine and music. But Kubu is a capable, wily policeman determined to rid Botswana of crime and corruption, no matter what gets in his way.Detective 'Kubu' Bengu's namesake

Richard Kunzmann: Both of you must have a deep love for Botswana. How did that come about?

Michael Stanley:When Stanley lived in the USA, he’d go back to South Africa every year to see family and friends. Being a private pilot, he would rent a small plane, fill it with friends, food, and wine, and head off to Botswana or Zimbabwe to watch game or birds. Michael was always one of the passengers on these trips. Over the years we had so many wonderful times in the Okavango or in the Chobe National Park that we fell in love with the country.

Richard Kunzmann: Diamond and drug smuggling are the core themes of your first and second novels. Are these issues close to your hearts or are they a serious affliction in Botswana?

Michael Stanley:Michael worked for ten years for Anglo American, a very large mining house originally based in South Africa. It is a major shareholder in De Beers, which dominates the world diamond market. And of course Botswana has the two richest diamond mines in the world, Orapa and Jwaneng, owned by Debswana, a joint venture between De Beers and the Botswana government. So it was an easy decision for us, as we planned our first mystery, to incorporate diamonds into the story. Once there were diamonds, it was a small step to think about how they might be used illicitly, so we came up with a strategy that would make several of our characters immensely wealthy if the plan succeeded. In reality, diamonds are well controlled in Botswana and there is minimal impact from “blood diamonds” as far as we know.

With respect to the drug trade, Botswana is one of the conduits into South Africa, so it is impossible to ignore. Obviously it is a source of great concern in Botswana, and since our protagonist works for the police, it is of concern for him too.

A Deadly TradeRichard Kunzmann: What struck me most about A Deadly Trade was Goodluck Tinubu’s back story, and the personal tragedy of Zimbabwe as evoked by the different characters. It’s almost as if someone had those tragic tales to tell you….

Michael Stanley: The tragedy of Rhodesia and now Zimbabwe is so stark that it didn’t need a real person to provide the details and pathos. We both know Zimbabweans, black and white. Listening to their stories, coupled with the bombardment of news, made it easy to create a story of personal tragedies and disappointment.

Richard Kunzmann: I thought A Deadly Trade was a lot tighter and leaner than A Carrion Death. How have the two of you developed as writers since your successful debut?

Michael Stanley: When we started A Carrion Death, we had no idea what we were doing. Neither of us had written fiction before, nor had we written together. So the process was slow as we tried to figure out issues of plot and character, as well as how to share the responsibilities of writing, and remain friends. It took us three years to finish the first book.

For A Deadly Trade, we were better organized. We had a good outline of the plot before we started writing. We had learnt a great deal about making our writing more concise and leaner, so it took less time to produce a better draft. We had also refined the way the two of us interact, making the overall process more efficient. A Deadly Trade took about 20 months to complete. There is no doubt that we still have a lot to learn, and we hope we can improve the quality yet again in our third book.

Richard Kunzmann: A writer duo is still an unusual thing to me. How do you work together? Can you shortly take us through the process? What’s easy about it? What’s difficult?

Michael Stanley: We’ve developed a strategy which we think works quite well. Upfront, we work out a map of the plot, a synopsis, and the timelines. We try to get together to do that, and it takes a considerable amount of time. After that, it seems there are usually areas where one of us has a particular interest or a mental picture of what’s going to happen. He’ll write a first draft, and that is the starting point for multiple iterations. Often we will each be working on a different section of the book. This phase we can do by email interspersed with long internet telephone conversations. Eventually we go through each section independently to make sure it’s smooth, stylistically coherent, and that the characters’ behaviors are consistent from one place to another. Perhaps surprisingly it seems to work. Most people can’t discern any changes of style as they read.

Communication is easy thanks to the internet, and sometimes when Stanley is in North America and Michael is in South Africa the time change allows twenty-four hour writing!

Of course, sometimes understanding why the other person doesn’t like a piece is hard. It’s so clear to the original writer! But if one of us is having difficulty with a sentence, chances are that many readers will also. So we listen to each other very carefully.

Sometimes our schedules and priorities don’t match, and that can be frustrating.

Overall, we think that writing together is slower than writing alone, but the benefits of having an immediate, interested reader and someone with whom to brainstorm far outweighs the drawbacks.

Richard Kunzmann: How much of your success would you attribute to the book and old-fashioned marketing legwork?

Michael Stanley: When we started writing we told ourselves that if the books did not succeed it should be because they were not good rather than not known. For A Carrion Death, we received little financial support from our US publisher, which is typical these days. Publishers spend almost all their promotional budget on big names. The US is such a gigantic market (about 150,000 books published in 2008, and about 7000 mysteries) that if the author does nothing, nobody will get to know about the book. Certainly our publisher sent out review copies to reviewers at newspapers and magazines, which was a great help. We suspect that the fact we were reviewed at all was because our book was set in a part of the world that is exotic to most reviewers. And perhaps because of the success of Alexander McCall Smith. The great reviews were because they liked the book.

We wanted a broader profile than the reviews alone. So we put up a website for people to visit (www.detectivekubu.com). We wrote pieces for blogs, magazines, and newspapers. We visited a few bookstores and did events, and attended a few conventions, like Bouchercon. And to people who signed up on our website, we sent an occasional newsletter bringing them up to date on the progress of the next book, as well as about our travels.

So to answer your question, old-fashioned legwork is necessary for most new writers. Only a very few succeed without it. However without a book that people like, marketing will help very little.

Richard Kunzmann: Where do you see your series going? What’s coming next?

Michael Stanley: We are currently working on our third book. A Carrion Death is set in the dry Central Kalahari. Most of the action in A Deadly Trade takes place in the lush riverine forests of the Linyanti in northern Botswana, and in the third mystery we are sending Detective Kubu south west to Tsabong and areas around the Khalagadi Transfrontier National Park.

Bushmen SanThe back story of the third book is the conflict between the Bushmen (or San) and the government. This is a conflict that has reached the courts several times in several guises. In a landmark case a couple of years ago, the Botswana Supreme Court ruled that the government could not relocate some Bushmen from the Central Kalahari National Park to settlements outside. Of course the real issue is how nomadic people, who do not believe in land ownership, live in a world of private property, farms and fences. And what is the responsibility of the government to provide education and shelter to people who don’t want to stay in one place? At an even deeper level, society has to address the issue of whether it has a responsibility to preserve cultures such as that of the Bushmen, and if the answer is in the affirmative, how it does that.

Richard Kunzmann: Are translations on the horizon?

Michael Stanley: With respect to A Carrion Death, as of now we have an Italian edition (Il detective Kubu) in print. The French edition (Un festin de hyènes – a feast of hyenas) will be released in September. And a German edition is scheduled for 2010. We have sold the rights to A Deadly Trade to the French and German publishers.

Richard Kunzmann: Can you tell us what are the five most important things you’ve learnt as writers?

Michael Stanley:
1) When you become overly fond of a piece of writing, it probably should be cut.
2) Leave a lot to the reader’s imagination.
3) Believe in your characters. They will push back at you if you try to take them places they don’t want to go.
4) Readers care more about the characters than they do about the plot.
5) Editors tell you what’s wrong, not how to fix it!

Richard Kunzmann: What are the five biggest challenges you’ve faced?

Michael Stanley:
1) Getting to grips with a coherent plot that allows flexible development but avoids dead ends.
2) Letting the characters show themselves rather than telling the reader about them.
3) Getting the book complete in good shape within a given time frame (for the second book).
4) Learning how to market the book to agents, editors and readers.
5) Concentrating on the writing at the same time as doing the marketing!

Read reviews of A Carrion Death and A Deadly Trade

Barbara Nadel: Chatting about her newest books and the facts of writing

Posted in crime fiction, international crime fiction, interview, mystery, police procedural, UK writers, whodunit, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 5, 2009 by richardkunzmann

Istanbul 2I first met Barbara Nadel at last year’s Guildford Book Festival, when we sat down with Martyn Waites to discuss crime fiction set in exotic locations. Barbara Nadel is as entertaining as she’s interesting, and you’d never guess at the kind of travel she’s done to get her story. You see, having visited Turkey all her life, and speaking the language fluently, it comes as no surprise that this Londoner’s books are set in Istanbul. I can’t think of many crime writers who will actually travel into violence-torn areas like Eastern Turkey, where River of the Dead is set; we generally live comfortable lives safely ensconced in our studies, with nothing more dangerous in the room than Topsy the Dozing Cat. Yet, there she was, Barbara telling us about an area that’s rife with superstitions and snake-god worshippers, army tanks and Al-Qaeda insurgents sneaking over the border from Iraq. Her crime fiction is as fantastic as it’s authentic, and for this reason alone worth a read.

Here she tells us more about her two latest books, River of the Dead, featuring partners Çetin İkmen and Mehmet Süleyman, as well as Ashes to Ashes, another series she writes, set during the London Blitz and featuring batty old Francis Hancock.

Richard Kunzmann: You obviously love Turkey and are drawn back there time and again. Can you tell us why the country is so attractive to you, and why you ultimately set your first crime series there?

Barbara_NadelBarbara Nadel: Turkey is not an easy place to pin down. It is quirky and in lots of ways elusive. Working within a Turkish context is in many ways rather like trying to hold on to water. But that is what I like about it. Turkey is a rapidly evolving country with a long and very involved history and so every book that I write about it is the result of a lot of research. I end up with masses of information but it is just that richness that I love. I set my first crime series in Turkey for all the reasons above and also because at that time (the 1990’s) there were no modern crime mysteries set in that country. I very much wanted to bring a place that I love and which inspires me to a wider audience.

Richard Kunzmann: How do you go about researching the books set in Istanbul?

Barbara Nadel: I visit at least twice a year; I read all the latest literature and journalism from both inside and outside Turkey; and I am in close contact with friends and colleagues based in the country. That said, inspiration for the topic of each novel can come from just about anywhere.

Richard Kunzmann: There must be difficulties in writing stories not set in the country in which you live…

Barbara Nadel: Of course because I’m not in Turkey every day, I do miss things. But a lot of novelists write about places where they do not live. Michael Moorcock for instance, continues to write about London even though he now resides in Texas. Of course one has to keep abreast of developments within a country and visit often, but there is also a ‘Turkey of the mind’, a place I carry with me all the time. This ‘mind country’ is the result of many years of contact with the place, its people and its myths.

Richard Kunzmann: How do you marry a story that is essentially Turkish with a language and style that is uniquely British?

Barbara Nadel: Although I work in English I do try to translate at least the feeling of the Turkish context. Some characters are more traditional than others and pepper their speech with religious sayings and/or ancient forms of address. People do this and it is something I try to reflect when I can. However one has to be aware of pace and so I can’t overload the text with such artefacts even though sometimes my idea about a character may include a lot of them. In addition, some of my books, namely river of the dead involve characters for whom Turkish isn’t the first language. In that novel we have people speaking Arabic, Aramaic and the Kurdish dialect, Zaza. These are all, and have to be in this case, expressed in ‘English’.

River of the deadRichard Kunzmann: River of the Dead diverges somewhat from the other Ikmen books in that much of the action occurs outside of Istanbul. Can you tell us a bit more about Mardin, and why you decided to send Suleyman out that way?

Barbara Nadel: Mardin was a city I had never visited until 2007. In the far south east of the country it is a place that over the years has suffered much from being on the front line of the dispute between the Kurdish separatists, the PKK, and the Turkish armed forces. From time to time the city has been effectively closed to outsiders because of fears about security. So Mardin is not always easy. It is however mythic. For more years than I care to remember, I’d been hearing stories about Mardin – the city of vast honey-coloured mansions, of Syrian monasteries from the fifth century, of snakes and the pagan snake goddess that must be appeased in order to keep the serpents away. So in 2007 I went and found that all the myths were true. I was fortunate enough to spend Easter with the Syrian Christians where I found myself in company with monks, clock makers and a very old lady who specialised in primitive religious art-work. The snake goddess I discovered was called the Sharmeran and, as I spent more time in the city, I saw her likeness everywhere. In the end my companions and me were speaking of her as if she were a real presence in our lives. But then Mardin, a city which rises above the Mesopotamian plain, the cradle of civilisation, is a place of miracles and of dreams. Much as İstanbul is mythical and divine, one does not get the ‘out of time’ feeling that is experienced in Mardin. I sent Mehmet Suleyman there because I wanted to see what would happen to a modern, pragmatic man in that context. I also wanted to explore some very modern issues that are currently impinging upon life in the east – international terrorism and drug trafficking. Mardin

Richard Kunzmann: The Çetin İkmen series has been a long and successful one. How do you feel it’s developed over time?

Barbara Nadel: I’ve tackled a lot of subjects over the years in the Çetin İkmen books. These have included sibling rivalry, isolation, the nature of visual art and the reality, or not, of occult practice. In recent years however I think that the subjects tackled have become bigger and more internationalist. Çetin İkmen and co move, from time to time, out of the city and in the next book, due to be published in 2010, out of the country. I feel that this reflects both Turkey’s move outwards as a society desirous of becoming part of the European Union, and the reality of crime as an international phenomenon that can not always be addressed on a local level.

Richard Kunzmann: The Francis Hancock series is relatively new and almost a complete flip of the coin to the Çetin İkmen series. How did you first conceive of the character?

Barbara Nadel: Francis is in many ways my paternal grandfather. Like Francis he was a World War 1 veteran who suffered from post traumatic stress disorder – or shellshock as they called it back then. Not that people were given any help with the fears, delusions and hallucinations that they suffered. My grandfather, like Francis, just had to carry on working, hiding how he was for much of the time, running from bombs during the Blitz. These books are, I hope, in part a tribute to all those veterans who just carried on with lives that were often a form of torture for them.

Ashes to AshesRichard Kunzmann: St Paul’s Cathedral, the centrepiece for Ashes to Ashes is a great locale for the story. What made you think up this particular novel and how did you go about researching it?

Barbara Nadel: Ashes to Ashes revolves around an incident known as the London Firestorm. This took place on the 29th December 1940 and it was Hitler’s attempt to burn London to the ground. In particular he wanted to destroy St Paul’s Cathedral because he knew how symbolically important it was (and remains) for Londoners. Again, my research proceeded from family anecdote. My maternal grandfather (yes, we are real Londoners!) was walking home from his place of work in Fleet St when the firestorm began. He just survived and his journey through falling buildings and across melting pavements has since passed into family legend. I also of course read extensively around the subject, spoke to those who remembered the incident and spent a lot of time in St Paul’s. Like Francis, I explored the upper galleries (Whispering Gallery, Stone Gallery) and also like him I felt my legs go to jelly as I climbed up hundreds and hundreds of stairs in what felt like every tightening spirals.

Richard Kunzmann: What in your mind are the key things a writer should have or develop?

Barbara Nadel:
1) A fund of stories, anecdotes and little facts and fictions upon which to draw.
2) The kind of curiosity about people, places and things that can potentially get you into trouble.
3) Patience. For most of us, getting published doesn’t happen overnight.
4) A sense of humour. If you have a sense of humour then some of your characters will have a sense of humour too and that is so real and so attractive too.
5) The kind of grit and determination to work at a book even when your muse is nowhere to be seen!

Richard Kunzmann: And the five things writers should avoid?

Barbara Nadel:
1) Not listening, not taking honestly given advice.
2) Writing work that is ‘all about me’. No, it’s all about your characters and the situation they find themselves in. They might be based upon real people or even your own life but ‘you’ have to disappear.
3) Waiting for your muse. He or she will never come unless you put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard.
4) Lack of curiosity. Deadly.
5) Being judgemental. Writers should be open in new situations. Judge only when you yourself have something to judge based upon your own experience.

Richard Kunzmann: Which authors have been your biggest influence and why?

Barbara Nadel: Lawrence Durrell has been the greatest influence upon me. He introduced me both to inventive fictional forms and the richness of character that can be possible. London writers Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair have also been inspirational. With regard to Turkey, I owe much to the work of Orhan Pamuk. All of these people get under the skin of whoever and whatever they tackle. I hope I get at least close to that.

The Barbara Nadel factfile:
Barbara Nadel was born in the East End of London and has worked as an actress, a public relations officer in the mental health services of the UK, and has taught psychology at schools and colleges.

She’s a CWA Silver Dagger winner for her book Deadly Web, and the author of more than 15 novels. Discover them at Amazon and Goodreads.

Review: Ashes to Ashes, Barbara Nadel

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 28, 2009 by richardkunzmann

Ashes to AshesIt is 29 December 1940, and London is in the grips of the worst bombing conflagration of the Battle of Britain. Hitler has ordered the razing of London and the main target of the attack is St. Paul’s Cathedral. Knowing that the pride and fighting will of his entire nation are at stake, Winston Churchill personally orders all hands to defend the church, come what may. It is a terrible night as incendiary bombs rain down and spark fires wherever they fall, followed by high explosive bombs to fan the flames.

Francis Hancock, a half-Indian shell-shocked Great War veteran, takes cover from this barrage in St. Paul’s. Claustrophobic and on the verge of panic, he listens to the sirens howl up above, the bombs thud into the City, buildings splinter and collapse, while his fellow Londoners in the crypt whisper about a foul-mouthed girl who has gone missing in the church. It’s not long before he volunteers to find her, more to get out of that cramped crypt than anything else. Except, when a night watchman tells him of a terrible secret surrounding the girl’s disappearance, and is himself thrown from the highest point in the building by an unseen murderer shortly thereafter, Francis Hancock’s life is suddenly in greater danger than if he tried to venture out into the immolated streets. St Paul's Cathedral

Last week I reviewed River of the Dead, and if I had some reservations about that book, I have few about this novel. Ashes to Ashes is a triumph of atmosphere and setting. Not only does Barbara Nadel bring World War II and the battle to save London alive in the most vivid way possible, the brooding mystery at its heart is rendered all the more unsettling because we see it from the viewpoint of a physically and mentally broken man. Francis Hancock is as peculiar as he’s likeable, an unlikely hero who easily endears himself to the reader. What fascinated me most, though, was how Barbara Nadel took such an iconic building and turned it into a place of cramped murderous possibilities. The tight scenes, the claustrophobic atmosphere, the very real paranoia of a frightened man who can’t tell friend from foe, evoke the best of Alfred Hitchcock’s suspenseful films.

If the reminders to the reader of why a particular act was committed are as annoying as the occasional devilish monologues by the bad guys – à la Arthur Conan Doyle and his Inspector Sherlock Holmes – the moral dilemma that Barbara Nadel poses at the end of the book isn’t. It’s a question I’ve frequently asked myself in this post 9/11 world of ours, that is: to what extent must evil be left to flourish in order to preserve the greater good? It’s a question I’ve thought about many a time; as for the answer – it’s a horrifying thing to have to admit, but evil is as much a part of being human as is the good, and this duality makes me cringe when I wonder what I might do when driven to the extreme.

What did you think of the novel? Drop me a line and let’s compare notes. It’s always great to have a second opnion.

Interview with Barbara Nadel
Keep an eye out for the next blog, which will be an interview with Barbara Nadel about her two leading men, Cetin Ikmen and Francis Hancock.

Review: Barbara Nadel’s River of the Dead

Posted in crime fiction, international crime fiction, mystery, police procedural, review, UK writers, whodunit, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 21, 2009 by richardkunzmann

River of the deadThis book was my first visit to Istanbul, and I have to say I’m dying to go back and see the city again … only this time for real. Barbara Nadel does an exceptional job evoking its streets, the sights and sounds, the smells and textures, its denizens. When I finished reading this latest instalment in the Inspector Cetin Ikmen series, I had to remind myself that my memories of that city came from a book.

Isn’t that the best thing about reading, though?

Yusuf Kaya, a jailed psychopathic drug-dealer, has escaped from custody and left no witnesses alive. The jailbreak is a particularly heavy blow for Inspector Mehmet Suleyman, Ikmen’s trusty sidekick, as he was the one who first brought Kaya to book. Soon the investigation is torn in two: Ikmen continues to pursue leads in the capital, while Suleyman gives chase into the far eastern corners of Turkey, the wild tribal homeland of the powerful Kaya family, long known for their links to drugs and weapons smuggling. Istanbul

Ikmen and Suleyman are two detectives on the opposite ends of a spectrum: one is a chain-smoking father of a large Turkish family, an intuitive investigator whose mother was a well-known witch, while the latter is a straight-backed descendent of Ottoman princes, a calculating thinker married to a half-Irish woman. It’s a duality that probably works very well in other novels, but on this occasion they’re very much apart. Instead, Suleyman hooks up with Edibe Taner, who at first impresses us as a tough modern woman in a patriarchal world, but then it comes to light that she has links with an ancient snake-Goddess cult.

I struggled to find my way through many parts of this book because of the endless plot reversals that frustrated rather than intrigued me. Often our experienced detectives unnecessarily summarise for us what has come before, and then strangely take a direction that seems to clash with what they’ve just deduced from the evidence. Someone once said about red-herrings that they can only be called that when they’re obvious; in this novel there was a shoal of them. I also found it difficult to distinguish between the characters, because they all seemed to speak in the same voice – the dialogue is littered with language that seems more at home in a Hercule Poirot story than a modern gritty city like Istanbul, and the statement “but of course” emerged as a verbal tick of virtually every character. But let this not be a condemnation of Barbara Nadel’s work in general. Next week I’ll be reviewing her second novel for the year, Ashes to Ashes, which I found much more compelling, both for its setting and characters. Ashes to Ashes

River of the Dead truly takes flight when Barbara Nadel settles into her narrative. She takes us as easily through the backstreets and markets of a modern Istanbul, passed the mosques and churches that date back to Byzantine times, as she shows us the vast plains around Mardin, a place so steeped in history and mysticism that your heart aches to stand at the spot where Suleyman first sees that green landscape stretch out beneath him. I enjoyed the descriptions of the Scorpion clan that is Yusuf Kaya’s family, the snake-goddess worshipped by the locals, the jailed living saint – all of which is part of a Cob-webbed world that is grossly at odds with Suleyman’s digital age. The best part of this novel was Nadel’s understanding of the complex push and pull relationship between an ancient culture and a world of glass and plastic that tries to bury it.

Evil at Heart: A sneak preview by Chelsea Cain

Posted in book, crime fiction, interview, serial killers, thriller, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 8, 2009 by richardkunzmann

Evil at heart

Evil at Heart is the new book by Chelsea Cain, due out this September. Here’s a hard and fast summary from the author:

Serial killer Gretchen Lowell is on the loose. Detective Archie Sheridan is in the psych ward, where he’s been for two months. Then bodies start turning up. Is Gretchen killing again? Is there a copycat at large? Naturally, there’s all sorts of gore and intrigue before we find out.

Richard Kunzmann: How is it different from the other two? What lies at its core?

Chelsea Cain: I wanted to explore the celebrity of violence – the way society tends to turn some killers into anti-heroes. So this book follows that natural progression. Gretchen has fans. She’s become a tourist industry for Portland. There are tours of her crime scenes; people wear “Run, Gretchen” t-shirts. She’s a star. Which doesn’t jive at all with the horrors that she’s committed.

Richard Kunzmann: How do you feel you’ve evolved as a writer over these three books?

Chelsea Cain: I’m more confident about just going for it, less inclined to question if That Could Really Happen. I feel more in control of my characters. And I think I’ve gotten better at limiting some of my more obvious narrative quirks.

Richard Kunzmann: Is this the end of the Gretchen Lowell series? What’s next?

Chelsea Cain: I just signed a deal for three more books with St Martin’s Press. But I want Gretchen to fade out a bit as we move forward, so the books become more about Archie Sheridan and Susan Ward. I never really saw the series as being the “Gretchen Lowell series.” To me, Gretchen was just part of Archie’s origin story. The thing that really, really fucked him up.