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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.

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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.

Chelsea Cain 3: Women and violent crime fiction

Posted in crime fiction, interview, thriller, Uncategorized, US writers, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 8, 2009 by richardkunzmann

Switching off the light and forcing readers to imagine exactly what that is, scratching under their beds, is the height of our art as crime writers. And if an author can do it so seamlessly that readers are convinced they actually read the scenes they imagined in your book, you can open a bottle of Moet. Michael Connelly achieved this in The Poet. The PoetTo this day, he tells me, he has people commending him on the terrifying paedophile he wrote about, but in actual fact, the character never directly touches a child, nor is he the main bad guy. And yet, that’s how people remember it. Take the movie Event Horizon, when Lawrence Fishburne’s salvage team finally discover the captain’s log of a ship that’s mysteriously reappeared after disappearing seven years ago. The clip is only about ten seconds long, and nothing in it is clear, but every hair on your neck stands up straight.

Chelsea CainSimilarly, Chelsea Cain’s much talked-about torture scene isn’t actually all there, if you look hard. Instead, we get it in snippets and rags as Archie Sheridan remembers those dreadful moments. And yet it’s the one story that readers remember. So the question is, how far is Chelsea Cain responsible for it, and how much of it comes from the darkest recesses of your own mind?

Richard Kunzmann: At Harrogate you were asked to justify women writers writing violence. And in many interviews you’re asked exactly how sick and twisted you are in real life. It’s almost as if you’re a dirty secret in crime fiction that everyone loves talking about, but no one wants to own up to. Why do you think that is?

Chelsea Cain: Honestly, I don’t think my books are that violent. Isn’t that funny? Because I get that EVERYONE ELSE does. But, with the exception of bad guys, we don’t see any murders. The bad guys are shot quickly in the head. The other murders all take place “off stage” to people we don’t know. We hear about them. We see the aftermath. But we don’t see good people get killed. As for the torture – they’re in flashback, people. You know that Archie is going to be okay. (Fucked-up, pill-addled and nuts, but alive.) The books are graphic, which to me is a different thing than violent. Corpses are described. We see scars and blood and gore and sex. But writing is about description, about unpacking an experience, and I think that getting your spleen carved out by a serial killer deserves as much attention as the layout of a character’s living room. Also, I think if you’re going write about murder, it’s important to make it seem horrible. I have dead teenage girls in Heartsick. We don’t see them murdered, but we see their bodies. And that’s not pretty. To make it anything less than horrific feels irresponsible to me. And to understand what the books are about – the sick romance between Archie and Gretchen – you have to understand that she tortured him and it wasn’t very fun. These characters are really damaged. And to get at that, we have to see a little of what made them that way.

CSIRichard Kunzmann: In a world were CSI and ultra realism has become a benchmark for many readers and TV viewers, how do you reconcile the fact that psychologically and forensically speaking, a character like Gretchen Lowell is even unlikelier than Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter.Hannibal Lecter

Chelsea Cain: First of all, I’m not so sure that CSI is ultra realistic. They make stuff up all the time. They just add in a lot of lingo that makes it SEEM realistic. Gretchen Lowell isn’t realistic at all. Not a bit. In any universe. She’s not even a realistic psychopath. In real life she’d probably be a very successful corporate lawyer and living in Connecticut. I don’t care about that at all. I care about making her a compelling, enchanting, scary and charismatic character in a series that is clearly fiction.

Richard Kunzmann: So your writing is about being convincing, not really about being realistic? How do you as a writer and reader deal with these two forces when you write a novel?

Chelsea Cain: The trick is to find enough that’s true so that the reader will go along with the stuff you make up. I will do a lot of research and then pull out a few tiny things and ignore the rest in service to the story. The story is what is important to me. And if I need to overlook some fact in order to get the characters into the situation I want them in, then I’m completely comfortable with that. And my goal then becomes to figure out how to ignore that fact without distracting readers.

Richard Kunzmann: Are you worried about taking liberties with poetic licence and leaping over gaps in logic?

Chelsea Cain: I worry about readers looking up from the book and saying, “Wait just a fucking minute.” Because then you lose them. Gaps in logic are fine if you can get the reader on board. It’s another universe. Readers know that. They’re willing to forgive a lot, as long as they don’t feel you’re taking advantage of them.

Richard Kunzmann: The violence is maybe not as explicit as in films like Hostel or Saw, but only just. Are you a big fan of horror?

Jack Nicholson in the ShiningI’m not a fan of torture porn at all. I love cheesy horror movies, and really good horror movies, like The Shining and the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But I’m not a fan of the Saw movies. I know there are probably people reading this thinking that I’m a total hypocrite. Some would put my books firmly in the torture porn category. But here’s my defence. I don’t think that label can even apply to books. The thing about movies is that you can’t get inside anyone’s point of view. You, the viewer, are always, by definition, on the outside looking in. You are a voyeur. That’s what makes it porn. All the torture scenes in Heartsick are from Archie’s point of view. We experience it through him. We are on his side. And I think that transforms the experience into something a tiny bit less seedy and exploitive.

Richard Kunzmann: You’ve admitted in a previous interview that films have played a big roll in your life. Which films stick out as having influenced your work?

Law and orderChelsea Cain: My books are more directly influenced by TV shows. Wire in the blood, Law and order: Criminal Intent, Touching Evil. But my head is full of movies and books and TV shows (I am a pop culture sieve), and my characters are all combinations of hundreds of portrayals I’ve seen elsewhere and liked and recycled. The books are often described as cinematic, and I think I tend to construct and portray narrative in a film style rather than literary style. The transitions and props I use are much more movie-ish than book-ish. If a chapter ends with one line, I like to open the next chapter with something that references it, even if we’re now across town, in someone else’s point of view. And everyone is always smoking or drinking coffee or waving pens around – so that they have some props to illustrate how they’re feeling, which is very much an actor’s trick.

Richard Kunzmann: When I first came across Susan Ward, I immediately thought of Kate Winslett’s character in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. She’s also a character that’s a lot more real to me, someone that I might have hung out with most of my life. How did she enter this series, because she’s so different from all the other characters?

Chelsea Cain:It’s the colorful hair. And you have hung out with her. In that hotel bar in Harrogate. (Blush.) Susan was my way into the story. I’ve never been a cop. Or a serial killer. But I have been a quirky features journalist. I know how that works. She was the last character I invented because I needed some authority. Susan acts as the eyes and ears of the readers, because she’s new to all this, she’s sort of figuring it out with us. In my defence, I am not nearly as fucked up as she is. Nor do I share her, um, complicated past. But we do have a similar worldview. We worry about many of the same things. And we have all of the same clothes.

Oh that night at the bar in Harrogate. I have fond memories of us flooring everyone else with a few rounds of tequila. I just couldn’t believe how fresh-faced Chelsea looked the next day when everyone else looked like they’d been through a war. She was ready for the day’s first round of debates, looking fresher than water, but with a glass of burgundy at hand, of course. Only journalists have that fortitude. But it seems Susan Ward and Chelsea Cain have more than a career in common; as a young Chelsea Cain had a secret crush on the task force detectives hunting the Green River Killer, so Susan Ward has fallen hard for the detective she shadows all over town. Archie Sheridan, it seems, is the kind of screwed man women just can’t leave alone. Read Russell Crowe rather than George Clooney. Russel Crowe

As the conversation draws to a close, I think of Chuck Palahniuk and Stephen King who have both complained about the creepy fans that pester them at signings. So I wondered what kind of people might be following Chelsea Cain around, now that she’s widely known as a sick and twisted writer. Her answer seems to hit the nail write on the head.

Chelsea Cain: I am amazed at how many young women will come up and tell me how “inspiring” they find Gretchen Lowell. Which I think sort of speaks to the lack of powerful female archetypes in pop culture. Gretchen is a black-hearted serial killer with a sado-masochistic streak a mile long, but she’s in control. And young women respond to that. Which is a tiny bit sad for all of us.

Next up:

Evil at heartChelsea gives us a few fast facts about Evil at Heart, due out in four months.

Chelsea Cain interview: Of crochet hooks and intestines

Posted in book, crime fiction, interview, serial killers, thriller, Uncategorized, US writers, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 7, 2009 by richardkunzmann

HeartsickSweetheart
In many ways, Chelsea Cain’s series evokes the same emotions as Jane Campion’s In the Cut – layers of terror and aggression complemented by a sensuality that is so out of place it makes things all the creepier. The main characters are Archie Sheridan, the cop that’s been hunting the Beauty Killer, Gretchen Lowell. When they finally encounter each other it’s not so much the gore factor that sticks in the mind. It’s Chelsea Cain’s success at making us complicit in the sexual obsession that binds these two people together.

We can talk about the things Chelsea Cain did which many other authors have done: studying journalism, flopping from one job to the next, not quite sure what she wanted to do; dying her hair various shades of LOUD; a stint as a PR director and falling hopelessly in love, in Chelsea Cain’s case, with the guy at the video store. Regular girl-next-door stuff, I guess, except, if you go further back in her history, you’ll discover that the macabre streak that runs through her work was already well alive in her youth. You see, Chelsea Cain used to be the neighbourhood gravedigger as a young child. Apparently she created a pet cemetery in her garden for her own pets when they died, then the dead birds she found on her way back home from school, and after that, when the other kids in the neighbourhood found out about it, for their dead animals too.

Me having trained up as a psychologist, and Freud believing that our personalities are set in stone by the age of three, I start our interview by asking Chelsea Cain what the one thing was that scared her as a kid.

Chelsea Cain: When I was five my dad took me to a children’s museum in Chicago and they had this life-size display of Gulliver tied up by the Lilliputians. It scared the shit out of me. For years I was convinced that there was a civilization of tiny people under my bed who would tie me up if I let my hand fall to the floor. But honestly, I was not scared of much as a kid. I had a lot of independence and self-confidence. Probably too much.

Richard Kunzmann: So what convinced you to finally move away from teen fiction and write a thriller? Did your characters come to mind first, or did you decide to shoot for the genre straight away?

Chelsea Cain: Actually, I started with a relationship. I wanted to explore the connection between a serial killer and the cop who’d spent his career hunting her. So it started with that obsession, and then the idea that the serial killer would be a woman. Not just a woman, but a knock-out – the kind of woman that scares the hell out of our culture already, without having killed anyone. The male-female dynamic would instantly complicate the relationship by introducing sexual tension. It seemed like a really compelling set of themes to unravel.

Richard Kunzmann: I see that the Green River Killer investigation was quite close to home when you were growing up. How did those killings impact on your choice to become a crime writer?

Green River Killer Gary RidgwayThe Green River Killer was at large from the time I was 10 to the time I was 30. It was huge news in the Pacific Northwest. He raped and killed young women about an hour away from the town I grew up in, and his name became a sort of code for Really Bad Things That Can Happen to You. So, if you were going to go to a concert in Seattle, your mom might say, “Watch out for the Green River Killer.” Or if you were going to take the dog out for a late night walk, someone might say, “Be sure the Green River Killer doesn’t get you.” What they meant was BE CAREFUL. He became synonymous with things that go bump in the night. You couldn’t escape him—there were countless front page stories. And I was aware, very young, that there was a task force of cops trying to catch him, and that really caught my attention, too. I liked the idea of this team of people working to keep me safe. So the character of Archie Sheridan definitely came from my feelings about that Task Force. He’s sort of my child’s eye hero.

Rather than your series being a serial killer tale in the traditional crime fiction sense, it’s the crackling sexual tension between Archie and Gretchen that’s carried from Heartsick to Sweetheart?

I wanted to explore it from the start. I was surprised when people started using the “serial killer book” label. The books are thrillers, sure. But I don’t think of them as being serial killer books. I mean, obviously Gretchen Lowell is a serial killer and she is in all the books. But the books are not about catching her. They’re about what happens after she is caught. The fallout of this relationship. They are, in their own way, more twisted romances that thrillers.

Your books seem to be doing for the genre what Tarantino did for violent films back in the 90s – putting undeniably funny situations together with horrific circumstances. They expose the absolute parody we’ve made of violence and serial killers, embrace it, and take it into a new direction. Is that a fair comment?

Chelsea Cain: I decided early on to embrace clichés and then I really made an effort to subvert them. My characters are right out of central casting. Cop. Reporter. Serial Killer. The ex-wife. The gruff partner. It’s all been done like a billion times. So I tried to challenge our expectations of these stock characters by making them do and say things that are unexpected. But I do think that the books have a dark Tarantino-esqsue humour. At least that was my goal. And the weird thing is that when I give a reading, I find that I can get a lot of laughs. Maybe it’s because when I’m giving it, I cannot say the line (about a corpse) “her eye sockets were concave bowls of greasy, soaplike fat” without smiling. And pulling someone’s small intestine out with a crochet hook? Come on, people. How is that not funny? I think you have to give the reader permission to laugh.

To me it seems that everyone has been so fixated on the torture scene that they’ve missed both the wider picture, and what actually made the books so horrific, namely Archie Sheridan’s own complicity in his victimisation. As much as we are taken aback by what’s happened to him, it’s made more grotesque that he’s still got a hard-on for Gretchen.

How screwed up can one man get?

Feel free to comment on this series of interviews, especially if you’ve read one of the books. I’d love to hear your thoughts, and we might get Chelsea to comment further.

Next up Chelsea and I talk about:
• Women crime writers and extreme violence
• Why women can’t get enough of Gretchen Lowell

Prelude: Chelsea Cain Interview, crime’s sickest author?

Posted in book, crime fiction, interview, serial killers, thriller, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 6, 2009 by richardkunzmann

Put your ear to the ground and listen to what people are saying about New York Times bestselling author Chelsea Cain, it’ll invariably go like this, “Oh my God, she’s the one who wrote that torture scene.”

That torture scene.

HarrogateIt’s a refrain I heard time and again as I made my way up to the Old Peculiar Crime Writer’s Festival held in Harrogate last July, barely a month after I returned to the United Kingdom from the International Cape Town Bookfair in South Africa. By the time we were seated for dinner in the Jupiter Room of the luxurious Rudding Park Hotel, by invitation of the publishers we share, I was craning my neck to see her at the other end of the table. It’s bullshit, I know, but the first thought that went through my head was, what kind of woman writes “that torture scene?” And what the hell does anyone write in this day of torture porn, which makes such a strong impression?Rudding Park

In other words, how sick and twisted must a person be?

If I expected the female version of Marilyn Manson, I was sorely disappointed. Chelsea Cain – tall, blonde hair, flashing eyes, not an ounce of goth make-up on her porcelain face – had her end of the dinner table in bloody stitches, entertaining them as easily as she offended their sensibilities. She tells a story aloud exactly the way she might write it in a book: macabre punch lines that give Bill Hicks a run for his money, swearing when swearing is fucking necessary, and all of it backed up with the vivaciousness of a movie star. And when they say diamonds are a girl’s best friend, they obviously never met Chelsea Cain. Never before was a person’s character so well complimented by a glass of burgundy. Chelsea Cain 2

Ok. So I exaggerate. Hyperbole is how I earn my money.

Me being me, and about ten of us piled into the back of a black cab much much later all of us filled to the gills with red wine, I pop the one question that’s been bugging me all along. And the moment I say it, I realise how god-awful juvenile it sounds.

I say, “So what’s so gory about your books?”

The car goes quiet. No one says a word. They probably don’t know what to say, because it probably sounds like a challenge, one crime writer to another, like it’s a damn duel over the grotesque or something. Then Chelsea picks it all up in that strong Portland accent of hers. “Oh come on, Richard! Are you fucking serious? Get outta here.”

I never was a man for social propriety and timing, which probably comes from all the years spent playing Dungeons & Dragons in my youth. The conversation veers a sharp left as our polite British chaperones scramble to find something else to talk about. There’s a collective sigh of relief when we play along: no blood on the cab seats tonight.

Yet, I felt dissatisfied. I hadn’t got my answer and now, on top of that, people had misunderstood my intentions. So me being me again, I couldn’t let the issue lie. For almost a year I pondered over it, during which time I picked up a copy of Heartsick and Sweetheart. I thought it best that the next time I pop the question, I best be informed.

And, by God, what a torture scene.

If you haven’t already, read my review of Sweetheart.

Sweetheart: A book that’ll have you sweating in more ways than one

Posted in book, crime fiction, police procedural, review, serial killers, thriller, US writers, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 2, 2009 by richardkunzmann

Sweetheart“Can you feel that your spleen is gone? Does it hurt?”
“Not any more,” Archie answered.
“I think about that,” Gretchen said dreamily. “Having my hands inside you. You were so warm and sticky. I can still smell you, your blood. Do you remember?”
Archie ran a hand over his face. “I lost consciousness,” he reminded her quietly.
She smiled. “I regret that. I wanted to keep you awake. I wanted you to remember. I’m the only one who’s ever been that far inside you.”

These are exactly the lines I’ve come to expect from Chelsea Cain after meeting her and reading the Gretchen Lowell series a year later: funny, sensual and intense, all at the same time. Chelsea Cain’s books might lack thorough police investigations, and the serial killer they depict does stretch belief, but few other crime writers execute their work with such flair. In fact, if the series wasn’t the parody it is – and I’m talking a hefty touch of Quentin Tarrantino here – showing up all the oh-so serious monsters that litter the crime genre today, Chelsea Cain’s thrillers wouldn’t be as wisecracking good as they are.Chelsea Cain

Sweetheart follows Heartsick and delves into the aftermath of that obsessive love affair between Detective Archie Sheridan and Gretchen Lowell, the porcelain-skinned serial killer who very nearly tortured him to death. Our detective is finally out of hospital and back home with his wife and daughter. The scars are healing, his trusty sidekick Henry is keeping a close eye on him, and so things should be as rosy as that first flush after hot sex.

Except they’re not.

HeartsickArchie’s hitting the pills so hard his liver’s about to explode. He can’t look his wife in the eye because he’s too damn busy imagining sadistic sex with Gretchen. As for work … well, all of a sudden a fresh pile of bodies is appearing in Gretchen’s old dumping grounds. Just when we think Archie’s internal world can’t be wound any tighter than the noose he’s pulled around his own neck, Gretchen Lowell escapes from jail and shoots straight for his daughter.

Cain’s timing is on the money, whether it’s comic relief or closing a chapter on a real cliff hanger. Intercutting between the Gretchen Lowell escape and an investigation into the murder of a girl who could potentially finger a sleazy politician for statutory rape, the story keeps us flying downhill at breakneck speed. It’s fast-paced stuff, even if a few plot threads are left hanging, but my appreciation for the book has very little to do with any of that.

Central to the story is the seduction of Archie Sheridan by Gretchen Lowell. Despite the horrible trauma she’s inflicted on him, he can’t stop thinking about her. This is the kind of love story where you know the other person is bad for you, she’ll destroy your soul, but for some reason that’s exactly what you want. In other words, Gretchen is the ultimate succubus.

Layer after layer, Archie is wrapped in the soft velvet of a rapture he knows he won’t survive. Like Pauline Reagé’s O, he realises what’s happening to him, he can see the self-annihilation that lies ahead and yet he goes willingly. The master-slave allusion isn’t an unwitting one, but at times we don’t know who’s who, as Gretchen exposes vulnerabilities of her own. It’s Cain’s sensuous portrayal of this state of mind that is most gripping. As much as this story is a thriller, the taste that remains on your lips long after is not the violence and gore, but forbidden love.

Read this book to the sound of:
Alice Cooper – Poison
Lou Reed – This Magic Moment

Look out for Evil at Heart, the third book in the series, which will be released in September.

Giveaway:
Chelsea has offered to dedicate and sign a hardcover copy of Sweetheart for a giveaway. Leave a comment on the review or series and you’ll be entered into a raffle.

Interview with Chelsea Cain!

Evil at heartKeep your eyes open. I’ll be posting an interview with Chelsea Cain before the close of the week, talking about her books, her writing, and the highly anticipated Evil at Heart.

Check out what others think of the book at Goodreads and Amazon.