Category Archives: Crime fiction

In China, crime fiction and social harmony do not mix

Something was confirmed for me over the last couple of days that I’ve long suspected: crime fiction and authoritarian governments do not mix.

But before I explore this further, a little background is required.

On Friday night, I and over a thousand other people crammed into the Melbourne Town Hall for the Gala Night of Story Telling 2011: Voices from Elsewhere, organised by the Wheeler Centre.

Of the eight writers who spoke, my favourite story was Chinese writer Murong Xuecun’s parable about the power of traumatic historical events, in this case Mao’s Cultural Revolution, to distort the individual psyche, even long after they are over.

Murong was 28 and working as a sales manager for a car company in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province and China’s fifth most populous city, when he started posting his first novel on the Internet.

The book, originally titled Chengdu Please Forget Me Tonight, focuses on three young men in newly capitalist Chengdu, their dead-end jobs, and relationships, their drinking, gambling and whoring.

It became a cult sensation among young middle class Chinese. It also landed him in a lot of trouble, especially when Murong refused to join the Chinese Writers Society, the state sponsored writers organisation.

In addition to selling through the roof in China, the book has been translated into English as Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu. It has also come out in French and German, with editions in Italian and Vietnamese in the works.

I haven’t read Leave me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu, but I’m going to.

Anyway, apart from providing some fascinating insights into how young Chinese writers are using the Internet to avoid state censorship and reach audiences, Murong was able to answer a question that’s been nagging me for a while. Why is so little crime fiction coming out of China?

According to Murong, the answer is as follows:

1. The Chinese government does not encourage crime fiction.

2. This is because crime fiction is seen as conflicting with the aim of encouraging a “harmonious society”, one of the guiding principles of the ruling communist party.

3. Foreign crime fiction is available in translated versions and popular (Murong’s favourite is Lawrence Block), because while it is okay for Chinese people to read fictionalised accounts of crime in other countries, it is not okay for them to read similar accounts in their own.

Interestingly, the Chinese government’s tolerance towards foreign crime fiction does not extend to crime films (including those from Hong Kong). These are strictly forbidden, presumably because they can be consumed on a mass basis, although they are widely available on the black market.

It was not always so.

Doing a bit of research on the Internet, I came across this fascinating article on the history of crime fiction in China. This goes back several centuries and often featured clever and incorruptible judges using their wisdom and smarts to solve incredibly complex crimes.

The best known of these in the West is the historical judge Di Renjie, whose stories were translated and made famous by the Dutch diplomat and sinologist Robert van Gulik in 1949, and more recently by the 2010 motion picture, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame.

Crime fiction was banned after the communist revolution in 1949. Mao branded private detection and crime “bourgeois” and the historical magistrate genre of crime “feudal”. These restrictions where briefly eased by Deng Xiaoping in 1978-80, giving rise to a new generation of investigative judges in the form of heroic public security personal who fought criminals with bad class backgrounds.

The current freeze on local crime fictions appears to date from 2007, when the communist party adopted the encouragement of social harmony as a key platform.

There are several Chinese authors writing crime fiction set in China, but they don’t live in China.

The best known of these is Qiu Xiaolong, who is Chinese born but now lives in the United States. His character is a poetry-sprouting cop called Chen Cao based in Shanghai. There are also a series of books featuring a female private detective in Beijing, by Diane Wei Liang. She is also based in the US.

Interviews with Qiu say that his work has been translated into Chinese, although Murong said it is not available locally.

Diane Wei Liang’s book, The Eye of Jade, is on my large to read pile of books. I’ve read one of Qiu’s books, A Case of Two Cities, in which Chen is assigned a high-level corruption case in which the principle figure has fled to the US beyond the reach of the Chinese authorities.

To each their own, but I found Chen’s constant spouting of poetry distracting and it broke up the pace. I was also dissatisfied that a large chunk of the book is set in LA, as I wanted it to focus on what was happening in Shanghai.

Murong Xuecun is speaking at the Wheeler Center, Monday 14 February, at 6.15pm. Details are here.

Top tens and spent casings

Pulp Curry is going to be taking a break for a couple of weeks over the Christmas/New Year period while the family and I brave the monsoon-like conditions of Queensland.

But before I go, there’s a few spent casings lying around the place I’ve got to clean up.

First up, my list of top ten books for 2010 is up at Day Labor, the official blog of the online magazine, Crime Factory.  No surprises that Garry Disher’s Wyatt is right up there, as is Martin Limon, whose books featuring two military police on the beat in seventies Korea, along with Megan Abbott, are my big finds for this year.

My top ten is part of Day Labour’s Best of Whatever for 2010 series, put together by Keith Rawson. When Keith says whatever, he means whatever. There’s some great posts, not only on books, but comics, film and, well, whatever. Kudos to you, mate, for all your work and thanks to you and your Crime Factory co-editors, Liam Jose and Cameron Ashley, for making me feel so welcome in the Crime Factory family. I really appreciate it.

My recent post Parker and the art of hard-boiled crime writing generated a bit discussion on and off-line. That’s great, because if you haven’t picked up by now, I can talk the leg off a chair about Parker and his creator, legendary crime writer Donald Westlake.

As I said in the post, one of the things that’s always puzzled me is why Westlake stopped writing Parker books between 1974 and 1997. The answer came courtesy of Trent over at The Violent World of Parker who sent me a fascinating article written by Westlake himself for The New York Times in 2001. Like the master thief high tailing after a successful heist it seemed Westlake’s ability to write the Parker character, just disappeared. 

Anyway, you can read the article ‘A Pseudonym Returns From an Alter-Ego Trip, With New Tales to Tell’  for yourself.

One other great piece of Westlake memorabilia I found on the net is this clip of him talking about Parker, the process of writing and his career. Enjoy and see you all in 2011.

The Half-Child

We love a good guest review here at Pulp Curry and today’s is about a book very dear to me, Angela Savage’s The Half-Child. For readers who don’t follow Pulp Curry on a regular basis, in the interests of full disclosure I need to declare that Angela has been my partner in life (and crime) for the last 20 years. Her book, The Half-Child, is also a great read. Many thanks to Sulari Gentill, whose own crime novel, A Few Right Thinking Men, was published in 2010 by Pantera Press.

I am a greedy reader.

When I opened The Half-Child, Angela Savage’s second Jane Keeney crime novel, I looked forward to reacquainting myself with the streets of Thailand, about which Savage writes with an intimate knowledge and affection.

I wanted once again to be shown the colour, the contrast, the cultural crater of a place where West has hurtled into East.  I wanted to see past cliché: the neon, the sleaze, the confronting corruption, to the beauty of an ancient culture and a tenacious and adaptive people. On top of all this I wanted intrigue, excitement, perhaps a little romance, and definitely some humour.  I did start out by saying I was greedy.

The Half-Child completely satiated my literary gluttony and then offered me dessert!

What Savage served up was a story set primarily in the resort town of Pattaya, Thailand, where Jane Keeney investigates the death of a young aid worker.  The novel, particularly for those who have had children, presents the heart-wrenching issues around overseas adoption.

Savage handles it all with non-judgmental compassion.  Rather than give the reader a trite outcome of good and bad, Savage shows us the sadness and uneasiness on both sides of the coin.  She makes us realise that we accept things from the developing world that we would not tolerate in our own country, that the term “better off” is unfairly weighted against the poor, but that sometimes Western concepts of social justice have no place in the harsh reality of the developing world.

Savage also subtly draws upon those common motivations in the hearts of mothers from both East and West.  Mayuree, the unwed mother of a half-child is determined to “…hold her head up high enough to protect [her child] with her shadow”.  I think of this line every time I leave my sons for some work commitment.  Motherhood, and perhaps life in general, is about making choices.  Savage’s book brings home how much harder those choices are for some.

Despite the tragic issue at the centre of this novel, the story is far from grim.  Jayne Keeney is comfortable and natural in this world.  Through her eyes we see it without cultural judgment and as a result we also see humour in the darkness.  Savage has a keen eye for the absurd and not only was I often giggling aloud whilst reading, I found myself thinking of scenes from The Half-Child and grinning insanely at later (often inappropriate) moments.

Jane’s penchant for slipping into the guise of religious zealot simply by responding to everything with “praise the Lord” makes me laugh every time I think of it.  I liked Jayne Keeney in Behind the Night Bazaar (Savage’s first novel), I felt really connected with her in The Half-Child.

This latest novel also introduces us to Rajiv Patel, who becomes a “Watson” to Jayne’s “Holmes”.  He is to say the least, endearing.  He softens, challenges and supports Jayne.  The dynamic between them is beautifully written…a friendship, a partnership and something more.  Again Savage flouts gender conventions without it being a simple and self-conscious reversal of social roles.

In the end, as I closed The Half-Child, I felt well nourished.  I am already hungry for another taste of Jayne’s world and am heartened to hear that Angela Savage is hard at work on the third Jayne Keeney novel.

The Half-Child and its predecessor Behind the Night Bazaar are both so much more than detective stories.  My philosophy on books is admittedly simple.  Make me think and you’ll have my respect, make me laugh and I’ll be you’ll have my friendship.

The Half-Child has both.

Parker and the art of hard-boiled crime writing

December 31 2010 marks the second anniversary of the death at age 75 of one of the masters of hard-boiled crime writing, Donald Westlake.

I’ve found myself thinking a lot about Westlake lately and his best known creation, the professional criminal Parker.

Westlake was a prolific writer. While he specialised in crime fiction, he also did science fiction, erotic stories and westerns under a myriad of pseudonyms of which Richard Stark, the name he used for the Parker books, remains the best known. He also worked on a number of screenplays, including the adaption of Jim Thompson’s The Grifters.

Sixteen Parker novels appeared between 1962 and 1974. For reasons I’m not clear about, Westlake took a rest from the character until 1997, then wrote another eight Parker books.

Several of the books were filmed, the best known of which is Point Blank starring Lee Marvin (later remade as Payback with Mel Gibson as the lead, but the less said about it the better).

I recently discovered via The Violent World of Parker website, The Outfit, an excellent 1973 adaption of Westlake’s novel of the same name, is finally getting an outing on DVD. (The details are here).

Robert Duvall does the honours as Parker or Macklin, as the central character in the film is called, alongside Joe Don Baker, Robert Ryan and the siren of seventies American B-movies, Karen Black. Those of us who have loving held onto our VHS cassettes of the movie can finally trade up.

There’s even a vaguely Blaxsploitation version of Parker, The Split, featuring one of my favourite sixties/seventies actors Jim Brown. In what must have been one hell of a wrap party, it also starred Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates and Donald Sutherland.

Richard Stark aka Donald Westlake

But Parker is at his best in the written word. The character’s influence on crime writers and aspiring crime writers everywhere has been enormous, present company included.

Parker is a career criminal who steals things for a living. Get in his way on a job or try to double cross him afterwards and he’ll hurt you. Yet he’s not a psychopath in the vein of so many contemporary literary and film criminals. His only morals are what it takes to survive, no more, no less. He’s almost an anti-character, emotionless, with few social connections and hardly any past that Westlake ever let the reader know about.

The most recent Parker I’ve read was The Sour Lemon Score (1969). It’s not the best of the series but it’s pretty good and it made me fell a bit like I was saying goodbye to an old friend (not that Parker had friends). Now there’s only the very hard to find Butcher’s Moon and I’ll have completed all of the first wave of Parker books.

I’ve still got a few of the post-1997 Parker books to get through but they lack of hard-boiled feel of the first 16. Parker had mellowed and didn’t come across as nearly so immoral and cynical as his earlier incarnation.

The Parker books are meticulously constructed, using multiple points of view, Parker’s and others. Westlake’s writing style is lean and disciplined. He’s also a master of less is more.

I can’t help but wonder whether part of the reason for this is because Westlake did all his work on manual typewriter. When I first worked as a journalist in Asia I wrote on a small portable type writer I’d bought in a pawn shop in Brisbane. It was a pain in the arse to carry around and getting spare parts and ribbons was a nightmare but it gave my writing real discipline.

At their core all the Parker novels are about the same thing, a heist gone wrong and the consequences –  that and the mechanics of planning and conducting the crime. Parker is a craftsman. It just so happens his chosen trade is illegal, and Westlake was expert at portraying him at work.

Veteran Australian crime writer Garry Disher, whose character Wyatt is based on Parker, nailed it when I asked him in a recent interview what it is about the heist gone wrong genre of crime fiction and film that never seems to go stale.

“Well, there is always the promise that it might go right for a Wyatt or a Parker. There’s also the tension of the actual crime, and when it falls apart when he robs a bank or whatever and things go wrong. Can Wyatt retrieve the situation? Can he get the money back? Can he find out who betrayed him? That’s where the tension lies. Wyatt finding out where it has gone wrong and how he is going to get his revenge or get the money back or both.”

The Sour Lemon Score is about a heist gone sour. One of the gang, George Uhl steals the gang’s haul of $33,000 (not much by today’s standards but its real money, not numbers on a computer screen) and kills all his partners except Parker, which is a big mistake.

Parker spends the rest of the novel travelling up and down the eastern US seaboard searching for Uhl and the money. As is usually the case, things get complex when a couple of hoods pick up on the scent of the money and try to muscle in.

Two things stand out about the book. The first is how good Westlake was at depicting the criminal underworld. A phone call is made, a contact visited, someone talks to a friend of a friend. Each transaction in The Sour Lemon Score leaves Parker with just enough information to move onto the next. There is a constant feel of tension and disorientation.

The second was Westlake’s skill at depicting apparently normal people and places, then transforming them with the slightest twist into something much darker. A second-hand furniture shop run by an old lady is a front for an illegal firearms seller, a down at heel motel is owned by an ex-hooker who let’s people from the life stay when they need a place to lie low.

The best example of this from The Sour Lemon Score is when Parker visits the widow of Benny, a long-term criminal associate and one of the men killed by Uhl.

“Parker had been here a couple of times before, and he remembered how Benny too had built himself a completely different at-home image. He was a semi-retired putterer, the Little League umpire, the maker of model planes and pup tents with the neighbourhood boys, the constructor of bird houses and clipper of hedges, a vague and amiable little man in baggy pants, with his glasses slipping down his nose. The difference was so complete that the first time Parker had come here he hadn’t recognised Weiss and had then thought Weiss had changed so much, grown too old, and couldn’t be used anymore. But Weiss has let himself know he was still his old self on the job, and he was.”

Benny’s widow, who is baking a cake when Parker arrives, is also more than she seems. In a magnificently understated scene, she bargains hard with Parker for money in return for the few grains of information she holds that is useful to him.

‘Thanks, Grace,” says Parker once their trade has been completed.

“I did it for the money,” is all she says back.

Garry Disher interview

Garry Disher is a veteran of the Australian crime-writing scene. He is the author a series of books featuring the professional hold-up man known as Wyatt. Disher wrote six Wyatt novels in the nineties and a seventh was recently released by Text and took out the top prize in the 2010 Ned Kelly awards. Disher has also authored a number of books featuring Hal Challis and Ellen Destry, two police working on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsular, about an hour’s drive southeast of Melbourne, where Disher also lives. I talked to him for the issue 5 of Crime Factory about the difference between writing hard-boiled characters and police procedurals, why after over a ten-year break he decided to write another Wyatt book and the state of crime fiction in Australia.

It’s been over 10 years since the last Wyatt book, Fallout in 1997. Why the break and what inspired you to give Wyatt another outing after such a long time?

The break was to try and get established with the new series of police procedurals, the Challis and Destry books, which for me was a completely different way of looking at plot and structure. I wanted a break from Wyatt because there was basically one book a year and I thought I might get stale on them.

There are a number of reasons why I came back to Wyatt. I’d often go to festivals or give talks in libraries and people would come up to me and say ‘when are you going to bring back Wyatt,’ so I have a sense of a readership for him out there. At the same time I was getting tired of the police procedurals I was writing, so when my German publisher said we are about to publish number six have you got a seventh in the wing for us, I thought, well, yeah, it was a good time to write another Wyatt.

Are you surprised by the positive reaction to the latest Wyatt book?

I’m always surprised by positive reactions. When I read reviews that are positive I always think it’s not me, it’s another guy that I am reading about.

One of the things I thought you did so well in the latest Wyatt is way you created a sense of an old school heist guy who is out of his time and place in a high tech society. The modern world is really pressing in on him and the atmosphere in the book is very claustrophobic. That was obviously a conscious decision?

It was in the sense that I’d read the Richard Stark novels and I liked the remote and amoral nature of his character Parker. I didn’t want to create some sort of James Bond character who is always charming to women, ready with a quick quip and good with cars. His roots are working class and if he happened to be very good at by-passing electronic security systems, then that would mean that I would have to do a hell of a lot of research on how you do that and then I would have keep up to date with the technology. Then there’s the question of how I make that interesting in a book, so I went with the idea of the old-style heist guy. He relies on experts occasionally, but usually they betray him or something like that.

On one level all the Wyatt books have been about a heist gone wrong, which is essentially what the Parker books were about too. What is it about this genre of crime fiction that works so well?

Well, there is always the promise that it might go right for a Wyatt or a Parker. There’s also the tension of the actual crime, and when it falls apart when he robs a bank or whatever and things go wrong. Can Wyatt retrieve the situation? Can he get the money back? Can he find out who betrayed him? That’s where the tension lies. Wyatt finding out where it has gone wrong and how he is going to get his revenge or get the money back or both.

Donald Westlake, who used the pseudonym of Richard Stark, said that he meant the Parker books to be about “a workman at work”. Process, mechanics, trouble shooting, sometimes of a very technical nature dominate his books, which is why some people say they have so few parallels. Was it hard to write a character that was, in a sense, an homage to Parker without it being a parody?

It required a lot of thinking through. After I had read the Parker books I had to forget him and Wyatt had to be my character. Part of that was deciding not to know too much about him. If we knew who his mum and sister were and that he had favourite teacher in grade five or his old man used to beat him up, suddenly we are learning too much about him, he’s becoming too vulnerable.

At the same time, I give little clues about his past. In his latest book, for example, he is helping Lydia wash her hair and suddenly thinks, did I ever do this? Did a mother or sister ever do it for me? It gives him a feeling of tenderness that he’s not used to and he’s backing away from it but at the same time acknowledging it. But that sort of background is about as much as I am prepared to provide.

That was a fascinating thing about the recent book, you give us absolutely no back-story for what Wyatt has done in the last decade and it works fantastically.

That was a conscious decision. If there’s too much background too early in a book, I think you loose your readers. It was enough to hint that things went wrong and he had to go away for a while.

Do you have a favourite Parker novel?

I think it’s too long since I’ve read them. I bought them all one by one about 10 or 15 years ago and have told myself I should read them again. I do remember the first one in particular and I’ve seen the film that Lee Marvin was in, Point Blank. I also saw the Mel Gibson remake of that film but it was terrible.

Is there going to be another Wyatt book?

Yes, I think I need to follow up with another.

Any clues where you might be going with him, because as I said earlier, you have sort of backed him into a corner?

Yes, well, that is part of cranking up the tension. I don’t know what I will do as a backdrop to the next one. For the last couple of years we have gone to Noosa for school holidays and my first impressions were those big houses clustered along the canals. I took the kids out on a little motorboat and went up and down the canals and I could see Wyatt doing that. Casing these places, figuring out when they are empty. Whether the next book is set there, however, I don’t know.

What crime fiction are you enjoying reading at the moment?

I have just been re-reading the Martin Beck police procedurals by the Swedish husband-and-wife team, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. There are ten of them, first published in the ‘sixties and early ‘seventies, and recently republished. The authors were both communists and critical of welfare state Sweden, how poverty leads to crime and how Sweden was becoming a police state. They are good stories, good yarns, but there’s a lot of social commentary threaded through them too. I have also been re-reading some novels by the American writer John Sandford, his Davenport novels. He’s a sneaky plotter, I admire him greatly. I have a large stack of books by the bed including the third Stig Larson, which I haven’t read yet.

The books about the two police, Challis and Destry, are the focus of your other crime series. You said they were a different way of looking at plot and structure. Why did you feel the need to change your style of writing from the Wyatt books?

I felt there was a danger of getting repetitive with the Wyatt books because they follow a certain pattern, and I think writers have to keep pushing their boundaries and try new structural forms and approaches.

I’d been reading a lot of the police procedurals of the English writer, John Harvey, around a character called Inspector Resnick and what I liked about them are that they are set in a small regional town, not another big anonymous city and they have an ensemble caste and deal with major alongside minor ones, just as you’d expect in a regional setting.

They are set on the Mornington Peninsula. Is there a bit of a dark underbelly there?

I have certainly bumped up the crime rate there, the murder rate in particular.

I didn’t know where I would set these books but when I moved down to the Mornington Peninsula, the serial killer John Paul Denyer had recently abducted and murdered three young women near Frankston. I went into the deli near Hastings one day and heard some mothers of teenage daughters talking about their fears, and how their lives had changed in order to chaperone their daughters everywhere, and I had this strong sense of community anxiety. I knew then that the Peninsula was a good community to write about.

When I read the local newspapers, I do get a sense of a society under strain a bit. There is a shortage of police. The population is growing and services don’t keep up. There are not enough primary schools for the kids that are moving in. All of these things interest me, as does the tension and the gap between rich and poor on the Peninsula. I don’t want to beat the reader over the head with it but it is present as a layer in all the Challis and Destry books.

Can you talk a bit more about the different mindset you have to apply to writing the Challis and Destry books as opposed to the Wyatt series?

The Wyatt novels have a simple structure. Wyatt identifies a target, he gets a robbery crew together if necessary, something goes wrong and he has to put it right. The plotting at that level is quite simple.

With the Challis and Destry police procedurals I needed to stay more consciously a step ahead of the reader and try to trick the reader in the sense of planting clues and having multiple plot threads. At the same time I am weaving in aspects of the characters’ personal lives or workplace tensions or whatever it may be. So there are quite a few more balls in the air.

In terms of writing, are you a planner or do you just start writing?

I’m a planner. An extreme planner. I identify what the main crime might be and what the social milieu might be that it takes place in. Once I have identified the crime and where it might be, then I work out who did it. I might know from the start who did it, in which case I have to work out how they did it, how it unfolds and how the police might investigate it.

So you have pretty much plotted out the entire book by the time you have sat down to start writing?

Yes, chapter-by-chapter, scene-by-scene, trying to balance the demands of character traits and personality with those of a good plot.  I’m always testing the plan, asking myself things like: ‘Would she do that, given the kind of person she is?’ But I trust my instincts too. If it takes me away from the plan I always follow my instincts. For example in Snap Shot, the third in the series, I changed the identity of the murderer in the final rewrite before it went to print.

The Wyatt books are pretty hardboiled. I was trying to think of other books and characters like them on the Australian market and I couldn’t really think of any. It’s very different to the US market where there’s a much bigger publishing industry just focusing on noir, hard-boiled and pulp crime fiction. Obviously there is the question of size, but is that the only reason why there’s not more of a market for harder boiled crime fiction in Australia?

I think there is a kind of cultural cringe operating against all Australian crime fiction. If you go into one of the chain books stores like Angus and Robertson or Collins, they will have all the big new American and British authors on prominent display but not the Australians, not unless it’s Peter Temple, maybe. So there’s a mindset encouraged by the chain bookshops, where most book-buyers shop, but even some of the independents are culpable of it.

About four or five years ago several of the independent booksellers put out a catalogue of the newest crime titles. There was not a single Australian title in it, even though Peter Temple, Kerry Greenwood and I had just had books out. I got really cranky and wrote to all of them in turn and got a couple of measly answers but it just didn’t occur to them, I think, to put an Australian title there. It’s almost as though local publishers think that the Australian product is not as good as American hard-boiled. I think we have got to battle against that.

You have won prizes for the Challis and Destry books, including a Ned Kelly for Chain of Evidence in 2007. But there hasn’t been much recognition for Wyatt, even though he is one of the stayers on the crime scene. I remember when I first started reading crime fiction 20 years ago, in terms of Australian material, there was Peter Corris and his character Cliff Hardy and there was Wyatt. I know there was other stuff out but they were my first two.

Yes, well hopefully that might change a bit with [his current publisher] Text. I want to acknowledge Allen and Unwin, who published a lot of my early crime titles and were able to sell some to overseas publishers, but they struggled to find a local readership.  Michael Heyward  [the owner of Text] really gets behind all his titles, particularly his crime titles. It helps to have a young, newish and aggressive publisher. It’s possible Allen and Unwin didn’t really know how to publish the Wyatt books. They released them as inoffensive little pulp paperbacks that were not going to be noticed in bookshops.

Paperbacks that litter the shelves of second hand books shops across Australia and further abroad.

That’s true.  When I ran out of my own copies I went on the Internet. I was trying to find a copy of Kick Back. I found it for six dollars fifty in New Zealand or $240 in New York.

Is there much interest in Australian crime fiction overseas that you are aware of?

I did an author tour of the states last year for Blood Moon. I had reasonably modest audiences in books stores. I was certainly aware of a following for those books but not for Australian crime fiction in general.

Where are the Challis and Destry published apart from Australia?

Challis and Destry are published in the United States, Germany, the UK, Italy and a couple of smaller markets like Turkey and Spain.

What about Wyatt, is he going to get an international outing?

The first six Wyatts have been published in Germany, where they have been a bit of a hit and by smaller publishers in Denmark and Holland.

Soho, the same American group that publish the Challis and Destry novels, are publishing him later this year or early next year.

In addition to writing crime novels, you have also written for TV.  What was it like and how is it different from writing novels?

After a couple of Wyatts had appeared, back in the 1990s, I was contacted by a Sydney production company to write a character profile for a series character, and three storylines that a scriptwriter could turn into two-hour telemovies.

I got paid well, it helped me clear our mortgage, but two things went wrong, leaving me pretty cynical.  First, I had met an undercover cop who had infiltrated the NSW bikie gangs, and was interested in the strange kind of double life he led, where he had to keep reminding himself he was the good guy, and a normal guy, with a house and a job and a girlfriend, and I thought a guy like that would make a terrific series character.  But the producers said: ‘This is a bit dark; Gary Sweet can’t do dark.’  So, I had a created character in mind, they had an actor.

Then the storylines. It’s a strange form, present tense, no writing craft involved, only plotting craft.  ‘And then this happened and this happened and a bit later that happened’.  One story I wrote involved art theft, stolen paintings being used to bankroll crimes or as security for crooked loans, etc, etc.  In real life, art theft is a big deal.  But the producers said: ‘We see our audiences as the western suburbs of Sydney.  They’re not interested in art.’  So, take the money and run is the only attitude to take to film and TV.

Picture credits: Text Publishing and Allen and Unwin

Redback

Redback is a fast paced thriller with a distinct pulp spy fiction feel from one of the newest players on the Australian publishing scene, genre specialists Clan Destine Press.

It opens on a small Pacific island, where ex-Australian army commander Bryn Gideon and her team of retrieval agents, known as the Redbacks, are attempting to rescue hostages being held by local rebels. It’s the first but by no means the last time in the book that things don’t go as planned with bloody results.

The story moves to Tokyo where American investigative journalist Scott Dreher thinks he is onto the story of his life about a revolutionary manga combat simulation computer game that has been pirated and is being used to train terrorists. This quickly takes a turn for the worse when its creator is killed, turning Dreher into a fugitive from the knife-wielding assassin.

What follows is a sequence of apparently unrelated events, including bombings in Europe and America and an assassination in Sydney. Gideon, her Redbacks and Dreher soon find themselves in a common quest to unmask a larger conspiracy on the part of a shadowy international criminal mastermind.

Without giving too much away, the plot of Redback bounces between a number of locations, including Pakistan, France and Thailand, and introduces a host of characters, including rightwing American extremists and mysterious terrorists cum criminals. There’s high-level intrigue in the halls of power and some good, gritty on the ground action.

At times, it almost feels as through there is a bit too much going on – the reader definitely needs to pay attention. But Redback author and Clan Destine Press founder, Lindy Cameron, manages to stay on top of things and deliver a cliff hanger of a conclusion.

Whether it was  self-conscious on the part of Cameron or not, one of my favourite aspects of Redback is its liberal use of high-tech spy gadgets, which give the book a great pulpy spy fiction feel. I particularly liked the Redbacks with their rooftop apartment headquarters and operations centre and the two-way communication devices surgically implanted in their ear lobes.

The idea of a crack team of private soldiers whose job is to get people out of difficult situations is a great invention that offers plenty of room for a sequel.

This is the second outing for Red Back, which was originally published by Mira Books in 2008. If Cameron, the author of several works of crime fiction and true crime gets her way, this is exactly the type of material Clan Destine will be publishing, “the best of Australian genre fiction I can find by new writers and some older hands who are out of print or want to try something new.”

“I established Clan Destine Press because I wanted to take control of things for myself: and to ensure that my authors feel they have control too. I am prepared to take risks on new authors; on inventive genre fiction of any kind.”

The plan is to follow these up in 2011 with what Cameron describes as a couple of “gritty crime novels” and an urban fantasy, amongst others.

Clan Destine Press books are available from all independent bookstores and Borders and (for overseas readers) on-line at the Clan Destine website: www.clandestinepress.com.au

A version of this review originally appeared in issue 5 of Crime Factory.

The Wandering Ghost

I glanced at the Martin Limon novels featuring Sueno and Bascom on bookshop shelves for years before finally deciding to crack one open and give it a try.

I’m really glad I did. After reading his first book, Jade Lady Burning (1992), I accidentally jumped three books to his 2007 novel, The Wandering Ghost. It was interesting to see how the series had developed.

Sueno and Bascom are officers in the Criminal Intelligence Division of the United States military, based in South Korea in the early seventies. The Vietnam War is waging, but it’s a sideshow when you’re on the beat in a country still technically at war with its northern neighbour.

For the most part, the South Korea depicted in Jade Lady Burning is cold, bleak, authoritarian and paranoid; the perfect backdrop for a couple of hard-boiled investigators to ply their trade.

A lot of the action is set amongst the bars and brothels that have sprang up to cater to the US military presence. Limon’s not the first writer to focus on what Western men do in Asia but his handling of the subject matter is vastly superior to most of what’s out there, focusing as it does on the culture clash that occurs when so many young men with money, most of them barely educated, are thrown in the middle of an ancient and very hierarchical society.

Sueno, the narrator, is a half Mexican. He grew up poor and without parents in LA. His outsider status gives Limon a great hook to skewer both the racism of the American troops and the ethnocentrism of the Koreans.

Limon spent 20 non-continuous years in the US army, half of them in Korea, so he knows what he’s talking about. He’s not the best writer around, but his terse, straightforward style suits the subject matter. The first line from Jade Lady Burning is a case in point: “Ernie and I finished the black-market case in Pusan, did a little celebrating, and caught the Blue Line night train back to Seoul.”

Jade Lady Burning saw Sueno and Bascom  investigating the brutal murder of a local prostitute. In The Wandering Ghost, the only female military police assigned to an American military base in the De-Militarised Zone has gone missing. What’s happened to Corporal Jill Matthewson? Sueno and Bascom have been told to find out.

It quickly becomes apparent there’s much more to her disappearance than first appears including the ‘accidental’ death of another US soldier only a few days after she was reported missing. Then people start trying to kill them. The proximity of the investigation to the DMZ, the border with the North Korea and the presence of 700,000 communist soldiers, also helps ramp up the tension.

Things get even more complicated when they discover Matthewson was an eyewitness to the death of a Korean girl by a speeding US army truck. The girl’s family believe that because she didn’t die at home her spirit will be left a wandering ghost, unless Matthewson, the last person to see her alive, helps them carry out a traditional ceremony so she can rest in peace.

Limon crams a lot into The Wandering Ghost, including the rampant sexual harassment of women in the army, black racketeering and even child prostitution.

There’s far more nuance and texture to the largely black and white country than was portrayed in Jade Lady Burning. The latter book is also much more overtly political. We get a sense of just how negatively many South Koreans view the US troop presence and the South Korean government is portrayed as being just as concerned with internal dissent as the prospect of invasion by the North.

The additional detail is for the most part interesting, but it also means there’s times the author gets bogged having to explain everything that is going on. Sueno and Bascom are obviously old hands by the time they have got The Wandering Ghost. They know South Korea, what to expect and how to react to the locals.

It’s a matter of taste, but I preferred the more stripped back, hardboiled feel of the first book.

The Wandering Ghost and Limon’s other Sueno and Bascom books are published by Soho Crime.