Heroes, do we still have heroes anymore? Are we too grown up, too cynical, too knowing to call anyone a hero, does the idea even exist outside the worlds of movies or fiction or comics?

What about literary heroes. As a writer, and I’m sure something I hold in common with other writers, I have writers I admire, and yes I would call them my literary heroes. Writers I look up to because of their skill, their dedication and the fearlessness with which they engage with their subject matter. All the while as I try to write they sit on my shelves looking down on me, whispering in the silence that if I want to call myself a real writer I have to be willing to go as far as they went, put as much on the line as they did, be willing to be as brave and as courageous as they were with what they put on paper.

But what about literary characters, are any of those heroes?

I’m always reluctant to call the main characters in anything I write the ‘hero’, it sounds like they should be running around with a fedora and a wisecrack, besides, none of them ever do anything particularly ‘heroic’, I always like the idea that someone does something wrong and their life unravels as a result, much more interesting than the indestructible hero with the chiselled jaw, the cigarette in the corner of his mouth and the dame simpering at his feet.

A friend of mine prompted this. She happened to be telling me one day that her favourite book is Jane Eyre, she was rereading it for the first time in years, and that the character of Jane Eyre is still a hero if her’s. Now while I don’t know the book that well and rely on film adaptations to be honest for my knowledge of it I can see why this character is so admirable, her intelligence and strength of character are certainly attributes to admire, and knowing my friend I can see aspects of Jane in her, see why this particular character would appeal to her.

So what about me, do I have a literary character hero, is there some character out there that I admire more than others? Can I pretend that I’m too cool for such an idea, that as a writer these things are beyond me? Thankfully not.

Most of the books I read tend to be one-offs and while certain characters stick in my mind, the unnamed narrator of Beckett’s The Unnameable, the lost souls of the Philadelphia dive bars from the world of David Goodis or the equally lost denizens of Georges Simenon’s romans dur struggling in their world in which one mistake has caused their lives to descend into misery, or where they try to escape from lives that have closed around them like traps, and of course not forgetting the eternal losers in the smoke filled bars of Patrick Hamilton’s world. Don’t get me started on the protagonists of Richard Yates’ brilliant books, all starting off well and going downhill faster than an Olympic luge. And yes, I do see a pattern but at this moment in time I’m sitting in a chair not lying on a couch so we’ll let that one float on by for the moment if you don’t mind.

Admirable as all of these characters are in their own way I couldn’t really count them as heroes, much as I would sympathise with them and wish them well as they try to snatch one small victory from life’s defeats I still wouldn’t call them my heroes.

Thinking over the idea of a literary character as a hero I eventually realised mine was a literary type, specifically in two series of books, with the honourable mention of a third. Each of these characters inhabit the same basic characteristics and are all essentially variations on the same theme, and while many have imitated them over the years I don’t think this character has been better defined than in these examples.

The versions of the same character I’m talking about are Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Derek Raymond’s nameless Detective Sergeant in the Factory series of books and the mention goes to Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series set in Nazi Germany.

For most Philip Marlowe is the embodiment of the Private Eye, fedora, mac, cigarettes, bourbon and wise-cracks, Humphrey Bogart eyeing up the dames as they saunter into his office, yadda, yadda, yadda. Even if you’ve never seen Bogart as Marlowe (and why the fuck haven’t you!) you know the type, and Bernie Gunther is very much a carbon copy of same. Indeed if your crime novel includes a private detective and isn’t set in a country house or cruise liner a la Christie, then chances are your main character is a version of what I’ve described. But it isn’t the wise-cracking street-smart Shamus that interests me, it’s another aspect of their character, and one the three examples I’ve picked share in spades.

These characters exhibit something beyond a world weariness, to me it’s an inherent sadness, sadness at the world around them, the sadness of knowing that the more they learn about the world the worse it gets. These are characters that live in worlds without pity, without justice, without love, everyone they meet is lying, corrupt, or just pure evil in their own way. But it’s the relentlessness that I admire, knowing just how shit the world is they choose to go on, they know that the world will not be a better place when they finish, they know they will not put things to right but they go on, hoping that in their own small way they can let a little chink of light penetrate the darkness, even for a moment.

Chandler’s Marlowe is the oldest of the three, and serves as the template for this kind of hero. It’s no coincidence that in an earlier version I believe the character was called Malory after the creator of Le Morte D’Arthur, the classic tale of chivalric knights in search of the holy grail, because in his own way Marlowe, and the Detective Sergeant, and Bernie Gunther are knights, they are men out of time on their own quests, eternally seeking for something they will never find. I see these figures as romantic heroes, not in the sense of chocolates and flowers and jumping in a lake fully clothed (if you’re a fan of BBC mini-series), no I mean romantic in my own reading of the original sense of the word.

The romantic knights in their quest to find the grail weren’t necessarily looking for a cup (or a bloodline or any of that shite); I even believe some of the early tales refer to grails, not just one. The quest for the grail was a quest for the divine, for perfection, for an ideal, an ideal that they can never find because it doesn’t exist in this world. I’ve always felt that a cynic has to begin life as a romantic, someone with the concept of the ideal but who realises that this ideal cannot exist and now sees the world around them as something tawdry and lacking because of the absence of this perfection that they may once have had a glimpse of but now forever remember. Marlowe to me is such a knight, transplanted from medieval Europe to the Los Angeles of the 1940s, like the cosmic balance to Mark Twain’s story. Marlowe tries to live by his code, to live with what are now alien concepts such as truth, justice and decency but everywhere he looks he sees these ideas corrupted, everywhere is a corruption of the ideals he tries to cling on to.

I recently reread Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake, not one of his best and one I haven’t read in years. This book does display the flaws that others have pointed out in Chandler’s work, namely that the plotting can get a bit confusing and convoluted, though as always it is the character of Marlowe that keeps you interested. What I noticed this time is the all-pervading sadness in the book. Marlowe is hired to find a man’s missing wife, in doing so he discovers the body of another woman, the titular lady in the lake and the plot continues weaving both strands together until the finale. The sadness infects almost every line; it’s as if Marlowe knows that this will not end well, not for him the satisfaction of solving a crime or uncovering a murderer. As I said it’s the gradual revelation of the venality of the people he meets, the slow revelation that almost no one he encounters can even pass as a decent human being. This is also something I find in Simenon’s Maigret books, the cases are never solved triumphantly; he finishes every investigation almost regretting that he has found out what he has.

Chandler famously described the character of Marlowe in The Simple Art of Murder (1950):

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.

That pretty much sums him up. But as I said it’s the almost unworldly aspect, the idea that he is a man out of time, the idea that he will hold on to his principles no matter what, knowing that what he is doing is essentially futile and meaningless. That to me is what makes him heroic.

Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther is a more recent version of this hero but his stories take place in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 40s. Even more so that the Los Angeles of the 40s this is a great example of the hero trying to hold to his code in a world of horror. How more futile can it be to hold to such ideals in the horrific world of the Nazis, what’s the point in scraping out one iota of justice in this particular circle of hell? And yet he does it, he tries. Again it’s the self-knowledge of the character, realising that it is all completely futile, and being aware of it, that perversely in his own way makes him heroic.

The nameless Detective Sergeant of Derek Raymond’s Factory series adds a more modern slant to these two errant knights. For him it is the mean streets of Thatcher’s Britain, where famously there is ‘No such thing as Society’. The Detective Sergeant is assigned to investigate crimes that no one cares about. People die, unwanted and uncared for so it is to the unwanted of the Metropolitan Police Force that they turn for answers, though nobody really cares whether the cases are solved or not. Raymond’s hero perfectly encapsulates the world of noir fiction in one beautiful, perfect sentence

‘For the span of my own lifetime I would always arrive too late’

(I Was Dora Suarez, Derek Raymond, 1990)

In his two masterpieces, He Died With His Eyes Open and I Was Dora Suarez the Detective Sergeant investigates the murder of two unwanted people, one a failed writer confining his thoughts to a series of taped confessions (a thinly veiled self-portrait of Raymond himself) and the other an unwanted immigrant working as a prostitute. In both cases it is the compassion of the Detective Sergeant for the two victims that shines through, even though he knows that the resolution of the investigation will bring no justice and that no one bar him will even care. As the Detective Sergeant prepares to confront Dora’s murderer he says a silent prayer to her, acknowledging that he, like everyone else, has failed her in life and hoping that in some way his actions now will bring her some peace.

Despite his prayer and in common with Marlowe the Detective Sergeant is well aware of the futility of his actions, what he does will not change the world, no one cares and they are often blunt in telling him that, yet he tries in a vain attempt to atone for the worlds failings. It always reminds me of a line I remember from a television show years ago, I can’t remember what it was, but the line stuck with me, it may even have been borrowed from something else, I don’t know (ok a quick Google has now revealed the line comes from Joss Whedon’s Angel, ok not the great classic work I was hoping for but I’ll stick by it, I always liked that line and the guy can sure write):

‘When nothing we do matters all that matters is what we do’

So that’s it really, my literary hero is not one but two characters, but basically two sides of the same coin. Philip Marlowe and the nameless Detective Sergeant, both prowling their own mean streets, both trying to shine even a little light in a world that’s long since gone dark, both failing, but trying again. Both knowing that there is no reward, in this world or the next but they do what they do because there is no reward, because it is the right thing to do, and for no other reason than that.

(I don’t know, maybe I should just invent a superhero, indestructible, infallible, omniscient, leaping tall buildings, saving the day, walking off into the sunset with his best gal as the credits start to roll, but where’s the fun in that?)

Incidentally, speaking of walking off into the sunset. I’ll leave you with an image, possibly one of the greatest images in cinematic history, from John Ford’s The Searchers. While John Wayne doesn’t exactly fit into the mould of my literary heroes as described above (neither of them would have made a pro-Vietnam War movie like The Green Berets which famously ends with Wayne standing on a beach in Vietnam looking out to a glorious sunset, even though Vietnam doesn’t have any westerly facing beaches) the last scene of this movie does demonstrate how the hero does exist outside of the rest of the world, my own heroes exist outside a rotten and corrupt society while Wayne’s character feels his violence is more attuned to the wilderness, not the domestic world of the settlers. Either way, it’s easy to see my two heroes walking away, alone, as they know the rest of the world is one in which they do not belong.

The Gods will not save you

‘The Gods will not save you.’

My favourite line from the Wire, and one that floats in and around my head on a more than regular basis. It’s grown to mean something applicable to more than just the characters in the show, I find it applies to most of the crime fiction that I love, and serves as a useful barometer for the crime fiction I don’t.

It refers to the powers in the universe outside the control of any one individual, or individuals. What we’re really talking about here is fate. Not the kind of fate ordained by the gods, or by karma, nor do I mean something allotted to a mere mortal by a capricious God. In fact it’s something that exists in a world where God, or Gods do not. What I mean here by fate is the struggle by a character, or characters, against forces that are far too strong for them, and always will be. In the world of the Wire this included poverty, drugs, crime, politics, big business and corruption in all its guises. In each of the seasons of the Wire the various characters come up against these forces, some were beaten, some cow-towed and surrendered, and occasionally one or two might prevail. But we were never left in any doubt that these victories were only temporary, the game remains. The names may change but the game is still the game.

I always find it useful to be mindful of what has been with us from the world of the ancient Greeks, that the gods interfere in the lives of men at a whim and will destroy them, or raise them up, if and when they see fit. The modern forces have replaced the cast of celestial beings sounding like Laurence Olivier or Liam Neeson and sitting on clouded mountain tops, but their impact on our lives remain.

A lot of crime fiction seems to take a different approach, whether consciously or not. To me it seems like they adopt the superhero approach, namely their hero is imbued with some special faculty that lifts them above the world of mere mortals. This can be the supreme intellect of a Sherlock Holmes or the more physical abilities to out-drink, out-fight and out-shoot as seems to be the lot of many heroes. Instead of dressing them in a mask and a cape the writer dresses them like one of us but the super powers are always close to being unleashed, usually bringing death and destruction in their wake, saving the damsel and returning the world to one of law and order. Whether the hero actually wears a badge is usually immaterial, their code has been imposed and the evil vanquished. Until that is they reappear in the next episode, the world has reset and the eternal fight against evil resumes. If I was anything more than a dilettante when it comes to philosophy I might be able to describe this in post-Nietzschean language, in a world where God is dead the Superman reigns, but I think you get my drift.

I’ve never been interested in a superman as a hero, even as a kid I was never that interested in the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, it was obvious from early on that as Superman was invulnerable and couldn’t be beaten he was never in anything more than temporary peril, nothing bad would ever happen to him. And if nothing bad could ever happen to him then why was I watching, there was never anything at stake. This basic premise applies to crime fiction. If I pick up a book and the hero appears to be a version of the superman it will take something special for me to keep reading, why would I?

No, I want to read about somewhere where things really are at stake, not just a scratch here and there, where their lives are at stake, and the lives of others, and some part of the characters are aware of this from the beginning, and also aware that people will probably die no matter what they do. In fact failure is always part of the story, but it’s when the characters essentially embrace that failure and continue that I am interested. Chandler created his Marlowe, his knight errant roaming the streets of LA, a sucker for a damsel in distress but always aware that he had probably been dealt a losing hand, yet he continued, the quest more important than the outcome, only in that could he live according to his code, like the knights of the grail quests on which he’d been based. From Chandler, and Hammett, arose the hard-boiled hero, but my main problem with many of the later derivations is that they, whether by accident or design, evolve into the superhero, at which point I don’t care. (Incidentally, anyone bothering to read this with a knowledge of graphic novels can probably shoot down my superhero analogy based on work being produced now, I don’t know enough of the medium to argue but even they would agree that the basic superhero idea gets pretty stale, no doubt why many modern graphic novel authors seek to subvert the clichés).

The twin pillars of my own love of crime fiction are David Goodis and Derek Raymond. In each of their work I can see the presence of the Gods, and their complete indifference to man, and the struggles of the characters become infinitely more interesting as a result.

Goodis peopled his stories from amongst the drunks and the losers of the slums of Philadelphia, all trapped in their world, occasionally getting a glimpse of the riches of the world outside but returning home, as poor as it may be. The idea of getting out, getting away may flicker into his or her consciousness but that flame is quickly extinguished by the ‘Gods’ and they fall back to where they began, or worse. I would have loved to see Goodis attempt a serial character in his books, I have only read a couple of attempts at a detective from his days writing from pulp magazines, to no great effect to be honest, but I would have loved to see what he could have tried to do with a recurring character in the world of his novels.

Derek Raymond’s great achievement is the series of Factory novels, based around the investigations of a nameless Detective Sergeant in a division outside the interest of the rest of the force. Here the fight against the ‘Gods’ is carried out to full effect. Raymond’s hero knows he is unwanted, knows he asks awkward questions and knows that in the end he can achieve no real justice for the victims of the crimes he investigates, that idea that the hero would achieve justice for the victim I’ve always found flawed, so what, the culprit is arrested, big deal, the victim is still dead. Raymond’s Detective Sergeant knows his efforts will be paltry but believes that his own efforts will at least serve as recognition that someone cared. In his masterpiece I was Dora Suarez he says a prayer to the dead Dora hoping that by confronting her killer she can go to her rest, though realising how futile his efforts are.

Stories set in a world where the Gods, in whatever form, do not care are not automatically ‘gloomy’ or ‘depressing’, and how I fucking hate when these words are used to describe a story, I’ve never felt a story has to have a happy ending, why should it? Futility is no reason not to do anything, a lot of what we all do every day is futile, yet we do it, and do it again the next day. In many cases it is the struggle of the characters that is interesting, how they confront the forces pitted against them knowing that the Gods are deaf to their pleas. It’s not really strange that the works of writers like Goodis and Raymond survived in French translations as their English-speaking readership largely dried up, those that lived with the cultural legacy of existentialism were more attuned to the struggles of the protagonists in an uncaring world. Who else could define the world of Noir for us?

The Gods will not save you, so fucking what, don’t go looking for help from them when you know that help will never arrive. Accept that all you will attempt will be futile; the best that can be achieved is some sort of small victory, temporarily delaying the inevitable. But a small victory achieved in circumstances where immense forces are weighed against you, where the Gods will not, nor will they ever, help you is worth more than some generic piece of shite where the hero stands staring off into the sunset with a cartoon woman by his side, ready to save the world again in his next adventure.

The Next Big Thing

First things first, thanks to my friend Janet Cameron O’Faolain (http://www.asimplejan.com) who passed this idea my direction, and apologies for taking so bloody long in responding.

The idea is that each blogger answer the questions listed below and pass them on to whoever they want after that, and the questions circulate around the blogosphere like some electronic chain letter, though should anyone wish to take up the chain rest assured that I’ve sat on the damn thing so long any bad luck is bound to fall on my head so please proceed without worry.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

Oddly enough it was one of those flashes that never seem to come, I was sitting at home one night and a leaflet was stuffed through my letterbox, a flyer for a take-away or something, and the snap of the letterbox startled me, and that turned into the idea of something unwanted coming through the letterbox, which turned into a gun, which turned into the story.

What genre does your book fall under?

In the broader sense it is a crime book, as in it involves characters who live in a world in which crimes are committed, though not in the conventional sense where solving a crime is the object of the story. In terms of the lives of the characters, their situations and actions I would class it as Noir; basically I tend to start with characters already in a bad place, and go downhill from there.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Curious question, and one that I really can’t answer. Not out of any sense of modesty, or false modesty, it’s just that I’ve written the two main characters in the book from the inside out, I barely provide them with physical descriptions, I actually haven’t given either of them names. The story is told as what are essentially alternating monologues, what I’m trying to do is crawl inside each character and experience the story from there.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

Two men, one gun, one desperate to get it back to save a life, the other desperate to use it to get back the life he lost.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Sadly at the moment the book will sit growling on my hard drive, having neither agent nor publisher. I have entered it in the Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair Competition 2013, but if it isn’t successful there I’ll probably send it out hoping to hook myself an agent, and failing that I might look at e-publishing. Being something of a traditionalist I still aspire to see my name on a physical book sitting on bookshop shelves.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Funnily enough I started the book in early October 2012 and should have a first draft finished by January 2013. This is a lot quicker than anything else I’ve written before, necessitated by the closing date of the Novel Fair competition, which can only mean either I’m on to a winner or I’ve made an awful, awful mess of things.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Also known as the ‘who have you stolen from’ question. Usually my writing will have elements of those crime writers I admire most, namely David Goodis and Derek Raymond, though in this case I can certainly detect elements of Jim Thompson and Georges Simenon, though these are aspects that I pick up on, or think I pick up on, myself, more than likely anyone that reads the thing would see something totally different. I even see little crumbs of Samuel Beckett but that may be no more than wishful thinking. I’ve always truly believed that each writer is a product of those writers he or she admires most, whether we try to or not their work will always seep in, there’s no point in trying to avoid it. The best any of us can do is try to throttle back the inspirational tap as much as possible and mix it with as much of ourselves as we can in a confusing metaphor kind of way.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Really have no idea. I suppose I’ve always loved stories about people who are trapped in situations outside of their control, and their efforts to get out of them, though in their hearts they know the situation is probably doomed. It’s the idea of fate, though without any supernatural being or beings overseeing things, that and the premise of the gun and away we go.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Awful, awful question. If you want a crime fiction book that isn’t about a detective who’s essentially a superhero without a cape chasing after an infinitely-resourced serial killer with a fixation on a classic work of fiction, and who between them pile up bodies like discarded cigarettes, this may be the book for you. If you prefer a book where people struggle against a world outside of their control, who try to do right even though they know they will ultimately fail and where you crawl inside the skulls of these characters, and learn more about them than you ever want, then this may be a book for you.

Thanks again to Janet for passing the questions on to me and anyone out there with their own blog is more than welcome to take them on, answer them as you wish and let the chain continue.