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.

Down these Mean Streets . . .

I know, I know.

I found this photograph online some time ago and have been using it as the wallpaper on my desktop ever since.

(I can’t remember where I found it so apologies to any owners, etc.)

It’s just fantastic though isn’t it, how many stories can you tell in an alley like this?

Though it’s worth pointing out that the light at the end of this proverbial tunnel leads not to a heavenly afterlife but to a bookshop,

. . . much better don’t you think.

Why I write what I write (part 1 of probably a lot)

Why do I write what I write and why do I write what I write in the way that I write?

A question that everyone who’s ever tried to write a story, poem, play has asked themselves, though they may have asked the question better.

Over the years when I’ve tried to write, I knew I wanted to be a writer, I tried many different styles, many different types of story that I wanted to tell. I’ve no real reason why I settled on what I have now. I’m no expert on literary theory and can only explain it in terms of music, though I have no musical training either.

‘For years I tried to play in a string quartet before I realised that all I wanted to do was play in a garage band’

Just to say, that’s in no way a comment on either string quartets or garage bands, it’s just the best way I can describe it. Nor is it a comment on anyone’s writing style or subject matter. I really do believe that, in essence, each of us can only write a certain way. No two people can write the same way. No two people can write the same sentence. I found crime fiction, and more specifically I found my own niche of crime fiction.

I’ve no particular interest in police procedurals, in serial killers, in CSI type analytical stories. What I love is Noir, that amorphous bastard offspring of the crime genre where failure, damnation and despair rule, and yet where the protagonists try to obtain some form of redemption through their actions, though they know that it will ultimately achieve nothing. The world will go on despite them, the bad guys will often win and the good guys, if they survive, will not ride off into the sunset with their best gal by their sides.

Noir isn’t about providing corpses for a genius detective to mull over, providing cadavers for sadistic, unrealistic and often farcical serial killers to murder in increasingly bizarre ways. If Noir provides a body it’s to serve as an example to be held up of the failings of the protagonists, the people around them, the world at large. That one person is murdered is a failing of us all. And remember, in the world of Noir there is no afterlife, there is no happy ending, you will not be rewarded. You strive, you fail, yet you continue, ultimately knowing that you will fail, but in the words of another writer, you go on, you fail better.