Article published on May 23, 2014.
Ill-fated Titles and Straplines
The Independent (a paper I write for) recently ran a piece on ill-fated titles — books that had to be renamed because of an unfortunate piece of timing (such as Susan Barker’s debut novel set in a Japanese hostess bar, originally called Tsunami Bar, which was ready to go until Boxing Day 2004 when the Asian Tsunami hit).
But straplines can cause problems too. I have extremely vivid memories of a long telephone conversation I was having with Christopher Brookmyre (we were both at our separate homes), who was shortly to publish a new book. During the lengthy – and sometimes desultory – conversation, I could hear that the normally polite Chris was sorely distracted – I kept hearing gasps and exclamations that had nothing to do with what we were talking about. Finally, he said, ‘I’ll have to change the bloody strapline of my new book.’ I innocently asked: “Why? What’s the strapline? Why does it need changing?” Chris replied glumly: ‘It’s ‘Terrorism is the new rock ‘n’ roll.’’ I asked what the problem was. Chris sounded amazed. ‘You have had your television switched on, Barry, haven’t you?’ I hadn’t, but turned it on and saw what Chris meant. The date was 11 September, 2001.
Conversation at launches or meals for crime authors can range over a wide variety of subjects (unless you get that rara avis, a taciturn author – they do exist), but often come down to the same topics being discussed at every Crime Writers’ Association meeting – the problems of the latest book; why X (who is clearly a crap writer) always outsells Y (a much better author); gripes about editors, publishers, agents, Amazon; apologies for not yet having seen True Detective (or whatever the TV crime series is we’re all supposed to have seen). Such things are the bread and butter of those who live the criminal life (of the literary kind), so it’s inevitable – and satisfying. Sometimes, however, other topics can be on the agenda. I’m sometimes able to talk classical music to crime writers — although jazz or vintage rock is the default listening for many a detective (and there’s nothing wrong with that), I seem to meet a large number of authors who like to write to Mahler or Sibelius. But only twice have I been able to share a particular enthusiasm of mine: the glorious 1950s/1960s period of Frank Sinatra’s Capitol recordings with the Nelson Riddle orchestra (before the bloated ‘My Way’ days and a thousand tin-eared karaoke renditions calculated to put people off Sinatra for life). Of course, it might be said that the singer – a tough cookie — had other connections with crime, but let’s leave that aside for the moment.
My two fellow fans were the American thriller writer David Morrell (who has even written studies of the orchestrations of Nelson Riddle) and a debut entrant in the crime-writing stakes, the journalist and novelist Tony Parsons, whose The Murder Bag was launched at a glitzy Random House affair in a room of the Groucho Club. (The latter is always a useful place for reminding you of your place – as you walk into the lobby, patrons eye you up, decide if you’re somebody, then quickly lose interest. Or at least they do in my case.)
Tony Parsons’ publisher Selena Walker extolled the virtues of his new detective Max Wolfe to me with as much enthusiasm as she once introduced a shy-looking SJ Watson (Tony is not, it has to be said, the shy type), but then Selena is never lacking in energy when it comes to bigging up her writers. I’d covered Tony’s earlier, non-crime novels for The Times, and I knew that (from his days as a music journo) he was a keen Sinatraphile. We talked about the singer, both as the premier interpreter of the Great American Songbook and as bagman for the exiled Mafioso Lucky Luciano, but I knew what I was at the event for (there’s no such thing as a free glass of wine), and finally got around to the fact that Tony has made a pungent (if belated) entry into the overcrowded London detectives stakes (his tough cop operates out of Savile Row). But he wanted to get back to Sinatra. ‘If I had just one track of his to take to a desert island,’ Tony said, ‘it would be “No-one ever tells you” from the Sinatra/Riddle LP A Swingin’ Affair — the one ballad on the album; utterly impeccable, and so spot-on about the pain of love; but then so is virtually everything else the duo did in the Capitol era.’
I asked Tony if he was confident that his literary skills would translate into the different demands of the crime field. He smiled wryly. ‘That’s for other people to judge, but I’m encouraged by the fact that such people as Lee Child and Sophie Hannah have made positive noises about The Murder Bag – and when Selena told me she wanted a London-set series, I thought – well, bloody hell, I can do that!’
In 2015, I’ll be back to writing books about British and American crime writers, but the latest book is Euro Noir (I know we’re Europeans, but…). And it’s not just the Scandinavians. The Anglo-American domination of the crime fiction genre has been under siege by Nordic Noir for quite some time, but another juggernaut is crashing its way into the genre – the astonishingly varied and exciting crime fiction streaming out of the continental countries: France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece and others. Examining and celebrating this exhilarating body of criminal work, I tried to bring to the continental countries the enthusiasm I have for Brits and Scandis. From important early writers such as Georges Simenon to more recent giants such as Andrea Camilleri, all the key names — and many new and lively talents — are (I hope) included in a book I’ve designed as both guide and shopping list for readers. The initial idea occurred to me a few years ago when I was filming the BBC documentary Italian Noir (and its companion, Nordic Noir). But it’ll be my countrymen and women next; the dark mutterings I’ve heard from Brit crime writers (and the threats of violence) have made that decision for me.
Barry’s latest books are Euro Noir and British Gothic Cinema