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Sunday, 27 April 2008

American Pie

If there's one question I get asked more than any other, it's to inquire when The Gilded Seal is coming to the good ol' US of A.

Actually, that's a lie. The question I get asked most often is whether I want to buy some cheap Viagra. The answer is no. No I don't want any. And no, even if I did, I don't want it cheap. I'm sure that, like Champagne, I would enjoy it more if it was very, very expensive, because I wouldn't allow myself to spend that much money and not have a good time. And while we're at it, I don't want a perfectly crafted luxury timepiece either for $39.99 plus P&P - same argument applies.

So let me rephrase. The question I get emailed more than any other
by my 'army' of devoted readers is to ask when The Gilded Seal is coming out in the USA. So I thought I'd answer it. After all, it's not that often I can find an excuse to post a picture of three blond triplets covered in body paint - yes, look closely, that is body paint. (I know what you're thinking - why even claim to need an excuse?)

So here you go. The Gilded Seal is being published by Harper Collins in America in ... the Summer of 2009. Yes, I know it's a hamster's lifetime away, but such are the vicissitudes of the publishing industry.

Why the delay? Well I have to say, the whole American experience has been a rather mystifying one for me. When I was writing The Double Eagle, I was convinced that if the book was going to work anywhere, it was the US. Ex CIA agent, beautiful FBI officer, a forgotten slice of American history, glamorous locations... And so it proved initially, the book quickly selling to Harper Collins for a decent advance who then found themselves on the receiving end of a huge amount of interest from independent booksellers who are so critical to the US market and a (at the time unprecedented) 100% recommendation rating from HC's 'First Look' panel. Emboldened by this, they spent a lot of money on PR and marketing, even flying me out for a whistlestop tour of a couple of major US cities, which for a first time writer is pretty rare. And I even struck PR gold when ten Double Eagles showed up the week before publication.

And then ... well not a lot really. The book came and went, in both Hardback and Paperback, and everyone was left a little ... underwhelmed by the sales numbers. Worse than that, HC were left, I think, feeling a bit bruised, because they had got little real return on their investment and effort. When it came to publishing The Black Sun, therefore, I don't think their heart was really in it (although they would argue differently I'm sure) and they certainly weren't going to risk throwing a lot of money behind it again and without money - well you can see how a vicious cycle can begin.

Why didn't it work as well as everyone thought it would? To be honest, I'm still not sure. The easy option might be to blame Hurricane Katrina - the book was published the week it struck New Orleans and at the time people were more worried about gang rapes in the Superdome than they were interested in buying a book. I could blame the book itself for not being up to the notoriously high standards demanded by the most voracious and demanding thriller readership in the world, but then I get such positive emails from those of you who have bought the books that I can't be that far off the mark, especially when you remember how well the books have sold here, Germany, France etc.! Maybe it's because I'm here and they're there and it's the old 'out of sight, out of mind' problem. Or it could just be that as many people have found before, the US is just a very, very difficult market to break.

That's probably as it should be, to be honest - the prize is so large that the bar needs to be high, and I'm certainly up for the fight. I do sometimes wonder though if a bit like like that great Mercedes 'Lucky Star' advert, you need to somehow get all the traffic lights to turn green at the same time to really have a chance - or have Simon Cowell get you onto Oprah.

All of this meant that when it came to offering me a new contract, HC were a little, how can I put this, slow. Especially after my editor decamped to pastures new. It took six months in the end and Jedi mind tricks from my US agent George Lucas to swing it my way. (yes that is his name. Can you imagine how excited I was when he first ever called and left a message for me? Holy shit - George Lucas has called ... It was hard not to sound just a little bit disapointed when I realised that the jet was quite yet being fueled for a trip to Skywalker ranch to sign the contracts on the movie deal!) The upshot of all this is that with everything having taken so long, we have missed all the slots for this year, so 2009 is now the only the option. (Although you can buy it from Amazon Canada or a specialist crime bookstore if you can't wait.)

All of the above is probably a little too honest, but then I can't just share the silver linings with you and not show the occasional clouds. Writing is a tough business, which is just as well or everyone would be doing it - actually sometimes I feel they already are! And to be honest, I know I shouldn't complain - I've got a deal, which is brilliant and more than many. Harper Collins are an excellent publisher and there's a lot of you out there who have read and liked the first two books and are spreading the word. And I've got a new editor and a new slot and probably a bit more humility having appreciated the scale of the challenge.

Who knows, you might see me on Oprah yet ...


PS Some of you have asked about Book IV - well this is what I'm prepared to share at the moment

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Genre Fiction

If there's one word I hate it's genre. Not because of what it means, but just because it sounds so bloody pretentious. A bit like gourmet, oeuvre (c.f Merci Jules!), cortège ... It's not that I have a problem with French words - after all, 40% of English is of French origin apparently. It's just the needless dressing up to sound clever that annoys me. I mean what's wrong with category, class, family, genus, group, kind, set, species, taxonomy, type ...

Anyway, ignoring that for a moment, one interesting current trend in contemporary crime fiction is the way it seems to be sub-dividing into different genres or sub-genres (e.g. crime versus thriller, versus serial killer versus psychological crime versus police procedural ...) Of course, it's not clear if this is organic, or whether it is instead being deliberatly orchestrated by publishers and retailers who need some way of classifying and understanding the thousands of books on their shelves and the customers buying them?

If it's the latter, they have an interesting precedent in the New World wine industry, who have been incredibly successful in growing their sales by carefully labelling their wines by grape variety, rather than expecting everyone to know what type of wine they are buying from the name of the Chateau, as they rather sniffily do in France!

My own personal view is that I’ve never read a good crime novel that wasn’t thrilling, or read a thriller that didn’t revolve around a crime. In many ways, therefore, from a writer’s perspective these types of labels are at best simplistic, at worst overly constrictive.

Speaking for myself, although I am classified as a thriller writer, I deliberately write across genres. The heart of The Gilded Seal, for example, is an old fashioned thriller – international locations, the fate of the world hanging in the balance, a charismatic hero battling against the forces of evil. This is then counter-balanced by a police procedural investigation – a brutal murder, forensic evidence, a roster of possible suspects, a determined but flawed detective. This is then all set against a historical backdrop, where the action stems from and is then driven forward both by events that took place many years before and their modern day repercussions. Finally I add in few extra ingredients to bind the whole thing together - a race against the clock, a treasure hunt, a chase…

Classifying my work as a thriller is as good a label as any, I guess, but in my view it’s more than that too. I actually think most readers are happy and may even value this sort of ambiguity.

Maybe i
t’s the publishing and retailing industries who struggle to understand it!


P.S. In case you're wonndering, the picture is of the Chimera di Arezzo - an Etruscan bronze of a monstrous creature made of the parts of many different animals!

Friday, 4 April 2008

Merci Jules

Sad news this week, with the death of cinema legend Jules Dassin on Monday. Those of you familiar with his oeuvre (you see, I'm trying to toss in a few French words this week) will know that he directed, wrote and acted in film noir masterpiece Du Rififi Chez Les Hommes - from where my blog gets its name. You see, there is method in my madness...

For those of you who haven't seen it, it is a heist movie set in 1950s Paris which contains one of the greats scenes in cinema history (it runs the opening sequence to Indiana Jones as my favourite scene of all time*), a 33 minute safe-cracking extravaganza entirely without dialogue or music. Thirty three minutes! Imagine any of the studios agreeing to that today. Apparently the Mexican interior ministry even banned the movie in 1956 after a spate of robberies mimicking the crime.

An article that accompanies the current DVD release describes it in far more elegant (and pretentious) prose than I could ever muster:

"And yet, even in a film of such generous superlatives, something does stand out, towering over it all. For Rififi is that most hallowed of films, a film that contains a monument within. Like the Grand Hall ball in The Magnificent Ambersons or the pickpocketing sequence in Pickpocket or the crop-duster chase in North by Northwest, the virtually silent, gleefully long heist scene at the center of Rififi is a tingling, ecstatic, sustained act of brilliance—a sacrament of the cinema. For an astounding 33 minutes, Dassin removes all dialogue, hushing the soundtrack to the mere sounds of breath—the accidental note from a piano is enough to stop your heart—as we observe the criminal team at work, breaking through the floor, silencing alarms, cracking safes, checking watches, and signaling each other. It is a scene you’ve seen before (shameless imitators have been cannibalizing it for decades), but you will never see it so purely, respectfully done as here. The fetishistic shots of the safecracker’s tools, the rope that comes out of the suitcase already knotted and ready for climbing down, the team’s proprietary language of hand-gesture, the justly famous (and I won’t give it away) conceit of the umbrella—all of these elements are so lovingly described, it makes you want to cry out."

Don't be confused by his name, by the way. Born in Connecticut in 1911 as Julius Dassin, he was blacklisted by Hollywood when he was named to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951. He moved to France and reinvented himself as a Director there, before marrying the Greek actress Melinda Mercouri (star of heist classic Topkapi), moving to Greece and joining her fight as Greek Culture Minister to have the Elgin marbles returned. A real man for all seasons.

Au revoir Jules et merci.

* The tracking shot in the nightclub in Goodfellas is probably third, with the helicopter raid in Apocalypse Now fourth