Colin Bateman, Criminally Funny | Magazine | Crime | Interviews

By Kevin Massey

In these gloomy times, we can all do with something that is guaranteed to give us a laugh, a hearty chuckle or an incapacitating fit of giggles.  Colin Bateman’s books will provide all of the above.  Laced with the engaging ‘whodunits’ and mysteries of plot is a delicate mix of razor sharp wit and bombastic farce. When Bateman decides to tickle your funny bone, he succeeds with aplomb.  His stories have ranged from the top of the Empire State Building to the tiny (and fictional) village of Crossmaheart.  His topics range from the political situation in Northern Ireland to the idea of the afterlife. He has written in the crime, drama, supernatural, comedy and thriller genres.  The one consistent element to Colin Bateman’s work is blistering humour; jokes that are, at times, appropriately inappropriate.

Bateman has always managed to strike a balance in his work.  Along with producing superb stand-alone books such as Divorcing Jack and Chapter and Verse, he has developed two ongoing series; rogue reporter Dan Starkey and the crime solving, bookshop owning, neurotic Mystery Man. Bateman’s latest offering, released this month, is Nine Inches and it sees  Dan Starkey; reporter, occasional alcoholic and permanent trouble magnet, return five years after the events of ‘Belfast Confidential’.  Starkey has spent the intervening years living the life afforded to him as owner of Belfast’s leading celebrity magazine.

As expected with Starkey, the good times did not last.  Having lost ‘Belfast Confidential’ he now finds himself broke and alone,  dumped by long-suffering wife Patricia.  Starkey ultimately gives up on journalism and ‘is now providing a boutique, bespoke service for important people with difficult problems’.  At this point, we are introduced to radio shock-jock and self-styled voice of the people, Jack Caramac.  Jack is no stranger to controversy but when his son is kidnapped and returned with an anonymous warning note to ‘keep his mouth shut’,  he turns to Starkey for help in uncovering which of his numerous enemies wants him silenced.  In traditional Dan Starkey style, his blunt investigating approach ‘sees him in the middle of a violent feud between rival drug gangs, pursued by jealous husbands, unscrupulous property developers and vicious killers’.

Bateman, himself, thought we had seen the last of Dan Starkey ‘but I did kind of miss him and of all my characters he’s the closest to my own voice, so it was really just a matter of waiting for the right story to come along.   But now that I’m back in the groove with Nine Inches I think I probably will return to him on a more regular basis, publisher willing.”

One of the most notable attributes of Bateman’s work is the vividness of his characters.  Despite burdening them with ludicrous personality traits and placing them in farcical (and frequently life-threatening) scenarios, they maintain a firm grounding in reality that makes them recognisable, relatable and endearing.  Dan Starkey is the cocky blagger (the type of guy whom we have all met, disliked, tolerated and grown to admire), turned up to eleven. With such vibrant characters, it is unsurprising to learn that they are crucial to the Bateman establishing a plot. ‘I always start with a character and a rough theme.  That said, I don’t sit down and plan a character or come up with a story line.  My characters just emerge from getting people talking, and then it’s whatever happens to them or how they react to a given situation that creates the plot’.

Bateman’s dedication to the character is essential to his consistently funny output. With comedy such a central column to his work, producing a mix of witty one liners and slap-stick settings should require a dedicated regime of planning and planning but this is not the case.  ‘I think it would be the kiss of death to a story if you plan funny sections; it has to come out of the characters, otherwise you’re just telling jokes’.  By allowing the characters to develop organically and interact with each other, they inform the story and create the humour.  It gives the comedy a natural feel; jokes are spontaneous but always fit with the context of the scene. The humour is not forced, it never feels like a set piece that has been wedged in at the expense of the flow of the narrative.  It is indicative of Bateman’s direct approach ‘I get bored easily so I like to keep things fast and simple’.  It is the direct nature that also supports the comedy.  The uncomplicated backdrop allows the characters and humour hold our attention and drive the plot forward.

Bateman’s adaptability applies to his target audience as well as his choice of genre.  His books can be enjoyed by anyone from their teens onward.  Mass appeal is never his primary aim when writing but he admits that he prefers to write for the enjoyment of the public rather than approval of literary critics.  Over the years, Bateman has broadened his appeal by writing children’s fiction.  His approach to writing for children differed little from writing for adults ‘They’re written in exactly the same way – just less sex and violence’.  Luckily, his son is always on hand to point out that ‘adults will not buy this for their kids if you keep using bad language’.  To date he has written five children’s books.  It is a pursuit he relishes as it reminds him of the days when writing was a hobby, undertaken for the sheer joy of it, without any financial imperative.

Writing children’s fiction required a change to his research habits.  When writing his adult books, research is done as needed, when a knowledge gap appears.  His children’s books demanded a more structured approach. ‘The recent series of children’s books, The SOS Adventures, required more research because they’re big international adventures in exotic locations; but again, the money you would get for a children’s book doesn’t justify you running off to Indonesia to check out a volcano, so it’s usually net based’.

Bateman’s variety in his writing opens door for him in other ventures and test his writing outside of his novels.  In October 2010 he showcased his first play, National Anthem.  He also directed the short film The Devil You Know but maintains that ‘I shouldn’t be allowed to direct traffic, let alone short films’.  Bateman enjoys working outside his writing as it keeps him energised, the break from the books ensures that he is eager to get back to writing with new ideas developed during his time away.  ‘It is good to challenge yourself, even if it is with something you have no obvious talent for’.

On the topic of film, Bateman has worked extensively as a screenplay writer.  He developed Murphy’s Law, staring James Nesbitt, for the BBC and has penned an episode of Rebus and TV movieWatermelon.  Three of his novels have been made into films; Divorcing JackWild About Harry and Cycle of Violence (Crossmaheart).  Of his remaining novels, Bateman sees Orpheus Rising as the most suitable for adapting to the silver screen ‘it would make a great Hollywood movie – despite the big pink shark on the cover, it’s really a love story with supernatural overtones’.

Bateman has some plans for his future writing, ‘grew up on science fiction and that’s what I wrote when I was a teenager, and I might like to try again.  I also loved comics, so a graphic novel would be nice one day.’  For the more immediate future, he has started a fourth ‘Mystery Man’ novel.  Once that is completed, he has plans for another standalone novel, ‘All I need now is a story’.

Whatever shape the story takes, we can be sure that it will be packed with his trademark humour.

About the author

(c) Kevin Massey, October 2011.

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