Declan Burke Releases Slaughter’s Hound

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declan-burke

By Louise Phillips

This week sees the publication of the Slaughter’s Hound, the latest novel by Irish book award nominated crime writer Declan Burke, who has published three previous novels: Eight Ball Boogie (2003), The Big O (2007), and Absolute Zero Cool(2011).

Described by Tana French, “Slaughter’s Hound has everything you want from noir but what makes it special is the writing: taut, honed and vivid … a sheer pleasure.” and thriller writing legend Lee Child as “Everything you could want – action, suspense, character and setting, all floating on the easy lyricism of a fine writer at the top of his game,” Slaughter’s Hound has already received high praise indeed.

Catching up with Declan Burke this week for writing.ie at a shaded spot somewhere between Enniskerry and the Dublin Mountains, I was intrigued to know why the infamous Mr Rigby, a character we’ve met before in Eight Ball Boogie has made his return in Slaughter’s Hound.

Leaning forward and smiling, Declan said, “The honest truth is that I really don’t know. I’d be lying if I told you that I any kind of plan mapped out, either for myself as a writer or for Harry Rigby as a character. I suppose Harry allows me to tell a certain kind of story, that kind of first-person private eye tale you get in classic noir – and in Raymond Chandler, especially – where you get to be cynical and romantic in the same breath. And I think that that mood or tone is kind of essential these days if you want to live in Ireland and stay sane. You need to be romantic enough to believe that things can get better, despite all the evidence to the contrary, and cynical enough to see through all the bullshit being handed down from on high. I think that’s Harry Rigby.”

Always keen to know the origins of a character, especially one like Harry Rigby, I pushed Declan on Harry’s early beginnings. Speaking about Rigby as you might recall the first time you met a real person, Declan told me, “Harry first came about because I was doodling a chapter – just messing around, wondering how a classic film noir scenario might play out in contemporary Ireland, and having a client walk into a private investigator’s office to hire a guy to find out if his wife is cheating on him. Actually, the guy, Dave Conway, wants Rigby to prove that his wife isn’t cheating on him – another doomed romantic, I suppose.” Again he smiles. “Anyway, I really liked the cut of Harry’s jib, he had a real mouth on him, so I kept going, and a story began to fall into place. At the time, this was the late 1990s, there were all kinds of questions being asked about what was going to happen to the various paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland – as in, would they just decommission their weapons and go away, or would they turn to organised crime? So that became the backdrop to the book. But it was very heavily influenced by the black-and-white noir movies of the 1930s and ’40s, and Rigby particularly, influenced by actors like Humphrey Bogart and Robert Ryan.”

In Slaughter’s Hound, Harry Rigby is certainly put in hot water from the outset, an eye-witness when Finn Hamilton walks out into the big nothing nine stories up. No one wanting to believe Finn is just the latest statistic in Ireland’s silent suicide epidemic. Not Finn’s mother, Saoirse Hamilton, whose property empire is crumbling around her; and not Finn’s pregnant fiancé, Maria, or his sister Grainne; and especially not Detective Tohill, the cop who believes Rigby is a stone-cold killer, a slaughter’s hound with a taste for blood …

With the sun shining over us in the week that will be remembered forever as the Irish summer of 2012, I was still curious. Apart from wanting to place his protagonist right smack in the middle of trouble from the get go, I asked Declan was there another reason he set the stage this way? “There were a few reasons, sure. Like you say, it’s a way of putting the main character right there in the middle of things. And the first-person storytelling, it can be a hard one to pull off, because the reader is entirely dependent on what the main character sees, and not only what he or she sees, but how he or she interprets what she sees. I kind of wanted to write an old-fashioned locked-room mystery – the main guy sees a suicide, it’s a cast-iron lock, and yet everyone else wants him to prove that it wasn’t. How would you even go about proving that, investigating that? So that was a bit of a challenge I wanted to set myself. It’s also true that I wanted to engage with suicide on a certain level – it’s not a topic that’s receiving much attention in contemporary Irish fiction, even though it is regarded as a silent epidemic that’s cutting a swathe through the mostly young men of this country. I suppose to a certain extent Finn Hamilton represents the Celtic Tiger cub generation. He’s young, bright, ambitious, charming – and then his future is whipped out from under his feet, and he’s left staring into the abyss. It’s no coincidence that Finn jumps from nine stories up, either. The building he jumps from is in itself something of a metaphor for the property bubble, that supposedly indestructible development that was the foundation of the Bright New Ireland. Except that, as soon as Finn takes one step away from it, he finds himself falling through the big empty. That was the working title of the book, actually – The Big Empty.”

Set in an Ireland that has changed greatly in the years since the first Harry Rigby crime mystery, Eight Ball Boogie, the next question had to be about how Harry has changed in the intervening years? And Declan was as straight with his answer as ever. “Well, for one thing Harry isn’t as quick with a quip these days. He’s had a hard time of it in the intervening years, given that quite a lot of those years were spent doing time as a result of his actions in Eight Ball Boogie. I suppose he’s less romantic these days, more cynical, although Harry would argue that he’s entitled to be cynical. He tried to do the right thing in Eight Ball, with the result that he didn’t get to see his son for the best part of eight years, and that has kind of knocked the stuffing out of him. He’s hoping to make up for lost time as Slaughter’s Hound opens, but Harry knows better than anyone else that he’s no one’s idea of the perfect father-figure role model. Can he prove himself a good father to his son, Ben, and Ben’s mother, Dee? Can he prove it to himself? These are important questions for Harry to answer to his own satisfaction.”

Declan Burke is certainly a writer who gets up close and personal with his characters, so like me, you’re probably wondering what it was like for Declan to live with fictional Harry once more? Taking a sip from his glass of chilled water, the ice almost melted, he reflects for only a second before revealing -“It was fine, yeah. I mean, I pretty much live with Harry Rigby all the time. By which I mean, Harry Rigby is pretty much me, except I work a lot harder at being a social animal. Not very successfully, it has to be said.” He smiles modestly, but he ain’t fooling anyone.

Absolute Zero Cool , Declan’s previous novel was shortlisted in the crime fiction section for the Irish Book Awards, and only recently, it received the Goldsboro / Crimefest ‘Last Laugh’ Award for Best Humorous Crime Novel in 2012. I put it to Declan after the success of Absolute Zero Cool, and receiving great reviews for being very different to the traditional crime novel, was Slaughter’s Hound, a major risk for him?

“I suppose it is, but only insofar as every book is a risk. I’d say that Absolute Zero Cool was more of a risk, because it’s a meta-fiction story, which is a kind of storytelling which runs a very high possibility of disappearing up its own fundament. That said, and as you very kindly point out, the book was pretty well received. Will people expect more of the same? Possibly, and maybe the people who liked AZC might be disappointed that Slaughter’s Hound is a more traditional kind of crime novel, much more straight forward in its telling. I’d imagine that people who like their crime novels strong on character and plot will prefer Slaughter’s Hound over AZC. If other people don’t, well, I’ll just have to wear that. One thing I’d hate to do is write the same kind of book every year, or every couple of years. I really admire writers like William Goldman or John Connolly, who mix it up, telling different kinds of stories in different genres. It’s risky, sure, in terms of potentially losing some readers. But taking risks is what keeps a writer fresh and interesting, I think.”

 

Declan is also the editor of Down These Green Streets: Irish Crime Writing in the 21st Century (2011) – with a somewhat sombre mood taking hold, and an extra bite in the afternoon shade, I figured it was time to ask the man who knows a thing or two about crime writing, to what extent he felt crime or mystery novels should be reflective of time and place in society, a subject matter which I know Declan has spoken about at length in the past. He told me, “It’s not the case that I believe every crime novel, or every crime writer, should engage with contemporary issues, and be a kind of document of the social fabric, etc. It’d be a pretty boring world if every writer thought like that. For me, though, sure – I like to write stories that are of their time and place, and which have something to say. I know that some people will say that if you have a ‘message’ you should send it FedEx, and good luck to them. I happen to think that a book that doesn’t have something important to say is a waste of rainforest.”

Looking over at the tips of some of Ireland’s green forests, it was my turn to smile; and I figured it was time to ask Declan, what it was about crime writing that first appealed to him? Another sip out of the now half-empty/ half-full glass of water, and he told me, “Like most crime writers, I’ll cite Enid Blyton as one of my earliest influences – as a young boy I read practically everything she wrote – the Famous Five stories, The Secret Seven, the ‘Adventure’ stories. That said, I also read the Twins of St Clare’s, and the Malory Towers stories …

‘Where I realised the crime novel was important enough to take seriously was Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, although if I’m honest I’ll say that it was the style, the black humour and the lyrical twists that hooked me when I first read it in my early twenties. But when I stepped back from the book and realised what he was doing, which was essentially investigating the culture through what was ostensibly a hardboiled, throwaway paperback, I realised that Chandler was doing something very significant, and that the crime novel could take the reader into places that most other kinds of books couldn’t. It’s not the case that I read crime or mystery novels exclusively, but it is the case that a good crime novel will deliver all the elements we expect from the highest quality of novel -character, setting, theme, tone, etc. – but it will also do so at pace, with a strong degree of tension and as often as not a high degree of realism. All of which sounds like the perfect read to me.”

I wasn’t going to let Declan escape without asking him the question – why is crime writing and crime reading such a popular genre? My afternoon partner in crime, who in the opinion of Lee Child, is at the top of him game, said “Crime and mystery fiction is the kind of writing that is most explicitly concerned with the extremes of behaviour – hate, jealousy, revenge, lust. It’s also true that more often than not, murder will feature, and while most crimes are redemptive, murder is the Big One: no matter how well, quickly or ingeniously justice is served; the victim remains dead, gone, obliterated. Death is the great fear, the great unknowable, and sudden violent death – here one moment, gone now – is a terrifying prospect. Much like the primitive tribes who drew themselves around campfires to tell their equivalent of ghost stories and perhaps invent spirits and angels to protect them, crime novels offer a kind of explanation for the whys and wherefores of murder in particular. Why do people kill? What kind of people kill? What do they kill for? As it says in the Introduction to Books to Die For, (Declan is co-editor, with John Connolly) the appeal of the crime and mystery novel boiled down to its essence is that in the final reckoning, character is the greatest mystery of all.”

With Harry Rigby set free again, I wanted to know what’s next for Harry, and indeed, what’s next for Declan Burke? Leaning back, he said, “I really have no idea of what will happen to Harry. He gets a torrid time of it in Slaughter’s Hound – he suffers the kind of damage, physical and psychological, that very few people would ever recover from in the real world. So maybe Harry has run his course already. As for me, I’m pretty sure of the next book I want to write, and it will be radically different from anything I’ve done to date. I suppose it’ll be closer in spirit to Absolute Zero Cool than anything else, but a little more adventurous, I think. We’ll see how it goes.”

And of course Declan is absolutely right, but just to whet your appetite a little more; I’ll leave you with a quote from the blurb of Slaughter’s Hound.

“I glanced up but he’d already jumped, a dark blur plummeting, wings folded against the drag like some starving hawk out of the noon sun, some angel betrayed. He punched through the cab’s roof so hard he sent metal shearing into the petrol tank. All it took was one spark. Boom …”

About the author

(c) Louise Phillips August 2012

Declan Burke’s Slaughter’s Hound  is published by Liberties Press, and is available from the 20stAugust 2012 at all good bookstores nationwide, and online from 31st August 2012. Declan Burke hosts the fabulous Crime Always Pays blog – follow it to keep in touch with what’s happening in Irish crime writing.

Louise Phillips hosts the Crime Scene blog on writing.ie and launches her own book Red Ribbons (Hachette Ireland) on 5th September.

“Red Ribbons is the gripping debut from a stunning new voice in psychological crime fiction”

THE SERIAL KILLER: A missing schoolgirl is found buried in the Dublin Mountains, hand clasped together in prayer, two red ribbons in her hair. Twenty-four hours later, a second schoolgirl is found in a shallow grave – her body identically arranged. A hunt for the killer is on.THE CRIMINAL PSYCHOLOGIST: The police call in profiler Dr Kate Pearson to get inside the mind of the murderer before he strikes again. But the more Kate discovers about the killings, the more it all feels terrifyingly familiar.THE ACCUSED WOMAN: As the pressure to find the killer intensifies, there’s one vital connection to be made – Ellie Brady, a woman institutionalised fifteen years earlier for the murder of her daughter Amy. She stopped talking when everyone stopped listening.What connects the death of Amy Brady to the murdered schoolgirls? As Kate Pearson begins to unravel the truth, danger is closer than she know…The bad man is everywhere. Can you see him?

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