Crocodile Tears may be Mark O’Sullivan’s first crime fiction novel, but after reading it, it came as no surprise to find he is already an acclaimed writer with no less than three pre-teen, four Young Adult and one adult novel published. His novels have been translated into six languages and his numerous awards include the Prix des Loisirs (France) as well as two White Raven Book (European Libraries) Awards.
O’Sullivan has produced a winning formula in this novel, with his character, Detective Inspector Leo Woods, who, while struggling with a face disfigured by Bell’s palsy, has developed a cocaine habit and a penchant for collecting masks. He meets his match in the ambitious, but impetuous, Detective Sergeant Helen Troy, who has troubles of her own.
Set in November 2010, with the Irish recession in full flow, Dublin is hit twofold; with the arrival of the IMF, and some of the lowest temperatures ever recorded in Ireland. Then property tycoon, Dermot Brennan, is found dead at his Dublin home. His features – distorted in terror – are a reflection of Leo’s own disfigured face. As a host of suspects emerge, Woods and Troy must weave their way through a tangled web before finally reaching the shocking truth.
As I had never met Mark O’Sullivan, I scoured the web, hoping to find a blog or Twitter account so that I could get a flavour of his personality before the interview. I found neither. Yet, within minutes of calling him at his Thurles home, once the introductions were out of the way and the conversation turned to writing, I could have been talking to an old friend.
A writer as far back as he can remember, O’Sullivan spent his twenties focusing mainly on poetry and short stories, while in the 1990’s, “I was writing books that my daughters’ could read.” Somewhat of a history buff, his first book, Melody for Nora: One Girl’s Story in the Civil War, was set back in 1922. “I was telling my own kids a somewhat exaggerated story of our own family,” O’Sullivan intimated. I was intrigued to learn that, “Nora played piano in the cinema for the silent movies in a small town – and my grandmother did that!”
As his children grew older, so too did the novel content with, Angels Without Wings, “a book within a book”, set in 1934 when the Nazis want to control the world – including the world of books. Crocodile Tears, is set in contemporary Ireland and O’Sullivan is hoping that his readership of previous books will follow, “whatever audience I might have had back there in the ‘90’s, they are the generation of my daughters now.” They won’t be disappointed.
I ask O’Sullivan how he came to turn his hand to crime fiction. You can hear the enthusiasm in his voice, “I’ve been wanting to write a detective or crime novel for quite a while because I’ve always read them. I read very widely, but I’ve always read crime fiction from when I was quite young.” He got the crime bug again when “the great Scandinavian crime wave came, mainly in the form of the BBC 4 broadcasts of Wallander and The Killing.”
I found Leo Woods to be an interesting character and I was intrigued to know where O’Sullivan found him. He explained, “I think the most difficult thing really, certainly for me, was to come up with a character who could be in any way different. It’s very hard to find somebody who is distinctive.” He told me, that a number of people in his past had suffered with Bell’s palsy and, as is often the case for him, “when my interest was stirred by all of the Scandinavian, very moody kind of stuff, which is what I was attracted to, some ghosts from my past – I suppose you could say – revisited me.” According to O’Sullivan, Bell’s palsy, although treatable, is apparently not very well understood, which finds Woods in a predicament whereby, “for most of the time he deals quite well with the fact that he’s got this ongoing problem, if you like, on the other hand he sometimes does resort to chemical assistance.”
When Woods is introduced in the novel, he steps on the toe of a child who stops and stares too long. As well as showing us to how noticeable his disfigurement is, it also makes him appear more human and allows us to immediately identify with him. I asked O’Sullivan about the dark humour found throughout the book. “I like dark mood in crime fiction, but I like it to be balanced with a sense of whistling in the graveyard kind of thing . . . I try myself and I suppose most people do, to deal with the banal realities of life and even the problems of life by trying not to take them altogether seriously.”
The setting is November 2010 and O’Sullivan is keen to tell me that it is “a perfect time and setting for a book that was about dealing with the aftermath of a crisis, whether public or personal. That’s what the book is very much about; what has happened in Ireland post Celtic Tiger. I do set the book right in an iconic week,” he pauses dramatically, “a double chill; the arrival of the IMF in town, in the form of Mr. Chopra and the fact that we had a horrifically cold week.”
Not having worked together previously, when Detective Inspector Leo Woods and Detective Sergeant Helen Troy finally meet, it is, literally, face-to-face. O’Sullivan explains their relationship, which is unlike many novels with a similar partnership, “you don’t have a sexual attraction going on there at all.” He goes on to explain how, “Helen is the daughter Leo hoped he might have, but never did. Leo himself is essentially a very lonely figure. He is a man alone. For various reasons; because of the mistakes that he made in the past and because of what has happened to him more recently in the form of the physical disfigurement.”
I wonder if O’Sullivan is planning to focus on crime fiction now. He tells me that he is currently “writing the second Leo novel at the moment.” Before I have a chance to ask my next question he answers it. “I have been asked, have I finished writing young adult books and basically my answer is – I never say never.”
Talking about writers who inspired him, O’Sullivan, among others, mentions William Trevor and Philip Roth, while one of his favourite authors, “from very early on was F Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby and James Joyce’s, Dubliners,” which he told me, “never lose their freshness or appeal for me. Not only, The Dead, which is probably the greatest of all short stories, but many of the other ones also.”
Regarding his own books, modesty prevails as he tells me, “I never, ever, re-read any of my books.” He lowers his voice, “I find it’s equivalent to looking in the mirror first thing in the morning . . .”
Dubray Books have included both The Great Gatsby and Crocodile Tears in their top reads for May. When I revealed this, O’Sullivan, laughed “so much in our lives happens by chance.”
Crocodile Tears is available in all good bookshops and online here.
(c) Susan Condon
Susan Condon, a native of Dublin, is currently editing her debut novel – a crime fiction thriller set in New York. Her short stories were awarded first prize in the Jonathan Swift Award, the Sport and Cultural Council (City of Dublin VEC) Competition and the Bealtaine Short Story Competition and she has also been long-listed for the RTÉ Guide/Penguin Short Story Competition. Publications include Original Writing from Ireland’s Own, Anthology 2012; South of the County: New Myths and Tales and www.fivestopstory.com.
Susan blogs at www.susancondon.wordpress.com or find her on Twitter: @SusanCondon