Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Q&A: Ray Banks

The last time I saw Ray Banks we were standing a few blocks from the Louvre at 3AM, recovering from French beer and Lawrence Tierney. It was also the first time I saw Banks, the payoff on years of correspondence that covered subjects ranging from Johnnie To films to easy listening music, and include an alarming number of references to the Carry On movies. (Those are all Ray’s.) He’s one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary crime fiction. His new book Beast of Burden is officially published in the U.S. tomorrow; I was fortunate enough to read it last year. I exploited our friendship and subjected him to a VKDCQ&A, because that’s the kind of guy I am.

Q. You’ve been a busy boy lately. Let’s start with the print stuff. What can you tell us about Beast of Burden?

Well, Beast of Burden is the last of the Cal Innes novels, and in it we find our battered hero with aphasia and a limp thanks to a massive stroke, a dead brother and not much in the way of prospects. The poor bugger can't even get a job as a barista. Then good old Uncle Morris turns up and asks him to find his wayward psychotic son, Mo. Meanwhile, Detective Sergeant Donkin sees an opportunity to finally put Cal behind bars and grabs it with both scarred fists.

It's kind of a romantic comedy.

Q. You ring down the curtain on the Cal Innes series with this book. Was it a conscious choice to stop with four titles? When did you realize you were ready to walk away from the character?

Originally it was a conscious choice to stop with five titles - all the Scottish stuff in Beast of Burden was originally going to be its own book (even had a working title of Sunshine on Leith) - but I realised I was repeating myself thematically and plot-wise with the last two books, so rather than string it out for another 300 pages, I thought I'd roll them both into one. So yeah, it was definitely a conscious decision to write a limited series. Cal isn't the kind of character who could carry on indefinitely, and I very much doubt either of my publishers would consider the books mainstream enough for an ongoing series.

So bearing all that in mind, I was ready to walk away from Cal about a chapter from the end of Beast of Burden, which is lucky. I'd been writing him on and off since 2002, so it was definitely time to take stock and move on, try some other voices for size.

Q. Innes is a singular interpretation of the private investigator, an ex-con who at times is reluctant to own up to the job. What was it about the P.I. form that spoke to you? What did you want to bring to bear on it?

The P.I. is the happy medium between the amateur sleuth (which is incredibly difficult to do with any kind of realism) and the police procedural (which requires far too much research, is too crowded a market, and didn't hold much interest for me). Besides, while I loved the American P.I. novels, I thought there was something decidedly lacking in their British counterparts, notably a sense of how strange and untenable the American P.I. archetype was in a British setting. So I decided to do something about it, and along the way mess with some of the more egregious clich├ęs. It's a pretty negative starting point for a series, I know, but I hope it led to some positive results.

Q. As dark as your books can get, they’re always deeply funny. Why is a sense of humor – or, if you prefer, humour – a necessity in noir? Who’s another cut-up in this current class?

First off, thank you. Very kind indeed. I think a sense of humour is absolutely vital if you're writing noir because otherwise you're just writing about a series of terrible events that lead to inexorable doom, which isn't so much tragedy than monotonous nihilism. Comedy is the yang to tragedy's yin; they're absolute co-dependent. You can't have an effective comedy without tragedy, and you certainly can't have an effective tragedy without comedy. Humour at its best - when it isn't a call to poke fun at a parade of grotesques - is empathetic, it allows us to connect with characters we wouldn't otherwise find attractive. Without empathy, comic characters like Steptoe and Son, Basil Fawlty, Norman Fletcher, Alan Partridge and David Brent would be absolute monsters.

Currently, I think Allan Guthrie writes noir farce beautifully, Donna Moore is the Queen of the one-liner, and Charlie Williams has an almost Thompsonesque sense of the Absurd. I don't think Stuart MacBride gets enough credit for the kind of quotidian comedy he presents in his novels, either. There's a big dose of Galton and Simpson in there.

Q. Take a moment to pimp your wares on the e-book front. You’ve been vocal about the opportunities presented by the changes in publishing to return to an older model of pulp fiction. Is shorter better? Discuss.

Brevity is the soul, just like time is the secret of comedy ing. For some odd reason, the book buyer has been taught to think that bigger is somehow better, that they're somehow getting more value for money in a 600-page novel they'll read once, than a 200-page novel they'll read time and time again. I know for a fact that one very popular author who started off writing shorter books was advised to write longer otherwise he'd never be taken seriously. I know of others who have word counts of over 100k written into their contracts. That kind of demand can only lead to padding.

With the advent of e-books, content is king. So if something is padded, by God, it reads padded. I’m hoping this will result in a revival of shorter, faster books that, with the price points dropping, will be ultimately pretty disposable. That, to me, sounds like the perfect circumstances for the emergence of a new pulp. And like any pulp, there’ll be a plethora of rubbish, but it’ll also let less obviously commercial writers get their stuff out there and build an audience that may ultimately sustain them.

At the moment, it’s slim pickings from me – just the one. I released an e-book version of my novella Gun, which people have been very kind about. I’ll be doing the same with California some time early next year, and have a few ideas for some e-only releases. We’ll see.

Q. What prompted you to start Norma Desmond’s Monkey, your new blog about movies?

I used to write reviews and what-not on the old blog, but it never felt particularly relevant to the overall point of the site, which was primarily self-pimpage, so when I decided to get back on the blogging horse last month, I also decided to separate the movie stuff out. It just feels more natural to ramble on in a movie-centric environment than it did under the old regime. It’s also more attractive to any guest posters (hint, hint) that may want to chip in.

As for content, I have a few more Forgotten Films to look at – I think the next one on my list is Looking for Mr. Goodbar. A few Neo- and Classic Noirs, and I may even get a couple of Top Tens in there – I know how much the interwebs loves a good list.

Q. What can we expect next from you?

After Beast of Burden? I wish I could say with any confidence. I have a book under consideration with my publisher at the moment, which is a page-one rewrite of my first novel. I’ll probably be bringing out a collected version of Wolf Tickets at some point in the future, and I’m currently up to my eyes with a casino robbery novel. Then there’s the e-only novella thing and a couple of screenplays I’m messing with. Nothing is solid at the moment, though. Give me another couple of months and I might have something concrete to tell you.

Movie Q. Best UK horror film, in both Hammer and non-Hammer divisions?

Best Hammer – The Devil Rides Out. Sixties Hammer was the best Hammer and The Devil Rides Out (along with The Nanny) is the best of the best. You have Christopher Lee battling Charles Gray, a Richard Matheson script and Terence Fisher in the director’s chair – what’s not great about that? It also scared the everlovin’ shit out of me when I was a nipper. Remember kids, don’t mess with Mr S. On The Buses is also a terrific horror film, which isn’t much of a compliment, considering it’s based on a sitcom. Still a Hammer movie, though.

Best British non-Hammer is a tough one. Nothing recent springs to mind. I have an abiding fondness for the Amicus portmanteau horrors like Asylum and Tales from the Crypt (some excellent gurning from Patrick Magee in “Blind Alleys”), as well as the quieter British horror movies like The Innocents and The Haunting (which I’m not actually convinced is that British, but hey ho …). But if I absolutely had to pick one to watch over and over, it’d have to be Theatre of Blood. Vincent Price as ham actor takes Shakespearean-flavoured revenge on the critics who scorned him, with the help of his chorus of meths-drinking vagrants and Diana Rigg in male drag. Hell of a cast – where else could you see TV’s Miss Marple and the British Marilyn Monroe in the same movie? – and everyone appears to be having so much fun. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore. Which is probably a good thing, because they’d fuck it up.

Baseball Q. The GM Maxi Senior Cricket Bat may be “the bat of choice for awesome hitting,” as you claim in Saturday’s Child. But better for doing GBH than a baseball bat? C’maaaaaan.

A cricket bat has a bevelled edge. It gives an assailant a choice of attack - flat or choppy - and can break the skin and bones a lot quicker than your average cylindrical baseball bat. It's also more patriotic than a baseball bat, Gawd bless yer, marm.

Cocktail Q. You’re in a well-stocked bar. What do you order?

A single malt, probably a nice big Bunnahabhain, ideally twice as old as me. I know you enjoy your umbrella drinks, but I have trouble ordering something with more than one mixer. Makes me feel ... unusual.