PDB: How did you first get interested in Dashiel Hammett?
This is a fairly convoluted story, but many years ago I had a friend who ran a used book shop. He’d pass me books that he thought might be of interest. One of these was ‘The Big Nowhere’ by James Ellroy, which I loved so much I began tracking down interviews via the Internet. Ellroy was then expelling a lot of air extolling the virtues of Dash Hammett, who I was already dimly aware of via the oft-stated debt that ‘Millar’s Crossing’ owed to him.
So, in much the way the Elmore Leonard led me to George V. Higgins (Leonard has always claimed that ‘The Friends of Eddie Coyle’ taught him to write crime fiction), James Ellroy pointed me to Dashiel Hammett.
PDB: Hammett and Chandler are pretty much the only crime writers that have been accepted by the mainstream writing world. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Both, I think. On the one hand there are writers who should be considered ‘mainstream’ (George Pelecanos, for example, writes in the social realist tradition at least as much as he writes in the slipstream of Hammett or Chandler.) and there are also novels that fall between the stools of crime and literary fiction, like Martyn Waites’ ‘The White Room’. As a consequence that book failed to be promoted effectively and today languishes in obscurity. Best thing Waits ever wrote. That’s the biggest cost: writers who struggle to find an audience because they’re labelled genre.
Crime fiction, at least to my mind, should be an interrogation of the culture that spawned it and the urge towards respectability militates against the urgency of the genre. (For several reasons, not least because authors can end up worrying about ‘the legacy’ when they’re writing self-consciously more mainstream i.e. less offensive novels.)
But I do think that Crime Fiction will end up becoming part of the language of mainstream fiction anyway. Authors like Laura Lippmann, Dennis Lehane, John Connolly, Declan Hughes, David Peace, Denise Mina and on (and on) are already pointing to that….
PDB: Do you see a big difference between American and British crime writing?
The short answer is: not as big a difference as there should be.
There’s a fundamental difference, I feel, in the way that crime fiction has developed in Britain and America. If you look at the post-Vietnam writers such as Daniel Woodrell or James Crumley and more recently David Corbett, they’re all movie freaks. (The first Corbett novel –‘Devil’s Redhead’—really does feel like a good seventies thriller.) Much of James Ellroy and Megan Abbott’s work is directly about the disparity between the portrait of America that the movies present and the reality.
Britain, by way of contrast, really doesn’t have much of a movie culture –young and glamorous people here go into and gravitate towards music, which is where things like class frustrations and the disparity between truth and illusions get talked about.
The difference is, obviously, in an age where cinema has become the predominant universal language (certainly of the west) that the British don’t really bring they’re own interpretation to the table, even directors like Paul Greengrass and Danny Boyle are working in an American ‘voice’. So, ultimately I feel that far, far too much British crime fiction comes across as an instant variation of real coffee.
PDB: Is there a difference between crime writing from the North of England and the south?
Well, certainly a writer like Ray Banks bring a demonstrably rougher voice to his stories than, say, Mark Billingham does…
But, again, the real problem is one of people writing about either London or Glasgow as though they were writing about South Central L.A. I don’t mean to disparage other sub-genre’s of crime writing, but my heart lies with the social realist tradition and it’s important to be truthful about where we come from and who we are, I think.
PDB:What’s happening with your blog Needle Scratch Static then?
There’s been a lot of emotional turbulence around my family over the last few years, which suggests that it was probably the wrong time to launch/ramp up any type of on-line ‘presence’. I also had an issue with my computer blowing up and a significant problem with my eyes.
The problems have ebbed away now though and I’ve recently initiated a ‘soft’ relaunch of the site, with the pieces building up with substance as time goes by.
PDB:What’s your involvement with Crimefactory and The Rap Sheet?
The door’s open at both sites, in so far as I’m aware. I’d imagine that my productivity in both places will pick up now that my eyes work and I’m on-line again.
PDB: How’s the novel that you’re writing ticking over?
I’m actually mid-way through the novel, which is about Manchester in both the seventies and the present day. I’ve also recently finished a novella (which was kind of inspired by what Tom Piccilli’s been doing over the last few years with his ‘noirellas’) that I’m currently debating what to do with.
You can stalk Gordon Harries here: