Recommended Read: Layer Cake by JJ Connolly

You’re born, you take shit. You get out in the world, you take more shit. You climb a little higher, you take less shit. Till one day you’re up in the rarefied atmosphere and you’ve forgotten what shit even looks like. Welcome to the layer cake, son.” – Eddie Temple, Layer Cake.

The 1980s was the loadsamoney decade. The era of greed is good and going for it. By the time the 90s dawdled along, London’s young guns had already grasped the bull by its horns and crashed into any number of china shops, flashing their cash, getting their way by hook and, with regard to Layer Cake’s protagonist, very much by crook. 

“Everyone wants to walk through a door marked ‘private.’ Therefore, have a good reason to be affluent.

JJ Connolly’s Layer Cake was first published in 2000 by Duckworth Press but it is set in London in the 1990s. And it is very much a 90s London novel. As of its time as Moloko, Portishead, Brit Pop, Cool Britannia, celebrity chefs, This Life or YBAs. 

Layer Cake’s unnamed narrator is a successful young drug dealer who has plans to ditch his life of crime once he reaches the ripe old age of 30 and live the life of a gentleman of leisure. Of course, things don’t go to plan. Once a shipment of ecstasy is hijacked, everything turns pear-shaped for our anti-hero as quickly as spit disappears on hot pavement. Violence, double-cross and triple-cross invariably ensue. 

The plot is tight and twisty, but one of its main strengths is its rich and varied cast of lowlife characters, such as the short-fused Mr Mortimer; The Duke – the cokehead leader of a criminal gang known as the Yahoos; The Duke’s psychotic and equally as coke addled girlfriend Slasher; a smooth and smart conman known as either Billy Bogus or Cody Garrett; Klaus, the leader of a group of German neo-Nazis; ‘Crazy’ Larry Flynn – a gangster with a penchant for strangling rent boys; and a Doberman called Mike Tyson.

JJ Connolly’s debut novel could well have been received a cult classic for crime fiction connoisseurs, for fans of Derek Raymond’s Factory novels or Ted Lewis perhaps. Or it could have been seen as a well-regarded but obscure London noir like Gerald Kersh’s Night and the City, or James Curtis’ The Gilt Kid. But it burst into the mainstream with rave reviews from all sorts of respectable square joints such as The Times, The Guardian and The Literary Review.

The novel has a lot in common with the all-mouth and well-cut trousers stylings of the mockney gangster capers popularised by film director Guy Ritchie in the 90s. So it’s no great surprise that the 2004 film version of Layer Cake was the directorial debut of Guy Ritchie’s erstwhile producer Matthew Vaughn. Starring future Mr Bond, Daniel Craig, the film did pretty damned well on its own terms, too, focusing on some of the supporting cast of characters and giving us a fistful of great performances – particularly from Colm Meaney, George Harris and Michael Gambon.

Enjoyable as the film version of Layer Cake was, it didn’t quite capture the voice of the novel – a John Lydon/Peter Cook sneer mixed with a fatalistic sigh of resignation. Layer Cake is brash, vivid and blackly-comic but it is at least as much about the argot as it as about the aggro, peppered as much with laddish badinage – ladinage – as it is with bullets and birds. The language is also quite arch, telling the tale in an off-kiler, askew way. Now, 20 years on from its publication, the book still seems breathlessly fresh.

We waited a full ten years until Connolly followed up Layer Cake with the splendid Viva La Madness, which saw Layer Cake’s protagonist attempting to lay low in Jamaica until Mr Mortimer arrived to drag him back into a life of crime. 

In October 2011, I interviewed JJ Connolly for my blog, and I asked about the long wait for the sequel to his debut novel.

PDB: We’ve been waiting for Viva La Madness for ten years, why so long? 

JJC: I was working on films, traveling, messing around, getting in and out of trouble, having fun. Two years ago I decided I better stop messing around and sat down and finished Viva. I’d been working on it – on and off, more off than on, for almost ten years, since I finished Layer Cake, in fact. I got distracted, but distracted in a nicest possible way, in some nice places, with some nice people.

Then Connolly seemed to go underground again for another decade…

Well, it’s now the 20th anniversary of Layer Cake’s publication and this special edition has a very tasty new cover along with a revealing and intriguing afterword from Mister Connolly himself. A republished version of Viva la Madness is on its way too, as is a Viva la Madness television series from Sky TV, starring no less than Jason Statham.

So what next for JJ Connolly? Maybe the hat-trick? When I interviewed him in 2011 he said:

“I want to write another book with the narrator from Layer Cake and Viva la Madness, to complete a trilogy. I like the voice.

So, in the words of Moloko, the time is now …


Short, Sharp Interview: Howard Linskey

PDB: Congratulations on the deal with Penguin. How did that come about?

HL: Thanks. I’d been working on a new book with some different characters and my agent, Phil Patterson at Marjacq, sent it out to publishers.

One of the first to read it was Emad Akhtar at Penguin Random House and, luckily for me, he really liked it. They completed the deal during the London Book Fair,which was very exciting, as Phil kept calling me from the stand there to update me and I could hear the buzz of the fair in the background. It took a little while to sink in though.
Like every author, I’d dreamed of a big publisher buying my books one day. I am obviously absolutely thrilled to be moving to Penguin. They are the most iconic name in publishing so I feel really honoured to be working with them.

PDB: How do you think it will be different working with Penguin than with No Exit Press who published your previous books? 

HL: No Exit are a great publisher with a very cool list but obviously they are not as big as Penguin, so there should hopefully be more resources available for promotion and marketing, which is vital when it comes to raising awareness of a book or author. I think all authors are battling to get their books noticed and I’m no exception. Having a story launched by Penguin will hopefully give me a bit of a head start in that respect. I’ve been really impressed by my editor’s enthusiasm to make the story as strong as it can be then get the book noticed by as many people as possible.

PDB: You’ve published three very well received crime novels so far; The Drop, The Damage and The Dead. Could you tell us something about them? 

HL: David Blake is a white collar, somewhat reluctant criminal who starts out believing he can enjoy the trappings of the criminal world without any of the downsides; like violence, imprisonment or death. The wheels come off his life one day however when a large sum of money he is responsible for goes missing and he is given 72 hours to get it back or he’ll be killed. That’s how ‘The Drop’ begins. Blake is the anti-hero of three books that are all set in the Newcastle and, in each one, he is drawn deeper and deeper into the criminal underworld.

PDB: How will the books you’ll have published by Penguin differ from your previous books? 

HL: Once I’d finished the David Blake trilogy I really wanted to write something different. I was reluctant to churn out twenty very similar novels all featuring the same character. I’d been sitting on what I thought was an intriguing idea for a long while but this one was more of a mystery.

It’s set in a village in County Durham in the north east of England and involves a journalist in disgrace who returns home to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a fifteen year old girl. Then a body is found in the village but it’s not the girl. Instead it’s a sixty year old corpse and nobody knows who the victim is or why he was murdered. The journalist, Tom Carney, teams up with local reporter, Helen Norton, and out of favour Detective Constable, Ian Bradshaw, to try and uncover the truth in both cases.PDB: There was talk that The Drop being made into a television series. What’s happening there?

HL: Hopefully it will happen but it is a very slow process. The film rights to the David Blake books have been optioned by Harry Potter producer, David Barron, and are being adapted by ‘Layer Cake’ writer, J.J Connolly, so they couldn’t be in better hands. Watch this space.

PDB: You have a short story included in the next Mammoth Book Of Best British Crime, edited by the legendary Maxim Jakubowski. How does that connect with the characters in your novels? 

HL: I was really honoured to be included in the ‘Mammoth Book of Best British Crime’ by Maxim. The short story features some of the supporting characters from the David Blake books but it’s set twenty years earlier than ‘The Drop’. David Blake is not in this one but the firm’s enforcers and its leader, Bobby Mahoney, the man who runs Newcastle’s criminal world, all feature. A gang of young lads tries to rip off Bobby only to belatedly realise they are well out of their league. Mahoney lines them all up on the edge of an abandoned high rise to make them talk. Hopefully it is an enjoyable read if you like crime fiction but maybe not so much if you suffer from vertigo.

PDB: Do you plan to publish more short stories? Is it very different to writing a novel? 

HL: I know that most authors write short stories but I’m the exception as I had honestly never written one before. As you know, I agreed to write it for the charity anthology, ‘True Brit Grit’, masterminded by Luca Veste and yourself then I got slightly panicky, as I didn’t know if I could even write a short story. It was very different to tackling a full length novel and I was pleased with the result in the end but I don’t know if I’ll write any more. They do take up quite a bit of time and I was really struggling to finish ‘The Damage’ around then. I edit my books a lot along the way, so I am always short of time. I also look after my young daughter outside of school hours, so I only have a limited window each day for writing.

PDB: How does your training and work as a journalist help with your writing? 

HL: I think it makes me a better and more ruthless self-editor and I am very deadline focused. As a journalist you could write the best story in the world but it will be useless if you miss the deadline and it doesn’t even make it into the paper. That old Douglas Adams’ quote, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by,” is very funny but I could never be like that. I’ve never missed one. I’m always very aware that someone is sitting there waiting for me to submit work so they can get on with their job and I hate to mess people about. Working as a journalist also helped me a lot with my new book as I was writing about a journalist in an era that I worked in, so I knew how it was to be a reporter in a pre-internet age, where mobile phones were either non-existent or rudimentary and newspapers still wielded enormous power as one of the main providers of news, along with TV and radio.

PDB: What’s up next? 

HL: I’ll be working on the second draft of my new book prior to publication by Penguinin 2015. Then I’ll be turning some of the ideas I’ve got, involving the three main characters, into books two and three. In short, the hard work starts here.

Thanks Howard!

Bio: Howard Linskey’s first novel, The Drop, was voted one of the Top Five Thrillers of 2011 by The Times Newspaper. His second, The Damage, was a Top 12 Best Summer Read in the same newspaper. Both books reached the top five in the Amazon Kindle charts and the David Blake trilogy has been optioned for film by Harry Potter producer, David Barron. Originally from the north east, Howard lives in Welwyn, Herts, with his wife Alison and daughter Erin.

This interview first appeared at Out Of The Gutter Online’s Brit Grit Alley.

What The Hell Is Brit Grit ?


America may well be the  official home of pulp and noir but the United Kingdom, long  perceived as the land of True Brit Grit Guest Blog: It’s a Case of Having Good Genes! By Graham Smithtame Dame Agatha style cozies and stuck-up, Latin quoting police detectives, also has a grubby underbelly which has produced plenty of gritty crime writing. And there is a new wave of Brit Grit writers leaving their bloodstained footprints across this septic isle, too.
The godfathers of the new  Brit Grit could well be Ted Lewis, Derek Raymond and Mark Timlin with Jake Arnott, J J Connolly, Ian Rankin and Val McDermid as part of the next wave.
But in the last few years, more and more BRIT GRIT writers have been creeping out of the woodwork, through the cracks in the pavement, out of the dark and dingy alleyways.
Scottish crime writer Tony Black, for example, is the author of four novels featuring punch drunk, booze addled  Gus Dury, an ex  journalist turned reluctant Private Investigator whose shoulder has more chips than Harry Ramsden. The books  see Gus sniff around the back streets of Edinburgh and follow the rancid trail of crime and corruption right to to the top. They’re gruelling, intense and exciting journeys – not without moments of humour and tenderness. You may feel as if you’d like to give Gus a smack every few pages but the pit bull proves himself again and again.

Gus Dury may be in the gutter but he’s still looking at the stars, albeit through the bottom of a bottle of whisky. And it’s down to Black’s great writing that when you you finish one of his novels you feel battered and bruised  but can’t wait for the next round.

Pulp mastermind Otto Penzler  famously said that noir is about losers and not private investigators. Mr Penzler has probably never read any Tony Black – or fellow Scot Ray Banks, then. Banks’ Cal Inness quartet is the real deal. Inness is true loser. He’s a screw up. A lush. A mess. A man so far in denial he’s in the Suez. In each  brilliant tale he bangs his head against as many brick walls as he can. And he feels the pain. And so do we. The quartet is as bitter and dark as an Irish coffee and leads to a shocking yet inevitable conclusion.

And there’s more: There’s Alan Guthrie who gave us the best novel of 2009 with SLAMMER; Nick Quantrill ‘Broken Dreams’ which looks at a Northern English town that has had it’s fair shair of kickings but still isn’t out for the count; Bad Penny Blues is Cathi Unsworth’s  ambitious look at  the many facets of London in the late fifties and early sixies; Comic genius Charlie William’s and his nightclub bouncer hero Royston Blake help you see life in a way that Paulo Coelho never will!
There are BRIT GRIT publishers too:  Newcastle’s Byker Books publish Industrial Strength Fiction such as the Radgepacket – Tales from the Inner Cities anthologies; Brighton based Pulp Press publish short, punchy novellas with the slogan ‘Turn Off Your T.V. and discover fiction like it used to be.’

And there’s even more …
There’s Howard Linskey, Martin Stanley, Jack Strange, Paul Heatley, Mrtina Cole,  Ben Cheetham, Christopher Black, Martyn Waites,Allen Miles, Danny Hogan, Chris Leek, Gary Dobbs,  Gareth Spark, Sheila Quigley, Ian Ayris, UV Ray, Danny King,  Col Bury, Mark Billingham,  Andrew Bell, Alan Griffiths (whose blog is aptly called BRIT GRIT), Julie Lewthwaite, Steve Mosby, Darren Sant, McDroll, Richard Godwin, Colin Graham, Neil White, Andy Rivers . . . and more! There’s even comic BRIT GRIT from Donna Moore and Christopher Brookmyre, BRIT GRIT thrillers from Matt Hilton and surrealist BRIT GRIT from Jason Michel!

And now, of course, we have True Brit Grit- A Charity Anthology edited by Luca Veste and me, with an introduction from Brit Grit mastermind Maxim Jakubowski. True Brit Grit is a hard-hitting, gritty, crime anthology  from 45 British writers. All coming together to produce an anthology, benefiting two charities.

Oh, and I even have a weekly column- Brit Grit Alley over at Out Of The Gutter Online!

“The BRIT GRIT mob is coming to kick down your door with hobnailed boots.
Kitchen-sink noir; petty-thief-louts; lives of quiet desperation; sharp,
blood-stained slices of life; booze-sodden brawls from the bottom of the barrel
and comedy that’s as black as it’s bitter–this is BRIT GRIT!”

(This is adapted from a piece that first appeared in the program for the 2010 Noircon and was later republished at Pulp Metal Magazine)


Short Sharp Interview: J J Connolly

J J Connolly wrote the classic London crime novel Layer Cake over a decade ago. Since then it’s become a thing of legend and was adapted for the big screen, starring Daniel Craig.

Now he’s back with a  sequel –Viva La Madness.

We had  natter.

PDB: In true Hollywood style, can you pitch Viva La Madness in 25 words or less?

JJC:  Viva la Madness is Goodfellas meets Macbeth, a Gothic gangster tale packed with intrigue, thrills and spills, shocks and surprises. A non-stop ride. Embrace the madness!
PDB: We’ve been waiting for Viva La Madness for ten years, why so long?
JJC: I was working on films, traveling, messing around, getting in and out of trouble, having fun. Two years ago I decided I better stop messing around and sat down and finished Viva.
I’d been working on it – on and off, more off than on, for almost ten years, since I finished Layer Cake, in fact. I got distracted, but distracted in a nicest possible way, in some nice places, with some nice people.
PDB: The world has changed a great deal between Layer Cake and Viva La Madness. Did that affect how you approached the book?

JJC: Although it was a ten year gap between the publication of Viva and Layer Cake the timeline between the two books is only eighteen months. The postscript of Layer Cake is actually dated April 2000 and Viva la Madness kicks off in August 2001 but what was interesting was how much technology has progressed in the intervening years – from 2001 to now – it’s come on leaps and bounds. It’s amazing how quickly things move now. 
Also with a retrospective eye, without giving too much away, I was able to use real historical events to date-stamp things and give perspective to the fictional events.
PDB: How was your time in Hollywood? Which films did you work on?

JJC: Hollywood is Hollywood. There’s nothing much more to say. You met some great people and some not so nice people but that’s true of the world over. I wrote a few screenplays but mostly did dialogue polishes – something people tell me I’m good at. I got paid well and had a laugh. I think I’m probably sworn to secrecy about the things I did rewrites for.
PDB: The film of Layer Cake was a critical and commercial success. In the beginning, were you worried that they might bollocks it up?
JJC: I was asked from the get-go to be involved in the film of Layer Cake – to write the script – but I was also taken aside and told from the start that a film adaption of a book is a different animal, a separate entity and not to be too precious. Things are gonna change. You get it?
I was prepared for major surgery but in the end – considering putting the whole of Layer Cake up on the screen would have meant a twenty hour movie – the film captured the true essence of the book. It was a nice surprise to watch the finished film because I’d braced myself for the worst.
A lot of people love that film so they must have done a very good job. And it’s never off TV in England. It’s strange for me to watch Layer Cake now because it’s so much about a time and place in my own life encapsulated, the people who were around me at that time, 2003 to 2004. Like finding an old diary. Yeah, it’s a kinda strange experience.
PDB: You’ve published Viva La Madness with indie/ academic publishers Duckworth. I assume lots of more mainstream publishers would have wanted to get their grubby hands on it, so why Duckworth?

JJC: I was loyal to Duckworth and Duckworth were loyal to me. I also wanted the sequel to be at the same publishers as Layer Cake – it kinda made sense. I wanted consistency. I’ve known people there for ten years and they let me do my own thing editorially. 
PDB: What’s on the cards now? Will we have to wait another decade for a new J J Connolly novel?

JJC: I loved writing Viva la Madness, so I’m not going to leave it so long next time. It was a struggle at times but then again anything worth doing is sometimes hard.
Norman Mailer said that writing a book is the nearest thing a male comes to giving birth and I get what he means. A lot of women have a child and vow never to have another one ever again… but a couple of years later they get broody and before you know it… no doubt I’ll get broody before long and I don’t plan to wait another ten years. I want to write another book with the narrator from Layer Cake and Viva la Madness, to complete a trilogy. I like the voice.
But I want to write sometime else before then with different characters and locations. I’m plotting something already but in the meantime I’m working on a couple of screenplays and enjoying the reaction to Viva. People are getting it. There’s a debate about which is the better book. I like that.
What did the guy outta Layer Cake say? Life is so good I can taste it in my spit. I wouldn’t go that far but life is pretty cool at the moment.
Thanks very much, JJ!