Guest Blog: The Ringer by Tony Black

ringer_pbk (2)Traditional publishing runs on rails, most of the time.

One of the strongest assumptions I faced when trying to become published, and stay published, was that a protagonist must be sympathetic. By that, it’s meant, that the reader must identify with and basically like the protagonist. It’s one of the publishing gatekeepers’ toughest padlocks, try rattling it and see how secure it is.

I did. And got nowhere.

Well, that’s not entirely true. I got to make Gus Dury about as close to an unpleasant pain in the arse as you can get, and, Rob Brennan isn’t exactly all sunshine and roses. But, there’s a world of difference between having a few flaws and being downright unsympathetic. Even Hannibal the Cannibal had a connoisseur’s taste in wine and an erudite hinterland to make him more, well, human.

But being a gruff Scot, brought up on protagonists like Irvine Welsh’s hardcase Begbie andWilliam McIlvanney‘s meat and potatoes man, Laidlaw made me wince at the niceties of some protagonists’ sympathetic antics. Why, I wondered, could Begbie throw a pint glass over his shoulder, slicing a young girl’s face to shreds in the process, and still be a fascinating character to follow?

I was lucky enough to ask Welsh if he’d ever been told to tone down his protagonists, to make them more sympathetic, and got a quick reply: ‘No.’

I mean, who’s going to tell a writer of Welsh’s standard that his characters are not nice enough. The idea is laughable.

I later posed the same question to William McIlvanney and got a curious look in reply that seemed to suggest he found the concept of a sympathetic character repellent, before he answered bluntly: ‘No. Never.’

There you go then, I wasn’t alone in having little or no sympathy with sympathetic characters. Much as I understand the logic of commercial publishing’s drive for universally acceptable protagonists, it’s not the only logic on offer in this debate.

If a sympathetic character can carry a story, keep a reader turning the pages to the end in order to see if the good guy beats the bad guy, or the boy gets the girl, then the opposite can be true. An entirely unsympathetic character can also hook a reader to the last page to see if they get their comeuppance for bad deeds.

And so The Ringer was born. Or more precisely, my unsympathetic protagonist, Stauner. I didn’t begin with a list of unwholesome traits to give him, or a tangle of thorny situations to put him in, my aim was only to show his story, from his point of view, with no holds barred.

I know if I’d submitted my book to a traditional publisher Stauner would be a turnoff. The days of publishers taking chances are long gone (even Welsh admits Trainspotting would never be published now). I’d be asked to tone him down, to make him nicer, insert a few scenes where he metaphorically helps old ladies across the road. But that would ruin him, and the book.

The only way to tell Stauner’s story, the only way to expose him to the reader, was warts and all. And so that’s what I did. He may not be a nice guy, you may not want to hang with him, go for a beer, but that doesn’t stop you being swept up in his train-wreck of a tale.

The Ringer is available as eBook and paperback from Amazon UK and Amazon USA now. 

Bio: Tony Black has also written three crime fiction series, a number of crime novellas and a collection of short stories. His next crime title is Artefacts of the Dead.

For more information, and the latest news visit his website at: or his blog:

This post first appeared at Out Of The Gutter Online’s Brit Grit Alley)

Recommended Reads. June 2013

1 lost summerRichard Godwin – One Lost Summer

Richard Godwin’s masterful One Lost Summer is a sweltering, intense noir set amongst London’s rich and powerful.  A claustrophobic, psychological study of obsession and loss, voyeurism and sex, with echoes of Simenon, Highsmith and Hitchcock.

Col Bury – The Cops Of Manchester

Another hard-hitting and realistic collection of flash fiction and short, sharp stories from Col Bury. The standouts are the grittiest – ‘A Public Service’ and the fantastic vigilante tale ‘Mopping Up.’ More from The Hoodie Hunter please?

Noir Nation: International Journal Of Crime Fiction 2

I was lucky to have a story – Who killed Skippy? – in the first issue of Eddie Vega’s Noir Nation. The second issue is another classy mix of great visuals, non-fiction and short stories. Cort McMeel‘s interview with Madison Smart Bell is fascinating and the short stories from Ray Banks, Court Merrigan and Andrew Nette are particularly splendid. All in all, a gem of a magazine.

Tony Black – Killing Time In Vegas

Tony Black’s Killing Time In Vegas is a typically tightly-written, hard-hitting, short story collection which sees the master of Tartan Noir turn a bleary eye on America’s underbelly. Every story is a great example of hardboiled crime fiction, though the title story was my favourite.

Darren Sant – The Bank Manager & The Bum

Darren Sant is best known for his fantastic and gritty Tales From The Longcroft books. But there was always a big heart inside all that grit and with The Bank Manager & The Bum he has given us a heart-warming slice of hard hitting urban fantasy. Great stuff it is, too. His best yet.

Edward A. Grainger – The Adventures Of Cash Laramie & Gideon Miles Volumes 1 & 2.

If you like westerns, you’ll love The Adventures Of Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles. If you like crime fiction, you’ll also be well served. And if you like both genres, then these are the books for you.  The stories in these collections are perfectly formed tales of the old west with a more modern slant. Cash and Gideon are Marshals, one white, one black. Men of honor dealing with the problems of violent and dangerous times. Every story is a gem but favourites are the hard-boiled noir of ‘The Outlaw Marshall’ and the intense tale of child abuse, ‘Melanie.’  In volume 2, Edward A. Grainger gives us another great collection of stories about good men in tough times. The first story – written with Chuck Tyrell – is probably the best of the bunch as it gives us Cash’s back story, telling us about how he was raised by Native Americans. The final story is a shot of the dark stuff.  Reflections In A Glass Of Maryland Rye, is pure western noir showing Cash Laramie’s darker side. The stories in between are gems also. Highly recommended.

laidlawTimothy Hallinan – Crashed.

Timothy Hallinan’s splendid Crashed introduces us to Junior Bender, a well-read burglar who is hired to steal a Paul Klee painting and ends up caught in a game of double-cross, triple- cross and more. Crashed is a very well written and immensely enjoyable crime caper full of rounded, realistic and interesting characters and peppered with sharp satirical swipes. A corker, for sure.

 John Llewellyn Probert – The Nine Deaths Of Dr Valentine

A serial killer is on the loose in Bristol. But not just any serial killer. No, this one is clearly obsessed with the films of the late great Vincent Price and is putting his obsession to good use by murdering doctors in various ingenious ways. The Nine Deaths Of Dr Valentine is smoothly written and  bloody marvellous fun, capturing the spirit of Dr Phibes and then giving it an extra twist. Highly recommended.

Nick Quantrill – I Am Trying To Break Your Heart

P I Joe Geraghty is hired to solve a disputed murder case in this short and sharp slice of crime fiction from Nick Quantrill which is a great introduction to his writing and his immensely likable PI.

William McIlvanney – Laidlaw.

A young girl’s body is found in a Glasgow park on a bright sunny day. The killer hides out in a derelict house; the only person that he can trust is Harry Rayburn, a former lover. Rayburn is a nightclub owner and low level criminal. Bud Lawson, the victim’s father, is full of violent rage and out for revenge, no matter the consequences. John Rhodes, Glasgow’s biggest gangster, has been asked to help him. D C Harkness is assigned to the case alongside Jack Laidlaw, a brooding hard-bitten cop with the soul of a poet.

Laidlaw is an artful, gritty, social-realist novel that was written in the mid `70s and has only recently been republished. It is a hard-hitting, multi-POV collection of rich character studies, the most potent character being the city of Glasgow, as conflicted and conflicting as Detective Laidlaw himself.

Laidlaw is the impressive start to a short series of novels featuring Detective Laidlaw, a series that I look forward to following. Marvelous stuff.