From The Big Easy, to Philly, to the Tenderloin, The Rogue Reader has brought you the best in American suspense fiction. But now it’s time to take our show abroad – and what better place for our mischief than Bangkok? And what better guide for this adventure than a Scotsman with a camera, a harmonica and an attitude? Introducing our newest editor of The Rogue Reader, Ron McMillan. Ron is the author of the Mason and Dixie series that kicks off with Bangkok Cowboy. As a life-long fan of suspense fiction and with more than thirty years in Asia behind him, Ron brings his unique international perspective to The Rogue Reader. And now for the first time all Rogue Reader titles are available world-wide.
April 15, 2014 by Ron McMillan
The Rogue Reader is delighted to welcome John Burdett, best-selling author of crime novels set in Asia. John worked for fourteen years as a lawyer in London and Hongkong before retiring to Europe. Here he writes how his time in Asia inspired him to write about it and led to him becoming one of the world’s best-known writers of Asian-based crime fiction.
John’s breakthrough crime novel, Bangkok 8, was the first to feature Royal Thai Police Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, and set in motion a series of much-appreciated and oft-imitated crime novels set in Bangkok and elsewhere in Asia. The fifth in the series, Vulture Peak, was published in 2012. John took time out from working on his latest novel to write this guest column:
Origins of Inspiration
It is often said that inspiration arises from a gap between opposing forces. The greater the gap the more intense the inspiration – and the more difficult to live with. More or less by accident my polarities turned out to be the most basic, and perhaps the most challenging: East and West.
In 2001 I returned to Southeast Asia after a five year sojourn in Europe. I had spent most of my legal career in Hong Kong and retired early. I had no idea how the Far East had changed my perspective until I tried to live in France and Spain. There is a supreme irony here: those two countries are democracies where individual freedoms are guaranteed. Hong Kong in my day was a benevolent dictatorship left over from colonial times. So why did life in Hong Kong seem to bestow so much more individual freedom than Western Europe? The question gnawed at me. I was on the trail of my demon. I had to return. This time I chose the much more laid-back Thailand, which I had visited many times as a tourist whilst in Hong Kong.
I decided to write a police thriller based in Bangkok. I knew nothing of the vast and ancient profession of prostitution and had no intention of writing about it. However, there was a rumour that a branch of the Royal Thai Police Force was dedicated to helping tourists and spoke English. Since a huge proportion of tourists in Bangkok are English-speaking men seeking thrills and adventure in the red-light districts, I hung out there. I never did find an English-speaking cop, but I managed to strike up a number of friendships with the bar girls. They were not at all like the cliche of hard-bitten women for whom sex has become a loveless industry. On the contrary, they were almost all daughters of subsistence farmers from the Northeast of the country whose families had fallen on hard times, largely due to manipulation of the price of rice at the international level. They did not think of themselves as prostitutes. The were looking for a foreign (‘farang’) husband and where better to find one than in the bars of Pat Pong, Nana and Soi Cowboy? Often they were successful. A girl who was selling her body in the bars might disappear for a month, then return in triumph to show off her new farang husband.
But how did they cope, psychologically, with this supposedly devastating degradation that experts, who are invariably Western, darkly predict must leave life-long scars? The answer was, to a very large extent, Buddhism. They were mostly devout, made homage to Buddhist images before starting work and accepted without question the law of karma. Karma means cause and effect operating at the moral and psychological level. It is therefore controllable. If you want a better life build one by starting now. They were generally truthful, honest, hard-working and cheerful. They were confident this attitude would pay dividends and sometimes it did. What impressed me, though, was the inner freedom they seemed to enjoy. As a lawyer I had worked with people from all walks of life in London and Hong Kong. I had spent time with billionaires, middle-class professionals, crooks and exemplary members of society: none of them seemed as happy as these working girls.
I investigated further. It wasn’t only the bar girls whose mental control was impressive. Far away from Bangkok, in the countryside, people often lived in an economy of barter: no one had any cash to spare. But they were free. I had spent most of my adult life chasing money in order to get free and I was jealous. Later, when I began to write my books, I realised how fortunate I was. I had found my abyss, my Great Gap, my Big Bang. There was no way I was going to resolve this riddle in one life time, but the psychic energy it released has so far produced six books, all of them best sellers.
John Burdett, Le Lot, France
April 12, 2014 by Ron McMillan
When I found myself thinking about how frequently crime fiction’s central figures retreat to their living rooms and put on their favourite music – often so that the author can simultaneously reveal the protagonist’s inner thoughts and review the case helpfully, I asked my friend Charles Philipp Martin, author and classical and jazz musician and jazz radio host, why he didn’t make his central character in Neon Panic a music fan.
“I went out of the way to make my hero unmusical,” he said. “The last thing we need is another detective who comes home, pours a bourbon and puts on Ray Charles. But I’m a spoilsport.”
I suspect that Charles, as my mother used to say, might be cutting off his nose to spite his face. Sure, detectives and musical interludes are all too common – and have been since Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes used to indulge in a little medicinal cocaine and make his Baker Street living room ring to the tones of the Stradivarius that he snapped up for 55 shillings in 1860. Readers, myself included, love these musical diversions, which tell us more about the hero, allow us to share our enjoyment of his/her musical taste – and help us iron out the bumps in what can be a complex narrative.
Authors love them, too. When Andrew Vachss doesn’t have Burke feeding his oversized killer dog gallon tubs of ice cream, he frequently refers to his love of blues maiden Susan Tedeschi. Ian Rankin‘s Rebus, like his creator, is a noted fan of old school British rock music, including the Rolling Stones, The Who and Cream.
Colin Dexter‘s Inspector Morse favoured classics, in particular that of Wagner. Also in England, John Harvey‘s Nottingham police detective Charlie Resnick, a solitary soul who survives on the companionship of cats and seems to exist mainly on a diet of sandwiches, is a traditional jazz buff, happiest at home with LPs of Billie Holiday or Charlie Parker. Harvey commonly talks about the strong influence of jazz music upon his writing, and even his website URL is ‘Mellotone’
About as far from Nottingham as you can get, Michael Connelly portrays his hero Harry Bosch as a man who might be good friends with Charlie Resnick. Bosch likes nothing more than retreating to his cantilevered home overlooking L.A. and putting on John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins or Art Pepper.
Connelly has gone further to link jazz and Harry Bosch. In 2003, he gave away a CD of Harry Bosch’s favourite music to promote his book Lost Light, and excerpts from The Overlook were put to original jazz from Frank Morgan for a unique YouTube promo clip.
Crime fiction and music are inextricably linked. I, for one, wouldn’t have it any other way.
Ron McMillan on Twitter
April 7, 2014 by Ron McMillan
We Scots are understandably a little smug about the cleverness of forefathers responsible for more than our share of landmark breakthroughs over the centuries.
How smug? Look up the origins of the telephone, fax machine, penicillin, insulin, radar, the steam engine, car tyres, the waterproof mackintosh, the hypodermic syringe and the vaccine for typhus. And if those aren’t significant enough, consider the electric toaster, the flushing toilet and the refrigerator. All invented by Scots.
In the world of crime fiction, too, Scots have fought well above their weight, with names like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, John Buchan and Alistair MacLean in days gone by, and present-day best sellers Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Irvine Welsh and even honorary Scots J.K. Rowling and Rhodesian-born Alexander McCall-Smith.
The stars of the present day are world-renowned, but what of authors who might not be on your radar? Here goes with five, slightly lesser-known Scottish crime authors – but whom any fan of what is becoming known as ‘Tartan Noir’ would do well to seek out. Note that several of the five are, in fact, actually established authors with multiple titles behind them and well-deserved international reputations. Even so, their presence in the American market might not yet match their recognition in Britain and Europe. But it is only a matter of time.
- Tony Black
Journalist, editor and novelist Tony Black was born in Australia, but grew up in Ireland and Scotland. I recently came across his novella The Ringer, a dark portrait of the urban Scottish underbelly that sizzles with authenticity. Its narrator, Stauner, is easily the most detestable central character I have read in a very long time. Black’s prolific output of novels and short stories is gaining recognition from high places. Irvine Welsh calls him ‘my favourite British crime writer’. High praise for a crime writer who is most definitely on the way up, and for whom wider recognition surely beckons. His tenth book, The Inglorious Dead, is published this month.
Tony Black’s blog
Tony Black on Twitter
- Malcolm Mackay
The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter announced the arrival of a hot new prospect to Tartan Noir. Malcolm Mackay is from Stornoway in Scotland’s Hebridean islands, has barely turned thirty years old – and already has a trilogy of crime thrillers published, with more on the way. The second in the trilogy, How a Gunman Says Goodbye, won the Deanston Scottish Crime Book of the Year Award for 2013. Mackay might not yet have made his name in America, but it won’t be long.
Malcolm Mackay on Twitter
3. Paul Johnston
I first came across Paul Johnston’s inspired series of Quint Dalrymple crime novels more than ten years ago. He started out with Body Politic, which introduced investigator Quint Dalrymple and the dark dystopian world of a post-apocalyptic Edinburgh in the 2020s (I bet he wishes now that he made that the 2040s). It won Britain’s John Creasey Award for Best Debut Novel.
The prolific (there’s that word again) Johnston has gone on to write three separate series of crime novels. The Alex Mavros books are set in Greece, where Johnston lives, and the Matt Wells series, set in London and the United States.
Paul Johnston on Twitter
- Craig Russell
Ex-Glasgow policeman Craig Russell is well-known in the European crime fiction scene for his Murder Commission series set in Germany and featuring Jan Fabel as a troubled investigator. I hadn’t heard of Jan Fabel when I ‘discovered’ Russell’s Glasgow-set series featuring displaced Canadian PI Lennox. I found a copy of the first in the series, Lennox, in a second-hand bookstore in Vientiane, Laos – and was very glad I did. The book takes place shortly after World War II, and Lennox is a private eye who juggles competing clients from the cut-throat Glasgow underworld. My earliest memories of urban Scotland are from near Glasgow in the 1960s, and the Lennox books resonate beautifully with period character.
Craig Russell on Twitter
- Caro Ramsay
About fifteen years ago I was living in Scotland, and a very enthusiastic member of a Writers’ Group at the local library in the town of Paisley. The Group occasionally got together with other Groups from neighbouring towns, and so I became aware of Carole Mitchell, whose success in selling a manuscript to a mainstream publisher for a reputedly large advance was the stuff of local legend. The manuscript eventually became her debut novel, Absolution. Now writing as Caro Ramsay, and despite holding down a high-pressure full-time occupation as the owner of an Osteopath centre, her career has gone from strength to strength.
Readers should be aware that this short list only scratches the surface of crime fiction talent emerging from Scotland. Anyone interested in seeking out more Scottish crime authors could do worse than starting with the Tartan Noir website or this list from the Books From Scotland site. Prominent in such lists is Louise Welsh. Louise doesn’t feature here only because The Rogue Reader has an exclusive interview with her lined up in the coming weeks.
Ron McMillan on Twitter
No Comments | Tags: Alexander McCall Smith, Caro Ramsay, Craig Russell, Ian Rankin, j. k. rowling, Malcolm McKay, Paul Johnston, Scottish Crime Fiction, Sir Arthur Conan Doyls, Tartan Noir, Tony Black, val mcdermid
April 7, 2014 by Adam Chromy
Today, we welcome author Owen Laukkanen to reveal how the hip hop beat of gangster rap drives his high intensity thrillers…
I grew up on rap music. I was your typical middle-class kid, playing hockey and going to piano recitals and turning the radio dial to WJLB Detroit (“Where hip-hop lives”) whenever my parents were out of earshot. Strange as it sounds, rap music is as responsible as books and violent movies for pushing me into writing crime fiction.
The gangster rap I discovered as a rebellious teen was just as violent and cinematic as the mob movies I was watching—hell, some of them were influenced explicitly by the same. The songs that resulted were gritty, three-minute noir sagas, populated by desperate, small-time crooks straight out of your favorite pulp magazine. Their creators were dark, funny, and inventive with language—just the kind of role models an aspiring crime writer needed. These days, when I need a hit of quick and bloody inspiration, these are the songs I put on:
Note #1: It probably goes without saying, but these songs are loaded with explicit content and adult situations. Be warned.
Note #2: I’m leaving out a lot of classics here, I know, especially from the West Coast. I grew up to East Coast rap, though, and this is what I vibed to when I was just finding my way.
1. The Notorious B.I.G. – N***as Bleed
Your classic double-cross story. In the first verse, Biggie’s alter ego, Frank White (a shout-out to Christopher Walken’s New York crime kingpin in King of New York) preps for a seven-figure drug deal at a local motel. By all accounts, Frank’s dealing with some shady cats, both on his side and the other, but that doesn’t stop the wheels from turning:
Think about it now, that’s damn near one point five [million]. I kill ‘em all, I’ll be set for life.
(Frank, pay attention…promise you won’t rob them.)
I promised, but of course you know I had my fingers crossed.
From there, the heist is on, and it plays out like a scene from a Brian De Palma movie, complete with bloody, climactic shootout and a funny and unexpected finale.
2. Ghostface Killah – Shakey Dog
Another heist story, another double cross, albeit with lower stakes and an insane, frenetic energy. Ghost enlists some dude named Frank to help him rob his cocaine connection in some shady tenement in uptown Manhattan. This thing is a song in the loosest sense of the word – there’s no chorus here, just Ghost describing the preparation, the characters in play and the stickup itself with a crime-writer’s eye for detail and dialogue. The writing itself is laugh out loud funny, and Ghost’s breathless storytelling propels the listener full ahead to the last line of the song, when he pulls the rug out from under us and stops the action dead on some Sopranos finale tip. There’s a sequel, featuring Raekwon, but like all sequels, it pales in comparison to the original.
March 25, 2014 by Ron McMillan
Matt Haig (@MattHaig1) is a young author whose output covers both children’s and adult fiction, and whose latest book, The Humans has been nominated in the ‘Best Novel’ category for the 2014 Edgar Awards
I came across this YouTube link he put up on Facebook. Apart from being very well done, it is also one of the most subtle pieces of marketing I have ever enjoyed. Despite hardly seeing The Humans on screen for more than a few seconds, I was immediately inspired to go looking for it – and ‘discover’ an already famous author. Very, very clever.
March 22, 2014 by Ron McMillan
This entry has turned into rather a long one, but for that I make no apologies. I am quite certain that many Rogue Reader visitors share, as well as a love for crime fiction, a desire to write crime fiction. This is a story of one writer’s journey, more than a decade in the making, to the point where he can at last point to his earthy, atmospheric, highly original crime novels actually living and breathing out there on the market – and selling well.
It’s quite telling that a fair percentage of people continue to be deluded about the financial wellbeing of authors. They somehow still retain the illusion that anyone with a book published must be rolling in greenbacks. Maybe not as rich as Dan Brown or J.K. Rowling, but still seriously comfortable, right?
Wrong. Here’s a startling fact, revealed in an article in The Guardian a few weeks ago: most writers earn less than one thousand dollars a year from their writing.
Sure, the arrival of ePublishing has changed that for some hard-working souls – see below – but for many the Holy Grail of writing is to be published ‘traditionally’, i.e. in print. John A.A. Logan is a Scottish writer from the northern city of Inverness. I came across John on Twitter, and what I read convinced me to download his novel, The Survival of Thomas Ford, that reads like a tautly-crafted stage play with a minimalist cast of beautifully-drawn characters. The book made me think of the film, Dead Calm – with its cast of three – Nicole Kidman, Sam Neill and Billy Zane, from the novel by Charles Williams. The Survival of Thomas Ford is that good.
March 17, 2014 by Ron McMillan
Here’s a question for you: what is the best book you’ve read in the last twenty-five years? Hang on, that assumes you’re old enough to have been enjoying books for a quarter-century. Alright, start again: what is the best book you’ve read ever?
And since this is the Rogue Reader, let’s narrow things down further – to the best crime novel you’ve read in recent years.
Until recently, if you had asked me, I wouldn’t have had an answer. I would doubtless have rattled on about a legion of favourite crime authors, including prolific writers whose output I have devoured slavishly. Guys like John D. MacDonald, James W. Hall, Carl Hiaasen (yes, I had a thing for Florida-based crime for quite a while – and still eagerly seek out anything new in the Thorn series from James W. Hall); every new appearance in the Dave Robicheaux series by the masterful James Lee Burke was, for a time, a must-read, and I have read almost everything written by Walter Mosley, Janet Evanovich, Robert B. Parker, Patricia Cornwell, Lee Child, Harlan Coben, Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane and Robert Crais.
On my side of the Atlantic, Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series is one of my favourite examples of the all too rare, successfully-crafted anti-hero in the modern crime arena, and John Harvey’s Nottingham, England-based Charlie Resnick novels are wonderfully drawn. Stuart Neville is doing great things with Ireland as their settings (both Northern Ireland and the Republic); and the prodigiously hard-working Val McDermid has somehow managed to create and maintain three separate series of top-notch crime tales.
So would my all-time favourite come from these? Curiously, no. How about my favourite top five? Some of them would have to feature names from above, right?
Enough with the teasing. Here goes with my top five. First, the ‘other four’ in my top five, the ‘equal second places’.
Irvine Welsh – Trainspotting
The success of Welsh’s 1993 breakthrough novel Trainspotting was a surprise to some, particularly as the story was presented in an impenetrable Scots-Edinburgh vernacular. In a narrative filled with drugs, violent sociopaths, alcoholics and drug-addicted low-life thieves, Welsh weaves a strikingly memorable tale that breaks all the rules. That the Danny Boyle film adaptation (1996) was remarkably faithful to the book was no mean feat on Boyle’s part, and helped guarantee Welsh became one of the the most unlikely near-mainstream maverick figures in modern fiction. Heartily recommended – though you’ll need to get a handle on the dialect to get the most out of it.
March 14, 2014 by Ron McMillan
So what is a middle-aged Scotsman who lives in north Thailand doing guest editing an American-based crime fiction website?
I’ve been asking myself the same question.
One thing is for sure. The road to this point has been long, twisted and devoid of even a semblance of planning. I may be a writer now, the published author of a well received travel narrative and two crime fiction novels, and I might dabble on the fringes of creative writing for both television and film – but trust me, it has taken many a long hard year to achieve this particular level of obscurity.
I clearly recall the first time I said aloud that I wanted to be a writer. It was 1982, and I was in a shabby apartment in the suburbs of Brisbane, Australia, talking to my then girlfriend’s mother. She asked the driftless 24-year-old Scot what he saw himself doing if he ever settled down.
‘I want to be a writer,’ I said. I spoke with the self-confidence that characterises callow youth, and yet I surprised myself. Even as I said it, I had no idea where the notion appeared from.
Looking back now, if there was a trigger moment, it came fully ten years earlier, when I was with my Dad in a public library in my home town of Paisley, Scotland. My father Tom was a high school English teacher, by all reports a very good one, but a renegade soul blighted by an anarchic streak that didn’t sit well with strait-laced superiors. (Later, when he accepted the role of spokesman during a teachers’ strike, his hitherto steeply upward career path was stopped dead in its tracks).
More than once during my primary school years I came home distressed at being unable to keep up with a teacher’s grave discourses on coded abstractions like similes or gerunds or subjunctive clauses. So I went home in search of help from my professional English teacher Dad. The advice he provided was, at best, unconventional.
‘Be patient, and keep your head down. Soon she’ll stop talking about it – then you’ll never hear another word about any of that crap.’
March 13, 2014 by Court Haslett
Well, my guest-editing stint at the Rogue has come to an end, and it is with great reluctance that I am relinquishing my grip on the wheel (and I mean that in a Charlton Heston, pry it from my cold, dead hands kind of a way). Fortunately, I am handing the ship off to a better captain than I, Ron McMillan.
Before further introducing Ron, I wanted to thank the Rogue for allowing me to inflict myself on all of you these last few months. It was great fun spreading the word about Tenderloin with old friends like Mark Ellinger and Mike Kemmett, while making new friends like Urban Waite, Megan Abbott, Brian Koppelman, Chuck Greaves, and Tom Pitts. Reading Laura Lippman’s and George Pelecanos’s Fan’s Notes was more than thrilling, as well. Last, and most certainly least, it was a blast collaborating with fellow Rogues Ro Cuzon, Mark Conard, and Don Rearden. I should warn all of you, though, that if you think you are lucky enough to be rid of me, you are sorely mistaken. I plan on popping in and sharing as much nonsense going forward as the Rogue will allow.
Now, however, it’s Ron’s turn. So far, the Rogue has limited its domain to the U.S. (yes, Don, we still count Alaska as part of the U.S., for now). That’s about to change with the addition of Ron McMillan, a Scotsman living in Thailand. But don’t fret, if you liked the back-alleys of the Tenderloin, you are gonna love the seedy underworld of Bangkok that Ron recreates in Bangkok Cowboy, the first in his superb Mason & Dixie series. Bangkok Cowboy has everything you’d want from a Rogue book: drinking, brawling, and of course, murder. But you knew that already didn’t you? And since many of Ron’s fans are located outside the U.S., we figured it was also the right time to announce the availability worldwide of not just Ron’s book, but of all of the Rogue catalogue, as well.
So Ron, it’s all yours, buddy. I’d offer you advice, but being the good Rogue that you are, I’m sure you’d just ignore it.
Court Haslett is the author of Tenderloin, a historical crime novel set in 1970′s San Francisco. Read a sample of Tenderloin, here.