Stuart Neville: Fifth time lucky

25/01/2012 by Barry Forshaw

Crime expert Barry Forshaw interviews Stuart Neville about his new DI Jack Lennon novel, Stolen Souls

You're a young Irish crime writer whose first novel has taken the genre by storm. You’re Stuart Neville, and the reviews of your debut novel, The Twelve, has had critics falling over themselves to extol the virtues of a truly original talent. Subsequent books have kept up the momentum. But have you made some ill-judged friendships?

The Belfast-born novelist is becoming well known for something else apart from his literary skills: he enjoys the imprimatur of no less an American crime writing legend - and larger-than-life personality - than James Ellroy -- and apart from being able to use encomiums on his jackets from the great man (the surprisingly epithet-free ‘This guy can write!’), Neville enjoys an almost-friendship with him, having even survived two Ellroy interviews - one in Neville's native Belfast.
 
But how useful a connection is it for the younger writer? Ellroy, always an uncompromising figure, appears to have moved into the stratosphere lately, presenting to the world something like a caricature of his most extreme positions: ferociously right-wing, caustic as a face-full of hydrochloric acid and peppering every sentence with Anglo-Saxon adjectives and nouns not calculated to make friends. Despite Ellroy's immense literary celebrity, he treads on toes like there’s no tomorrow – a good ally for Neville? 
 
The Celtic onslaught on crime writing continued apace with Neville making a mark as a very individual talent. Apart from a sure grasp of the mechanics of suspense, Neville’s real coup here was to present a markedly multifaceted, and conflicted, protagonist – prey to ghosts from Ireland’s troubled and violent past -- about whom the reader is frequently obliged to change their mind (and how often do we encounter that tactic in most modern crime fiction?). Comparisons were made to a host of other writers, but Neville was - and is - very much his own man.
 
I’m thinking that the Ellroy connection is one of the things I plan to ask Neville about as I make my way through a dark Shoreditch night to a trendy eatery near Spitalfields market. It's the sort of place where conversation (literary or otherwise) is interrupted by the arrival of massive, groaning platters of steamingly succulent meat dishes, and before long, Neville, along with his publishers (who on this occasion include the companionable Liz Foley, Bryony Everroad and Geoff Mulligan) is struggling with Olympian-sized proportions of food, all of us oblivious to the fact that -- come 2012 – our diet may be porridge and water.
 
Neville himself is dark, hirsute and quietly spoken; there is, of course, the customary Irish wit (dispensed with a nicely understated application) and a nicely self-deprecating manner. He seems both surprised and bemused by the fact that he has been able to give up his highly successful web design business now that readers are clamouring for the next dose of Nevilliana. I'm interested in finding out where the quirky originality of his books comes from, but I start by asking (between mouthfuls of the roast lamb) about the James Ellroy friendship.
 
‘Ah, yes, Mr Ellroy. He is a character,’ says Neville wryly. ‘He seems to like my work -- and I make no secret of the fact that I'm an admirer of his. The way he uses language -- in his best books -- is astonishing. I even like The Cold Six Thousand, which was so controversially received. I did an interview with him in Ireland, which everyone tells me went well, but I must admit to having a little trepidation beforehand.’
 
But did Neville find Ellroy -- as so many have done -- a handful? What about the extreme right-wing views, expressed these days without the slightest provocation? Difficult to deal with, surely, given that a great many of his admirers (Neville himself?) are more likely to be from the left of the political spectrum?
 
‘You have to remember,’ says Neville, ‘that James Ellroy is always -- to some degree -- presenting an image of himself. It's a kind of construct, if you will. And the forthright opinions – and four-letter words – are part and parcel of that. Having said that, there is nothing he likes more than outraging people -- and some people can't live with that -- well, frankly, he doesn't give a damn.’
 
Neville's meteoric rise since the success of The Twelve has been unstoppable, and the latest book, Stolen Souls, is just as kinetic, edgy and involving as its predecessors. That first breakthrough novel dealt with the Troubles, but (claims Neville): ‘It wasn’t directly a political book. Ireland’s sectarian divisions interest me, of course. Nowadays, they are not really predicated along religious lines – that’s a legacy of the past. But it’s interesting how these divisions are maintained. I think they are now largely elective; Protestants prefer the society of Protestants, Catholics of Catholics. Even though there is now a generation of young people who have no time for the bitter conflicts of the past.’
 
I ask Neville what he was trying to achieve with his new novel -- and he answers without hesitation. ‘With Stolen Souls, I wanted to write a very different kind of thriller from the first two books. They both had strong supernatural and political elements, and this time I was keen to create a much purer, more streamlined thriller. I was going for something like the sort of books I loved as a teenager, those short, tight thrillers like William Goldman's Marathon Man, or the Fletch books by Gregory McDonald. There's probably a bit of Thomas Harris in there too.’ 
 
So who were the other writers who inspired Neville in his fledgling efforts? James Ellroy? ‘Yes, James Ellroy was certainly a big influence, particularly American Tabloid, which is possibly my favourite novel of all time. I also took some cues from Ted Lewis who wrote Jack's Return Home, which most people know better as Get Carter.
 
‘The Irish crime-writing community is quite close knit, and we're all aware of each other's work -- and we are very supportive. John Connolly and Ken Bruen in particular have been very kind in giving the rest of us a helping hand when they can. I get very little time to read for pleasure these days, but I've enjoyed a few authors that work on the literary end of the crime spectrum, such as Tom Franklin and Megan Abbott.’
 
By this point, we’re all struggling with a second (or third) helping from the towering piles of food. And as Neville dutifully wields his knife, it seems a good point to ask about the violence of his books – and violence as a key element of the genre. ‘A writer should approach violence as they see fit,’ he says. ‘Given how violent my own books can be, it might surprise some people when I say I'm not a fan of gratuitous bloodshed. I'm especially uneasy when it comes to the violence against women that seems to be central to so much crime fiction now. With Stolen Souls, it was very important to me that my protagonist Galya would not be a victim; she would not passively wait for a hero to come and save her. If she's going to survive, it'll be by her own efforts.
 
‘Similarly, with sexuality, every writer should do as they feel. But there is a fine line between what's appropriate for the story and what's pure titillation. A lot of crime writers stumble over that line, whether it's sex or violence.’
 
By now the wine, as copiously dispensed as the food, is dulling all our responses, so I start firing single words at Neville: politics? Belfast?
‘I think some genres make it difficult to avoid politics, particularly if the forces of the state are involved. It's impossible to write about terrorism, for example, without touching on the politics of the Middle East. In fact, some might argue that a writer has a responsibility to address the social conditions behind the topic of their choice. 
 
‘Belfast: well, it's the city I know more than any other, though I'd love to write more about New York because that town always excites me. I'm working on a screenplay set there, but it's a stylised version of New York. It's Travis Bickle's New York, not the safe and clean city it is today.’
 
Time for us all to face the Shoreditch night. A final question: is reading becoming an irrelevant activity for many people? ‘I’m pretty sanguine. People read more today than they've ever done before. But the nature of what they're reading is changing all the time. I think as people read more and more on electronic devices, rather than on paper, the writing itself will adapt to suit. Short stories might well make a comeback, for one thing, and I think novella length works might have a market. Reading – as a leisure and educational activity – has a healthy future.’
 
 
 
Stolen Souls is out now, published by Harvill Secker. Death in a Cold Climate by Barry Forshaw is out now, published by Macmillan.

 

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