Monday, 30 May 2011

PUSH-UPS: Ali Karim

So, what you pushing right now?

Well, Mr Pusher - I get many books and manuscripts from publishers that sometimes my reading pile resembles the mountain that Richard Dreyfus built in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. The other issue is that the more you read, the ‘bar’ gets higher and higher in terms of my reading quest to find something that ‘rocks my world’. I call it the ‘tide mark’ and with time pressure it makes it difficult for me, but I am always on the lookout for that ‘special book’. I am particularly interested in debut work, and a ‘fresh’ angle, such as Gus Dury’s debut in ‘Paying For it’, Stieg Larsson’s work which for a couple of years dominated my mind is a good example [as I published the first English Review for it in Dec 2007]. Currently I’m very enthused by a ‘debut’ novel from Denmark entitled ‘Mercy’ by Jussi Adler-Olsen [Penguin UK]. And if you allow me a bit of ‘self promotion’, I’m also delighted to have been asked to contribute to ‘ITW 100 Thriller Novels edited by David Morrell and Hank Wagner’ [Ocean View Publishing]. This was a pet project that originated with discussions at International Thriller Writers about what defines a ‘thriller novel’. Morrell and Wagner collated a series of essays from some of the top thriller writers about what novels they thought defined the ‘thriller genre’. Three critics [Larry Gandle, David Montgomery and I] were also asked to contribute. My humble essay was about the importance of Eric Ambler’s ‘A Coffin for Dimitrios’ [aka ‘The Mask of Dimitrios’]. I was delighted to see this wonderful book gain an MWA Edgar Nomination as well as an Anthony Award Nomination. I urge those interested in the Thriller Genre to seek this book out, it really is a wonderful reference book that should be on every enthusiasts bookshelf. Incidentally the only two contributors who also have their fiction featured are David Morrell, and F. Paul Wilson as this collection of essays features both ‘First Blood’ and ‘The Keep’ [respectively are critiqued by their peers]. As a fan-boy, seeing my humble essay included in this book means a lot to me.

What’s the hook?

Well ‘Mercy’ by Jussi Adler-Olsen [Penguin UK] really took my breath-way, and I’m not alone as word-of-mouth is spreading as fast as Chlamydia amongst the critical community. I have to be honest when I saw the cover and read the opening prologue my heart sighed as I thought “Oh No, not another woman-in-peril, serial killer work”, but I stuck with it and then found my hands had become glued to the narrative because it is far, far more than the cliché I first thought. The writing style is ‘hip’, and reads as fast as a whiplash injury. It features a political figure who gets kidnapped and imprisoned in a hyperbaric chamber, while a surly and deeply cynical Danish cop Carl Moerck is re-assigned [following a shooting] to from a new division that looks at cold cases [Department ‘Q’]. Due to Moerck’s ‘lazy’ and ‘insubordinate’ attitude, the only resource he gets is an assistant, a Syrian Immigrant named ‘Assad’, who is employed as a cleaner, but soon Carl realizes he’s far more than that and becomes a ‘Robin’ to Carl’s ‘Batman’. The novel is actually very funny, and I found myself laughing out loud when inside the head of this ‘dynamic duo’. The plot is very complex, and convoluted with a political dimension. I admired Adler-Olsen’s ability to weave ‘social introspection’ into the work without labouring the social agenda. The most interesting aspect however is how he manages to subvert the conventions, in having the ‘imprisoned woman’ being far from weak, and also the dignity of having an amusing ethnic character like ‘Assad’ who is not a terrorist or demonized, or poked fun at, like some of the right-wing media do with ethnic characters. This is important, especially as in the Scandinavian region [and in most of Europe], there is a worrying trend in the rise of the extreme right-wing so it is important to show that not all ‘ethnics’ are terrorists, or a burden on their host countries. Assad becomes the perfect foil to Carl Moerk, and this dimension makes for a wonderfully insightful trip down the crime-fiction genre. I think this novel, the first of 4 featuring this duo will become a big book and I can’t wait for the next three to be translated, and Adler-Olsen is writing the 5th currently.

And why’s that floating your boat?

Apart from ‘Mercy’ being a wonderful crime-thriller, I recently met the author at the Danish Embassy in London, and was most amused to discover that we share a common thread in our childhoods. Both of our fathers were Psychiatrists and as a result both of us grew up in ‘mental institutions’ [I must qualify that statement] as being that we we both lived on hospital grounds which perhaps explains some of my own interest in ‘madness’, and my love of the work of Thomas Harris [‘Dr Hannibal Lecter’] and Dennis Lehane’s ‘Shutter Island’, as well as the realities that Philip K Dick presented. We also were fond of Comics, and published magazines and fanzines in those pre-internet days. I think that affected Jussi’s writing with Carl and Assad being a sort of contemporary ‘Batman and Robin’ as there are plenty of amusements ot be enjoyed, in the proceedings of ‘Mercy’ though the writing and translation is fantastic.

When did you turn to crime?

I love what I learn about life and the human condition from crime and thriller fiction, and yes that sounds rather worthy I know, but books have enriched my life, made me understand some of the mad things that happen around me. They have also made me a tad paranoid, always reading about the worst excesses of human nature. Though from a positive angle, they have distracted me when life throws really difficult problems at me. They also put things in perspective. I recall having a very tough time around the time I discovered Dennis Lehane. When I put down Darkness Take My Hand – a very dark and brutal novel, but wonderful in terms of murky morality – When I got to the end I realized, my problems compared to what was thrown at Lehane’s Private Investigators’ Patrick and Angie where miniscule.

People often ask why crime fiction is so popular as a genre, and isn’t that a sad reflection on our society? I have an answer of sorts, to evolve as a species from the cave, humans had to have a violent streak in our natures. That was needed to hunt, defend our families and be strong. That’s all well and good in the less enlightened past. Though those violent edges in our nature have a dark-side and one that doesn’t fit in well in today’s ‘civilised’ society. This theme was explored in Michael Marshall’s chillingly dark The Straw Men. The views of life from the edges of society are often the most insightful, and that’s where crime fiction is pitched. Also for the crime fiction reader, it provides thrills and danger from the safety of the arm chair, and to place our own problems firmly into perspective.

Hardboiled or Noir, classic or contemporary?

Yes to all three, though I try to balance my reading of contemporary noir work with doses of classic noir. I’ve recently been re-reading Jim Thompson following my viewing of ‘The Killer Inside Me’ from documentary director Michael Winterbottom. I am not ashamed to admit that this film though faithful to the novel, made me vomit due to the ‘punching to death scene’. The film has a nasty-streak that I didn’t find when I re-read the novel. The strange thing is that I read Jim Thompson as a teenager, and re-reading them made realize how outstanding they are. The books like The Getaway and The Grifters have stood the test of time, and I realized that in the 25 years since I first read them, the text hasn’t changed – but I have, from that clueless teenager who sought solace in books, to a middle-aged man [approaching 50] who has seen life at its extremes. That’s the wonderful thing about books, the reader often brings ‘their own life’ into the narrative as the words rattle around the brain. Re-reading work that you first explored in your youth is often hit-and-miss as many works have dated thanks to the changes in ‘you’ and that of the world, but with Jim Thompson, man’s dark-side has never altered, and very few writers can match Thompson’s ability to get inside the head of psychopath.

And, what’s blown you away lately?

The only issue I have is that many people consider me ‘obsessed’ by translated works, and to be fair some of most exciting work seems to be squeezed out of the Nordic and Scandinavian regions, but I read widely. Another remarkable debut is ‘Bolt Action’ by Charlie Charters, and talking about another Charles, look out for The Trinity Six by Charles Cumming, a great espionage tale. Justin Cronin’s ‘The Passage’ a contemporary take on the apocalyptic vampire tale is wonderful. Joe Finder’s 2nd Nick Heller / Corporate Spy-Thriller ‘Buried’ is pure adrenaline with a heart. Thought provoking work such as Roger J Ellory’s ‘The Saints of New York’ was a delight. A great find if you enjoy a touch of the supernatural is Michael Koryta’s ‘So Cold The River’ and ‘The Cypress Tree’, as is John Connolly’s ‘The Whisperers’ and Steve Mosby’s ‘Black Letters’, and I am amazed that Mosby hasn’t broken through as big as he deserves. And of course where would a dark evening be without finding out what Gus Dury’s been up to, and in ‘Long Time Dead’ you do, and it’s not pretty, but a wonderfully plotted novel looking at the dark side of human experience. And talking about translated work [again], Jo Nesbo has finally broken through thanks in no part to his dark tale ‘The Snowman’, a chilling read. I would also give a shout out for Steve Hamilton’s unusual ‘The Lock Artist’ which has deservedly gained an Anthony Award Nomination, a most unusual book and one which exudes heart.

See any books as movies waiting to happen?

I know both the thrillers of Charles Cumming [‘Trinity Six’] and Joe Finder’s Nick Heller series are on the option table, while Cronin’s vampire opus ‘The Passage’ has been bought by Ridley Scott. One writer who I think is sadly under-appreciated is Paul Johnston, especially his Matt Wells novels, highly filmic. I must also admit that I have also been captivated by some TV stuff. I would highly recommend ‘RUBICON’ from the US AMC channel, currently being serialized on BBC4 in the UK, it runs 13 episodes [as the series was not renewed], it is a cerebral throwback to the conspiracy thrillers of the 1970’s such as ‘Three Days of the Condor’ [based on James Grady’s novel ‘Six Days of the Condor’], Alan J Pakula’s ‘The Parallax View’ [with Warren Beatty] and ‘Winter Kills’ [based on Richard Condon’s novel]. Though devoid of any action, these 13 episodes really make you think about the way the world ‘may’ really work. I can not recommend ‘RUBICON’ highly enough. I’ve also been in rapture over BBC4’s recent screening of the Danish 20 part thriller ‘The Killing’ as well as season 3 of the French Police Procedural ‘Spiral’.

Mainstream or indie - paper or digital?

I have an IPAD and IPHONE with the Kindle App, and have been reading on these two devices, but I much prefer paper, but that maybe due to my age. I think the short story and novella will have a renaissance as they are well suited for electronic reading. As for mainstream vs. indie – I read widely and rely on my ‘network’ of friends and colleagues to tip-me-off when someone discovers a gem, such as Ryan David Jahn, who’s debut ‘Acts of Violence’ originated from Macmillan’s new-writing imprint and gained a CWA Dagger last year, and is a diamond of a novel loosely based on the Catherine ‘Kitty’ Genovese case, which incidentally also inspired Harlan Ellison’s ‘The Whimper of Whipped Dogs’.

Shout us a website worth visiting …

Well The Rap Sheet is always wonderful as Jeff Peirce is amazing on keeping it updated, and though I know I haven’t posted much of late due to work pressures, I did notice a Gus Drury short story posted recently that I thought was rather good, and thought-provoking. We can all be cynical about publisher websites, but the Mulholland Books website masterminded by Miriam Parker is outstanding. You really should check it out, as the quality of material online is frankly spoken ‘the dogs proverbials’.

Finally, tell us any old shit about yourself …

Many people who corner me in a bar at a crime convention will hear me blather on [after about 6 pints of Guinness] about my love of investigating conspiracy theories, because many of them are not conspiracy theories [but Conspiracies], whole others are clearly bonkers. I spend an inordinate amount of time reading about global key events that are cloaked in smoke and mirrors by a media who [sometimes] work in concert with ‘hidden forces’. I have the utmost respect for journalists, but today the pressures on the media when news stories can be ‘cut-and-paste’ from press releases is worrying. Conventional media is under huge cost pressure with a dual pincer movement of the economy and technology, as we all know, there can be a ‘sleight-of-hand’ by ‘distraction’ possible by people with money, influence and power. My father is amused at my interest in conspiracies [and theories], especially as our family originate from the North-Eastern Indian state of Bihar, the birthplace of Eric Arthur Blair [aka ‘George Orwell’]. One assertion presented by those who don’t question what the media present is ‘How can a Conspiracy be kept secret when so many people are involved?’ I always retort with two words “Manhattan Project”, no one was aware what Oppenheimer and Co were up to in the Nevada desert, until Hiroshima and Nagasaki happened. One conspiracy I have studied for many years is NASA’s alleged manned landing on the moon in 1969, and it always makes me chuckle, if you look at the genesis of the Saturn Rocket that powered the Apollo Missions [which had its origins from the V1 and V2 from World War II], rocket scientist Dr Wernher Magnus Maximilian Freiherr von Braun, the Van Allen Belts, surface temperatures on the moon when in direct line with the sun, and when hidden in Earth’s shadow, and much much more, you need to ‘think for yourself’. Don’t get me wrong, man has been in space, but has never passed through the Van Allen Belts, and you need to do that to reach the moon. It was John F Kennedy that challenged the American People that we would land a man on the moon before the end of the 1960’s and we all know what happened in Dallas, from that grassy knoll to President Kennedy. Related to this is my interest in what we call ‘The Observer Effect’ as applied to quantum as well as classical physics, because nothing exists until it is observed. A philosophical question that has haunted me since childhood is “Does a tree make a sound in a forest when it falls if no one is there to hear it?” Call me eccentric, but it has taken me years to fully understand that question and find the solution to that question. The answer is that if no one is there to observe [and hear] it, including the absence of a microphone / camera, then it is clear that it makes no sound. Sound is the vibration of molecules on an observation point [eg a microphone or an ear]. You really need to think about this for a little while, then apply it to the reality that you are presented. Google ‘the double slit experiment’ and you’ll see that the observer makes reality; then “join the dots”. It is useful to ompare Fiction to Reality, and in some cases the converse can be true eg compare Emmanuel Goldstein [a fictional character, in the fictional world of ‘1984’ to Osama Bin Laden, and you should realise the importance fiction has to view ‘reality’ as it really ‘is’, not how politicians and leaders tell you ‘it is’.

The best way of challenging your thinking is to read, and read widely so your brain develops a way to break through the narrative that is presented to you. That is why totalitarian regimes burn books, and imprison and kill those of us who question what they see around them. A key book that helps you break-free into ‘free thought’ is Orwell’s ‘1984’, or Satre, Camus, or my favourite philosopher [the much miss-understood and misquoted] Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, but most people don’t question the reality that is presented to them, it’s too hard and too troubling. It’s a bit like when Morpheous offered Neo the red or blue pill in ‘The Matrix’. Some of us have seen the world as it truly is, others prefer to enjoy the delusion that exists in it’s synchronicity with the ‘real world’ – then again I’ve probably read far too many books than is healthy for the mind.

Ali Karim - is Assistant Editor at Shots eZine, a contributing editor at January Magazine & The Rap Sheet and writes for Crimespree magazine, Deadly Pleasures and Mystery Readers International and is an associate member of both The Crime Writers Association [CWA], International Thriller Writers [ITW] and the Private Eye Writers of America [PWA]. Karim contributed to ‘Dissecting Hannibal Lecter’ ed. Benjamin Szumskyj [McFarland Press] a critical examination of the works of Thomas Harris, as well as The Greenwood Encyclopedia of British Crime Fiction [ed. Barry Forshaw]. Karim has contributed to the 2011 MWA Edgar & 2011 Anthony Award nominated ITW 100 Thriller Novels ed David Morrell and Hank Hagner [Oceanview Publishing].

Karim been three times nominated for a Anthony Award [2007, 2008 & 2009] as well as The Spinetingler Award in 2008 for special contributions to the Crime and Thriller genre and he blogs about existential thrillers at