Wednesday, 20 March 2013

GUEST BLOG: Declan Burke on The Big O

I was asked during the week, during an interview, if writing comedy crime fiction is difficult. The pat answer I gave was that I find any kind of writing difficult but that, generally speaking, I find it harder to write without trying to make it funny than the other way around. 

The Big O was intended in part as a kind of homage to Elmore Leonard, and one of the things I’ve always liked about Elmore Leonard is his ability to write comedy without using punchlines, or making his characters comedians. It’s situational comedy, which usually comes about because some guy takes himself a bit more seriously than his skills allow for, and so he finds himself thrashing about way out of his depth – although he’s no less dangerous for all that. 

On an equal footing with Elmore Leonard in my pantheon of crime writers is Raymond Chandler, who is also a very funny writer, albeit in a different way. I first started to appreciate what crime fiction could achieve through reading Chandler, so I suppose that’s why I’ll always try to balance the dark and the light, the seriousness and the humour.

Another strong influence on The Big O was Barry Gifford, who’s probably best known for his Sailor and Lula books, a few of which were adapted for the movie Wild at Heart. Again, Gifford can be a funny writer on a line-by-line basis, although the longer narrative arc of his stories is almost invariably tragic. 

When I came to write The Big O I was coming off writing a couple of Harry Rigby novels, which tend to be a bit dark and violent in places, and also the first draft of what would become Absolute Zero Cool – a book that my then agent stopped taking notes on about a third of the way through, and read the rest in growing despair. It was bleak, to be fair. Anyway, I felt like I wanted a change of pace and to lighten the mood, and I was reading quite a bit of Elmore Leonard, so I thought I’d try my hand at a kind of screwball comedy caper, a kidnap-gone-wrong story about a group of people who were nowhere as clever as they thought they were. 

I also wanted to see if I could write a credible crime / mystery that had the absolute minimum of violence, because I was a little burnt out with writing about murder and brutality in general. I guess it’s a ‘cosy’ of sorts – apart from the foul language, of course – and it was great fun to write, trying to make it all work using only the threat of violence while never following through. There are some flare-ups in the story, but most of it takes place ‘off-screen’ and the one true act of violence that occurs is accidental – or so the lady responsible claims …


You never know how any book is going to fare once it’s published, but The Big O fared roughly the same as most books: some people liked it, some people didn’t, and most people never even got to hear about it. The most interesting thing for me, though, in terms of the reaction to the book, is that not one person ever complained that there wasn’t enough violence in there. 

It’s something I’m still wondering about, though – can a novel have too little violence? Is too little as bad, or worse, than too much? If you’ve any thoughts on the matter, I’d love to hear them. 

The Big O by Declan Burke is now available as an e-book. 

:: Declan Burke has published four novels: Eightball Boogie (2003), The Big O (2007), Absolute Zero Cool (2011) and Slaughter’s Hound (2012). Absolute Zero Cool was shortlisted in the crime fiction section for the Irish Book Awards, and received the Goldsboro / Crimefest ‘Last Laugh’ Award for Best Humorous Crime Novel in 2012. Slaughter’s Hound was shortlisted in the Crime Fiction category for the 2012 Irish Book Awards. Declan is also the editor of Down These Green Streets: Irish Crime Writing in the 21st Century (2011), and the co-editor, with John Connolly, of Books to Die For (2012), which is currently shortlisted for an Edgar Award. He hosts a website dedicated to Irish crime fiction called Crime AlwaysPays