Next up in The Interrogation Room… Tom Leins catches up with L.A. Sykes to discuss The Hard Cold Shoulder (Near To The Knuckle).
Your novella The Hard Cold Shoulder was recently re-released by Near To The Knuckle. The book is set in 2013, and the political backdrop adds to the bleak mood. Were you tempted to tweak the political context for the re-release, to chart the deteriorating social backdrop?
Not at all. In fact, I actually added the date in the text for the re-release. Events like the striking nurses and the sense of betrayal that followed the Liberal Democrats’ essentially treacherous behaviour in the coalition were part of the milieu.
Also, with the population on the increase and Bobbies on the beat on the decrease, there was something uneasy going on in relation to essentially goading public servants, not to mention jeopardising public safety on a significant scale.
I actually went on strike from a psychiatric hospital, and rather than join a picket line I watched the media coverage. His side of the house of commons roared with laughter when David Cameron described nursing staff walking out as a ‘damp squib’, and I thought these people are going to get it at the ballot box; hence Brexit and a Corbyn led Labour Party, a left-wing alternative not seen since the late seventies.
His smug dismissal ended with him crying outside Downing Street, having not realised how alienated the populace had become.
The novella predicts the deterioration, and rather than alter it to chart the deteriorating backdrop I just wanted it to snapshot the time, seen through the eyes of an ex-cop.
Also, the number thirteen stood out, given the historically erroneous although still prevalent superstitious connotation of unluckiness, which fitted to the thirteen chapter structure of the story.
Are politics and crime fiction uneasy bedfellows, or do you believe that crime writers are the very people who should be addressing these issues?
I’ll answer the latter part first: it’s entirely down to the individual writer whether or not they want to address issues, be it politics or anything else. I think crime fiction is the perfect place to address transgression, given society is malleable to political influence. Also, given politics is essentially corruptible, these things go hand in hand.
Take for example the political choice to cut police officers on the beat; the criminal will take full advantage and street level crime will go up. So realistically political decisions have a knock on effect to the criminological. The criminal operates in a societal milieu, whether they choose to think about it or not.
Again it’s up to the writer, I don’t think it’s a should, it’s a can if they choose to, and if they choose to then the crime novel can be the perfect vehicle to reflect a time and a place.
The Hard Cold Shoulder is a defiantly British story. Who are your favourite British writers – past or present? How have they influenced your own writing?
Derek Raymond, reflecting the essence of British noir, writing about the everyman victim, just blazed a trail started by the great Ted Lewis. David Peace, Alan Sillitoe and David Storey immediately also jump to mind. The latter two so-called ‘angry young men’, who showed me you can write about stuff relevant to working class lives, with passion and anger.
Crime-wise, Peace’s Red Riding Quartet has elevated the genre in my opinion. While you can see plain as day the influence of the master himself, James Ellroy, Peace’s British twist and research into the history of the times he writes about is meticulous. Plus with the darkly poetic prose style I honestly think he’s one of the best novelists of our generation in any genre.
Victor Headley’s Yardie novels were great too. They influenced me by writing stories I wanted to read about, rather than cozy mysteries, or whatever, that didn’t get the pulse jumping, they all had edge, and I knew I wanted to write about similar topics. They showed that it was ok to write what you want.
There are many, many others, most importantly the Irish writer Ken Bruen, and lots of American writers, but that’s a different question…
In terms of current UK writers – I hate to start as I’ll forget some – but I’ll go with the likes of Paul Brazill, Gareth Spark, Aidan Thorn, Paul Heatley, yourself, Keith Nixon, Nigel Bird, and plenty of others.
Manchester seems like a city that lends itself to noir fiction – are there any notable works that you would recommend?
Love on the Dole by Walter Greenwood, set in 1930’s Salford. It depicts the indignity of unemployment and living conditions in the thirties. It’s not noir, but its setting is one Dave Goodis would have had a field day with.
I suspect there are lots of police procedurals set in Manchester, in particular I like Col Bury’s Jack Striker, but noir fiction wise I don’t know many others apart from Ray Banks’ McInnes series, which is partially set there, and whose work I would definitely recommend.
Do you find yourself gravitating towards independent publishers, or does mainstream crime fiction satisfy your tastes?
To tell you the truth, I find a lot of mainstream fiction too safe, too predictable, and I find myself going back more and more to re-read older stuff. At the end of the day I’m a reader and I like to read good prose and edgy writing, and I definitely find it much more from the independent publishers when looking for newer books.
It seems to me the independent scene is bringing out great stuff that mainstream would not touch because of financial reasons. Les Edgerton’s brilliant The Rapist is a prime example.
There’s a real emphasis on passion for writing that’s shining through. So, I don’t look at the publisher any more, I look at the story and the style, and there is a fantastic amount out there, which is great.
I think that people are starting to wake up to the fact that the big publisher is not a guarantee of better quality than the independent one, and it’s high time that realisation took place.
Which current writers do you consider to be your peers? Any recent books you would care to recommend?
I don’t know how to answer the first part, I’ll leave that to others to decide.
As for books, instead of recent ones, I’d like to recommend A Rage in Harlem and its sequels by Chester Himes. It kicks of the Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones detective series, one of the finest written in my opinion, and I see lots of recommended reads and rarely do I see Himes get a mention, so I’ll go for him.
The Hard Cold Shoulder is a violent book in places. In crime fiction terms, how far is too far?
I think this can easily slip into a censorship debate.
My personal view is that it’s naïve to shy away from the violence of human beings. Fact is, at this moment in time someone somewhere is doing something horrific, and if the violence is repellent, then good, it’s supposed to be. People can pretend bad things don’t happen all they want, but they’re frankly deluding themselves.
To put it plainly, we know repulsive things happen, so why shouldn’t they be written about?
I’m not saying there aren’t lines that shouldn’t be crossed however, I do understand that there are limits, but at the same time to ignore depraved human capabilities rather than expose them means things will never change.
It is a violent book in places like you say, yet regardless of the righteousness of violence, once you cross a line there are often irreparable consequences. I think it shows that too.
Finally, what are your future publishing plans?
I’m currently drafting some longer standalone works which should hopefully see the light of day late next year and just after. Also, I’m working on some more short fiction which I hope will be ready to go throughout the coming months.