Last year we recorded a podcast with Graeme Macrae Burnet and Graham Lironi, both of whom had written novels which could be described as crime fiction, but which were vastly different from one another, or anything else published last year. During the discussion both spoke about the problems they had with their work being labelled as in any way ‘genre’.
If this subject interests you, you can still listen to the full podcast here, but the short version is this; on the one hand, if you can be categorised as a genre writer it will arguably help booksellers to market you, and perhaps gets your books into the hands of those who otherwise may not have read them. On the other hand, you risk assumptions being made about your writing which are unfair, or just plain wrong, and which may put off another group of readers. Although you would hope the quality of work would speak for itself, there are prejudices at play, married to the economics and practicalities of selling books, which can be hugely frustrating for writers.
Saraband Books have embraced this apparent dichotomy with their ‘crime/thriller’ offshoot, Contraband. They are the publishers of both Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project and Lironi’s Oh, Marina Girl, accepting both novels for what they are; brilliantly written, beautifully crafted, and original. Other authors published by Contraband include Neil Broadfoot, Matt Bendoris, and Shelley Day, and it is clear that what they have managed, in a relatively short time, is to become known as a place to find offbeat, interesting and quality fiction no matter how you label it. The fact that His Bloody Project has made the Man Booker Prize longlist this year suggests that how we categorise genre and literary fiction can, should, and perhaps is changing. The only question that should matter is, ‘Is the writing good?’, and this is what Contraband puts first.
The latest example of this is Douglas Skelton’s The Dead Don’t Boogie. That title may put you in mind of the 1982 Steve Martin movie Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, and it’s not a bad place to start as, as with Martin and his director Carl Reiner, Skelton is aware of genre conventions and subverts them, while also celebrating them. For anyone who has ever revelled in the hardboiled books of Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, Dashiell Hammett or Jim Thomson, the language and the attitude of Skelton’s protagonist Dominic Queste will be familiar, even if the setting is unexpected.
That setting is the west of Scotland, concentrating on Glasgow, but even here Queste’s out of time and place character doesn’t seem that odd. It’s a part of the world which has a long association and even obsession with American culture, be it ’50s rock ‘n’ roll, soul music, country and western, or crime, so having a self-styled gumshoe working a beat from Dumbarton Road to Dennistoun and back is not that far-fetched. Alan Grant’s 1989 graphic novel The Bogie Man did a similar thing by having a noir mystery fronted by a character who thought he was Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, but set in late ’80s Glasgow. Dominic Queste doesn’t think he is Sam Spade, but he would like to be.
This allows Skelton to show an excellent line in one-liners and droll dialogue. You may think that a character who uses lines like, “a candyman from the smoke” and “I get cranky when I don’t get my coffee” would begin to grate, but that’s the joke, and everyone is in on it, including Queste. There is always the sense that, while all sorts of madness unfolds around him, Queste’s ‘role-playing’ is a front to help make him make sense of it all as well as disarm those he has dealings with. The real hard men and dangerous characters are other people. Deep down, despite the act, he is more of a lover than a fighter, and he has the patter to prove it. Or at least he thinks he has. Skelton also has a great ear for everyday language, but is able to enhance it to produce dialogue which is how the people his characters are based upon wish they spoke, rather than how they actually do. Add in characters, such as “Ritt Bobak”, (one of the best names since Glaswegian dance act “M’boza Ritchie” appeared on Top of The Pops), and you begin to get an idea as to the playful tone which runs throughout the novel. Dominic Queste knows he risks appearing ridiculous, but uses this to his advantage, as does Skelton who has great fun with the character and the language.
The only time the writing falters is when certain references are spelled out, something which disrupts the flow and temporarily knocks the reader out of the story. It’s a small point, and doesn’t happen often, but when it does it breaks whatever the literary equivalent of ‘the fourth wall’ is, and in a book such as this, where the pace is relentless, that is more noticeable. It’s a fine line when you riff on popular culture as Skelton has Queste do, and most of the time he is successful. But, as with any form of comedy, the times when you need to explain are when the desired impact is lost.
However, nothing can stop matters for long as the plot rattles along at break-neck speed – literally for some. Skelton’s humour shouldn’t hide the fact that this is dark material, and The Dead Don’t Boogie revels in almost cartoon levels of violence. One particular scene in Victoria Park is reminiscent of Tarantino or John Woo, and the book’s body count is one to make even the Partick police raise an eyebrow.
With Dominic Queste, Douglas Skelton has created a character you want more of, in a similar manner to Christopher Brookmyre’s Jack Parlabane. The next book in the series, Tag – You’re Dead is previewed as a tantalising prologue, and this is good news for as soon as you finish The Dead Don’t Boogie you are ready for more. This is modern pulp fiction at its best. It’s fast-paced and flippant, and with all the clichés any reader would come to expect; tough guy priests, reformed hard men, dames in distress, but brought bang up to date in place and time. The fact it succeeds is a testament to Douglas Skelton’s understanding of noir fiction, and it’s another example which proves that Scottish crime writing is as diverse and as any other area of literature. Here’s hoping Dominic Queste continues to boogie for some time yet.
Douglas Skelton will be appearing at Waterstones on Argyle Street in Glasgow to launch The Dead Don’t Boogie this Thursday, 8th Sept, 19.00 – 20.30.
Here is the audio version of this review: