British PI fiction has undergone something of a renaissance of late, with a raft of new young writers taking on the classic American form and reworking it to reflect the social and economic landscape of the UK. Russel D McLean is definitely at the forefront of the trend. His latest J McNee novel, Father Confessor, is brutal and lean, marked by a keen eye for human fallibility and a determination to explore the ethical grey areas which private eyes and police operate within. Russel was kind enough to join me for a chat today…
Tell us a little about Father Confessor…
Father Confessor is the third book to feature Dundee PI J McNee, and this time around sees him getting involved in some very high-reaching corruption when his old mentor is found murdered at an abandoned warehouse. This being the third novel, it pulls together some threads from the first two books – although I hope its still accessible to new readers – and winds up going to some very dark places.
What drew you to the PI sub-genre?
I think the fact there are so many damn good writers in the genre. Hammett and Chandler are obvious. Then you have Ross Macdonald. But it was probably Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder series that really hooked me. I adored those books, and still re-read them every so often. There’s also something very appealing in a character who can slip so easily from lawfulness to lawlessness depending on the situation. A fictional PI is less bound by the rule of law than a fictional policeman, and there’s also that sense of the outsider that has always appealed very strongly to me.
McNee is your second take on the PI, how does he compare to your first, Sam Bryson?
He’s a little more believable, I think, in terms of backstory. But they both use the same basic archetype to a degree. I tempered Bryson with a very supportive supporting cast, but McNee has no safety net like that. He has people who care for him, but he doesn’t allow them to reach him. Like Bryson, he has anger issues, but unlike Bryson, he starts out not wanting to deal with them. Bryson was definitely tempered by his relationship with long term girlfriend, Ros. With McNee, I wanted to take away that support and see what happened.
The PI is historically an American figure, although UK writers have turned out some very gritty ones. Was it challenging bringing him to Dundee?
Yes and no. Yes because you’re right, people associate eyes with the US. When we use them in the UK, especially now, they’re more like to be investigative journalists or some kind of data miner. But while it was a challenge to make McNee believable in context, it was a bloody joy to play with the archetype in an unusual setting. Even more of a joy not to have to write a copper. I’m a little bored with procedurals to be honest, and you have to bring something very special to them in order to get my attention. Stuart MacBride’s a great example – bringing a chaotic humour to a genre that can otherwise be a little staid. But I couldn’t do that, so instead I guess I wrote what I knew, which was a US-style PI novel with a lot more swearing.
Father Confessor, like the previous McNee books, is intimate and character driven. You seem more interested in the why of crime than the who…
I’m certainly not interested in whodunit. I’ve never cared for the game playing aspect of that. Go do a Sudoku if all you care about is solving a puzzle. Crime fiction is an inherently emotive genre, and it should concern itself with the ramifications of violent acts a lot more than it sometimes does. It’s about character. Always about character. I admit you do run the risk of a little melodrama. Whenever I start a new McNee book, I hear Bruce Willis in my head saying, “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” But I’d rather run that risk than wind up using a dead body as a plot point.
How does your background in philosophy influence your work?
Probably to a greater extent than I realise. Perhaps not my direct areas of research, which were in philosophy of mind, and concerned with concepts of ‘emergence’ and ‘supervenience’, neither of which have much of a place in your average crime novel. But I did a course in ethical thinking, which has always come back to haunt my crime novels, and in particular the way that choices weigh on the characters. Father Confessor, particularly at the end of the novel, does ask a few ethical questions.
You’re a bookseller during the day, so which new releases are you tipping for autumn?
There’s a new John Connolly coming out, and I always make room for a Connolly. Wrath of Angels is another Charlie Parker novel from the man, so I’ll be devouring it, soon. He also edited a book with Declan Burke called Books to Die For which sounds like a great overview of the genre with some great essays by top crime novelists. Also, I really want to read A Mysterious Something in the Light, which is a new biography of Raymond Chandler… and looks very good, indeed. There’s also some long lost Hammett stuff due out called The Return of the Thin Man, which I believe includes three novellas and some other fun stuff from the archives. If, like me, you adore that era of American crime writing, this is a can’t-miss book.
What can readers expect next from you?
Some more words. I don’t talk about works in progress too much, but keep watching http://www.russeldmcleanbooks.com and as soon as I have anything new to share with you, I certainly will… As long as the publishers want it, there will be another McNee.