Tag Archives: Jay Stringer

Jay Stringer

Jay Stringer is among the noir new guard’s most exciting voices, an author whose hard and fast crime writing comes with real political and social depth.  His second novel, Runaway Town, featuring half-Romani P.I and ex-cop Eoin Miller is out now and I strongly recommend you grab a copy if you haven’t yet.  But with Runaway Town put to bed Jay’s mind is turning to the tricky issue of writing a trilogy.  Here’s the man himself…

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How the hell do you write a trilogy?

We all think we know. I mean, we’ve all seen Star Wars and Lord Of The Rings. Those of us with even better taste have all seen Back To The Future.

I thought there were simple rules. First one sets up a simple status quo (whatever you want, whatever you need…) and has a happy ending. Second one breaks the status quo (whatever you want, whatever you need…) and has a depressing ending. The third one then brings everyone back together, has some dancing teddy bears, somebody invents a Frisbee, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Once I knew I was writing a trilogy I sat and studied all of these films to get a sense of how the structure worked, and I realised pretty quickly that I’d gotten the rules all wrong. Star Wars: Episode Four ends on a happy note -if you count racial segregation and restoration of monarchy as ‘happy’- but The Fellowship Of The Ring ends with everyone split up and Sean Bean dead (again.) Back To The Future has a happy ending, but adds on a teaser of what’s to come. (“It’s not you, Marty, it’s your kids.” Marty should surely solve the problem by staying right where he is and raising them better.)

I also realised that The Empire Strikes Back is not a very good film. We all remember it as brilliant. Mostly because of one moment of Harrison Ford coolness, and also because it was the first time our childhood brains were split open by a downer ending. As a story, however, it just doesn’t stand up. It’s a chapter in a serial. It relies on Episode Four to be it’s first act, and you need to watch the next film to see any character arcs carried through. Incidentally, It also shows that Han Solo is a douche. He is paid his reward at the end of the first film, which is enough for him to cover his debt to Jabba, yet by the second film it’s clear he still never paid up. He’s a bill dodger.

The Two Towers takes this problem even further, as nothing of actual consequence happens in the film. You could watch the first film and then jump to the third film, and you wouldn’t know you’d missed more than a five-minute toilet break. It also shows up some structural problems that haunt the whole trilogy; the good guys keep winning. They win almost every battle in the three films. There are no stakes by the time you reach the final showdown of the trilogy, because we’re betting on the side that has never tasted canvas.
So what I realised was that the only real rules of ‘trilogy’ that I could depend on where that there were no rules.

The ending of Old Gold had been an accident. I’d had a very different finale in mind, and wrote the existing ending as just another chapter on route to that finale, but there was a sadness and heartbreak in the final line of that chapter that seemed like the only fitting end to the book, and I stopped typing there.

But if the first act in my trilogy had already raised the stakes of heartbreak and depression, what was I to do for the second story? Once again I had an ending in mind when I started, but I also didn’t want to write a story that only worked as a second act. There needed to be stakes. Things needed to happen. And I needed to tell a story with a beginning, middle and end.
That decision kicked all of the smugness out of me with regards to the “failings” of those films. It’s really hard. Everything that happens in Runaway Town is a consequence of actions in Old Gold. Each of the lies, punches and small betrayals from the first book are bearing down on my cast of characters by the time of the second one, and that has to be addressed. There are confrontations, bloodshed and revelations that need to be held off until book three, otherwise they would feel rushed.

Trying to find that balance between writing the middle act of a trilogy, and writing a story that had a self-contained arc, took my coffee obsession to a new level. The needle kept going to far one way or the other; I was either putting in too much or too little. And that continued even after I handed it in to the publisher, where my editor suggested that I move a couple of revelations forward from book three into Runaway Town.

The main trick was to go internal. It seems to me now –after handing in the manuscript for book 3- that the key to writing a trilogy is emotion. Fitting a story into the structure of a trilogy means we have to manipulate plot. We withhold things from the protagonist reader in contrived ways, and resort to tricks we wouldn’t dream of using if it was a single novel. There are always going to be plot twists and moments of physical drama that you want to hold off until the final act of the story, but book 2 is where you can wreck your characters emotionally.

I write crime and noir, so I deal in grief, deception and anger. Going internal meant ignoring the lies the writer tells to the reader, and focusing on the lies the characters tell themselves. Pulling the rug out from under. If your characters feel they have lines they won’t cross, or people they won’t become, or lies they won’t tell, then book 2 is the point when you make them face facts. Show them that their precious status quo (whatever you want, whatever you need…) is a myth.

I took great delight in making Eoin Miller face the lies he’s been telling himself. To make him relive the memories he chooses to ignore. We learn things about Eoin, Laura and Veronica that adds to the experience when re-reading Old Gold, but we also get the sense that the trilogy is not leading to a happy place in the next book.

Above all, I hope I succeeded in giving people a story with Runaway Town. It’s a book about being challenged. It’s about realising that difficult questions don’t have easy answers. A novel that can be read on it’s own, with a beginning, middle and end. Important things happen to my characters in this book, and I did it without any Harrison Ford coolness.

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Runaway Town is available now

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Runaway Town by Jay Stringer

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Old Gold, Jay Stringer’s 2012 debut, was one of the strongest first novels I’ve read in years.  Introducing half-Romani cop, turned underworld detective, Eoin Miller it combined a hardboiled sensibility with a fine tuned social conscience and signalled the arrival of a promising talent on the British noir scene.  So I had high expectations when the second instalment, Runaway Town, was released.  I’m pleased to say those expectations were met and then some.

Miller returns, nursing the slow healing wounds he sustained at the end of Old Gold, treading carefully as he negotiates the tightrope between Wolverhampton’s two major crime families, the Gaines and the Manns, both of whom have holds over him, as well as some old scores to settle.  Miller is between jobs, coaching aspiring young footballers under the watchful eye of his sort-of-boss Veronica Gaines, when she calls with a proposition and a fat wad of cash.

She sends Miller to meet with a Catholic priest – not his usual clientele at all.  Father Donnelly, along with local radio presenter Salma Mina, has established a support group for immigrants, helping them to deal with the myriad small attacks on their dignity, but they’ve run into something too big for them to handle alone.  Several young girls have been raped and nobody wants an official investigation.  Miller understands the urge to protect the girls from press attention and unsympathetic police, as well as the desire to have the man responsible properly punished, but as he begins to investigate he discovers that Donnelly, Salma and Gaines may have a more compelling reason to keep the police out of the matter.

As he’s pursuing the serial rapist through the Black Country’s urban sprawl Miller is dogged by problems closer to home as well.  His mother has been attacked but refuses to say who is responsible, and the incident brings the far flung members of the Miller family back together; Eoin’s human rights campaigner sister Rosie and wayward brother Noah, who washes up with a payload of unresolved sibling rivalry and his eye on Veronica Gaines.

Jay Stringer is an author who doesn’t shy away from tough subjects and Runaway Town, even more than its predecessor, covers ground most crime writers avoid, and from a position very few adopt.  Superficially it’s a story about a serial rapist – handled, incidentally, with far more respect than in your average crime novel -but the true subject is immigration; almost every major character is of foreign extraction, an excellent reflection of the real ethnic make up of the post-industrial Midlands, and the growing political influence in area of a UKIP-like far right party is chillingly topical.  These are big themes but Stringer shows the effect at street level, taking us into fascists meeting rooms and slum housing, never letting the issues overshadow the terrible human cost.

Runaway Town is cracking read, lean, pacy and grimly realistic, exactly the kind of crime fiction I love, and as the series progresses and the character dynamics become more complex, it’s only getting better.


Spring 2013 – Essential Pre-orders

So the top crime books of 2012 is done and dusted, time to start thinking about what’s coming up next…

Gone Again – Doug Johnstone

‘It’s just to say that no-one has come to pick Nathan up from school, and we were wondering if there was a problem of some kind?’

As Mark Douglas photographs a pod of whales stranded in the waters off Edinburgh’s Portobello Beach, he is called by his son’s school: his wife, Lauren, hasn’t turned up to collect their son. Calm at first, Mark collects Nathan and takes him home but as the hours slowly crawl by he increasingly starts to worry. With brilliantly controlled reveals, we learn some of the painful secrets of the couple’s shared past, not least that it isn’t the first time Lauren has disappeared. And as Mark struggles to care for his son and shield him from the truth of what’s going on, the police seem dangerously short of leads. That is, until a shocking discovery…

Out in early March Gone Again signals a shift in gear from Doug Johnstone. An emotionally fraught novel with a fabulous eye for domestic details, it’s a real heartbreaker.

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Ratlines – Stuart Neville

Right at the end of the war, some Nazis saw it coming. They knew that even if they escaped, hundreds of others wouldn’t. They needed to set up routes, channels, ways out for their friends. Ratlines.’

Ireland, 1963. As the Irish people prepare to welcome President John F. Kennedy to the land of his ancestors, a German is murdered in a seaside guesthouse. He is the third foreign national to die within a few days, and Minister for Justice Charles Haughey is desperate to protect a shameful secret: the dead men were all former Nazis granted asylum by the Irish government. A note from the killers is found on the corpse, addressed to Colonel Otto Skorzeny, Hitler’s favourite WWII commando, once called the most dangerous man in Europe. It says simply: ‘We are coming for you. Await our call.’

Lieutenant Albert Ryan, Directorate of Intelligence, is ordered to investigate the crimes. But as he infiltrates Ireland’s secret network of former Nazis and collaborators, Ryan must choose between country and conscience. Why must he protect the very people he fought against twenty years before? And who are the killers seeking revenge for the horrors of the Second World War?

Like Stuart Neville’s previous books Ratlines merges the political and the personal to great effect. The period details are deftly deployed so that this historical crime novel feels fresh and punchy, and his hero Albert Ryan is a character I’d love to see more of. A bona fide single-sitting read, this one will grab you from page one.

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Runaway Town – Jay Stringer

After narrowly surviving a vicious knife attack, gangland detective Eoin Miller thinks he’s earned a break from hunting down thieves, runaways, and stolen drug money. But when crime boss Veronica Gaines tips him off to a particularly sensitive new case, his Romani blood won’t let him say no. A rapist is targeting immigrant girls, and the half-gypsy Eoin knows all too well just how little help an outsider can expect from the local police.

Besides, his client isn’t looking for someone to arrest the bastard. He’s looking for someone to stop him—for good. But the deeper Eoin digs, the more tangled he becomes in a web of corruption, racism, and revenge…especially once his troubled past threatens to derail the investigation by raising questions about his own loyalty and family ties. With his life teetering on the brink of disaster, Eoin realizes there is a fine line between justice and punishment. Now it’s up to him to decide just which side he’s on.

Old Gold, Jay Stringer’s debut, was a cracking read, grim and violent, pacy as hell, and Runaway Town continues in the same strong vein. Eoin Miller is an engaging protagonist, on the wrong side of the law but he has right with him most of the time, and this book takes him into territory often overlooked by crime writers. This series deserves to be huge.

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Where The Devil Can’t Go – Anya Lipska

A naked girl has washed up on the banks of the River Thames. The only clue to her identity is a heart-shaped tattoo encircling two foreign names. Who is she – and why did she die? Life’s already complicated enough for Janusz Kiszka, unofficial ‘fixer’ for East London’s Polish community: his priest has asked him to track down a young waitress who has gone missing; a builder on the Olympics site owes him a pile of money; and he’s falling for married Kasia, Soho’s most strait-laced stripper.

But when Janusz finds himself accused of murder by an ambitious young detective, Natalie Kershaw, and pursued by drug dealing gang members, he is forced to take an unscheduled trip back to Poland to find the real killer. In the mist-wreathed streets of his hometown of Gdansk, Janusz must confront painful memories from the Soviet past if he is to uncover the conspiracy – and with it, a decades-old betrayal.

Recently picked up by The Friday Project and with a paperback release in February this is a book which really makes a mark. Anya Lipska drags her readers into the murky, crime infested world of London’s migrant worker community and renders it pungent on the page in a way most writers could only dream of. Anya Lipska is definitely a name to watch.

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Matador – Ray Banks

A man wakes in a shallow grave next to a corpse to find himself shot, amnesiac and in deep trouble. Meanwhile, an expat drug runner finds out that he’s not the killer he thought he was.

That is all I know about Matador, but I want it. If you’re in the USA you can sign up for it in serial form already at $1.99. In the UK we’ve to wait until February, but on the upside it will be available as a paperback.

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Criminal Classics – Jay Stringer

Jay Stringer is a crime writer from the West Midlands, now hiding away in Glasgow. His first novel OLD GOLD will be released from Thomas & Mercer in July, and he blogs every Thursday at DoSomeDamage.com

Hangover Square is one of the finest noir novels that you won’t find in the crime section of a bookstore. Written and released at a time when the industry wasn’t obsessing over pointless distinctions like ‘Literary’ and ‘Genre,’ the novel simply gets on with being both, and telling a compelling tale.

The story revolves around George Harvey Bone, a troubled alcoholic loner and probable schizophrenic in 1939 London. The opening paragraph of the book hooks you straight into his mental state, describing the changeover in his head from light to dark. In his light moods, he loves Netta, a woman who schemes against him and uses him for his money and contacts. In his dark moods he plots of killing her for the way she treats him.

The structure of the book follows that of a suspense novel quite closely, but it’s in pulling you into the mind of the criminal that it rose above any structural limitations. We see Bone, Netta, and his social circle for the users and deadbeats that they are, but never lose empathy for George himself, even in his darkest acts.

And there are some pretty dark acts. The story doesn’t shy away from the consequences of his murderous moods, and this isn’t the kind of book that comes with a happy ending.

Hamilton was, for a time, one of the most famous writers in Britain. After that, he was known more as a celebrated drunk, keeping his skill at arms length and keeping the world away through the buffer of gin. But as his star faded, so we also lost sight of a writer with a fine eye for detail, and a great ear for the stupid things people say. For all his literary flourish and fine handle of prose, he tapped into something much darker. He was a writer for the losers, the doomed, the downtrodden and the aimless.  Put simply; he was a noir writer.

Though some of the words are now outdated, the book is as fresh and relevant now as it was then. It belongs alongside Thompson and Goodis in any collection (unless your collection is arranged alphabetically.)

– Jay Stringer

The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.