By Adam Roche
I stared at her. She was evil incarnate.
‘I’m six weeks pregnant,’ she said.
‘So’s your face’
It’s not often you’ll read a mystery novel where the lead character remains unnamed throughout, where the client of said investigator is known as ‘The Cock-Headed Man’, where a character will describe his stroke-afflicted mother thus: “Her diction isn’t great with her face the way it is. Before the stroke she looked like she’d been punched by Sonny Liston; now she sounds like it as well”. It isn’t often, and that’s what makes reading this book such a rare delight.
In his eventful life, Colin Bateman, in his own words, has been journalist, screenwriter, novelist and man of luck. The veteran of eighteen novels and five children’s books, his talents also brought BBC’s ‘Murphy’s Law’ starring James Nesbitt to our television screens, as well as three movies based on his work, ‘Crossmaheart’, ‘Wild About Harry’ and ‘Divorcing Jack’, the novel of which won him the Betty Trask Award. The Telegraph included Bateman in their list of ‘Top 50 Crime Writers To Read Before You Die’, and in 2009, his novel ‘Mystery Man’ was selected by Richard & Judy as part of their Summer Read.
With ‘The Day Of The Jack Russell’ Bateman returns to the characters of ‘Mystery Man’, notably the unnamed, self-obsessed, hypochondriac owner of bookshop No Alibis, who in his part time works as private investigator. ‘The Day Of The Jack Russell’ begins with The Man With No Name being approached by low-cost airline operator Billy Roche, who wants him to track down two anonymous vandals who have filmed themselves climbing a Billy Roche billboard and painting a huge example of male genitalia on it’s forehead, before repeatedly posting it on YouTube where it has become a global sensation.
Soon after discovering their whereabouts, the two men turn up dead, and our narrator finds himself under suspicion of murder. Grudgingly accepting the help of his pregnant ex-girlfriend, he must clear his name by discovering what exactly happened, who the mysterious men in the BMW’s are, and why a stuffed Jack Russell is so important to it all?
It’s a tribute to Bateman’s wonderful eye for detail and razor sharp wit, that instead of treading the boards with a po-faced gumshoe voice, we are instead treated to the funniest book of recent years. It’s film noir via Black Books, a cocktail of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Father Ted. Not a page goes by without a laugh out loud moment, whether it’s the LOVE and HAT tattooed on Billy Roche’s knuckles, Mr Narrator’s deliciously awful way of treating his underling Jeff, or his insistence on retaliating to most situations with ‘So’s your face’ when cornered.
The dialogue crackles with such electric wit that you’ll long for it to return during the quieter moments, but conversely you’ll find yourself yearning for the next monologue by the narrator who obliviously continues to describe his desolate hypochondria in the unwavering belief that he is a sick man. (“…selling books, which has more than enough excitement for someone with my blood pressure, and varicose veins, and cholesterol, and brittle bones, and psoriasis, and angina, and rickets, and tinnitus, and the malaria I caught from a single rogue mosquito on a visit to Belfast’s Botanical Gardens”). Tie up this wicked glee with a neat, perfectly shaped mystery that doesn’t pander to the comedy, or vice versa, but remains logical, engaging and mystifying, and characters you’ll lock inside your heart and keep there, despite their horrific flaws. It’s Bateman’s most engaging book yet, and deserves to be hand delivered along with the Yellow Pages to anyone with a love of crime and comedy.
In preparation for the book’s release on the 12th November, we caught up with Bateman and asked him about holding grudges, awards called Betty, and killing off Richard & Judy:
First off, thank you for ‘So’s your face’. Speaking purely hypothetically, what do you think would be the single greatest situation in which it could be used? I’m thinking something to do with the United Nations.
I have to thank my teenage son for ‘So’s your face’, and probably the greatest situation it can be used in is right back at him. It’s like old women who look very respectable swearing, it’s the unexpected nature of it. Adults shouldn’t be saying it. Although I think a police man saying, ‘You were doing eighty-five in a thirty miles per hour zone,’ followed by ‘So was your face,’ would work quite well.
You’ve been a journalist, a screenwriter, and you’re now primarily a novelist. Honestly, if you could earn millions at any single one of them, which would you choose?
Well you’re never going to earn them as a journalist! I still write a lot of screenplays, but it’s just getting harder to get them made. I really don’t mind where the millions come from. Probably from the screenplay based on the novel, with me starring and singing on the soundtrack.
After the success of ‘Divorcing Jack’ as a film, how ‘Hollywood’ did life get for you?
It didn’t! A trip to Cannes and a fun premiere in Belfast, and then it was back to normal. The British film industry is very different to Hollywood!
You say on your website that the producers took control of ‘Murphy’s Law’ after series two, which seemed to rankle with you, but allowed you the time to concentrate on other pursuits. How do you feel about it now? And what do you think of the direction in which they took it?
I have a tendency to hold grudges, but am content with the knowledge that one day I will have my revenge. So still bitter. And twisted. I just think it was lazy – if you’re going to change a character so much that he’s completely different, then just go and create a different series. Of course, the new version got better reviews, so I’m buggered whatever way you look at it. And so’s your face.
Can you give us a little information on ‘Little Fishes’? Ardal O’Hanlon and Alastair MacGowan sound like a dream team. What’s the premise?
This one has been knocking around for years. It very nearly got made. The head of BBC 1 came to see a staged reading of it, then resigned the next day. I’m sure the two were connected. It got buried after that. But no bad thing, looking back, it wasn’t great. Currently working with BBC Comedy on a tv version of ‘Mystery Man’. It may or may not get made, you never know with these things.
So if you bring ‘Mystery Man’ and it’s characters to TV, what sort of format would it be? An hour long, six-parter or something? The press release that came with the book says that SMG, the creators of Rebus and Taggart, are currently seeking a high profile cast. Have you got anyone in mind yourself?
SMG had a very early version of the idea, long before the book was written. I’ve now written a script based on the novel, one hour long, with the intention of making six episodes. But it’s very much a long shot, a lot of scripts get written, extremely few made.
Do you have any plans to write another childrens book?
I’ve written five so far, and have just (literally) today finished the sixth, which is the first in a series about a charity which flies to environmental or troubled hotspots around the world rescuing people, animals etc. It’s called, ‘SOS: Icequake!’ and should be out for the summer.
I was wondering what period of movie history you’re most drawn to? ‘The Day Of The Jack Russell’ reminded me so much of the Bogart and Bacall movies, which also begs the question, which writers inspire you? I’m guessing Hammett and Chandler are in there?
Well I’ve always been a big movie buff, so I’m inspired by all periods. But I do like good, fast, snappy dialogue. You don’t get that much of it these days. I often think when I see the huge blockbusters, why didn’t they hire someone to do some decent dialogue and they could have added another $50 million at the box office for the sake of a few thousand? Hammett and Chandler yes, although I haven’t read them in 30 years.
Do you think it’s more valuable to be inspired by reading or watching something wonderful, or by watching something terrible and knowing you can better it?
Both! It may be a Northern Irish thing, but I’ve always had the attitude when I see a movie or read a book, ‘I can be as crap as that.’ i.e. give me a chance and let’s see what happens. It’s really all about getting your first break. I’ve been very lucky.
How much planning do you do for a novel? How do you form a structure, or are you the kind of writer who prefers to sit down each day with a blank page and a simple idea of what’s to come?
I don’t really plan at all. I usually start with a title, and then a vague idea for an opening scene. The new one starts with graffiti being drawn on an advertising hoarding, and that came to me while I was swimming up and down a pool while on holiday, and by the time I climbed out I had the first two or three chapters done in my head, and then it was a scramble to get it down on paper before I forgot it all. One I had the grafitti it’s a matter of getting the characters talking – who did, why would they do it, how do we track them down, what would happen to them next, and before you know it you’re half way through the book.
On average, how many drafts of a novel do you write?
One. I re-write and edit as I go.
And how do you feel about e-books?
All for it, whatever way you can get your stuff out there. Looking into releasing some of my own out of print books privately as downloads.
What can being on the Richard and Judy list do for a writer? From conversations with other writers that have had their books chosen, it seems as though it’s perceived in the industry as the golden ticket. What changed for you?
I am the kiss of death for most things! Day after I got on the list, the Richard and Judy Show got cancelled! Seriously, over the years they’ve had at least a hundred writers. A very few go on to million selling status, most just see a decent improvement in sales. That’s where I am. Really it’s about getting into places where you don’t normally sell – like Tescos and Asda. Then hopefully it has a knock on effect with the following books.
Seeing as you’re the kiss of death for most things, will you do me a favour and think about appearing on Strictly Come Dancing?
You’ve been included in the Daily Telegraph’s ‘Top 50 Crime Writers To Read Before You Die’ and you won the Betty Trask award. Is it hard to fit these accolades on your business cards, or do you casually drop them in after telling people your name?
Winning an award with ‘Betty’ in the title has never helped anyone’s career. It was quite nice to be in the Daily Telegraph thing, especially as most of the others were dead. But I do think they just pull names out of the ether a bit – oh, we must have a Northern Irish one. From memory the Telegraph list talking about my Dan Starkey book, ‘Wild About Harry’, when it doesn’t feature him at all.
Casanova, Liberace, Cher, Madonna and now Bateman. In your own words, your christian name is “gone but not forgotten”. What does your wife call you?
You f****** little s****, get back in your room before I kick the f****** b******* off you, you r******* f****** a******. She’s from Newtownards.
To celebrate the release of ‘The Day Of The Jack Russell’, Electro Candy is giving away five copies of the book courtesy of Headline publishing. To enter simply follow Electro Candy on Twitter (@electro_candy) and retweet the prize entry message you will find there. Winners will be drawn on November 15th and notified via Twitter.
Electro Candy would like to give special thanks to Samantha Eades from Headline