A festive slice of darkest noir

I’ve always been drawn to stories that were a bit dark. In particular, dark tales with a sliver of light running through them or where moral qualities are sorely tested.

All of which suits crime novels, with odds stacked against the protagonists and pressures, external and internal, mounting up, all building up to a thrilling climax. Social issues and an atmospheric setting can frame, and give a wider meaning, to the story.

Well, that’s the ideal – and it was what I wanted to do with my debut novel Black Water. (Not that I had a specific plot initially to do that, only some characters and a setting, that being along a canal.)  The story was dredged out of my soul and hauled onto the banks of the world.

The Canal – where the story of Black Water unfolds. Pic: Jacinta Leigh

It took eight long years of toil and effort, rejection and pain, but ultimately delight and the stuff of dreams.

Black Water was published in April 2018, thanks to Black and White, an independent publisher based in Edinburgh. They saw something in it and took a punt. Thanks to Ali, Campbell and editors Graham and, in particular, Emma. (Thanks to Tim Bingham for pics on the night of the launch.)

Me in a state of shock outside Dubray Book Shop on Dublin’s Grafton St the night of the launch. Pic: Tim Bingham

There are many people who got me to this place, including the writers at the Irish Crime Fiction Group (in particular, organisers Carolann Copland and Laurence O’Bryan), authors Andrea Carter, Ann O’Loughlin and Louise Philips. Hats off to ghost reader Dearbhail McDonald, friend and publicist Peter O’Connell and scout, event organiser, author and all-round good egg Vanessa O’Loughlin, and my agent, Ger Nichol. Also, cheers to Gill Hess for the PR and sales.

Crime Fiction Group gang: Jackie Walsh, Susan Condon and (famous author) Patricia Gibney at my launch

Special thanks to my wife, Jacinta, who helped, pushed and prodded – and had hugs on hand through the hard times.

Community activist Fergus McCabe (who launched my book) and my editor Emma Hargrave at the launch

I had no idea how the book would be received. To me it was a bit different; it didn’t really fit existing moulds. It was not a psychological thriller or a domestic noir, nor was it a classic police procedural. But it did combine elements of a thriller and a procedural.

Here’s what a couple of book bloggers thought…

“Black Water is an astonishing debut that literally took my breath away.” https://www.writing.ie/readers/black-water-by-cormac-o-keeffe/
“Black Water is a novel that opened my eyes and broke my heart.” https://stephsbookblog.com/2018/04/20/black-water-by-cormac-okeeffe-blog-tour-review/

Me with (famous) author, advisor and friend Andrea Carter at the launch

“Even among the stellar crime fiction that’s been published recently, Black Water stands out.” http://www.theliteraryshed.co.uk/read/the-literary-lounge/black-water-an-entree-into-dublins-underworld
“An intensely addictive reading experience, one that will stay with you long after you turn that final page. Terrific stuff.” http://lizlovesbooks.com/lizlovesbooks/black-water-cormac-okeefe-blog-tour-review/
“A novel that stands out from the rest, with real depth and intensity, and a narrative heavy with brilliant imagery. It cleverly balances social comment with a deftly realised plot that is intense and fast paced.”    https://mybookishblogspot.wordpress.com/2018/04/10/blogtour-black-water-by-cormac-okeeffe-cormacjokeeffe-bwpublishing-linalanglee/

And these were some of the reviews in the media..

Irish Times: “A compelling work of darkest noir” https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/the-best-new-crime-fiction-1.3459742
Irish Independent: “A searing debut thriller”

Irish Examiner: “Violent and gritty, this debut sings with authenticity. I couldn’t put it down.”
Books Ireland: “Generally, I find the grittier crime novels hard to stomach…but this debut blew me away.”


And here are a few other links to reviews

UK Crime Review: “Black Water moves at almost breakneck pace and is brilliantly plotted and totally compelling.”  http://crimereview.co.uk/page.php/review/6361
The Student: “In the midst of the gritty events, there are beautiful descriptive passages and examples of humanity, tenderness and normality. This dynamic, the possibility of hope and improvement, is what draws the reader in and maintains their interest.” http://www.studentnewspaper.org/black-water/

But this one topped the year for me – getting into the Best Crime Fiction of 2018 in the Irish Times https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/the-best-crime-fiction-of-2018-1.3722683?mode=amp

2018 was a special year. A festive slice of darkest noir to you all and best of luck in 2019 to readers and writers alike.

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White canal

What is rare is beautiful. And the canal blanketed in snow and etched in ice is one such beauty, thanks to the #BeastFromTheEast and #StormEmma.

It’s not the Black Water of my novel. More the White Canal.

Photos taken by my wife, Jacinta Leigh of Scatterpillar Designs.

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snow18-canalwalk

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snow18-canalswans

snow18-canalbirdsinair

 

The day after the photos were taken, the thaw has begun and the landscape is shifting, slowly, from banks of powdery snow to mounds of slush. So, with it, the rare beauty.

 

 

 

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Painting a picture

Stephen King said something along the lines that a writer is trying to paint a picture in the mind of the reader.

Painting the setting is part of that. You are trying to drop the reader into an area – or, for me, drop them in and wade them through.

The canal (the Grand Canal in my case) is the setting for my novel, a particular stretch of it actually. The canal is a character in its own right. As the publication of Black Water nears, I want to start putting up some images from the canal and its environs, to give a sense of its beauty and grit (and the blurred line between both) and kinda set the scene for the story.

So..

Take a seat

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meet the swans

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admire the graffiti

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stroll under the bridges

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take in the scorch marks

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pop down for some shopping

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jump on the Luas

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and meet the author…

Popeye

driving this God damn novel over the line…

 

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Review: Good Cop, Bad War

Book Review

Good Cop, Bad War 

Neil Woods

Ebury Press, €18 hardback

 

 

 

Review: Cormac O’Keeffe

Having a sword pressed to your throat in the course of your work might be a sign that you should reconsider your job.

Not that it stopped Neil Woods.

Neither did being almost deliberately run over by a car, having a knife pushed against his back, or being repeatedly headbutted by a group of heavies.

But, it’s fair to say, Neil’s job is not your average occupation.

For a staggering 14 years, between 1993 to 2007, he was an undercover agent for a British police force.

According to the blurb for his book Good Cop, Bad War he was “the first and best of his kind”.

As the title suggests, it was a mission which he gradually became to believe was not only unachievable but fundamentally wrong. The mission in question was the so-called ‘war of drugs’.

It’s a debate that has come in from the fringes to the mainstream in recent years.

Neil’s story is one that has been little heard in that debate, primarily because his line of work is shrouded in secrecy and some controversy.

He provides a compelling argument against the so-called war, although it is up to the reader to determine if it is a convincing one.

Neil’s book, written in conjunction with JS Rafaeli, details the human costs of the war, seen through the impact inflicted on, for want of a better word, the ‘footsoldiers’.

These are the users and user-dealers, through whom undercover agents must go, and must exploit, in order to get to the people above them – those at the middle and higher ranks.

These individuals are expendable, and in many cases are essentially ‘entrapped’ into committing crime.

But more than that, these individuals have their safety, and very life, put at risk – because if and when the dealers above them are caught, they will be blamed for assisting the agent.

While I may have put a few of the gang away for a while,” Neil writes after one successful operation, ‘I had done absolutely nothing to address the situation that actually gave them their power. And, along the way, I had made a lot of vulnerable lives even more unbearable.”

And there’s more, he says. Because of the work of police – and the fear gangs have of undercover agents – bosses impose ever greater levels of intimidation and violence to protect their empire.

This, in turn, inflicts greater misery and terror on users, potential witnesses and entire communities.

Neil Woods

Not only that, police officers are vulnerable to corruption.

Neil provides a great public service in giving a voice to these addicts and addict-dealers and gives us a moving insight into their grim and grinding, and often dangerous, daily lives.

He also paints a picture of the scale of economic devastation and social neglect of whole areas of the East Midlands, from Derby to Leicester, to Northampton and Nottingham.

It’s not that Neil doesn’t show the benefits of his work: truly despicable gang bosses were jailed by virtue of his bravery.

But to Neil, this does not balance out the costs. To him, the end does not justify the means.

This is not a dry book – in fact, there is humour throughout and plenty of entertainment and genuine thrills – and his tone is chatty and breezy.

Neil lived to tell the tale, but at a considerable price. He suffered severe stress and was only at the end diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. His work contributed to domestic strife and the collapse of his first marriage.

He went from “cop to campaigner” and is now part of a group, LEAP UK, calling for legalisation.

This is not a cool and balanced pro and con analysis of the debate. But it is a fascinating and telling insight, one that warrants reading and reflection by policy makers, shapers and practitioners.

This review first appeared in the Irish Examiner on 2 September 2017.

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The post I feared I might never write

 

Well, this is a post I wished I would write sometime – but feared I might never.

My novel is due to be a book. An actual published book.

I have signed a contract with Black & White Publishing. And, it’s due out next year.

There, I’ve said it.

I’m waiting for someone to tip me on the shoulder or to knock on the door and shout, ‘Fooled You’ or ‘Fool You’ or ‘Sorry, there has been a big mix up’. Or something like that.

It has taken me a month to write this. A month since I signed the contract and the publisher counter signed. I’m not sure what I have been waiting for, apart from the knock on the door or that tap on my shoulder.

My wife says there’s something wrong with me. I think she’s right. (“Hi, I am his wife and I can verify that YES, there is something wrong…..)

Next up are the edits. That should be okay, shouldn’t it?

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Ireland’s underbelly sliced open

Traumatised souls. Murderous housewives. Wise-cracking hitmen. Bloody revenge. It’s all there in this excellent collection of short stories from Irish crime writers.

 

 

Review: Trouble Is Our Business

Edited by Declan Burke

New Island, €19.95 Hardback

 

Búla bos to editor and crime writer Declan Burke and New Island for Trouble Is Our Business. The collection of 24 productions receives the endorsement of no less than Lee Child in a foreword.

This is not exclusively a collection of crime writing, with contributions here that could easily sit in book sections marked Ghost Stories, Horror and Sci-Fi.

There’s a sense of careful planning in the writers selected — with a more or less equal representation of genders and both sides of the Border.

Burke says that the first half of the book is dominated by male writers and the latter half by female ones, representing the trend over time.

Actually, all the relative newcomers are women — Niamh O’Connor, Louise Phillips, Sinéad Crowley and Liz Nugent.

There are entertaining reads: Phillips’s murderous, frustrated housewife in ‘Double’; Gene Kerrigan’s trademark slice of gangland noir in ‘Cold Cards’; a wise-cracking killer, deliciously executing vigilante justice, in Ken Bruen’s ‘Miller’s Lane’ and Alex Barclay’s pulsating four-page blast of blood-soaked Americana in ‘Roadkill Heart’.

There are troubling tales, driven by social issues of domestic violence and child neglect-come deceit, in Arlene Hunt’s ‘Thicker than Water’ and Adrian McKinty’s ‘Fivemiletown’.

There are some stories that don’t work, but they are buoyed up by the overall quality.

There are first-rate contributions from Colin Bateman, Eoin McNamee, Julie Parsons, John Connolly, Stuart Neville, William Ryan and Jane Casey.

Bateman delivers a stunning vignette, tightly-packed in just seven pages, of a traumatised North in ‘The Gaining of Wisdom’.

We are presented with a mother doing her supermarket shopping, the most ordinary of scenarios, where she is jolted back to past traumas when she sees the killer of her teenage brother “in an aisle devoted to spices and condiments”.

The power in this story and the beauty of the writing are worth the price of the book alone.

In a slightly more demanding, and successfully-crafted, story, Eoin McNamee also deals with the trauma of the North in ‘Beyond the Bar, Waiting’ — this time tracing the brutal treatment of children.

It is a sad and haunting tale and, given recent inquiries in the North and fresh revelations in the south, a well-timed contribution.

‘Kindness’ by Julie Parsons runs at a more measured pace, which makes its success as a story all the more impressive.

She paints a lonely but captivating main character in elderly Gwen Gibbon, who is dependent on, and treasures, acts of kindness in a noisy, bewildering and cold world.

John Connolly’s eerie ‘The Evenings with Evans’ made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.

Revenge is the engine for the tale, but it’s the setting and the assured writing, which serve up a ghostly, Gothic tale, that makes this story particularly satisfying.

In ‘Green, Amber, Red’, Jane Casey gives us a deeply unsettling yarn, more like a horror story, of a warped couple with a deeply twisted take on parenting.

Also unnerving, in a spooky way, is William Ryan’s ‘Murphy’. The unnamed protagonist, his mind fractured by a terrible act of violence, walks the beach, where he meets a mysterious woman and his memories begin to reassemble.

One of the most powerful offerings, perhaps surpassing Bateman’s tale, also comes from another northerner in Stuart Neville.

‘The Catastrophist’, set along the lawless borderlands, initially jarred in that it seemed to this reader to borrow too heavily from events in real life.

However, the quality and sincerity of Neville’s work adds weight, rather than any insult, to that injustice.

It is a deeply moving, but also thrilling, read, following a killer, traumatised by his own actions, facing a stark choice of lesser evils, with the stake on the decision his own life.

Top-notch stuff.

 

This review was published in the Irish Examiner

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If you are kidnapped, never tell a lie…

THERE’S a black and white photograph in the opening pages of The ISIS Hostage. It’s of the hostage: Daniel Rye, a young Danish photojournalist.

He stands in darkness and appears to be looking sadly out of some sort of blackened out window.

Even in the gloom, his blond hair stands out. But apart from a mood of despondency, there is no other emotional connection.

However, by the time you finish reading the book, it’s difficult to dwell on the image.

It’s hard to accept that such horror happened to an ordinary young man, who only wanted to tell of the suffering of the Syrian people.

Daniel was one of 24 hostages — 19 men and five women — taken captive by the so-called Islamic State, the bulk of them in 2013. They were all journalists, photographers or aid workers.

The author of the book is fellow Danish journalist Puk Damsgard, a veteran Middle East correspondent.

Puk Damsgard

It is to her credit, and the mark of an old-school journalist, that she leaves the telling of the tale, in the main, to the experiences of the main actors.

The quality of the writing itself, however, is mixed. Sentences are sometimes clunky and flat, other times sharp and gripping.

At the start, we come across Daniel, post release, on a flight to the United States for the funeral service of James Foley — the American journalist who was beheaded by ISIS in August 2014.

His British killer, the notorious ‘Jihad John’, became a household name at the time.

Out of his 13 months in captivity, Daniel spent eight of them with Foley, who converted to Islam during his imprisonment.

After the prologue, the reader is brought back to how Daniel came to be in Syria, where his life, and his family’s, was ripped apart in May 2013.

Daniel came from a modest background: his mother Susanne was a hairdresser and his stepfather Kjeld was a lorry driver. His dad, a fisherman, died when he was just three.

Daniel had two particular talents: gymnastics, where he competed at national and international level, and photography. As the Syrian civil war erupted, he became interested and wanted to capture the experiences of its citizens at the hands of the Assad dictatorship.

In April 2013, he flew to Gaziantep in southern Turkey and met up with a ‘fixer’, a local used by journalists, and networked with other journalists and aid workers.

On his return to Denmark, he had a phone conversation with a man known only as Arthur — a security consultant who came to have a pivotal role in his life.

He advised Daniel against the trip to Syria, saying the risk of kidnapping had grown since 2012 and that journalists were fair game among Islamist rebel groups.

Daniel Rye

“If Daniel were kidnapped, the golden piece of advice was: never tell a lie, create a routine for yourself and play the game,” Damsgard writes.

Daniel said his goodbyes to family and his girlfriend Signe and supplied them with contact numbers, including for Arthur.

From the start, he encountered problems and his photojournalism didn’t last long. After meeting the ‘local authorities’ Daniel, aged 24, was handcuffed and blindfolded.

His parents didn’t get the scheduled phone call from him and they rang the police. The fixer rang Arthur, who discovered Daniel’s captors were ISIS.

Daniel’s hell had only started.

It was an existence that would be dominated by disgusting sanitary conditions, beatings, torture, cramped spaces, hunger, heat and cold.

And there were death threats — of beheadings and the like.

These were interspersed by little moments of indulgences, like toilets and decent food. Early on, he made an escape attempt, but was quickly caught and beaten.

“He had reached a state of total exhaustion,” Damsgard writes. “Three weeks had now passed since he had been captured and he was starving, thirsty and urinating in his

trousers. His body simply couldn’t take it anymore.” He had more than 12 months to go.

He was moved throughout his captivity and, in the first stages, he was held in various parts of a children’s hospital in Aleppo.

There he tried to take his own life, by hanging, but it didn’t work.

Slowly, other prisoners joined him.

His torment continued, suffering terrible wounds to his hands and wrists.

And there was humiliation: forced to bark like a dog and bray like a donkey to his captors.

Susanne went a month without hearing anything. Then news came through via Arthur of talk of $700,000 ransom demand.

But the family was in a Catch 22: the Danish State prohibited payment of money to terrorist groups.

Around July, the family received their first picture of Daniel.

More prisoners joined Daniel: one from Denmark and more from France and Britain, and later Americans, including James Foley.

They were moved around regularly. They gave their various prisons names, like ‘The Box’, ‘Cigar Box’ and ‘The Dungeon’.

The prisoners played games and told stories — often of simple pleasures — to try and pass the time.

Daniel did his gymnastics and showed the others exercises.

The guards were mainly from the same countries as them, particularly Britain and France.

The prisoners called four of their captors, all British, ‘The Beatles’, and gave them the bands’ names. These guards were “feared the most”.

At one stage, Daniel had a gun shoved into his mouth. Another time, a sabre was held against his neck and he was asked did he want to lose his head.

Interpersed with Daniel’s tale, we follow the lives of Arthur and Daniel’s family.

The book gives an insight into the resourcefulness and expertise of Arthur, who was also trying to find Foley.

James Foley

Daniel’s parents half-lived and had to shield Daniel’s situation from everyone — as they didn’t want it to get into the media and inflame the situation.

At Christmas time, Foley’s parents got an email demanding $100m for his release.

At the time, the guards told Daniel he was going home — but it didn’t happen.

As bombs pounded around them in Aleppo, they were moved to Raqqa, the ISIS capital, where after a brief respite, the beatings and kickings resumed in their new jail, ‘The Quarry’.

Prisoners from Spain and France, where governments allowed ransoms to be paid, began to be released, dispiriting Daniel further.

A fresh demand of €2m was made for Daniel. His family had no choice but to risk publicity and began a massive fundraising campaign.

While the law prohibited financing terrorism it didn’t specifically criminalise the payment of a ransom to save a life.

On his 25th birthday, the guards gave Daniel a kick for every year.

The family eventually collected the money.

Now, they had to get it, all in cash, to the Turkey border. This was where Arthur stepped in again, an intriguing passage in the book.

On 19 June 2014, Daniel tasted freedom.

He had nightmares about being kidnapped and flinched when someone made a sudden noise.

His girlfriend Signe had moved on — another terrible price he paid.

Somehow, he forgave his captors.

“He found it easier to forgive than to be angry and filled with hatred,” Damsgard says.

Daniel survived. Unlike James Foley and six other of the prisoners.

 

*This review originally published in the Irish Examiner

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