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Thursday, March 06, 2008

Australian Crime Fiction Snapshot - Alex Palmer

1. Reading your first novel, Blood Redemption, which I have just finished and enjoyed immensely, I was struck by the complexity of each of the principle characters, Paul Harrigan, Grace Riordan and Lucy Hurst. There appears to be an effort made to make all 3 sympathetic characters, would this be a reasonable observation?

This is an interesting question. Starting with Lucy, I wasn’t attempting to excuse her – what she did was terrible - but to explain her actions. I called Blood Redemption a ‘whydunit ‘ as opposed to a ‘whodunit’. For Lucy, I was unwinding the consequences of her past. Abuse of a single individual almost always spreads further than that one person. What I am really interested in and what I try to explore in my books is the psychology of violence and its effects on people. Which is one reason why I write crime because then people who are reading me will know what to expect. With Harrigan and Grace, I was interested in the effects of both dealing constantly with violence as a part of your profession and also being its victim. For Harrigan particularly, this is something I explore at greater depth in Tattooed Man. So I wanted to get into both their heads. Also my 3rd novel is a Harrigan-Grace novel and deals with Grace and her memories of violence, just as Tattooed Man does for Harrigan. If you are going to write three novels with the same characters, I think they have to be complex to maintain the interest. So I didn’t think consciously that I will make these people sympathetic. I thought more along the lines of I want to know who they are and what makes them tick. Your character has to interest, even if you are repelled by them as with a character like Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley.

2. The Tattooed Man comes 6 years after a very successful debut novel. Has the length of the intervening time been attributed to the writing / research process for book #2 or was there some down time after Blood Redemption? And I notice you’re working on a 3rd novel. Will this be a Paul Harrigan / Grace Riordan too?

As I said above, my next novel is a Harrigan-Grace novel, the third. People say I write police procedurals but I don’t see my books that way. I see them more as character driven novels that use that particular structure to make them work. I see crime writing as a highly structured, highly dramatic and artificial genre where you can deal with extreme and intense emotions and that’s why I like it. I like working in that form. Having said that, I found Tattooed Man an incredibly difficult novel to write. It was a very steep learning curve for me. That and the inevitable delays built into publishers’ decision making process, the editing process and the publication schedules increased the time delay beyond all my expectations. Fortunately, my next novel, called the Labyrinth of Drowning is completed and the manuscript is with the publishers as I write. Should it prove acceptable to them, it’s hoped Labyrinth will be out next year. I also have the draft of a quite different novel - a mystery as opposed to a Harrigan-Grace novel – which I will finish this year as well.

3. Do you read much Australian crime fiction? Can you give us a few standouts that you've read recently? What do you think of the current state of the Australian crime fiction scene?

A strange thing happened to me when I started writing crime fiction – I stopped reading it, I don’t know why. This happened when I was writing Tattooed Man and had so much trouble with it. In fact, I had difficulty reading anything, But I think the time has come to start again. So my Australian crime writers are a little older than some starting today, like PD Martin, who I haven’t read yet but intend to. I still have a great love for Peter Corris’ The Empty Beach (minus the movie which was terrible) and there’s also Garry Disher. I have Andrew McGahan Last Drinks on the pile at the moment and Peter Temple’s The Broken Shore as well.

4. What do you think could be done to better promote Australian authors either at home or abroad (or both)?

I always say that if you want to commit literary suicide, write crime in Australia. No one will know you exist and your sales will be small and as for promotion, forget it. Maybe we could stop automatically labelling crime fiction as a lesser form of writing - which is something that happens now in literary circles - and judge on its merits. Some crime is dull and formulaic; other books are well written, gripping and have something to say about the human condition. It all depends on how you use the genre. I think there’s a bit of cultural cringe here as well – we’re still inclined to think we’re second rate. I’d like better coverage in the review pages and in the media. It would be nice if the Ned Kellys were better promoted and reported. But I actually think this problem is common for a lot of Australian fiction as well as crime. It often gets no attention at all. As for overseas, you can get can better sales there than here. Blood Redemption sold better in Germany than it did here.

5. If your fictional character could meet any fictional character who would you like it to be and why?

Good question! I think I’d like Grace to try and gentle a notorious villain into talking about himself or herself, trying to work them out. Seeing what’s human about them. Seeing through to what they really are. Maybe she could match wits with Tom Ripley. Or maybe to be more in the present, she could match wits with the Joker. (I mean no disrespect in mentioning this character, given the tragedy that’s occurred.) Get to know them. Bring them in. She’d win on both counts, of course. Or maybe she could meet one of the very nasty villains of literature – Iago. She’d see through him.

Alex Palmer won a Ned Kelly Award for Best First Crime Book in 2003 with Blood Redemption and the sequel, The Tattooed Man has been recently released.

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