By Tim O’Mara
In his new thriller, LAST YEAR’S MAN, Paul D. Brazill introduces us to Tommy Bennett, an aging hitman who grows increasingly troubled by his life in London. Hoping for a respite from his violent lifestyle, Tommy decides to head back to his more peaceful childhood seaside home in North East England, only to find the ghosts of his past have come back to haunt him.
Geez, what’s a veteran of multiple murders for hire have to do to catch a break?
Via email—Brazill lives in Poland and I’m in New York City, a seven-hour time difference—I asked Brazill what the deal is with readers’ continued fascination with hired killers. These are men—and occasionally women—who make a living ending people’s lives. Why are we so drawn to them and, at times, actually find ourselves rooting for them?
“Sometimes ties with the past are more like a leash or even shackles,” Brazill says. “Wouldn’t it be great to erase the past? But first, of course, you’d have to erase the people. I think it’s no surprise that hitmen are often referred to as ‘cleaners.’ We all would like someone to tidy up our lives for us from time to time, to tie up those annoying loose ends. Indeed, that’s what crime fiction—particularly the police procedural—does in many ways. It tidies up messy situations. (Noir, on the other hand, creates chaos from order.) The hitman is like an X-rated version of the Good Fairy in Cinderella.”
I ask why Brazill has chosen the novella form for this tale instead of turning it into a longer novel.
“Maybe it’s because I usually prefer singles to albums?” he says. “But really, it seemed to be just the right length to tell the tale I wanted to tell. LAST YEAR’S MAN was originally longer, but I sliced off quite a bit. A lot of crime fiction seems to be padded out with middle-class soap opera and I wanted to avoid that.”
Music blares off the page throughout the book, I point out. (As if he needed me to do so.) What role does music play in Brazill’s life? Does he listen to music when he writes? I want him to talk to me a bit about Barrington Levy’s “Murderer,” one of the songs referenced in the book.
“I’ve played in a couple of bands, and I spent years working in a second-hand record shop in my hometown,” Brazill says. “The ‘time of my life’ was probably going to see bands at the end of the ’70s and in the early ’80s. I listen to music to get into the mood for writing, so film soundtracks and instrumentals work best. Levy’s ‘Murderer’ is a song I associate with living in London in the ’90s. It’s quite incongruous in the cold and rainy northeast of England. I used it to show Tommy how his hometown now isn’t the version he remembers. It’s a deceptively catchy tune that is actually quite sinister, lyrically.”
Here’s a quick sample of those “catchy” lyrics. Sounds like a hitman song to me:
They let me tell me that I’m a murderer
Dress up in a jacket, then dress up in a tie
Want to deprive
I’m a murderer
Another motif that shows up again and again is the theme of nostalgia. The word comes from the Latin, roughly translated as “the pain of going home.” How much of a role does nostalgia play in Tommy Bennett’s life?
“For sure, LAST YEAR’S MAN is a very nostalgic book,” Brazill says. “Tommy returns to his hometown looking for respite, although he never actually felt at home when he lived there. Like a lot of people, Tommy felt less like a fish out of water in London, probably because everyone is an outsider in London. As Sir Arthur Conan Doyle said, ‘London—that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained.’”
LAST YEAR’S MAN is being published through an independent publisher, All Due Respect (an imprint of Down & Out Books). How does that experience compare to working with a more traditional publisher?
“It’s all down to the people,” says Brazill. “All Due Respect and Down & Out Books are very hands on, and [Down & Out founder] Eric Campbell, [Down & Out associate editor] Lance Wright, and [All Due Respect co-publisher] Chris Rhatigan are truly fans of the books they publish.”
“Paul is always a joy to work with no matter where he is,” Rhatigan told me. “He’s involved in every aspect of the publication process and works as hard as any writer I know. Plus his writing is stylish, funny, and entertaining, which makes my job easy.”
I was curious if there are any books that Brazill returns to from time to time, maybe for inspiration or just pure enjoyment. (For me, those go-back-to books are Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs, George V. Higgins’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon.)
“The books that I’ve reread most,” Brazill says, “are probably Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, Colin Wilson’s Ritual in the Dark, and Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. They’ve all got personality in spades!”
That leads us to one last question: if Brazill could put together his dream panel—living or dead—for ThrillerFest, with himself as moderator, whom would he choose and what would the topic be?
“Jim Thompson, Patricia Highsmith, and Derek Raymond,” he says. “They are known to be misanthropes of the highest order—possibly sociopaths with regard to the first two, and narcissists all. They were all more than somewhat fond of a tipple or two, also. Bringing them together would certainly make sparks fly and would never, ever be dull. The topic would be ‘How to Turn That Frown Upside-down.’ ”
There’s a line from Leonard Cohen’s “Last Year’s Man,” from which Brazill took the title for his story:
The rain falls down on last year’s man,
An hour has gone by
And he has not moved his hand.
I don’t think we have to worry about Brazill’s hand not moving. He still seems to have plenty of stories left to tell. As far as rain falling down on him, it’s clear that he’s smart enough to come inside. That is, after all, where most of his writing gets done.
Paul D. Brazill’s books include Too Many Crooks, A Case of Noir, Guns of Brixton, The Last Laugh, and Kill Me Quick! He was born in England and lives in Poland. His writing has been translated into Italian, Finnish, Polish, German and Slovene. He has had writing published in various magazines and anthologies, including The Mammoth Books of Best British Crime.