In a Wall Street Journal interview, bestselling thriller author Lee Child describes Belfast as “perfect noir.” Perhaps that explains why the past decade has seen an unprecedented surge of crime fiction authors writing in and about Northern Ireland. Among the most recent of these is musician and songwriter Simon Maltman, whose debut novel, A Chaser on the Rocks, launched in September of 2016. Its sequel, A KILL FOR THE POET, uses dark humor and haunted characters to provide a stark contrast to the beauty of the Northern Irish setting.
A fan of the original film noir movies, Maltman is heavily influenced by Raymond Chandler. This “Chandler effect” is noticeable in sharp, gritty dialogue and an economy of prose. Even the structure of Maltman’s series is an homage to his noir roots. A Chaser on the Rocks juxtaposes the exploits of modern-day private detective Brian Caskey with those of Billy Chapman, a “fiction-within-a-fiction” P.I. in 1940s Belfast.
A KILL FOR THE POET adds yet another layer to the mix, as writer Henry Flynn picks up Billy’s tale as filtered through Brian’s persona. Or so the reader is led to believe. Maltman’s authorial sleight of hand keeps the reader guessing.
Asked why he chose this unusual “Russian nesting doll” structure, Maltman says, “I introduced that character for the prologue. I wanted to show Brian’s breakdown and to link the previous novel into the second. I was also conscious that I wanted people to be able to read the second one without any knowledge of the first. This gave the vehicle to do this. In the rest of the novel I only had the two characters and I enjoyed trying to build themes, places and experiences, linking between the two plots. The prologue also references, and is essentially a homage, to the excellent radio drama, ‘The Search for Henri Lefevre’ by Orson Welles.”
Let’s welcome Simon Maltman to The Big Thrill for a chat about A KILL FOR THE POET.
Thank you for taking the time to talk to us about your new book, Simon. The first time we talked was after the release of your debut novel. Can you tell us a little bit about your journey as a writer since then?
Yes indeed, and thanks again for having me along! Since then my publisher has released a collection of all my short stories and now my new novel too. I’ve also self-published a couple of novellas under the series title Bongo Fury.
But in A KILL FOR THE POET, you revisit the Chaser on the Rocks characters. What makes Brian a compelling protagonist?
I think that he is just a slightly more extreme version of all of us. We all have fluctuating mental health and control and we all get things confused or plain wrong. Hopefully he is likeable because he does try and wants to do what’s right by and large.
What inspired the title A KILL FOR THE POET?
I like to have titles that in some aspect sum up the book and also have more than one meaning. Percy French (the musician and painter) is a character in the book and there is a murder that can be seen as taking place for him. There is also another murder relating to another character who could be called a poet but I won’t say, so as not to give away that aspect of the plot.
What would you say the theme of the book is, and how did you reinforce it throughout?
For this book I was interested in the notion of “recovery.” I wanted to show in many ways a more positive Brian and also Billy. They have had a lot to contend with, but the important thing is that they are moving forward and still trying; they haven’t given up. You could question if they are in better places at the end, but I suppose the nature of life is not linear.
How did you weave elements of the current political climate with those Billy faces in his timeline?
Billy’s story is taking place just after the second war and truly there are similar things happening now. In the modern story I reference Brexit and Trump because they are such major factors in our consciousness, but perhaps seeing history repeating itself is the more interesting part. Despite the war being seen in part as a victory over the extreme right, there was still a surge in many places of the right wing, just as I think there is now.
Can you tell us, without giving away the ending, how you went about planting (and obscuring) the clues to it?
I like to write with my head down and not thinking too far ahead. In saying that, I often know roughly where I want things to go, but maybe not how I’m going to get there. For one of the two main plots I didn’t actually know who the ‘bad guy’ was until part of the way in. I also set up a “locked room mystery” but didn’t know how to unlock it at first—that was fun!
What’s the most interesting thing you learned or did while researching this book?
I carried out a lot of local research for the part of the story set after the war. There is also a flashback to an earlier part of the last century and I enjoyed researching that. In particular, I enjoyed looking into Percy French—who does not have quite the same recognition as other Irish writers. I enjoyed integrating some real-life facts into my story, along with some Irish mythology that I played around with a little bit.
Can you tell us a bit about your writing process?
I usually draft things out in a notebook and gradually work out what the story is very roughly. I find that an awful lot of fun and to be one of the best bits of writing. The actual writing can be a slog at times. I then get stuck in and continue to make notes as I go along.
As a now multi-published author, what advice would you give to aspiring and pre-published writers?
I would say to edit, edit, edit. Also, you have to be prepared that there is a lot of work, rejection and perseverance involved. You also have to be prepared that the writing is only a small part and these days you have to be a jack of all trades to get people to read your stuff.
What’s next? Will we see more of Brian and Billy, or will you try your hand at another series or standalone?
I would love to finish it off as a trilogy one day and I have some ideas. For now, I’m working on a standalone thriller and I’m about halfway through the first draft.
Simon Maltman is a bestselling writer and musician from Northern Ireland. A Chaser on the Rocks was his critically acclaimed debut novel, followed by the bestselling collection of shorts: More Faces. Simon is an established musician, performing with his current band The Hung Jury. He lives in Northern Ireland with his wife and two daughters.
To learn more about Simon, please join him on Facebook.