By Tim O’Mara
So, Quentin Tarantino and Patricia Highsmith walk into a bar. They hit it off, play a little pool, some darts are tossed, they argue over the best rock-and-roll song to play while killing an innocent victim. After one too many drinks, they decide they should write a crime novel together.
The result would be something along the lines of Paul Heatley’s GUILLOTINE, out now from Down & Out Books/All Due Respect.
When gangster Big Bobby Joe’s pregnant daughter Lou-Lou runs off with her boyfriend, Big Bobby pulls out all the stops to get her home and make her boyfriend dead. His first choice for the job is Mikey, known in the murder-for-hire profession as “Guillotine.” When Mikey turns the job down, an underling of Bobby Joe’s picks it up successfully, but makes the huge mistake of using the signature move that gave Mikey his moniker.
Heatley lives in northeast England, but sets his story somewhere in the American South. I asked him why and wondered if he thought there was a difference between American crime fiction and British crime fiction.
“I do write British stuff as well,” Heatley explained, “primarily set in the northeast of England—Newcastle and Northumberland, etc.—but my tastes in reading (and viewing for that matter) are very much American. It’s what I enjoy and that bleeds over into my own work when I set out planning and writing. When I start a new project I give it a little thought first: is this British or American? I go with whichever setting will work best for the story.”
Heatley said he’s noticing fewer and fewer differences between American and British crime fiction. “Outside of the settings, the lines are very much blurred. I think what a lot of that comes from is perhaps British writers being more inspired by the work of American authors of the past; you see a lot more Jim Thompson, James M. Cain, and Raymond Chandler in the British writers of today than you will, say, Agatha Christie.”
Heatley uses very little description of setting in GUILLOTINE, but it still reads very “American.” I was curious about that choice.
“I’ve only ever been to America once when I was 13 or 14, and that was to Florida,” Heatley said. “I’m 30 now so I don’t remember it all that great, but what I do remember well is the American settings of the TV shows and movies I watch. A lot of the time, the setting of these places is never entirely made clear.”
“In my head, my American-set stuff is in the South,” Heatley continued. “I see a lot of comparisons to be made with the Deep South and Northumberland, where I live. It’s my understanding that a lot of the original settlers of the American South were from the northeast of England. Chris Rhatigan, who edited and is publishing GUILLOTINE, agreed with keeping the setting vague but Southern. He’s American, and if he’s satisfied with the setting and descriptions then so am I.”
Now, I didn’t actually sit down and do the math here, but Heatley tells his story mostly through dialogue. My estimate was three-fourths of GUILLOTINE was people talking. I wanted to know if Heatley had any role models in this regard. I told him my personal role model when it comes to dialogue is George V. Higgins’s classic, The Friends of Eddie Coyle. (Which I read once a year to remind myself how it’s supposed to be done.)
“It’s funny you mention The Friends of Eddie Coyle particularly, because George V. Higgins is one of the biggest influences on my style, especially in regards to telling most of the story via dialogue,” Heatley said. “Dialogue is my favorite part of writing; it’s one of the best ways of showing instead of telling, and you can reveal so much about your characters with it. It’s my preferred method of storytelling.”
Besides Higgins, Heatley also cited Chester Himes as a major influence on his dialogue-heavy style. “Outside of these main two, I also read a lot of comics, which are dialogue driven, and I watch a lot of movies.”
I was impressed by how cinematic GUILLOTINE is. I asked which filmmakers Heatley respects and may have influenced his writing.
“That’s an interesting question,” he said. “David Lynch comes immediately to mind, though his influence probably isn’t as easily seen in GUILLOTINE as it is in some of my other stuff like, say, The Motel Whore. Other directors I like are Takashi Miike, Akira Kurosawa, Martin Scorsese, Park Chan-Wook, Andrei Tarkovsky, Nicolas Winding Refn, and Alejandro Jodorowsky.”
GUILLOTINE is told through four major points of view, all in the present tense. What was behind that choice?
“I think it’s Lou-Lou’s story,” Heatley said, “though others may reckon it’s Mikey’s and I’m okay with that too. I feel like Mikey arrives in the story fully formed. He’s already had his growth and hardships before this story begins, whereas GUILLOTINE is the story of Lou-Lou’s growth and development. Also, I’m making a more conscious effort with my female characters. I feel I’ve gone too long with having them as just complacent and secondary. With four POVs, I felt the different narratives kept the story moving along at the fast pace that I wanted, and I used present tense for the same reason. It just keeps it more urgent.”
GUILLOTINE is one of those novels where it’s hard to find a “good” guy, yet all of the characters—with the exception of Big Bobby Joe—are likable. Pulling that off is no easy feat, I pointed out.
“I mentioned Jim Thompson earlier,” Heatley reminded me. “I subscribe to his style of not caring if people like the characters or not. If they do, that’s a bonus. But for me, so long as they’re interesting enough to keep people reading, I believe that’s what matters.
“Oh, and a note on Big Bobby Joe: in my first draft his restaurants were originally called Bob’s Burgers, and I got through the whole first draft and halfway through the first read-through before I realized—‘Oh, I’m gonna have to change that!’”
I wanted to know if we’re going to see Mikey again. Perhaps Guillotine 2—Watch Your Neck.
“Well I have no plans at the minute, but I really like that title you’ve suggested!” Heatley said. “If an idea comes and I think he’s a good fit for it then we’ll likely see him again, but like I said, there’s nothing in the pipeline for now.”
Okay, final question. If Heatley were to put together a panel for ThrillerFest, who would he want on that panel—living or dead—and what would be the topic?
“Jim Thompson, Chester Himes, Harry Crews, and James Ellroy,” he said. “As for a topic? Oh man, it wouldn’t even matter. I guess it would go back to a couple of things we’ve already discussed—dialogue and setting. They all write some great dialogue, and a couple of them, Chester Himes (Harlem) and James Ellroy (LA), have cities that they’re almost synonymous with. So I’d like to hear their thoughts on this—how they work it in, and whether they find either important, or not so much. I’d just love to hear them talk!”
If Heatley could make those four talk as well as he does the characters in GUILLOTINE, that would be one heck of a discussion.
Paul Heatley’s stories have appeared online and in print for a variety of publications including Thuglit, Crime Syndicate, Shotgun Honey, Spelk, Flash Fiction Offensive, and Crime Factory, among others. He is the author of six novellas published, and An Eye for an Eye published by Near to the Knuckle. He is also a regular contributor to R2 magazine, and lives in the northeast of England.
To learn more about Paul, please visit his website.