Veteran author Denise Mina and newbie Frankie Boyle discuss what makes a great crime novel, celebrity authors getting in on the act and their shared affection for comics
The heat is murderous in a sweltering photography studio just off north London’s Caledonian Road, a fitting locale for the meeting of two Scots: the bestselling crime writer Denise Mina and the comedian and now fellow crime novelist Frankie Boyle. While they don’t know each other well, the two have many friends in common where they live only a mile apart in Glasgow.
With his red hair and pale skin, Boyle looks particularly uncomfortable in the 30C-plus temperatures, and I half expect the punishing conditions to trigger his notoriously acerbic observational skills.
But he’s a surprisingly benign presence, inclined to laughter, and so softly spoken it’s often hard to pick up on what he says. By contrast, Mina is as clear as a bell and unapologetically forthright in her opinions, which it’s fair to say have been well-earned. She is, after all, the seasoned writer in the room, having authored 16 highly regarded crime novels, not to mention three plays and various graphic works. Val McDermid has called her “crime-writing royalty”.
She published her first thriller, the critically acclaimed Garnethill, 24 years ago when she was 32. Boyle, who turns 50 next month, has just made his debut with Meantime, a tale of a Glaswegian addict who haphazardly investigates the murder of his best friend. It boasts impressive tributes from Mina and Ian Rankin on its cover. “A darkest noir, unputdownable crime novel”, says Mina, while Rankin describes it as a “twisted Caledonian take on Altman’s The Long Goodbye”, referring to the subversive 70s film adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s finest Philip Marlowe novel.
Rather than sit down at a blank screen and determinedly apply backside to chair, Boyle wrote the book on his phone as he walked around Glasgow taking in the various settings that he describes in the narrative. It’s a novel way of writing a novel, but why was he drawn to the already crowded field of crime fiction? In Scotland, the likes of Rankin, Mina herself, Val McDermid and many others have long been herded together under the title “tartan noir”.
Mina jumps in with an unusual explanation for Boyle’s and her own love of the form. “We both read comics,” she says, “and one of the things about comics is they talk about really difficult subjects in a really palatable packaging. That’s what crime fiction for me can do. And I think that’s what you’re doing as well,” she continues, looking across to Boyle, “talking about really difficult things that if you put them in an opinion piece or in a column would just bore the arse off anyone reading them. You’re kind of repaying the audience’s attention by entertaining them while at the same time talking about the things that preoccupy you.”
Boyle agrees, developing Mina’s point. “The characters [in a crime novel] have a licence. I guess since Chandler or whatever they’ve had that licence to wander about places that we can’t go, to access different worlds.”
There is another obvious draw of crime fiction: it sells. Its popular exponents sell a huge amount, but it’s a big, baggy category that necessarily contains James Ellroy and Agatha Christie, one moment unblinking visions of street life, the next decorous detection among the upper classes.
Perhaps lying more towards the Christie end of the spectrum is the recent and highly successful arrival of daytime TV star Richard Osman. The brains behind the quizshow Pointless, Osman went straight to the top of the bestseller charts with both his debut mystery, The Thursday Murder Club, and his second, The Man Who Died Twice. His third in the series, The Bullet That Missed, will be out in September. Other famous names getting in on the act and writing thrillers and crime novels include Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, James Naughtie, Andrew Marr, Tom Watson, Robert Peston and the Reverend Richard Coles. Such celebrity turns have left many writers feeling envious of the heavyweight promotion that goes with the territory.
In a recent column for the Observer, the novelist Stephanie Merritt suggested, not entirely seriously, that celebrities should have to publish their first novels pseudonymously with the same promotion budget as civilian debutants. What does Boyle think of that idea?
“That’s strange,” he says, smiling. “I can’t think of many bad celebrity novels. Like I read Ardal O’Hanlon’s one and I thought it was pretty good. Then I read a couple of reviews, one was really positive and the other negative, and neither was much like what I’d read.”
“I got much better reviews in literary magazines when I got a better haircut,” the punkishly primped Mina says. “It’s all subjective.”
Boyle adopts the persona of a precious critic: “‘Should these sort of people be allowed to write books or should we kill them?’ But a bad book is not going to get published, anyway.”
He maintains that it’s a misconception that celebrities can easily get into print. Mina is quick to endorse his point. “I know so many people who are famous who have written books that didn’t get published,” she says. “It’s really hard. It’s hard to write a book first of all. You’re face-to-face with your own limitations. I mean, it’s not a pleasant experience. So a lot of people don’t have the discipline to sit down and do it. And editors can’t just swan in and fix a book just because someone’s really famous.”
Boyle is a longtime reader of crime fiction, citing Ellroy as one of his favourite authors. By contrast, Mina was not a particular fan of the genre before entering it, although she’d been thinking about writing a novel for the previous 12 years. “I thought it was like being a pop star,” she recalls, “an exciting idea, but how would you even go about that?”
She initially wrote 80 pages, came to a standstill, and took a writing course at the Women’s Library. She then sent a letter off to a literary agency declaring that she was a massive extrovert who “can’t wait to draw attention to myself”, even falsely claiming that a) she had done standup comedy and b) that she had completed the novel. When an agent wrote back asking to see the rest of the book, she set about writing it.
Thriller-writing, she says, is “the job for an angry loner”. She looks across to Boyle and adds drily, “I don’t know if that’s something that appeals to you”, which brings forth a big guffaw from the comedian.
Boyle’s route into crime fiction has been more circuitous but with a much shorter gestation. Having written a couple of memoirs, including the memorably titled My Shit Life So Far, he found himself experimenting with a narrator’s voice but not with the intention of developing it into a novel. Then he started looking at a detective format and decided he wanted to examine the “postcolonial thing in Glasgow”.
If Boyle’s narrator is, like his creator, a straight white male, albeit one with multiple drug dependencies, almost everyone else in the book has what might be called a marginalised identity. Set in the wake of the referendum for Scottish independence, the city becomes a kind of battleground for different ideas of Scottishness, Britishness, history and globalism.
Mina suggests that hardboiled crime novelists are able to explore “working-class social history” in a way that isn’t dull or worthy but is instead propelled by a powerful imagination.
So far Boyle appears to have pleased the critics. The Observer reviewer, who happened to be Merritt, gave it a rave notice, calling it “enjoyably dark and entertaining”. The Daily Telegraph called the book “a gloriously funny treat of a novel”. How does it feel to get support from that quarter? “I’ll take it,” he says, although he admits that he hasn’t fully read the Telegraph review. “I don’t know that the paywall dropped long enough for me to finish it,” he quips.
Among many offerings that the crime novel has bestowed upon us is the cutting comic simile, of which Chandler was the original master. Boyle has littered his novel with caustic and often surreal similes. For example, he describes a “man so enormously fat that he looked like he was sitting with his head out of a Fiat’s sunroof”. Sometimes the similes come in such quick succession that they almost act as the narrative engine in themselves. Was the opportunity to write such lines part of the attraction of a detective novel?
“Well there’s a slight overlap between that kind of writing and insult comedy,” he says. “Chandler and those kind of people would have been writing at the time of Groucho Marx.”
Mina instantly warms to this theme, noting that Chandler had worked with Billy Wilder (they co-wrote Double Indemnity but didn’t like each other), who was writing what Mina calls “that kind of staccato dialogue”. She posits the theory that the novelist may have stolen the technique from the director-screenwriter.
Chandler fans would probably demur, as he’d already published several books in that style, but Mina does have a certain expertise in the field on account of the fact that she is actually writing a Philip Marlowe novel under agreement from the Chandler estate. “I just realised there’s not enough full stops,” she jokes about the project. “I need to get a big bucket of full stops!”
In any case, she tells Boyle, she thinks his own voice is notably constrained in his crime novel.
That’s all the Valium the narrator is taking, I chip in.
“Yeah,” says Mina, “but it’s brilliant because it does feel like a modern-day Chandler book. I nearly complimented you there,” she adds, fixing her piercing eyes on Boyle. “If we were on Scottish soil we’d be engaged.”
That brings forth another volley of laughter from the comedian, and it strikes me, not for the first time, that it’s Mina who’s the more natural comic performer – no wonder she told that agent she did standup comedy.
Boyle has said that he was an alcoholic until he was 26, when he quit drinking, and he’s also spoken about using various drugs. He mentions that he wrote My Shit Life So Far on ecstasy. So what was the reason for making his narrator someone who is constantly under the influence of one drug or another?
“I was reading that Don DeLillo book White Noise, where people just discourse. For instance, there’s this long passage in it about the dollar gap in the 1970s, which I think is really interesting – although most editors would probably want that out. Anyway, I thought it would be quite funny to do something like that, and it fitted in with the narrator being drunk and drugged a lot of the time that he might just ramble.”
There are indeed many such digressions in Boyle’s book, which makes me think of something Mina once said in an interview. If you’ve got the attention of the reader with the whodunnit aspect of the plot, she said, “you can’t bore the tits off them with your view of the world”.
Did he have his own version of that injunction?
“No,” he says, “because it was just like, what do I like to read? And maybe that’s part of this thing of not really needing to earn a living from it.” Giving his narrator a drug-fogged worldview is also in part a reaction to “this modern thing of people being incredibly emphatic. It partly comes from social media where everybody’s very polemical all the time, and I think it’s difficult to communicate that way.”
“But you have communicated that way!” Mina interjects, not without cause.
“I sure have,” he concedes, “but I thought it would be good to do someone who was less staccato and had more doubt because if you want to digress a fair bit into aspects of culture or society it wouldn’t work as well with someone who was very polemical.”
Warming to the theme of complex plotting, Mina then tells the famous story of Howard Hawks, the director of The Big Sleep, cabling Chandler to ask who killed one of the characters – a question that none of the film’s scriptwriters, including William Faulkner, could answer. Chandler couldn’t help either and Hawks eventually decided that strong character development was more important than narrative coherence.
Woody Allen had a similar realisation at the start of his career, Mina says, archly referring to the comedian-director as her “favourite guy”. “He used to do standup and just read the material he wrote for Sid Caesar, and then he realised that the audience don’t want that, they want someone that they want to spend time in the company of.” She stops herself suddenly, and looks at Boyle: “I’m explaining standup comedy to you.”
That only serves to make the comic burst out laughing again.
“But I think it’s the same in crime novels,” she carries on, “that the audience want to spend time in the company of that character.”
Mina has certainly managed to keep a large following of readers down the years. Boyle, who counts himself among that number, notes that there has been plenty of variation in her output. “There are a lot of different types of your novels,” he says. “There are ones that are more straightforward, and some that are more high concept, and others that feature a true crime element. Do they all have, for you, different readerships?”
“I do think you should lose your audience if you’re doing anything worth a damn,” she replies. “Because the thing is, you fight to become a writer. And then you find you’re in a big corporate machine. And what they want you to do is write the same book over and over again. You will face this pressure, if you haven’t already. So if you look at the pattern of my career, it’s one for them, one for me. The way I used to work a bar.”
By now we’re all sweating like Edward G Robinson in Key Largo, and it’s time for the two crime novelists, veteran and novice, to prepare for their closeups. Mina says a young photographer recently took her photo and made her look like “a teabag that’s been left on the windowsill”, and with that memorable image she goes off to change.
Meanwhile Boyle puts a jacket on over his shirt and T-shirt. As I want nothing more than to slip into a pair of swimming trunks, it seems like an act of almost deranged form, which, come to think of it, may not be a bad description of the comedian’s distinctive and, the way things are shaping up, highly profitable prose style.
Meantime by Frankie Boyle is published by John Murray (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply