"...those who enjoy the darker side of the genre are in for some serious thrills with this..."
Laura Wilson, The Guardian
Published in the UK by Polygon (March 19th, '09) and in the US by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Nov '09).
RUSSEL D MCLEAN
by David Lewis
Russel D McLean (right) was born in Fife, but now lives in Dundee, the city providing the natural setting for his first novel, The Good Son. Propelling the hugely promising private investigator J. McNee on to the scene, the novel is another sharp spike in a triumphant year for Scottish crime fiction. Russel is a renowned short story writer and ran the successful Crime Scene Scotland for a number of years.
David Lewis: Nice easy one to start with - tell us about The Good Son.
Russel McLean: It’s a noirish PI novel set in Scotland which finds investigator J. McNee looking into the apparent suicide of a local man's estranged brother. When McNee uncovers a connection tothe London underworld, events spiral rapidly out of control.
DL: Talk us through the process from pen to print - for how long were you an ‘aspiring’ author?
RM: The process from pen (or in my case, keyboard) to print was a long one. I first started shopping novels when I was 14 or so (the first submission was to Virgin Publishing's line of New Doctor Who Adventures, and they were very kind in their rejection) and now I'm finally published at 28. In the meantime, I've honed my work by writing lots of short stories, building up a reputation through those and paying attention to the details of rejection letters, all of which helped me figure out what was objectively wrong with my writing. I jumped genre ships from SF to crime somewhere around age 20, and I think that was when I finally began to find the kind of voice I was comfortable with. But the best move I made was finding an agent I could work with. I think that was when everything started to come together.
DL: The Good Son clocks in around 55,000 words, which is perfect if you ask me, butdid that make publication difficult?
RM: It did. I mean, the book is extremely short compared to a lot of crime and thriller titles, but despite some opinions to the contrary, there's room for that. A lot of readers like myself love novels that get in and get out as fast as possible. It’s nothing to do with attention span, but it’s all to do with necessity. Elmore Leonard said something like leave out the parts the readers tend to skip, and I think those are words to live by. A story is only as long as it needs to be. But, yes, a lot of people do seem to be looking for longer works, so when you write short it can seem to count against you some days. But clearly there are publishers willing to publish these kinds of books or else I'd never have seen the light of day!
DL: More Scots writers are moving into the PI protagonist world - has the police procedural model run out of gas?
RM: I don't know that it has, but I think people are realising that some readers don't necessarily need the comfort that the standard procedural provides. A well-done procedural can be a beautiful thing, but the genre is bigger than that. The PI story is a different mode from the procedural, and I think it’s something that hasn't been explored enough here in the UK so it’s nice to see some new writers - Ray Banks, Martyn Waites - play with what was previously a very American archetype.
DL: The closest we get to discovering McNee's name is when he's called 'Ja...' - what's the big secret?
RM: It’s a bit of an in-joke. In early drafts, McNee was going to have no name. In reference, of course, to Pronzini's Nameless Detective (someone else suggested Raymond's factory novels, too, but I hadn't read those when I started this novel). Then I relented and gave him a name, but still wanted some air of ambiguity.
Those two letters are a really obscure reference to an early 90's retelling of the Joker's origin from Batman. Anyone who can name the story has my absolute admiration and respect (but I can't offer prizes!).
DL: Plenty of cross-border tension in there. Do you walk about with a Saltire painted on your face - or do you just hate the English?
RM: I never expected this to be a thing, but quite a few people have asked about this. For the record, I'm proud to be Scottish but I'm as far from a nationalist as you can get. But it’s a good source of dramatic tension to exploit for the purposes of the novel. A lot of the comments the English hard men make about Scots are paraphrases of things that I have heard said. But we give as good as we get, so it all balances out.
DL: You're an accomplished short story writer - how did you find the step-up to full-length model?
RM: Tough. Real tough. An early draft of the novel ran to 91,000 words and it was extremely rambling and unfocussed. I'd been writing shorts for a lot of years before returning to try a novel length work and it was very difficult to try and keep holding back the resolutions (shorts are all about the moment, I find) while keeping things interesting over x number of pages. In the end, though, I found ways round that and I think I have a handle on the differences between the novel and the short story; it’s not just about length, it’s about structure, too.
DL: Did your day job make it hard to find a writing routine?
RM: Yes and no. Yes because having a day job takes up a very large chunk of time which you'd often rather spend writing. And no because it’s a day job and I'm an insomniac, so as long as I can avoid the late shifts, my brain can truly switch to writing mode in the evenings.
But it does mean I no longer have a social life.
DL: Working in a well-known bookshop, since The Good Son came out, have you found it conveniently placed around the store?
RM: Certainly where I work, it’s been pushed nicely. But booksellers who have read the book have been very supportive so far, and it’s even more of a thrill for me to see it in other places as well!
DL: When I spot a mate's book tucked in the shelves, I always turn it face-out. Do people like me piss you off?
RM: Yes. Absolutely. No question. I arrange my sections the way I do for very good reasons, and you're throwing off the whole balance by doing that. But I know why you do it. A better approach might be to mention the book to the bookseller, and just let them know it’s worth maybe giving it more exposure. The bookseller might read it and recommend it, and I honestly believe that booksellers and their enthusiasm are a book's best promotional tool.
DL: Finally, what's next for Russel D McLean?
RM: Up next I would have hoped for some shuteye, but I'm writing the second novel for Thomas Dunne in the US and waiting for word on what happens to it here in the UK. It’s a second novel featuring McNee, and that's all I'm willing to say until it’s done and dusted. Other than that, the day job, some other bits and pieces and trying to eke out a social life for five minutes a day.
copyright © Noir Originals, 2008
David Lewis is a journalist and writer currently living in Edinburgh. He's written widely for newspapers, websites and magazines in the UK and US and is working on what he hopes will one day be his first novel.