Crime and humour are Bateman’s unique literary combination

Nine Inches

Republicans were political with some elements of gangsterism, and the Loyalists were gangsters with some political elements. So that thuggery was always there on the Loyalist side, and they still use flags of convenience to legitimise what they do, which they say is protecting their community

“A FEW years ago I was in Amsterdam promoting a book,” says crime writer Colin Bateman, “and got held at knife-point by a couple of guys when I was going back to my hotel late at night. They wanted my wallet. A hero or a fool might have tried to disarm them. Dan Starkey would undoubtedly have handed over his wallet, and then gotten stabbed for being cheeky. In real life, I screamed like a girl, and they were so surprised I was able to just walk through them, wallet nice and safe.

“Um, I’m not sure what my point is with that story,” he says. “Maybe it’s that fiction is a mixture of real life, fantasy and bizarre circumstance.”

It’s certainly the case with Colin Bateman’s anarchic brand of fiction. His latest novel, Nine Inches, is his 26th in total, a formidable body of work that began with Divorcing Jack in 1994. That novel featured the wise-cracking journalist Dan Starkey, who returns in Nine Inches after a six-year hiatus.

“When I published Belfast Confidential in 2005,” he says, “I thought I was pretty much done with Dan. It seemed like The Troubles were over, and Belfast was a different place, and maybe I needed a break from him. I think it just took a while to figure out where the stories were now, and actually I discovered they weren’t that far away from where they used to be. Dan’s the easiest of my characters to write, the closest to my natural voice, I think.”

Hailed as the seminal work in the ‘Emerald Noir’ explosion of Irish crime writing, Divorcing Jack was a radical novel, a comedy set in Troubles-era Belfast that poked fun at paramilitaries of all stripes. A dangerous activity, particularly in a relatively small place like Northern Ireland, where a lunatic with a gun might very easily take offence to being laughed at.

“It is a small place,” Bateman says, “but you can’t really legislate for lunatics in any walk of life. So you just get on and tell your story, and then afterwards you try not to move in lunatic circles. Besides, would a lunatic recognise himself as a lunatic?”

Set in post-Troubles Belfast, Nine Inches finds Dan Starkey in conflict with criminals who wave a Loyalist flag.

“My take on it was always that the Republicans were political with some elements of gangsterism, and the Loyalists were gangsters with some political elements. So that thuggery was always there on the Loyalist side, and they still use flags of convenience to legitimise what they do, which they say is protecting their community. Generally their power bases are in very small, very defined, disadvantaged areas, and they act like prison guards on the take. They seem to have your best interests at heart but actually they’re ruthlessly exploiting you.”

Despite the comic tone, Nine Inches has a very serious theme.

“Those who are used to ruling through fear aren’t just going to give it up because someone says that peace has broken out,” he says. “They’re going to want to continue with the lifestyle they’ve set up for themselves.”

Leavening a dark story with humour isn’t necessarily the best career move for a writer though.

“There’s a perception amongst both critics and the book-buying public, I think, that crime and humour isn’t a good mix, and therefore they — I’m not just talking about me — don’t get the awards consideration they should, or the massive sales that the slice-n-dice writers do. I think it’s quite ironic, actually. Every writer looks to Chandler as a huge inspiration, and he was a very funny guy, but he might find himself in a niche market if he was writing today.”

Apart from the humour, Bateman was also hamstrung by his setting. “That was a UK thing,” he says. “They got bored with The Troubles very early on, and that mindset has stayed.”

These days, the Peace Process dividend has extended to crime writing, with Adrian McKinty, Brian McGilloway, Stuart Neville, Gerard Brennan and Garbhan Downey following in Bateman’s footsteps.

“I think Northern Ireland is probably the safest country in Europe these days,” says Bateman. “There’s not necessarily more crime, but there’s more of what you would call Ordinary Decent Criminals. It’s more like every man for himself , and you don’t have to give half your plunder to someone in a balaclava.

“There has definitely been a flowering of Northern Irish crime writing talent, but I’m not sure that’s as a result of the “cessation of violence”. It’s maybe just a generational thing, combined with the greater market share crime novels in general have achieved in the past few years.”

Bateman’s status as the godfather of Irish crime writing sees Divorcing Jack republished in tandem with Nine Inches. Seventeen years on, he’s not tempted to change a word of his debut.

“I’m told that when Dan Brown started to sell billions of copies The Da Vinci Code, he said if he’d known it was going to do so well he would have tried to write it a bit better, and I feel pretty much the same about Divorcing Jack. But it was the first novel I finished, and while I’d like to think I’m a better writer now, I would never dream of going back and changing it. It was written for fun, with no expectation of it being published, so it’s the purest of my novels.”

Novelist, screenwriter (he penned the James Nesbitt TV series Murphy’s Law) and latterly a playwright with the award-winning National Anthem, Bateman grows more prolific and diverse by the year. In recent times he’s written a three-book series about a hapless and nameless bookstore owner-cum-private eye, Mystery Man, who will return next year.

“I’ve started his fourth adventure, which has the working title of The Prisoner of Brenda.” He groans. “See? Humour. But would you buy it?”

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