I have always written.
That sounds like a rather arch statement to make, but it’s true. When I was a young boy I began reading Enid Blyton books, struggling phonetically with unfamiliar words. (As a consequence, I believed for many years that the word cupboard was pronounced “cup-board” instead of “cubbard.”) The next natural step seemed to be to tell stories of my own. I was addicted to Ron Ely’s Tarzan TV series and the adventures of Casey Jones, both of which were shown on television in Ireland on Saturday mornings, so they became the subjects of my first stories. I was six. My teacher, Mrs. Foley, would pay me five pence for each tale I submitted, so I was, I suppose, a hack from an early age.
I read voraciously, as all writers should. Like many boys, I flirted with the horror genre and then, in my early teens, I read my first mystery novel. Each summer, my father would take us to spend two weeks with my grandmother in Ballylongford, a small village in County Kerry. She had bookshelves that would be regularly raided and refilled by visiting relatives, and at the beginning of each vacation my father would engage in the solemn ritual of the Choosing of the Book. Only on vacation would my father read a novel, preferring newspapers for the rest of the year, so the selection of the right book was of paramount importance to him. (He once chose I, Claudius, which was a grave error, as it took him two years to finish, a mistake he never repeated.)
That summer, my father chose a book entitled Let’s Hear It for the Deaf Man, by Ed McBain. I think he chose it because it was short, and after the I, Claudius debacle, short was good. One day, he put it aside to tackle the newspaper, and intrigued by the title, I began reading. That book became the first, and only, book over which my father and I fought for possession. Thereafter, I read every single Ed McBain book I could find. It was my introduction to the genre of which I would ultimately become a small part.
I met McBain, whose real name was Evan Hunter, shortly before he died. There had been a misunderstanding between us early in my career when, as a means of paying homage to him, I had given some characters in my first novel names that echoed his own work. There was a Fat Ollie, and an Evan Baines-awkward, I know, but well-intentioned. McBain was incensed, misinterpreting it as an act of theft. Years later, when we met at last, I explained to him the reason for what I had done and subsequently received a gracious and apologetic e-mail in reply. It was a great relief. It’s possible that I might not have ended up writing what I do had it not been for him, and I did not want him to think ill of me.
Now that I come to think of it, my encounters with my literary idols have usually involved a dollop of mild humiliation for me. When interviewing James Lee Burke in Montana, I managed to get lost for a time in the Great Rattlesnake Wilderness while out for a walk with him, and was eventually found by his neighbor’s dogs. I interviewed Stephen King, and managed to cause my pile of first editions, ready to be signed, to fall on his foot. Sometimes I wonder if it’s really safe to allow me out on my own.
I studied English at university, and one option was a course in detective fiction. It was to be a defining choice for me, as it introduced me to the work of Ross Macdonald. Although it would be another five years before I began writing my first novel, it owes its genesis to that course. I hunted down every book by Macdonald I could find, which, in those pre-Internet days, meant scouring used-book stores for British paperback editions with fantastically unsuitable covers, usually featuring women in various states of undress. I even found a first edition of Find a Victim from 1954 on my parents’ bookshelf at home. It had come from a lending library in the American Midwest. I have no idea how it ended up in my parents’ possession.
After college, I entered journalism, mainly because I liked writing and I could see few other ways in which I could be paid to write. Inevitably, perhaps, I grew frustrated with journalism. I wanted to write fiction, and newspapers tend to disapprove of the urge toward the fictitious in their reporters.
So one evening I sat down at my computer at home and began writing about a man driving toward a cemetery, flowers on the backseat of his car, his mind filled with memories of his dead wife and child.
He was Charlie Parker, and it was the beginning of Every Dead Thing.