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Tuesday 2 September 2014

Why Colin Bateman is a mystery man no more

There are very few writers who could get away with calling a novel The Prisoner of Brenda, but Colin Bateman, thankfully, is one of them.

The Prisoner of Brenda isn't even the worst of the puns that have adorned the covers of Bateman's books down through the years. Reservoir Pups, The Horse With My Name, The Day of the Jack Russell and Dr Yes are only some of the groan-worthy titles Bateman has launched on an unsuspecting public.

The Prisoner of Brenda is the fourth in Bateman's 'Mystery Man' series, which features a cowardly mystery bookseller for its 'hero'. It's fair to ask at this point which comes first, the story or the title.

"Ha! Actually, it has always been the title, right back to Divorcing Jack," says Bateman. This was his debut that won the Betty Trask Award in 1995, setting Bateman on the way to a bestselling career.

"It came to me in the bath -- don't think about that, it's not a pleasant image -- with the radio stuck on a classical channel, and hearing the presenter say that was the New World Symphony by Dvorak, and something about his name stuck in my head. I started repeating it until gradually it turned into Divorce Jack, and then I started thinking about a story to go with it. It has been the same ever since."

Born in Newtownards and raised in Bangor, Co Down, the 50-year-old left school at the age of 16 to take a job as a cub reporter with County Down Spectator, eventually rising to the position of deputy editor.

First published at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Bateman's blend of hardboiled crime and black comedy have garnered him legions of fans.

He has written 22 novels for adults and eight for young adults, while the character Martin Murphy was adapted for TV in the show Murphy's Law, starring James Nesbitt.

Humour

Despite his runaway success, however, Bateman still encounters purists who object to the combination of crime fiction and humour.

Do readers take comedy crime seriously? "I think the very few readers who buy it do," he says, hedging his bets. "You would guess from sales in general that readers prefer their crime fiction deadly serious and quite bloody, and that may just be the fact of it, or because that is what's put in front of them.

"I think that if crime that is quite serious, but happens to be funny as well -- I mean, Raymond Chandler was funny, wasn't he? -- was promoted with a bit of muscle then it could sell extremely well."

As a veteran of the Irish crime- writing scene, Bateman hugely enjoyed conceiving the 'Mystery Man' character, which allowed him to play around with the mystery novel conventions and poke fun at the cliches. But Bateman believes the character has run his course.

"I think, almost definitely, that this will be the last Mystery Man book. I really don't want the joke to wear too thin, and as I tend to inhabit my characters a bit, living with a headcase like Mystery Man isn't easy for anyone."

As a bookshop owner, Mystery Man frequently bemoans the state of the publishing industry. Are things really as bad as he claims? Is Bateman as pessimistic about the future of the book, as opposed to the e-book, as his character is?

Investment

"I'm pessimistic by nature," Bateman acknowledges, "but I'm not worried about books disappearing -- though I think there's a fair chance that writers might! As far as I can see, publishers are cutting their investment in writers, new and established alike, and at least part of it has to do with the Kindle and e-publishing.

"People are putting barely literate books up there for free or virtually nothing, and concerning themselves more with marketing than the actual writing process."

These days, Bateman is such a celebrated author that he can run sell-out courses on the secrets of the bestseller.

In a surreal twist straight out of one of his novels, however, Queen's University turned down Bateman's application to lecture on creative writing earlier this year, even though the course featured his own novels.

Undeterred, Bateman has turned his hand to writing musicals. His first offering was an opera about King Billy, and next year he'll write the script for The Undertones: A Punk Musical. On the off-chance that the musicals and teaching don't work out, Bateman will keep writing novels, especially now that a new generation of Northern Ireland writers such as Brian McGilloway, Adrian McKinty and Stuart Neville is embracing 'the Troubles' in their crime fiction.

Mystery Man tends to adopt the names of classic crime fiction characters when interviewing people.

If Bateman could have been one classic hero from the crime annals, who would it have been?

"Oh -- now you've got me. Let me think ... I did once come up with a TV crime series called Gay Columbo, but for some reason nobody went for it. Would that do?"

The Prisoner of Brenda by Bateman is published by Headline (€15.99 / ebook €10.99)

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