Crime pays for writer Conor
the son of poet seamus deane tells declan burke he rebels against perfection in his detective books
So there's this Irish author who lives in Italy writing about an American police detective in Rome ... Confused? You won't be. Conor Fitzgerald is one of the brightest lights of the current generation of Irish crime writers, and has been compared with the late, great Michael Dibdin.
He has just published The Namesake, the third in his Rome-set Alec Blume series, in which the American-born Blume finds himself investigating the shadowy world of the Ndrangheta, the Mafia's lesser known but far more successful cousin, which is based in Calabria in southern Italy.
"This is the most powerful mafia in Europe, not just Italy," says Fitzgerald. "They completely control the European cocaine trade. I mean, they have a GDP the size of Slovenia."
Quietly spoken, thoughtful and assured, Fitzgerald is an unusual crime writer. To begin with, the 'Fitzgerald' is a pseudonym. Conor Deane is the son of the renowned poet, Seamus Deane, and he has worked in the past as a translator of the work of James Joyce.
Despite his literary background, however, Fitzgerald believes that the literary novel is 'dying off' as a result of authors who are too careful in their writing.
"I try not to be over-careful," he says, "because I see danger in it. If you get to perfect writing of a sort, it becomes trivial. A good example is someone I like, and know, Julian Barnes." Julian Barnes won the Booker Prize in 2012.
"He writes exquisite sentences, one after the other after the other, and at the end ... " He tails off with a shrug. "And then, when you go back to your real classics, your Dickens or Dostoevsky, they're a mess. Bad sentences and careless plotting and dubious characters and improbable coincidences -- and that's when you realise that the really, really great books are full of flaws, and the really perfect little ones are quite often forgettable. I mean, Ian McEwan -- all he can do is write sentences."
Despite his reservations about being over-careful with his prose, The Namesake is written in an elegant, laconic style. Opening in Rome, where a young woman has been abducted, its pragmatic tone is established in the very first line, when an investigating magistrate announces that there will be no chance of a happy ending to the story.
"It's a moral thing," says Fitzgerald when I ask why he delivers such a downbeat opener. "I have enormous difficulty in killing people and making money from it. The killing of people, women and children in particular, is very difficult -- and this book is based on a real event that was on-going as I was writing the novel. So I suppose I wanted to warn the reader that there isn't a happy ending because there wasn't in real life."
Alec Blume is the perfect hero to survey Fitzgerald's grittily realistic take on modern Rome. An Italian citizen since his teens, he is half in and half out of the culture, steeped in its corruption and criminality but seeing this world with eyes that are still fresh enough to appreciate it's beauty.
For all his strengths, however, Blume is very reserved when it comes to emotions.
"Blume is slightly Irish in that sense," Fitzgerald laughs, "he's detached and a bit cold. Some people hate that. Women in particular come up to me and berate me, 'Oh, you're so cold.'" He laughs.
"I'm very surprised by the vehemence that elicits in some people. Including my wife, actually, when she eventually got to read the first book in Italian. 'Where are the women?' she said. And I said, 'There are women in there.' And she said, 'They're all hateful.'"
Time waits for no writer, of course, and even as we discuss The Namesake, Fitzgerald is about to put the finishing touches to his fourth novel.
"It is a kind of strange energy," he says of the urge to write. "There will be a moment some time today, or maybe tomorrow, when I'm going to get very emotional for a minute, or two minutes, a really deep emotion that's very different from anything else. It's like bereavement and sex at the same time, y'know? It's finally finished."
The Namesake by Conor Fitzgerald is published by Bloomsbury (¤16.99)