Sam Millar is one of those authors whose experiences in his private life rival those of his fictional protagonists. An IRA volunteer imprisoned in Long Kesh for his political beliefs and actions, he was the mastermind behind the 1993 Brinks robbery in New York, one of the biggest heists is U.S. history. He served more hard time, this time in the American penal system, but was ultimately pardoned by President Bill Clinton. Upon his return to Northern Ireland, he turned from the sword to the pen.
Winner of the Aisling Award for Art and Culture among other prizes, Millar is the author of a memoir, On the Brinks, as well as a number of edgy novels, among them two noir thrillers featuring PI Karl Kane. In the series debut, Bloodstorm, Kane delves into the murders of a group of Belfast men who, over twenty years before, were involved in a gang-rape death. Publishers Weekly dubbed this the “powerful first of a new crime series,” while Booklist termed it “a real find for aficionados of the classic hard-boiled novel.” Kane returns in the 2010 series addition, The Dark Place, a novel dealing with “hard-edged crime with a vengeance,” according to Booklist. Similarly, Publishers Weekly noted of this second series installment: “Millar distinguishes himself from many of his contemporaries in the genre with taut writing and a memorable lead character.”
I was born in Belfast, Ireland, and lived there most of my adult life until about 1983 when I eventually left and went to live in New York City for about ten years. As a kid, I always had dreams of going to New York, probably because I was brought up on a diet of American comic books, of which I am a great fan. In 1993, I returned to Belfast, and there I wrote my memoir, On The Brinks, which became an award-winning bestseller and was acquired by Warner Brothers.
What things about Belfast make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
Belfast resembles a great old noir city: tough and full of atmospheric shadows, alongside dodgy characters with big fists and even bigger hearts. I love walking through the city at night, breathing in the smells and soul of the place – especially when hard rain is pouring down, which for Belfast is quite frequent. I try and capture the same claustrophobic ambience in my writing. Anyone who has read my Karl Kane series of crime books will understand what I mean, and hopefully I have managed to make the books authentic to the city.
Did you consciously set out to use Belfast as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
Lousy films and very badly written books have always misrepresented Belfast and its citizens as little less than caricatures. I decided to show the place as it is, not as people imagine it to be. When doing the first Karl Kane book, my publisher ‘advised’ that perhaps I should use London or New York as location, instead of Belfast, as most people associate Belfast with war, rather than crime. Being a bit pigheaded, I stuck to my guns (forgive the pun) and brought Belfast to the fore in a gritty, noir rendering, revealing modern-day Belfast in all its dark colours. The results have been mostly welcomed by readers and critics, and is now under consideration by a major film company because they wanted an original Irish crime story, not some stereotypical garbage which people are usually fed.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
I believe too much detail in a story can ruin the fluency of the story. However, having said that, I do pay attention to certain details when describing the structure of Belfast and the little traits which Belfastians have, such as a very dark sense of humour and their kindness to strangers, if not to each other.
How does PI Karl Kane interact with his surroundings? Is he a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster? And conversely, how does the setting affect Kane?
Karl Kane is a local private investigator with a very dark past. As a child, he witnessed the rape and murder of his mother. He is quite cynical about the status quo, politicians, police, et al, but has a big heart for the forgotten underdogs in society, such as the homeless and people addicted to drugs – especially young people.
Has there been much local reaction to your works?
Perhaps the most controversial of all my books is The Darkness of Bones. It tells the story of a paedophile ring operating with impunity because local politicians and the police were involved in running it. It was based on a true story – The Kincora Scandal – and came very close to the bone. Too close perhaps, as I received numerous threats after its publication. One major newspaper critic said I was the most hated figure by the Northern Ireland Tourist Board because I show Belfast in a bad light. Nonsense. I’ve shown Belfast in a very dark light, exposing the warts and all, rather than rainbows and bloody leprechauns. Regardless of what critics say, I’m proud I wrote The Darkness of Bones, as it gave the victims a voice for the first time since they were abused.
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
Too many! On one occasion, I got the date of when the Titanic was launched wrong. Not a big deal, I suppose, until you realise I lived less than a mile away from where it was actually built!
Of the Belfast novels you have written set in this location, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place?
The Redemption Factory was cathartic for me and the most personal of all my books. It tells the story of a man killed by his comrades for allegedly informing to the enemy. Only later do they discover he was innocent and was set-up by one of his accusers. People would have to read On The Brinks to fully understand why The Redemption Factory is my most personal book.
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
Cormac McCarthy tops my list of favourite writers, and probably the most influential in my own writing. The great Irish writer and storyteller, Walter Macken, made a great impression on me when I was young. After reading his classic books as a kid in the local library, I decided that one day I would become a writer, even though I suspected it would never really happen as I came from a working class background. That was the one time in my life I was glad to be proven wrong.
What’s next for Karl Kane?
Carnival Films of London are now in negotiation for the film rights to the Karl Kane series of books. My next Kane book is due out in 2011, titled The Dead of Winter. I have just completed a commissioned play, Brothers in Arms, with Kane in it, due to do the rounds in Ireland in March, 2011. And finally, I have been asked to write the sequel to On The Brinks.
Thanks so much for stopping by Scene of the Crime, Sam.
For more information about Sam Millar, visit his homepage.