the excitement that followed Nick Stone’s blistering debut ‘Mr Clarinet’ – it’s
been a long wait, but finally the follow-up, King of Swords paperback is finding
its way to bookstores all over the UK, while its hardcover release appears in
the US this December. Shots Magazine decided to track down Stone to find out a
little about what he’s been up to and what we can expect with King of Swords,
which for this reviewer was [a] A night of lost sleep and [b] Nightmares, when I
did find my bed.
Swords is a prequel to Mr Clarinet, with Miami cops Max Mingus and Joe Liston
investigating the escape of some monkeys from Primate Park. This is an omen
because soon they find themselves embroiled in a brutal series of murders; and
all cards seem to lead to the man in the darkness, the epitome of evil whose
name is only heard in whispers - Solomon Boukman. The only solution for Mingus
and Liston is to navigate the Miami underworld looking for a fortune teller as
well as a slimy pimp who together may hold the key, but confronted with corrupt
cops, black magic the cops realize that Boukman is far worse than the rumours
that circle his existence and he seems to hold all the cards, including The King
of Swords – Ali Karim
Ali It’s been quite a
couple of eventful years for you since releasing your debut ‘Mr. Clarinet’ so
how do you feel being a key writer in the crime genre?
Nick Am I a “key writer”? If
I’m considered as such after two books, it’s really flattering, but I’m just
getting warmed up here. As it says on Frank Sinatra’s tombstone – “The best is
yet to come”.
Ali Well winning the Ian
Fleming Steel Dagger, The Macavity and the ITW best Debut novel Awards was a
real achievement, so can you tell us what these awards mean to you?
was a great honour, but it was also incredibly humbling too.
Ali So did you feel
pressure to follow-up your debut with the difficult ‘second book’ syndrome?
Nick Not at all, no. I knew
where I was going with the second book and what I wanted to do.
Ali I’ve seen you around at
several conventions and conferences so can you tell us your experiences at these
events such as Thrillerfest, Harrogate, Crimefest, Littérature Policière in
Nick All conventions start very
differently and end exactly the same way - authors getting wrecked and talking
gibberish at 3.00 AM, Sunday morning.
Ali King of Swords
is a prequel to ‘Mr. Clarinet’. Can you tell us why you decided to go back and
detail Max Mingus’ past as opposed to exploring his future?
Nick I wanted to write a book
about a voodooesque gang and a pimp with oedipal issues set in “Scarface”-era
Miami (1980-82). And I did. It’s called King of Swords.
Ali Your work is rather
visceral in parts and not for the faint of heart, so can you tell us you take on
violence in crime-fiction?
Nick If it’s necessary to the
story, then it’s fine. Otherwise it’s gratuitous. I think Mr Clarinet
was far more violent than King of Swords is. But King of Swords
is a far darker book than Mr Clarinet.
Ali King of Swords
features Max’s partner Joe Liston a great deal – how crucial are secondary
characters for you in telling the story and how crucial is Joe Liston to the Max
Nick Joe Liston is Max’s
conscience. And I wouldn’t call him a secondary character in King of Swords,
because he’s its moral anchor. Although he himself is deeply conflicted about
what he’s doing. He’s constantly weighing up the price of doing the right thing
against the easier option of looking the other way.
Ali The key figure who
again hides in the shadows is Solomon Boukman, so can you tell us a little about
the genesis of this Uber villain?
Nick Solomon is inspired by
Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Haiti’s most ruthless dictator.
When I was growing up in Haiti,
Papa Doc was the bogeyman. Everyone lived in fear of him, people spoke in
hushed tones whenever they mentioned his name, because you never knew who was
listening and who was an informant. Mothers used to tell their kids to behave
or else Papa Doc would come and get them.
He killed something like 50,000
people – including most of the population of a town called Jeremie. He kept
control over people with a mixture of violence and a perversion of voodoo. He
mythologized himself and claimed he had magic powers.
Ali And the action this
time around is firmly rooted in Miami, so why does this city appeal to you so
Nick I’ve been going there
since 1979. It’s ever changing, forever evolving. It’s a melting pot and a
flashpoint. It’s two places for the price of one. It’s gone through great highs
and deep lows. And it’s still shrouded in mystery.
Ali As King of Swords
is firmly rooted in the 1980’s it has a ‘Scarface’ flavour so did you spend any
time in Miami during the writing of King of Swords?
Nick Yes. I went there three
times in eighteen months. I finished it on the beach, between the Loews and
Royal Palm hotels. That epilogue is pretty much what I saw on the beach that
early evening. Then I went back to my room, typed it up, emailed it to my
editor and took my wife out dancing in Little Havana.
We’re going to be in Miami for the
election. Can’t wait to go there. You know, the first time my wife and I went
there together, in 2006? Well, I was so happy to be back (it had been nine
years since my last visit), that I got down on my knees and kissed the ground.
This security guard ran over and asked me what I was doing. I explained. He
said: “Sir, you must REALLY love this place, ‘cause I’d sooner Frenchkiss a
gator than kiss that floor”.
Ali Are you under pressure
from your publishers to continue Max Mingus as a series character [as many
publishers like the commercial comfort of series novels] or are going to do a
Nick There really is nowhere
else to go with Max Mingus after this next book. As I've explained to you
before. I never intended to write him as a series character at all.
A couple of people have suggested
“extending the Mingus franchise” (their words – “franchise” – like I’m writing
burgers not books, here), but I think that would be cheating the readers and
also, for me, it would turn into another office job.
The next three books I write will
be standalones. Then I plan to write a series, but it will have an interior
clock. When the clock stops that’ll be it for that series. And I’ll move on to
the next big thing I’m doing.
Ali There has been recent
discussion on publishers pushing their writers for a book-a-year, so what’s your
stand on output in terms of quality vs. quantity?
Nick: For some reason certain
(though by no means all) publishers seem to think that quantity is the new
quality. You know, get a new book on the shelves every year on the dot, regular
as clockwork and Christmas. I understand the commercial reasoning behind it –
up to a point (JK Rowling and Thomas Harris don't write a book a year - Thomas
Harris never did that at all) – but, said publishers tend to forget the most
important part of the equation – THE READER. You have to keep the readers
happy. At all costs.
The thing is, when you’re a writer
on that book a year treadmill, you have six months to produce a book. For some
writers that's just fine and they write according to those constraints and
produce great work. But, for other writers, who'd maybe like to spend longer on
their books, the process is hell. And it usually results in a quality “crack
curve” – a quick, sharp peak (say the first two or three books), followed by a
long ruinous descent (the rest). The books tend to read increasingly like tired
contractual obligations, poor photocopies of a poor photocopy of a poor
photocopy. The plots blur into one, the characters are empty vessels and the
prose is a delivery mechanism for thrills and spills by rote. You can't fool
your readers. They know when you're phoning it in. And they are ultimately
your judges. They condemn you with their closed wallets and bad word of mouth.
Publishers should remember the
following maxim: if you feed your golden goose laxative you’ll just get shit.
will Max Mingus ever come to the UK?
Nick What? Leave Miami to come
here? Are you kidding? I was actually contemplating sending him to Brazil for
the current book. I have a couple of very good friends in Rio and in Sao
Paulo. Both criminal lawyers.
Ali Your love of the music
of Bruce Springsteen is evident in King of Swords, so did you manage to
see The Boss on his recent tour and what was he like?
Nick I did indeed. Saw him
twice at Emirates Stadium in London. He was absolutely superb both nights –
possibly the best shows I’ve ever seen him play, and I’ve been going for twenty
years. He’s pushing sixty and playing three hour shows, changing the setlists
quite radically night after night. Quite incredible. The great thing too is
that his audience is actually getting younger. So there’s hope for the world
yet. Or not - depending on your tastes.
Ali And what books have
passed your reading table that have impressed you?
Nick I liked Child 44,
as you know. Tony Black’s Pay For It was great, as was John Hart's
Down River and Dreda Mitchell’s Killer Tune, which I re-read because it’s
superb. I’ve also read a couple of cracking non-fiction crime books – TJ
English’s The Havana Mob, about Meyer Lansky in pre-Castro Havana, and
John Leake’s The Vienna Woods Killer.
Any update on the film rights to Max Mingus?
Nick Nothing concrete happening
as of yet. I think the generic term for nothing concrete happening as of yet is
“in development”. So it’s in “development”.
You are quite a film buff so what recent films have excited you recently?
Nick No Country for Old Men,
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, The Orphanage, There Will Be Blood and In
Bruges. The latter is I the first Colin Farrell film I’ve liked since Minority
Ali And are you working on
Max Mingus #3 and if so care to drop any hints where his travels may take him?
Nick Yes I am. But, no,
sorry. I’m not talking about it. It’s going very well though. Expect to read
it sometime in 2010.
Ali As an avid follower of
the US elections, do you care to comment on who you think will take over the
Bush administration this fall and why?
Nick I think, barring some
unforeseen event, Barack Obama will be the 44th President of the USA. He has
the wind at his back, the sun on his face and Rupert Murdoch’s endorsement. I
don’t think there’s been a single Western politician in my lifetime who’s been
this popular anywhere. He also has the media in his corner, willing him to
achieve something only Hollywood writers have cooked up.
Ali How has your father the
historian and academic Norman Stone taken your success as a commercial writer of
Nick I think he’s delighted
about it. He always wanted me to write. I remember when I told him I’d quit my
job to write in December 2002, he was over the moon! I mean it was a pretty
risky decision I was taking – turning my back on a glorious career in
headhunting (actually, it wasn’t glorious at all – it was Sartre’s Hell – for
morons), and I thought he was going to start lecturing me on social
responsibilities and laying that Glaswegian Presbyterian/Jewish work ethic
shtick on me, but no, he was very supportive, said it was the right thing to
My dad was actually instrumental
in getting me to quit my job. When he wants to tell me anything of a serious
and sensitive nature, he’ll speak in parables.
Back in September 2002, I met him
for a drink at some shitty bar in Victoria Station. I’d just come from work.
He took one look at me and told me I looked “as miserable as a turkey at
Christmas”. Then, over drinks, he told me about the father of a student of
his. The man could play piano like a maestro and had always wanted to be a
concert pianist. He could quite easily have done that, but, instead, chose to
follow convention. He became an insurance salesman. He was as bad at that as
he was great at piano. The job got to him, as did his disappointment with the
way his life had turned out, and he keeled over and died of a heart attack at
the age of 53.
I understood exactly what he was
trying to tell me. I quit my job in December 2002. That was a very happy day.
Thank you for your time.
Nick And I
appreciate your interest in my work.
Interview with Mr Clarinet
Interview with Nick Stone
Read the Shots review for King Of Swords
© 2008 H. Stone