There may not have been a bestselling novel dealing with the theft of a pair of leather trousers before, but there is about to be.
The author Colin Bateman has published his latest novel, Mystery Man, a witty tale featuring a Belfast bookseller turned amateur sleuth who encounters many strange characters along the way. Especially interesting is that the fictional bookseller, who goes unnamed throughout the book (“a really difficult task for a writer,” Bateman admits), is based on the real-life owner of No Alibis, a charismatic little bookshop in Belfast which specialises in crime fiction.
Mystery Man looks set to be his most successful novel since Divorcing Jack, which was published in 1992. Ranked among the top 50 crime writers of all time by The Daily Telegraph last year, alongside Ruth Rendell, Arthur Conan Doyle and his own favourite, the American writer Robert B. Parker, Bateman has become better known in recent years as a screenwriter, most notably for the BBC series Murphy’s Law, which starred fellow Ulsterman James Nesbitt.
“For a few years I was best known for Divorcing Jack, then for the next few years I was best known for doing Murphy’s Law, and from now on I think I’ll be best known for Mystery Man,” he says. The BBC have already optioned the rights to make a television series of the new book. “I’ll be writing a script for the pilot episode, but I write a lot of scripts and not many of them get made!” he protests. The book has also been selected as one of the Richard & Judy Bookclub’s Summer Reads, guaranteeing it a prominence that other authors would kill for.
Bateman, who began his career as a journalist on the County Down Spectator, has certainly been a prolific novelist, with Mystery Man his twenty third to date. “I’m already working on the follow up to Mystery Man. I’m calling it The Day of the Jack Russell. Generally when I’m writing I think of the title first, then try to think of a plot to fit around it,” he says.
With books such as Mohammed Maguire, Reservoir Pups and Driving Big Davie, there is a seam of witty, sarcastic Northern Irish humour running throughout Bateman’s novels along with a rich supply of bizarre characters and scenarios. Mystery Man begins with the tale of a lost pair of leather trousers told to a bookseller by the husband of their owner, mistaking the unnamed protagonist for the private eye next door, who has mysteriously gone missing.
Reading the first few chapters to an enraptured audience crammed into the tiny No Alibis, it is clear that Bateman is an entertainer, particularly in prose but also in spoken word. He has a self-deprecating charm that locals seem to love. The evening before, in the new glass and concrete extension to Bangor’s Carnegie Library, a building which might not meet with the approval of the Prince of Wales, he regales the crowd with anecdotes of his time as deputy editor of the local paper.
“My only brush with terrorism was when a window was broken and someone rang up to claim responsibility, as terrorist groups do. ‘I’m from the Animal Liberation Front. We did the window the other night and we want to claim responsibility,’ said this voice before giving a codeword, probably something like ‘badger’. I said ‘That’s all very well, but aren’t you supposed to let us know what the codeword is first?’ ”
This story about inept ‘terrorists’ sets perfectly the context against which Bateman writes his novels. His (and my) hometown is a prosperous, middle-class town which largely escaped the Troubles, the joke being that Bangor is not a town for the haves or have-nots, but for the haves and have-yachts. The Troubles are never far away in most of Bateman’s books but his terrorists tend to be comic, more likely to be foul-mouthed former hardmen turned taxi drivers in the new era of peace, and not genuinely terrifying. Which is something of a relief to those who want to read a Northern Irish novel which doesn’t dwell too much on the violence of the past.
Another screenwriter from Northern Ireland, Daragh Carville, recently called for an end to the ‘balaclava drama’ and argued that post-Troubles plays and books should deal with something else for a change. His new play deals with the themes of the property boom, the credit crunch and the relationship between a self-made millionaire and a prostitute trafficked into Northern Ireland from Moldova.
“I think because the Troubles lasted for around thirty years, anyone writing during that period had no choice but to use them in stories set here, because they were so much part of the fabric,” says Bateman. “I don’t think it’s necessarily true that it’s time to move beyond ‘balaclava drama’. I think that we’ve just become bored with it and need to be looking for newer themes. That has its own problems in that we are now just another boring part of the UK. The danger in our background is quite often what makes us different.”
Does he feel any responsibility for writing about Northern Ireland to a mainly non Northern Irish audience?
“No, I don’t have such big thoughts, it’s just too dangerous a way to write. If I was to sit down at the start and say, ‘Now I’m going to address this problem in society’ or ‘appeal to this section’ then I’d be completely lost. I just get an idea for a story and I write it to the best of my ability, and really, it’s up to someone else to say whether it portrays this, or that, or in fact, if it’s utter nonsense.”
His books certainly are not nonsense, judging by how many he has sold since Divorcing Jack. “I’ve been very lucky with the way things have gone with the books, and that people seem to like them. I was an awful journalist, and I’m not really equipped to do anything else in life, so I’m doing my ideal job and getting paid for it.”