Hi Aidan, which book are we talking about?
Know Me From Smoke by the brilliant Matt Phillips
This has been on release for the amount of time it takes to draw breath – so this is some claim to be your favourite book. Did it hit you straight away, or has it lingered and taken over your mind?
I know, right. It’s something very special. For me it has everything, it’s brilliantly written, there are characters with more dimensions than a Prodigy track, it’s perfectly paced, it has crime and heart in equal measure, it just sort of sings as a book.
Matt Phillips is a writer I’ve been following for a few years and he’s good, I really like his work, but this book stepped him up to the big leagues as far as I’m concerned. I felt it put him on a par with the greats, the Pelecanos’, the Leonard’s, the Block’s etc… and I think that’s another reason I love it so much, I’ve seen one of my peers, someone that’s with the same publisher as I am, someone that’s moving in the same writing circles that I am, write something that truly blew me away. I’ve read great books by some great undiscovered talent but this was that and then better than the most well known of authors, too.
I don’t typically like overly descriptive books, Matt Phillips has a way of making every scene in this book part of the character of the book. His descriptive work not only brings the scenes to life but it always moves the story along too. It’s just brilliant
So what’s the synopsis?
Ha, so now you’re asking, every writer hates writing the synopsis and I’m no different, and now I need to give you Matt’s, here’s the blurb from the publisher…
Stella Radney, longtime lounge singer, still has a bullet lodged in her hip from the night when a rain of bullets killed her husband. That was twenty years ago and it’s a surprise when the unsolved murder is reopened after the district attorney discovers new evidence.
Royal Atkins is a convicted killer who just got out of prison on a legal technicality. At first, he’s thinking he’ll play it straight. Doesn’t take long before that plan turns to smoke—was it ever really an option?
When Stella and Royal meet one night, they’re drawn to each other. But Royal has a secret. How long before Stella discovers that the man she’s falling for isn’t who he seems?
A noir of gripping suspense and violence, Know Me from Smoke is a journey into the shadowy terrain of murder, lost love, and the heart’s lust for vengeance.
That makes it sound good, but believe me it’s better than that
So what’s the main pull? The plot? The characterisation. Phillips’ way with language? Is it hard to quantify?
In what is essentially a short book (a little over 200 pages) there’s so much. The two main characters have their own stories, that obviously merge, but the beauty of the way Phillips writes is that despite this being written third person there’s a clear distinction in character voice depending on whether we’re with Royal or Stella and he expertly changes that voice in line with the perspectives, pressures, emotions of those characters.
There’s clear conflict in both of the main characters. Stella feels conflicted at falling in love with another man, despite the death of her husband decades before. She also feels exhilarated by this fresh new love with this man who is a mystery to her and yet familiar also. Her journey (fucking hate that word) through this book is one of growth and strength, unshackling herself from a past, and yet she is still so connected and close to it – to say much more would give the game away and I don’t want to as I want people to read this book!
Not that it’s not obvious where this book is heading fairly early on. That’s actually part of the beauty of this book. We know there has to be a moment of realisation, a moment of decision, the joy is in how Phillips gets us there.
With Royal, it’s different, there’s an attempt at growth, possibly even a genuine desire for it, but is he far too deep in as a criminal to really change? Is Stella enough to get him there? He comes out of prison and is given little hope of true reform being homed with two criminals hell-bent on staying that way, and this is Royal’s conflict, can he go against that and change his life? And even if he can, has his past damned him before he even had a chance – did he ever even deserve a chance?
As for Phillips’ way with language, the story is told in such an engaging way that it just feels like you’re being told it by a really charismatically eloquent person you’ve known for a long time. Someone whose company you enjoy. I already said, every word advances the plot, regardless of whether it’s descriptive or conversation, there’s nothing wasted in these 200 pages.
So he’s a criminal and she sounds like a respectable member of mainstream society. What brings them together? What connects them?
Royal is staying in a halfway house on leaving prison and Stella is a bar singer. By rights they shouldn’t meet and it’s probably the first sign that Royal isn’t going to stick to the straight and narrow. His parole officer tells him no drinking but his house mates, a couple of cons themselves convince him to head out for drinks with them. Royal’s arm doesn’t take any twisting. Stella is instantly drawn to him despite his friends being assholes toward her, he seems different and familiar to her.
Does Royal want change in his life with his release from prison?
Now that’s a good question, he claims to, and in his head I think he wants to, but actions speak louder than words and his actions are still those of a criminal. Perhaps a reluctant criminal, but a criminal all the same. It’s just the way he’s wired I suppose.
What does Stella see in him? I’m guessing she doesn’t realise he’s a criminal when they meet?
Apart from the obvious phyiscal attraction, she likes that he’s not like the other men he’s with, that he’s more of a gentleman and discourages their bad behaviour towards her. But most of all she is attracted by the fact that he’s both a mystery and familiar to her.
You say there’s joy in the way Phillips gets you to the realisation. At only two hundred pages, how does he manage to fill it with character and plot? Is it a character piece more than plot-driven?
Not the realisation for the reader, the reader will see it coming early. It’s the realisation for the characters. Yes it’s a character piece, but it’s also a plot-driven piece. I always say why use ten words when one will do, and Phillips is a master of using exactly the right amount of words. There’s no padding here. He writes a book here for the modern reader – we’re busy people, I don’t have time for a load of stuff I don’t need, tell me the story and tell me it well. I want every word to count and it really does in this book. It feels like he’s thought about every word. A very wise person once said, if we had more time we’d have made it shorter. There’s far more skill and thought that goes into making a perfect tight read than some thing that sprawls on and on forever and barely moves from page to page. But then I would say that, I wrote novellas.
You should read Quincunx by Charles Palliser. 1,000 pages of small print, in the style of Dickens, with the meh-est ending ever. Still, I love a deep dive.
What’s the longest book you ever read?
Don’t get me wrong, I can enjoy a good long read, as long as the words are useful. Take those Larsson Girl With books… I’ve read them all, they were fine, but there is a lot of padding at times. Longest books I’ve ever read – not sure because I mostly read on kindle these days. I’ve read some Stephen King books, they tend to have some weight to them. Roots by Alex Haley I remember being a big old book with some very small print. I’m not against a well written good book. It’s when I’m reading it and thinking, bloody hell there’s another 600 pages of this yet… if it’s good I don’t think about the length. It’s about the quality not the girth.
Talking of Dickens, I read A Christmas Carol most Christmases… But it’s very short, other Dickens books, I’ve read a few, and there’s often some length there.
Know Me from Smoke is defined as noir. How do you define noir?
I read a brilliant quote from a review of this book today that defines noir for me. The quote is by Bruce Harris: “Noir succeeds when the atmosphere blends with the characters, defining and directing behaviors, becoming its own powerful driving force.”
For me noir is an atmosphere. It’s also about its characters, usually people on the edge of society, people that feel like they could be sat right next to you in a bar, at the gym, in a restaurant, but not people you’d have around for dinner or meet at work. They’re the same as us, and yet different. Noir stories always feel to me like the sort of thing I might have got caught up in myself if I’d taken a few different turns at times.
Definitely. A fight that leads to another neighbourhood’s alpha males making a visit to your area. The friend who takes it a step too far and drags you all into a hell hole.
What near misses have you had?
I’m not going to pretend I’m some tough guy, I’m just a normal bloke from a normal upbringing. I grew up in a place in Southampton called Lordshill, it’s a tough place but I had a good family and on the whole good friends, and so I mostly managed to stay on the right path. But of course, like any kid growing up in that environment, there are moments when things could have gone worse. I got the shit kicked out of me the day before my Grandma’s funeral because I happened to be with the wrong crowd – I’ll never forget how angry my dad was with me for that, it hurt to know I’d added to his pain at such a shitty time for our family. I got stopped by the police because a shopkeeper pointed me out as part of a gang that had robbed her shop and mugged a kid for his shitty Argos-bought watch… I was part of that gang, but I wasn’t there when they did what they did. And that was the last straw for me and them. I saw that kid sat on a chair that the shopkeeper had grabbed from the back room of her shop, bloodied and crying, and I thought ‘fuck those guys’. I went home and never went back to them. A couple of those guys have been in and out of prison since, and I knuckled down and went another way, ended up in a great job, with great friends. If I’d have been with them when it had happened who knows which why I’d have gone. There have been many more moments I’m sure, but those are the ones that stick in the memory as the ones that woke me up and made me realise I needed to correct my path. I was hanging around with kids that carried knives – I changed that for kids who carried guitars… much more fun. About five years after I stopped hanging with those guys a kid of 16 was murdered outside that same shop my old friends had shoplifted from and mugged a kid for his watch. He was stabbed to death by a ‘friend’ I’m not going to claim that could have been me, but it certainly made me feel two things, sad and grateful.
What is noir for you? Do those near misses resonate when you’re reading it?
I guess they do a bit. I guess that’s why I read and write noir. It’s about those moments in the margins of your life. The moments you imagine things could have gone wrong and so yes it can resonate with moments from the past at times. I often read or write a character I think he or she is just like someone I know or knew.
David Nemeth recently labelled Know Me from Smoke ‘Noir as fuck.’ Where do you put it on the noir-ometer?
It’s like a lesson in noir, but not one of those smug ‘this is how you write’ lessons, just a really great and entertaining example of the genre. NOIR AS FUCK sounds about right, really.
If Know Me from Smoke is Robert De Niro, which book is Al Pacino?
The Big Blowdown by George Pelecanos
Is Rival Sons, your new book, ready to go out into the world?
It is, it’ll be heading out into the world just before Santa’s sleigh in early December. Want to hear what people are saying about it…
“This nuanced, multi-layered homecoming tale packs a real kick-in-the-teeth. Powerful stuff.” Tess Makovesky, author of ‘Gravy Train‘ and ‘Raise the Blade‘.
“A really strong story with great characters. Aidan Thorn is at the forefront of the new wave of British noir.” Chris Black, Senior Editor at Fahrenheit 13
I also got a blurb from Matt Phillips himself, a great honour considering the way I feel about Know Me From Smoke… “Rival Sons is a story about evil overtaking good, how one brother can corrupt the other, and how the lineage passed to us can be more corrupt than any jailhouse snitch. In this blast of a novella, Aidan Thorn delivers––these characters know rivalry and vengeance, guts and glory, failure and worse-than-failure. They also know love and courage – well some of them do.”
– Matt Phillips, author of Know Me from Smoke, The Bad Kind of Lucky, Accidental Outlaws, and Three Kinds of Fool
It sounds cracking. Do you feel you’ve got the writing thing locked down?
Absolutely not. I barely write these days. Rival Sons was the last large project I completed. Since then I’ve completed one short that was in Switchblade issue 6, started another longer piece (novella/novel) called Docklands that I’ve wanted to do for years, and edited an old novella that I want to try out on the world. I’m not really writing at all these days, unfortunately. And I say unfortunately because, yes I do love it and literature is a passion but that said I am a very lucky man in that I also have a day job that I absolutely love, so as that’s got busier it’s meant less writing time but as much as I’d like more writing time I will never complain about getting to do something I love and care about each day.
Aidan, you’ve been great. I’ve gone and bought Know Me from Smoke. Best wishes for Rival Sons.
Thanks for the effort you put into this stuff, Jason. I hope you enjoy Know Me From Smoke half as much as I did. I’m currently reading Matt’s latest, due out soon – The Bad Kind of Luck. It’s another great read.
You can buy Know Me from Smoke direct from Fahrenheit Press, or Amazons US and UK.
You can buy Aidan Thorn’s work from Amazons US and UK.
“A brilliant read that explores society and all its cracks. Jason Beech expertly balances the nostalgia of childhood adventures with the brutality of life in a very grown-up and dark town. City of Forts deserves to sit equal with the greats as a piece of entertainment and a study of modern life’s struggle”
– Aidan Thorn, author of When the Music’s Over from Fahrenheit 13 Press.
“This book has some serious grip. It sinks its teeth into the reader fast and hangs on. Solid throughout, visceral. Thoroughly enjoyed it.”
– D.S. Atkinson
“A great collection of shorts from an author with a stellar writing style! The first and last tales are the most entertaining, serving as perfect book ends to house the others in-between. There is a lot of depth to each story, which is difficult to accomplish considering their brevity. I will be investing more of my time on Mr. Beech.”
– Shervin Jamali, author of Remember.