To discuss a thriller-writer who was in jail in the USA for one of the largest payroll heists in US history and who before that was in the H Blocks, an incarcerated IRA Volunteer, is to have most people thinking one is writing about a fictional character – but I’m not. The man exists and his name is Sam Millar.
Millar has a number of novels and a memoir to his credit, all the most recent published by the O’Brien Press. Some of them are detective novels, centred around Karl Kane, a tough private investigator, back-talking cops and gangsters alike. Yes, we’re familiar with the type, from Chandler’ Philip Marlowe to Spillane’s Mike Hammer, Hammet’s Sam Spade or Towne’s Jake Gittes in Chinatown (1974). But if we’ve liked his type in print or film before, them then we tend to like him again. To be truthful, Kane is a bit different: I can’t recall or even imagine any of the others ever opening their front door dressed only in their lover’s short pink dressing gown and falling on their arse, accidentally flashing their tackle at passing schoolgirls. And Kane’s health problems are perhaps more reminiscent of some of the Scandinavian fictional police detective heroes (and heroines) than his fast riposting counterparts in the USA-based stories.
The dialogue and commentary in the Karl Kane novels is good with some very funny lines, his plots interesting and he keeps the story moving along at a good pace, with a few twists along the way. Kane, like Marlowe has a conscience pushing through his hard exterior and though he’s tough he tends not to invite more slaps after the first few. And not every thread in the story is tidily tied up at the end of the book.
The dialogue is not so slick in some of his other novels (one set in the USA) but the conjuring of the ill-boding atmosphere is well done, as is the description of the thinking in the adolescent characters’ minds.
Belfast is where his writing is centred now:
“I have deliberately used (Belfast) as a backdrop for all my crime noir novels for a number of reasons”, he was quoted as saying in a Crime Review author profile “- mainly because I know it so well, but chiefly to bring the imaginary one-dimensional Belfast of badly written novels into the modern era.”
His stories are dark (which is part of the meaning of “noir”) but generally not without humour or redemption, at least for some of the characters. The Police Service of Northern Ireland are not presented as shining good guys and in that Millar fits in with the general attitude to the enforcers of law and order in the detective noir stories: the cast of cops usually includes the downright nasty (and often corrupt), the in-between and the good guy – the latter being the cop who feeds the private investigator information or warns him of trouble coming his way from the cop’s superiors. For the genre and for Millar’s stories it works, providing one doesn’t step back too much to think about the sectarian and often murderous RUC now transformed by name into the PSNI.
However, Millar doesn’t try and paint a rosy picture of a post-Good Friday Agreement society and has been quite open about his own views: “I hate bursting people’s bubbles, everybody wants to believe something like a fairytale has happened over here but it hasn’t”, he said in a 2014 interview with David Henessy in the Irish in Britain weekly The Irish World.
“It’s changed superficially but for working-class Protestants and working-class Catholics it hasn’t changed. There’s still a lot of people out of work, a lot of poverty and it seems the politicians are the only ones who seem to benefit out of this Good Friday Agreement which has been a terrible let down, to be honest with you, especially in nationalist communities.
“But for myself being a writer, of course, I have been able to move away and I felt guilty. You don’t want to turn your back on your neighbourhood but at the same time, I’ve young children. I want them to have a better life…”
SELLING WELL ABROAD
A number of Millar’s books have been translated and sold well in France (where he was won a number of literary awards), Italy, Germany and Poland and some as far as Turkey and Bulgaria. He is not without Irish awards either: the prestigious Aisling Award for Art and Culture; Martin Healy Short Story Award; Brian Moore Award and Cork Literary Review Award, et al.
“I could probably sell more books in Ireland if I kept my mouth shut about what I thought,” Millar commented more recently. Perhaps he’s right. I find it hard to believe I never heard about him until picking out a book by chance in the library, saw it was about a PI working in Belfast and with a sigh, felt obligated to read it. But without any great expectations, having come across some novels allegedly about the Six Counties that seemed to be about somewhere else in the world but also bearing Ulster place and family names. I was glad I chose it and am now working my way through his other published works.
Asking some Dublin Republicans about Millar and his writing, I was again surprised that they had not heard of him, particularly since they would share his view of the Six Counties today.
IRA VOLUNTEER AND HEIST
Millar was brought up a Catholic in Belfast (but with a Protestant grandfather), became politically active and went to jail in 1973, “the first nationalist put away under the Diplock court system. That’s a forgotten historical footnote, except for me”, he says. Released in 1975, his days of freedom were short, like many another in those days and a year later he was back inside after being caught with explosives in Belfast city centre. He joined the blanket protest against the British policy of criminalisation of Republican prisoners.
Released from the H-Blocks in 1982, he got acquainted with Bernadette, now his wife, whom he had known as a child, a few streets away from his family‘s home.
Moving to the USA, in 1993 Millar got involved in the New York Brinks Armoured Car Depot robbery, “the biggest in US history” (in which no-one was killed), for which he got caught a year later and served six years in a penitentiary, to be released by Clinton. Millar wrote about the heist in On the Brinks (2003) and apparently investigators believe that though Millar masterminded the robbery, he fictionalised some of the details in order to protect some accomplices.
Warner Bros. bought the rights to the book for a screenplay before backing out of making the film and a long “and draining” legal battle followed as Millar fought to win back the rights, so as to have some other company make the film.
THRILLER WRITER AND REVIEWER
Writing for the New York Journal of Books, Millar said he had “reviewed tons of books”, in reply to an accusation by Armagh author Stuart Neville that he had indulged in “sock puppeting”, i.e using fake identities to rate his own work highly and do down some others, including Neville’s.
“If you look at my books reviewed by people on Amazon,” said Millar to Nuala McCann for BBC News in September 2012, “you will see one stars and two stars, some by writers. I have never asked Amazon to remove them, nor complained on line about them.
“Ironically, the only book I’ve ever read by Mister Neville I reviewed for the influential website New York Journal of Books,” he added.
“I think if you read it, it wasn’t too bad a review. I get lousy reviews sometimes myself, but take it on the chin. I’ve reviewed ‘tons’ of fiction/crime books for writers, and never given a negative review of any of them.
“If I don’t like a book (after a few chapters) I will not review it, as I do not like to give bad reviews to fellow writers, as I know how difficult enough it is without adding grief.”
Sam Millar has another anti-hero novel (not Kane) novel due out in June, The Bespoke Hitman, as part of a three-book deal with O’Brien. I’m looking forward to reading it.
Dark Souls (April 2003)
The Redemption Factory (July 2005)
The Darkness of Bones (2006)
Bloodstorm: A Karl Kane Book (2008)
The Dark Place: A Karl Kane Book (2009)
The Dead of Winter: A Karl Kane Book (2012)
Brothers In Arms (Stage play 2012)
Black’s Creek [originally Small Town Killing] (2014)
On The Brinks, O’Brien Press (April, 2014) [but originally by Wynkin de Worde (Sep. 2003) then bought by Millar’s present publisher, The O’Brien Press]
Past Darkness: A Karl Kane Novel (2015)
LINKS FOR SOME SOURCES:
Author’s website: http://www.millarcrime.com/