Co Down author Gerard Brennan on new No Alibis-published novel Disorder
Warrenpoint-born author Gerard Brennan's new novel Disorder is the first publication from Belfast crime fiction emporium No Alibis. With the 'recreational rioting' inspired novel going into bookshops throughout Ireland and Britain this week, David Roy spoke to Brennan about his writing and his long-standing relationship with the Botanic Avenue bookstore
BELFAST bookshop No Alibis has already been the centre of the north's crime fiction universe for over 20 years now, but the Botanic Avenue bookstore has just further cemented its legendary status by branching out into publishing.
The first title from No Alibis Press is Gerard Brennan's Belfast-set novel Disorder, which revolves around those caught up in a spate of 'recreational rioting' in the city: loyalist perpetrators, overtime-hungry police, journalists and innocent bystanders, plus those who sense that there's a fast buck to be made by finessing Belfast's unique 'urban security' problems.
Violence, murder, intrigue and the blackest of Belfast humour factor heavily in the Co Down author and playwright's fourth novel, in which psychologically damaged PSNI detective Tommy Bridge locks horns with ruthless loyalist hard nut Clark Wallace.
Following a successful two months as a No Alibis-exclusive paperback, physical copies of Disorder will be hitting the bookshelves at retailers across Ireland and Britain this week – a landmark achievement for Brennan, a writer whose work has never previously enjoyed such wide distribution in a bound format.
"Two of my books only ever got an electronic launch," reveals the author, who lives in Dundrum with his wife and three children.
"I've spent my whole life in bookshops, looking at books and thinking about how it would be really nice to see one of my own up there on the shelves – so this is really cool."
Of course, none of it would be happening without his very favourite bookstore, No Alibis.
"I've been calling in to that shop since 2007," enthuses Brennan, who became a loyal customer at the David Torrans-owned and operated outlet while running his crime fiction website CrimesceneNI (Crimesceneni.blogspot.com) prior to becoming a published writer.
"Every time I'd get sent a new book from here, they always had the launch in No Alibis in Belfast. Because I was already writing then as well, it became worth my while to drive up from Dundrum as I was learning so much from the Q&As.
"I was kind of trying to learn from them just in case the day ever came where I might have to read in front of a crowd in a bookshop."
Thus, the Warrenpoint-born writer was more than ready to launch Disorder with a similar event at No Alibis in December 2017 – a double celebration also marking the much-loved shop's first ever 'in-house' publication.
"That was an amazing feeling," enthuses Brennan. "It was one of those magical nights. I was expecting maybe my mum, my dad and my wife, but there was a really good crowd.
"I think a lot of that had to do with David [Torrans] starting off a new venture as well, so already I was seeing the benefit of having such a close relationship with my publisher and main bookseller.
"David is a small publisher, but I'm his sole focus – whereas in the past I've been the eighth or ninth author through the door."
He adds: "Doing that launch at No Alibis definitely made me feel like more of a 'grown-up' writer. I'd actually gotten to where I'd wanted to be in 2007. It was long enough, time-wise, but I've squeezed in a lot in. It's been a fruitful few years."
Indeed, Brennan made a splash with 2011's The Point, which won the 2012 Spinetingler award for Best Novella. Disorder follows a well-received run of novels from Wee Rockets and Fireproof (both 2012) to Undercover (2014), the latter of which will soon become the Co Down author's first international work when a German translation is published later this year.
Though his novella and all four books are set in uncomfortably familiar local surroundings, this eclectic selection of work defies the reductive tag of 'crime fiction'; the gritty Wee Rockets concerns teenage delinquents in west Belfast, Fireproof is a bold fantasy and mythology-informed story while Undercover's detective thriller gives unusual prominence to victims and 'supporting' characters alongside its lead.
Written in a dialogue-driven 'third person objective' style a la Dashiell Hammett, Disorder took shape as part of Brennan's Phd in Creative Writing at Queen's University Belfast (he had previously gained a Masters in Creative Writing from QUB) facilitated by a generous three year career break from 2013 to 2016 with employers the Education Authority in Belfast, where the author still works three days per week.
In fact, David Torrans got his first taste of the book he would later publish when Brennan brought his thesis novel to No Alibis for binding.
"You had to write a novel as part of the thesis, alongside a critical element [Behaviourism and Hammett's Hardboiled Crime Fiction Legacy]," he explains of the book, which was partly inspired by the Belfast 'flag protests' of 2012/13.
Brennan describes the three years he had to write and refine Disorder as "a real luxury":
"By the end of the first year I had a real solid idea and maybe the first 20,000 words written. I completed the first draft in the second year and then had the whole third year to rework things, which was lovely.
"It helped that I was doing the critical stuff alongside it, because everything I was discovering through the reading for that, I was able to apply to my own work."
On the subject of his influences, Brennan got his start with Roald Dahl before feasting on Stephen King and his wannabes at Warrenpoint Library – though he confesses to being a late convert to his chosen genre.
"I didn't really actually start reading crime fiction until my 20s whenever I came across – in the same year – Colin Bateman's Divorcing Jack and Owen McNamee's Resurrection Man," he tells me.
"Up until that point I thought people were only interested in books set in America. Then I saw how differently both writers handled [the Troubles] and how brave they were about it.
"I always admired them for that. It's a fact that they have made it easier for the rest of us today. We're all a little bit braver now because we've seen that they survived it. They can stand up and say 'I just wrote what I wanted to write'.
"And, in fact, they and all the other writers that I know here have been very supportive."
You can get the measure of such support from Disorder's cover, on which Armagh's finest, Stuart Neville, declares the author to be "a unique voice in contemporary Irish fiction" and your actual Colin Bateman advises potential readers that "Gerard Brennan is a master of gritty violence".
"Funny enough, Owen McNamee was actually my external examiner on my Phd," the Co Down man continues.
"I didn't bring it up in the actual differentiation because I didn't want to sound like I was kissing his backside, but he was one of the reasons I started writing. So for him to be the guy that signed off on the thesis as well, it was another nice closing of a circle for me.
"I love doing interviews like this, because it makes me remember how lucky I've been."
Disorder is available from No Alibis and all other and all other slightly less good bookshops now. Buy online at Noalibis.com