Ali Karim – is Assistant Editor at Shots eZine, a contributing editor at January Magazine & The Rap Sheet and writes for Crimespree magazine, Deadly Pleasures and Mystery Readers International and is an associate member of both The Crime Writers Association [CWA], International Thriller Writers [ITW] and the Private Eye Writers of America [PWA]. And he’s probably the world’s biggest crime fiction fan.
You must be one of the most widely read crime readers around, what is it about the genre that is so all consuming for you? Would you class yourself as an obsessive crime fan?
Yes I am an obsessive reader and writer; something I guess comes from my mother’s side of the family, many of who were / are published writers and avid readers, like my late Grandfather. From my father’s side I get my scientific interests. It was my mother who taught me to read, and from an early age I would find solace and escape in the arms of novels. Books became [and remain] my friends. I started with Captain W.E. John’s Biggles novels and that sparked an interest in thrillers. Though I read [and still read] widely, including science fiction, horror, some ‘literary’ but it is crime fiction and thrillers that are my preferred genre.
They say a good book can change your life. Has reading crime fiction literally changed your life or dictated the path your life has gone?
Yes, I believe books are dangerous, but dangerous in a good way as they teach you to think for yourself, and sampling the world though books is key to understanding the world and learning empathy towards others. I think my analytical mind in science was honed by my love of detective fiction. As the Managing Director of a large Distribution company [I co-founded in 2004], I find I am confronted by many problems in business, and my main role is problem solving, and that again I credit to my love of detective novels. I think my early love of science fiction steered me towards the sciences. Though pivotal novels that still reside in my memory, such as Thomas Harris, Harlan Ellison, Stephen King, David Morrell, Stieg Larsson [among others] – I can tell you what was happening in my life when I read those books, such is the impact of books that sit at the top of the genre.
How many crime books do you think you’ve read so far in your lifetime?
It would have to be in the thousands, and book storage is a problem as I am a collector as well. Though the older I get and the more well-read, the harder it gets to find the best of the best as there are plenty of excellent novels out there, but I am always looking for insight, and something different. A case in point was a younger brother [who doesn’t read novels] of mine came back from a holiday excited clutching a book. He was raving and told me it was the best book he’d ever read and implored me to read it. I looked at it, and asked “how many books have you read then?” He scratched his head and contemplated, finally saying “…hmmmm I guess three novels, hold it, actually two as I didn’t finish one of them…..”
What’s has reading so much crime and talking to so many authors taught you about the genre?
I love what I learn about life and the human condition, and yes that sounds rather worthy I know, but books have enriched my life, made me understand some of the mad things that happen around me. They have also made me a tad paranoid, always reading about the worst excesses of human nature. Though from a positive angle, they have distracted me when life throws really difficult problems at me. They also put things in perspective. I recall having a very tough time around the time I discovered Dennis Lehane. When I put down Darkness Take My Hand – a very dark and brutal novel, but wonderful in terms of murky morality – When I got to the end I realized, my problems compared to what was thrown at Lehane’s Private Investigators’ Patrick and Angie where miniscule.
Can you explain the enduring appeal and popularity of crime fiction?
To evolve as a species from the cave, humans had to have a violent streak in our natures. That was needed to hunt, defend our families and be strong. That’s all well and good in the less enlightened past. Though those violent edges in our nature have a dark-side and one that doesn’t fit in well in today’s ‘civilised’ society. This theme was explored in Michael Marshall’s chillingly dark The Straw Men. The views of life from the edges of society are often the most insightful, and that’s where crime fiction is pitched. Also for the crime fiction reader, it provides thrills and danger from the safety of the arm chair, and to place our own problems firmly into perspective.
Do you remember the first book you ever read?
Hmmm that is a difficult one, I guess it would have to be Janet and John thanks to my mother, but the first ‘real’ books that I recall that made an impact were the Biggles novels, and then I went into Ian Fleming [aged 10], Alistair MacLean, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, and of course where would adolescent boys be without Howard Philips Lovecraft…..
Why did you decide to cross the line from just being happy to read the books, to actively pursuing authors to interview for your various magazines/ blogs?
I guess books posed questions, and as I write myself I find spending time in the company of authors enlightening. And I don’t feel as odd as I do at say a dinner party, when all there is to talk about is the trivia that makes up our lives. Then, thanks to crime author and stand-up comic Mark Billingham, I was introduced to Shots editor Mike Stotter, and as Mark used to write for Shots he said that Mike Stotter needed help, and a decade later a very strong friendship developed with Mike and I. We love crime novels and believe the world would be a better place if more people read books.
Is it all consuming? How do you find time/money to make a living and travel the world for festivals and events?
Hmmmm that’s the trouble in paradise. I rationalize this problem of time and money resource by the fact I feel my obsessive reading makes me better at my job, as I think it makes me understand people and situations and enhances my problem solving ability. My wife and kids would disagree as they are often irritated seeing less of me than they would like. I defend myself with “it is better to be obsessed with books than say, heroin, alcohol, gambling….” That is not always accepted as an excuse…..
You’ve read and interviewed some of the biggest names in the genre – is there anyone who really stands out for you?
This is a tough one, a real tough one as I have interviewed many writers and gained much insight from my meetings. Off the top of my head, interviewing David Morrell and Robert Littell were standouts for me. Firstly David Morrell is the Grandfather of the modern action thriller, while I was very flattered to spend time with Bob Littell, thanks to publisher Peter Meyer who was equally surprised to find the reclusive Littell agreeing to be interviewed by me. That interview has been translated into German and French and is a real rare insight into one the world’s greatest espionage writers.
A lot of authors you’d imagine are busy and in demand, how do you manage to get such easy access to them for your interviews?
It was much harder when Shots was small and The Rap Sheet just started, but ten years on the situation has reversed as I seem to get access to most writers, purely because I think they enjoy some of my questions and my inquisitive nature, and I actually read the books they write. Also the Internet has reach, and today Shots eZine gets around 18,000 hits a day and Rap Sheet between 1,000 to 5,000 a day due to the mass of material online. Plus I write for some great editors such as Mike Stotter of Shots, Jeff Peirce at The Rap Sheet, Janet Rudolf of Mystery Readers International, George Easter of Deadly Pleasure Magazine, John and Ruth Jordan of Crimespree, Linda Richards of January Magazine and I have my first piece for Andrew Gulli of The Strand Magazine.
If you were to recommend one crime book to someone who said they hated the genre to get them to change their mind, what would it be?
It has to be The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris, a novel full of insight, beautifully written, I just weep at the ability of Harris as a writer. Though many folk would be put off by the subject matter, but sometimes you need to view the world from the dark end of the street to understand the darkness in human nature.
What keeps you motivated on your crime trail to keep traveling, reading and interviewing…?
In a word, the friendships I have developed over the years with fellow colleagues who love the written word. When I meet my friends at conventions, conferences and literary parties, it feels as I am not as weird as I sometimes think I am. Meeting fellow reviewers is always a treat as we discuss what we’ve been reading. One thing that keeps me motivated is the search for something special and then seeing the writer emerge from their debut to become hugely successful. I was one of the first to review Simon Kernick, R J Ellory, Linwood Barclay, Stieg Larsson…
I see you were at the first Theakston’s Old Peculiar Harrogate Crime Writing Festival and attend each year, so can you tell us what you enjoy about the Harrogate Experience?
Well, as much as I enjoy Crimefest [Bristol], the US conventions such as Thrillerfest and Bouchercon – Harrogate has a special place in my diary each year. It has now grown into a major international event attracting people from all over the world. It is the only event I bring my wife and children to, as they enjoy the event, but we also can explore one of Britain’s most historic towns. I have to also as a businessman, I am very impressed by Simon Theakston’s continued support for the event, especially considering the choices we’ve had to make with our marketing budgets in the tough economy over the last few years. I would also say that Sharon and Erica, who with their team, manage a complex event with such amazing professionalism. This is why that anyone who is interested in crime and thrillers should attend Harrogate each year, to keep updated on the genre.
Thank you for your time
And yours, funny being on the other side of the microphone for once!