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Mystery man

For a man who recently lost his first name, The Artist Formerly Known As Colin Bateman is in remarkably chipper form. The prolific writer (25 novels and counting) of comedy crime novels that began with Divorcing Jack was recently rebranded 'Bateman' to coincide with the publication of a new series character who goes only by the name 'Mystery Man' as Bateman spoofs the conventions of the traditional crime thriller.

"It's kind of a mixed blessing," he says of his new moniker. "It has undeniably worked as far as the books are concerned -- or maybe the books are getting better -- in that there's a recognition factor there. The downside, I suppose, is that if you don't know it's tongue in cheek, you'd think it was a bit self-important. And, of course, now that I have that doctorate from Coleraine University, I'm officially a doctor, so the new book could be Dr Yes by Dr Bateman. If I chose to, ahem, yank my own chain."

Fiddling with his funny bits, of course, is what led to the creation of Bateman's choicest character to date." Most of my books have been launched in Belfast's No Alibis mystery bookstore," he says, "and at a launch I generally read the first chapter of the new book: you don't have to set it all up or confuse people with back stories and asides. But when I was launching Driving Big Davie about six years ago I had a bit of a problem -- the first chapter was all about masturbation, and my mother-in-law was in the audience. So I had to read something, and that something was a story I wrote over the weekend before the launch, actually set in the bookstore, and with a fictional version of the owner [Dave Torrans] cracking a humdrum crime in The Case of Mrs Geary's Leather Trousers. It was just to fill a gap, but it went down so well that at the next book launch I wrote another short story featuring the same character, and those two stories eventually evolved into the first novel."

Mystery Man's shtick is that he is the antithesis of the conventional crime fiction hero: a cowardly neurotic, a hypochondriac with all the fighting qualities of a cloistered nun, a man who excels only at "being paranoid and foolish and saying the wrong thing, mostly. Yep, it's a thinly veiled autobiography," laughs Bateman.

Laurels

The first novel in the new series, Mystery Man, was a Richard and Judy Summer Read, while the second, The Day of the Jack Russell, scooped the Last Laugh award at the recent CrimeFest bunfight in Bristol. The third, Dr Yes, will be published on September 30, but Bateman isn't resting on his laurels.

Having previously written for TV, most notably the Murphy's Law series that starred James Nesbitt, he has now turned to writing for the stage.

"National Anthem is about a composer and a poet," he explains, "both exiles for 20 years, and with a certain level of fame, who are commissioned by the Government to create a national anthem for Northern Ireland to coincide with the visit of the American President. They're very much up against a deadline: two men in a room with one day to compose it. But this isn't the country they left, and they both have secrets which are exposed during the play, secrets which also come back to haunt them. I should add that it's a comedy, a farce, but maybe with a few points to make about how we see ourselves."

After that, it's back to another Mystery Man novel, and using comedy to carve out a niche in what he believes is becoming a depressingly homogenous genre.

"Crime fiction is the biggest genre," he says, "and the best-selling authors are selling phenomenal amounts of books. But I genuinely believe that 99pc of crime readers, if they were given just the books minus their covers and any identifying information, really couldn't tell the difference between any of them.

"I was at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival a couple of months ago and I met many crime fiction fans, and they were all perfectly nice and lovely and I got a great reception and they laughed at my jokes, but it was absolutely clear to me that at the end of the day what they actually wanted was the next Jeffrey Deaver, or Patricia Cornwell or Karin Slaughter.

"I think maybe readers have forgotten that there was a strong element of humour in crime fiction in the past -- Sherlock Holmes and Raymond Chandler had it in spades -- but it seems to have been sucked out of it over the years in favour of blood and guts.

"It's not so much that comic crime is cutting edge. It's just that I think anything that varies from the norm is always worth checking out. Comic crime fiction at least dares to be different. It also dares not to sell very many copies."

Dr Yes is published by Headline (€19.80) on September 30. National Anthem debuts at the Belfast Theatre Festival on October 20


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