Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Jack Batten

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Jack Batten

Criminal lawyer and maverick sleuth Crang has appeared in four beloved bestsellers including Straight No Chaser and Riviera Blues. Now his creator, author Jack Batten, is back with a new Crang mystery, Take Five (Thomas Allen). In Take Five, Crang finds himself pursuing a client who skipped out on his bill who also happens to be behind Canada's largest-ever grow-op. The chase sees Crang crossing paths (and often swords) with the mob, museums, murders, thugs and more.

Today Jack speaks to us about getting back to writing Crang, flexible moral codes and why he's always happy when he's at the keyboard.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, Take Five.

Jack Batten:

My new crime novel, Take Five, gets Crang involved in the field of high end ceramics. Crang, the book’s central character, is a Toronto defence lawyer who acts more like a private eye. Mostly through happenstance, he stumbles on some questionable business at Toronto’s prestigious Levin Ceramics Museum. A client of Crang’s, one who is already waiting to be sentenced for her role in a massive marijuana grow op scheme, may be mixed up in the fishy stuff. This fishy stuff centres on a particular display of ceramic figures owned by the museum and worth several million dollars.

As usual, Crang is not quite sure what he’s doing. He just knows there’s trouble ahead, especially after one of the players in the ceramics scam gets murdered. Crang’s response is to improvise his way to a solution.


What is it like, writing Crang again? Has Crang changed at all since the last book?


Before I started writing the new Crang novel after leaving him on the shelf for more than twenty years, I reread all four of the earlier Crang books. I needed to make sure I could write the new book with the same voice I used in the old books. It turned out that I could, and the writing process became a joy.


Readers seem to love Crang's willingness to bend the law in the greater search for justice. Why do you think we love sleuths with their own moral code so much? And do you think this is an accurate description of Crang?


As for Crang himself, my only problem was with his age. If I’d made him twenty years older, he would have been in his sixties and not spry enough for some of the antics I put him through. So I fudged the age and made him no older than fifty.

I never think too much about Crang’s moral code. Neither does he. Like all criminal lawyers, his job is to give his clients, who are more likely than not guilty of one crime or another, the best representation he’s capable of. If that means cutting a few corners, Crang’s game for whatever gets the job done. He thinks corners are made to be cut. This is what passes for his moral code.


Toronto is so much a part of these books. Has writing about the city changed the way you feel about or interact with the city yourself?


Like Crang, I’ve lived in Toronto all my life, and one of the pleasures in writing the books is to convey my, and Crang’s, love of the city. It’s not a blind love. Both of us embrace Toronto warts and all. In the books, I describe many of the warts. That’s part of the fun for me, and readers seem to have the same reaction.


You've written an astonishing number of books. How do you stay focused? Do you have advice for other writers?


When I was a kid, I knew I wanted to be a writer. My parents said, no, no, you’re going to be a lawyer. So I went to law school, got called to the bar and joined a fine old Toronto firm. I was miserable in the work from the beginning. So I stirred myself to pursue my first and only love — writing. And fairly quickly, I managed to escape law and became a full-time writer.

The unhappy brush with law left me with the feeling of immense gratitude and relief to be working at something that was a joy. Every second of every day when I’m sitting at my typewriter or computer, I feel fortunate and happy. I love writing sentences and paragraphs and chapters and whole books. So I’ve written a lot of books — about forty, mostly non-fiction — and a lot of magazine and newspaper pieces. Some people find the number of books amazing. But it’s not. What would be amazing is if I spent all the time at a keyboard and produced only half that number of books.


What are some of your favourite recent reads?


I read a lot of crime novels, and lately I’ve read new work by some of the people in the field whom I really admire: Peter Robinson, Arnaldur Indridason, Lee Child. Most of the rest of my reading is also in fiction. I’ve been rereading Barbara Pym, the wonderful and amusing English writer; William Boyd, also English; and Richard Russo of the U.S. of A.


What are you working on now?


I’m almost finished ghostwriting the memoirs of Gene DiNovi, a great Toronto jazz pianist, composer and arranger. I’ve also begun a sixth Crang novel. It gets Crang mixed up in the world of hip hop music. Both he and I know nothing about hip hop, so we’ll learn together.

I’m going to give Crang’s girlfriend Annie a bigger role in this book. Women readers — I seem to have far more women readers than men — like Annie a lot. So do I, and I especially like writing the dialogue when Annie and Crang are taking a run at a subject. Their talk seems to give off a particular spark.

Jack Batten, a former lawyer and long-time Toronto writer, has written forty-one books, including four crime novels featuring Crang, the unorthodox criminal lawyer. Batten reviewed jazz for the Globe and Mail for several years, reviewed movies on CBC Radio for twenty-five years, and is now the crime fiction columnist for The Toronto Star. He is currently at work on the next Crang mystery.

For more information about Take Five please visit the Thomas Allen website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Check out all the On Writing interviews in our archives.

1 comment

Take Five is so much fun. Good to see Crang back again.

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