Sunday, 19 July 2009

“A Season for the Dead”, David Hewson

Most of my postings involve books I've read recently, reflecting my response to a book at its most visceral and critically when the plot and characterisation is fresh in my mind.

This is a departure from that principle and is not really a book review.

I picked up David Hewson's first Nic Costa novel back in February 2008, the result of a Saturday morning's stroll refamiliarising myself with Aberystwyth. “A Season for the Dead” formed part of a three-for-two offer in the local bookshop, along with Mark Mill's “Savage Garden” and John Niven's “Kill your Friends” (actually quite an unpleasant book, in a strangely compelling way, as things transpired). I'm hard pressed to remember which one was the 'free' book in this package, but memory whispers to me that it probably wasn't the Hewson, I'd just come back from Rome, and full of the prospect of more work there, the prospect of a rich Italian mystery really appealed.

Bringing things to the present day, late on Thursday night, coping with an oppressively hot Bologna night, I came across a recent spat concerning Hewson and his response to negative reviews, bringing up an array of topics including, among many others, cyber-bullying, fair use of copyright material, and libel. Ill tempered discussion such as this, which periodically flare up on the internet, often show the shortcomings of blogging, where there's too much reliance on literal communication and it's all too easy to post in haste and repent at leisure, however this did serve to make me, with the benefit of distant hindsight, think about what I've thought about David Hewson's books.

I read “A Season for the Dead” and while finishing it, being driven with a sense of curiousity about how the plot panned out, an interest in the core characters, and a real sense of enjoyment about the location, something about it left me feeling a touch disappointed. There was a palpable lack of redemption about the book. To take the persona of Nic Costa as an example, there's no shortage of troubled detectives with a surfeit of 'issues' in crime fiction, however I found a certain sense of frustration with him, and struggled to identify with him. Equally, while crime in reality is almost never elegant, much of plot represented humanity at its most tawdry, and left me feeling somewhat stained.

That said, my response to my first exposure to Hewson clearly wasn't completely negative. I clearly remember frustration at my local library not stocking the earlier books in the Costa series, and at some point last year I bought the third book, “The Sacred Cut”, probably at an airport, but it never really grabbed me, and despite a few attempts at starting, ultimately it fell victim to the demands of limited shelf space in a South London semi, and went to the charity shop unread with my feeling that for whatever reason I didn't really get on with Hewson/Costa and I didn't see myself reading it anytime soon.

There ended my engagement with David Hewson, probably concluding that while they were perfectly good crime novels of a particular type, they weren't necessarily for me, but that's just a case of horses for courses.

Reading about the spat referred to above raised some interesting questions in my mind though. I haven't seen the negative review penned by Norm, so I can't comment on whether it was or was not libellous. Raising the issue of libel is however something that does make my blood run cold. I've worked in publishing for many years, and still clearly recall the horror of receiving a phone call from the BBC asking if I was aware that a writ for libel was forthcoming from a third party. I was lucky enough then to be working for a big publisher, with the sort of editorial processes that gave us confidence in our story, and a wider support structure in terms of administration and legal help that cushioned the blow. Blogging is undeniably publishing, and libel is libel, but thinking back to my understanding of the laws surrounding such things, looking at reputational damage in the eyes of the right thinking person on the Clapham ominbus, one does have to wonder what purpose is served by taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

What I do find positive, having over the past couple of days revisited some of the controversial correspondence, is that David Hewson is reading and responding to writings about his work. Engaging in a dialogue, within reason, about its merits, is so much more healthy than leaving things in the hands of lawyers. Clay Shirky among others makes the point that the one thing the internet does is lower the barrier to publication, this has the effect that there is a blurring of lines between the old traditional 'book review' of the Saturday supplement and the impassioned conversation between friends previously the reserved preserve of small groups. From my perspective as a reader this has been vastly positive, introducing me to so many books I wouldn't otherwise have found, however there has to be a process of understanding that maybe principles arrived at for the long established print world do not work as well in a world where everyone can publish and accordingly have their 15 megabytes of fame.

There are going to be good and bad aspects to this, but perhaps it's worth revisiting the basic lessons of libel I was taught many years ago – as an author, would you want this written about you? And as a plaintif, once you enter into litigation gloves will come off and you lose control over what is said.

Restraint is usually the best way forward.


  1. As the owner of a blog where some of this Hewson v the world activity has taken place this week I'm not sure I agree with you about its positive aspects (although I don't know if I disagree with you either...I'm still processing it all). My immediate reaction though he's missed the opportunity to make it a positive thing. In my day job I tend to look at negative feedback as an opportunity because people who feel strongly enough to comment are often people who can be turned around. Mr Hewson had an opportunity to be funny, or clever, or to find some of the other books similar to his that I had finished and make comparisons. He even had an opportunity to do nothing. But instead he chose to be aggressive and nasty which are both things I dislike in people and so turned me from someone who'd not finished one of his books but didn't have any particularly strong feelings about him or his other work into someone who will go out of her way to avoid him in future.

  2. Thanks for the comments Bernadette - and also thanks for hosting the issue in the first place, which if nothing else has been hugely thought provoking.

    My initial reaction to Hewson's comments was that he was being a bit of arse, and I still find the accusations of copyright theft a touch extreme. Indeed, given Hewson's complaints about the absurd costs of using song lyrics in a book, one would have thought he could see that being overly restrictive in this area serve little purpose. For me at least engaging in dialogue is positive, even if taking a more conciliatory tone might have been more effective.

    As crimeficreader highlighted, his comments on his twitter feed, referring to Norm as a 'twat' is probably only defensible under abuse and difficulty of identifying him.

    My basic stance here is that I'd think long and hard before crossing the rubicon of concepts like libel. Good things very seldom result.

  3. As mentioned at Bernadette's, the intitial review was neither libellous nor a breach of copyright. That's all I am saying about it on a pulic forum, other than to sympathise with Bernadette that all that happened on her blog.

  4. Here we go again. Here are just three of the things this so-called review included, things that weren't libellous (I won't repeat those parts) but could never have been allowed in any decent, honest and accurate review by a half-competent teenager.
    The piece said that Norm/Uriah's wife had seen a book video in which I'd appeared and she thought I was a 'smooth operator'. Could someone kindly tell me what possible relevance this snide and personal remark has in a book review? Is it meant to be a cheap joke? Eurocrime did, I should say, flag up Uriah's piece as something funny and advised 'the author should look away now. I really don't know.
    Norm/Uriah ridiculed in great detail as utterly unbelievable a medical procedure which provided a plot point in the book. He was clearly too bone idle to do a simple Google search on the subject. Had he done so he would have discovered the medical procedure was real and not an invention at all. So the plot point which he cited as one of the ridiculous aspects of the book wasn't an invention at all, and this was just one of the simple factual inaccuracies in the piece which Eurocrime had no intention of correcting.
    Norm/Uriah, in one of his many verbatim quotations from the book (much more than six words from a song - see above and a copyright breach - look up the rules of fair use, Maxine) ridiculed a piece of direct speech in which someone says something stupid. What he failed to point out however, either because he was too lazy to notice or because it killed his argument, is that the character who says this immediately retracts it in the following para on the grounds that she'd just said something stupid. So again the piece he quotes to make out what a crappy writer I am is based upon a blatant falsehood, whether deliberately or through sloth I've no idea.
    I said repeatedly to Eurocrime they can say what they like in their reviews. But if they publish material they are surely under an obligation to make it fair, accurate and free of libel. This piece was none of those things. Authors have rights too. We have the right to expect comments to be honest, accurate and at least based on some kind of fact, not a highly personal diatribe flagged up as 'funny' by the site that runs it. And when we do point out the inaccuracies and libels we surely should expect they would be removed, as they would be by any professional publisher.
    I've argued with publishers time and time again saying they should take web reviews more seriously, and even provide free copies. Pieces like this, which was libellous and used copyright material beyond anything allowable under fair use, whatever Maxine says, aren't going to help you.
    Just try and get it right next time and be a little less pompous. You too Bernadette. You give the impression A Season for the Dead is one more Dan Brown knock-off clone on your site. Here's a tip. Before you say things like that it might be worth checking the pub date (you can find it in the prelims - it's not hard to track down). If you had done you'd have discovered the book came out in the same year as The Da Vinci Code. Actually a month before. Clearly I'm a prescient writer indeed if I can knock off clones of a book that was published after my own.
    I was a national newspaper journalist for nearly three decades before becoming a full time writer. Facts matter. And all I can say to you Maxine about your sympathies for 'all that happened on her blog' is: what do you think writers should do when they're misrepresented in public this way? Stay silent and allow these lies to propagate unchallenged? Are we just dartboards at which you can throw your arrows, maliciously at will, while we sit there and take the personal abuse, the lazy inaccuracies, and the libellous attacks on our professional reputations and abilities?
    If an anonymous person put up a personal attack on your journalistic work, made false claims about your work, said you were incompetent, and made snide remarks about your appearance, would you sit back happily and say, 'Fair enough'? I doubt it somehow.

  5. PS. Should also have added that I fail to understand the comment about my article on the cost of song lyrics and its relevance here. I wasn't arguing that there should be no copyright on lyrics at all. Only that the cost should be reasonable. Eurocrime wanted to run extensive direct quotations from the book (in fair use only one or two sentences at most are generally acceptable) for nothing and without permission. Where's the connection?
    And while I am deeply flattered that anyone can be so obsessive as to trawl my Twitter feed to find stuff with which to damn me I should also point out that calling someone a twat may be offensive but isn't libellous. Not that I called Uriah a twat by name. Since he doesn't have the guts to put his real name to his diatribes that would be a bit difficult.

  6. First off, I'm enormously flattered to get the attention from David Hewson. As I intimated in the original post, a dialogue between writers and readers is the sort of thing that the internet has made possible and this transformation really enriches the reading experience for me. Thanks also for going into additional detail about your point of view, which helps understanding a lot, and hopefully will help me get it right this time.

    Inherently I think David and I are saying the same sort of thing. Material that is published (accepting that now publishing isn't the big deal it once was) should be accurate and civil - much like the central tenet of libel that I was taught many years ago - it you wouldn't be happy to see this said about yourself, don't write it.

    These are principles I hold to now, both in my professional life and in what I publish here, and I'd encourage anyone who feels I've failed to live up to these standards to flag them up immediately, and I would be delighted to both offer them right of reply (the very reason I do not moderate comments on this blog) and, if it can be shown that I've published something incorrectly, withdraw it.

    Happily I've yet to have to do this - partially perhaps through inhabiting a fairly sleep corner of the internet, but also through being thorough and fair in what I write. To that end trawling through a Twitter feed is for me sensible rather than obsessive - the historian in me profoundly feels that seeing the wider picture is important; facts are very significant, but context also counts.

    Equally while I've long since stopped wearing black polo necks, smoking Gitanes, and pretending to be a French philosopher, Jacques Derrida's ideas about intertextuality are important. What I write is affected by what else I've read and experienced - as such it may or may not be relevant that I bought "A Season for the Dead" in Aberystwyth while walking off the previous night's revelry. It might also be appropriate for another reviewer to mention that a family member had seen an interview with the author - true it's not immediately germane, but helps paint a wider picture.

    I think we will have to agree to disagree with our stances on fair use of copyright material, I'll entirely agree with you on issues of passing out and wholesale reproduction of material, but my personal stance is that being overly restrictive stifles as much creativity as it protects. With a novel I'd be amazed if reproduction of anything short of the lion's share of the book damaged the interests of the author - accepting of course that quotation out of context needs to be handled with care.

    I do hope I'm not too pompous this time round. I can understand that I do write in a certain sort of way, and can see how what I see as laconic others might see as pompous. Apologies if this way of writing grates in any way.

    I also agree regarding the 'twat' comment. Abuse isn't libel - countless elements of case law support this, but I'm not sure how effective a means of communication it is.

    Finally - just for clarity, I write under a pseudonym (really - I wasn't christened Semi Dweller!). This stems from my first fumbling efforts at blogging, when I was writing about the trials and tribulations of renovating a South London semi, and, to be frank, wasn't sure if I was confident enough in my own writing to be entirely happy in exposing my real name to potential ridicule; if you like, it's one of the perils of blogging as a shy person. I make no real effort to conceal my identity - the link to my LibraryThing profile shows my real name (Ian Synge, to cut to the chase), and I'm utterly happy for people to know this. I haven't changed my blogging handle more down to idleness than anything else.

    Once again, thanks for the comments. They're really thought provoking and enlightening and serve through dialogue to hopefully make me and others understand the books we read more. Happy to continue the conversation, either here or more privately via email (semi.dweller @

  7. I work in a library and fair use has some relevance to me professionally. Mr. Hewson says at one point that there was a copyright breach and later that one or two sentences are considered fair use. This isn't a challenge to Mr. Hewson's definition of fair use. I'm just trying to understand how it is applied to book reviews.

    I haven't hit the books yet but from Googling I haven't found a strict definition of how much content can be used and still considered fair use.

    I'm not able to copy the link but The Publishing Law Center web site (www dot publaw dot com slash work dot html and fairuse dot html) has an informative two part article on US fair use. I gather that there isn't a strict ratio of quote to total words and that one of the factors the courts evaluate is whether "the user of copyrighted material has taken no more than was necessary to achieve the purpose for which the user copied the materials." This would allow for very different opinions between the copyright holder and the user of copyright material.

    Is it different in the UK?

    This is an aspect of this discussion about which I would like to learn more particularly as it applies to the UK copyright system.

  8. Hi Mack - and thanks for the comment.

    I think most of this has been covered in the FriendFeed discussion of fair use and its place in UK law so I don't know I've much to add to the debate.

    I've always operated on the understanding that there isn't a defined maximum as the rationale behind fair use is to simultaneously protect intellectual property and freedom of speech. In the context of a book review, as there's clearly no question of passing off the original authors work as your own I'd be interested to see whether case law supported the assertion that there's an assumed maximum of one or two sentences.

    That said, many years ago I decided I didn't want to be a lawyer - so I'll leave in depth discussions on such things to those that do it professionally!