ON THE BRINKS by Jim Thompson

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I was browsing the New York Journal of Books, admiring the wonderful splash for my upcoming novel, HELSINKI BLOOD, and saw that one of my favorite authors, Sam Millar, has reviewed a novel, PERFECT HATRED, by another favorite author, Leighton Gage.

You would be amazed at how many of we crime writers know one another. It makes sense though, that we do. We all need content: guest blogs, blurbs, reviews, a number of things. And we need them from other crime writers. Who better to assess our work? And when people read a blog on my site, they’re generally looking for interesting articles about crime writing, else why would they be there? I don’t remember, but I think I first came into contact with Leighton when he asked me to guest blog for his excellent site, Murder is Everywhere.

Coming into contact with Sam is an interesting story. Susie, a moderator for the Amazon discussion group, Nordic/British/Irish/Euro mysteries, enjoys both our novels, and she felt strongly that Sam and I should meet, and she sent us an email saying so. I don’t usually contact strangers for no reason. I feel like I’m imposing and don’t know what to say. Especially then, as it was early in my international career, I was an unknown, and it made me feel like a little kid to come into contact with famous writers. But as I habitually do with almost everyone, I researched Sam. He’s a national hero to a lot of people in the North of Ireland. What I read intrigued me, I overcame my shyness, probably used the excuse of asking him to guest blog, which he did, and we started corresponding.

As is often the case with writers, we traded books almost straight away. He sent me ON THE BRINKS, one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read. I sent him SNOW ANGELS, and we became mutual fans, as have Leighton and myself. On Sam’s Facebook page, someone mentioned that BRINKS was the most expensive book on Amazon, as it was out of print and a collectors’ item, with an asking price of $2000. I thought it must be a mistake, so I checked, and it was true. It mystified me, we were nearly strangers, yet he gave me such a precious gift. I wrote to Sam and asked him why he would give me a book worth $2000. He answered, “I only have a few left and I just wanted you to have one.” That’s the kind of guy he is. It remains my most treasured book.

Later, when the book was reprinted, he asked me to blurb it. I think he was the first writer to ask me to blurb a book. As blurbs go, it’s not very good. It’s far too long, references historical events and the poetry of WB Yeats, so unless you’re Irish and a Yeatsian, you can’t grasp the full meaning. But still, it struck some kind of chord, and went full steam around the internet, got tens or hundreds of thousands of web hits. I checked Amazon while writing this, and see that it’s out of print again. Available for $395. Apparently, they just can’t print enough of them. But I digress.

I was astounded by the response to my bad blurb. It was the first thing I had written to be read by so many people. Someone mentioned it the other day and I dug it up. This blog is really just an excuse to post it, as after reading it years later, I liked it. Sam says it’s his all-time favorite. Here it is:

On the Brinks is a story of the Old Gods. The Fenians. Bran, Sceolan, Lomair, others.

Sam Millar. Belfast boy. IRA man. Political prisoner. Long Kesh. The Maze. The H Blocks. The protests. On the blanket, freezing and naked, covered in human filth. An engineer of the largest prison break in European history. The mastermind behind the fifth largest heist in U.S. history.

Millar is our Oisin, and like Oisin, when he entered the gates of Long Kesh Prison, three hundred years of age fell upon him. He suffered unimaginable torment for his beliefs. He could have stopped that torment at any time with two simple words. ‘I relent.’ But he never uttered those words, and relent he never did.

To read On the Brinks is to feel shame. To feel shame because almost all of us know, deep in our hearts, that we would have relented with hours, that we would have lacked the inner strength of will to stand up for our beliefs, the courage of our convictions, while our minds and bodies were ravaged, year after insufferable year. To feel shame because we belong to a race which inflicts such savagery upon its own kind. Yet, On the Brinks leaves us with hope, because no manner of brutality led to the destruction of Millar’s spirit. Despite all, his remains a powerful voice today.

Well over a hundred years ago, in his poem, “The Wanderings of Oisin,” William Butler Yeats summarized the story of Millar and those that suffered with him, predicting it as if he were Nostradamus peering into still water and watching the future of Ireland unfold. I leave it to Yeats, in his conversation between Oisin and St. Patrick, to tell the tale.

“I mused on the chase with the Fenians, and,

The rest you have heard of, O croziered man; how, when divided the girth,
I fell on the path, and the horse went away like a summer fly;
And my years three hundred fell on me, and I rose, and walked on the earth,
A creeping old man, full of sleep, with the spittle on his beard never dry’.

How the men of the sand-sack showed me a church with its belfry in air;
Sorry place, where for swing of the war-axe in my dim eyes the crozier gleams;
What place have Caoilte and Conan, and Bran, Sceolan, Lomair?
Speak, you too are old with your memories, an old man surrounded with dreams.

St. Patrick. Where the flesh of the footsole clingeth on the burning stones is their place;
Where the demons whip them with wires on the burning stones of wide Hell,
Watching the blessed ones move far off, and the smile on God’s face,
Between them a gateway of brass, and the howl of the angels who fell.

Oisin. Put the staff in my hands; for I go to the Fenians, O cleric, to chaunt
The war-songs that roused them of old; they will rise, making clouds with their Breath,
Innumerable, singing, exultant; the clay underneath them shall pant,
And demons be broken in pieces, and trampled beneath them in death.

And demons afraid in their darkness; deep horror of eyes and of wings,
Afraid, their ears on the earth laid, shall listen and rise up and weep;
Hearing the shaking of shields and the quiver of stretched bowstrings,
Hearing Hell loud with a murmur, as shouting and mocking we sweep.

We will tear out the flaming stones, and batter the gateway of brass
And enter, and none sayeth ‘No’ when there enters the strongly armed guest;
Make clean as a broom cleans, and march on as oxen move over young grass;
Then feast, making converse of wars, and of old wounds, and turn to our rest.”

St. Patrick. On the flaming stones, without refuge, the limbs of the Fenians are lost;
None war on the masters of Hell, who could break up the world in their rage;
But kneel and wear out the flags and pray for your soul that is lost
Through the demon love of its youth and its godless and passionate age.

Oisin. Ah me! to be Shaken with coughing and broken with old age and pain,
Without laughter, a show unto children, alone with remembrance and fear;
All emptied of purple hours as a beggar’s cloak in the rain,
As a hay-cock out on the flood, or a wolf sucked under a weir.

It were sad to gaze on the blessed and no man I loved of old there;
I throw down the chain of small stones! when life in my body has ceased,
I will go to Caoilte, and Conan, and Bran, Sceolan, Lomair,
And dwell in the house of the Fenians, be they in flames or at feast.”


With his first internationally published novel, Snow Angels, James Thompson proved himself Finland’s best and most popular representative in the rise of Nordic noir. It was selected as one of Booklist’ s Best Crime Novel Debuts of the Year and nominated for an Edgar Award, an Anthony Award, and a Strand Critics Award. His novel, Lucifer’s Tears, has received critical acclaim from all quarters, including starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Kirkus, and was selected as one of the best novels of the year by Kirkus. Helsinki White was released to critical acclaim in 2012. The fourth book in the series, Helsinki Blood, will be published in March, 2013. He is also a reviewer for The New York Journal of Books and holds a Master’s degree from The University of Helsinki. The first three books in his Inspector Vaara series have been optioned for film.


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