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Writer's not just for kids anymore

Crime still pays for 'Artemis Fowl's' Eoin Colfer, who retains his humor in adult debut.

August 31, 2011|Susan Carpenter

Irish author Eoin Colfer has been "doing leprechaun stuff" for a decade. Better known as the bestselling "Artemis Fowl" series for middle-grade readers, Colfer's self-described "leprechaun stuff" is the delightfully sordid story of a 12-year-old criminal mastermind who'll let nothing -- least of all fairies -- stop him from reclaiming his family's lost fortune. The seven books in the series have been translated into 40 languages and have sold millions of copies worldwide.

Yet despite his success, there comes a time when a writer just wants to write about something more adult, like a down-on-his-luck Irish doorman at a cut-rate New Jersey casino who repeatedly finds himself an accessory to murder. The book is called "Plugged," and the comedic crime noir, due out Thursday, is Colfer's first novel for readers who prefer whiskey to milk.

"My thing has always been to try to bring something new to a genre or to try to turn it on its head," Colfer said in a telephone interview from Cannes, France, where he was vacationing with his wife and two children before embarking on a book tour that would take him back to the British Isles, and then to the United States.

As he did with "Artemis Fowl," one of the few children's fantasy series with a bad guy for a protagonist, Colfer puts a distinctly Irish spin on the pulp fiction genre. His main character is an itinerant ex-army man from Ireland who, for every silver lining, finds a cloud.

Daniel McEvoy is fortysomething and balding so severely that he sought out hair plugs. He's had enough "earth-shattering events" happen to him, beside him and underneath him, he says, "to have most people dribbling in a psych ward." He moves to Cloisters, N.J., and takes a job at Slotz -- a place so sleazy he always carries a pack of antiseptic wipes because "there's all sorts of stuff you can catch just hanging around."

Colfer, 46, might not have turned his talents to adult fare had it not been for Irish crime writer Ken Bruen, who, five years ago, asked Colfer to write a short story for the "Dublin Noir" anthology he was editing.

"I said, 'I think you've got the wrong guy. I do fairy stories,' " Colfer told Bruen, but his colleague insisted that "when you take away the leprechauns, they're all crime stories underneath."

Indeed, they are. In the seven "Artemis Fowl" books published so far, the crime stories are just populated with nefarious mud people and trolls and other fantasy creatures. What's different about "Plugged" is the real-world setting, the subject matter -- and Colfer's voice, which, like the many books he's written for children, is incomparably clever and witty. "Plugged" is just more profane and violent.

Colfer said his interest in criminality "would seem to point to a devious side," but it's born of a more innocent literary pursuit. "In my 20s, like many young men, I would only read crime books, and if there weren't two people decapitated or flayed per chapter, I wasn't interested. Luckily, I widened out a bit."

Specifically, he widened out to writing children's books. It was in the late '90s, while teaching, that Colfer was inspired by his students' sense of humor and sensitivity to write books for them. His first two novels were middle-grade action adventure stories about an Irish boy named Benny Shaw who was forced to move to Tunisia with his dad.

Though the books were well received in his native Ireland, it wasn't until Colfer penned the series he once described as " 'Die Hard' with fairies" that his career took off in the U.S. The first "Artemis Fowl" has since been picked up by the Weinstein brothers, with Academy Award-nominee Jim Sheridan in the director's seat. The final book in the series, "The Last Guardian," will be published next year.

With such a devoted following of young readers, Colfer said, his first instinct was to write "Plugged" pseudonymously because he "didn't want kids getting hold of it." He was particularly fond of the pen name he came up with: Jack Power, a play off the Kiefer Sutherland character Jack Bauer in "24" and his wife's maiden name, Jackie Power. But when you've sold 20 million books in 24 countries under your own name, it's best to exploit it.

That decision comes through loud and clear on the cover, where the lettering for "Eoin Colfer" is equal in size to the book's title. So Colfer suggested a tag line that is now prominently on the cover: "If you loved 'Artemis Fowl' ... it's time to grow up."

"Plugged" isn't even remotely for kids. Several murders and at least one sex scene take place in the novel, which has a Quentin Tarantino-meets-Carl Hiaasen quality. The situations are as absurd as they are gruesome, though they aren't particularly graphic.

"In the back of my mind, there are always two people," Colfer said. "There's my mother, who'll say, 'Where did that come from?' and my wife, who'll say, 'Where the hell did that come from?' I'm a Catholic prude at heart."

Colfer has an irrepressibly impish sense of humor that he tried to quell with "Plugged." When he first sat down to work on it, he said his goal was to "write a straight book for once without jokes and a character that was going to be modeled on Lee Marvin in 'Point Blank.' The kind of story where he went looking for revenge."

Luckily for readers, he didn't get very far keeping his funny bone at bay.

"If I'm two pages in, and I haven't started to write something funny, I get a little bit antsy," said Colfer, who clearly had a great time writing the first of what he hopes will be at least a three-book series.

As for the next one, he said he hasn't done much because he's in the midst of finishing "Artemis Fowl," but he did offer this: "I know Daniel McEvoy's alive at the beginning and probably he'll be alive at the end, and there will be a lot of jokes."

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susan.carpenter@latimes.com

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Plugged

A Novel

Eoin Colfer

Overlook: 254 pps., $24.95

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