Ireland is a small country, with a population of four million, our demographics still wildly skewed 150 years on from the Great Famine and the mass emigration that followed until the 1990s. Compare this with Holland, say, which boasts a population of 16 million on a land-mass roughly one quarter its size. By any standards, Ireland is thinly populated. And yet in the last three months alone, six Irish crime fiction writers (Ken Bruen (right), Adrian McKinty, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Tana French, Benjamin Black and Declan Hughes) have been reviewed at the New York Times’ Crime Desk, one of whom, Bruen, won the Shamus last year. At the last count, my own Irish crime fiction blog, Crime Always Pays, has forty-plus Irish crime writers currently publishing.
What the hell are they putting in the water in Ireland?
“When I was a child,” Bruen’s private eye Jack Taylor remarks in the short story The Dead Room, “we had one murder a year. But that is indeed another country.” Taylor, Bruen’s existential poet of Celtic Tiger Ireland, isn’t known for his restraint. But Bruen is correct when he says that, in Ireland as recently as ten years ago, a murder was front-page news for a week at a time.
Then came modern Ireland’s watershed, our ‘Where-were-you-when- JFK-was-assassinated?’ moment: the murder of the high-profile investigative journalist Veronica Guerin, shot to death in 1996 by a hitman while she sat in her car. Suddenly it seemed as if crime was everywhere in Ireland. Revulsion was widespread and outspoken. Political careers were made in the subsequent rush to legislate to combat the crime wave that had spilled over from internecine tit-for-tat killings into the public domain. And Irish writers, naturally, rose to the challenge of offering the panacea of narrative closure by introducing a host of tales that reassured the ordinary decent citizen that crime could and would be fought and defeated.
It’s a neat theory but it’s a little too pat. Ironically, Geurin’s murder came at a time when the 30-year killing spree in Northern Ireland, euphemistically called ‘the Troubles’, was winding down into ceasefires that would be fitfully broken but never again erupted into open war. The apparent explosion in ‘headline crimes’ – particularly murder – can be too easily explained by the former paramilitaries segueing from politically motivated crime to crimes of a more prosaic nature. So common have such crimes become that in Ireland today a murder would have to be of a particularly graphic or tragic nature to make the front page, above or below the fold. In the recent Irish general election, the public perception of widespread lawlessness meant that crime was one of the central issues which every party had to credibly address. Nonetheless, one of Ireland’s most respected columnists, Fintan O’Toole, writing in the Irish Times [in the run-up to the election], could extrapolate from the cold statistics to say, “It is important to bear in mind that the population has risen rapidly in recent years and that crime has in fact not risen in proportion.”
So, again – why the sudden boom in Irish crime writing?
As always, there is no one factor responsible. The Booker Prize-nominated Brian Moore, for example, wrote crime-based novels under the pseudonym Bernard Mara during the 1950s, and also the more literary The Colour of Blood (1987) and Lies of Silence (1990) while the conflict in Northern Ireland was ongoing, but crime novels rooted in ‘the Troubles’ were rare. Eoin McNamee’s Resurrection Man was published in 1994, the year the IRA announced the ceasefire that would, eventually, lead to a cessation of politically motivated murder, but his The Blue Tango (2001) and The Ultras (2004) appeared in a post-conflict environment. Sam Millar is another Northern Irish writer who has written about the conflict retrospectively, while newer Northern writers, such as Garbhan Downey and Brian McGilloway, write crime stories in a de-politicized context.
Down South, many writers do root their novels in gangland crime – TS O’Rourke, Seamus Smyth and Neville Thompson explore the underbelly of the beast from within – but the Irish crime fiction canon is a broad church. Traditional private eyes (Ken Bruen, Vincent Banville, Declan Hughes) jostle for room on the shelves with the police procedural (Ingrid Black, Eugene McEldowney, Brian McGilloway), the amateur sleuth (Cormac Millar, KT McCaffrey, Gemma O’Connor, Colin Bateman) and the historical detective (Cora Harrison). Indeed, many Irish crime writers, such as Alex Barclay, John Connolly, Michael Collins and Adrian McKinty, wholly or mostly set their novels outside of Ireland.
It is these latter writers, perhaps, that offer the first clue as to why Irish crime fiction has mushroomed in the last decade. Ireland is a much less insular place today than it was ten years ago, but while Ireland has always looked to the US and the UK, it was as much for emigration destinations as it was for cultural inspiration. It wasn’t always the case that the best and the brightest left for foreign shores, but certainly it tended to be the more adventurous and imaginative. Today, with the so-called Celtic Tiger economic boom creating ‘zero percent’ unemployment, those who might once have emigrated have stayed home. Yet they still take their cues, particularly in terms of popular culture, from the US and the UK. This is especially true of film and TV, yet until recently the Irish literary legacy – the Nobel Prize-winning exploits of Beckett, Yeats and George Bernard Shaw were celebrated as proof of Ireland’s God-given literary superiority, particularly when set alongside James Joyce’s reputation – fostered a certain amount of self-censoring snobbishness among Irish writers (Brian Moore writing thrillers under a pseudonym, for example, and subsequently disowning them). Happily, that is no longer the case. “I always say that my influences are American,” claimed Ken Bruen in an interview with Village magazine last year, “Chandler (right), James M. Cain, James Ellroy, which doesn’t get me a lot of friends. But those are the guys who taught me what I know. They’re the books I loved reading.”
In the final analysis, however, it is the great motivator of crime fiction itself – filthy lucre – that has made the single most important contribution to the rise in Irish crime fiction. Money is the great leveller, and in an Ireland where the vast majority of the population have benefited from the economic boom, the erstwhile great and good can no longer depend on deferential treatment, while the moneyed classes are no longer deserving of their pedestal. Familiarity breeds contempt, and the privacy that money used to buy no longer commands respect in Ireland.
The writer Laura Lippman, interviewed recently in the Wall Street Journal, said of Declan Hughes’ The Colour of Blood, “He’s a good writer and Ireland today as a setting has a sense of shame and secrecy that the US has lost. One of the hard things about being a crime writer now is determining what secrets people will still go to great lengths to keep.” Hughes is indeed a fine writer, but the Ireland of today has so radically transformed itself that Brinsley MacNamara’s caricature of a ‘valley of squinting windows’ could today more accurately, if clumsily, be described a ‘canyon of panavision lenses’. The case of the former Irish taoiseach, or prime minister, Charles J. Haughey, represents another watershed in modern Irish history. Once the charismatic, Machiavellian tribal leader who nobly led the country through its darkest economic times, Haughey’s reputation is only one of many that has been flayed in recent years by a series of tribunals exposing the darkness at the heart of the Irish body politic. His personal finances, and the extent to which his flamboyant private life was funded by businessmen, was a matter of horror at first, then ridicule. These days, the recently deceased Haughey is a byword for corruption, sleaze and money-grubbing greed.
Historically speaking, it was said of the economic relationship between Ireland and the UK that, if the UK sneezed, Ireland caught a cold. Culturally speaking, the same applies today, and not only to the UK, but to the US as well. If it happens there, runs the theory, it’s only a matter of time before it happens here – crime, and myriad kinds of crime, included. The truth about ourselves is finally squirming out there, and the Irish public is showing an insatiable appetite for books and movies that broach the taboos and tell the stories that only crime fiction can credibly tell – even if, as in the US and the UK, the perverse dichotomy between falling crime levels and the rise in crime fiction exists here too. “Crime does not pay – not so!” wrote Karl Marx (left), alluding to the fact that the criminal produces not only the crime, but the measures society takes to prevent and detect crime. In Ireland today, one of those by-products of crime – real or imagined – is the crime fiction writer, and no one knows better than he or she that crime always pays.- Declan Burke
This article is reprinted by the kind permission of Crime Spree magazine
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.