For a man whose crime fiction is all about crossing boundaries, it was unsurprising that Brian McGilloway (right) got the idea for his first novel while walking along the border. Taking his two basset hounds for a stroll along the River Foyle, which divides his Lifford home in the republic from the adjoining town of Strabane in the north, the budding writer’s imagination was caught by the surrounding landscape.
“I was out walking the dogs along the by-pass in Strabane, and there’s a bank that runs down towards the river, and I remember thinking, ‘That’s a cracking place to dump a body.’ Which is obviously such a weird thought to have, although it’s okay if you’re writing a book,” says McGilloway. “And then I thought, what if the body was dumped right on the border? And that was the opening premise. But the story I started writing and the one I ended up writing are two totally different things.”If McGilloway’s first novel, Borderlands, was triggered by his surroundings, the writer has benefited from the changing landscape of Irish crime fiction. He is part of a new wave of Irish crime novelists, one that includes Tana French, Gene Kerrigan, Ingrid Black and Declan Hughes. All have recently published novels that featured hard-nosed pragmatists ostensibly engaged in the pursuit of truth and justice but who are defined by their ability to accommodate moral compromise: McGilloway has signed a five-book deal with Macmillan for a series based around his flawed protagonist, Inspector Benedict Devlin. But if his novel is set along the border, McGilloway is not hung up on it: like that of his peers, McGilloway’s fiction is rooted in a contemporary, post-ceasefire Ireland. Indeed, the Derry-born teacher and novelist believes the current growth in home-grown, gritty fiction owes much to the end of the conflict in Northern Ireland and the emergence of criminality shorn of political legitimacy.
“When the Troubles were about, there was no need for crime fiction because you had enough on your doorstep to be afraid of. Now that the Troubles have ended, people are now looking around for what else they can be afraid of. So now it’s drugs and burglary and murder, serial killers and rapists.”Accordingly, Borderlands begins with a suitably grisly moment, much as McGilloway first conceived: the discovery of a young woman’s naked body in an ill-defined area between Lifford in Co. Donegal and Strabane in Co. Tyrone. As a result, the gardaí and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) are called in, with garda detective Devlin driving the investigation. McGilloway’s fictional creation fits in with the cynical, self-compromising antiheroes of the new Irish crime writing, who are appearing at a time when confidence in the gardaí, judiciary and politicians is at a new low. More to the point, McGilloway realised Donegal made for a fertile setting for his ambivalent character.
“The name Borderlands, my wife came up with that, because I couldn’t come up with a title,” McGilloway laughs. “But there are other borders drawn. I realised Devlin wasn’t going to be completely strait-laced, he wasn’t going to be one hundred per cent legal or moral all the time. That’s something that comes out much more strongly in the second book, when he starts to do things he maybe shouldn’t be doing. The accusations against the Guards in Donegal [in the Morris tribunal] – that’s really where the idea for Devlin came from.”But if McGilloway’s fiction owes much to the dirty linen of contemporary Ireland, he cannot entirely leave behind the border country’s contentious past. “I think that Irish books tend to completely ignore the Troubles or else they’re obsessed with the Troubles. I don’t know if there’s any need to be either way,” he says. And it is telling that while his story is free of political baggage, McGilloway’s antennae prevented him from basing his hero in his home town.
“I had thought about setting it in Derry, but I didn’t,” he says. “One reason, which is slightly political, is that if it was set in Derry, [Devlin] would have been a PSNI officer. And the difficulty with that was that people would be looking to see how I was presenting the PSNI. There seemed to be too much opportunity for people who would look for the political.”It is hardly surprising that McGilloway should think in such a way. Still teaching in Derry but living in Lifford, the author has long been steeped in the absurdities and contradictions of the border:
“My brother was going out with a girl who was living on the border, and they paid their electric in the north and their TV licence in the south. It’s just ludicrous.”There was little such confusion when it came to finding his creative path, however.
“I’d always had an interest in writing, and then after I finished my degree I got very interested in crime fiction –I read a massive amount over a couple of years. And it just seemed to be a natural progression to write crime.”But McGilloway, who is married with young children, had few illusions about the financial rewards that supposedly come with the genre.
“Nobody, unless you’re insane, sits down to write their first book thinking, ‘I’m writing this to support my family,’” he says.Instead, he plumped for Pan-Macmillan’s new-writing scheme, which offered no advance, but got him published. It has paid off: Borderlands was shortlisted for a Crime Writers’ Association Dagger award for a debut novel, and along with McGilloway’s five-book deal with Macmillan, he has also been signed by St Martin’s Press in America. For all that, the author still realises he is still on a learning curve: “As you get a wee bit more confident, you realise you can build things up a little more slowly.” While the new crop of writers demonstrate a sophisticated awareness of their literary heritage, however, they are also prone to gauche excess: McGilloway suggests that traditional crime fiction, with its emphasis on nuanced investigation, is struggling to sustain the interest of an audience with an appetite for extreme violence.
“Right now there’s a movement towards violence for the sake of violence, it’s become the new pornography. In Borderlands, while it seems like there’s a lot of killing going on, there’s only three violent deaths.”Nevertheless, McGilloway – and his peers – are marked by a certainty that the new crime writing taps into the reality of a modern Ireland in which narratives of criminality are all too plausible. Meanwhile, brash young Irish writers are shrugging off a literary heritage in which crime fiction was always the grubby urchin: even the Man Booker prize-winner John Banville has developed a crime sideline under the non de plume Benjamin Black. And ever looking to cross boundaries, McGilloway’s choice of his favourite literary writer is indicative of where the new wave is looking to for inspiration.
“I really like [the American novelist] James Lee Burke (right),” he says. “I was asked recently, ‘Who are your favourite crime writers and who are your favourite literary writers?’ Well actually, James Lee Burke is both. The best crime writers should be both. There’s no reason why they can’t be.”Borderlands is published by Macmillan
This article was first published in the Sunday Times