A few weeks ago the Evening Herald asked CAP Grand Vizier, Declan Burke, to write a piece on why Irish crime fiction is overtaking chick lit as the Celtic Tiger slinks off into the dense undergrowth of globalisation. Hurrah! Then they didn’t print it. Boo. Anyhoo, here’s the skinny …
Crime fiction and chick lit may have more in common than they might think. Both are equally despised by the literary establishment, one for being too grubby, the other for being too simplistic and sanitised. Both are commercial genres, aiming to entertain. And both tend to tell stories about self-absorbed characters hoping for the one big pay-off that will set their world to rights. There is a crucial difference, though. Chick lit explores the needs and wants of a character who demands instant gratification, generally that of sparkler and an expense account. The crime fiction crew are after sparklers and easy loot too, but their stories tend to explore the social backdrop that has allowed their law-breakers to emerge. The chick lit gals are eyeing themselves up in a full-length mirror of your nearest shopping centre changing-room; the crime guys are down at the station, eyeballing the latest line-up of usual suspects through the two-way mirror. Still, there’s no denying that chick lit has given the Irish reader what they’ve wanted. Bling, glitz, shopping-and-fucking – the Celtic Tiger was a chick lit novel, albeit during a bad hair decade. The better women’s writers, Marian Keyes being the best example, were astute enough to give the readers what they wanted, while also advising them to be careful what they wished for. But for the most part chick lit novels are Jilly Cooper shop-n’-bonk knock-offs, describing a world that is Thatcher’s Britain 20 years late and more than a few dollars short. The worst sin? The homogeneity of it all. The main characters are almost always thirty-something singletons, frustrated in work and yearning for a creative outlet, the consort of a heartless man and on the lookout for a slightly straighter version of their gay best friend with whom to share their immaculate taste in fashion – hell, if there really were that many gorgeous, intelligent thirty-something singletons around, why would any man, fictional or otherwise, stroll up the aisle with just one of them? Meanwhile, one joy that goes with reading the new Irish crime fiction is its sheer diversity. Ken Bruen’s ramshackle post-modern detective Jack Taylor rambling the mean-ish streets of Galway. Tana French’s coolly lyrical police procedural IN THE WOODS. Gene Kerrigan’s gritty realism, whether it’s disillusioned detectives or psychopathic thugs. Brian McGilloway’s flawed but human Inspector Devlin. Ingrid Black’s take on the post-feminist detective. Eoin McNamee’s fictionalised investigation into Princess Diana’s death. KT McCaffrey’s crusading reporter Emma Boylan. Declan Hughes’s classic PI-inspired tales of Dublin 4. John Connolly’s spooky gothic-horror crime tales. Adrian McKinty’s hardboiled first-person killer Michael Forsythe. And those are just some of the novels that have been published in the last six months or so. The stories these writers tell have something to say not just about who we are, but where we’re coming from and going to. At a time when the Irish taoiseach is before a tribunal explaining financial irregularities, and not for the first time, Irish crime writers are exploring political corruption, the brown bag culture, the exploitation of communities for the benefit of individuals. If journalism is the first draft of history, Irish crime writing is redrafting it with its stories of abductions and rapes, murders and bank robberies, not just detailing the events but fleshing out in fictional form the kinds of people who make our newspaper headlines, and why. It is, perhaps, still too soon for Irish people to confront the reality behind the Celtic Tiger headlines. After all, no one wants to leave a party too soon, and there’s always one last glass of champagne to be found, even if it’s already losing its fizz. But the hangover is in the post. The clean-up will be starting soon, and there’ll be post-mortems demanded on exactly who broke the precious crystal, stole the family heirlooms and left an unspecified mess in the laundry basket. Some of them are already written. Check under ‘crime fiction’ in your nearest bookstore.- Declan Burke
This article did not appear first in the Evening Herald
“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. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “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. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.