Crimes and Misdemeanours
How the Celtic Tiger kick-started the burgeoning genre of Irish crime-writing, by Bert Wright
Murder, kidnapping, extortion, robbery, conspiracy, fraud, racketeering – sounds like Tony Soprano’s rap-sheet but it’s not. It’s the strapline from a promotional poster in a bookstore window display – 3 for 2 on selected True Crime and Crime Fiction titles, Take your pick! Little bit tabloid, perhaps, but what does it tell us? First, it tells us that in commercial terms, crime pays; and second, it assumes a crossover between the fiction and non-fiction sides of those death-dealing mean streets. This is interesting for in the past, I suspect, many people who read Agatha Christie or Patricia Highsmith found the real life stuff a little too déclassé to be caught dead reading on a bus or a beach. No longer! Sales of both genres are buoyant, according to industry insiders.
Should we be surprised? No, check out the bestsellers and what you’ll find are thriller writers dominating the fiction charts and here in Ireland, certainly, true crime titles featured prominently in the non-fiction charts. Of the world’s bestselling brand authors, a huge percentage would be crime writers. If you’re reading this on an airplane or in an airport terminal look around and see if someone within a twenty-feet radius isn’t reading John Grisham, Patricia Cornwell, or Michael Connelly. See what I mean? As one writer recently suggested, “today, suspense, not sex, is the engine that drives popular fiction.”
At a time when most of what we wear, watch, and listen to derives from American popular culture it would be foolish to expect reading habits to be different but here in the land of saints, scholars and skinny lattes there is one essential difference. Not only do we have our own distinctive crime genre now, we also have the mise-en-scène to contextualise it. As Ken Bruen (right), one of our most highly-rated crime writers wrote: “I didn’t want to write about Ireland until we got mean streets. We sure got ’em now.”
Some would say there’s no more crime than before, just more sensational crime reporting. This is not what most people think. Most of us instinctually believe that crime is not just more widespread but more vicious. With George Orwell we’d share the view – expressed in “The Decline of the English Murder” - that murder ain’t what it used to be, by which he meant that “the old domestic poisoning dramas, product of a stable society” had given way to the casual violence born of “the dance-halls and the false values of the American film.” (Orwell could be impossibly quaint when the humour was on him.)
And arguably something similar has happened here. Thirty to forty years ago, crime in Ireland might involve an ageing farmer murdered over an inheritance dispute, sweet nothings in the ballroom of romance turning to violence in a country lane. Now we have teenage drug barons plugged in cold blood on quiet suburban streets, headless torsos fished out of canals, contract killings as an extension of the services sector, and most notoriously, a fearless crime reporter executed in her car at a busy intersection.
Sociological extrapolations are risky, of course, but would it be a stretch to suggest that the combustible mixture of windfall economics, easy money and the ancient impulse to acquire lots of it, by whatever means, has fuelled the crime explosion? Surely not, and the explosion of Irish crime writing has followed as naturally as a gumshoe trailing a hot lead. Suddenly Irish crime writing is hip and edgy and everyone wants a piece of the action.
Most readers could name-check established writers such as John Connolly, Paul Carson, or Julie Parsons, but scan the innumerable Irish crime websites and you’ll find listed seventy to a hundred active crime writers! Admittedly, they cheat by stretching the genus – Edna O’Brien, William Trevor, Hugo Hamilton, crime writers? – but nevertheless, it’s clear that many writers have raised a finger and tacked into the prevailing wind that’s currently powering the crime boom.
Among the most interesting recruits are John Banville (writing as Benjamin Black) and Declan Hughes. Hughes, a successful playwright and screenwriter, recently parlayed his fascination with American crime heavyweights such as Chandler, Macdonald and Hammett into a new career as a crime writer. “I’d always wanted to write crime, and then one day I was sent a series of crime novels a production company wanted me to adapt, and I thought: I can do better myself.” A three-book contract with London publisher John Murray soon followed and after a warm critical reception, Hughes’ Ed Loy series, set in his native South Dublin, looks set to propel its creator onto the international stage.
But it’s the spectacle of John Banville, Booker Prize winner and perhaps the most self-consciously literary of Irish writers, parking his tank-sized reputation right in front of the precinct house that has generated screeds of newsprint as critics attempt to make sense of the writer’s curve-ball career move. (Conveniently, it’s forgotten that Banville has form, his 1989 novel THE BOOK OF EVIDENCE, having brilliantly dramatised the celebrated Malcolm Macarthur murder case.)
The resentment and conspicuous lack of fraternity, however, has been amusing to witness. In a faux-Wildean flourish, one crime website declared “Blandville’s” novel “as boring as a dog’s ass.”* In fact, CHRISTINE FALLS, his first novel under the Benjamin Black pseudonym, is a masterly exercise in period noir, evoking the sounds, smells and manners of 1950s’ Dublin with the acuity and panache which is conspicuously missing from too much genre fiction.
But there is a darker side to all of this that raises questions about the way we view the New Ireland. Anatomising the frequently grim reality of Irish criminality has been the task of a coterie of journalists and writers for the past decade or more. The most successful of the true crime writers, Paul Williams of The Sunday World, more or less invented the genre with THE GENERAL (O’Brien Press, 1995.) Since then, through the efforts of Williams and other writers – Paul Reynolds, Michael Sheridan, Gene Kerrigan and Niamh O’Connor – Ireland has become a country intimately acquainted with the misdeeds of its most heinous criminals, from John Gilligan to The Scissor Sisters. (The craic in the book-biz, incidentally, is that these are the most-robbed books in history with weaselly gurriers frequently spotted browsing the crime section to see whether they’ve been name-checked in the latest bestseller.)
But free-sampling aside, who actually buys crime books, propelling them time after time into the upper reaches of the charts? (To date THE GENERAL has sold a massive 130,000 copies.) A vast cross-sectional demographic is the answer, but why? Wherein, one wonders, lies the enduring appeal of crime writing? Well, of course, the fascination with dark deeds is older than Sophocles and Shakespeare but a contemporary slant suggests that we read these books to sublimate our very real fear of ever being involved in such terrifying situations ourselves. Or, simply put, we tell each other horror stories to ward off the bogeyman. Declan Hughes (right) puts it even more simply. “What’s not to like?” he asks. “I love the very stuff of crime fiction: the smoking gun, the hard drinking, the femme fatale, the merciless gangster, the chase through the night-time streets.”
Equally interesting (and more disturbing to contemplate) is the possibility that we freely accept burgeoning crime as the price of economic success. There’s an ambivalence at work; nobody wants to experience violent crime first-hand but having your own mean streets, now that’s pretty cool. Add to the mix white-collar and lifestyle crime, financial corruption and recreational cocaine use, and you begin to see how Ireland has, in a perverse sense, come of age. We got the lattes, the land cruisers, and the lap dancers, so why wouldn’t we read about the really nasty side of the affluence deal?
“It’s part of the tradition too,” declares Declan Hughes. “The hardboiled novel always depended on boomtowns where money was to be made and corners to be cut: twenties San Francisco for Hammett, forties LA for Chandler.” And now, early twenty-first century Dublin for a whole host of Irish crime writers, he might have added.- Bert Wright
This article was first published in Connections Magazine
* Yup, that was us. And we’d like to take this opportunity to unreservedly apologise to dogs’ asses everywhere. Wea woofy culpa, or words to that effect.
“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.