A Minister for Propaganda Elf writes: “The Sunday Independent carried a feature on Irish crime fiction yesterday, in which Anne-Marie Scanlon investigated the reasons for ‘the emergence and rapid growth of home-grown Irish crime fiction’. Being bloody-minded about such things, the Grand Viz would have it known that the piece – which highlights the authenticity of Irish crime writing, and the black humour inherent therein – does not mention Gene Kerrigan, purveyor of the most grittily realistic Irish crime fiction, nor Ruth Dudley Edwards (right), recent winner of the Last Laugh Award at Bristol’s Crime Fest, two very fine authors who are also exceptional journos who happen to write for the Sunday Indo. A self-deprecating Sindo? Shurely shome mishtake. Anyhoo, on with the show …”
Plenty Of Loot In Crime And Publishing
As George Gordon Liddy once said, “obviously crime pays, or there’d be no crime,” and as an ex-Nixon aide, he’d know. In the past decade, Ireland has experienced a wave of unprecedented affluence and, with that, a major explosion in crime. Aside from the obvious side effect of an increase in criminality, Ireland has, in the past 10 years, experienced another – the emergence and rapid growth of home grown Irish crime fiction.
Declan Hughes, whose first book, THE WRONG KIND OF BLOOD, appeared in 2004, sees a definite correlation between prosperity and the emergence of Irish crime fiction, but thinks the genre goes beyond the mere detailing of a society in catharsis.
“Crime novels provide a flexible format to deal with society as it is and the way we live now. Crime novelists can tackle how society works, as well as what occurs in the human heart,” he says.
Hughes’ sentiments are echoed by Tana French whose first novel, IN THE WOODS, published last year won the highly prestigious Mystery Writers of America Edgar for best first novel.
“Crime and crime fiction are two of the best barometers of any society,” French says. “A crime novel will give you a clear snapshot of the priorities and deepest fears of a society at that given moment.”
French cites the glut of serial killer novels published on the opposite side of the Atlantic during the late-Eighties and Nineties as an example of how crime fiction mirrors the real world.
“American society at that time was becoming more and more anonymous,” she explains, “people were frightened by the anonymity of modern life, of not knowing who the person beside you really is. During that same period in Ireland, the murder rate was pretty low, and when a murder did occur, it was generally pretty obvious who the culprit was.”
Paradoxically most crime fiction is extremely moral, and while (to paraphrase Oscar Wilde) the good might not always end happily, the bad usually finish unhappily. It is these themes that drew international bestseller and Godfather of Irish crime fiction, John Connolly, to the genre in the first place.
“I wanted to write about justice, morality and redemption, themes which run through crime fiction like writing through a stick of rock,” he says.
All three writers agree that the phenomenon of the Celtic Tiger and the subsequent transformation of Irish society has contributed greatly to the corresponding output of crime fiction. “The Celtic Tiger smashed into this country at 100mph,” French says, “we still haven’t assimilated it; we’re still trying to reconcile the past and present.” The sins of the past feature prominently in French’s first book and are a consistent theme in all three of Declan Hughes’ novels.
“Ireland used to be a place where ‘whatever you say, say nothing’.” Hughes explains. People didn’t ask questions and “there were plenty of skeletons in the closet, but in the past 10 years, those skeletons have started walking.”
Hughes’ third novel, THE DYING BREED, which came out in May of this year, explores these themes, as well as examining the clash between “New Ireland” and the past.
In THE LIKENESS, the second novel by Tana French, the young inhabitants of the “Big House” are shunned by the local community because of things that happened almost a century earlier. In MISSING PRESUMED DEAD, by Arlene Hunt, the past returns in the shape of a woman who was abducted 26 years earlier (and presumed dead.) The theme of the past and present struggling to coexist is also at work in Andrew Nugent‘s SECOND BURIAL, which deals with the murder of a young Nigerian immigrant and the effect this has on his community.
“Logically,” Nugent says, “you would think an increase in affluence would lead to a decrease in crime, whereas the reverse is true.”
Money, while both funding the boom and the parallel rise in crime is also, Hughes thinks, the catalyst that enabled people to speak out and enquire about things covered up in the past.
Although he gives the ongoing tribunals, the Magdalene laundries and the industrial school system as examples of the “murkier secrets” of pre-Celtic Tiger Ireland, he makes the point that the emergence of secrets and confronting the past are universal themes and not wholly unique to Ireland, which no doubt contributes to the increasing sales of Irish crime fiction abroad.
Hughes goes on to say that the poor economy and lack of money in society was only one aspect inhibiting Irish writers from tackling crime fiction.
“The Troubles were a contributing factor in hindering the development of the genre,” he says, adding that, in a violent society where there is a lot of killing (as opposed to individual murders) crime fiction is not much of a diversion. John Connolly shares this opinion. “What was happening then (terrorism) was so appalling nobody wanted to write about it.”
Connolly sees a bright future ahead for Irish crime fiction, saying that, while a lot of modern crime fiction adheres to conventional formats and constructs, this isn’t the case with Irish crime writing, where “interesting things are happening. The great hunt in British publishing is to find the Irish Ian Rankin,” he says, referring to the highly successful Scottish author who created the best-selling Inspector Rebus series.
Rankin was at the forefront of the boom in Scottish crime writing (known as Tartan Noir) which began in the late-Eighties. Connolly thinks there is a definite similarity between Tartan Noir and what began in Ireland a decade ago.
“Social changes were occurring in Scotland at that time and society was being transformed,” he says, adding that the Scots are “grittier.”
Arlene Hunt thinks part of the appeal of Irish crime writing is its realism. “People can relate to the characters,” Hunt says. “It’s not just about escapism; they like to hear the spoken word and the different accents and not just read about glamorous characters gambling in casinos in the south of France.”
There is almost always an underlying thread of humour in Irish crime novels. In Declan Hughes’ THE DYING BREED, “Tommy Owens greeted me with a shake of the head and a look of appalled fascination, as if to say he’d seen some gobshites in his time, but I could be their king”. And a character in Tana French’s THE LIKENESS says of his stepmother, “she’s a dreadful woman, you know ... Everything about her is pure faultless middle-class -- the accent, the clothes, the hair, the china patterns -- it’s as if she ordered herself from a catalogue”. Like the other authors, Arlene Hunt sees the consequences of the Celtic Tiger boom reflected in current crime writing. Neither does Hunt desire to turn back the clock. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing that we’re a more aware, fast-moving, youthful sort of nation,” she says. “I remember the Eighties, when people had to emigrate because there was no work and no money.”
John Connolly agrees. “People forget how grim Dublin was in the Seventies and Eighties,” he says. “There’s a lot of false nostalgia. I’m happier to see people working than not working.” Given the increasing popularity of Irish crime fiction, there’s certainly more than enough work for the authors who are busy making crime pay. – Anne Marie Scanlon
This article was first published in the Sunday Independent
“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.