No Man Left Behind: Colin Bateman’s DIVORCING JACK“I was upstairs with a girl I shouldn’t have been upstairs with when my wife whispered in my ear. ‘You have twenty-four hours to move out.’”
Colin Bateman, Divorcing Jack
In the rush to celebrate John Connolly, Ken Bruen, Tana French, Declan Hughes and all the other leading lights of the current explosion in Irish crime fiction, one name is notable by its absence, in the U.S. at least.
Colin Bateman (or simply ‘Bateman’, according to last year’s re-branding) didn’t kick-start the current vogue for Irish crime writing – Patrick McGinley published Bogmail back in 1978, for example, while crime novels by Vincent McDonnell, Bartholomew Gill, S.J. Michaels, Jim Lusby, Eugene McEldowney, Jack Holland and Peter Cunningham were all in print before Bateman’s debut, DIVORCING JACK, appeared in 1995.
But what Bateman achieved with Divorcing Jack was phenomenal. Not only did he advance the notion that Irish crime fiction could be both popular and profitable, particularly when the movie of the same name, starring David Thewlis and Rachel Griffiths, appeared in 1998, he managed the nigh-impossible: a comedy crime narrative set in war-torn Belfast at the height of ‘the Troubles’.
His hero – and I use the term loosely – is Dan Starkey, a cynical, wise-cracking alcoholic journalist who gets sucked into a murder mystery when a drunken encounter with a young woman, Margaret, comes to an abrupt end when Margaret is murdered. It’s not a unique set-up, and neither is Starkey a unique character. What made DIVORCING JACK such a trail-blazer was its backdrop, the meaner-than-mean streets of Belfast.
McEldowney, Holland, Cunningham and Michaels had all set their crime narratives with ‘the Troubles’ for a backdrop, but Bateman was different.
If this guy can generate a contemporary, relevant and – crucially – funny novel in that setting, thought a hundred wannabe writers, then what’s stopping me?
That’s certainly the thought that occurred to me over and over again as I read it.
Ireland, you see, takes its books very seriously. From an early age Irish writers are acutely aware of the burden of responsibility of living up to the legacy of Joyce, Beckett, Shaw, O’Casey, et al. For such a small country, Ireland has had a disproportionate number of Nobel Prize winners for literature. And for a young writer, that’s a hell of a Swedish monkey on your back.
Colin Bateman offered a way out. DIVORCING JACK was rooted in Belfast the way Samson and Goliath are, those cranes that rear up out of the Harland and Wolff shipyards to tower above the city and testify to Belfast’s past as an industrial hub of the British Empire. Starkey, born, bred and buttered in Belfast, was nonetheless a creature of his time, aware of the potential for irony in the ongoing conflict, and – again, crucially – acutely aware of his cultural heritage as a reluctant private eye.
He was quintessentially Irish in his attitudes, his dialogue and his predilection for gloom and despair. But he was fuelled and informed by the American crime novel and movie, particularly the pulp noir of Cain and Thompson, Chandler and Leonard.
Bateman wasn’t simply mocking the prejudices of Belfast, or those of the stuffy literary set for whom a novel wasn’t a novel without at least one ineluctable modality to its name. He seemed to be mocking Irishness itself, that narcissistic and self-defeating sense of parochial self-importance that had hobbled and blinkered one generation after another.
Some might argue that perhaps that attitude of self-celebration was a necessary reaction to centuries of colonial oppression. ‘The English gave us a language,’ ran the Irish saying, ‘and we gave them back a literature’. Of course, as is almost inevitably the case, the arrogance masked a debilitating inferiority complex.
DIVORCING JACK struck a defiant note. It was Irish, certainly, and unmistakably and hilariously so; Dan Starkey is one of the great rebels of Irish writing. Intrinsic to his cultural hinterland, and yet wearing his country’s recent history like a hair-shirt, his is a prickly, goading, questioning voice. And the most important question is the implicit one, the question that informs the entire subtext of DIVORCING JACK: why did Irish crime writers take it as an article of faith that they weren’t good enough to compete on an international level?
It should be noted too that DIVORCING JACK is a courageous novel. It’s a little easier now to poke fun at the tensions that caused the ‘the Troubles’, and at the paramilitaries on both sides who bombed and tortured an entire generation. But the novel appeared the year before the great watershed of the first IRA ceasefire of the interminably long ‘Peace Process’, at a time when irony was in very scare supply on the streets of Belfast.
In doing so it blazed a wide trail down which many followed, among them your humble correspondent. DIVORCING JACK gave me the confidence to set EIGHTBALL BOOGIE, a Chandler homage, in a small Irish town, and to use the demilitarisation of Northern Ireland’s paramilitaries, and their diversification into more prosaic crime, as a backdrop.
Colin Bateman has had a long and successful career in Ireland and the UK; excluding his YA novels, and his prolific output for TV, he has had 18 novels published. He failed to ‘take’ in the U.S. during the mid- to late-nineties, but perhaps the U.S. simply wasn’t ready then for an Irish blend of Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler and Carl Hiassen.
He is long overdue a serious reappraisal. – Declan Burke
This article was first published in Crimespree Magazine.