Herewith be an interview with Arlene Hunt (right; pic stolen from CSNI without so much as a by-your-leave) conducted by yours truly on the occasion of the publication of her latest tome, UNDERTOW. Now read on …
The crime novel is a fiction that is a truth for our times, and it’s certainly true that Arlene Hunt’s novels are nothing if not timely. Her last offering, MISSING PRESUMED DEAD, generated controversy for its subject matter when it appeared shortly after Maddy McCann went missing. That was a coincidence, of course, but it’s a poignant example of the symbiotic relationship between crime fiction and the world it describes.
“I wrote of a child disappearing in 1980,” Arlene says, “and reappearing almost thirty years later – gun in hand. But because I used a toddler, and she happened to be female and blonde, some people automatically thought, ‘Oh, Maddy McCann’. In fact, I had written the first chapter – which dealt with a toddler disappearing on a beach – many months before that poor child ever visited Portugal. I think people like to look for controversy where none exists.”
Her latest offering, UNDERTOW, published by Hachette Ireland, also digs into the seamy underbelly of modern Ireland.
“The book opens with some low-lives smuggling vulnerable women into Ireland,” she says, “one of whom is coldly dispatched when she is deemed too sick to be of any use. We also meet Stacy, a heavily pregnant teenager who hires Sarah and John, my intrepid detectives, to find her boyfriend Orie, little realizing that he is connected with people-smuggling and has very good reasons to have dropped below the radar …”
UNDERTOW is the fourth novel to feature ‘QuicK Investigations’, a Dublin-based private investigation bureau run by Sarah Kenny and John Quigley, a pleasingly normal pair of detectives who bicker, fall out and flirt – even if all the flirting comes from John’s side. I’m showing my age, but the first thing that springs to mind is the old Bruce Willis / Cybill Shepherd TV show, Moonlighting …
“You’re not the only one!” Arlene laughs. “It’s not intentional, I promise. I think with John being something of a charming smart-arse and Sarah his relative straight-man, it’s unavoidable that people draw comparisons. Plus, there is the unmistakable whiff of attraction in the air. John has more hair than David (Bruce Willis) though. And Sarah would never wear shoulder pads.”
Born in Wicklow, and currently living in Dublin, Arlene is nonetheless far more influenced by American writers than their Irish or even European counterparts.
“I’m an American crime junkie and have been for years and years. Robert Crais, James Lee Burke, Denis Lehane, James Ellroy and my personal favourite, Joseph Wambaugh, are just some of the gentlemen I like to spend an afternoon with. Wambaugh writes the sort of book that stays with you for a long time after. THE GLITTER DOME and THE CHOIRBOYS moved me to tears and yet also had me howling with laughter.”
So why is it that Irish crime writers tend to look to the States for inspiration?
“Perhaps because they ‘do’ crime so well, and we can really relate to the great characters they somehow manage to create. I think we ‘get’ American drama better than we get other countries. Some of my earliest memories are watching The Rockford Files and Hawaii Five-O and Kojak with my foster-mother, Kitty. We couldn’t wait for Hill Street Blues to start every week. ‘Book ‘em Danno!’ ‘Who loves ya baby?’ ‘Let’s be careful out there’ … we just never tired of it. These days The Wire and The Shield have tickled my fancy tremendously. I adore Vic Mackey, even though he’s as crooked as a country mile. He is such a terrific character, crooked yet loyal, fierce, soft, vicious, hard, tormented and conflicted.”
Arlene Hunt is something of a contradiction herself. Young, attractive and impeccably dressed, you’d probably peg her for a chick-lit scribe rather than a ‘crime junkie’ if she told you she’s a writer. So how come she’s poking around in the gory entrails of Irish crime and violence?
“Ha, I’m blushing now … I’m not really sure what to say about that! I don’t know, people can be anything on the surface, be it attractive, sunny and charming or gruff and shy, but it makes little or no difference to the internal rumblings of that person. It’s funny, but I can be quite cheerfully plotting a murder scene while doing the most mundane things, like shopping in Superquinn, trimming the dog’s wretched nails or when I’m out running. Actually, I think of murder a lot when I run. So if you see me pootling along somewhere with serene smile in place, I’m probably mentally hacking someone to little pieces or super-gluing a character’s nostrils closed ...”
In American crime writing, the setting of a particular city is very important to the story. How big a ‘character’ is Dublin in Arlene Hunt’s novels?
“A pretty big one. Dublin is my home. It’s where I’m at my most comfortable, so it was important for John and Sarah – especially for Sarah – to be city-dwellers too. I grew up in Wicklow, I lived in Spain, but Dublin is where I feel happiest. It adopted me as easily as I allowed myself to be adopted. I was born in Clontarf, where Sarah lives for much of the books, and my husband and I frequent Wexford Street a lot where ‘QuicK Investigations’ keep their office. I like that my real and fictional worlds conflate and criss-cross.”
Finally, there’s a lot of sexual tension between Sarah and John. Will they or won’t they?
“Hah, you’ll have to wait and see …!”
Arlene Hunt’s UNDERTOW is published by Hachette Ireland.
“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.