Oh, to have John Connolly’s air-miles. Last week JC (right) turned up at Ireland House, NYU, to give a talk on Irish crime writing. Seamus Scanlon was on hand to make feverish notes on behalf of Crime Always Pays, although he neglected to mention whether or not Irish crime writing’s Noo Yoik guardian angel, aka Joe Long, was in attendance. Mind you, I’m guessing trained polar bears wouldn’t have kept Joe out … Anyway, on with the review:
Last week, John Connolly gave an erudite and scholarly review of Irish crime fiction at NYU’s Glucksman Ireland House. Dr John Waters, Director of the Undergraduate and Graduate Irish Studies Programs at NYU, recounted how John attended a literature workshop at Ireland House a few years ago, and not only were the students impressed but he was himself, much to his surprise - by the level of John Connolly’s insight, intensity, intelligence and literary knowledge.
Dr Waters acknowledged that crime fiction by Irish writers had been ignored within academe until very recently, and he included himself in this category, but he is impressed by its vivacity and power and stylistic exuberance.
Dr Waters told an anecdote where, in typical Connolly style, John brought a box of his crime novels to the workshop. In subsequent weeks the faculty was slightly alarmed that students were neglecting prescribed texts and reading John Connolly. Eventually they were able to restore the balance!
John Connolly then delivered an entertaining and cogent analysis of crime fiction - the essential elements, its history, why it was slow to develop in Ireland, why it flourished in the US, why his own sub-specialty of supernatural crime is marginalized by the crime fiction establishment, while crime fiction itself is marginalized by the mainstream critics and academics.
Since the literary establishment’s dogma in Ireland even in the late 1990s was that Irish writers needed to engage in the Irish experience (whatever that was), it had no resonance for him – so setting books in Ireland or discussing Irish issues were not on his agenda, and as a result John Connolly was not on the literary radar.
He picked Maine as the setting for his books because the place had an immediate resonance for him - it reminded him of Ireland in some senses, but it had sharper changes in seasons which he liked, nobody knew him, there was no constraints on subject, it had great landscapes and great bleakness, it was the home of strange characters, it had a long history (it was settled early) and it had a deeply ethereal dimension to it that he did not find elsewhere in the US.
He outlined how the great crime fiction of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M Cain and Ross Macdonald was so masterful, impeccable and imbued with integrity that their literary credentials cannot be doubted. He displays great humour but his work ethos and writing ethos are tight and steadfast with an almost blindside to any concerns once he is writing. On tour he is generous with fans and hosts. I saw him warmly greet the NYU bookselling staff on the night as well as warmly embrace Bonnie and Joe the owners of the now defunct Black Orchid bookshop. He even had a warm welcome for me, even though I was wearing sandals (it was balmy October night). He has a hang-up about sandals and cat detectives!
He argued that crime fiction in the US is very strong because it is a logical extension of the essence of the frontiersman - essentially the Wild West motif. You cannot rely on the establishment to solve your problem – the law won’t rush to your defence – sometimes you have to rely on a lone man (usually flawed himself) to restore equilibrium and make sense of the world.
As a general rule, the police and courts in the UK and Ireland are regarded as the de facto defenders of the common man – citizens tend to think that eventually the police and courts will do the right thing. This inner mindset (largely propaganda and largely incorrect) creates an inherent inertia which stymied the development of detective fiction in both countries. This mindset is deeper in Ireland. Another mitigating factor was that the rural ethos of Ireland prevented the development of noir or detective fiction because urban precincts are the natural backdrop where human interaction and conflict are a daily reality.
The natural antipathy of the Irish literary world to those who did not engage in the meaning of Irishness (mentioned above) was also a major constraint.
All of the above factors are changing. The first scholarly analysis of Irish crime fiction is in preparation and Ireland is morphing from the effects of globalization, urbanization, gangland crime, travel, economic progress and decline, isolation, corruption, clerical abuse and political abuse into a complex, ambiguous moral landscape that provides the flux and tension where crime fiction can develop.
Although this is the first time I suspect that Maeve Binchy will ever be mentioned in this blog, John acknowledged that she and others demonstrated to UK publishers that Irish authors could sell significant numbers of books. (John and Maeve are probably Ireland’s two biggest selling authors.) But the current growth in Irish crime fiction is endangered because Irish people tend not to buy it (nor do the English) and authors cannot rely on US audiences alone. The number of indigenous readers has to increase to maintain the interest and viability of the genre.
John’s delivery was animated but serious. He instils loyalty and enthusiasm for crime fiction. His favourite maxim from Salman Rushdie, that a writer is someone who finishes writing a book, is simple, but Connolly takes it seriously. With every book he writes (13 so far, 10 million copies sold in 28 languages) he still always falters between 20 and 40 thousand words, doubting his writing and its impact. He gets through it though, and that is good news for the rest of us.
Thanks to Dr Eileen Reilly, Associate Director at Glucksman Ireland House, and Dr John Waters and all Ireland House staff, for inviting John to speak and welcoming us. - Seamus Scanlon
“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.