“It is striking that the most successful Irish crime writer, John Connolly, who began his career just a decade ago, felt it necessary to set his books in the US and to insert himself directly into the American detective tradition. Connolly presumably decided that Ireland, even in the Celtic Tiger years, was not the place for crime fiction. Yet it is equally striking that in the last few years, Irish-set crime writing has not merely begun to blossom but has become arguably the nearest thing we have to a realist literature adequate to capturing the nature of contemporary society …The piece is short but it is wide-ranging enough to touch on the perversity of the Irish crime narrative, beginning with JM Synge’s play ‘The Playboy of the Western World’, in which the ‘murderer’ is not only discovered very early on in the story, but spends most of his time protesting his ‘guilt’, to no avail. In offering reasons for why the traditional crime novel didn’t find its place in Ireland until recently, however, O’Toole doesn’t mention the post-colonial Irish attitude summed up by Seamus Heaney’s phrase, “Whatever you say / Say nothing.” In Ireland, everyone loves to tell a story, but no one wants to be thought an informant. Hence the power of Liam O’Flaherty’s proto-noir THE INFORMER, a claustrophobic tale of treachery and insufferable guilt and the consequences of betrayal, a Greek tragedy set in Dublin’s red-light district and written in the brusque, staccato style that Dashiell Hammett would later pioneer in the U.S. (THE INFORMER was published in 1925).
“If that were the whole story, however, what we’d be getting now would be simply a local version of the established international genre. That we’re getting something rather more interesting than that is suggested by two intriguing ways in which the best writing is inflected by older Irish traditions …
“In creating an Ireland with no faith in authority and no belief that the bad guys will be vanquished by naming their names, they get closer to reality than most literary fiction has managed.”
All in all, O’Toole’s is a thought-provoking piece, and could well prove a quantum leap in the ongoing struggle for the Irish crime novel to gain traction with the Irish reading public. Fintan O’Toole is one of the most clear-eyed observers among the Irish intelligentsia (he recently published SHIP OF FOOLS: HOW STUPIDITY AND CORRUPTION SANK THE CELTIC TIGER) and his tacit approval certainly won’t do Declan Hughes, Gene Kerrigan and Alan Glynn any harm.
Naturally, given that the piece appeared shortly after yours truly went public with his decision to pack in the writing career, I’m a little sceptical about the prospects for the Irish crime novel. But it’s not just me: this week just gone by, I had conversations with two very fine Irish crime writers, both of whom were very pessimistic about the publishing industry in general, and Irish crime fiction in particular. Put bluntly, and despite high-profile awards and awards nominations for the likes of Connolly, Hughes, Ken Bruen, Tana French, Gene Kerrigan, Ruth Dudley Edwards and Brian McGilloway in recent years, Irish crime novels don’t sell, either in Ireland or (crucially) abroad. Without knowing exact figures, John Connolly is probably the exception to this rule, as he is to most rules - and apologies to any writer mentioned who is, in fact, rolling in dosh.
Next year will see no less than three movies based on Ken Bruen novels hit the big screen, and – all going well – filming begin on Alan Glynn’s THE DARK FIELDS. On the surface, things appear to be going swimmingly for Irish crime writers, and it was heart-warming to see Stuart Neville’s THE GHOSTS OF BELFAST (aka THE TWELVE) get top billing in Marilyn Stasio’s NYT column last week. This year has been a terrific year for Irish crime writing: along with Connolly, Kerrigan, Glynn and Hughes, Fintan O’Toole could quite easily, given his terms of reference, have mentioned the likes of Adrian McKinty, Colin Bateman, Alex Barclay, Stuart Neville, Brian McGilloway, Ken Bruen, Ava McCarthy, Garbhan Downey and Sam Millar, and that’s in a year when we didn’t have any books from Arlene Hunt, Julie Parsons, Benjamin Black or Tana French. It was also the year when the Irish crime novel got its own category at the Irish Book Awards, with Alex Barclay the inaugural winner.
All of which seems overwhelmingly positive, and a rising tide lifts all boats, but I can’t help wondering if Fintan O’Toole’s piece won’t come to be seen as the high-water mark of the Irish crime novel – usually, mainstream media picking up on a trend means sounding its death-knell. I certainly hope it doesn’t, because, leaving aside the fact that most of the writers mentioned above write well-written entertainments, they also write novels that are important in terms of our understanding of who we are and where we’re going. As Val McDermid says in today’s Sunday Independent:
“The crime novel really has become the state-of-the-nation fiction. There’s an Irish writer called Alan Glynn, who has just published a novel WINTERLAND … This is a book that speaks to absolutely now. Good writers – good crime writers in particular – have a knack of plugging into the zeitgeist.”As a writer, I’ve been hearing for some time now from editors and agents and publishers that what the industry wants is ‘big’ books – crime stories with an appeal broad enough to propel the book into the mainstream. CHILD 44 and THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO are good recent examples, and it’s possibly the case that Ireland, despite its potentially fertile setting for crime fiction (post-Troubles, post-economic boom) simply isn’t ‘big’ enough to capture the imagination of the reading public at large. That shouldn’t be the case, in theory at least, because, like politics, all good novels are local, and if there’s one thing Ireland is producing in these benighted times, it’s damn fine novels.
The irony, of course, is that the best way for a country to break out of an economic slump is to start creating unique indigenous products for export, which is very much the case when it comes to most of the writers mentioned above. Has it come time for Irish crime writers to band together in a union, the better to lobby the government for investment to market their high quality exports abroad? A little investment, cleverly used, would go a long way, particularly in terms of impacting on the media. Or has the time finally come for an Irish crime writing association? Are such associations of any practical use? Or are there any other ideas out there in left field that might be beneficial?
I know that there are plenty of Irish crime writers out there who ‘lurk’ on Crime Always Pays, and it’s your prerogative not to leave a comment, or get involved in any way, because the writing game is at heart a solitary business, and (speaking for myself, at least) joining gangs goes against the grain. But the times they are a-changing, folks, and what worked in the past just ain’t cutting it anymore. And it would be horrible, truly horrible, if we were to look back in five years time and concede that Fintan O’Toole’s piece in the Irish Times was a high-water mark, and that the tide has gone out, leaving some very fine boats stranded.
The floor is open, people …