You can call them genre conventions or you can call them clichés, but the male protagonists in crime novels tend to have a lot in common. Whether cops, private eyes, crusading journalists or ex-military veterans, they’re generally misanthropic loners with addiction issues - booze is the most popular - and while they rarely have trouble attracting women, they have huge problems holding on to them. They are, as Raymond Chandler dubbed them, the tarnished white knights, who go down those mean streets without becoming themselves mean, and whose sense of justice remains undimmed no matter how many beatings they take on our behalf.
Three recent Irish crime novels have taken those conventions and tossed them out the window. Inspector Benedict Devlin, the main character in Brian McGilloway’s Donegal-set series of police procedurals, is as happily a married man as any married man is likely to be. Devlin has two kids, no addiction issues, and is no more cynical about the human race than any policeman is entitled to be having achieved the rank of Inspector. In all, he’s an unusually clean-cut credit to his family, his country and the Gardai.
THE RISING is the fourth Devlin novel in the series, and as has been the case in the previous novels, Devlin is the juncture where personal and political collide. Here the political is provided by the eponymous Republican splinter group, which is gathering local support on both sides of the North / South border around Strabane and Lifford for its zero tolerance approach to drug dealing. One of the leading lights of The Rising is an old foe of Devlin’s, Vincent Morrison, who has served his prison term and emerged with his debt paid to society. When Devlin’s 11-year-old daughter Penny develops a crush on Morrison’s son, Devlin finds himself compromised in relation to the investigation he is conducting into the brutal murders of small-time drug dealers.
Devlin is far removed from the by-all-means-necessary kind of copper to be found in crime fiction, and part of the enjoyment of THE RISING is seeing one of the consequences of the post-Good Friday peace process - that of ex-paramilitaries turning to more prosaic forms of crime - through the eyes of a family man who is as concerned for his daughter’s well-being as he is with conceptual notions of justice and accountability. That said, McGilloway claims no moral high ground for Devlin, who is on occasion moved to use his fists in brutal fashion when his domestic life is infringed upon.
For all that the story is peppered with outbreaks of violence and murder, McGilloway, writing in the spare, unadorned style of classic noir tradition, never renders the violence lurid or gratuitous. Nor does he break faith with the reader by having his methodical inspector depend on hunches or gut instinct for his big breakthroughs. Instead the story imitates police procedural as closely as any entertaining novel is allowed, depending on the steady and stealthy accretion of detail and nuance rather than show-stopping flourishes designed to mythologise both the process and its protagonist. It’s an approach that whets the appetite even as it sates it. McGilloway improves with every novel, and the latest Inspector Devlin - Morse without the affectations, basically - is fast becoming an annual must-read.
Arlene Hunt also plays with the conventions in her latest offering, BLOOD MONEY. In her previous novels, the QuicK Investigations partnership of Sarah Quigley and John Kenny has been dominated by Sarah, the cool and thoughtful yin to John’s impulsive and occasionally boneheaded yang.
In BLOOD MONEY, as a result of events in the previous novel, Sarah has disappeared, leaving John to investigate a case of apparent suicide brought to him by a grieving mother. Alison Cooper is a dedicated doctor, a married woman and a loving mother. Although her husband Tom had an affair a year previously, the pragmatic Alison is highly unlikely to have taken her own life as a result. Has there been foul play? Hunt juxtaposes John’s investigation with a parallel tale in which Pavel Sunic, a Bosnian Roma, travels to Ireland to hunt down the person responsible for his sister’s death.
It quickly becomes apparent that John and Pavel are both investigating the murky world of international organ trafficking. This gives the novel a contemporary flavour, and also imbues the tale with an uncomfortable moral conundrum - what would you do, the story asks implicitly, if it was your nearest and dearest who could well die waiting for an organ transplant to arrive through the conventional channels? Hunt, who personalises the theme in her acknowledgements, leaves the answers up to the reader. John Quigley is not a detective burning with a sense of justice undelivered. Instead he is a man who engages in his detective work because it is his job, his way of paying the bills, and if he is no less diligent for all that, his prosaic style - knocking on doors, taking statements where he’s let, accumulating tiny amounts of information that may or may not prove useful - has a powerful ring of authenticity, not least in terms of the number of petty obstacles he encounters on his travels.
Ed Loy, Declan Hughes’ private detective who gets his fifth outing in THE CITY OF LOST GIRLS, comes closest to the Chandlerian notion of the tarnished white knight in Irish crime fiction. In the past Hughes has very deliberately cultivated Loy as an Irish version of Lew Archer, the private eye who featured in Ross Macdonald’s novels and made a speciality of investigating the skeletons in wealthy families’ closets.
While families and their dark secrets play their part in THE CITY OF LOST GIRLS, here Hughes has Loy investigate a different kind of family, the so-called ‘Gang of Four’ led by Jack Donovan, an old friend of Loy’s and an Irish film director made good in Hollywood who has returned home to make his masterpiece on home soil. When two extras go missing from the movie set, Loy is called in to investigate their disappearance. Loy immediately remembers that three girls went missing, never to be found, on another Jack Donovan shoot, this one some 15 years previously in California, and suspects that a serial killer might be at work.
Loy, previously a hard-drinking, self-torturing romantic, has mellowed somewhat since his last appearance, in ALL THE DEAD VOICES, when he met Anne Fogarty, a divorced woman with two children. Now settled into his own version of suburban bliss, the detective is more pragmatic about life in general, and is willing to overlook humanity’s faults in a way he might not have in previous outings. Nonetheless, Loy’s sense of justice remains undimmed, even if his reasons for pursuing it have changed.
A compelling page-turner, THE CITY OF LOST GIRLS also marks a new departure for Hughes. Always a fine stylist, he has here brought an new maturity and assuredness to his blending of three separate voices - the first-person narration by Loy, Anne Fogarty’s third-person perception of Loy, and the serial killer’s first-person justification for his killings - to create a courageous, challenging and ambitious novel. There is also a subtle investigation of what it means to be Irish now, an attempt to sift some truth of who and what we are from all the doom-and-gloom headlines. In all, it is a powerful tale from a gifted storyteller. If there is to be a better Irish novel this year, it will be a very fine piece of work indeed. - Declan Burke
This article first appeared in the Sunday Independent
Praise for Declan Burke: “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – The Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “A hardboiled delight.” – The Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews (starred review). “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre, was ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL.” – Sunday Times. “The writing is a joy.” – Ken Bruen. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.