REQUIEMS FOR THE DEPARTED is an audacious exercise in joining the dots between Ireland’s mythological heritage and the current explosion in contemporary Irish crime writing. Basically, Gerard Brennan and Mike Stone have commissioned a number of modern crime stories based on Irish mythology. Contributors include Brian McGilloway, Arlene Hunt, Ken Bruen, Adrian McKinty, Una McCormack, Garbhan Downey, Sam Millar and Stuart Neville. Among the myths invoked are those of Diarmuid and Grainne, the Children of Lir, Queen Maeve and the Brown Bull of Cooley, the Hound of Cu Chulainn, and the Banshee.
What editors Stone and Brennan have attempted to do is draw parallels between the narrative tensions of an ancient and modern form. Much is made, for example, of the female characters in the myths, such as Queen Maeve and Grainne, as forerunners of the manipulative and often deadly femmes fatales of crime fiction.
It’s also true that narrative fulcrums such as greed, sex and the lust for power are timeless, as most of the stories here confirm.
Arlene Hunt’s ‘Sliabh Ban’ is a modern take on the Queen Maeve story, in which revenge plays a considerable part in motivating the main character, whose husband has not only run off with a younger woman, but taken her prize racehorse with him. Hunt’s story is perfectly pitched between myth and modern story, particularly in terms of the tragic ending.
On the other hand, Adrian McKinty’s story ‘Diarmuid and Grainne’ makes few concessions to the myth that inspired it. While acknowledging the elopement element of the myth, it is to all intents and purposes a hard-nosed tale of an undercover cop on the Border between the Republic and Northern Ireland making a fatal error of judgment while investigating dissident Republicans. Gritty and brutal, it belongs in the category of contemporary story, and shies clear of indulging the mythological aspects.
John McAllister’s ‘Bog Man’, on the other hand, reverses McKinty’s approach almost entirely: his protagonist is Tarlóir, an enforcer of the peace who goes up against the Morrigan clan in the years immediately following the arrival of St Patrick. McAllister drenches his tale with ghosts, gods and the superstitions of pre-Christian Ireland. In effect, McAllister frames the ancient tale with the modern concept of the police procedural. Where McKinty takes the myth and looks forward, McAllister takes the contemporary form and looks back. Both are equally persuasive.
Less persuasive in terms of style is Neville Thompson’s ‘Children of Gear’, a riff on the ‘Children of Lir’ story. Thompson sets his story in modern Dublin, yet uses the ancient names for his characters in a tale of a family lost to heroin. The net result is that the story never allows the reader to accept the story as fully myth or modern crime story, but that unsettling aspect contributes to the fact that Thompson’s forceful and unadorned reworking of the myth is a haunting one.
Some stories have only a tenuous connection to Irish mythology and legend - John Grant’s ‘The Life Business’, for example, offers a couple of glancing references to St Patrick in what is otherwise a compelling coming-of-age tale. Others, such as Ken Bruen’s ‘She Wails Through the Fair’, which takes the myth of the banshee for its inspiration, are entirely suffused with by the story’s inspiration.
Two stories, both police procedurals, are faithful to the mythology to an almost simplistic degree, yet both are the most successful at drawing out the timelessness of the myths. Brian McGilloway’s ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ and Garry Kilworth’s ‘Hats Off to Mary’ seem to skim the surface of the source material: entirely contemporary, they both convey the apparent simplicities of the mythological narratives, while also sketching in the often crude motivations that lie beneath what we often simply skim ourselves when rereading mythology.
REQUIEMS FOR THE DEPARTED doesn’t always reach the standards set by its audacious concept. By its very nature, and the nature of the material from which the stories take their inspiration, the tone is uneven, with some stories trading in black humour, others in irreverent revisionism, and some striving too hard to locate what is essentially a prehistorical morality in a contemporary setting.
That said, the collection is for the most part a vibrant reimagining of a body of literature that is in danger of being preserved in the literary equivalent of aspic. It is at worst a long overdue shot in the arm for Irish myths and legends, and deserves to be taken seriously as a courageous attempt to revitalise a tradition that is in danger of being smothered in academic dust. - Declan Burke
Meanwhile, here’s a link to a piece on REQUIEMS I had published in the Irish Times last month.
Lately I have been mostly reading: MY FRIEND JESUS CHRIST by Lars Husum, ORCHID BLUE by Eoin McNamee, SPIES OF THE BALKANS by Alan Furst, BAD INTENTIONS by Karin Fossum and FALLING SLOWLY by Robert Fannin.
“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.