Ooops, I’m thinking out loud again …
Anyhoo, last week the Irish Times published a smashing supplement to mark Dublin’s designation as a UNESCO City of Literature, and yours truly was asked to contribute a piece on the rise of the Dublin-set crime novel. It ran a lot like this:
Darkness Falls on the Mean StreetsThis article was first published in the Irish Times
“In the last few years,” Fintan O’Toole wrote last November in the Irish Times, “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.”
As to why Irish crime writing took so long to develop, O’Toole suggested that, “Crime fiction is a function of something Ireland didn’t have until recently – large-scale cities.”
He further points to the fact that Ireland’s most famous and popular crime writer, John Connolly, set his first and subsequent crime novels in Maine, in the US. That argument is a little unfair to authors such as Vincent Banville, Julie Parsons and Hugo Hamilton, all of whom were setting their crime novels on the mean streets of Dublin in pre-Celtic Tiger days. By the same token, the last decade or so has seen an explosion of crime writing in which Dublin has not only become a familiar setting, but has become something of a recurring character in the works in a disparate number of writers.
Declan Hughes’ private eye, Ed Loy, first appeared in The Wrong Kind of Blood (2006), and has charted the absurdities of Dublin’s rapidly changing fortunes over the course of five novels. Hughes explores the “broad tree-lined streets of detached Victorian and Edwardian villas” of South County Dublin in his debut novel, inventing for himself the fictional suburban enclaves of Bayview and Castlehill, “where the luxury homes of top Irish rock stars, film directors, barristers and CEOs formed the exclusive enclave the reporter claimed was nicknamed ‘Bel Eire’.”
By the time his most recent novel, City of Lost Girls, was released earlier this year, however, Ed Loy has ‘followed the money’ all the way to the heart of a once affluent Dublin:“The wheels might have been coming off the economy at a frantic rate, but you wouldn’t have known a thing about it if the only place you ate your dinner was Shanahan’s on the Green. Mind you, if you could afford to dine in Shanahan’s Steakhouse every night, you probably didn’t care: you’d stored up enough nuts to get you through however long the winter lasted.” (City of Lost Girls, 2010)Arlene Hunt is another author to take advantage of Dublin’s relative intimacy as a city. Sarah Quigley and John Kenny comprise QuicK Investigations, which operates from an office in a ‘dilapidated old building on Wexford Street’. From their Southside base, however, the pair criss-cross the city in the course of their investigations, often doing so on a number of occasions within the space of a single day. Her characters are no less knowledgeable about their environment than those created by Parsons, Hamilton or Vincent Banville, but Hunt’s stories reflect the fact that Dublin has grown with the economic boom. In Hunt’s novels, increasing anonymity and a consequent alienation, combined with a massive injection of illicit wealth, has resulted in a pernicious disrespect for human life.
On first glance, Benjamin Black’s evocation of a genteel 1950’s Dublin suggests that Black - or his alter-ego, John Banville - has donned rose-tinted glasses:He stood on the broad pavement under the trees, smoking the last of a cigarette and looking across the road at the girl on the steps of the Shelbourne Hotel … An olive-green dray went past, drawn by a chocolate-coloured Clydesdale. Quirke lifted his head and breathed in the late-summer smells: horse, foliage, diesel fumes, perhaps even, fancifully, a hint of the girl’s perfume.Strip away the sepia tone, however, and it quickly becomes clear that Black has over the course of the three Quirke novels to date been engaged in exploring the dark underbelly of a Dublin that was no less in the throes of radical social change back then than it is today.
He crossed the street, dodging a green double-decker bus that parped its horn at him … (Christine Falls, 2006).
That rapid transformation of Dublin is also a recurring theme in Gene Kerrigan’s novels, particularly in terms of how the redistribution of wealth impacts on those on the lowest rungs of the food-chain:Must be depressing to live in a dogbox like this, with walls like cardboard. Apartment blocks all over the place, these days, populated mostly by the young and eager. Weaned on Sex and the City, impatient to sample the supposed sophistication of Manhattan on the Liffey … During the late lamented boom, it had seemed like it took some builders no more than a long weekend to throw an apartment block together. (Dark Times in the City, 2009)It’s in Alan Glynn’s Winterland (2009), however, that the transformation of Dublin comes into its own. Here the restless city is not only a setting, but character and theme, as Glynn excavates the political and financial corruption that underpinned the Celtic Tiger boom. The flawed structure of the bright and shiny Richmond Plaza in the docklands is a metaphor not only for the economic crash, but for the hubris that fuelled the city’s maddened flight from itself:It used to be that wherever you happened to find yourself in Dublin, you could pretty much rely on the red-and-white-striped twin chimneys of the Poolbeg power station to find you. Situated in the bay, these were a sentimental reference point for many people - they defined the city … But that has all changed. Because what immediately catches the eye these days is the considerably taller glass and steel structure rising up out of the docklands. It’s a more appropriate structure anyway, in Norton’s opinion. Better to have office and retail space, a hotel, condominiums - he thinks - than a brace of ugly industrial smokestacks. (Winterland, 2009)Cynical, paranoid and downbeat though they might be, it’s entirely apt that the city’s designation as a UNESCO City of Literature should come at a time when the Dublin-set crime novel is maturing into our most relevant literature of social realism. - Declan Burke