Praise for Declan Burke: “Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “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.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Crime Fiction and Contemporary Ireland: The Truth!

It’s off to Maynooth University with yours truly next Tuesday, for an event titled ‘Crime Fiction and Contemporary Ireland’, which will be hosted by one Rob Kitchin of Blue House fame. I’m really looking forward to it, even if it’s the case that I’ll stuck between two of Ireland’s finest journalists (and equally fine novelists) in Gene Kerrigan and Niamh O’Connor, both of whom, it’s fair to say, have their fingers firmly on the erratic pulse of that intensive care patient known fondly to the world’s financial markets as Ireland, Inc. Meanwhile, I’m a guy who reviews books and movies for a living. I’ll be so far out of my depth I may wind up with a crippling case of the bends.
  I think it’ll be an interesting event, though. Last year, when DOWN THESE GREEN STREETS came out, one negative review more or less sneered at Irish crime writing on the basis that it feeds like a parasite off the misery of the country without offering any solutions to the mess. Which I thought was a bit rich, seeing as how a whole raft of politicians and economists are paid to come up with solutions to various economic messes, and fail miserably at every hand’s turn.
  Anyway, there are a number of Irish crime writers who are engaged with charting the woes of contemporary Ireland through their fiction, although there are as many again who haven’t the slightest interest in doing so. It’s all valid, I think. The most important thing any book can offer is an interesting story, well written. If a writer chooses to give that story an immediacy and urgency that derives from a timely investigation of the setting’s current ills and travails, then that can add another dimension. By the same token, agit-prop is no one’s idea of good art. So there’s a fine line to be negotiated.
  My current book, ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL, has a bit of fun with the notion of agit-prop, setting up a hospital as a metaphor for the country itself, with a demented hospital porter hell-bent on blowing it up in order to alert the nation to the dangers of depending too heavily on the kindness of strangers. My new book, SLAUGHTER’S HOUND, which I’ve just finished, is also influenced by current events - I find it very difficult to ignore that kind of thing, simply because it would be unrealistic for characters not to be engaged on a daily basis with the wider context of how their lives are being lived, or - more accurately, perhaps - how they are forced to live their lives.
  The extract below is from SLAUGHTER’S HOUND, and comes when the main character, and narrator, the former private eye Harry Rigby, is conversing with a previously wealthy woman, Saoirse Hamilton, whose son, Finn, has committed suicide two days previously, due to his financial circumstances. Saoirse Hamilton, as you can imagine, is rather bitter, and keen to foist the blame for Finn’s death (and by extension Ireland’s woes) onto someone, anyone, other than herself:
  ‘This is an old country, Mr Rigby. There are passage tombs up on the hills of Carrowkeel and their stones gone mossy long before the pyramids were built. There were Greeks sailing into Sligo Bay when Berlin was still a fetid swamp in some godforsaken forest. Take a detour off our shiny new roads and you’ll find yourself in a labyrinth, because no Roman ever laid so much as a foundation brick on this island. Hibernia, they called it.’ A wry smile. ‘Winterland.’
  ‘Well, the roads run straight enough now.’
  ‘Indeed. Irish tyres hissing slick on the sweat of the German tax-payer, who will tell you that he has paid for every last yard of straight road built here in the last forty years. You know,’ she said, ‘there have always been those who turned their back on Brussels and Frankfurt, and not everyone who professes to ourselves alone is a Sticky or a Shinner. But I could never understand that. I quite liked the idea that Herr Fritz was spreading around his Marshall Plan largesse to buy himself some badly needed friends.’ She shrugged. Her voice gone dead and cold, as if she spoke from inside a tomb. ‘Perhaps I was wrong. Herr Shylock has returned demanding his pound of flesh, and it appears he is charging blood debt rates. Straight roads, certainly, and more suicides in the last year than died in traffic accidents.’
  ‘It won’t last,’ I said. ‘Nothing ever does.’
  A hard flash of perfect teeth. ‘My point entirely, Mr Rigby. I’m told that the latest from Frankfurt is that our German friends are quietly pleased that the Irish are not Greeks, that we take our medicine with a pat on the head. No strikes, no burning of the bondholders, or actual banks. Apparently they’re a little contemptuous, telling one another as they pass the latest Irish budget around the Reichstag for approval that we have been conditioned by eight hundred years of oppression to perfect that very Irish sleight of hand, to tug the forelock even as we hold out the begging bowl.
  ‘They are children, Mr Rigby, our German friends. Conditioned themselves, since Charlemagne, to believe want and need are the same instinct. Hardwired to blitzkrieg and overreach, to forget the long game, the hard lessons of harsh winters bogged down in foreign lands.’ Tremulous now. Not the first time she’d delivered this speech. ‘The Romans were no fools. Strangers come here to wither and die. Celt, Dane, Norman and English, they charged ashore waving their axes and swords and we gave up our blood and took the best they have, and when they sank into our bogs we burned them for heat and carved our stories from their smoke and words.’
  SLAUGHTER’S HOUND is due to be published in June, which is around about the time when the Irish people will be going to the polls to vote in a referendum on whether Ireland should change its constitution to allow for the EU’s new fiscal treaty pact to take effect here. Essentially, I think, the battle for Yes and No will be fought on the basis of how steaming mad the Irish people are at their loss of economic sovereignty at the hands of a German-dominated EU - which isn’t strictly true, by any means, and ignores the extent to which Ireland was culpable in its own downfall (SLAUGHTER’S HOUND is to a large extent a novel about the consequences of not taking responsibility for your actions).
  Contrary to the doomsayers, I believe the Yes vote will edge the referendum, this on the basis of ‘that very Irish sleight of hand, to tug the forelock even as we hold out the begging bowl’ - we’ll be offered a deal on the debt Ireland has been burdened with, and we’ll vote pragmatically, if not on behalf of ourselves, then on behalf of our children.
  But I digress. Where was I? Oh, yes - ‘Crime Fiction and Contemporary Ireland’, Maynooth University, March 6th, 5pm. If you’re in the vicinity, we’d love to see you there …