Colin Bateman and Eoin McNamee were two of the notable exceptions, but for many years Northern Ireland crime novelists steered clear of writing about ‘the Troubles’. Now a new generation of crime writers has begun to engage with that historical period and its violence, among them Claire McGowan, Adrian McKinty, Brian McGilloway and Anthony Quinn. I had a feature on the subject published in the Irish Examiner last Saturday, which opened up like this:
“The riot had taken on a beauty of its own,” begins Adrian McKinty’s novel The Cold Cold Ground, outlining in those few spare words why so many Northern Irish authors have recently turned to writing about the Troubles.
Published in 2011, the novel was the first of a new series by McKinty, which features a Catholic RUC policeman operating in Belfast in 1981. As the terrible beauty of the opening page’s chaos gives way to the violence surrounding the hunger strikes, and the story broadens out to detail the province-wide paranoia and social unrest, the bombings and the murders, you start to wonder why it has taken so long for Northern Irish crime writers to embrace the Troubles as a setting.
“I think, ultimately, crime fiction works best as a vicarious experience of crime, with the sense that there will be justice in some form,” says Derry-born author Brian McGilloway. “For many years there was no need to experience it vicariously, as it was happening for real. More than that, though, the idea of justice was a ridiculous one when it so clearly wasn’t happening in real life.”
McGilloway writes a series of detective novels featuring Inspector Ben Devlin, a Donegal-based Garda who liaises with his counterpart across the border in the PSNI. While the novels have always dealt with post-Troubles scenarios, last year’s offering, The Nameless Dead, found Devlin resurrecting a case from the 1970s.
Claire McGowan’s debut novel, The Fall (2012), was set in London. Her second offering, The Lost, is set in her native Newry, and concerns itself with a pair of missing girls, whose disappearance mirrors that of two girls who vanished in 1985.
“I always think about something Ian Rankin said years ago,” she says, “that there was very little northern Irish crime fiction because the pain and violence was all too recent. We weren’t ready then to fictionalise it. I’d imagine people felt worried about engaging too directly with the powerful interests in society. It’s something I still worry about now.”
Anthony Quinn, whose debut Disappeared was published last year, agrees. “During the Troubles many of us walked a tightrope with the IRA at one end and the British Army and Loyalist paramilitaries at the other. You had to be careful about what you said and wrote. Words could kill. If you said the wrong thing, you might never be seen again. The phrase ‘and whatever you say, say nothing’ was a mantra for survival.”
McKinty, meanwhile, believes that an entire generation was so traumatised by the experience of the Troubles that it was shocked into silence.
“No one wants to talk about it in these terms,” he says, “but it’s my belief that the whole of society in Northern Ireland is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. A war that lasted 30 years and impacted every walk of life and is still rumbling away in the background is going to leave deep and painful scars.”
There were crime novelists who explored the consequences of the conflict while the Troubles were ongoing – Colin Bateman and Eoin McNamee spring to mind, along with thriller writers such as Gerald Seymour and Jack Higgins – but in recent years a growing number of younger writers have begun to incorporate their experiences of growing up through the Troubles into their stories.
“Now, I think, the Troubles can be considered with a degree of distance and can be explored with intelligence and insight rather than being exploited for sensationalist entertainment, which was the case with many of the Troubles books of that period,” suggests McGilloway. “I think that’s what made it off-limits for so long – the sense that you didn’t want to exploit real pain and suffering.”
Time and distance has also allowed some writers to come to terms with the anomalies of living through what the Chinese proverb euphemistically describes as ‘interesting times’.
“For my own part, Disappeared allowed me to shine a light upon some deep contradictions in my own experience of the Troubles,” says Quinn. “My family were held at gunpoint by the IRA and our car hijacked in a murder bid on a policeman. We suffered intimidation and abuse. For instance, we were given a bullet by the IRA which was destined for my father if he contacted the police before a certain time. We were cowed into silence. Writing the book allowed me the chance to break this silence as well as explore the contradictory sense of being terrorised by the IRA and at the same time protected and somehow energised by them.”
Claire McGowan also sees fiction as a means of giving voice to her conflicted childhood.
“It’s a way of dealing with the past, and showing the wider world how things were for us,” she says. “I was born in 1981 and grew up through some very bad years, and I always struggle to explain to non-Irish friends what it was really like, how frightened we often were as children.”
“The conspiracy of silence about the Troubles is what attracted me to writing about it in the first place,” says McKinty. “If you’re a writer and you take your job seriously you should be exploring regions that no one wants you to go into. You should be diving deep into the fractures and seeing what it was that made people act that way.”
It’s possible for writers to play their part in a kind of reconciliation process, argues McGowan, by acknowledging that contemporary Northern Ireland is a compelling setting, and embracing its potential rather than ignoring its past.
“For me it’s the aspect of living in a post-conflict society, where appalling events are still so fresh in the mind,” she says, “but we’re all supposed to wipe the slate clean and live alongside the perpetrators. What’s most amazing is how many people are willing to do this for the sake of peace.”
“Even now, post-ceasefire, Northern Ireland is still a place in turmoil, emotionally and politically, as the Union Jack protests demonstrate,” says Quinn. “Swift political changes and inverted values have driven former terrorists into power, and to have this as a backdrop adds great dramatic tension and resonance to your writing, especially when you set individuals on a personal struggle between good and bad.”
McGilloway also believes the crime novel has an important part to play in the cultural future of Northern Ireland.
“Fiction has always provided a way to reflect on the concerns of society, and to allow the writer to tease out various scenarios,” he says. “I think the distance that the Peace Process has provided has allowed that to happen much more successfully. There’s a case of not being able to see the wood for the trees when you’re in the centre of things.”
For Anthony Quinn, writing about the Troubles also provides a perspective on the present that isn’t necessarily politically correct.
“One of the consequences of breaking this silence and writing about the Troubles,” he says, “and in particular the post-ceasefire society of Northern Ireland, is that it exposes the cracks in the harmonious, peaceful new society dreamed of in the Good Friday Agreement. But I believe Irish readers are now better able to tolerate these flaws.
“Our politicians lie and dissemble,” he adds, “and historical documents can be subjective and flawed, but at least fiction never pretends to be anything else.”
For writers, and artists of every kind, there is the not inconsiderable challenge of overcoming the historic resistance to Troubles-set drama.
“The Troubles are an unpopular topic,” acknowledges McKinty, “but the events of the Troubles are so dark and heroic and perverse and mundane that to me at least they’re almost irresistible. It’s true that my book sales are a tiny fraction of other writers who wisely steer clear of these messy waters but I do think this period needs to be looked at by poets and novelists and film makers. Eventually the public will come round to seeing that too.”
This feature was first published in the Irish Examiner.
“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.