‘Contradictions in the Irish Hardboiled: Detective Fiction’s Uneasy Portrayal of a New Ireland’ by Maureen T. Reddy
The sheer size of the recent boom in Irish crime fiction has tended to obscure its most striking feature: a striking lack of diversity, in terms of subgenres and models. Virtually all twenty-first-century Irish crime fiction is derived from the tradition of the American hardboiled, yet few reviewers or scholars have addressed the thoroughgoing similarity of literary descent, beyond noting that much Irish crime fiction is “noirish.” Current Irish crime writers tend to see themselves as connected to the American hardboiled tradition, judging from published interviews, blogs, and even titles of collections—for example, Down These Green Streets (2011) and Dublin Noir (2006). Many of the twenty-first-century Irish series feature either tough-guy private eyes or police detectives whose style of speech, loner tendencies, and cynical attitudes link them more closely with the conventions of hardboiled than with the police procedural. Other subgenres—cozy mystery, academic mystery, legal fiction, spy, and comic or “caper,” for instance—have found few new Irish practitioners, although all of these specialties remain popular with both readers and with non-Irish writers. Although not a new form per se, the Irish hardboiled represents a significant development in Irish literature through its resurrection of an established literary form not previously associated with Irish writers. That it arose when the definition of Irishness itself was newly and widely under interrogation is no coincidence.
Most traditional definitions of Irishness were obsolete by the early 2000s. They were unsettled by many developments: successive public scandals (political, economic, and religious, beginning in the 1990s), the country’s membership in the European Union, immigration after a long history of emigration, and the economic boom and then bust, along with widespread access to global media and increasing levels of education among the populace. But the obsolete markers of Irishness were not replaced with a coherent ideology. Instead, the question of Irishness has in many ways been left up for grabs.
Recent Irish crime writers have been deeply interested in working through the problem of redefining Irishness. This problem has been raised also in much contemporary Irish non-genre fiction, but the hardboiled form that has profoundly influenced so many contemporary crime writers works against a progressive or liberatory conception of Irishness. The intensely conservative ideology expressed in the form of much of this Irish writing is at odds with its more progressive content; sometimes, the authors find themselves writing into dead ends from which series cannot extricate themselves.
Similarly, Declan Hughes’s author’s web page lists “Ten Crime Novels You Must Read Before You Die,” which has Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key as number one (with mentions also of The Maltese Falcon and Red Harvest) and Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye as number two (followed by mentions of The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely). Hughes describes Hammett as “The Master—the JS Bach, the Louis Armstrong of crime fiction” and Chandler as “The greatest prose stylist in the genre. Romantic, lyrical and witty.” Even the title of the first collection of Irish crime writing and writing about Irish crime writing, Down These Green Streets, is a tribute to Chandler. Andrew Kincaid rightly notes that “the most striking aspect of many of these [Irish noir] novels is the conscious reference to American noir.”
The American hardboiled is rife with contradictions: the outsider detective who on closer examination turns out to be a social insider; complicated attitudes toward the police (they are definitely stupid, possibly corrupt, but the detective works with them anyhow); and depictions of women, who are both the major threats to the detective and those he is dedicated to protecting. The Irish version of the genre compounds the contradictions. The Irish protagonists frequently criticize the Americanization of Ireland, from attitudes to accents, and yet they do so in the context of an American literary form in which the characters hold an American position.
Although the fictional Irish private eyes resemble Hammett’s and Chandler’s solo professional detectives in their cynical attitudes and tough style of speech, their backstories offer a major difference—indeed, that they have backstories at all is a departure from the original formula. In the American hardboiled, the detectives are loners by choice and are depicted as free, a condition all the more attractive given the novels’ portrayals of most family relationships as poisonous. In contrast, the detectives in Irish novels are not so much free as they are miserably lonely; they are decidedly unfree, because permanently damaged by their own toxic family relationships.
This departure from the conventions of the American hardboiled reflects Irish historical circumstances, and draws attention to the fundamental changes in the Irish national story that are central to the new Irish crime fiction. The lone male—the cowboy, the explorer, the one who lights out for the territory, leaving a feminized civilization behind—is an essential, heroic figure in American nation-building mythology. American hardboiled detectives are drenched in this mythology. In Irish cultural traditions, the solitary male figure is generally both unusual and pitiable. The lone male who stays in Ireland is a sad figure in popular culture, epitomized by the lonely bachelor on a farm. The most common association in Irish history with solitary males, however, is with emigration, evoking the thousands who left family and country behind, not fully by choice. The territory for which these men lit out was not open and liberating, but colonial and stifling.
While it is true that the figure of the exile has complicated that picture in Irish literature at least since Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist, that exile is of course always in another country, not Ireland itself. The most Irish Irishman is rural, settled, and as the constitution asserts, fully embedded in a family. These claims both reflect and reinforce social norms that prevailed for decades in Ireland. The hardboiled loners, with their miserable family histories, draw attention to a part of the story usually left out of the national mythology: that the Irish family may be “the necessary basis of social order” while at the same time being the locus of abuse, oppression, and misery. Perhaps, then, that social order is of a piece with its basis—abusive, oppressive, miserable, and dangerous—and therefore disruptions in it are in fact desirable, leading to a greater social good than would its restoration.
The American hardboiled usually suggests something along these lines regarding about the ruling classes—one of many ways that the form is distinct from the British golden age mystery, in which the detective acts to restore order and can therefore be seen as an agent of the ruling classes. However, the American hardboiled detective consistently labors to restore two elements of the existing social order—restrictive gender and race roles—which complicates his supposed independence from the ruling classes and makes him complicit in their hegemony, a fact that the novels work hard to obscure.
Late twentieth-century American feminist writers and writers of color—for example, Sara Paretsky, Marcia Muller, and Walter Mosley—have sought to intervene in the received trope of the hardboiled detective, revising both the solitariness and the class loyalties of the hardboiled detective. Their interventions cast further light on the Irish versions. In American feminist series featuring female detectives, the authors generally provide the detective with a backstory that explains her solitariness and that shows her creating a chosen family, outside the usual confines of the patriarchal nuclear family. A number of writers of color take this revision further by creating detectives who are extensively connected with their communities and who even often have primary responsibility for children, theirs by birth or adoption. Such revisions serve to highlight hardboiled ideology’s valorization of whiteness and masculinity while also calling into question received ideas about autonomy and freedom. In the Irish case, however, the revision does not challenge hardboiled ideology so much as it disputes the veracity of official Irish ideology. The detectives’ lives strongly suggest both that the family is the basis of a social order that has gone seriously wrong, and that the family unit itself is often far more damaging and dangerous than the official Irish story could ever admit. And yet, the Irish detectives long for family stability and regret their own solitariness, which imbues the five series discussed here with a peculiar nostalgia—one that consistently subverts their critiques of the Ireland now passing into history.
A case in point is Hugo Hamilton’s truncated Pat Coyne series, which technically does not fit the private eye model, as Coyne is a member of Garda Síochána in the first book. But his status as a garda is incidental to the novels’ plots, in which Coyne essentially functions as a private eye. Hamilton’s Headbanger (1996) was the first Irish hardboiled novels; in it, Coyne imagines himself as protecting all and stopping crime though he is not very good at either task. Coyne has a number of obsessions, but “above all else, he was concerned with extinction; the disappearance of legendary people. Last men belonging to ancient and pure civilizations which had clashed with modernity. Men and women like the Blasket Islanders.” At one point, he thinks of his father, who moved to Dublin from West Cork “to claim his part in the making of a new Ireland.” (H34) Coyne sees the country changing again, and thinks that “all the new historical landmarks would be eclipsed by new outrageous shrines of crime”, (H34) mentioning a pedophile priest at a summer camp in Glendalough: “The sacred places of Irish history defiled by new atrocities” (H 34).
The novel focuses on Coyne’s determination to bring down Berti “Drummer” Cunningham, a gangster, murderer, pimp, and drug dealer who has opened a nightclub and “was now transforming himself into a regular statesman” (H 70). This novel’s explicit concern with the “new Ireland” and the destruction of traditional Irishness corresponds very closely to American hardboiled fiction’s concerns about the “new” United States and loss of whiteness in the 1920s and 1930s seen in, for example, Dashiell Hammett’s “The House in Turk Street” and Raymond Chandler’s “Finger Man.” Pat Coyne is treated ironically in many ways, unlike the original hardboiled detectives, but the concern about social changes is handled entirely without irony: the novel repeatedly demonstrates that Pat is right to be worried. The threats to Irishness in this novel come not from the outside, but from traditional centers of authority: the corrupt hierarchy of the gardaí that allows Berti and his ilk to flourish, the church that shelters pedophiles, the ordinary Irish people who value money above traditional culture. Headbanger suggests that Ireland is fast becoming the fifty-first American state, and even a hard man like Coyne cannot stop the process.
Maybe Ireland was not a real place at all but a country that existed only in the imagination. In the songs of emigrants. In the way people looked back from faraway places like Boston and Springfield, Massachusetts. Maybe it was just an aspiration. A place where stones and rocks had names and stories. Maybe this was the glorious end. The end of Ireland (SB 189–90).Of course Coyne is right in thinking that Ireland—like all nations—exists only in the imagination, but his ultimate resignation to the disappearance of his imaginary country, and his sentimentality, set him apart both from earlier tough-guy detectives and also from those of the hardboiled counter-traditions. Like the original hardboiled detectives, Coyne is positioned as an outsider and an independent thinker, at odds with most forms of authority. But the reality is that he is a social insider by virtue of gender, sexuality, and nationality. Also akin to those earlier detectives, Coyne is willing to engage in violence—even extreme violence—and is the only fully trustworthy character in the novels. In contrast to the hardboiled detectives of the counter-traditions, Coyne is nostalgic for a past that was, in fact, oppressive to many. It is not clear why Hamilton chose not to continue with the Pat Coyne series, but these two novels suggest a dead end: a hardboiled protagonist who is treated ironically, yet whose deeply conservative impulses we are meant to respect, with an embedded social critique that is also a plea for a return to an imaginary prelapsarian past. There is no place to go from there.
These two novels serve as prequels, of a sort, to Irish noir—much of which, like Hamilton’s novels, only slightly adapts the conventions of the hardboiled tradition, offering a recapitulated version of the dominant discourse, as if the developments in the hardboiled in the last part of the twentieth century had never happened. Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor, Declan Hughes’s Ed Loy, and Declan Burke’s Harry Rigby are hard-drinking, and sometimes hard-drugging, tough guys who follow their own codes, determined to resist the Americanization of Ireland and to expose corruption among the powerful. Yet each one of these series reaches the kind of dead end that we see in Hamilton’s second book. Only Bruen has succeeded in writing past it, continuing his Jack Taylor series beyond Sanctuary (2010), a novel in which form and content engage in what reads like a final clash.
The best-known of the contemporary Irish crime writers is Benjamin Black, the pen name of John Banville. His use of unrevised hardboiled conventions is persisting and unmistakable. His Quirke series—set about fifty years ago, and begun with Christine Falls, published in 2006—offers the innovation of a doctor (a pathologist named Quirke) as the central consciousness of the novels, but otherwise directly incorporates hardboiled conventions and is fully immersed in hardboiled ideology. Quirke, flawed as he undoubtedly is, the sole trustworthy character. Other of Banville’s novels, such as The Book of Evidence (1989), which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and Athena (1995), often focus on crime, and are both thematically and stylistically closely related to his work as Benjamin Black. However, the author insists that the Black novels differ from the Banville books; he describes the former as “cheap fiction” that he writes very quickly, in contrast to the novels he publishes under his own name—an assertion that infuriates other crime writers. Black adopts, entirely uncritically, the whole of hardboiled ideology, structure, and tropes; his embrace of a bygone tradition also explains why the novels are set in the 1950s instead of in a more contemporary period. The Quirke series is suffused with beliefs and attitudes, particularly regarding women, that would seem anachronistic in the twenty-first century. James Naremore has described the characteristic tough, cool voice of the hardboiled detective as the “Voice of Male Experience.” It might be more specifically identified as the voice of heterosexual, white, male American experience. Black’s Quirke is the voice of white, male, heterosexual, settled Irish experience in a period in which those terms equated with Irishness itself. Although those terms no longer suffice to describe Irishness, the Quirke series labors to reinstate only slightly revised versions of them.
Unsurprisingly, then, instead of writing a seventh novel featuring Quirke, Black next produced a new work featuring Philip Marlowe, Chandler’s detective: The Black-Eyed Blonde (2014). The Black-Eyed Blonde is a logical step in Black’s dalliance with the hardboiled. From the start, Quirke has been as close to Marlowe as a character could be without actually being Marlowe. As many of the novels he has written as John Banville thoroughly critique some aspects of the past—the stranglehold of the church and of the rich on the rest of the nation, in particular, and the seemingly limitless government corruption that enables the powerful to do as they please—the lack of critique of the rigid gender roles of 1950s Ireland in his detective fiction is especially notable. Indeed, the Black novels are suffused with nostalgia for the womanly women and manly men of the 1950s.
One question raised by the boom in Irish detective fiction is the very question of whether the investigators have any basis in reality. The hardboiled novel depends on at least a surface verisimilitude. Readers have to be willing to believe that there are private detectives at work in Ireland for the fictional detectives to gain our trust. Oddly enough, although there is certainly disposable income available to pay private detectives in Ireland, even post-bust, there is little public acknowledgment that such detectives work in the country.
Early in his first Jack Taylor novel, The Guards (2001), Ken Bruen has his narrator protagonist explain that he is not actually a private investigator: “There are no private eyes in Ireland. The Irish wouldn’t wear it. The concept brushes perilously close to the hated ‘informer.’ You can get away with most anything except ‘telling’.” That widely shared view of the informer is sharply challenged by a character in another hardboiled novel. Declan Hughes has an Irish journalist comment bitterly on the influence of the Catholic church in pre-Celtic Tiger Ireland, describing doctors as “The Church’s willing enforcers” and going on to claim that “If Ireland had been in the Eastern bloc, we would have been riddled with secret police. We’d’ve had more police than people. I love this thing that we’re supposed to hate informers, of all things, Jesus, we’d give up our own children so long as we could do it in secret.” Although Bruen’s Jack Taylor goes on to function as a professional private eye, taking payment for that work, he continues to insist to potential clients that he is not one. Of the four Irish hardboiled detectives, only one actually calls himself a detective: Declan Hughes’s Ed Loy, who became a professional private investigator during his nineteen years in the United States The others describe themselves variously as a “research consultant,” in the case of Declan Burke’s Harry Rigby, a “finder,” in the case of Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor, or define themselves primarily in terms of a different job, such as Quirke, a pathologist, or a former job, such as Pat Coyne, who has been dismissed from the gardaí. In contrast, the fictional American private eyes that serve as models for the contemporary Irish ones insist on their professional-
ism. They often mention their credentials in the course of their narratives, and they define themselves almost entirely by their jobs. Indeed, Dashiell Hammett’s character the Continental Op is so closely identified with the job that he remains nameless throughout the series.
He’s too shabby and disreputable and hustle-a-buck ordinary to make the grade at your charity balls and grand-a-plate dinners, and that suits him fine, because that way, he can get on with what he’s been hired to do. That’s the only point of him really, like a dog that’s been bred to work, he can’t relax by sitting around. He’s got to be prying and poking and stirring things up until somehow, out falls the truth, or enough of it to make a difference.Later, a police investigator named Geraghty from the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation repeatedly challenges Ed about his right to work in Ireland because he is not licensed there (as a matter of fact, Ireland has no licensing system for investigators). Geraghty mocks the very idea of a private eye by using the clichés of the hardboiled genre: “A private dick, is it? Fast cars and bourbon chasers and a forty-five, what? Is that the way it is, Ed, shoot-outs and double-crosses and dames?” (WKB 231). Geraghty is crude and unsympathetic, but his straight-from-the-pages-of-American-fiction description of Ed’s life is not far off as a summary of The Wrong Kind of Blood.
Each of Declan Hughes’s first four Ed Loy books roots its plot in a ripped-
from-the-headlines issue of Celtic Tiger Ireland: property development illegalities in The Wrong Kind of Blood, child sexual abuse and human trafficking in The Color of Blood, abuse in the industrial schools in The Dying Breed (2008) (published in the United States as The Price of Blood), and gangland activity by former paramilitaries in All the Dead Voices (2009). The fifth—and thus far, the last—Loy novel, City of Lost Girls (2010), links Los Angeles and Dublin through a psychopathic serial killer involved in the film industry.
Hughes seems to have deliberately chosen the American hardboiled for the style of his crime novels, with Hammett and Chandler his literary models. Even his detective’s name—a loy is a long, narrow spade used in Ireland, perhaps most famously as the putative murder instrument in Synge’s Playboy—seems a nod to Hammett’s Sam Spade of The Maltese Falcon (1930). The second Loy novel, The Color of Blood, is an extended riff on Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep: it features a wealthy, deeply troubled family in which the patriarch—now dead, in the Hughes novel—is extremely powerful; spectacularly damaged adult children; a mentally ill character who acts out violently; a plot that turns on blackmail through pornographic photographs; connections with a crime syndicate; a helpful cop who is frustrated by his (possibly crooked) superiors and also by the detective’s behavior, and so on. The most direct reference to Chandler, though, is in Ed Loy’s extended descriptions of the Howard family home, which in many particulars, such as faux-medieval stained glass, strongly resembles Sternwood’s house in The Big Sleep. Rowan House, Loy tells us, “looked like a Victorian merchant’s idea of a baronial castle” (CB 63).
In common with earlier hardboiled writers, Hughes devises plots that repeatedly demonstrate the close connections between the wealthy and powerful and the criminal underclass. In his novels, the wealthy are willing to do anything, including kill their own children, to hold onto their money, power, and cherished respectability. The Ed Loy novels, like their American hardboiled antecedents, insist on the utter corruption of the official power structure. The detective stands alone against that corruption, and endures as well as metes out tremendous violence—and always loses in the end. Or to be more precise, he generally solves the cases on which he is working, but the criminals are not brought to justice, nor is there a sense that Ed’s intervention has made any lasting difference in straightening out the crookedness of the world. Like Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Ed is a romantic, a knight errant to whom his cases are more than jobs. When a client turns out to be unworthy of Ed’s services, Loy chooses his own idea of justice over completing his work. As he says in the opening sentence of the second novel, “The last case I worked, I found a sixteen-year-old girl for her father; when she told me what he had done to her, I let her stay lost” (CB 3).
Also like Hammett’s and Chandler’s detectives, Ed Loy is essentially a loner. Hughes, unlike his American models, sketches in his background to explain that solitariness: his father disappeared when Ed was a teen (Ed finds out in the first novel that the father was murdered) and Ed caught his mother with another man. Ed, we are told, went to the United States and did not return to Ireland until after his mother’s death. In the first novel, he is back in Dublin for his mother’s funeral but fully intends to return to California—significantly, Hammett and Chandler territory—which he thinks of as a place that lets one start over, “be whoever you wanted to be,” unlike Dublin, “where everyone was someone’s brother or cousin or ex-girlfriend and no one would give you a straight answer, where my da knew your da and yours knew mine, where the past was always waiting around the next corner to ambush you” (WKB 115). Complicating this view of California is the fact that he has left behind there an ex-wife whom he still loves, and with whom he suffered through the death of their small daughter—although Ed learned he was not her biological father when a transfusion was needed and his wife said his blood would not be a match. Loy can no longer in fact be “whoever [he] wanted to be” in either Dublin or California.
Like Ed Loy, none of the other protagonists in these Irish hardboiled novels is entirely separate from family entanglements—although each is a loner, either by temperament or circumstances, or else distanced from his family in opposition to his own desires. Hamilton’s Pat Coyne desperately wants to be a regular family man and even sees himself as a “father figure to the city of Dublin” (H 1), but he does not understand his wife, Carmen. By the start of the second novel, Sad Bastard, they are separated, with their two daughters living with Carmen in the family house and Coyne living with his son, Jimmy—a drug-using petty criminal—in a depressing flat. Declan Burke’s Harry Rigby’s parents are dead; his brother Gonzo is a psychopathic criminal who Harry ends up shooting in Eight Ball Boogie (2003) to protect his son, who is actually that brother’s son by Harry’s wife and Gonzo’s ex-girlfriend. Bruen’s Jack Taylor frequently thinks about his dead father, who like Jack himself was the target of Jack’s deeply cruel, deeply pious mother’s endless wrath. As Bruen’s series opens Jack and his mother are estranged, with the mother appearing every once in a while to castigate Jack or sending her emissary, the local parish priest, to do so for her. She dies in one of the early novels unmourned by Jack. Jack is briefly married during the course of the series, but that marriage, and every other romantic relationship he has, is eventually destroyed by his drinking and drug use. Benjamin Black’s Quirke has an exceptionally complicated set of family relationships: an adoptive father who rescued him from a nightmarish orphanage and then evidently favored him above his biological son; an impossible, enduring love for that adoptive brother’s wife; and a biological daughter who has been raised by her uncle to think that Quirke is her uncle.
Quirke was married but his wife—the sister of the woman he really loves—died. Unsurprisingly, his romantic relationships, too, tend to be limited and ultimately unhappy. Quirke’s work as a pathologist seems chosen to fit with his personality: he is more comfortable with the dead and with silence than he is with most relationships with living human beings. This litany of damage and loss in the lives of the Irish detectives is one of the subgenre’s most notable departures from the model of American hardboiled, in which the protagonists tend to be atomized and immune to human involvement—although the end point may be similar, with solitary detectives alienated from most ordinary human relationships.
The detectives’ own family situations, troubled as they are, are frequently less disastrous than those they encounter during the course of their investigations. The few intact families the novels include are usually held together by lies and secrets or bound to each other by violence and criminality, or both. For instance, Ed Loy’s chief nemeses in Hughes’s series are gangster brothers, the Halligans, who are both terrifyingly violent and deeply loyal to each other. In the pantheon of disturbed and disturbing families in the Irish hardboiled, one of the most intriguing is the Hamilton family in Declan Burke’s second Harry Rigby book, Slaughter’s Hound (2012). The upper-class Hamilton family includes Harry’s friend Finn, Finn’s adoptive mother, and his now-dead adoptive father, as well as a young woman who believes herself to be Finn’s also-adopted sister but is in fact his child with his mother. As an adolescent, Finn supposedly witnessed his father’s suicide but we learn that Finn actually murdered him. Finn and his mother’s ex-lover are involved in a scam in which they copy original paintings and then sell both the copy and the original. Their criminal enterprise creates an even tighter bond than their familial relationships. That tangled family story is only slightly messier than Harry’s own; significantly, he and Finn met when they shared a cell in a hospital for the criminally insane, to which Harry was remanded after killing his brother at the end of the first Rigby book, Eight Ball Boogie.
Burke cleaves closely to his American models in several ways. Harry’s narration of the two novels, for instance, evokes the spare, cool, ironic, self-deprecating voice of Chandler’s Marlowe novels, most directly when Harry reminds us of his injuries while downplaying them, as in this moment from Eight Ball Boogie:
I dug the Maalox out of my pocket, poured the contents down a drain, threw the empty bottle into the river. I was going to need all the pain I could get, just to keep me sane. The bottle bobbed away towards the bend and the bridge, heading for the open sea. I bade it bon voyage and told it to watch out for icebergs.Burke takes no chance that we might we miss Harry’s connection to his American predecessors. Harry evokes them directly several times, as when he describes a thug as looking “like Bogey spoofing on Edward G. Robinson” (EBB 246). Most jarring in twenty-first century novels are Harry’s extremely biased attitudes toward women and gay men, attitudes that the novels’ plots reinforce by positioning women and gay men as major threats to society. In the Rigby books, all women are dangerous, either directly (a property developer’s wife, Helen Conway, in Eight Ball Boogie, turns out to be the head of a criminal enterprise) or through their sexual appeal, as was the case with Harry’s wife—which leads men into trouble, as in the American hardboiled tradition of the spiderwoman. The most prominent gay character in the Rigby novels is Detective-Inspector Galway, who Harry variously describes as a “fruit” (EBB 100), a “pederast” (EBB 226), “the fag” (EBB 226, 227), and “the fairy” (EBB 270). When Harry first sees Galway—and well before he knows Galway is crooked—he describes him as “dapper” and concludes, “he was a fruit, a banana, bent for sure but so yellow about it people didn’t really notice” (EBB 100). That the “bent” guard turns out to be “a cop bent all ways up” (EBB 233) implies that Harry’s prejudice against gay men is rooted in some kind of truth, that they are major threats to social order.
Notable, too, is Harry’s use of “yellow” to describe Galway’s gayness, as it calls to mind the “Yellow Peril” discourse that so many of Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op stories call upon, in which the “yellow” character is the brains behind a criminal enterprise and is often also described as not heterosexual, somehow less “masculine” than the white detective. This use of sexist, racist, and heterosexist patterns from the American hardboiled in Irish novels written nearly a century later not only ties the contemporary novels to their models, but also limits their critique of twenty-first-century Irish social problems, by suggesting that the solution would be a return to a time when women and gay men stayed in their subordinate places. And yet, the logic breaks down quickly. It is precisely those old social roles and systems of power that led to the social and political mess that the Rigby novels tackle.
In Burke’s novels, all members of the official criminal justice system are crooked, no one can be trusted, and no one is safe. The moral bankruptcy of the old authorities is abetted by the general public’s lack of interest in setting things right. The politician at the center of the property scandal Harry exposes during the course of Eight Ball Boogie will probably suffer no damage to his image or career. He may not be re-elected, but he has a bright future in corporate directorships. Even Brady, the guard in Eight Ball Boogie with whom Harry eventually collaborates to catch Galway, the crooked cop who for many years has been stealing drugs and selling them, is motivated less by a righteous commitment to justice than he is by his own aggrieved sense that he should be making more money and enjoying a higher rank. Brady is interested in exposing Galway primarily because Galway stands in the way of his own promotion. Further, Brady is willing to subvert the law in order to get what he wants; he does not participate in the drug ring, but he does falsify evidence, including planting a gun on Galway and making sure it carries Galway’s fingerprints instead of Harry’s. Brady’s bitterness about the sorry state of Irish society and the bankruptcy of traditional authority is meant to explain his disregard for the law; he feels justified in using any tactic to bring down the bad guys and evidently is untroubled by his own criminal behavior. He tells Harry a story about his saving the life of a junkie who shortly thereafter killed an old woman while robbing her, concluding,
That’s what’s wrong with this fucking hole of a country, no one gives a fuck, someone else’ll take care of it. Then the shit comes down and you come looking to me, expecting me to give a fuck. Well, I give a fuck, Rigby. Fuck you, that’s the fuck I give. I’m ten years in this gig, haven’t moved up since the junkie offed the granny. Galway’s job’ll pay the bills and a whole lot more besides. All you give me is a pain in the hole. (EBB 238)Burke’s two Harry Rigby books push the hardboiled to its limits, taking every familiar convention to its logical extreme endpoint. The violence that is so much a part of the American hardboiled manifests in Burke’s series as extreme violence, often beyond what even Mickey Spillane concocted. Harry is the target of much of that violence, but he also metes it out in ways that seem only tenuously related to hardboiled ideology. His violence is more akin to a sort of frenzied, hopeless vengeance. Burke’s detective does not prove his own superior toughness through enduring and dispensing violent assaults; instead, he demonstrates his own impotence. Indeed, Slaughter’s Hound ends with Harry evidently bleeding to death, away from any possible help. In a 2013 interview, Burke asserted that he wanted the series to employ the “classic tropes of 1930s stuff” in an Irish setting; this ending seems far away indeed from the classic hardboiled ending.
These contradictions in the Irish hardboiled help to explain why most of the series stall out. The lives and attitudes of the Irish detectives become bleaker and bleaker, with everything eventually stripped away. Their loved ones, including children, die senseless deaths in most of these series—a fate the American hard-boiled avoided by not allowing the detectives any loved ones. There is no place for the detectives, or their series, to go. Benjamin Black may choose to keep the Quirke series alive, as it is lodged in the past—but it is hard to see what he might find worth saving in the Irishness the series has depicted as irredeemable. Ken Bruen has continued to write beyond the logical ending of the Jack Taylor series in Sanctuary. But Bruen project has devolved, in the later books. into an outright attack on everything Irish: gone are the earlier books’ attempts at redefinition, at scuttling the corrupt institutions, but holding out the possibility that the new Irishness might be more inclusive and less harshly judgmental than its bygone variants. Indeed, the devil himself appears in Ireland in a late Bruen novel and no one but Jack Taylor seems to notice: in Bruen’s universe, Satan is not much worse than everyone else and fits right in to Irish society. In the Irish hardboiled thus far, redefining Irishness proves to be impossible. It remains an empty category, and will continue to be in this genre until the Irish writers forswear their fealty to the American hardboiled.
This paper was first published in the New Hibernia Review ©