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.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Yep, It’s Another ‘Dear Genre’ Letter

I got in touch with Adrian McKinty (right) earlier in the week, asking, for the purposes of a newspaper feature, why he believes there’s such an explosion in Irish crime fiction right now. Being McKinty, he answered the question asked, and then followed it up with a mini-essay on why crime fiction whups every other genre’s metaphorical ass. To wit:

Why is crime fiction so much more interesting than romance, horror, sci-fi and increasingly literary fiction? Here’s my attempt at an answer:

“When I used to work at Barnes and Noble I was punished for minor infractions of the corporate code by being put on the romance fiction information desk. This is a genre written by women of a certain age for women of a certain age. Most of the books resemble that second division musical Brigadoon: dodgy accents, dodgy historicism, dodgy plots. Once you meet the central characters in a romance novel you know how the book is going to finish. A long tease, a few obstacles, happy (or increasingly) unhappy ending.
  “Romance novels are often written by people who don’t understand that what makes Jane Austen good is her story arcs. There are some romanciers who relish wit and ironic humour but these, alas, are the exceptions rather than the rule – you can usually tell the ironic ones by their brilliantly outlandish covers. (Chick-lit is a sub genre of romance novel, with more sex and worse jokes.)

“I have never read a horror novel because I don’t like to be scared and also because of their daunting size. I’ve seen cinder blocks with less heft than most horror fiction texts. I’ve read some of Stephen King’s non-horror books, though. Apparently he wrote a lot of them while drunk in the early mornings. I hope that’s the case. I remember one sentence that had more clauses than a Kris Kringle convention.

“Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein. When I was about 12 I read everything these guys wrote. Asimov alone published 400 books, so that’s no mean feat. Early science fiction wasn’t interested in multi-dimensional characters or exacting prose. The idea was everything. Nothing wrong with that, but sixty years later, pretty much all the ideas have been used or recycled. JG Ballard, Ursula Le Guin, Philip K. Dick and to some extent William Gibson tried to take science fiction on an inward journey but their path has not been followed by the majority of the genre’s novelists. Space opera, time travel, the future and exoticism still dominate. Character, psychology and prose are not as relevant as the hook, the central premise, the pitch. Sci-Fi today leaves me uninvolved and largely unmoved, but I’d be happy to renew my love if anyone has any suggestions.
  “A sub genre of sci-fi is fantasy. I’m not going to dwell on those books. I grew out of fantasy when I was 13 or 14. The best in the field seems to be Stephen Donaldson, who I worshipped as a kid. My students rave about Robert Jordan and maybe he’s good, I don’t know. If you like that sort of thing good ’elf to ya.

Literary Fiction
“Yeah, don’t get all snooty, you’re a genre too. Lit-fic’s problems are social and philosophical. First the social: there’s a clubby atmosphere in the New York and London literary worlds that pushes depressingly unreadable novels down our throats. Lit-fic people review each other a lot and they all seem to have gone to the same schools, live together in Islington or Brooklyn Heights, and have the same upper-class vaguely lefty view point and tax bracket. They’re all basically nice middle-class white people (although they occasionally let in a dishy foreigner) writing / whingeing about the problems of nice middle class white people.
  Philosophically, literary types are ill at ease. The conventional novel is too dull for them but Joyce already did everything you could with the form, so what can they do? Their books try too hard, shouting “Look at me!” instead of focusing on what the reader wants: good stories and good characters. Their prose is a distillation of what Cyril Connolly called the ‘mandarin style,’: either rip off Henry James or rip off Evelyn Waugh. For me Salman Rushdie, David Mitchell, David Park, Ronan Bennett and Zadie Smith are exceptions to this sweeping and probably completely incorrect generalisation. In the U.S., Cormac McCarthy has kept his distance from Brooklyn and that’s why he’s the best writer in country (after Kansas-dwelling James Ellroy).

Crime Fiction
“So what makes crime fiction so great? Its diversity for one thing. If Peter Rozovsky’s website Detective Beyond Borders is to be believed, every country in the world seems to have a flourishing crime fiction genre. Do you want Icelandic private eyes? We’ve got ’em. Are you after American wheelchair-bound lesbian detectives? We can do that too. Even within the regions crime writing can be your guide. The thinly populated west of Ireland for example: Want to know about Sligo? Declan Burke’s your man. A few miles down the coast to Galway and you’re in Ken Bruen country.
  But it’s not just the diversity; I think something bigger is going on as well. Nineteenth century Russia, Elizabethan London, Periclean Athens – all produced exemplars of high art because the artists had to work within the boundaries of harsh censorship. Drawing inside the box allowed authors to become more creative and more interesting. Obviously repressive censorship is bad too, but greater freedom doesn’t necessarily lead to greater artistic triumphs. In today’s London, New York, Paris etc., you can say whatever you like but little of it is worth listening to. Crime writers work within certain conventions and are allowed to be social commentators, psychological explorers and innovators as long as they stick to the basic rules of the crime or mystery story. The box helps the writer and the reader. You’re not going to get many crime novels that forget that plot is important or that characters have to be real and that dialogue has to sound authentic.
  “Crime writers don’t worry about the views of literary London or New York, they don’t feel they have to conform to any house style or clichéd way of rebellion. Crime fiction cuts at the edge of prose, story telling and character. It is the genre for exploring contemporary mores and, I think, the best literary mode for understanding our crazy mixed up world.
  “So, to sum up: like the young Cassius Clay, crime fiction is the prettiest, nimblest and deftest of the Olympians, easily overpowering the lumbering horror and sci-fi athletes, dodging that lady with the romance handbag, and knocking cold that weepy young fogey from Kensington whose father never told him he loved him. Except nobody’s father told them they loved them. Get over it mate, stop gurning and go read THE COLD SIX THOUSAND instead.” – Adrian McKinty


adrian mckinty said...

Oops, meant to say "what makes Jane Austen great ISN'T her story arcs." (Funny how two letters and an apostrophe can bollix your whole argument.) By which I mean, Ms. Austen's genius is in her dialogue, description, metaphor, wit - the words, dammit, the words. Which is why the film or TV adaptations will never be a hair as good, even with the radiant Keira Knightley or the blooming Gwyneth Paltrow.


Sea said...

Well, like Ali, he's boastful beyond all reason, but also like Ali at least his subject can deliver the punch promised. However, what prompted me to comment was this: "they don't feel they have to conform to any house style or clichéd way of rebellion." Having read more than my fair share of crime novels, which I do love, I have to say go away with your bad self. It's just as much a cliched house style as any of the others he rubbished. What makes a GREAT crime novel is when it breaks out of that house style, subverts it, rises above it, does something more with it than just plod along. But then again that is what makes all novels of any genre great, and where he is being unfair in his braggadocio.

And if you really want to know why there is an explosion in Irish crime writers, look no further to the success of Irish chick lit. For where the chicks go, the dicks follow, if you pardon my terrible pun. Irish chick lit struck gold, and brought new readers to the table; looking to captialise on that and strike lucky twice, publishers are turning to the Irish for their new crime trend. Be grateful and thankful for those chick lit writers who stuck a fluffy mule in the door for you. For many of their readers will also be yours. If you're lucky.

John McFetridge said...

"... focusing on what the reader wants: good stories and good characters."

Pretty much sums it up.

adrian mckinty said...


I'm glad I didn't go to bed. Of course you're right. All the great things in my life anyway are because of the love of good women. You'll notice I didnt say that I dont read romance/chick lit novels, like I did for horror fiction. I wonder how many other men are slipping PS I Love You into brown bags or sneaking into Mama Mia?

Thanks for the left jab,


Declan Burke said...

Sea - Nice theory, and I reckon there's something in it ... but for the most part, Irish crime writers have to break it abroad before being taken seriously by publishers here, rather than vice versa, which is how it is with chick lit. Cheers, Dec

Sea said...

Men may not being sneaking into Mamma Mia (as opposed to be dragged) but you can bet that women are openly reading your novels and thousands more crime fiction, and unlike you read both. (ha how is that for a right hook). Actually your book has been in my Amazon basket for far too long, so I must now pick up a copy as I have more to catch up on!

It just seemed to me that as crime fiction is the new trend in publishing - many more writers especially foreign ones are getting air - that a savvy publisher would be looking towards Ireland to hop on the trend given the success of Irish chick lit. I think Ken Bruen probably also helped - though in the states wouldn't he be more of a niche writer than he is seen here? I suppose I have got your question backwards, as I was not thinking specifically of the Irish market (or exclusively) with regards to the current trend towards (foreign) crime fiction and how Irish writers are set to capitalise from it on the back of the Chick Lit wave, but more broadly.

Granted there are more obscure Irish chick lit writers than there are international hits but it was those few Irish international hits that broke it open for all the obscure local ones. Likewise now the trend turns towards crime fiction, and the vultures looking for that elusive hit are willing to gamble on the Irish table. This means happy days for the plethora of obscure writers and a stroke of luck for the one who hits it big.

PS I read the Truth Commissioner (a different thread here) and it was very good. Still the all time best Troubles crime fiction to my mind is The Psalm Killer by Chris Petit. There used to be a series of detective novels that featured an RUC man, but I cannot for the life of me recall the writer's name at the moment. I always wished he had written more.

Corey Wilde said...

Good God, you mean chick lit now has sub-niches, e.g. Irish chick lit? I think my mind just boggled.

Beautifully expressed opinion, Mr. McKinty, and so perfectly right, too.

Anonymous said...

Well expressed and fun to read,but strawmannish nonetheless.
I do think much of what you said about crime fiction does indeed hold true in some cases,but if I were to apply the techniques you use to dissect other genres to crime fiction,I could do away with it just as quickly.
Is Agatha Christie an example of the attention to character, psychology and prose when compared with Sturgeon,Leiber or Bradbury? does the umpteenth serial-killer novel by Kathy Reichs or Patricia Cornwell offer a more piquant example of contemporary social commentary then,say,Cory Doctorow's "Little Brother"?
There are many wonderful authors in contemporary sci-fi:Kelly Link,Ted Chiang,Cory Doctorow,China Mieville,Jo Walton,Nancy Kress,Maureen McHugh...just as unknown outside the field as many really good but not bestselling crime writers.
With all due respect,I'll take "The Haunting of Hill House",indeed everything written by Shirley Jackson,over "The Unquiet" every day.
Bottomline is,quality is not genre-specific,but we all have genre biases,and tend to read accordingly.I myself read mostly either crime or sci-fi.
As Jo Walton (a sci-fi author who,among other things,has written two wonderful crime novels set in an alternate history fascist Britain)has said: "If you want me to read Literary,it better be pretty fucking brilliant. Science-fiction,I'll take competent".


Gerard Brennan said...

Adrian - Fair play to ye, man. Stirring it up as usual. Great article.

Dec - "but for the most part, Irish crime writers have to break it abroad before being taken seriously by publishers here," How feckin' true.


cfr said...

Surely, from the publishers' standpoint you can't have a sudden explosion and "Irish crime fiction to order" without the writers existing. Such writers have the urge to write and most are avid readers of the genre before they start. Thus, surely, the trend starts elsewhere and as a set of embryos before the lovely babies pop out. Publishers will nurture the attractive (and potentially lucrative), babies, but they are not renowned for producing or developing the embryos. All that is independent and starts elsewhere, IMHO.

Re Marco's comments: dear Marco, a lot of the ground breaking and outside-the-box crime fiction is not to be found in the bestsellers' lists. By its inherent nature, surely, it's emerging stuff? Let's give Cornwell her due. While her umpteenth serial killer novel may not provide much in the way of social commentary - and I gave up reading her about three books ago, after being hopeful for approx. another three - her first novel Post Mortem was a landmark, original and the start of a new sub-genre: the forensic crime fiction novel. Both she and readers of the genre were lucky that she was recognised then as having both originality and great potential (in the lottery of publisher response), so she didn't start slow, she didn't even start as a mid-lister; she had the weight of a marketing budget behind her and PR worthy of that first novel.

We live in a curious world and the credit crunch is also now having an impact. For the last few years, authors with little marketing support - if any - from their publishers, have been dropped when mid-listers. Now, every week, it seems, some company in the publishing world is closing down. Bad news for the employees and also bad news for the authors. A further crunch has arrived in the publishing sector.

This doesn't get noted very much, but I like to focus, in the main, on new and emerging writers on my blog (mainly for the UK). Why? Because I think some of the best work lies outside that bestselling list. It tests boundaries, it treats and entralls. It seeks originality. A lot of today's routine bestsellers started out on the sidelines; for me, the beauty is finding a new gem.

Re Irish crime fiction: I admit I am slow to behold. But I did read an Andrew Nugent via Dec's blog that I thought superb. The author gave me another perspective on Nigerians, something that working in financial services and investigating the www won't allow you.

Good on the Irish for coming through and making their mark, by whatever route.

I have a sack of Irish crime novels in the TBR piles - yes I do - and it seems that now is the time to reorganise the piles. (The piles of books that is, not haemorrhoids...) Did I get that spelling right? You know which word. Just checked it. Yes, I did. Now back to books...

Anonymous said...

I agree with you,but the point is that the fact that a lot of the ground breaking and outside-the-box fiction is not to be found in the bestsellers' lists is true for any genre.
None of the sf-nal authors I've cited are really bestsellers.
I do think that Octavia Butler,for instance,has written wonderful novels which look at themes like justice,retribution and compassion, religion and violence, fundamentalism,gender and race relations,the conflict between tradition and change,etc. in ways both original and powerful.
Yet she's virtually unknown outside the genre,and all her novel taken together probably didn't sell a tenth of the first book of Stephanie Meyer,who writes highschool romance with vampires.
That's why I said his argument was "strawmannish".If he limits his analysis to Stephen King for horror and a smattering of holy cows for SF,why shouldn't someone else do the same for crime fiction and only consider Agatha Christie,Conan Doyle and a few names on the Bestseller's lists?


Declan Burke said...

Hi Sea - Sorry for the delay in replying ... A good point you're making, and John Connolly has also made a similar point in response to the question I asked Adrian, as did Gene Kerrigan, broadly speaking. I suppose I'm resistant to the equivalence of chick lit and crime fic on the basis that I think crime fic is a more relevant and important kind of storytelling ... but then, I would say that, wouldn't I? And I'm coming at the topic from a writing point of view ... From a reading point of view, I'll read anything, genre or non-genre, fiction or otherwise, so long as it's written well.

Ken Bruen is far better known and appreciated in the States than he is here, by the way. He's a demi-god in some quarters over there.

Marco - To be fair, I think Adrian's take on the various genres was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, and I think the salient line in the piece is this: "It is the genre for exploring contemporary mores and, I think, the best literary mode for understanding our crazy mixed up world." I don't know if that's why people like to read it so much, but a good writer can write in any style or genre, and you'd have to ask yourself why so many terrific writers choose to write crime when they could be writing anything else they wanted, John Banville being the latest example ... Cheers, Dec

Sea said...


I would be resistant to comparing chick lit and crime fiction too for similar reasons but I am more resistant to the knee-jerk snobbishness that dismisses so many readers (and writers) as if they are completely dumb, solely on the basis of "I like crime fiction better therefore it is better". Our gang is better than your gang, nyah, nyah. While an entertaining piece as has been pointed out all the same negatives being applied to other genres could just as easily be applied to crime fiction. You have the good and bad in every. But as you point out it is a bit of well he would wouldn't he, so my comments aren't entirely fair, it is a bit of fun.

Why do people read what they do? That is what the genres are for; they appeal to the different personalities or desires. I like the puzzles of crime fiction; it is a bonus when the characters and setting and plot is well done. Setting is an important thing for me as I choose a lot of crime fiction based on where I want to go that particular day. That is where some of the contemporary stuff is at its best, the way it allows you to immerse yourself into another place. Robert Wilson's books do that for me; Walter Mosley is another. I discovered Eugenio Fuentes on the back of Arturo Perez Reverte who so superbly creates his Spanish world, because I wanted to stay there so much.

Back to the topic, I think the shift from Chick Lit to Crime Fiction is in keeping with the times. Chick Lit is perfect when the times are good and the economy frivolous - probably why it did so well in Ireland! It was an indulgence just like the handbags and shoes. But with the downturn in the economy, crime fiction is better suited. It's darker, more uncertain, turbulent, scary. But what is most reassuring of all is that it's usually solved by the end.

So I think it's sort of natural that there is a turn from Chick lit to crime fiction now, there is a sense to it. Happy days for crime writers - not so much for everyone else?!

Declan Burke said...

Hi Sea -

"But with the downturn in the economy, crime fiction is better suited. It's darker, more uncertain, turbulent, scary. But what is most reassuring of all is that it's usually solved by the end."

That certainly makes sense to me, but to be fair, what appeals to me about certain writers is that they were pointing out the darker corners while the boom was at its height. Wondering if all the excess cash was going where it should, and where it was coming from. Gene Kerrigan is excellent on that, in his fiction and non-fiction. Maybe now that the boom is over, as you say, people are seeking out something more appropriately dark, albeit with a happy ending ... But they're seeking out and finding something that's been there for quite some time now. Maybe it's the zeitgeist and the publishers that are coming to meet Irish crime writing, rather than vice versa ...? Cheers, Dec

Sea said...

Hi Dec,

Well, crime fiction is a constant, and like all trends that ebb and flow, the jaded hipster claims that it was at it best before it became "popular". Call it zeitgeist, or an explosion, we're now riding the wave of the trend which has yet to peak. By the time it does I am sure y'all be as sick of the ubiquitous Irish crime writer as you are of Irish chick lit purveyors.

I do think yes that the crime writers were always there, but you will see more getting published than previously, their visibility will increase in response to the demand.

It's the same as the chick lit trend, really, those writers will still be there, unpublished, when the trend is at its ebb; at the end of the day, it is the writing that counts, that is what endures and rises above any genre or trend.

adrian mckinty said...

Sea, Dec,

One thing though about Banville, Rushdie, Chabon etc. writing crime novels is that they would never have ventured into the territory in the first place had not the zeitgeist begun to see crime books not as disposable pulp fiction but actually as interesting and important. When the Library of America started bringing out Chandler, Hammett, Cain and Highsmith in annotated quality hardbacks it was a sign that the critical community had embraced those writers and no longer despised them. The rising tide began to float the boats of the whole genre.

I think literary fiction has suffered by becoming too middle class and too whiney and Dick Lit with its sentimental talk of football games and dads and how "our music used to have tunes" bores the hell out of me. I think Hornby et all may be seen as embarassing period piece writers in a few years.

Good crime fiction uses the tropes that everybody knows and uses them to explore inner space in a way no other genre can really match.


Sea said...


Now you're talking. I completely agree with your take on literary fiction, which would have been my normal staple years ago but I just can't find the books that would interest me these days the way they used to. Ugh, stop sending me messages of how to PCify my life according to whatever the middle class angst of the day dictates! I just want to read a crackin good book that takes me out of my skin and transports me somewhere else for a while. I don't need hit on the head with any mildly disguised santicmonious crap. Thank you.

This is why when I go to the bookstore or I graze at Amazon, it's thrillers and mysteries that catch my eye. There's no preaching, and if there is any it's cynical, jaded, rogue, told with a sly wink. Not the PC brigade, and to tell the truth nothing kills a good crime novel quicker than someone turning all PC with it. Crime novels are the gruge and grunge of life - and why wouldn't they be, because they are centred around the worst of our actions, murder, madness, and contrasted with the best of us (in the thrillers where it is usually the somewhat flawed but grounded down to earth (wo)man who emerges as the hero).

I do think crime novels are under-rated or overlooked in terms of their commentary value on modern life. Some of the best and sharpest observations on real life in this age are in crime novels. But perhaps I am biased because that is what I am reading.

Have enjoyed the banter with you all. As you can see I LOVE crime fiction, so it is kind of a kick for me to be able to discuss it with people I have read or will read. It's been a secret passion of mine for a few years now with no one to share it, as no one knows what I am talking about. Thanks for the craic.