By Cathy Brown
When asked why he chose to set his first crime novel in the US, Irish writer John Connolly said, ‘Because in Ireland everybody would’ve known who done it within days.’ Exaggeration aside, in the pre-Celtic Tiger landscape of Ireland, this may well have been the case, but it certainly isn’t nowadays as Irish crime fiction appears to be in its prime and becoming a genre of its own to rival our Scandinavian counterparts.
Val McDermid, in a recent Radio 4 programme coined the phrase ‘Emerald Noir’ – but whatever you call it, Celtic Crime or Hibernian Homicide is now gaining worldwide attention. Compared to back in the 1980s when you could possibly name Colin Bateman or Eoin McNamee as famous Irish crime writers, nowadays you have writers such as Tana French, Ken Bruen, Declan Hughes, Declan Burke, Jane Casey and Stuart Neville all jostling for the crime spotlight
Is there a reason for this surge in crime writing from such a small island?
A lot of things are critical in a good crime novel. A sympathetic protagonist, a victim, an intriguing crime. But place also plays a lead role in the best of the genre. The setting of a good crime novel is the place that has been thrown into disorder and its characteristics – climate, culture, and politics – can become a crucial element in the story that is being played out.
In terms of place, Ireland as a whole has gone through some incredible changes in recent years. There has been the incredible boom of the Celtic Tiger years and the equally incredible bust that followed. The Good Friday Agreement and the installation of government at Stormont changed the landscape and mind set of Northern Ireland indelibly, taking away the old problems of ongoing daily terrorism, but bringing with it a rise in new types of crime – gangsters and drug wars.
What Ireland couldn’t offer pre- Celtic Tiger, pre -Stormont was anonymity. The country was too small, too parochial with a lack of big cities. With the economic growth of the boom all that changed and suddenly cities were booming and immigration was on the rise. It was possible to be a stranger in Ireland, to go unnoticed. With the crash came a growing distrust in politicians and those in power and coupled with a lack of faith in the Catholic Church, the old hierarchies were being disassembled and the lines between good and bad were being blurred even more. Society was no longer a hierarchy of authority with the priests and the politicians at the top. The gangsters were as likely to be in expensive offices as on the streets. Society had been shaken up and that makes for great subject matter for crime writers.
It makes sense that during the ‘Troubles’ crime fiction would be unpopular. Why read about something as an escape when it is being played out right outside your window. The ceasefire brought with it shifting sensibilities. Once terrorists are now political leaders, prisoners were freed and a different kind of crime was able to flourish. In Stuart Neville’s striking novel The Twelve an ex-republican killer is literally haunted by the ghosts of those he killed and takes his revenge for their deaths, but the book is more than a revenge thriller, it is a deft examination of the political and social reality of a new Northern Ireland.
In some ways, crime fiction is often the most effective way of exploring a changing society. In an interview with the Guardian, crime master Henning Mankell said
Look at Medea: a woman murders her kids because she’s jealous of her husband. If that’s not a crime story, I don’t know what is. And if the ancient Greeks had had a police force, you can be damn sure a detective inspector would have had a part in Medea. Society and its contradictions become clear when you write about crime.
There has been a crime writing in the past in Ireland, particularly Liam O’Flaherty’s The Informer and the work of Patrick McGinley. More ‘literary’ writers such as Bernard MacLaverty with Cal and Brian Moore with Lies of Silence veered into crime territory, but always under the shadow of the ‘Troubles’. In the 90s Eoin McNamee’s Resurrection Man was a breakthrough and Colin Batemans Crossmaheart series, the most famous being Divorcing Jack, dealt with crime and terrorism through comedy.
What is interesting now is that there is no one particular style coming through with this new wave of Irish Crime Fiction. In The Twelve (aka The Ghosts of Belfast) Stuart Neville writes a kind of hard-boiled style with a lone protagonist avenging past wrongs. Tana French uses the police procedural (through her fictional Dublin Murder Squad) to explore issues of identity in a changing city and Arlene Hunt’s QuicK detective agency has echoes of Denis Lehane’s duo Kenzie and Gennaro. John Banville, writing as Benjamin Black, is interested in historic fiction, setting his stories in 1950s Dublin while Steve Kavanagh is mining the legal side of the crime world in his work which is garnering comparison with John Grisham. Liz Nugent is taking the literary world by storm with her psychological thrillers, Unravelling Oliver and Lying in Wait, that straddle the crime genre and make it on to the Richard and Judy Book Club.
The official ending of the ‘Troubles’ and the Rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger have marked a turning point in the crime genre in Ireland North and South as the villains in our society are now less obvious and the question of whose side you are on is less easy to answer.
What Michael Connolly says in his foreword to Down These Green Streets, a collection of writing on Irish Crime edited by Declan Burke, is that
These writers know the secret. That the examination of a crime is an examination of society. The form is simply the doorway we go through as we enter lives and worlds as fully realised as in any fiction, as we examine issues and societies and moral dilemmas that are important to all of us.
Those Scandinavians better watch their backs. The Irish are coming!
Cathy Brown is an Arts Programmer and Book Reviewer from Northern Ireland. She runs her blog www.746books.com which features book reviews and has a particular interest in contemporary Irish Literature. Cathy also writes for the review site, No More Workhorse (www.nomoreworkhorse.com) and Culture Northern Ireland and is a contributor to the Belfast Book Festival.