Criminally undervalued


We always take great pride in our writers – except for our crime writers, who, despite being feted abroad, get little recognition here. Strange, given that they seem to be the ones tackling the burning issues, writes DECLAN BURKE

THE ASSASSINATION in 1986 of the Swedish prime minister Olaf Palme sent shockwaves through Sweden in particular and Scandinavia in general. One consequence was the emergence of an indigenous crime fiction, a phenomenon taken very seriously by cultural commentators in Sweden and Norway. Today, writers such as Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbø are household names across the world.

The then Irish minister for justice, Kevin O’Higgins, was assassinated on his way to Mass in July, 1927. In 1928, Liam O’Flaherty published The Assassin, a political thriller set in Dublin about the murder of a prominent politician. Its staccato rhythms, spare style and bleak tone, the psychological study of a disturbed criminal mind, was practically a blueprint for the hard-boiled crime writing produced in the following years by American writers Dashiell Hammett and James M Cain, yet Ireland has had to wait until the past decade for a comparable outpouring of crime writing.

It’s possible that the murder of Veronica Guerin provided the impetus, but despite its critical and popular success in the US, the UK, France and Germany, Irish crime fiction is still not taken seriously in Ireland. In the debate on whether Irish authors are engaging with modern Ireland, kick-started by Julian Gough and continued in these pages by Eileen Battersby and Joseph O’Connor, Irish crime writing has barely registered.

And while Irish crime novels do get reviewed domestically, there has been precious little by way of joined-up thinking on the phenomenon by Irish cultural commentators.

One notable exception was Fintan O’Toole’s piece in The Irish Timeslate last year. O’Toole explored the reasons why Irish crime writing has mushroomed over the past decade, suggesting that “the dislocations of rapid social and technological change experienced in boomtime Ireland” created a context in which crime fiction was not only plausible but virtually inevitable. “Irish-set crime writing has not merely begun to blossom,” said O’Toole, “but has become arguably the nearest thing we have to a realist literature adequate to capturing the nature of contemporary society.” The qualifying word “arguably” is redundant. Making a distinction between crime and literary fiction in Ireland today is equally redundant, unless it’s to suggest that contemporary Irish crime authors are producing a canon of work that’s equally important as that of their literary counterparts.

The crucial issue is one of relevance. Recent Irish crime novels have explored organ trafficking, police corruption, sex crimes covered up by the Catholic Church, the impact of social deprivation on urban communities, the post-boom economic fall-out, the cosy relationship between bankers, developers and politicians, and the poisonous effect of ex-paramilitaries discarded in the wake of the Belfast Agreement.

But relevance in this context isn’t simply confined to subject matter. John Banville and his crime writing alter-ego Benjamin Black, as Banville claimed last year, are artist and artisan, respectively. Banville, of course, is notoriously mischievous in his public pronouncements, and if that statement was simply a personal one in terms of the relative craft he expends on either form, then no one is entitled to quibble. If, however, the literary establishment’s automatic assumption is that the literary novel is art while the crime novel is simply an “entertainment”, as Graham Greene described his thrillers, then we are in dire need of a re-evaluation of what a body of literature is supposed to achieve. Is art sufficient unto itself? Should function not be intrinsic? Most importantly of all, shouldn’t art resonate with the culture from which it springs? Is there not an onus on the writer to be as timely and provocative as possible? There is a danger, of course, to surfing the zeitgeist. The genre writer’s rush to print, the yearly grind of producing novel to deadline, can often result in prose of uneven quality, in plots and characterisations that are implausible at best. That said, the cream of the current generation setting their crime novels in Ireland, writers such as Ken Bruen, Declan Hughes, Tana French, Alan Glynn, Gene Kerrigan, Arlene Hunt, Stuart Neville and Brian McGilloway, are feted in the US and the UK. Meanwhile, their popularity at home has resulted in the Irish Book Awards creating a category specifically for Irish crime fiction.

Unfortunately, and despite the increased profile the latter development affords, the special category in the Irish Book Awards will prove a millstone around the genre’s neck. Certainly it’s not helpful in terms of critical appraisal, suggesting as it does that Irish crime novels are unable to compete on a level playing field. Ultimately it means that crime novels, regardless of their seriousness of intent and execution, are not considered important works. This is to disregard the writers’ courage in grappling with the issues of the day while they are still running their course, as Liam O’Flaherty did with The Assassin, and Colin Bateman did in mocking Belfast paramilitaries of all stripes in Divorcing Jack, as Ken Bruen did in calling the Catholic Church to account in Priest, and so on.

At the very least, Irish crime writers deserve a parity of esteem for putting themselves on the line, for exploring the more controversial aspects of our culture without the safety-net of a decade or two in which to ponder the possible ramifications. They deserve thoughtful consideration for being bold enough to blend the traditions of their chosen genre with recent Irish history in a form that is as accessible as it is entertaining. These things matter, or should, because any self-respecting novel is more interested in raising pertinent questions than in providing belated answers, in wrestling with current dilemmas than in offering revisionist interpretations of historical events.

There is an image beloved of crime writers. It is that of the bewildered, hungover detective staring back from the mirror as he ponders his next move.

It is not a pretty image, but it is the face of Ireland today: punch drunk, bemused, bloodied and very nearly bowed. We are where we are, as Brian Cowen might say. And crime writers are busy finding out where we’re at.

Declan Burke is a journalist and writer. He hosts a blog dedicated to Irish crime fiction at Crime Always Pays