Killer instinct: a golden age of Irish crime fiction

Irish crime writing is booming. Ahead of a weekend festival, some of the writers who have their fingerprints all over this crime wave discuss the reasons behind it

 

Once upon a time, crime writers in Ireland were few and far between. These days it’s not so much a case of “whodunnit”, or even “who’s doing it”, as “they’re all at it”.

A festival of Irish crime writing, being held at Trinity College Dublin this weekend, will celebrate – and examine – the recent blossoming of the genre when it brings together 17 of our best- known practitioners for a series of panel discussions.

What is most striking about the festival programme is the sheer range of writing styles, topics and approaches it represents. A session on “crime and contemporary Ireland” will see former playwright Declan Hughes join the one-time investigative journalist Gene Kerrigan on a panel that also features Brian McGilloway, author of an atmospheric detective series set on the Border in Co Donegal, and Louise Phillips, who writes disturbing psychological thrillers inspired by real-life crimes.

A discussion of “Irish crime fiction abroad”, meanwhile, will feature Conor Fitzgerald, whose Alec Blume books are set in Rome; Jane Casey, who writes about an Irish female detective, Maeve Kerrigan, who works at the Met in London; and Alan Glynn, whose debut fantasy The Dark Fields was filmed as Limitless with Bradley Cooper and Robert de Niro and became something of a global phenomenon.

“It’s a kind of coming of age for Irish crime fiction,” says John Connolly, who created the hugely successful Charlie Parker series and helped to put the festival together. “We were spoiled for choice,” he adds. “There are writers who should be on panels but aren’t because we couldn’t fit them on.”


Our man in Boston
They did, however, manage to make space for one special guest: the American crime writer Michael Connelly, who will talk to his almost-namesake John – and launch his latest thriller, The Gods of Guilt – in a public interview on Saturday evening. “We thought there needed to be a linchpin Irish-American writer to anchor the whole festival,” says Connolly. “We wanted a point of connection with the larger world of crime fiction, and he was the first person on the list.”

How Irish is Michael Connelly, strictly speaking? On the phone from Los Angeles, where his long-running Harry Bosch series is set, the author is as forthright as his famously blunt detective creation. “Yeah, I have complete Irish roots, and I went to Catholic schools and all of that,” he says.

“But, you know, I don’t consider myself an Irish crime writer or an American crime writer, I consider myself a storyteller. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that if a character is interesting to the reader, it doesn’t really matter where that character is or where the writer is. That kind of story crosses all oceans and all boundaries.”

One topic that is sure to crop up at the festival is: why has this explosion in Irish crime writing happened at this particular time? “There’s a temptation to link the boom in Irish crime fiction to the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger,” says Dr Brian Cliff, festival organiser and director of the Irish studies degree at Trinity.

“There’s obviously something to that, if only because crime fiction is so drawn to looking at class and the interaction between different layers of society. This moment that we’re in now is giving it a kind of focus. But John Connolly’s work, Eoin McNamee’s work, Colin Bateman’s work predates the Celtic Tiger. And while Alan Glynn is writing about the Celtic Tiger and its aftermath, he’s doing so in a way that demonstrates an underlying understanding that our experience with all of that is not unique to us.

“It’s just a local example of global circumstances. These stories resonate in larger ways.”

Nor does the Celtic Tiger theory account for the growth in historical crime writing in Ireland.

“Kevin McCarthy, Michael Russell and Conor Brady are not writing about boom and bust,” says Brian Cliff. “Their work is a way of getting at what’s preoccupying us as a society, whether that’s in the short term or the long term.”


The Brady bunch
One of the speakers on the festival’s historical fiction panel, Conor Brady – a former editor of this newspaper – has just published his second novel, The Eloquence of the Dead. As a newcomer to the crime-fiction fraternity, he is heartened by the diversity of the current crop of crime writers, who, he says, come in “both genders and all sorts of age categories”.

In particular, he says, we have some terrific young Irish women writers – among them Louise Phillips and Arlene Hunt – who are “very conscious of the dreadful nature of some of the things that happen in modern Irish society and draw their inspiration from that”.

For an Irish crime writer, the focus on history makes sense. We inherited our justice system from our history of British rule, so one way to critique that system is to go back and look at how it might have actually operated in the past. Historical crime novels, as Brady points out, are well-placed to pick up on the theme of people living conflicted lives in a conflicted society.

In the case of his own detective, Joe Swallow, working in Dublin in 1887, this conflict plays out as the old tensions between his loyalties to his nationality and religion, on the one hand, and his oath to serve his masters in Dublin Castle.

Whether historical or contemporary, Irish crime novels tend to fall into the category of police procedural. Apart from Declan Hughes’s Ed Loy there are still very few maverick Irish private eyes in the style of classic American gumshoes Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade. Why is that?

“We don’t have a tradition of private investigation here,” suggests John Connolly, who chose to set his Charlie Parker series in Maine. “The roots of the PI story are primarily American, and come out of a time when the forces of law and justice would not stand up for people who were poor or in any way vulnerable within society because they had been bought and paid for by a corrupt elite.

“If you were outside of that elite and you had been hurt in some way, you couldn’t turn to the police. You had to go outside.”

Which is, in a way, what Connolly did. His debut novel, Every Dead Thing, was published in 1999; his 12th Charlie Parker thriller, The Wolf in Winter, will be out in April – but he has never set a novel in Ireland. Does he think of himself as an Irish crime writer?

“That’s a really interesting question,” he says. “If I want to wriggle around it a little bit, I’d say that I’m writing crime fiction and I bring something of my Irishness to it. But I never was interested in writing about the nature of Irishness.”


The barriers come down
One factor in the rise of Irish crime writing is the increased fluidity within and between genres, which has been a hallmark of all recent fiction. In Ireland, there was a time when literary fiction and crime fiction inhabited different universes.

It’s all very different now, with writers from both sides of the fence mixing happily on library shelves and at literary festivals – not to mention that one of our most highly regarded literary novelists, John Banville, is also surfing the crime wave with his soon-to-be-televised Benjamin Black novels.

“It’s not as though crime doesn’t happen in literary fiction,” says Cliff. “If you look at The Butcher Boy or The Book of Evidence, it’s there.” If anyone is stuck in the old way of looking at the literary world, Cliff adds, it’s certain academic critics.

“Genre fiction is often glibly criticised as flat compared to literary fiction, but in fact, much of what happens in a crime novel is built around a really powerful sense of empathy. That’s what motivates many of these detective protagonists, whether it’s empathy with the victim or an intuitive understanding of the person they’re hunting.

“For that empathy to work at all there has to be some real investment in character, so I think there’s a depth there, which critics often don’t see. The really short answer is, they’re wrong. And it’s their loss.”


Irish Crime Fiction: A Festival is at Trinity College Dublin tomorrow and Saturday. Most events are free but ticketed; the Michael Connelly event costs €6. To book, visit irishcrimefiction.blogspot.ie

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