Tadhg Coakley: Why I wrote another thriller

As a male writer, describing violence against women, I have added responsibility

I never had a plan for my writing. I still don’t.

I guess my first book (The First Sunday in September, 2018) was an Irish sports novel because I always wanted to read one. I guess I wrote my book of personal essays revolving around sport (The Game, 2022) because I always wanted to read one. I definitely began writing my first crime novel, Whatever It Takes, in 2015 because I wanted to read a crime novel set in Cork with real Cork characters and voices. I didn’t have a plan to follow it with a sequel. But when the book was published by Mercier Press in 2020, I knew I wasn’t finished with the protagonist, Detective Garda Tim Collins.

Mainly I wanted to see what would become of him and the best way of finding that out would be to put him in new (and difficult) situations and expose him to new people – as well as exposing new people to him. I also wanted to surround him with new topographies and voices, because places form us as well as experiences.

Whatever It Takes is firmly set in the city of Cork, among its cadences, which mirror its rolling landscapes. Before He Kills Again (the sequel just out now) is partly set in the Independent Republic of West Cork. This is mainly because Collins is from there and I wanted to explore the themes of home and love in the book, and what they mean.


I also wanted to explore the geographical features of west Cork and how they reflect his character. I lived in Dunmanway for six months in 2020 and I grew to love the voices of the locals and their outlooks. I have known for some time that my books would be voice- and character-driven, rather than by plot.

I was greatly influenced by Henning Mankell’s essay How It Started, How it Finished and What Happened in Between where he says the “best and most fundamental crime stories were Classical Greek dramas. A tradition going back more than thousand years in time. A play like Medea, which is about a woman who murders her children because she is jealous of her husband, reflects human beings through the mirror of crime.”

Love and murder both create their own particular tensions and tension is the life blood of all art, let alone thrillers. I learned that from Claire Keegan in a workshop years ago.

Tension is what Raymond Chandler was referring to when he said: “when in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand”. It’s also what Anton Chekhov meant when he said: “If there’s a pistol on the wall above the fireplace in Act One, then it should be fired in Act Two.”

Tension is the sight of a gun, but not the shooting of it — that’s drama. Tension is the beforehand and the aftermath of transgression, which are far more affecting. Tension is the cowering of a woman in the dark as her drunken partner bangs the front door closed. Tension in thrillers often revolves around violence, which isn’t to everybody’s taste.

The main themes of Before He Kills Again are sexual and gender-based violence and how misogyny can be spread through social media. These are tough themes to write about but when I asked Roddy Doyle if the subject of child abuse was difficult to delve into in his novel Smile, he said no, that he was caught up in the technical difficulties of depicting it effectively. I kept that in mind when writing this novel.

Some of the technical difficulties of depicting sexual and gender-based violence have to do with respecting the victims. Yes, the heinous and life-destroying nature of the violence have to be shown, but not in a way that makes the act gratuitous or salacious, or the appearance that victims are ‘weak’. Who is stronger: the man who brutalises his partner or the partner who finds a way out and continues to live her life afterwards? And as a male writer, describing violence against women, I have added responsibility.

Whenever possible I leaned towards the foreshadowing of violence and its aftermath and kept the actual “live” depictions to the minimum. Yes, eventually the tension has to boil into drama sometime (Chekhov’s gun has to go off) , but not too often, and only when the narrative demands it. I hope I have found that balance in this book.

I also decided to put my detective into a series because I enjoy reading them so much. My deepest relationships with fictional characters and their locations include those with John Connolly’s Parker (Maine), Ian Rankin’s Rebus (Edinburgh), Karin Fossum’s Sejer (Norway), Kate Atkinson’s Brodie (UK), Fred Vargas’s Adamsberg (Paris), Terry Pratchett’s Vimes (Ankh-Morpork), Stieg Larsson’s Salander (Sweden) among many other crime series protagonists.

What all these series have in common is how their characters develop (unlike, as Mankell points out, James Bond). And how vivid their settings are, and how intertwined the settings are with their personalities. And how their voices speak to me. Most of these books are not whodunnits but whatsgoingtohappens and that’s what interests me most. Mainly what’s going to happen to the main characters, who I know and care about.

There is a bewildering spectrum of sub-genres of crime fiction these days and long may they last. From high-concept (Catherine Ryan Howard et al.) to domestic noir (Gillian Flynn et al.) and everything in between. The so-called cosy mysteries (Richard Osman et al.) are having another resurgence these days.

But in a way the terms genre and subgenre are reductive. I understand why libraries, booksellers, and publishers need them. And I know, too, that readers have their favourites and that’s okay, too. As long as we don’t look down on some because of any perceived superiority, it’s all good. All have their place on the bookshelf and there’s plenty of room there.

I also know that male protagonists and dark police procedurals are not flavour of the month right now, but I have to write what I have to write. I’m stuck with Collins and he’s stuck with me. And because I “flit” from non-fiction to fiction and to different genres, I’m a marketeer’s nightmare. But I don’t have a plan and I intend to stick to it.

Before He Kills Again (Mercier Press) by Tadhg Coakley is in bookshops now