Cracking it on the dark side


Alex Barclay is a writer of smart, taut thrillers, one of a reasonably rare breed of such that fit snugly into the genre as if tailor-made for it, writes TONY CLAYTON-LEA

A CITY-CENTRE Dublin hotel, Saturday morning, July 31st. A slim, attractive woman in a silver-blue top with strategically-placed zips, tight jeans and black, heeled boots sits down in a low sofa and starts to speak. She will spill only as many beans as she wants to, and will, occasionally, be as difficult to determine as the stain on a nearby rug.

Half conundrum, full beauty, Irish crime writer and former journalist Alex Barclay is currently sitting atop various bestseller lists with her latest novel, Time of Death. Her fourth book in a thriller-writing career that commenced six years ago with Darkhousehas clearly benefitted from her former role as a journalist. Discipline with words, awareness of deadlines, structure, research, and knowing how important beginnings, middles and ends are to stories have filtered down into a writing style that is as trim as Barclay herself.

She won’t give too much of herself away, either, which also comes from her former life of interviewing people and hearing too much personal guff; Barclay sticks to the facts, clear and simple.

“I didn’t even think about writing books in advance,” she says of her departure from journalism and entry into books. “A lot of people who work in journalism or any form of writing will have a plan that at some point they will write a book. I didn’t. I just remember being in Galway, and the story came to me for Darkhouse. Actually, not so much the story as the character and the opening scene. I wandered into a coffee shop, sat down and started handwriting it. Which is unusual for me, as I don’t hand-write anything, not even letters. But that day I didn’t have a laptop, I had just a notebook, and I wrote down the opening few paragraphs for Darkhouse.”

Those opening paragraphs formed the backbone of the prologue: a police chase through New York; at stake, a little girl who had been abducted. Barclay was a journalist at the time, so she’d work on writing chapters on Sunday mornings. “I completed three chapters, sent them off to an agent, and they got back saying they liked what they had read and could I send the rest. Which is when I said, oops, I haven’t written it. I thought I’d blown it, but they said they’d wait until I finished the book. About seven months later I sent it in, and Harper Collins signed me.”

From the publication of Darkhousein 2005. Barclay has established herself as a writer of smart, taut thrillers, one of a reasonably rare breed of such that fit snugly into the genre as if tailor-made for it. She admits to a history of loving the “dark side” of thriller writing, having read it avidly since she was a teenager, and citing the likes of John Sandford, Patricia Cornwell, Tami Hoag and Jeffrey Deaver as, if not influences, then certainly touchstones of a kind. Unusually for a writer of crime fiction, she has yet to read the founding fathers of hard-boiled (Dashiell Hammett, James M Cain, Raymond Chandler), yet, tellingly, she lists Jim Thompson (perhaps the most raw and harrowing of pulp fiction writers and the so-called “dimestore Dostoyevsky”) as one of her all-time favourites.

Barclay, however, rightly bristles at the thought of some critics applying a blanket denial of the inherent merit of thrillers as they would to chick-lit. “Certain people will write off chick-lit and crime writing, and I’m sorry, but these people are wrong because it comes down to the author, the writing, the storyline, the dialogue. It drives me mad to see such a blanket disregard for one genre. It makes no sense, and it’s something certain people seem to take very personally, as if it’s all so terribly offensive. It isn’t, loads of people love it.”

Barclay is smart to create main characters (and lesser ones, too) that are credible enough. A case in point is her FBI agent Ren Bryce, bipolar heroine of Time of Deathand previous novel, Blood Runs Cold(Bryce will also appear in Barclay’s next book, the sequel to Time of Death). Bryce is equal parts smart cookie and crumbling biscuit, a woman who is calm, cool and collected, but who is also on the edge of losing the plot (which, incidentally, hasn’t happened yet in Barclay’s books).

“I didn’t want to create a female heroine that was in any way pushy or had to prove herself all the time as a female in a man’s world,” she says. “I hate reading that kind of stuff. I write crime, and yes it’s male dominated, but at no point did I feel I had to prove myself at all. And I wanted to have a character that was ballsy but not in your face, and not treated any differently than anyone else. I can’t stand the over-compensation thing when it comes to women in crime novels. There’s no need for it, and it isn’t realistic.”

Realism? It’s the you-couldn’t-make-it-up blessing and curse of crime fiction, from descriptions of deaths to implausibility of dialogue, from the credibility of plotting to the outlandish nature of criminality. Crime fiction is also a wholly over-subscribed genre where stock familiarity and formula (for example, the ridiculously prolific John Sandford) tend to rule. When Barclay started on this new phase of her working life, did she ever fear she’d be viewed as merely another thriller- writer?

“I never looked at it that way. I just wanted to tell a story, and I had absolutely no sense of whether anyone would like it or not, or how it was going to be perceived. But when I got the responses to Darkhousefrom various different publishers, via the agent, I was blown away, I had no objectivity.

“And it’s the same with every book – you write it and send it in hoping that they’ll be happy with it. I can’t say I’m particularly business-minded about these things. I just hoped that the books would be read and continue to be read, which seems to be happening.”

Time of Death, by Alex Barclay, is published by Harper Collins, and is available from bookshops nationwide

The new breed of Irish women thriller writers

Tana French

Growing up in Ireland, Italy, the US and Africa, French has lived in Dublin for over 20 years. Her first novel, In The Woods, won various Best First Novel awards in the thriller genre. Her latest book, Faithful Place, has been described by the New York Timescritic Janet Maslin as “expertly rendered, gripping, utterly realistic, richly idiomatic, ever twisting”.

Arlene Hunt

Hunt has written six crime novels to date. Her latest is the just published Blood Money, which Bernice Harrison of this paper said is “zinging with authenticity. The clever plot is carried by a cast of deftly-drawn characters, who are all as recognisable as the Dublin locations Hunt puts them in. A skilled crime writer, able to build and sustain suspense but never at the expense of credibility.”

Niamh O’Connor

O’Connor’s debut novel, If I Never See You Again, is invested with the kind of authenticity that comes from her work. Fellow thriller- writer Declan Hughes said the book is, “gutsy and stylish, with a tough mind and a heart of gold. A real page-turner”.

Jane Casey

Born and raised in Dublin, Casey lives and works in London, where she is married to a barrister. Her debut novel, The Missing, was published earlier this year. A review on had this to say about it: “Casey’s debut reveals a innate ability to keep the reader reading: The Missingresolutely refuses to be put down”.