Trouble is Our Business: why Irish crime writers are a law unto themselves

What is most interesting about the boom in Irish crime writing is that the very absence of a domestic tradition has given Irish writers carte blanche to play with the genre

Crime fiction fans will likely recognise the title of Trouble is Our Business as a nod to Raymond Chandler, whose short story collection Trouble is My Business was published in 1950.

The homage will come as no surprise to anyone who has attended events featuring Irish crime writers over the last couple of decades. Asked to cite their literary influences, most Irish writers will reference early years spent reading Enid Blyton (the Famous Five and Secret Seven feature heavily, although I own to a particular fondness for the Adventure series – The Castle of Adventure, The Valley of Adventure, etc). Enid Blyton tends to give way to Agatha Christie, who in turn leads to those American bards of the hard-boiled: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald.

What’s significant there is that Irish writers drawn to the crime / mystery novel had very little by way of an Irish tradition to inspire them. There were outliers, such as Patrick McGinley’s seminal Bogmail (1978), but it wasn’t until the 1990s, and the arrival of the Celtic Tiger, that the Irish crime novel began to appear with any kind of regularity. As Fintan O’Toole put it in these pages in 2009: “Yet it is equally striking that in the last few years, Irish-set crime writing has not merely begun to blossom but has become arguably the nearest thing we have to a realist literature adequate to capturing the nature of contemporary society. Boomtime Ireland reproduced the social conditions that created crime fiction as a mass genre.”

That opportunity, plus the absence of a tradition, provides the subtext to the stories in Trouble is Our Business. The number of Irish authors writing crime fiction has dramatically increased over the last two decades; Irish authors have won many of the significant crime writing prizes in the US, the UK and Australia; the Irish Book Awards hosts a dedicated prize for crime fiction; and this year alone, over 60 titles were published by Irish crime authors. Trouble is Our Business, the first anthology of its kind, marks the coming of age of Irish crime fiction, offering 24 new stories by crime writers who have made a distinctive contribution to Irish crime writing over the last four decades.

What is most interesting about the boom in Irish crime writing, however, isn’t its prizes, or sales figures, or the sheer number of new authors penning crime / mystery novels; it’s that the very absence of a domestic tradition has given Irish writers carte blanche to play with the genre. There is a parallel to be drawn with the rise in Scandinavian crime fiction over the same time period, but where the Scandinavian writers have for the most part operated within relatively narrow parameters, Irish crime writers have taken the opportunity to explore and expand the sub-genres.

The conventional narrative forms are present and correct: the police procedural, the private eye novel, the psychological thriller, the domestic noir. But there are also fascinating variations, including John Connolly’s blend of private eye and the supernatural, Cora Harrison’s historical tales of Brehon law, Colin Bateman’s comic satires of paramilitary violence and Ken Bruen’s post-modern take on the private detective, to name but a few. There are novels of forensic investigation, serial killer novels, comedy capers, spy thrillers, urban noir, courtroom dramas. Conor Fitzgerald sets his novels in Rome; Alex Barclay’s Ren Bryce series is set in Denver; William Ryan’s Captain Korolev novels are set in Stalin’s Moscow. And on it goes, a richly diverse collection of narratives, settings, styles and forms, to the extent that it is virtually impossible to define what it is we mean when we say “Irish crime fiction”.

The aim of Trouble is Our Business is to celebrate Irish crime writers by acknowledging that spirit of diversity; to that end, rather than asking for a shorter version of the writers’ series characters or story types, we gave the writers a blank slate. The result, unsurprisingly, is a rattlebag of a collection, in which we find some stories which are conventional mystery and crime tales, some that mangle the tropes, some that bear only a glancing resemblance to normal crime fiction narratives, and some that aren’t crime stories at all.

Trouble is Our Business offers rather more than the traditional kind of collection of crime stories; but then, given the evolution of Irish crime fiction and that absence of an Irish tradition in the genre, a “traditional” collection would have been something of a fiction in itself. As Lee Child says in his Foreword: “The mutual agreement between writer and reader produces organic tales, going where they need to go, free of anxiety, free of nerves. It’s a glorious, spacious, permissive ritual, and long may it last.”

Declan Burke is a writer, journalist and editor. Trouble is Our Business: New Stories by Irish Crime Writers is published by New Island. John Curran reviews it in The Irish Times next Saturday

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