What have we got here then? The mystery of Irish crime writing


DESPITE THE prevalence of a certain type of Golden Age-indebted crime fiction, largely British in origin, that uses rural landscapes as its backdrop, crime fiction functions best in urban settings. It was GK Chesterton who commented that crime fiction was unique in expressing “some sense of the poetry of modern (which is to say urban) life”.

For Chesterton, the city functioned as a text that required interpretation, a mystery in itself: “There is no stone in the street and no brick in the wall that is not actually a deliberate symbol – a message from some man, as much as it were a telegram or postcard. The narrowest street possesses, in every crook and twist of its intention, the soul of the man who built it, perhaps long in the grave.” ( A Defence of Detective Stories, published in The Defendant, 1901).

For Chesterton, crime fiction is inextricable from, and actively concerned with, city life. It requires not only its architectural complexity and historical layering, but the energy that derives from the random collisions of people, the endless social interactions between both strangers and acquaintances.

Even the village settings of Agatha Christie’s novels (the “Mayhem Parva school” of writing, as Colin Watson termed it in Snobbery With Violence(1971), his critical history of the genre) require an enormous degree of interconnectedness between individuals for the plots to function. Christie’s villages are less microcosms and more enclosed spaces into which too many traumatised people have been crammed, like survivors of some dreadful natural disaster.

Irish society, which was primarily rural by nature, was unlikely to accommodate the conventions of contemporary crime fiction without a struggle, despite its fascination with the secrets and foibles of others, itself the subject of the Brinsley MacNamara book, The Valley of the Squinting Windows, the hostile reaction to which led its author to leave his home county of Westmeath and not return.

In a sense, John B Keane’s play The Field(1965) is an example of the form that an Irish rural crime story might take, a study in which the core question is less “who?” than “why?”, where the central mystery is the connection of a people to a landscape, so that land becomes not merely a convenient stage upon which to play out the drama but a thing inseparable from the nature of the protagonists.

Something of our national inferiority complex may well have played a part here too. Perhaps readers simply did not view Ireland as “interesting” or “kinetic” enough to comfortably accommodate the drama of crime fiction, however sedate the form. (A similar outlook bedevilled the development of our native film industry for many years, and it remains a battle to get Irish filmgoers to support home-grown product.)

In this, we have a certain amount in common with Australia, another country that struggled to establish its own cultural identity in the aftermath of direct British rule, and suffered from a similar crisis of confidence as a consequence. It, too, now boasts a burgeoning homegrown crime tradition, and Australian crime authors, including Peter Temple and Michael Robotham, have begun to attract a readership beyond their own shores.


The Golden Age of crime fiction, generally taken as the period between the two world wars, produced two very different traditions: the British tradition, often referred to, somewhat unfairly, as “cosy”, and the American, referred to, somewhat less unfairly, as “hard-boiled”. Each springs from a very distinct process of engagement with the concept of law and order and the perceived nature of society. The British tradition is motivated primarily by a trust in the Establishment; a belief that the propensity for criminal behaviour is a part of the human character but also, if acted upon, an aberration; and a desire for order as much as, if not more than, the rule of law, for the two are, of course, not the same. While there is an affection for the amateur eccentric as detective (Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, Dorothy L Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey), such figures are only superficially outsiders while remaining essentially Establishment to their core.

They may occasionally show up the police as well-meaning bumblers, but at heart they maintain a faith in those responsible for protecting society and enforcing the law. In the end, the criminal is handed over the tender care of the police in the certainty that justice, having prevailed, will now be seen to be done in a court of law.

The American tradition has no such faith. It’s no coincidence that the spiritual home of the hard-boiled crime novel is California, a state mired in corruption during the period under discussion. With the police regarded, not without justification, as being bought and paid for by the wealthy and the privileged, the poor and the vulnerable had no recourse to the law in the event that they were victimised further.

In that case they required someone standing outside the established forces of law and order to act on their behalf, and so begins the private eye novel. Actually the figure of the private eye is, in turn, indebted to the lone cowboy of the western tradition, facing down oppressors because to do otherwise would make him complicit in their crimes.

The point at which those two traditions finally begin to blend into each other is probably the publication of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest(1929), which is essentially a western in nice suits, although Hammett had earlier dabbled in the western with the neo-noir story Corkscrew(1925).

In Red Harvest, two rival gangs are set against each other by a lone, anonymous operative, until eventually they eliminate themselves. Red Harvest subsequently became one of the sources of inspiration for Kurosawa’s Yojimbo(1961), along with Hammett’s later novel The Glass Key(1931), which in turn influenced the Coen Brothers’ 1990 gangster movie Miller’s Crossing, Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars(1964), and Walter Hill’s Last Man Standing(1996), so Red Harvesthas variously taken cinematic form as a samurai movie, a western, and a gangster film. While police procedurals have since found purchase in the American tradition, most memorably in the form of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinctseries, albeit with something of the tolerance for the maverick that is a part of the private eye tradition, the private eye novel has struggled to make a successful case for itself in the UK.

While that may be due, to some degree, to the sense that gun-toting PIs don’t travel well across the Atlantic, I would suggest that it is also a consequence of a deeply held belief that the pursuit of justice is one best entrusted to the police, and an absence of the frontier spirit of the United States that places such a premium on independence and individual action.

That belief may be shaken by reports of real life police corruption, brutality, and incompetence, but it seems such revelations may simply cause readers to turn to the more idealised police officers of crime fiction with renewed vigour.

After all, crime fiction is less about the world as it is than the world as it should be. As William Gaddis wrote in his novel JR (1976): “Justice? – you get justice in the next world, in this world, you have the law.”

Crime fiction refuses to accept that this should be the case, and in doing so it reflects the desire of its readers for a more just society. Even at its darkest it is, essentially, hopeful by nature.

All of which brings us back to Ireland, and the question of which of these two opposing outlooks might best have suited an Irish crime novel. The answer, I think, is neither: the Irish police had yet to establish themselves in the mind of the populace, and after centuries of British rule our faith in the Establishment and its values was minimal.

If we accept the view that crime fiction is not merely engaged with the society from which it comes but is representative of it, then the nascent Irish Republic – secretive, defensive, intensely parochial, and unforgiving of its critics – gave Irish crime fiction little with which to work.

John Banville’s 21st-century crime novels, written under the pseudonym Benjamin Black, tackle the bleak Ireland of the 1950s but are informed by revelations that have only recently been formally examined: the cruelty of the Magdalene laundries and the collusion between Church and State that allowed the systematic physical and sexual abuse of children and young women to continue for decades. Such novels would have been difficult to write as contemporary fiction, and impossible to publish.

John Connolly is the author of the Charlie Parker series of mystery novels.

This is an extract from Down These Green Streets: Irish Crime Writing in the 21st Century,edited by Declan Burke, published by Liberties Press