Why Irish crime fiction is in murderously good health

If Irish crime fiction has a signal crime it is corruption – public and private, spiritual and secular

A familiar stereotype about crime novels is that they rely on a conservative sense of closure that restores order to the narrative but distorts images of the world in the process.

Irish crime fiction, however, is sharply attuned to the meanings that emerge from disjunction and contradiction, which in turn become the levers that move these books through insightful and empathetic narratives. The best Irish crime fiction’s profound uncertainty preserves the ambiguities and ambivalences of a complex society, in the process stretching habitual assumptions about the genre’s boundaries and its society’s contexts.

One marker of this uncertainty is Irish crime fiction’s promiscuous blurring of genre boundaries, which prevents the reader from relying too much on the comforting certainty of familiar cues.

This uncertainty also takes the form of unanswered questions, of conclusions that offer limited answers, as characters at best make a contingent peace with the sense that the world is profoundly less stable and certain than they might hope.

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Such uncertainty is not a temporary problem to be resolved by the novel’s end, but something rather more fundamental through which Irish crime fiction can reflect the experience of unresolved lives.

Though Irish crime fiction emerges from notable antecedents – the long Irish Gothic tradition, and work by Erskine Childers, Eilís Dillon, and others – only in recent decades has Ireland seen a critical mass of authors working in the genre, with tremendous creative energy.

The sheer volume of that energy, together with the real diversity in approach – from psychological thrillers (Liz Nugent) to police procedurals (Brian McGilloway), from supernatural mysteries (Tana French) to legal thrillers (Steve Cavanagh), from serial killer novels (Arlene Hunt) to historical mysteries (Kevin McCarthy) – has made Irish crime fiction something of a moving target. No single study can pretend to paint a comprehensive portrait of this abundance, and I would never make that claim.

Instead, my book, Irish Crime Fiction – to borrow an obvious image – traces the chalk outline.

The best crime novels exemplify the genre's unique capacity for astringent examinations of its societies

Explanations of the genre's growth have often emphasised the boom and crash, or the "peace dividend" that followed the Good Friday and St Andrew's agreements. Much Irish crime fiction has addressed those forces: the darker intersections of church and State in novels by Jo Spain and Clair McGowan, emigrants and immigrants in Andrew Nugent's and Chris Binchy's novels, or global capital's plots in Alan Glynn's and Adrian McKinty's novels.

Fundamental crises

Some of the most acute explorations of these forces have been by women, whose novels have been increasingly central to the genre. Thanks to these writers, one of the clear strengths of Irish crime fiction is the wealth not only of women authors, but of credibly complex female protagonists.

Through protagonists such as Alex Barclay's Ren Bryce, Jane Casey's Maeve Kerrigan, and Arlene Hunt's Sarah Kenny, these novels navigate insistent debates about representations of violence against and by women – violence which intersects with Irish women's particular experiences, not least in the depiction of institutions such as the Magdalene laundries and mother and baby homes.

In these ways, Irish crime writers have sustained significant engagements with the island’s most intimate, fundamental crises. The best of their novels exemplify the genre’s unique capacity for astringent examinations of its societies.

Still, it would be misleading to suggest Irish crime fiction's value consists mainly in its documentation of rapid, at times bewildering social and cultural change. Some of the most successful writers – including John Connolly, Alex Barclay, William Ryan, and Jane Casey – have set their novels abroad, often with few if any overt Irish matters. Their work exemplifies how, without dealing in the familiar markers of Irish literature, Irish writing can nonetheless bring new and distinctive contributions to crime fiction.

If Irish crime fiction has a signal crime, at home or abroad, it is corruption, public and private, spiritual and secular. This encompasses all manner of crimes from the Celtic Tiger and the Troubles, not least the corruption around property – land and homes, planning processes and development – that has marked so much contemporary Irish public life. Other, less literal instances of corruption testify to Gothic and supernatural fiction’s deep influence, another path by which an abiding uncertainty makes its presence felt.

While addressing such corruptions, a novel such as Declan Hughes's The Wrong Kind of Blood (2006) treats its characters as much more than ingredients in an allegory about the nation losing its sense of itself. Instead, Hughes's novel places its contexts and its characters in a sustained dialogue with each other, from which emerges a much deeper portrait of family, of community, and of the corruptions they foment and by which they are undermined.

Irish crime novels are at their best both popular and excellent – when they directly address Irish society, and when they take the genre far afield – but scholars have until recently largely failed to give them much sustained attention. Irish Crime Fiction stems from the conviction that Irish literary studies needs to examine a wider range of these books, which increasingly occupy Irish readers and writers.

Dr Brian Cliff, assistant professor in the school of English at Trinity College Dublin, is the author of Irish Crime Fiction (Palgrave), which is being launched by John Connolly at Gutter Bookshop, Cow’s Lane, Temple Bar, Dublin on Wednesday, July 25th at 6.30pm