Why Irish crime writers are dying to get out of Dublin


A new generation of Irish crime writers differ from their forebears in one crucial way – they are reluctant to set their novels in Ireland. But why?

THEY’RE QUITE fond of Irish crime novels over at the LA Times. Eoin Colfer is better known for his young adult novels featuring Artemis Fowl, but it’s Plugged, his debut adult crime novel, that is currently shortlisted for the LA Times Crime/Mystery Book of the Year.

In 2011, two of that category’s five shortlisted novels were written by Irish authors, Tana French and Stuart Neville; in 2010, Neville won the award for his debut novel, The Twelve.

In a nutshell, those LA Times nominations reflect the wider popularity and critical acclaim Irish crime writers are receiving in the US. John Connolly and Ken Bruen blazed a trail that was followed by French and Neville, Alan Glynn, Alex Barclay, Benjamin Black, Declan Hughes, Arlene Hunt, and more.

They in turn paved the way for a new generation of Irish crime writers, one that differs from its forerunners in one crucial way: its reluctance to set its novels in Ireland.

Eoin Colfer’s Plugged, for example, is set in New Jersey. “Originally,” says Colfer, “Plugged was set in Dublin but it just never felt right to me, perhaps because noir novels are traditionally set in the US, or the fish I had created was not far enough out of water. When I moved it to New Jersey the whole thing clicked in my head and that’s about as much as I can explain it. It felt right. Daniel was an Irish guy out of his depth in America. As his adopted countrymen might say, it had the right vibe.”

In one sense it’s surprising that any Irish writers set their crime novels in Ireland. After all, the most successful of the Irish crime writers, both critically and commercially, is John Connolly, who has never set any of his novels here.

“As a young writer,” Connolly wrote in his essay contribution to 2011’s Down These Green Streets: Irish Crime Writing in the 21st Century, “I could think of few subjects with which I wanted to engage less than the nature of Irishness, or the Irish situation . . . Had I set my first novel, Every Dead Thing (1999), in Dublin, it would have become, by default, an Irish novel, not a crime novel.”

Ken Bruen began his career writing crime titles set in London. “I didn’t want to write about Ireland until we got mean streets,” he said. “We sure got ‘em now.” Bruen is best known for his Galway-based Jack Taylor series of novels, but in recent times he has set a number of novels in the US, among them American Skin (2006) and Tower (2009), a novel co-written with Reed Farrel Coleman.

An Irish setting for Alex Barclay’s debut Darkhouse (2005), quickly gave way to American settings for her subsequent novels. Alan Glynn’s Winterland (2009) was set in Dublin, but its follow-up Bloodland (2011) offers a globe-trotting narrative incorporating three continents.

Jane Casey sets her stories in her adopted London, as does Aifric Campbell. Conor Fitzgerald sets his police procedurals in Rome.

William Ryan writes about Stalin-era Russia. Meanwhile, authors who have previously set their books in Ireland are now spreading their wings.

Arlene Hunt’s current title The Chosen (2011) is set in the US, while Ava McCarthy’s Hide Me (2011) is set in the Basque region.

There are Irish authors who are happy to set their stories at home, of course. But the word filtering down from the higher echelons of the big publishing houses in the US and the UK is that Ireland isn’t a “sexy” enough setting to sustain a commercially successful series. “I used to think like that until Artemis Fowl took off,” says Colfer. “The first Artemis book was set in a single house in Co Dublin, so that kind of blew the ‘non-sexy Ireland’ theory out of the water for me.”

As always, every writer will have his or her unique motivation, and that includes setting. “I visited Istanbul 10 times with my Turkish wife, Zeynep, before starting The Istanbul Puzzle,” says debutant author Laurence O’Bryan. “I was genuinely enthralled by the city.” “Irish people travel more these days,” he continues. “We set up homes in every corner of the world. Our writing is, I believe, more likely to reflect our new cosmopolitan nature than in the past.”

That’s an apt description of the process by which Newry native Claire McGowan came to set her debut novel in London. “When I had the idea for The Fall, I was living in the area of London concerned – Kentish Town, then Hampstead – and the plot was very much rooted in the juxtaposition of different backgrounds and wealth levels there, which I’d never experienced before and found really fascinating,” she says. “It wasn’t a conscious decision – the story that came to me was just bound up in that particular area.” Was she ever tempted to set her novel in Northern Ireland? “Not in this case,” she says, “because I had a specific story to tell and it wouldn’t have worked in Ireland. But I think Ireland is a goldmine for a crime writer. I’m writing something new at the moment which is set in Ireland, in the Border regions where I come from, and it’s endlessly fascinating to write about religion, sectarianism, superstition and dark episodes in the past. You couldn’t ask for a more fertile setting.”

O’Bryan, who is planning a Dublin outing for his series of Puzzle novels, agrees. “We are a brand, a despairing emigrant’s dream and a deadly murderous reality all folded into one. The question for writers, however, is how to construct something fresh and appealing from all this. Ireland’s myths are changing around us. The greasy desire to conform, as fear tightens its grip, is delivered daily to the doormat of almost every home here. Any crime writer seeking to chronicle this will have to move fast to catch it all.”

The whole debate, Eoin Colfer believes, is just another example of genre snobbery. “I think it is slightly unfair that crime writers get singled out for this kind of oblique criticism when our literary stars have been setting novels in America for years. Off the top of my head I can think of 10 major award winners whose books were all about the Irish experience in America, but if a crime writer does the same thing then it’s all about market forces. Don’t get me started.”