From Chandler and the 'Playboy' to the contemporary crime wave

CULTURE SHOCK: MOST POTTED BIOGRAPHIES of Raymond Chandler will tell you that, in 1895, after his parents divorced, his mother…

CULTURE SHOCK:MOST POTTED BIOGRAPHIES of Raymond Chandler will tell you that, in 1895, after his parents divorced, his mother took him from Chicago, where he was born, to London, where he grew up. In fact, the boy and his mother went originally to her own place of birth – Waterford, where they lived uncomfortably on the fringes of respectable Protestant society. It was from there that Chandler went to London, where he was supported through his English public-school education by his uncle, the Waterford solicitor Ernest Thornton, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE

It is tempting to imagine what might have happened had Chandler stayed in his mother’s native city, and to fantasise about Philip Marlowe going boldly down Parnell Street and John’s Hill. But of course, Chandler would not have been Chandler, nor Marlowe Marlowe, if that had happened. Early 20th-century Ireland was not the place where great crime fiction could happen. And the reasons it couldn’t happen then are the reasons it may be happening now.

Crime stories thrive on a social condition that was emphatically absent in Ireland: anonymity. Without anonymity, there is no mystery. And in Ireland, mystery was impossible. The archetypal Irish murder drama of the early 20th century is Synge's The Playboy of the Western World, in which the "murderer" almost immediately announces his guilt, the crime is endlessly spoken about and re-enacted and even the "corpse" rises up to get in on the act. The comedy of the play, indeed, is that it is a murder mystery in reverse – the shocking revelation is that Christy did not in fact kill his Da.

And the archetypal late 20th-century Irish murder story is John B Keane's The Field. In Keane's narrative, everyone knows whodunit and why. The drama lies not in the unravelling of a mystery, not in the struggle to uncover the truth, but in the refusal of the community to act on what it knows. The problem posed by Irish crime is not, as in the classic detective story, the acquisition of knowledge, but the assumption of collective ignorance.

Crime fiction is a function of something Ireland didn't have until recently – large-scale cities. As long ago as 1805, William Wordsworth could write of London, in his long autobiographical poem The Prelude, "How often in the overflowing Streets/ Have I gone forward with the Crowd, and said/ Unto myself, the face of every one/ That passes by me is a mystery."

That mystery of unknown and perhaps unknowable faces is the material for crime fiction. The history of the genre is rooted in changing attitudes to the anxieties of anonymity. Walter Benjamin argued that while the “original social content of the crime story was the obliteration of the individual’s traces in the big-city crowd”, the genre went on to lift that veil of anonymity by showing how the individual (the culprit) could be rendered knowable through the traces left by his crime. Arguably, the ground subsequently shifted back again, as crime fiction became less confident that it could console us with the idea that everything could be traced and named by the heroic work of the detective.

It is striking that the most successful Irish crime writer, John Connolly, who began his career just a decade ago, felt it necessary to set his books in the US and to insert himself directly into the American detective tradition. Connolly presumably decided that Ireland, even in the Celtic Tiger years, was not the place for crime fiction. 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. As Denis Porter puts it in The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction, the explosion of crime fiction in 19th-century America was associated with rapid economic change: "Old agrarian America had given way to a new, fast evolving social and material environment, characterised by monopoly capitalism, unprecedented wealth especially for the few . . . and the progressive massification of everyday life." Sound familiar? Even more resonant is Porter's description of the background to the novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler – "urban blight, corrupt political machines, and de facto disenfranchisement of significant sections of the population through graft and influence-peddling". That fallen world is the universe of Declan Hughes's All the Dead Voices,of Gene Kerrigan's Dark Times in the City or of Alan Glynn's Winterland.

The dislocations of rapid social and technological change, experienced in boomtime Ireland, creates a sense of fragmentation in which everything has a sheen of mystery. Reality becomes a kind of jigsaw puzzle from which some key pieces seem to be missing. And at the same time, the cronyism and corruption of that same Ireland create a countervailing sense that everything is actually connected, that there is a pattern waiting to be discovered. The simultaneous existence of these two conditions is good for crime fiction.

If that were the whole story, however, what we’d be getting now would be simply a local version of the established international genre. That we’re getting something rather more interesting than that is suggested by two intriguing ways in which the best writing is inflected by older Irish traditions.

One is the way the end of the boom has actually made Irish crime writing better. Hughes, Glynn and Kerrigan are not just among the first Irish writers to register the collapse of the Celtic Tiger. They also draw strength as storytellers from that implosion – the established Irish literary habit of drawing energy from entropy.

The other fascination is the way that new Irish school of crime writing preserves something from the days in which Irish crime writing was all but impossible. It is notable that Kerrigan and Glynn in particular don’t pay much attention to the police and don’t even pretend that there is a super-detective who can solve the city’s mysteries. Kerrigan’s central figure is himself a criminal; Glynn’s is the sister and aunt of figures who have been up to their necks in the moral mire. Nor do they pretend that the revelation of the truth will make much difference to the corrupt worlds they evoke. In creating an Ireland with no faith in authority and no belief that the bad guys will be vanquished by naming their names, they get closer to reality than most literary fiction has managed.

Fintan O'Toole

Fintan O'Toole

Fintan O'Toole is an Irish Times columnist and writer