How Belfast became the scene of the crime festival

Noireland is Ireland’s first international crime fiction festival

David Torrans, of No Alibis bookshop in Belfast, is the director of the Noireland crime festival. Photograph: Stephen Davison

David Torrans, of No Alibis bookshop in Belfast, is the director of the Noireland crime festival. Photograph: Stephen Davison

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For the past 20 years, David Torrans has looked out on Belfast from behind the counter of his bookshop.

Outside, on Botanic Avenue, soldiers no longer patrol. Instead, the pavement is crowded with pupils in school uniforms and students from nearby Queen’s University. Across the road, Starbucks is busy.

The owner of the North’s only crime fiction bookstore, No Alibis, Torrans – or Dave to his customers – has witnessed Belfast take its first tentative steps towards peace post-ceasefire, and seen it grow into a confident, cosmopolitan city which is putting together a bid (with Derry) for European Capital of Culture in 2023.

As I step into the shop, one of Torrans’s customers tells me: “Belfast’s got this aura about it. It’s a place where dark things happened”.

Its troubled past has undoubtedly helped the city build a reputation for crime fiction, which is being celebrated this weekend at Noireland, Belfast’s – and Ireland’s – first international crime fiction festival.

Torrans is the festival director and has been bringing writers to Belfast and hosting events in the shop since the days when Belfast “wasn’t on the radar”.

“People think culture didn’t exist in this city before the Troubles ended, but culture in this city during the Troubles was probably what kept us sane,” says Torrans. He cites the strength of poetry, session music and punk rock in Troubles Belfast, and adds that the difference now is that culture can be expressed more openly.

“It was always there but it was almost as if it was underground, and since 1997 I think there’s been a development of places and spaces and organisations that have encouraged creativity.”

He sees the strength of crime writing in the city as part of that progression.

Crime became a signifier of normality, because a murder was straightforwardly a murder and could be solved

“In one sense you can’t avoid the element of the Troubles, and how it has influenced the city and its development and the idea of it being a place where there was an element of danger.

“That creates an oppressive, dark vibe, but even before that, think of the film Odd Man Out, set in Belfast in the 1940s – that’s classic film noir.

“Belfast always had a strong industrial, grittiness to the city.”

I help Torrans set up the shop for an evening book launch. One of the first to arrive is Dr Eamonn Hughes, who helped establish the first crime writing course at Queen’s in the mid-1990s.

“People assume that the notion of the black North was to do with the Troubles, but a big part of it initially was to do with Belfast’s industrialised status as compared to Dublin, because the buildings went black because of the soot.

“That morphs into that notion of Belfast as a place of darkness and death,” explains Hughes.

No Alibis in Belfast is the North’s only crime fiction bookstore. Photograph: Stephen Davison
No Alibis in Belfast is the North’s only crime fiction bookstore. Photograph: Stephen Davison

During the Troubles, says Hughes, “an enormous number of thrillers”, mainly featuring an IRA man as “the baddie”, were written about Northern Ireland.

“What you didn’t get was, for example, police procedurals.

“Having that an ordinary crime novel, as opposed to a vaguely political thriller along the lines of Jack Higgins or Gerald Seymour, was actually a clear move away from the Troubles. “Crime became a signifier of normality, because a murder was straightforwardly a murder and could be solved.”

Torrans’s customers agree. His friend Ray Geary has just finished chemotherapy treatment for cancer, and is collecting two bags full of books. “If you’re investigating a crime you need motive, opportunity, but none of that exists in conflict novels,” says Geary. “There had to be peace for writers to start exploring it, because ordinary crime didn’t matter during the Troubles.”

‘Two cities’

At the back of the shop, friends Jennifer Austin and Rene Ireland are browsing the Noireland brochure.

“As a pensioner now, I wouldn’t think anything of walking through Belfast at night, but back when I was a teenager or in my 20s I would have been terrified,” says Austin.

“I think of Belfast as two cities, the one there was back then, and now this new Belfast which we can enjoy in our retirement,” adds Ireland.

Olive Broderick, a writer and volunteer at the Noireland festival, arrived in Belfast from Cork almost 20 years ago.

“When I came here first, I could feel the tension rising as I got nearer. You don’t feel that any more.”

Belfast has changed – but for Torrans, noir as a genre remains just as relevant to Belfast today.

“Noir is so much about a sense of moral ambiguity tied in with social injustice, and a degree of corruption and deprivation, where you have those who are grasping to achieve or maintain a sense of power and those who are just grasping to get through life. That could be applied to Belfast on so many levels.”

The Noireland International Crime Fiction Festival is at the Europa Hotel, Belfast, October 27th-29th. See noireland.com

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