WHO – OR what – is responsible for making Ireland the scene of an explosion of crime writing over the past two decades?
From John Connolly to Tana French, Arlene Hunt to Jane Casey, Ireland has crime scribes writing across a range of genres, from detective noir to psychological thrillers. Later this month, one of those writers, Declan Burke, will sit down with fellow authors to discuss the art of crime writing (and his new collection of short stories by Irish crime writers).
It’s clearly a good time to be an Irish writer obsessed with crime, so we chatted to three such authors to find out what’s led us to this point.
“For most of the 20th century we didn’t touch crime fiction”
One of the country’s most successful crime writers is John Connolly. He sets the books in hisCharlie Parker series – which kicked off in 1999 with Every Dead Thing – not in Ireland but in Maine (when we speak, he’s about to head to Maine to spend some time writing over there).
Connolly pointed out that Ireland doesn’t have a long history of crime writing, but described it as having suddenly exploded in the last two decades. “For most of the 20th century we didn’t touch crime fiction,” he said. “There are a whole lot of reasons for it.”
He put down one of the reasons to a distrust of genre fiction, which was changed, he said, by the success of Maeve Binchy’s popular fiction.
Her international success as a genre writer may have persuaded the rest of us of what was possible, as well as persuading the all-important publishers too.
“When that happens there is a recognition that maybe Irish writers are not just going to be producing poetry or literary novels, there is a commercial aspect to it as well,” said Connolly. “There were Irish writers trying to write crime fiction and some were really good but they never really managed to get a foothold – it’s a question of timing and other things.”
Author and journalist Declan Burke also credits Binchy, along with Roddy Doyle, with contributing to the explosion in crime writing.
But there were other social elements that have contributed to the rise of crime writing.
“I suppose there was a number of things came together, the Celtic Tiger played a huge part in that,” explained Burke. “The entire country developed a sense of confidence about itself – maybe in retrospect it wasn’t fully earned. People were trying new things, trying different things.”
Ireland was a much more plausible place to set a crime novel 20 years ago, even a murder might have been a front page story for a week at a time – this is no longer the case in Ireland unfortunately.
In addition, he noted that writers in Northern Ireland have over the past five or six years started to explore the Troubles through fiction.
Author Louise Phillips pointed out that 40 Irish crime novels were published this year.
For her, “[with] the ending of the Troubles in the north people felt they could write about darker issues”, meaning crime and its associated sub-genres were ripe for exploring.
“It was just a better environment, and then the other thing was the whole Celtic Tiger,” she added, saying that social changes in Ireland made for interesting topics to tackle.
Phillips, Burke and Connolly all said that Irish crime writers are happy to explore a wealth of elements within the crime sphere. “I think every writer has a distinct voice. I don’t think you could pick up a book by an Irish crime writer and say ‘oh that is by an Irish crime writer’,” said Phillips.
“If there is any distinction it is the fact the quality is really good. The Irish have punched above their weight.”
Taking crime out of Ireland
Irish crime writers are very comfortable with setting their books outside of Ireland (though some, like the hugely popular Tana French, are known for basing their books here).
“It became OK to base novels outside of Ireland suddenly, because of the whole change with migration to cities and to Ireland or other parts of the world,” explained Phillips. “You were in a situation where you didn’t necessarily know the person living next door – so you could have a killer next door. So in some ways the Irish environment went from the small to the global very quickly.”
Her first four novels were based in Ireland, while her current one is based in Massachusetts, and she said that when you write outside of the normal environment you have grown up in, “you do see things differently.”
Connolly decided from the get-go that Ireland wasn’t where he wanted to set his Charlie Parker stories. ”I felt there was a very oppressive tradition. A certain expectation of what an Irish writer should be. Colm Toibín said to be an Irish writer is to be engaged in the nature of Irishness,” he said. ”I could think of nothing I wanted to engage with less.”
America gave him a different route to explore.
Burke, who set one of his books in the Greek islands, is “totally on board with Irish writers not setting their books here”.
“I think it entirely depends on the writer and the needs for the story,” he said. “Arlene Hunt set one story in the [United] States as it needed to be a wild space, a national park. That wouldn’t have worked here in Ireland and I totally get that.”
Is crime fiction used as social commentary? “I’m not sure that’s the purpose of crime fiction,” said Connolly, “because there is nothing a reader hates more than a soap box being dragged up.”
“For me it’s human motivation, it is human frailty.”
“For me the crime novel, the structure of the crime novel itself, it’s a framework on which you can hang all kinds of other things,” said Connolly. “Crime novels don’t differ very much – there is a crime, there is an investigation and there is some kind of solution at the very end.”
All good fiction is about character – it doesn’t matter what you’re writing, all good fiction starts with character. What keeps readers coming back to crime fiction is character.
The rise of the women
Connolly, Lynch and Phillips all pointed out that the Irish market is particularly full of female writers. Indeed, five out of the six books nominated in the crime category of last year’s Irish Book Awards – which was won by Liz Nugent – were written by women.
“A lot of people don’t necessarily get most readers are women and it’s the same for crime fiction, 70% of crime readers are women,” added Phillips. “It’s not all that surprising that women writers are doing reasonably well within Ireland.”
We’ve definitely moved from this time where women writers felt they had to adopt a male name on the front of their books. I’m very happy I didn’t have to become Louis Phillips.
For Phillips, to write good crime fiction “you have to understand fear”, and she feels female writers are able to tap into this particularly well.
“There definitely are certain fears and vulnerabilities for women in society. That’s not to say my male counterparts don’t understand vulnerability.”
“It’s kind of a contradiction in terms in so far as you think when people are writing about gruesome things they are bad people, but actually most crime writers are big softies. You have to understand fear and you have to understand a sense of vulnerability.”
The last couple of years have seen a trend in “domestic noir” – think Gone Girl or Girl on the Train – which often features a female protagonist.
“So many women are writing exciting novels with very strong distinct female characters,” said Burke. “Jane Casey, Alex Barclay – there seems to be a trend that is kind of feeding off the energy of domestic noir. It may not be domestic noir itself. But the idea of the woman as a flawed but remarkably interesting central character is certainly coming to the fore in Irish crime fiction, whereas in previous incarnations if a woman was present in the book it was likely to be the victim as anything else.
“And you always had this pressure as a female writer writing a female character, that she had to be ‘likeable’.”
Lynda La Plante’s Jane Tennison (who was played by Helen Mirren in the TV adaptation of Prime Suspect) certainly challenged the latter “nonsense” idea, said Burke.
This new exploration of different types of female characters may be reflecting the way that women’s role in Ireland has changed in the last few decades, said Burke.
We’ve come a long way in a short period of time. My daughter is eight and the idea that we [did] not have a female president up until 20 years ago is nonsense to her.
Burke has been keeping track of how the Irish crime fiction landscape has been evolving over the years on his blog, Crime Always Pays.
As he was writing the blog there were “maybe 10, 12 Irish crime writers who were publishing every year”. Soon, though, what he would call the second generation of Irish crime writers – including Tana French and Stuart Neville – began to emerge.
“There is no pattern whatsoever and I think that’s one of the wonderful things about Irish crime writing,” said Burke. “There is such a diversity about it.”
He describes Scandinavian noir as a “great phenomenon”, but it’s not necessarily something any of the authors we spoke to feel Ireland should emulate.
“The books seem to me from my reading all operate within relatively narrow parameters whereas with Irish crime fiction there is psychological horror, there are private eye stories, historical fiction,” said Burke.
For me that diversity is very much a strength and very much an appealing aspect of of Irish crime fiction.
But Irish crime fiction is still in its infancy, he cautioned.
If there is anything that unites Irish crime fiction, Burke suggested it may be in style. “One thing that tends to crop up on a regular basis is, and this is part of our cultural heritage, is that Irish crime writers tend to be more lyrical,” he said.
“You do get slightly stereotyped notions that the Irish are natural born storytellers - I don’t believe the Irish are any more born to tell stories than any other nation.”
Indeed, the key with all three of the authors we spoke to was their desire to tell an interesting story – and to keep working at their craft.
Most writers are not geniuses, said John Connolly – for him, it is a craft that he practices every day, one that he makes mistakes in and learns from.
“And if you are lucky, out of that may come something approaching art,” he said.
Phillips puts her curiosity with crime fiction down to trying “to understand people who don’t follow the same rules as ourselves”.
But, she said, there is “safety within the pages’:
Crime fiction isn’t going to prepare you for meeting someone with a knife in a dark laneway.
‘Trouble is our business: an evening with Ireland’s finest crime writers’ will take place on 13 October at 8pm at the Civic Theatre as part of the Red Line Book Festival in Dublin. Declan Burke will be leading the conversation with Alan Glynn, Declan Hughes and Alex Barclay to discuss the ins and outs of the crime-writing process.