Irish crime stories
WHISPER IT, BUT IT APPEARS that Irish crime writing is about to become respectable. The decision by Booker Prize-winner John Banville to start writing crime stories as Benjamin Black might have had something to do with it, but Banville is only the tip of the iceberg. In the past 18 months alone, Tana French, John Connolly, Ken Bruen and Declan Hughes have all won prestigious prizes for crime writing in the US, while Hughes, Connolly and French are in the running for three more.
The forthcoming Books 2008 festival, sponsored by the Sunday Independent and taking place in Dublin this weekend, will include a series of crime fiction panels, the first time crime writing has been featured in an Irish literary festival.
So why the explosion in Irish crime writing now?
"There's been an upsurge in several kinds of Irish fiction," says author and journalist Gene Kerrigan, "and music and painting and sport. Crime fiction is a small part of that. Perhaps it has something to do with increased confidence, a realisation that there are more possibilities than there used to be. Look around at what's happening -- you're sitting in a pub and a guy walks in with a balaclava on, gun in hand -- everyone knows that can happen in any Dublin pub any day of the week. How can you be a writer and not want to deal with that through fiction?"
That perspective is shared by Arlene Hunt. "Write what you know," she says. "Isn't that what people tell all aspiring writers? Well, every day we are surrounded by horrific acts of murder, brutality and crime. We devour the more salacious stories with relish, horrified by lurid tales yet transfixed. Why are crime writers flourishing? Look to the fabric of our daily lives, the answer is right under our noses. Crime, we abhor it but we're fascinated by it, we want to read about it and some of us want to write about it."
"The changes in Irish society certainly have something to do with it," says John Connolly, "although I think it's interesting that crime writers are still a little ahead of the game here, in that Irish readers still haven't fully embraced the notion of examining Irish society through the medium of crime fiction.
"The end of the conflict in Northern Ireland has also liberated Irish writers," he continues. "It was difficult to write a 'normal' crime novel when political and religious violence was dominating the headlines. Crime fiction isn't great at tackling contemporary conflicts; it's not part of its comfort zone. By its nature it tends to deal with the impact of past events on present lives, and so I don't think most Irish crime writers might have felt equipped to deal with the Troubles while they were ongoing."
Colin Bateman, who sets most of his comedy crime novels in the north of Ireland, agrees. "The big thing about the North was that there was no crime fiction as we knew it during 'the Troubles' -- there were plenty of thrillers, and most of them seemingly written by visiting journalists and featuring the IRA. The reality is that during those 30 years there was no 'real' crime here that wasn't connected to the paramilitaries, and thus it always had a political or religious edge. It was only with the ceasefire that 'ordinary decent criminals' began to get a look in."
Adrian McKinty suggests that crime fiction speaks to a younger, more urbanised generation. "Ireland is no longer a rural society and crime fiction is the most urban of the genres," he says. "Crime fiction is literally of the street, the block, the neighbourhood. It speaks the language of the modern world and is not afraid to show that world's greed, corruption and carnality. Crime fiction by definition is dystopic, pessimistic and sceptical, which nowadays is the default position of a huge and growing percentage of the population."
Declan Hughes has a similar view. "We always had one of the necessary conditions for a crime story," he says, "or at least for the kind of hard-boiled noir crime story I prefer: we had skeletons in our closets, rattling their chains. And in the last 10 years those skeletons have been walking abroad, telling their tales -- be it about the church, corrupt politicians, the rich, the family, all the whited sepulchres we despised but feared to speak out against. And maybe the national love affair with silence and concealment -- 'whatever you say, say nothing' -- is waning.
"What we didn't have enough of until recently was money," Hughes says. "A boomtown is an ideal forcing ground for the crime novel: people making money too quickly and thinking they're going to live forever, getting reckless and greedy and cruel, and making bigger and bigger mistakes until it all ends in tears. And the more money going around, the more ways people think of spending that money, hence the illegal trade in sex and drugs, and the attractive personalities involved in that trade."
"We shouldn't shy away from the simplest explanation," says John Connolly, "which is that most writers write what they read. There has been an enormous growth in crime fiction internationally in the last 20 years, so a new generation has grown up with that kind of exposure to the genre.
"It's hardly surprising, then, that some Irish writers might choose to remake the genre in their own image. It's also worth looking at it in the context of a growth in genre fiction writing generally in Ireland. For a long time, Irish writers were more admired than read; they were critically, rather than commercially, successful. It was women's contemporary fiction, itself genre fiction, that changed such perceptions, so it's natural that other genres should have followed in its wake: crime, children's fiction and, to a lesser degree, fantasy."
Ruth Dudley Edwards, whose novel Murdering Americans was an award-winner at the recent Crime Fest in Bristol, has a succinct take on the explosion in Irish crime writing. "As someone whose non-fiction was well-regarded in Ireland," she says, "but whose penchant for writing crime fiction was seen by the literary establishment as intellectual slumming, I think the breakthrough came when a new and confident generation decided they'd write what they liked and to hell with the critics." HQ
The Books 2008 Festival takes place this weekend (Friday-Sunday) in various Dublin venues. For further details, visit www.bookevents.ie