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Thursday 20 September 2018

Murder she wrote

Recently, author Julian Gough took contemporary Irish writers to task for not dealing with the Ireland of today. Everyone, according to him, was looking backwards and not dealing with issues affecting the country today.

Too bad then, that Arlene Hunt's latest book Blood Money hadn't yet been published. Racism, immigrants and illegal organ transplantation are hardly the stuff of John McGahern books, but Hunt's new novel deals with those very relevant modern themes.

It tells the story of Pavel, a Bosnian man whose sister has paid the ultimate price for his release from prison. In Dublin, a mother who works as a doctor dies in an apparent suicide and their stories interweave to create a plot that challenges the reader's own perception of right and wrong. The book deals specifically with the murky world of illegal organ donation, which is not just gruesome but throws up very real dilemmas for characters and readers alike. "We can make moral boundaries for ourselves," says Dublin author Arlene Hunt, "but when it comes to children, it's a different story, especially if it's your own child. In the book, one of the characters takes a risk, already knowing that their actions are an immoral act, but it's done out of love for a child."

Hunt has an 18-year-old daughter and like most parents, agrees that there is "very little I wouldn't do for her. It's a moral quagmire. Worse, if a doctor approaches you and offers you a solution that has the veneer of respectability, you begin to start the inner lie immediately. You start to rationalise it in terms of 'It's only one kidney; maybe the person didn't need it; perhaps they're poor and need the money'. So you start to think of it as a compassionate act and that's what you want to hear because you can justify it."

In the course of Hunt's research for the book, she discovered that many of the countries involved in this industry were in Eastern Europe. It's a macabre industry but one that is on the rise, largely because it's lucrative. "Bodies are huge commodities" says Hunt, "it's very easy to move people around as live cargo and make a huge amount of money doing it. It's even easier to transport than drugs, because one living person is a set of lungs, kidneys, retinas and could be worth up to €300,000."

By making Pavel a Bosnian who relocates to Dublin, Hunt was able to examine the kind of racism that has become so prevalent in Ireland today. "What I wanted to do, through the character of Grace," explains the writer, "is to look at the idea of casual racism in Ireland. I remember being at a cinema in town and listening to a group of young people talking nearby, and referring to 'the blacks' and 'the chinks'. It's quite shocking to hear, and Grace represents that curious mix of naïvety and street-worthy with that casual racist attitude. There's no badness in her, but her views come from the stupidity of youth, too. She refers to Pavel as 'foreign-looking' but she's quite charmed by him, too."

Perhaps because of the predominant subject matter of crime novels -- murder, killers and death -- people tend think of crime-writing as the ultimate in fiction, disconnected from the writer's life. With Blood Money, part of the inspiration came from the fact that Hunt's father-in-law had a heart transplant a decade ago.

"The premise of all of my books has been based on something that means something to me personally and I prefer crime novels that have that. People can relate to the characters more and it doesn't have that hard-boiled, noir edge."

When it comes to reflecting contemporary Irish culture it seems that crime novelists are ahead of their literary peers. In the last decade, there has been an explosion in Irish crime-writing and Arlene Hunt is ranked as one of Ireland's finest. For her, new media and the information age we live in is a huge factor in the genre's success.

"I definitely think it's something to do with the fact that we have more media available to us. Everything is so instant, so quick to hand. When someone in real life goes so far over the line, we're fascinated by it. It makes us question ourselves and wonder if we could do something similar," she says.

Blood Money is the fifth in a series that pairs detective team John Quigley and Sarah Kenny. Despite the fact that Sarah is missing and readers are anxiously mailing Hunt as to her whereabouts, her next book is a standalone novel.

"I'm really interested in amoral characters and the new book will feature a male character that is a top-of-his-game predator; whose enjoyment in life is to hunt people. If I can get into his head and do it properly, he'll be a really interesting character." It will also be the first time Hunt has set her work outside of Ireland. So far, the novels are all set in Dublin, a setting she sees as central to her books.

"For me, the city is almost like another character. I've gotten emails from people who are Irish, but live in the US or Australia and they can really visualise Dublin because of the references to the Phoenix Park or Clontarf. I love the city and have lived elsewhere, but I absolutely love trundling around Dublin." HQ

Blood Money is published by Hachette Ireland

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