Monday, September 15, 2008

1996: Year Zero

If there is one name that sums up the current explosion in Irish crime writing, it’s that of Tana French.

John Connolly and Ken Bruen are undoubtedly better known, particularly in the United States, and both have been well represented in the various crime-fiction awards nominations this year. But of course both men have been publishing novels for the best part of a decade and have gradually built up dedicated audiences.

By contrast, Tana French’s debut novel, In the Woods, has been nominated for practically every award going, bar the Nobel Prize, hit the New York Times bestseller list, and achieved a crossover reach that most crime-fiction writers can only dream about.

For a police procedural set in Ireland, that’s unheard of.

But even though most Irish crime writers are not as well known in the States as Tana French, she is merely the tip of the spear. Behind her is a veritable slew of writers who have decided to set their crime narratives in modern Ireland, most of whom have arrived on the scene in the last five years.

Adrian McKinty. Declan Hughes. Arlene Hunt. Gene Kerrigan. Brian McGilloway. Aifric Campbell. Alex Barclay. Cora Harrison. Christy Kenneally. Garbhan Downey. Benjamin Black. Alan Glynn. Ingrid Black. Cormac Millar. Andrew Nugent. David Park. D.B. Shan. Sam Millar.

Go back another five years and you can include Neville Thompson, K.T. McCaffrey, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Eoin McNamee, Philip Davison, Paul Charles, Keith Baker, T.S. O’Rourke, Hugo Hamilton, Julie Parsons, John Brady, Patrick McGinley, John Kelly, Rory McCormac …

Apologies for the list, but it goes on and on.

And yet, if you go back as far as 1990, there was very little crime writing coming out of Ireland. Patrick McGinley’s Bogmail, published in 1978, was very much the exception to the rule. Bartholomew Gill’s McGarr and the Method of Descartes appeared in 1986. Vincent McDonnell published The Broken Commandment in 1988, in the same year S.J. Michaels published her debut, Summary Justice. John Banville’s The Book of Evidence appeared in 1989, although, despite being a fictionalized account of a real-life Irish murder, the novel was considered a more literary offering than a genuine crime-fiction story (the same, as it happens, could be said about a number of John Banville’s pre-Benjamin Black novels, most notably The Untouchable).

Moving forward into the ’90s, the pace picked up. Snuff, a collaboration between Jim Lusby and Myles Dungan, was published in 1992, and Lusby also had Serial published in 1992. Vincent Banville’s Death by Design arrived in 1993. Jack Holland’s Walking Corpses appeared in 1994, the same year as Peter Cunningham’s Who Trespass Against Us, both novels concerned with “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland. Eugene McEldowney’s A Kind of Homecoming was published in 1994. Colin Bateman’s debut, Divorcing Jack, which somehow managed to be a hilarious comedy set in war-torn Belfast, came out in 1995.

I have undoubtedly missed out on some writers, but the point is valid--given the disproportionate number of Irish writers blackening pages, very few of them were writing crime narratives.

So why the explosion in Irish crime writing over the last decade?

As always, there are a number of reasons. Ireland--although now experiencing something of a downturn--enjoyed an unprecedented economic boom over the last 15 years or so, going back to 1992, ’93. Ireland has always had its criminal fraternity, and its activities also blossomed in the warming glow of prosperity. Gangland murders became more common, which was something of a shock to Ireland’s system, a country where, only 20 years ago, a murder would represent front-page news for a week at a time. “I didn’t want to write about the mean streets until we had them,” Ken Bruen said recently, explaining his reasons for unleashing his private eye Jack Taylor on the unsuspecting Galway public. “We sure got ’em now.”

But the watershed year for Irish crime fiction was 1996, the year of the first Irish Republican Army (IRA) ceasefire of the burgeoning Peace Process. It didn’t happen overnight--the first ceasefire broke down; a second took hold in 1998--but gradually the IRA, arguably Europe’s most effective private army, began to disarm. Shorn of its political motivation, it began to diversify into activities that were baldly criminal in nature. The Northern Bank robbery in 2005, during which a record-breaking £26 million was stolen, is widely, if not officially, regarded in Ireland as the IRA’s “pension fund,” a hefty but acceptable price to pay to see the boys in the balaclavas finally hand up their guns.

1996 was also the year in which investigative journalist Veronica Guerin (left) was murdered by a criminal gang. Guerin, who wrote for the Sunday Independent, had been shot previously, as a warning, but even then the Irish public refused to believe that the gangs were made up of anything but the “ordinary decent criminals” that Martin Cahill, the most notorious Dublin gangster, had portrayed himself as before he was murdered in 1994. There was a tacit agreement between the general public and gangland--so long as the criminals only killed one another, Ireland would turn a blind eye to their deeds.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Veronica Guerin’s murder, on June 26, 1996, sent a seismic shudder through Irish society. It was, and remains, Ireland’s “John F. Kennedy moment.” Politicians, finally galvanized by the sense of outrage and shock, leapt to enact emergency legislation. One consequence was the establishment of the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB), designed to pursue the profits of criminal activity. Another consequence, equally far-reaching, was that Ireland began to take crime more seriously, and nowhere is that more evident than in the explosion of Irish crime writing, both fiction and true crime.

It’s said that journalism is the first draft of history. It’s certainly true that journalists report from the front line, sending dispatches back to society at large about the world they live in. And it may well be a coincidence, but there is a disproportionate number of current or former Irish journalists who write or have written crime fiction in the last decade or so, among them Gene Kerrigan, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Ingrid Black, Garbhan Downey, Colin Bateman, Sean Moncrieff, John Connolly, Benjamin Black, and Liz Allen.

I’m not suggesting that every Irish crime-fiction author has a picture of Veronica Guerin over their desk as they write. Nor should they. Irish crime writers are as diverse a bunch as any other group of writers--they write private-eye novels, police procedurals, historical fiction, hard-boiled noir, cozy mysteries, comedy capers, serial-killer tales ... in short, they cover the full gamut of crime writing.

But there’s no denying that while all crime fiction follows the basic narrative arc of order-chaos-order, the best crime narratives offer us a journey very similar to the classic response to death: shock, disbelief, anger, acceptance.

Raymond Chandler said that Dashiell Hammett took murder out of the drawing room and dropped it into the alleyway, where it belonged. Veronica Guerin shone a light into the dark alleyways of Irish life, and paid the ultimate price. The current explosion of Irish crime writing is representative of a country still feeling its way through its shock, disbelief, and anger towards an acceptance of what it has become.

7 comments:

bish8 said...

A great post about a great subject. I agree Tana French's novel is exceedingly well written, however, the story was spoiled for me because the main character is such a whimpy wanker -- I wished he's been killed In The Woods when he was a child.

That said, I have her second novel to read and I am hoping not only for a continuation of her literate writing, but hoping for a main character with whom I can stand to be in the same room.

Anonymous said...

Ahem...while I liked it,bish8,I suspect you'll find what you didn't like multiplied by five.

pattinase (abbott) said...

A great post. We were in Ireland in 1996 but sadly didn't know it was the turning point. Too many lagers, I guess. My daughter was stopped by security at the airport for carrying pepper spray in a bomb-like container. Just at the point that the troubles were ending. That was pretty exciting.

bish8 said...

Thanks, anonymous,

If that's the case just kill me now and put me out of my misery.

Declan Burke said...

Thanks for the good words, folks. I should also point out that John Connolly contends that the success of women's fiction, aka 'chick lit', played a huge part in paving the way for genre fiction in Ireland, which as a country has historically been more concerned with matters literary. Cheers, Dec

ARCHAVIST said...

I've gone out and got both in the woods and the guards. Your article enticed me.

Declan Burke said...

Nice one, Archavist ... hey, it's all about spreading the good word.

Cheers, Dec