Friday, September 19, 2008

A Difficulty of Definitions

For my final post of the week in The Rap Sheet, I’d like to take this opportunity to shoot myself in the foot.

The most common phrase I’ve used all week has been “Irish crime fiction,” and that phrase is the raison d’etre of my blog, Crime Always Pays (CAP). Yet lately I’ve been starting to wonder if there’s any such thing as “Irish crime fiction.”

We don’t really talk about “American crime fiction” or “Swedish crime fiction” or “English crime fiction”--do we?

There does seem to be a number of writers being pulled together under the “Tartan noir” banner, but even that’s not really the same as “Scottish crime fiction.”

I do think it’s absolutely pertinent to mention the setting of a crime novel when discussing it, as one of the pleasures of crime fiction is that it works as a kind of barometer of society. Yesterday, for example, I was given Bait, the first of a series Nick Brownlee has set in Kenya, and it’ll be interesting to see what lies beyond the newspaper headlines.

Bait is an example of how settings for works of crime fiction have turned increasingly exotic, and to a certain extent have become something of a “platform”--Michael Walters’ series set in Mongolia being a good example.

But not all of the work I describe on CAP as “Irish crime fiction” is set in Ireland. In fact, the best-selling Irish crime writer, John Connolly, has never set a novel there. Adrian McKinty has set only one of his novels in Ireland.

More importantly, if I was asked what single aspect of Irish crime writing appeals to me most, I would answer that it’s the sheer diversity of the storytelling.

Gene Kerrigan writes hard-boiled social realism. Ruth Dudley Edwards writes satirical comedy. Brian McGilloway’s novels are police procedurals. Tana French writes police procedurals too, but in a more self-consciously literary style. John Creed, aka Eoin McNamee, writes thrillers. Ingrid Black’s amateur sleuth is an ex-FBI agent who just so happens to be a lesbian. Cora Harrison’s heroine is a 15th-century Brehon judge. Arlene Hunt’s QuicK Investigations is manned by a Moonlighting-style pair of male and female private eyes. Ken Bruen goes all po-mo on Jack Taylor’s private-eye ass in Galway, and also writes London-based police procedurals and pulp-trash-comedy collaborations with Jason Starr. Declan Hughes takes the classic Raymond Chandler/Ross Macdonald private-eye tale and gives it a distinctly Dublin twist. Benjamin Black, aka John Banville, sets his mysteries in 1950s Dublin, and makes his sleuth a pre-forensics pathologist. Colin Bateman writes a number of comedy series. Eoin Colfer’s hero is a time-traveling teenage evil mastermind. Derek Landy’s is an undead skeleton modeled on Philip Marlowe. On and on it goes, with no two Irish writers mining the same seam.

Does it make sense to force all of those square pegs into a round hole marked “Irish crime fiction”?

I honestly don’t think it does.

That’s not to say I’ll be closing down Crime Always Pays anytime soon, or that I’ll stop posting about “Irish crime fiction.” I’ll keep doing it for the same reasons I started doing it: (a) I can’t afford to promote my own novels conventionally, and (b) there are ever-increasing numbers of Irish authors writing crime narratives that I think the world at large should know about. But I’ll be continuing to do so with the same attitude that I’ve recently adopted on the blog--that “Irish crime fiction” isn’t so much an Irish stew as it is a smörgåsbord.

Finally, editor Jeff Kingston Pierce has kindly suggested that, to finish my week of guest blogging here in The Rap Sheet, I offer “a list of recommended Irish detective/crime novels for those of us who are woefully behind in our exploration of that subgenre.” I’m delighted to do so, albeit with the double caveat that (a) I’m one of those readers “woefully behind” in my own exploration of the subgenre, and (b) it’s very much a list that reflects my personal taste ...

1. Dead I Well May Be, by Adrian McKinty. The first of McKinty’s trilogy of Michael Forsythe novels, which reads like Cormac McCarthy taking a stab at the Robert Ludlum franchise.

2. Julius Winsome, by Gerard Donovan. A man takes up his grandfather’s gun to avenge his dog, shot to death by callous hunters. One of the best novels I’ve ever read.

3. Quinn, by Seamus Smyth. First-person psychotic narrative in which Mr. Fixit, Quinn, wreaks mayhem in a darkly hilarious and lyrical voice. Too far ahead of its time for Irish tastes when first published in 1999, unfortunately.

4. Divorcing Jack, by Colin Bateman. A comedy crime caper set on the war-torn streets of Belfast, it was a breathtakingly brave novel when first published in 1995. Bateman appears to have fallen out of favor with American audiences, but he’s seriously overdue a reappraisal.

5. Borderlands, by Brian McGilloway. On the surface a conventional police procedural, McGilloway’s debut is set on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and subtly investigates the 40 shades of gray of Irish morality.

6. Little Criminals, by Gene Kerrigan. An award-winning journalist with decades of experience in court reporting, Kerrigan’s fiction debut is so steeped in the reality of crime and criminality that you come away grimy.

7. The Dark Fields, by Alan Glynn. Set in New York, Glynn’s dystopic vision of drug-addled paranoia owes a significant debt to Philip K. Dick and Aldous Huxley.

8. The Book of Lost Things, by John Connolly. It’s not a crime-fiction narrative, but this standalone about a young boy who slips sidewards into a dimension of myth and fairytale is in my opinion Connolly’s finest novel to date.

9. The Guards, by Ken Bruen. The first in the Jack Taylor series, it genuinely broke new ground for crime fiction everywhere.

10. The Butcher Boy, by Patrick McCabe. In its first-person evocation of a poignant, childish need to belong that sours into murderous obsession, The Butcher Boy is literary Ireland’s equivalent of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me.


Gerard Brennan said...

I've only read three of those! Although I have The Guards on the shelf and though I don't have Julius Winsome, I do have Country of The Grand.

I'll be on the lookout for the rest.

Nice guest stint, by the way.



Ali Karim said...

Some great post there Declan, provoked some thought on the Irish end of the genre -



Picks by Pat said...

Thanks for the recommendations. I'm ashamed to say I haven't read any of them...but that's about to change.

Great week of posts.