Wednesday, September 17, 2008

With Dark Joy, the Madness: Liam O’Flaherty’s Assassins and Informers

On Monday I wrote about the current explosion in Irish crime fiction, and why I believe it has come about now. The names will have been familiar to you--Connolly, Bruen, French, Hughes, McKinty, et al.

But where did it all start? What can be considered the very first Irish work of crime fiction?

The Irish Free State, which later became the Republic of Ireland, was established in 1922. Broadly speaking, the Irish Republican Army had been at war since the Easter Rising of 1916 with the occupying British forces, a war eventually settled by treaty in 1922, after which the IRA and its political wing, Sinn Fein, split into pro- and anti-treaty forces and engaged in vicious year-long civil war. The dust had hardly settled when Liam O’Flaherty published The Informer in 1925, and followed it with The Assassin in 1928.

The Informer would become widely known after director John Ford adapted it for the big screen in 1935, with Victor McLaglen playing the eponymous anti-hero Gypo Nolan. Set in Dublin’s seamy underbelly, the novel explores the consequences of Gypo’s informing on his erstwhile friend and comrade in “the Organisation,” Francis Joseph McPhillip. O’Flaherty’s “the Organisation” is a radical communist faction determined to achieve equality for the disenfranchised by any means necessary, but while the Irish labor movement was strong in the early decades of the 20th century, communism had little impact on Irish politics. To any Irish person of that time, “the Organisation” meant only one thing--the IRA.

Every country has its version of Quisling and Benedict Arnold, but in Ireland the accusation of “informer” was particularly potent, given that the country had been ruled by England and/or Britain for hundreds of years. O’Flaherty nonetheless created a sympathetic character in Gypo Nolan, a simple-minded bear of a man who blunders from one disaster to another as he tries to escape the closing net. In a sense, Gypo is O’Flaherty’s “straw man,” a caricature of the hard-drinking, stupid Irishman etched in grotesquely exaggerated strokes in order to skewer his real target--the country that spawned him.

In Transatlantic Irish Noir: John Ford, Jules Dassin, and Liam O’Flaherty’s The Informer (2007), Casey Jarrin, an assistant English professor at Minnesota’s Macalester College, has this to say:
The formal structure of [The Informer]--its dense descriptive prose, police-blotter narrative, clipped yet deliberate dialogue--performs a stylized fusion of the conventions of detective fiction, silent film melodrama, and emergent noir cinema. Contemporaneous with the serial successes of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, yet without any of the satire or self-effacing humor of a Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, The Informer stages a morality play in earnest and a noir landscape without irony, in which human agents struggle through shadows to challenge fate, speak their sins, and move ever-so-closer to redemption.
It’s certainly true that O’Flaherty was “contemporaneous with the serial successes of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler,” but Red Harvest was still five years distant, and The Big Sleep 14 years away, when The Informer’s brutally direct prose and staccato rhythms marked O’Flaherty out as a proto-hard-boiled writer. Both The Assassin and The Informer were set amidst Dublin’s criminal fraternity, both were written in the brusque, spare style that Hammett and later James M. Cain would be championed for, and both followed the classic crime-fiction narrative arc as their respective protagonists went in search of cathartic redemption.

But O’Flaherty didn’t just prefigure Hammett and Cain; his complex and self-tortured protagonists will be immediately familiar to anyone who has read the work of Jim Thompson, for example. In The Assassin, the anti-hero McDara visits a bookies:
So now, leaning against the wall, he contemplated with dark joy the madness and debauchery of man. Gambling, leching and carousing, while the civilisation wrought by centuries of his labour crumbled about his ears. As if sin were necessary to the birth of Christ. He rejoiced darkly, seeing the tumult of passion about him, the degraded souls gambling, while the country was being laid waste by the tyrant. So ... the blow would come like a thunderbolt among them. It would come striding out of the heavens in a flash, sudden, awe-inspiring.
McDara, a former IRA man, has returned from exile to assassinate “the tyrant,” who remains unnamed throughout the book. Fueled by extremist politics and religion, self-loathing and vaingloriously pompous by turns, McDara is a repellently charismatic killer. What gives The Assassin an extra twist, however, is that Kevin O’Higgins, a former IRA soldier, Sinn Fein MP, and later a TD (a member of the lower house of Irish Parliament), was assassinated in 1927 by anti-treaty IRA men while serving as Minister for Justice in the first Irish government in reprisal for his ordering the execution of 77 anti-treaty prisoners of war, among them Rory O’Connor, who had served as best man at O’Higgins’ wedding.

Given the climate that prevailed in the wake of O’Higgins’ killing, The Assassin, published barely a year later, is arguably the bravest Irish novel ever written.


Anonymous said...

This is so interesting! where did you get all this information? its brilliant! did you happen to read the article "Social Abandonment: The Life of Liam O'Flaherty"? its on the USNA site. Its really interesting.


Picks by Pat said...

Thank you for this excellent refresher on a classic piece of early Irish literature! I first read "The Informer" 10 years ago, and it has lost none of its power. I now intend to read "The Assassin", as soon as I can lay my hands on a copy.