Queens of Irish crime writing
Female thriller writers are once again dominating the bestseller lists, and three Irish authors are among the cream of the crop, writes Myles McWeeney
Published 25/09/2016 | 02:30
During the first half of the last century, back in the golden age of crime fiction, high-profile female writers ruled the roost. Agatha Christie, the most prolific and successful of them all, penned more than 60 crime novels, many featuring Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple, and her sales have now topped two billion books.
Her startling success was shared to a lesser extent in terms of gross sales by a bevy of other famous women writers, including New Zealander Ngaio Marsh, who created gentleman detective Roderick Alleyn; Dorothy L Sayers, who dreamed up aristocratic sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey; and Margery Allingham, whose ingenious and resourceful detective was another toff, Albert Campion.
Fast-forward 100 years to the early part of the 21st century and once again the bestsellers lists in Ireland, Britain and America are being dominated by female thriller writers, and many of them are Irish.
Multi-award-winning writers like Tana French, Alex Barclay and relative newcomer Jo Spain are standing toe-to-toe and slugging it out for bestselling charts dominance with their well-established British counterparts like Val McDermid and Mo Hayder, and US contemporaries Kathy Reichs and Tess Gerritsen.
But these three high-flying Irish women writers are no flash in the pan. They are part of a highly impressive cohort of Irish female mystery writers who have beaten a path to the top in the past decade or so, including highly regarded bestselling authors like Jane Casey, Arlene Hunt, Niamh O'Connor, Ava McCarthy, Sinead Crowley and 50pc of Karen Perry - (Perry is actually two people, Karen Gillece and Peter Perry). The reason French, Barclay and Spain have been chosen here to represent their sisters in crime is that all three, coincidentally, have just had their latest novels published within days of each other this month.
Not for these Irish women are dilettante aristos like Wimsey or Campion, or a supercilious Belgian with a waxed moustache, as their investigators. In her latest book, The Trespasser, the sixth in her Dublin Murder Squad series, Tana French brings to the fore Detective Antoinette Conway, a bit player in her last book, The Secret Place. Antoinette, a Dub to the core, is mixed-race, foul-mouthed, chippy and convinced everyone is out to get her - a notion not exactly out of place, as many of her chauvinist squad colleagues give her a really hard time.
In Alex Barclay's The Drowning Child, her main character, Denver-based FBI Special Agent Ren Bryce, is bi-polar, randy, foul-mouthed and carrying enough chips on her shoulders to keep a Colorado log cabin fuelled for a whole winter.
By way of a total contrast, however, Jo Spain's main character, Detective Inspector Tom Reynolds, is a model of decorum. An uxorious family man who loyally tries to balance family life with the exigencies of being on call 24/7, he comes across as a decent sort who more often than not exceeds his own expectations.
French got off to a flying start as a crime novelist. Her 2007 debut, the tense psychological thriller In the Woods, won the Edgar, Anthony, Mcavity and Barry awards for the best first novel. Born in Vermont America, she grew up in Ireland, Italy, the US and Malawi, but has lived in Ireland since 1990, when she studied acting at Trinity College Dublin.
Barclay's roots are in Howth, Co Dublin. She studied journalism in college and became fashion editor of the RTÉ Guide before resigning in 2005 to take up writing full-time. Her first book, Darkhouse, featuring NYPC Detective Joe Lucchesi, was published in 2005 to widespread acclaim both here and Stateside.
Her second book, the brooding and violent The Caller, was another Lucchesi mystery mostly set in Ireland. Having temporarily parked Joe Lucchesi, Barclay then created the young FBI Special Agent Ren Bryce and her first adventure, Blood Runs Cold, hit the bookshops in 2008. Neither Barclay nor Bryce have looked back since, and the latest Ren Bryce offering, The Drowning Child, is the sixth in the series, which enjoys healthy sales here and in America.
The new girl on the block is Spain. The vice-chair of the business body InterTrade Ireland and a parliamentary advisor on the economy in the Dáil, she is the mother of four small children. Her first book, With Our Blessing, which introduced Detective Tom Reynolds, was one of seven shortlisted for Britain's prestigious Richard and Judy Search for a Bestseller competition in 2014.
Set against the background of the infamous Magdalene Laundries mother-and-baby homes scandal, it sprang from direct personal experience as her father had been adopted, and after his death she carried out extensive research into her family roots.
In French's 470-page blockbuster The Trespasser, (Hachette Books Ireland, trade pbk, €18.25) the driven young policewoman Detective Antoinette Conway and her more laid-back partner Stephen Moran finally get a serious case to work. Aislinn Murray is Barbie-doll pretty but dead in her interiors magazine-like perfect home, her dining table set for a romantic dinner-a-deux.
The older members of the murder squad want Antoinette and Stephen to either arrest Aislinn's boyfriend or get off the case, but Aislinn's closest friend is evasive about her perfect life and the more she digs, the more Antoinette realises how complicated and dark the woman's secrets really were.
What's more, Antoinette is convinced she's seen her somewhere before - and who exactly is the shadowy figure living at the end of the road? This is story-telling at the highest level, packed with sparky dialogue and a feisty heroine who rises above her difficult background and challenging work environment in order to seek the truth.
Shorter but equally punchy is Barclay's The Drowning Child (HarperCollins, pbk, €15.99).
Special Agent Ren Bryce is not doing too well. It's six months since a serial killer murdered two of her colleagues and her boyfriend and she's in a bar, drunk as a skunk, having her first night out since that dreadful day.
Her boss, Gary Dettling, calls. She has to go to Tate, Oregon, to investigate the disappearance of 12-year-old Caleb Vier. But Tate is already in mourning as two other boys have died recently, and Ren and Gary soon find that Caleb's parents are not exactly what they seem to be and that Tate has a lot of secrets its citizens want kept secret. With Ren involved, violence is never far away, and a well-up-to-scratch Barclay keeps this small-town tale rattling along at an enjoyably breakneck speed to a most unexpected denouement.
Spain sets the crime in her second Inspector Tom Reynolds mystery, Beneath the Surface (Quercus, trade pbk, €15.99), in Leinster House, with the killing of Ryan Finnegan, an ambitious and highly regarded government official.
Inspector Reynolds, on holiday with his long-suffering wife, is called in and must decide if the killing is politically or personally motivated. Packed with fascinating details about the inner workings of Leinster House and a colourful cast of politicos and their hangers-on, this is a satisfying mystery from a writer growing into her trade.