Friday 9 December 2016

Dark and twisted fiction stands test of crime

Unlike the unfortunate victims who haunt its pages, Irish crime fiction is in great health, and it is women who are leading the way

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 07/11/2016 | 02:30

Alex Barclay
Alex Barclay
William Ryan
Catherine Ryan Howard
Author Liz Nugent
Author Tana French

Women have always been avid readers of crime and mystery, and in the Golden Age of detective fiction the field was dominated by female authors such as Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham and Dorothy L Sayers.

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The contemporary crime scene is equally rich in quality, and there too, women are increasingly in the ascendancy. That's reflected in the shortlist for the Books Are My Bag Crime Fiction Book of the Year, a prize available to any writer who is Irish, either by birth, citizenship or long-term residency who has also published an original crime novel in the last 12 months.

For the second year in a row, only one male author has made it on to the six-title shortlist. That man is William Ryan, author of The Constant Soldier.

His book also happens to be the only historical novel on the list, being set in the dying days of World War II, as Paul Brandt returns from the Eastern Front to his village in Germany to find that it's now home to a concentration camp.

He takes a job there in the hope of saving one of the female prisoners, a woman with whom he fell in love years earlier and for whose arrest he blames himself.

This is the third time that Ryan has made the shortlist, having previously received recognition for entries in his ongoing series featuring Captain Alexei Dimitrevich Korolev of the Criminal Investigation Division of the Stalinist era Moscow Militia; but if he does win, The Constant Soldier may prove controversial, because, whilst Ryan is certainly a crime novelist of distinction, there is an argument over whether his latest book is, strictly speaking, a crime novel. Either way, it's an intense, gripping, emotionally charged read.

The other books on the shortlist fit much more comfortably into the crime category. Two come from debut authors. In Distress Signals by Catherine Ryan Howard, a struggling writer finally on the verge of making it big tries to discover what happened to his girlfriend, who has disappeared whilst on a cruise in the Mediterranean, and soon discovers that another woman went missing in similar circumstances a year earlier. In a crowded field, this debut really stood out for its genuinely original premise which explored to great effect the policing and jurisdictional nightmares that can arise when a crime is committed in international waters.

The other debut is by Sam Blake - pseudonym of Vanessa Fox O'Loughlin, literary consultant extraordinaire and founder of writing.ie, the hugely popular and influential online books magazine.

Little Bones is the first in a new series featuring Detective Garda Cathy Connolly, who, at the scene of a routine break-in, discovers the bones of the title sewn inside an old wedding dress. They belong to a baby, but the owner of the house, an upcoming artist, has no idea how they got there.

Connolly, for whom the word "gutsy" might have been invented, is a terrific character, but what's more remarkable is that she has to share the narrative with two other equally intriguing women.

How these three stories tie together makes for a compelling debut; the author keeps her complex storyline going all the way to its incredible ending.

Alex Barclay's latest release The Drowning Child - the sixth in the West Cork-based author's disturbingly dark series about FBI special agent Ren Bryce - has also made it on to the Books Are My Bag crime novel of the year shortlist.

This time, Ren and her team are sent from their base in Denver to the back roads of Oregon, where a 12-year-old boy has gone missing. Surprise, surprise, it turns out that small town America has some big secrets it wants to keep hidden.

No such luck when Bryce is around. Her head may be "a little all over the place", as she admits with considerable understatement at one point, but this is a woman who doesn't know the meaning of giving up.

Lying In Wait by Liz Nugent is the follow- up to her breakthrough psychological thriller, Unravelling Oliver, which won this prestigious prize two years ago.

That was a hard act to follow, but readers of Nugent's second novel knew they were in safe hands from the very first sentence: "My husband did not mean to kill Annie Doyle, but the lying tramp deserved it." This is an author who specialises in portraying damaged people with few redeeming features.

Crime readers are used to plots that twist, but Nugent gives them characters every bit as twisted.

Finally, there's The Trespasser by Tana French, also the sixth in an ongoing series about the Dublin Murder Squad, though, unusually, each instalment centres on a character who played a minor role in a previous book.This time it's Detective Antoinette Conway, here investigating the death of a woman whose body was found in her home.

It looks like her boyfriend has killed her, but, as the only woman in a male-dominated team, Conway can't help being paranoid that there's something suspicious in her colleagues' eagerness for her to arrest the prime suspect and close the case. She's also sure she knows the victim from somewhere, but where?

The reader can't really be sure whether the policewoman's paranoia is justified, because everything that happens is seen through her eyes, and she distrusts everyone anyway. That uncertainty adds tension to a long, involving, richly structured book.

Now all that's left is to pick a winner. Readers can vote online at www.bgeirishbookawards.ie for their favourite title until midnight on November 11, days before the winner is announced at the Bord Gais Energy Irish Books Awards in Dublin.

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