Monday 24 July 2017

Masters of murder and malevolence

In the hands of these leading Irish crime writers, the genre rises above its conventions to reflect real life in all its tragic poignancy, writes Declan Burke

TRUE CRIME: The golden age of Irish crime fiction lags behind that of the US by several decades
TRUE CRIME: The golden age of Irish crime fiction lags behind that of the US by several decades

Declan Burke

IN one sense, it's a shame that Gene Kerrigan hails from this parish, because you're going to think I'm biased when I say that, with Dark Times in the City, he has written one of the finest crime novels set in Ireland.

Initially the story of Danny Callaghan, a Dublin ex-con who instinctively interferes in a gangland hit and suffers the consequences, Dark Times is a novel that gets under the skin of post-boom Ireland. The various settings are for the most part those urban wastelands by-passed by the boom, where people live cheek-by-jowl with the criminal fraternity, and where the notion of law and order is a sick joke.

And yet, as with Kerrigan's previous novels, Little Criminals and A Midnight Choir, the issues are not black-and-white, and the lines drawn are not between good and bad, or law and disorder.

Kerrigan is more interested in exploring the concept of power, its use and abuse, and how those at the bottom of the pecking order, regardless of which side of the thin blue line they stand, are powerless -- physically, financially and morally -- when confronted with the juggernaut of power corrupted absolutely.

Written in a terse, economical style studded with nuggets of black humour, the novel is unflinchingly cynical about the cause-and-effect cycle of poverty, mis-education, hopelessness and violence that provides an unending flow of willing volunteers for gangland life.

Kerrigan the journalist is apparent in the novel's relevance, as three or four narrative strands that could easily have jumped off yesterday's front pages coalesce into a splendid page-turner. But it's Kerrigan the novelist that lifts Dark Times above the realms of the conventional crime novel, with his detailed and often poignant depiction of the truth behind the headlines.

His characters are never 'scum' or 'thugs'; they don't labour under ridiculous nicknames; they're fully-rounded individuals who can tug on your heart-strings on one page, and force a man to dig his own grave on the next.

Cruelly authentic, the novel refuses the simplistic pieties of either the genre's form or society's wishful thinking. Dark Times in the City is a very fine crime novel, but it's also one of the very few novels of any stripe to hold up a mirror to the dark heart of modern Ireland's boom-and-bust.

On the face of it, the artist formerly known as Colin Bateman (now simply 'Bateman'), operates at the opposite end of the crime spectrum to Kerrigan. Where Kerrigan investigates the gritty reality of the form, Bateman is celebrated for his comic creations, in which inept characters challenge notions of the genre as they stumble and bumble through, much like a drunken man wandering blissfully ignorant through a riot.

Mystery Man, Bateman's 23rd novel, appears to be adhering to this successful format when it opens with the eponymous and unnamed hero, the owner of Belfast's No Alibis bookshop, becoming a reluctant PI after the private investigator who has offices next door unexpectedly disappears. No Alibis, of course, is a real bookshop, and Bateman has terrific fun with a bewildering number of crime fiction in-jokes as his neurotic, puny hero goes about solving 'The Case of the Leather Pants', among others. Try this:

"Brendan [Coyle] was already a much-garlanded author of literary fiction when he decided to write crime under a pseudonym before being 'accidentally' unmasked. He gives the impression that it is just something he dashes off while waiting for divine inspiration to strike his real work. In reality he contributes nothing new to the genre and instead merely rehashes some of its worst cliches. Yet he sells and sells and the critics adore him."

Amid the stream of quips, puns and self-deprecating gags, however, lurks something darker. 'The Case of the Dancing Jew' sounds typically Bateman in its political incorrectness, but the author, skilled at comedy, is equally adept when turning his hand to horror and tragedy. Funny and haunting in equal measures, Mystery Man is Bateman at the top of his game.

Bleed a River Deep is Brian McGilloway's third novel, following Borderlands and Gallows Lane. Set on the border in Donegal, it offers a typically labyrinthine plot, in which McGilloway's series protagonist, Inspector Benedict Devlin, investigates a number of apparently unrelated murders. Central to the story is a newly-opened gold mine, which becomes the focus of an international incident when a violent protest erupts during a visit by a retired US senator, a renowned pro-war hawk.

The better crime novels function as contemporary social history, and Bleed a River Deep is one such novel. Within a tale framed as a police procedural, we touch on environmental pollution, illegal immigrants shipped in from Eastern Europe as the economic downturn starts to bite, and the disaffection with authority. Running parallel to the politically driven plot is Devlin's private life, as the happily married family man suffers the Machiavellian machinations of his superior, and struggles to keep his work and home life separate.

McGilloway crafts a deceptively simple story, but one that resonates long after the novel is finished. For all the contemporary touches, it's the timelessness of Devlin himself that makes McGilloway so readable.

Writing with a deft, unassuming style that concentrates on story-telling rather than calling attention to itself, McGilloway is always conscious that the crime novel, as a genre novel, is first and foremost an entertainment, and that his duty is to the reader.

And yet Devlin has something more profound to offer than entertainment, transcending his series much in the way Philip Marlowe did for Raymond Chandler, or Dave Robicheaux does for James Lee Burke. Devlin could very well, if he gets the fair wind McGilloway richly deserves, go on to become an emblem of Irish masculinity in all its unassuming, complex, easy-going, gauche, thoughtful pig-headedness.

Taking its title from a Hemingway short story, Adrian McKinty's Fifty Grand opens in Cuba before moving on, via Mexico, to Colorado, as a Cuban cop, Hernandez, goes illegally undercover in the US to investigate her father's death. The Hemingway homage is a brave one, inviting ridicule and accusations of hubris, but McKinty has long been purveying a blend of muscular lyricism in which collide the brutalities of the crime novel and a knowing, self-effacing literary style.

His sixth novel for adults (he also writes the 'Lighthouse' series for children), Fifty Grand offers a challenging conceit, which is to put the tough, spare rhythms associated with classic hard-boiled novels (think Hemingway himself, James Ellroy, James Cain) into the mind of a first-person female protagonist. The result is an incendiary, adrenalin-fuelled thriller, but one that also functions as a blackly hilarious social satire of the skewed values of pre-Obama America, as Hernandez, in the role of exploited illegal immigrant, infiltrates the glitzy world of Colorado's ski-resort set, cleaning up the mess left behind by Hollywood's jet-set.

Most successful of all, however, is McKinty's ability to slip inside Hernandez's skin. The undercover Hernandez is thrown back on her own resources as she investigates her father's death and brings those responsible to a very particular kind of justice, without recourse to conventional resources. As vulnerable as she is tough, as scared as she is determined, as fragile as she is lethal, she makes for a highly unusual, creepily authentic and utterly compelling anti-heroine.

Declan Burke is the author of 'The Big O'. He also hosts Crime Always Pays, a weblog on Irish crime fiction

Dark Times in the City - Gene Kerrigan

Harvill Secker, £11.99

Mystery Man - Bateman

Headline; £7.99

Bleed a River Deep - Brian McGilloway

Macmillan, £11.99

Fifty Grand - Adrian McKinty

Holt, £12.99

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