Thursday 24 August 2017

Review: Down These Green Streets: Irish Crime Writing in the 21st Century by Edited by Declan Burke

Liberties Press, €19.99

Alison Walsh

Tana French's debut novel In the Woods exploded onto the scene in 2007 and marked the coming of age of Irish crime fiction.

From the pioneering hard-boiled novels of Ken Bruen, through John Connolly's groundbreaking Every Dead Thing, and Declan Hughes's The Wrong Kind of Blood, crime fiction had been stealthily gaining ground, but French's novel seemed to encapsulate the clash between the values of the past and our headlong rush to modernity. Now, Irish crime writing has become this complex, dark decade as women's fiction was to the frothy, fun, boom times.

In Down These Green Streets: Irish Crime Writing in the 21st Century, editor Declan Burke puts a shape on the story of Irish crime writing in an admirably thorough compendium of essays, interviews and short fiction.

It's everything you want to know about (Irish) crime fiction, its roots and varied influences, but it also offers a vivid insight into the dark heart of modern Ireland.

For Burke, author of novels including Eightball Boogie and loving curator of the peerless Crime Always Pays blog, the story has a beginning, middle and end. Professor Ian Campbell Ross's introduction examines the history of the genre and covers everything from the original "crime" story of Cain and Abel to Hamlet, Daniel Defoe's Roxana, a "psychological thriller" about a fallen courtesan, published in 1724, to the 19th-Century rise of the gothic chiller, of which Irish writers such as Sheridan Le Fanu and Charles Maturin were masters.

According to Campbell Ross, Edgar Allan Poe's The Murders in the Rue Morgue was among the first to introduce the idea of the crime solver as a "contradictory personality", which, he says, "would prove highly influential in the later history of crime writing". The twisted hero, battling his/her own demons, is a staple of modern crime fiction.

But while, for Campbell Ross, the growth of industrialisation proved the turning point in Britain, with the emergence of "cheap periodicals" such as The Strand in which The Hound of the Baskervilles was first published in serial form, in Ireland the genre was slower to take shape, with one or two exceptions, from curiosities such as M McDonnell Bodkin's Dora Myrl: Lady Detective, written in 1900 ("Independent, athletic and... handy with a six-shooter"), to Liam O'Flaherty's The Informer. But apart from O'Flaherty -- whose life, as Ruth Dudley Edwards reminds us in her essay of the same name, reads like the most improbable crime thriller -- the evolution of crime writing as a distinctive genre was many decades away.

Many of the writers in the collection point to the ending of the Troubles as a turning point for the genre. As John Connolly suggests in his clearsighted contribution, "No Blacks, No Dogs, No Crime Writers", "It's difficult to write a novel about a common-or-garden murder, the stuff of mainstream mysteries, when a couple of hours up the road from Dublin, soldiers, policemen and civilians are being killed on a daily basis." While writers such as Brian Moore and Bernard McLaverty had been able to write so strongly about their native land -- and influenced many of the writers in this collection -- with the ending of the Troubles, the air for crime writing suddenly seemed breathable.

But it was more than that. In the modern Ireland slowly taking shape, there were landmarks, crime watersheds which contributed to our collective loss of innocence. In her essay "A Shock to the System" novelist Arlene Hunt recalls that her childhood roaming the woods and roads of Co Wicklow on her bike seemed to be brought abruptly to a halt by the disappearance of Philip Cairns in Templeogue in 1986 and by the quiet pain of his parents; for John Connolly, the turning point was the savage murder of Bridie Gargan by Malcolm McArthur in 1982; for others, it was the dreadful murders of Imelda Riney and her son and local priest Fr Joe Walsh in Co Clare in 1994. That some Irish children, such as Riney's killer Brendan O'Donnell, could have such bleak, pitiless childhoods was something everyone knew, but so few would talk about. With these murders, Ireland came of age in the most terrible way.

Perhaps Fintan O'Toole has a point when he asserts in his essay "From Chandler and the Playboy to the Contemporary Crime Wave", that crime writing is "arguably the nearest thing we have to a realist literature adequate to capturing the nature of contemporary society". But what about the actual writing itself?

To some, such as Declan Hughes, Irish literary culture "seemed an endless, exhausted riffing on the identity variations: who are we? No, who are we really... Is anyone looking at us? Why isn't anyone looking at us... Irish writing felt as if it was eating itself," he explains in his contribution, "Irish Hard-boiled Crime: A 51st State of Mind". And so he, like others, including Colin Bateman, who translated his fascination with the comic strip and pulp fiction into Divorcing Jack, and later, Alex Barclay with Darkhouse, looked further west, to America and the hard-boiled charms of Hammet and Chandler, to Ed McBain's 87th Precinct.

Cormac Miller was "dazzled by [Ross] MacDonald's direct access to myth and tragedy, his fluid handling of shifting family structures", but for others, developments closer to home would be key. According to John Connolly, writers such as Maeve Binchy and Marian Keyes "fundamentally altered the perception of Irish writing among international publishers and paved the way for explorations of other genre forms". That genre writing, and Irish genre writing at that, could be commercially successful was something new. For John Banville, interviewed here by Declan Burke about his crime alter ego Benjamin Black, Roddy Doyle "opened the way for much of the new kind of literature... which was really engaged with society. Engaged with character, engaged with modern pressures..."

In this thoughtful book, I would have liked to see more examples of modern Irish crime fiction so as to express more directly what so many of the essayists have discussed. But the handful of short stories included provide tantalising glimpses of the possibilities of the genre, from Jane Casey's creepy big house story, to Alex Barclay's slice of American gothic and Stuart Neville's hitman who puts the love of his wife above everything else. But it's appropriate that the (almost) last word should be from Ken Bruen. His hero Jack Taylor is in his usual Galway pub, when a Texan comes to town, "built like a starved greyhound" and with a pair of Converse that "glowed in their savage whiteness". Sublime.

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