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Saturday 15 December 2018

A poetic pedigree translates into crime

Growing up with a literary icon as a father, Conor Deane swore he'd never become a writer, says Declan Burke

Declan Burke

Have you heard the one about the Joycean translator and son of a renowned poet who writes crime novels? No, it's not a joke.

"I deliberately chose the detective genre," says Conor Fitzgerald, "in part because of my father's influence." Conor Fitzgerald is the nom-de-plume of Conor Deane, author of the Alec Blume detective novels and son of the garlanded poet and academic, Seamus Deane.

"My father's an extremely clever man, he really is," says Conor, "but at some stage in his life he decided that the only things that were really interesting were detective novels and football," he laughs. "In the pre-Amazon days, he used to send me books in the post. With poetry, for example, he'd always say, 'This guy is very good, but ... ' and he'd make some observation, which could be political, or academic, literary, or simply in bad taste. With the crime novels, he'd just say, 'This is brilliant'."

Born in Cambridge in 1964, Conor's peripatetic childhood was shaped by his father's career, which saw him moving from Cambridge to America, via Dublin, first to lecture in Notre Dame, and then Berkeley University in California.

"My parents tell me that I had an English accent when I went to America," Conor, who confesses to socialist republican leanings, says ruefully. "Certainly I had an American accent when I came back to Ireland, an Irish accent when I went back to America again, and an American accent when we came back to Ireland. So perhaps it was inevitable that I'd end up living in Italy, a place where I'll always have an accent, because by the time I got there it was too late to learn Italian as an Italian."

Based in Rome for the past 20 years, Conor has in the past translated James Joyce's Scritti Italiani into Italian. He currently works as a freelance financial translator for the Italian Parliament, among other institutions, and despite his literary background -- ("When I was a kid," he says, "the house was always full of writers and poets, and parties and drinking,") -- he spent many years considering the wisdom of becoming a writer himself.

"Absolutely," he grins. "I thought, 'I'm not going to f*cking write, no way'. I was very much in my father's shadow, or under his influence... I suppose, too, the thing about growing up in what was a literary and academic environment, there was a lot of criticism about 'This guy's no good', or 'That guy's overrated', and so on. Not necessarily from my father, but within those circles there was a lot of backbiting and so on. So I grew up with this attitude that to be really, really good was going to be very difficult, and that if I tried, I wouldn't be much good either. And I also had the attitude -- correctly, I think -- that I didn't know anything, and who cared what I thought?"

Married to Paola, with whom he has two children, Sinead and Patrick ["Good solid Italian names," he laughs], Conor belatedly published his first novel, The Dogs of Rome, in 2010. Set in Rome, and featuring the American-born police inspector Alec Blume, the story proved problematic when it came to establishing the correct tone and voice.

"I conceived this idea, which I did with the Joyce translation -- with disastrous results when I did it with Joyce -- of thinking it into Italian, and then translating it from there. Making it read like it was translated, so that the underlying language was Italian, which then restricted the kind of English I could use. Which made it come out a little bit stilted, a bit strange."

The result generated widespread critical acclaim, with William Boyd declaring it, "A powerful and hugely compelling thriller". The follow-up, The Fatal Touch (2011) showcases an even more assured hand, as Fitzgerald gets to grips with Italian corruption at all levels of Italian society.

William Boyd's opinion is one thing; what does Seamus Deane make of the Alec Blume novels? "I think he likes what I'm doing," says Conor. "No, I know he does, and he's even decided that, on reflection, I am better than writers x, y, and z . He does this -- delivers considered opinions, not immediately but after some time, as if he's been reflecting about it in a disinterested and academic way.

"I think he believes this, too, having persuaded himself over a period of time that his judgement is the result of the application of objective critical and literary criteria, whereas, in fact, it's the best way he has of expressing his love.

"So I don't necessarily believe him -- or sometimes I do, because a writer has to have vast reserves of arrogance and self-confidence -- but I'm happy to hear him say it."

Conor Fitzgerald has been shortlisted for the Crime Writers' Association Debut Dagger for 'The Dogs of Rome' (Bloomsbury). The awards ceremony will be held on October 7. His novel 'The Fatal Touch' is published by Bloomsbury

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