Tuesday 23 April 2019

Emerald Noir's genre-bending take on the crime novel

Ireland boasts a fascinating crime writing scene, says Declan Burke

‘Emerald Noir’ has not yet reached the heights of ‘Nordic Noir’ successes such as ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’, but the genre is here to stay
‘Emerald Noir’ has not yet reached the heights of ‘Nordic Noir’ successes such as ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’, but the genre is here to stay

Declan Burke

Even allowing for the hyperbole that accompanies most PR releases in publishing these days, 'Move over Nordic Noir, the Irish are coming!' was a bit on the strong side.

That had nothing to do with the book it was flagging up - Anthony Quinn, publishing his third book, is already a well-regarded writer, and The Blood Dimmed Tide, a historical murder mystery set in County Sligo and featuring WB Yeats, sounds an intriguing prospect.

The issue has more to do with the fact that historical murder mysteries featuring Nobel Prize-winning poets isn't really the kind of thing you'll find on bookshelves groaning under the weight of Scandinavian crime fiction.

Despite a wide geographical range that incorporates Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland, 'Nordic Noir' tends to operate within relatively narrow parameters when it comes to the variations available to the crime/mystery author.

Inspired by the great 'Decalogue' of Maj Swöjall and Per Wahlöö, the husband-and-wife writing team who published Roseanna, the first of the ten Martin Beck novels, in 1965, the stories are for the most part police procedurals with contemporary settings (even if modern investigations do occasionally bring a darker history to light), the tone pitched somewhere between serious and very grim indeed as the protagonists struggle to come to terms with the seismic changes in Scandinavian society over the past three decades.

In Ireland, as always, we do things a little differently. The Irish have been coming for quite some time now, ever since the mid- to late-nineties, when John Connolly, Ken Bruen, Julie Parsons, Colin Bateman and Eoin McNamee published their debut novels, building on a platform laid down by pioneers such as Vincent Banville, Eugene McEldowney and Patrick McGinley.

By the following decade, the loose coalition of Irish crime writers dubbed 'Emerald Noir' by Val McDermid had grown to accommodate Tana French, Declan Hughes, Alex Barclay, Stuart Neville, Brian McGilloway, Adrian McKinty, Arlene Hunt and Benjamin Black, to mention but a few, many of whom were winning prizes in both the UK and the US (only last month, Adrian McKinty won the Best Crime Novel award in Australia, where he now lives).

Despite the undoubted quality of the writing, however - and make no mistake, the best Irish crime writers are as good as those from anywhere else in the world - it's unlikely that 'Emerald Noir' will ever become a phenomenon to rival that of 'Nordic Noir'.

That's in large part due to the diversity of the storytelling the Irish writers bring to the table, which is reflected in this year's shortlist for The Ireland AM Crime Fiction Book of the Year at the upcoming Irish Book Awards.

Liz Nugent's Unravelling Oliver is a perversely sympathetic portrait of a very dangerous man; Jane Casey's The Kill is a London-set police investigation into cop-killers; Stuart Neville's Belfast-set The Final Silence is a brooding meditation on the reality of post-Troubles policing; Sinéad Crowley's Can Anybody Help Me? offers a skin-crawling take on the burgeoning 'domestic noir' sub-genre; Tana French's The Secret Place is an epic yet intimate police procedural set in a Dublin girls' boarding school; and Louise Phillips, last year's winner of the prize, offers Last Kiss, a harrowing psychological profile of a sexually damaged killer.

Meanwhile, the books that didn't make this year's shortlist do very little to help anyone trying to market 'Emerald Noir' as a homogenous collection. Cora Harrison's Cross of Vengeance, featuring a female Brehon judge, is set in the Burren of the 15th Century. Eoin McNamee concluded his superb 'Blue' trilogy with the pre-Troubles 'Calvinist noir' of Blue is the Night. John Connolly's latest gothic-tinged novel featuring private eye Charlie Parker, The Wolf in Winter, was, as always, set in Maine. Joe Joyce's spy thriller Echobeat was set during Ireland's WWII 'Emergency'.

Adrian McKinty's murder mystery The Sun is God was set in 1906, in a German nudist colony on remote South Pacific island. Benjamin Black, aka John Banville, weighed in with a new novel, The Black Eyed Blonde, based on Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. Conor Fitzgerald's Bitter Remedy was his fifth novel to feature the American-born Italian police detective Alec Blume.

Ken Bruen's post-modern private eye Jack Taylor returned to the mean streets of Galway, while Claire McGowan offered a chilling psychological study of atrocity in The Dead Ground. And there was also William Ryan's The Twelfth Department, set in Stalinist Moscow; the forensic investigations of Casey Hill's Riley Steel; and the superb debut from Karen Perry, The Boy That Never Was, which offered not one but two ambiguous narrators in a haunting tale of obsession …

I sincerely hope I'm wrong in suggesting that 'Emerald Noir' is unlikely to ever rival 'Nordic Noir' as a global phenomenon, but if that does remain the case, then at the very least Ireland can boast an endlessly fascinating, diverse, challenging and genre-bending take on the crime/mystery novel. Long may it continue.

To vote for any of the books on the Irish Book Awards 2014 shortlists go to www.bgeirishbookawards.ie

Winners will be announced at a gala dinner on November 26th.

Sunday Independent

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