Femmes fatales in crime spree
After an excellent year for Irish crime writing, Declan Burke believes female authors to be the deadlier of the species
LAST year was something of an annus mirabilis for Irish crime writing, with superb novels on offer from John Connolly, Declan Hughes, Gene Kerrigan, Stuart Neville, Adrian McKinty and Brian McGilloway, among others. It was also a year, as that list suggests, that was rather light on X chromosomes. This year, however, sees a whole slew of Irish women crime writers hit the shelves, a fact to be celebrated not so much for its quantity as for the sheer diversity of crime novel on offer.
Sunday World crime correspondent Niamh O'Connor has published non-fiction titles in the past, but If I Never See You Again is her debut fiction. A police procedural featuring DI Jo Bermingham, its edgy tone taps into O'Connor's personal experience of her day job.
"I needed an outlet for this perverse reaction I was having when various gangland bosses got knocked off," she says, "which was a feeling of 'good riddance'. I'd heard and seen first hand the devastating injuries suffered by Dr James Donovan, who founded the forensic science laboratory, and who was blown up in a car bomb by the 'General', Martin Cahill, because of his incredible work making society safer for the rest of us.
"Working on other stories for the Sunday World over the years had also caused my attitude to gangland to harden. So I was having all these Dexter-type thoughts about the merits of a state-sponsored hit squad, and I vented them in my novel about a killer who starts knocking off society's worst, and why."
By way of comparison with O'Connor's contemporary setting, Eye of the Law is Cora Harrison's fifth novel in her Burren Mysteries series. Set in the Burren of the 16th Century, the series features Mara, a Brehon law-giver.
"My favourite detective stories are in the rather old-fashioned style," says Cora, "which emphasised knowledge of people and inspired deduction, but the gifted amateur -- someone like Miss Marple or Brother Cadfael -- didn't appeal, as it requires too much suspension of disbelief. I wanted someone who would be involved in crime-solving as a professional.
"So I created Mara, a divorced woman of 36, who was not only Brehon, or investigating magistrate, of the kingdom of the Burren, but who also had the job of running a law school. Since the Burren is only 10 miles by 10 miles, the terrain, with its beautiful limestone mountains and fields and its profusion of wild flowers, was known intimately by Mara as were its inhabitants, the clans of O'Brien, O'Lochlainn, O'Connor and MacNamara. Her skills of tact, negotiation, diplomacy, joined to a formidable intellect, ensure that she is effective in her position.
"A far cry," she says, "from the mean streets and neurotic policemen with an alcohol problem."
Arlene Hunt's novels, of which Blood Money is the sixth in a series featuring Sarah Kenny and John Quigley of the QuicK Detective Agency, mines a more modern seam.
"I write in the here and now," she says, "because it's tangible to me, and I generally base my novels in Dublin because the QuicK detective agency is there, and because the city feels like another character to me. I do a lot of walking and running around Dublin -- I've done the marathon three times. I never tire of running through dappled Georgian streets, of leaping over savage terriers on the banks of the Dodder or coming up through the acres in the Phoenix Park and seeing the deer graze at Pope's Cross. It's home."
Setting apart, the theme of Blood Money is timeless. "I am always interested in moral dilemmas," says Arlene, "in the flexibility of our beliefs when faced with the unthinkable. Personally, I think humans are only ever a faint line [away] from criminality. If we're lucky we never have to cross that line. But if faced with a hellish decision that may involve the life and death of a loved one, any one of us might cross it and rationalise more questionable actions later."
Thriller writer Alex Barclay is equally obsessed with setting, although in her case the season is as important a factor as the place.
"I'm a winter person," she says. " I love the snow. I think there's a haunting quality to that white landscape. Time of Death is set in Denver in March -- the snowiest month of the year there.
"I first chose Colorado as a setting for [the first Ren Bryce novel] Blood Runs Cold because it's a state where fugitives can easily disappear. I like the idea of its vastness. I remember arriving in Breckenridge for the first time in the dark on a freezing January night to this perfect town lit with fairy lights and the Rockies towering over it -- it was breathtaking. I fell in love with Colorado, and with writing about it."
Silent Crossing is Ellen McCarthy's third novel, and as with Cora Harrison, she is fascinated by the intimacy of rural settings as opposed to the enforced anonymity of the urban settings beloved of traditional crime fiction.
"My books do tend to focus on rural settings," says Ellen. "The country has so much scope for mystery and darkness -- what seems quiet and tranquil on the surface makes you wonder what's lying underneath, a bit like the opening scene of Blue Velvet."
Although more contemporary than Cora Harrison in her settings, McCarthy is equally fascinated by the impact of the past.
"Though I set most of my novels in the present day there are always pieces of back-story used from the history of a place. The legacy of the past can span generations in communities or families. And just as we can't escape the past, our actions will have an influence on the future."
Although contemporary in setting and theme, Tana French's third novel, Faithful Place, offers yet another kind of crime novel: the psychological thriller. The narrator, Frank Mackey, is a minor character from her previous novel, The Likeness.
"He was Cassie Maddox's old undercover boss," says Tana, "and I thought he would be an interesting character to use as a narrator: a guy whose moral sense isn't like most people's, a guy who is willing to do absolutely anything, to himself or anyone else, in order to get his man."
As for tone, style or theme, Tana refuses to be pinned down to any one kind of story.
"I do a fair amount of switching around -- I've got a different narrator for every book, which inevitably means a slightly different style and setting. For me every other aspect of the book (plot, style, setting, etc) comes out of the character of the narrator. The one constant is Dublin -- all the books are set either in the city, or at least in and around it. Dublin's the only place where I can imagine setting a book. It's the only city I know well enough to do any kind of justice to, and it's also the only city I care about passionately enough to want to explore the tensions and problems that underlie crime."
Ava McCarthy, who debuted last year with The Insider, reprises the heroine from that novel, Harry Martinez, in The Courier, another high-concept, globe-straddling thriller.
"The types of stories I write are probably influenced a lot by my life-long love of thriller movies and books," says Ava. "I've always been a great fan of heist movies, and also of all the Robert Ludlum and early Grisham thrillers.
"For me, writing is just like reading," she says, "it's all about escape. So when I write, I like to escape into a world that I don't normally inhabit. That's probably why I choose settings which are a little bit exotic. The Insider was partly set in the Bahamas, and much of The Courier takes place in South Africa, while the third book in the series, The Dealer, is set in the Basque area of northern Spain. I need to keep my horizons broad, otherwise I feel confined and bored."
Private eyes, psychological thrillers, police procedurals, historical whodunits, globe-trotting thrillers and rural crime dramas: this could be the year when Irish women writers prove themselves deadlier than the male.