Thursday 14 December 2017

Review: Crime: Down These Green Streets - Irish Crime Writing In The 21st Century by Declan Burke

Liberties Press, €19.99

Both critically and commercially, Irish crime writing has never had it so good and Irish crime authors have benefited from the boom it's been enjoying over the last decade or so.

Why, then, do so many of them whinge about not being taken seriously -- or, at least, not as seriously as they take themselves?

In his editor's note at the start of this ragbag of essays and stories by various Irish crime writers, Declan Burke concedes that it may be "stretching a point" to suggest they are "prophets without honour in their own country", but he goes on to stretch it anyway -- finding it "a little bit odd" and "not a little unfortunate" that they're "more celebrated outside of Ireland than they are at home".

Is this true? I thought they were doing pretty well for themselves here.

Clearly, though, it rankles with some of them that they're treated like second-class authors, Cormac Millar bemoaning that, in order to get their critical due, they're required "to write better than some literary novelists" -- who, when they "stoop to crime", have "heavyweight reviewers" reassuring them that they've "transcended the thriller genre by virtue of the artistic beauty of their prose".

Other contributors are burdened with the same resentment, their annoyance either expressed in denial ("I've never thought of myself as a crime writer," insists Neville Thompson) or more commonly by positing inflated notions of their intentions and their achievements.

Some of these are comic, and all the more so for not being meant that way, as in Tana French's argument that crime writing has become the genre that "examines the tensions and fears of a society" and that it's also "where the crucial issues of any nation's identity get explored". So, not just French, but Balzac, too.

As it happens, she's at one with journalist Fintan O'Toole, who's approvingly cited in Burke's introductory note for declaring that Irish crime writing "has become arguably the nearest thing we have to a realist literature adequate to capturing the nature of contemporary society".

That's a bold claim but it's not borne out by the facts.

Yes, the ills of today's post-boom Ireland form the backdrop to many recent crime novels but the plot remains the key thing, and while seedy politicians and venal developers feature in these stories, their roles are seldom more than decoratively expedient -- gaudily drawn villains in tales that are much less interested in (or capable of) exploring the roots of our current malaise than in working towards the tense denouement demanded by a tried-and-trusted formula.

There are some interesting essays here, but these are mostly when the authors are less concerned with their fragile egos than with their subjects.

I liked especially the lively and occasionally provocative contributions of John Connolly, Colin Bateman, Declan Hughes and Ingrid Black -- the latter (a pseudonym for the husband-and-wife writing team of Eilis O'Hanlon and Ian McConnel) casting a sardonic eye on the special pleadings of some of her more pretentious colleagues.

These people protest too much. Imagine Cecelia Ahern getting cranky at not being lauded as the new Jane Austen, or Marian Keyes peeved that she's not considered George Eliot's equal.

No, I can't, either, but then I suppose they're only writing chick lit, not major works of literature.

Or, to put it another way, Irish crime writers should loosen up and let the reader be the judge of how good they are.

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