For years America has had its Queens of Crime, hugely successful female thriller writers like Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs. Their books invariably top the charts and rack up millions of sales. They themselves have become celebrities and multi-millionaires.
Britain, too, has given us hugely successful female crime writers, from Agatha Christie and PD James to Val McDermid and Mo Hayder. Again, these are authors who sell books in their millions (and Agatha is still doing so).
Here in Ireland, renowned around the world as the home of Joyce and Beckett and where we are all supposed to have an innate talent for writing, it's different. We have contemporary literary authors like Colm Tóibin, Colum McCann and Sebastian Barry who sell books by the cartload. We have a couple of modestly successful male crime writers like Ken Bruen. But where are the Irish female crime queens?
Up to recently, the answer has been nowhere. But now, at last, Ireland has a female thriller writer of the same world-class stature as Cornwell or Reichs, Tess Gerritson or Karin Slaughter.
The 'First Lady of Irish Crime' is former Trinity College student and actress Tana French, who very quietly has become a huge international name among crime fiction readers.
Tana published her first thriller, In the Woods, just five years ago and it was a dream debut. Critics raved about it, and readers both here in Ireland and in Britain catapulted it up the bestseller charts. French's accomplished and ingenious psychological mystery set in Dublin about the murder of a young girl also managed to crack wide open the all-important American market, an unprecedented feat for a first-time author.
In the Woods topped the bestseller lists on both the east and west coasts of the US, and then made a remarkable clean-sweep of the most prestigious crime writing industry awards in North America in 2008, scooping up the Edgar, Barry, Macavity and Anthony Awards. This was the literary equivalent of a first-time film director's movie winning several Oscars, a Golden Globe, a BAFTA and the Palme d'Or at Cannes. (If you're wondering about that Edgar award, which is only awarded to American authors, French was born in the US and enjoys dual Irish/US citizenship).
French describes herself as having been "an international brat". Her father was an economist advising developing countries on resource management, so the family spent long periods of time in Italy, the US and Malawi as well as Ireland while she was growing up. It was, she has said, a wonderful way to live. It is also a key to why her novels rooted in working-class Dublin have succeeded abroad, especially in America. At their core, all her thrillers are about universal human concerns.
In 1990, when she was 17, she returned to Ireland permanently, settling in Dublin where she went to Trinity and studied drama. Her travels, she says, have helped her greatly both as an actress and, now, a full-time writer. She says it is more than likely that all her future books will be also set in our capital city. "I've lived in Dublin for more than half my life and know the city intimately, the connotations of every neighbourhood and every accent, the slang, the shortcuts, where not to walk at night and where to get a good pint."
Tana French's 2008 achievements were no flash in the pan. Her follow-up book, The Likeness, also became a smash hit, immediately soaring high on the bestseller lists in various countries on this side of the Atlantic and staying firmly anchored in the New York Times bestseller list for several months. Her third novel, Faithful Place, a powerful murder mystery on a theme of love, longing and loss, also struck a massive chord internationally and was short-listed for the 2012 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the most valuable literary prize in the world.
Her latest thriller, Broken Harbour, which is out next week, brings to the fore Detective Mick Kennedy, a character who played a peripheral role in Faithful Place. Mick 'Scorcher' Kennedy is an obsessive, driven man. For most of the 10 years he's been in Dublin's Murder Squad he's held the record for the most cases solved. He's the man, in his opinion, so he drives the right car, wears the right clothes and does everything by the book.
Kennedy is sent to Brianstown, a half-built, half-inhabited, half-abandoned ghost estate on the coast a little north of Dublin, to investigate a tragic case. A father and his children have been stabbed to death and his wife critically wounded. Once he sees the scene he knows he'll have it all tied up in days.
As far as he and his rookie partner Richie Curran are concerned the father, IT specialist Pat Spain, is an out-of-work victim of the recession about to lose his home to the banks, so in desperation he killed his children, tried to kill his wife and then killed himself. But from the very beginning things don't quite add up the way Scorcher sees them, and there is clear evidence that someone had been secretly stalking the family in the days before the deaths.
In addition, 'Scorcher' Kennedy is only too familiar with Brianstown, having spent childhood holidays there in the years before it was developed. The investigation brings back dark memories, memories he's thought he had packed away securely. The blaze of media publicity around this high-profile tragedy also has major repercussions for his siblings. The neat compartments of Kennedy's life are breaking down big time.
Told entirely in the first person, Broken Harbour is a complex, well crafted psychological thriller as well as an exemplary dissection of the plight of the disappointed and desperate human wreckage washed up in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland. As always, French's carefully wrought but seemingly effortless prose is a delight -- an upset young woman's face "looked bleached and friable, like a shell dried out on sand".
A hugely impressive and intelligent book, with writing to savour. It confirms French as the First Lady of Irish Crime.