Showdown for the Irish cream of crime writers
A new category at this year's national book awards recognises the genre's growing popularity, says Declan Burke
'Crime never pays," as Karl Marx once said, "not so!" It's highly unlikely Marx had the Irish Book Awards in mind at the time, but the announcement of a dedicated Irish crime fiction award for the 2009 Awards suggests that writing about crime is paying off in spades for a growing number of Irish authors.
Originally the Sunday Independent/Hughes & Hughes Irish Novel of the Year Award, the Irish Book Awards arrived on the Irish literary scene in 2006, much expanded and offering a number of categories. This year, these include the Dublin Airport Authority's Children's Book of the Year (junior and senior), the Eason's Popular Fiction Book of the Year, the Energise Sport Irish Sports Book of the Year, and the Irish Newcomer of the Year.
To reflect the emphasis on popular books -- which is to say books people are actually reading, as opposed to books a secretive cabal believes they should be reading -- the winners will be chosen by a combination of public voting and the Irish Literary Academy, which is composed of authors, publishers, booksellers, journalists, academics, critics and reviewers.
Given the popularity of crime fiction in Ireland, the arrival of the Ireland AM Crime Fiction Award is a timely one. It's no coincidence that TV3 is involved in sponsoring the award: in recent months, Arlene Hunt, Ava McCarthy and Alex Barclay have been interviewed on the station to mark the publication of their new novels.
"Ireland AM has been aware of the growth of Irish crime writing for a few years," says programme producer Richard Stearn. "People like John Connolly, Gene Kerrigan, Declan Hughes, Arlene Hunt and Alex Barclay have been receiving strong reviews for their work, so it's not just been about increased volume of output, the quality of Irish writing has been improving. However, it was one area of Irish writing that wasn't being championed. So we decided to get behind it. There's something really going on in a genre when a Booker prize winner [John Banville, aka Benjamin Black] turns his hand to it.
"One Irish writer, Alex Barclay, received rave reviews for her first book Darkhouse. As a result, we included her novel Blood Runs Cold as our Book Club choice for November 2008. It got a huge reaction from viewers, and we carried several features discussing the nature and history of crime writing -- why it was such a popular genre with female writers and readers, for example, and the link between actual crime and crime fiction.
"We've had all the Irish crime writers on," he says, "John Banville as Benjamin Black, Declan Hughes, John Connolly, Arlene Hunt, Tana French, Alex Barclay -- the only one we haven't met is shortlisted author Brian McGilloway, who is creating a bit of a buzz about himself. All four shortlisted authors will be featured weekly, every Tuesday, and on May 5 an expert panel will be reviewing the shortlisted books."
Of course, Irish crime writers are no strangers to awards ceremonies, particularly those in the US. Last year alone, Tana French, Benjamin Black and Ken Bruen were nominated for Edgar awards, the crime-writing equivalent of the Oscars, while Declan Hughes, already a Shamus award winner, has been nominated for a Best Novel Edgar in 2009 for The Price of Blood.
The fact that authors such as Hughes, Bruen and Connolly haven't made the shortlist might raise an eyebrow or two in some quarters, especially as all three are critically acclaimed on the international stage. All three, however, despite penning radically different kinds of stories, write in a hard-boiled style more popular across the Atlantic than in Ireland or the UK, where the mystery novel is traditionally, although by no means exclusively, traced back to the Golden Age of crime writing, and writers such as Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham and Josephine Tey. The US crime novel, on the other hand, tends to view the more hard-boiled style of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James M Cain as its unholy trinity.
Alex Barclay (Blood Runs Cold), Brian McGilloway (Gallows Lane), Arlene Hunt (Undertow) and Tana French (The Likeness) make up the first Ireland AM Crime Fiction Award shortlist, a list that reflects the fact that in Ireland, women tend to read more crime fiction than men. It also showcases the diversity of the crime genre.
Blood Runs Cold, Barclay's third novel, is set in Colorado, a taut police procedural featuring a hard-bitten FBI agent, Ren Bryce. Gallows Lane is also a police procedural, and Brian McGilloway's second in a series set in Donegal, but stars a protagonist, Inspector Devlin, who is first and foremost a family man, and the antithesis of the genre's more conventional alcoholic loner detective. Arlene Hunt's Undertow is her fifth novel, with her Dublin-set pairing of Sarah Kenny and John Quigley, of QuicK Investigations, offering a more gender-balanced take on the classic private eye narrative. The Likeness, Tana French's follow-up to her best-selling, multi-prize-winning debut In the Woods, is a psychological thriller much in the mould of Donna Tartt's The Secret History.
Being shortlisted for a prize naturally boosts an author's profile, and sales, a due reward for excelling in a particular field. For the writers nominated for Ireland's first crime fiction award, however, there's another aspect that's especially satisfying.
"What it means," says Arlene Hunt, "is that, finally, crime fiction is recognised as being literature, and not literature's slightly touched-in-the-head family member that no one wants to talk about, on account of them not being the full shilling. It means crime fiction writers can come out into the light and say, 'Be not ashamed, we write real books you can read in the open on the DART and not wedged hidden behind the cover of Ulysses.'"
Tana French agrees. "Irish crime fiction has really taken off in the past five or 10 years," she says. "It's gained a huge amount of momentum and started to develop a very distinctive identity. That's been noticed around the world -- our very own Declan Hughes is up for this year's Edgar for Best Novel! -- so it's great to see it being recognised here too."
Alex Barclay, meanwhile, believes that the new category is as much a reward for readers as it is for writers. "I think it's a validation for crime-fiction readers more than anything," she says. "They are hugely loyal, but until now they've never seen the genre they love formally acknowledged in this way. As a writer, I do what I do, and I root for every Irish author who writes crime, because I know how interesting and rewarding it is to do it, award or no award."
Brian McGilloway sounds a pragmatic note. "I think it's telling that the authors on the Popular Fiction Award short-list almost all write woman's literature," he says, "which suggests that crime fiction -- excepting John Connolly, obviously -- still has a way to go to break into the mainstream in Ireland to the same extent that the 'chick-lit' genre has. That said, it's great that the Irish Book Awards have recognised the growth of the crime genre in Ireland and feel there is enough quality and variety to sustain the prize year on year." If the first four months of 2009 are any guide, then the quality of 2010's award is already assured. Gene Kerrigan, Colin Bateman, Declan Hughes and Brian McGilloway have already published excellent new novels, with Adrian McKinty's Fifty Grand and John Connolly's The Lovers due in the next couple of months, while Alan Glynn's Winterland and Stuart Neville's debut offering The Twelve are already creating a strong word-of-mouth buzz, even though they're not due until the end of the year.
In the meantime, TV3 will continue to promote the short-listed authors in the run-up to the Irish Book Awards. "We'll be running more features on Ireland AM throughout April," says Richard Stearn, "plus interviewing each of the shortlisted authors for the award, which will be voted for by viewers.
"It has to be said," he adds, "having read lots of Irish crime fiction in the last year, there is something really persuasive and thrilling about following hardboiled Irish detectives tracking down criminals in familiar settings. You don't need to go to CSI Miami -- Ireland has plenty of credible crime locations and characters."
You can vote for the short-listed novels at the Irish Book Awards website (www.irishbookawards.com/PublicVote.aspx) and the Ireland AM website (www.tv3.ie/ireland_am.php)
Declan Burke is the editor of Crime Always Pays, a blog dedicated to Irish Crime Fiction.