Saturday, August 18, 2012

Guest Author, Declan Burke: These Are Strange Days for the Irish Crime Novel

If anyone knows the Irish Crime novel it is our guest host today, the very busy Declan Burke.  He is the editor of Down These Green Streets: Irish Crime Writing in the 21st Century (2011), and the co-editor, with John Connolly, of Books to Die For (2012). 

For those of you unfamiliar with Declan’s website dedicated to Irish Crime Fiction, Crime Always Pays, check it out and you’ll see why Declan’s 2011 novel Absolute Zero Cool was shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards (crime fiction) and received the Goldsboro/Crimefest “Last Laugh” Award for Best Humorous Crime Novel in 2012.

Rave comparisons to the likes of Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen brought on by his first two crime novels, Eightball Boogie (2003) and The Big O (2007), have proven right on the mark and Declan’s newest book, SLAUGHTER’S HOUND, comes out this Monday.

For those of you wondering what an Irish writer is doing in a blog slot reserved for Greece, the answer is simple:  Declan admits to greatly admiring John Fowles’ The Magus, and that’s good enough for me!

These are strange days for the Irish crime novel.
            Irish author Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn & Child, published last month, centres on the eponymous pair of police detectives as they go about their work in London. Yet Hawthorn & Child is not a crime novel. It is a novel about criminals, victims and investigators, but it shies clear of engaging too closely with any actual crimes, their execution or their consequences.
            Joe Murphy’s Dead Dogs is published this month. Set in Wexford in southern Ireland, it features two young boys - one of whom has a penchant for killing said dogs - who witness a doctor committing a murder. Or do they? Dead Dogs, we are reliably informed, is not a crime novel; like Hawthorn & Child, it is published as a literary title rather than a genre one.
            Broken Harbour by Tana French, published in July, is a police procedural investigating the whys and wherefores of an apparent murder-suicide, a tragic tale in which desperate parents take the lives of their children before turning their knives on themselves. It’s a classic crime fiction set-up, but the story’s relevance to Ireland’s economic collapse means that it is the great post-Celtic Tiger novel that literary Ireland has been waiting for.
            Meanwhile, Booker Prize winning author John Banville published his latest novel, Ancient Light, last month, which appeared almost simultaneously with Vengeance, the fifth crime title from Banville’s alter-ego Benjamin Black. Just last week it was announced that Benjamin Black will pen a new novel featuring Raymond Chandler’s iconic private eye Philip Marlowe.
            We have arrived at something of a crisis point, I think, where literary authors turn to writing about crime, and crime authors are lauded as literary novelists, and crime novels are no longer sure as to whether crimes are worth investigating, or indeed if a crime has taken place at all.
            My last book, Absolute Zero Cool (2011), featured a hospital porter called Karlsson who was bent on blowing up the hospital where he worked. A goodly portion of the novel, however, is taken up by a running discussion between Karlsson and the author writing his story as to the morality of his actions, and whether his story was a literary or genre one (Karlsson favoured the literary approach; his creator, desperate to sell books, wanted a crime novel).
            The author of Karlsson’s story goes unnamed throughout, but most reviewers presumed - correctly - that the author was Declan Burke.
            John Banville described Absolute Zero Cool as Raymond Chandler meets Flann O’Brien, which gives a flavour of its roots in both the crime novel and the comically surreal. The latter was the crucial element: AZC was an attempt to write a crime novel set in an Ireland that has seen its economy (and by extension, and far more importantly, the lives of many of its citizens) destroyed by the actions of a gang of inept gamblers and inadequate politicians. Painted in very broad and simplistic strokes, Ireland Inc. has been ripped off to the tune of one hundred billion or so, a heist that was unethical, immoral and entirely legal.
            People are dying as a result of this heist. The best of the country’s young generation are emigrating. Families are sundered, cynicism grows by the day, the body politic is poisoned beyond repair.
            How is it possible, then, to write a conventional crime fiction novel in which justice is not only done but is seen to be done? How is artistically viable to write of order emerging from chaos, with redemption the reward for self-sacrifice?
            And so we begin to see novels that dabble in crime and criminality and yet cannot commit to their investigation, and read of murders that are not really murders. Hence the blurring of the lines between the genre ‘entertainments’ that engage with crime and criminality and the literary accounts of official record.    
            My new book, Slaughter’s Hound, which is published this month, opens with a former private eye called Harry Rigby witnessing the suicide of his friend, Finn Hamilton, as Finn jumps from a nine-story building. Finn is the latest statistic in what is being described as a ‘silent epidemic’ of suicides sweeping Ireland, a young man crushed by despair at his inability, through no great fault of his own, to shoulder his responsibilities.
            And yet, no one wants to believe Harry Rigby’s eye-witness account. Not Finn’s doting sister, nor his pregnant fiancée; not Finn’s mother, the formidable property magnate Saoirse Hamilton, who commissions Harry to unsee what he has seen and prove that Finn’s death was not suicide, but murder.
            Slaughter’s Hound is a more traditional and straightforward crime novel than the meta-fictions of Absolute Zero Cool, and deliberately so, but the ambition remains the same. To use the prism of fiction to look as squarely as we can at the causes and consequences of one of the greatest crimes ever perpetrated against the Irish people.
            Because if this is not why crime fiction is written, then what is it for?
Thank you, Declan, it was an honor having you with us today.



  1. Oh, Declan, what a sad story. In the 70's and 80's I had Irishmen working in my house--marvelous carpenters, painters, wall paperers. They would come to New York for months at a time to find work. They longed for home, but they could not find work there. They talked about the generation lost to economic immigration. During the boom times, I thought they and their families were safe from all that. And now this. And a suicide epidemic? What grief!

    Now that you have made me sad, I HAVE to get AZC so you can make me laugh, too.
    PS: Anyone who loves John Fowles The Magus is a friend of mine.

    1. It is a sad story, Annamaria, in part, but her people aren't just saddened, but angry and frustrated too. And deeply cynical, which may become one of the most long-lasting consequences. That said, the Irish people have come through worse than their current woe. We'll do okay. Cheers, Declan

  2. I wonder if the popularity of Irish fiction is precisely because it reflects how many people feel-here in the States as well-betrayed by their government and institutions, and not quite trusting too many people. The sorrow is how much is lost in that. When Apple had a major presence in Ireland, I had a delightful conversation with a young woman in customer service, talking about Ireland and how beautiful it is. I, of course, could have listened to her talk for hours. And she did help me. How sad to see that optimism and joy disappear. But your book should be winging its way to me very soon. At least, we are seeing good writing :)

    1. Hi Lil - Absolutely, people are suffering all over. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Thanks a million, as always, for all your support, and do let me know how the new one treats you. Cheers, Dec

  3. Annamaria, not only do I love John Fowles, including The Magus, but I saw the movie about a dozen times in my youth - nothing to do with Candice Bergen and Anna Karina, of course. And Declan, thanks for the insights. When I was in Ireland just before Crimefest, I found it a strange place, not only with the financial problems, but also with the acrimonious debate around the referendum. Fortunately the Guiness is as good as ever.

    1. So Stan, we can add Fowles to our list of obscure but delightful things we both love. And Candice Bergen too, probably for very different reasons. But not Guiness. I'll stick with the Stellenbosch Chenin Blanc, thank you very much.

    2. I've read the novel about five times, Stan, but I've never seen The Magus - I've been warned off, saying it spoils the book. I take it you're recommending it? Cheers, Dec