Irish Crime Fiction by Brian Cliff

Article published on July 12, 2018.

This kind of academic study wouldn’t usually feature in a review on nudge-book but I wanted to see what it tells us about what we read when we read Irish crime fiction. Academic research into crime fiction is new, and there is very little specific to Ireland. As a lover of “Irish” crime, I think is deserves academic acknowledgement. What Cliff is able to achieve here is an overview, a look at the factors that distinguish Irish crime from the rest of the world, he unlocks the themes and motifs that reoccur. Irish crime writing is rich and diverse and growing.

I bang on about themes in crime fiction, it’s ok to read just for fun, but modern tastes are more sophisticated. Good crime fiction now has a social context, it has strong characterisation and a credible setting. The best crime fiction often deals in the same themes as contemporary literature.

Cliff uses the example of writers to illustrate themes and trends in Irish crime. Let’s start with what he calls ‘conflict trash’, writing that reduces the troubles to a two-dimensional issue, popular in the 70s/80s. Often written by soldiers and journalists, these potboilers (my term) reinforce stereotypes. Jack Higgins’ character Liam Devlin, for instance, is a “good” republican because he left the cause (Higgins wants us to like his hero, an out and out killer wouldn’t be that). This is the Troubles as easy entertainment, issues are romanticised – no engagement with reality. These novels boil down to Brits v IRA; bloody and ideologically driven violence, the image of the backward Irish and interminable trauma. I would add that the cheap heroism and good outcomes creates a victory myth – at odds with the reality of the ‘troubles’ going on. Uncertainty reflects reality.

Cliff concentrates on fiction from the 1990s boom in publishing, more sophisticated interpretations of the people and events of Ireland (crime fiction as a way of understanding the wider world). Novels that have a strong socio-political context. As a reader/reviewer, a crime novel that isn’t exciting, thrilling, mysterious would be a failure but Cliff is looking for meaning/themes.

Irish issues are clear for readers: sectarianism, the border and smuggling, institutional abuse, the power of the church and the effects of the boom and bust (the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger). The national psyche and self-image. Irish Crime Fiction explores these themes with precision and clear organisation, highlighting subtleties and factors I hadn’t consciously appreciated.

Crime fiction is a conservative genre that has developed as a subversive critique of societal structures. It is full of contradictions, the police are an essential element of social order and often heroic in the novel, but they are also the object of scorn because of corruption and incompetence. In Northern Ireland they are the subject of deep suspicion by the Catholic community. Irish crime is widening it’s remit since The Good Friday Agreement. The relative peace and prosperity, but also the crash and immigration (victims and perpetrators), and The Criminal Assets Bureau, established in 1996, have normalised some crime fiction.

Writers in Northern Ireland blur the lines between present and past. This history is for the most part recent, within living memory, it impacts on the present and the boundaries between them are now fluid. Writers have used a metaphysical approach to explore the conflict. For instance, Stuart Neville’s The Twelve, in which the apparitions are not voices in the head but ghosts that haunt the central character, Gerry Fegan. This blurs the genre lines also, straying into the realm of the ghost story. There is also the psychosexual, where terrorist motivations are entangled with disturbing psychological conditions. Chris Petit’s The Psalm Killer has a serial killer hiding within the conflict. Cliff feels that both of these are a substitute for real explanations of the Troubles. Bernard MacLaverty in Cal offers a version of the ‘zero sum game’, violence begets violence and we all lose. What Cliff points out is that this negates the emancipatory political solution and, although it’s not perfect, the peace process is moving forward. There is an infeasible plethora of Catholics in the RUC in fiction, but of course this creates a tension in the story (McKinty). Brian McGilloway’s character Devlin faces ethical conflicts because of his faith. Cliff also deals with survivor revenge, splinter group violence, abortion, externalising the conflict (taking it abroad), and international factors that affect the North: FBI, CIA, British Secret Service, and business/economic interests (Celtic Tiger again).

Themes in the Republic of Ireland include uncertainty, housing and land ownership, as a factor in transnational capital crime, boom and bust and the uncomfortable links between entrepreneurs and criminals (gangsters). The Celtic Tiger created an image of confidence, crime fiction tackles this.

Female authors and complex female characters and protagonists now feature prominently, challenging masculine stereotypes (e.g. Tana French). Women as victims but also perpetrators, psychologically strong or flawed, facing up to issues of rape, violence and domestic abuse, human trafficking and male attitudes.

I might have wished for a broader range of writers to be included, rather than absorbed. But overall, this is a very satisfying read, covering the themes in Irish Crime Fiction. This is the latest in the Palgrave MacMillan Crime Files series.

Paul Burke 4/-

Irish Crime Fiction by Brian Cliff
Palgrave Macmillan 9781137561879 hbk May 2018


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