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Sunday 31 August 2008

Grab your chance to hatch a plot with top writers 

It's crime writers who are now grabbing all the top awards and holding the readers captive, writes Declan Burke

It's the speed and ferocity with which Irish crime fiction has exploded on to the Irish literary scene that has caught most people by surprise. The phenomenon is akin to that of chick lit -- a sudden eruption of writers from all walks of life suddenly deciding to tell stories about how they see Ireland now.

There are a couple of differences, however. One is that Irish crime fiction has been hugely popular abroad, and particularly in the States, for years. John Connolly, Tana French, Ken Bruen and Declan Hughes have taken the quintessentially American form of the crime novel and tossed it back across the Atlantic with a distinctly Irish spin.

More to the point, all four have won awards for crime fiction in the US, with Tana French securing an Edgar -- the crime writing Oscar -- for her debut novel, In The Woods, while all four writers have been nominated for a variety of upcoming awards. On this side of the Pond, Ruth Dudley Edwards won the prestigious Last Laugh award at the UK's Crime Fest for her latest novel, Murdering Americans. Those names are only the tip of the iceberg. Among the dozens of Irish crime writers who have had novels published in the past couple of years are Adrian McKinty, Alex Barclay, Ingrid Black, Gene Kerrigan, Julie Parsons, Cora Harrison, Brian McGilloway, KT McCaffrey, Arlene Hunt, Colin Bateman, Paul Charles, Andrew Nugent, Sean Moncrieff, Stephen Leather, Cormac Millar, Aifric Campbell, Garbhan Downey and Sam Millar.

The styles cover private-eye investigations, psychopathic killers, police procedurals, hard-boiled noir, thrillers, historical whodunits, amateur sleuths and comedy capers. Even more literary writers have turned to crime stories. Gerard Donovan's Julius Winsome, David Park's The Truth Commissioner and Eoin McNamee's 12:23, all published in the last year or so, were driven by crime narratives. DB Shan, the best-selling fantasy author, has just published a crime novel. And John Banville, the Booker Prize-winning author and Ireland's greatest living literary author, has published three crime novels as Benjamin Black, the first of which was nominated for an Edgar.

It's an impressive roster, but it does beg the question -- why now?

The watershed year was 1996, the year the Sunday Independent's investigative journalist, Veronica Guerin, was murdered by a criminal gang. It was and remains Ireland's "Kennedy moment" -- everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing when they heard that Veronica Guerin had been shot dead. Perhaps it's a coincidence that so many Irish crime writers are or were journalists, but there's no doubting the brutal impact Veronica's murder had on the Irish psyche. Crime had spilled over from the margins into the mainstream, and it was only a matter of time before it started to manifest itself in fiction.

The year of the IRA's first ceasefire of the Peace Process was 1996, a process that would lead to their eventual demilitarisation. That former members of all the North's paramilitary groups would diversify from politically-charged criminal acts into more prosaic criminality was inevitable. That "diversification" coincided with the economic boom of the Celtic Tiger, and a much bigger pie to be sliced up by fair means or foul. Boom towns have always had their chroniclers, and as Dublin is closer to Boston than Berlin in terms of its cultural influence, it was again inevitable that writers would use the American form of the crime novel as they tried to come to terms with what was cropping up again and again in the news headlines.

Perversely, the influence of chick lit can't be discounted as a factor in the emergence of crime fiction. The shop- and-f**k novels might be criticised for skating along the surface of the Celtic Tiger, and charting the new Irish obsession with consumerism, but their best-selling status gave a boost to genre fiction in a country traditionally more concerned with literary issues.

Where chick lit celebrated the gaudy delights of the Celtic Tiger, crime fiction proposes to penetrate to its dark heart, which is likely to get a darker now that the recession has kicked in. For all those reasons and more, the Irish crime writers series at next weekend's BOOKS 2008 couldn't be more timely. Taking place at the County Hall in Dun Laoghaire, the series of panels incorporates the cream of Irish crime fiction.

The centrepiece will undoubtedly be an interview with John Connolly, conducted by Declan Hughes on Saturday afternoon. Connolly is a trail-blazer for Irish crime fiction in the US, and a best-selling author in America, and will read excerpts from his forthcoming novel The Lovers. Surrounding the John Connolly interview are several that will shed light on Irish crime writing.

On Friday evening, Declan Hughes, Gene Kerrigan, Tana French, Alex Barclay, and Ruth Dudley Edwards will seek to explain the powerful attraction of crime writing in the discussion, Heroes and Villains: What We Love and Hate about Crime Fiction. On Saturday morning, Forty Shades of Grey: Real Fiction, Real Ireland will explore the links between real-life crime and fiction, with a panel composed of Gene Kerrigan, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Brian McGilloway and Declan Burke. Closing the series on Saturday, John Connolly, Alex Barclay, Arlene Hunt and Brian McGilloway will discuss Sex & Violence: How Far is Too Far?, examining the extent to which crime fiction reflects the readers' need to have their worst nightmares exposed to the catharsis that the best crime writing provides.

If you're a crime fiction fan, the BOOKS 2008 crime series is not be missed. And if you're not, but you're wondering where the great 21st-century Irish novels are going to come from, Dun Laoghaire next weekend is the place to be.

BOOKS 2008 takes place from September 5 to 7. For details, www.bookevents.ie. Declan Burke is the author of 'The Big O', which will be published in the US on September 22, and the host of the on-line Irish crime fiction resource, Crime Always Pays.

Declan Burke

© Ruth Dudley Edwards