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Sunday 21 September 2008

A great literary meeting of criminal minds at Books 08 

Challenging and fun conversations -- it bore all the hallmarks of Books 2008, writes Declan Burke

All things considered, the crime writing series at last weekend's Books 2008 festival in Dun Laoghaire was something of a missed opportunity. John Connolly, Alex Barclay, Tana French, Declan Hughes, Gene Kerrigan, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Paul Johnston, Arlene Hunt and Brian McGilloway all turned up to talk about why crime fiction has exploded on to the Irish literary scene with a vengeance in the past few years, and a hugely enjoyable time was had by all. But you can't help but wonder if all of those criminally-inclined minds had put their heads together to plot the fabled "one last heist" instead, they could have blagged a few banks, skipped on to the Dun Laoghaire ferry, and no one would have been any the wiser until nine on Monday morning ... They didn't, happily enough. What we got instead was a series of conversations that were challenging, informative, occasionally abrasive, but always entertaining. On the Friday night, the Heroes and Villains panel discussed its influences, with both Declan Hughes and Alex Barclay professing to be first influenced by arguably the greatest crime fiction writer of them all, Enid Blyton, author of the timeless Famous Five, Secret Seven and sundry other mystery stories.

"I grew up feeling that if a story didn't have a mystery, it wasn't really a mystery," said Declan. He wasn't kidding. Gene Kerrigan professed to "radical politics" but writing "conservative novels". He was fascinated, he said, by the ordinary person who is steeped in criminality, "the kind of guy who'll babysit your kids and go to work the next morning with a gun in his pocket."

The nature of the criminal mind quickly became an informal theme for the weekend, as the questions from the audience suggested that they were as exercised as the writers about the kind of mind that, as Arlene Hunt said during Saturday morning's Forty Shades of Grey panel, "will do whatever it takes to get whatever it wants, and doesn't mind in the slightest hurting whoever is in their way to do it." Alex Barclay gave the conversation a slightly chilling edge as she spoke about documenting "the evolution of a serial killer" as he grows from child to adult for her first novel, Darkhouse. Gene Kerrigan pithily suggested that most of the criminals he has documented in his journalism differ only slightly from the conventionally law-abiding citizen. They just want to get their mortgages paid off quicker, and are prepared to do whatever it takes to do so.

The Saturday morning panel also touched on the "social realism" of crime fiction, and the extent to which it is grounded in the realities of the modern world. Brian McGilloway recounted a recent horrific murder in his locality of Strabane, Co Donegal, and told of how when he went to work the following Monday morning, some of his fellow teachers suggested that the weekend's events "took care of the plot for my next book". McGilloway was aghast at the suggestion, particularly at the notion that a writer would be so glib as to cannibalise the suffering of his own community for the sake of a good story.

Gene Kerrigan and Ruth Dudley Edwards, both respected journalists, engaged in an extended Q&A with the audience about journalistic reportage versus fiction. Both took pains to emphasise that crime fiction is first and foremost fiction, and genre fiction, with an onus on the writer to entertain as well as inform. John Connolly took up that particular baton later in the afternoon, when a question from the audience inquired as to the importance of a good ending to a crime fiction novel. Literary writers, Connolly said, are entitled to believe that they can finish their stories with unconventional endings, but that genre writers have an unspoken pact with their readers to adhere to the rules of the game.

Connolly himself, incidentally, inadvertently provided the most entertaining moment of the day during the Sex and Violence panel, when he read aloud a sex scene in which his main protagonist, Charlie Parker, gets snarled up in removing his socks at a crucial moment. With his mother listening attentively in the audience, the blushing bestseller rushed through the scene -- only for another audience member to interrupt and ask him to read the passage slower.

The mot juste is "morto" ...

The highlight of the weekend for most of the audience was the Saturday afternoon interview with John Connolly, conducted by Declan Hughes, which was preceded by a reading from Connolly's forthcoming novel, The Lovers. A more meditative piece than his current offering, the stripped-back narrative of The Reapers, The Lovers promises to shed extensive light on Charlie Parker's complex and tortured history. As an unexpected bonus, the conversation veered away from crime fiction to discuss Connolly's standalone novel, The Book of Lost Things. It was a rare opportunity to hear Connolly talking in public about the novel, which is arguably his finest work to date, and pleasing for fans of the book to hear him speak so warmly about the sheer joy of pure storytelling.

The final panel of the weekend, Sex and Violence: How Far is Too Far? featured far too many gory details to be replicated in a family newspaper, but despite the often stomach-churning content of the discussion, the consensus eventually came around to the informal theme of the event, which was that writing violence is the means by which writers and readers strive to understand the kind of mind that will achieve what it wants regardless of others' discomfort and pain, not an end in itself.

All in all, the crime writing series was a huge success, being the first opportunity native crime fiction fans have had to meet and interact with the burgeoning collective of Irish crime writers. With new novels due from Alex Barclay, Gene Kerrigan, John Connolly, Declan Hughes, Tana French, Declan Burke, Brian McGilloway, Andrew Nugent, Ken Bruen, Adrian McKinty, Ingrid Black and Benjamin Black in the next 12 months, next year's event should be a real show-stopper.

Just don't be surprised if you read about a bank-robbing crime-wave in or around Dublin during the middle of September '09 ...

Declan Burke is the author of 'The Big O', which will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the US this week, and the host of the online Irish crime fiction resource, Crime Always Pays.

Declan Burke

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