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Sunday 16 August 2009

Plots of crime masterminds

After an outstanding year for Ireland's crime writers, the literary fraternity will be out in force for the Books '09 festival next month with a stellar line-up of our most wanted, writes Declan Burke

THE tone of the titles may be ominous -- Dark Times in the City, Winterland, All the Dead Voices and The Outsider will give you a flavour -- but don't be deceived. This year has been an outstanding year for Irish crime writing.

Last year's Books '08 was the first Irish literary festival to celebrate Irish crime fiction, in the process opening a floodgate. Most Irish literary festivals have hosted crime writers in 2009, while the prestigious Harrogate Festival in the UK went so far as to include an "Emerald Noir" panel with Brian McGilloway, Declan Hughes, Ava McCarthy and Gene Kerrigan, moderated by Ruth Dudley Edwards. Earlier this year, Alex Barclay won the Best Crime Novel award in the Irish Book Awards, which included a crime-writing category for the very first time.

The crime fraternity will be out in force for next month's Books '09 festival, which offers a fascinating blend of best-selling Irish authors, a cross-section of the newest and brightest talent, and a sprinkling of international writers. John Connolly, Sara Paretsky, Declan Hughes, Tom Rob Smith and Paul Williams are among those appearing to discuss their own work, debate the relevance of crime writing, and to celebrate the most popular of genres.

The crime-writing festival opens on Saturday, September 12, with "Bloodwork: A Crime Writing Workshop", which will be hosted by Declan Hughes. Hughes is the Shamus Award-winning author of the Ed Loy series of private-eye novels, which are set in and around south Co Dublin. A founder member of the Rough Magic theatre company, Hughes has seen The Dying Breed short-listed for three separate awards during 2009 in the US and the UK, and brings a rare depth and breadth to his craft.

Aspiring writers who leave Hughes' workshop fired anew will no doubt find particular interest in the following event, "Bright Young Things", which brings together four of the hottest new talents on the crime-writing scene.

Stuart Neville's debut novel The Twelve was released last month with a glowing recommendation from James Ellroy, and has since been acclaimed as the first great post-Troubles novel about Northern Ireland. In contrast to Neville's gritty revenge tale, Ava McCarthy's debut thriller The Insider is a more high-concept affair, set in the corrupt environment of Dublin high finance and the murky world of Caribbean off-shore banking.

Alan Glynn's sophomore novel, Winterland, examines the consequences of an explosive collision between Ireland's ostensibly separate worlds of business, politics and crime, while John McFetridge explores a similar kind of phenomenon on the other side of the Atlantic, as he peels back the layers of Toronto in a style that has been compared favourably to that of Elmore Leonard.

Cormac Millar, formerly a "Penguin Most Wanted" author for his novel The Grounds, will host an unmissable event for crime-fiction fans who want to make the quantum leap from reading about nefarious deeds to writing about them and seeing them published.

The final event on Saturday, "It's A Dirty Job ... ", features writers of a more best-selling vintage. John Connolly is a writer who needs little by way of introduction on either side of the Atlantic, given his ability to blend the thrills and spills of crime writing with a literary style that brings to mind masters such as James Lee Burke.

This year has been a particularly busy one for Connolly: his latest offering in the Charlie Parker series, The Lovers, was published in June, while a young adult novel called The Gates, which blends Satanism and quantum physics, will be published in October. Arguably the most entertaining interviewee on the international crime-fiction circuit, Connolly is a must-see for any crime- fiction fan.

Colin Bateman -- recently rebranded simply as "Bateman" -- has been a prolific writer and consistent best-seller since he first came to the public's attention with Divorcing Jack in 1994. His latest novel, Mystery Man, which was published earlier this year, is an excellent example of his winning facility at blending crime and humour, and was chosen as a Richard and Judy summer read. Bateman is also a veteran writer of screenplays, most notably the long-running series, Murphy's Law, starring James Nesbitt.

Tom Rob Smith caused something of a furore in literary circles in 2008 when his debut novel, Child 44 was long-listed for the Booker Prize, a selection that caused hard questions to be asked of the committee as to what exactly constitutes a Booker novel. A tale of child murders set in Stalinist Russia, it was also named Best Thriller of the Year by the UK's Crime Writer's Association. The follow-up to Child 44, The Secret Speech, was published in April.

As the host of "Crime Always Pays", a blog dedicated to Irish crime writing, I will be posing the questions, which will focus on genre-bending, genre-blending, and how -- and why -- you go about writing best-sellers the hard way.

Sunday's events open up with "In Cold Blood -- The Art of True Crime Writing". Hosted by Ruth Dudley Edwards, the panel will feature the godfather of Irish true-crime writing, Paul Williams. The author of a number of best-selling exposes on the parallel universe of Ireland's gangland, the Sunday World journalist has penned The General, Evil Empire, Gangland and The Untouchables, which last was recently adapted by TV3 for their series Dirty Money.

Our host is the Sunday Independent's Ruth Dudley Edwards, the award-winning author of humorous crime fiction who also writes hard-hitting non-fiction. Her latest offering, published last month, is Aftermath: The Omagh Bombing, which examines the long and laborious path to justice undertaken by the families of those who lost loved ones in the most notorious of all the atrocities associated with the Troubles.

Niamh O'Connor, also of the Sunday World, has penned a number of true-crime books, the latest of which is Blood Ties, a collection of pieces on infamous Irish crimes of recent times. The panel is completed by Emer Connolly of The Clare People, whose in-depth coverage of the trial of Sharon Collins, convicted of soliciting a hitman to murder her lover and his sons, was published last year as Lying Eyes.

From the shocking truth behind the headlines to the sordid worlds explored by authors of fiction: "Real Guts, No Glory" is the title of a panel that seeks to look at the gritty reality that can inspire today's crime writers. Alex Barclay's most recent novel, the award-winning Blood Runs Cold, is set in Colorado, and was inspired by the in-depth research Barclay engaged in with the FBI. Barclay's heroine Ren Bryce may well be every inch the modern woman, but the world she inhabits is anything but pretty.

Gene Kerrigan, the Sunday Independent journalist, writes crime novels in a spare, laconic style -- which reflects the downbeat tone of his explorations of Dublin's lesser-known backwaters, places where disenfranchised communities find themselves at the mercy of both the criminals and the cops.

Purposively unsensational, Kerrigan's novels -- the latest of which is Dark Times in the City -- act as a powerful reminder of how the best crime fiction can function as the second draft of history.

UK author Mandasue Heller writes page-turning thrillers, but eschews the usual high-concept tropes to concentrate on the kind of crime that fascinates and tantalises her audience. Set for the most part in Manchester's most notorious and marginalised estates, hers are grittily authentic tales of compassion for lives lived in fear. Her latest novel, Two-Faced, is published this month.

This panel will be moderated by the acclaimed author Brian McGilloway, whose novels, featuring DI Benedict Devlin, are set in Donegal. What lifts McGilloway's meticulously researched police procedurals out of the everyday is the extraordinarily accessible ordinariness of Devlin himself, an all-too-human creation rooted in the reality of modern Ireland.

So whether your taste is for the grim uncertainties of the real-life underworld or to have the dark layers of a city peeled back by a master, the case files are very much open for Books 09.

Books '09 takes place from September 10 to 13 in Dublin city centre. For further details and updates, log on to www.books2009.ie

Declan Burke

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