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Sunday 30 November 2008

The woman crime writers whose work is so arresting 

THERE are an estimated four billion Agatha Christie books in the world. Many women crime writers -- Patricia Highsmith, PD James, Patricia Cornwell among them -- have carried her standard forward, so it should be no surprise to discover that the current generation of Irish crime fiction scribes has its fair quota of female writers, which includes Ingrid Black, Arlene Hunt, Tana French, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Cora Harrison, Julie Parsons and Alex Barclay.

The salient question must be, why write crime fiction?

"It seems to be the archetypal form of our time," says Ingrid Black (our own Eilis O'Hanlon and her partner), whose fourth novel, Circle of the Dead, was published last month.

"In a way I think every story is a detective story -- in the sense that they're about mystery and secrets and revelations," she says "And, of course, resolution."

Ruth Dudley-Edwards agrees. "The books that crammed my family home included hundreds of crime novels and I took to the genre at first read," she says. "I loved the classic crime novels that showed the dark side of the respectable, restored order out of chaos and met crime with justice and if along with all that they were ingenious and funny, so much the better."

"Crime novels were initially my guilty pleasure," she continues. "Later, along with intellectual pretension, I jettisoned the guilt. Much so-called serious fiction is pointless, self-indulgent and disappointing, while as so many crime writers have lived lives before they became writers, they usually have something to say. The scope of the genre is extraordinary, and its purpose is to entertain, which can't be bad."

Despite the high-profile names, however, and the fact that women read more fiction than men, there are far more male crime writers and women. Why so?

"I have no idea," says Alex Barclay, whose third novel, Blood Runs Cold, was also published last month. "There are certainly no industry obstacles to it. But as a reader, I'm not interested in the author -- I'm interested in their characters. I just want to read a brilliant crime novel, and whether it's written by a man or a woman is irrelevant."

"Well it's trickier than it seems to write about violence, brutality, and people who might be completely without a single redeeming factor," says Arlene Hunt, who has just published her fifth novel, Undertow. "I suppose to write about death you must confront or imagine mortality to a certain extent and perhaps women are not entirely comfortable with creating mayhem and violence, as opposed to reading about it."

"It may be that Irish crime fiction is dominated by men because so far, it has tended toward the noir," suggests Dudley-Edwards. "Certainly, very many of the most famous names in classical English crime fiction are female: Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Dorothy Sayers, PD James, Ruth Rendell. Indeed Reginald Hill has a story of being at a cultural event in France where an earnest man rose to ask why most of the writers of the Golden Age [the Thirties] of detection were women. 'Because,' explained Reg, 'all the men were dead.'"

"In general," says Black, "men seem to be more single-minded about things and one of the things you definitely need to get published is determination. The difference between people who get published and people who don't isn't talent, it's just their ability to get things done, and perhaps men are just better at getting things like that done.

"I certainly don't think they are better writers or more talented writers than women, so obviously it must be something else. The world is run by people who turn up, somebody once said, and I think that's very true."

In terms of inspiration, Irish women are definitely not confined to their own sex, and not even crime fiction. While Black cites Patricia Cornwell -- "but before she went mad and turned Scarpetta into superwoman!" -- she also mentions Nancy Mitford and Somerset Maugham. Hunt is happy to name-check Joseph Wambaugh's The Choirboys ("the ultimate crime book"), the novels of James Herriot, and Donna Tartt's The Secret History. Meanwhile, Dudley-Edwards's favourite writer is PG Wodehouse.

That's a pretty eclectic mix, but then female Irish crime writers are an eclectic bunch. Dudley-Edwards writes comedy thrillers. Black's reluctant private eye, Saxon, is a lesbian ex-FBI agent now living in Dublin. Cora Harrison's protagonist, a 15th-century Brehon judge, shows the equality Irish women enjoyed under Brehon law. Hunt writes a his-'n'-hers private investigation team operating in Dublin, while Barclay's psychological thrillers are set in the States. Is there any one special factor women writers bring to the table that men don't?

"Traditionally," says Ruth Dudley-Edwards, "women have excelled at making the ordinary frightening. I grew out of Agatha Christie, because I didn't admire her writing, but grew back into her when I recognised her genius for showing how thin is the veneer of civilisation over even the most upright citizen. Many of her characters may seem to be stereotypes, but stereotypes often contain a great deal of truth."

Arlene Hunt disagrees. "I don't believe so," she says, when I ask if women offer a quality unique to their gender. "I think we -- female crime writers -- are unafraid to get down and dirty. I'm not sure there is a divide, or if there is one I haven't noticed it."

"I guess my voice is masculine," says Barclay, "so I don't feel I bring anything that distinguishes me as a woman. I'm inside male heads most of the time. Even my new character [FBI agent Ren Bryce] is one of the guys. You will get some feminine insight, she's a pretty package, but you won't find her eating chocolate and watching soaps."

Women like to think they have a unique take on things, or a different take than men but I don't really think that's the case," says Black. "Writers are different from each other in the same way that people are different from each other, but that's all. I suppose I'm just not a huge believer in those gender-based differences that seem to do the rounds every now and then."

Any theories as to why Irish crime fiction, by men and/or women, is enjoying such a surge in popularity?

"Maybe it reflects our current fears about crime," says Black, "or our feelings that things have gone a bit out of control. Also, I think there's a satisfying sense of resolution -- usually! -- in crime fiction. Something that puts order on the chaos, and people seem to like that. In fact, people need that. They need to be able to feel that order can be restored to the mess and I think crime fiction is good at doing that."

"The young have ceased to give a damn about the sneers of the intelligentsia and are letting their creativity rip as the fancy takes them," says Edwards. "The cosmopolitanism of the young Irish helps, too, for crime fiction takes many forms and travels well. Even if the literati haven't yet grasped it, crime fiction is cool."

If there's one thing that unites these authors, it's the notion of a woman-only crime-writing prize.

"Absolutely not," says Edwards. "I'm temperamentally opposed to protectionism and even if I weren't, I don't believe that women suffer any discrimination in this genre."

"Unless it's sport," says Barclay, "where there are undeniable physical differences, I hate the idea of 'men's awards' and 'women's awards'. And it makes no sense when it comes to writing. There should, however, be more visible crime writing awards. Everyone knows the Orange Prize, but I feel with crime writing awards, only those within the industry know them."

"I just have a feeling that it might marginalise women writers even more," says Black. "Treat them like of minority group, when we make up 50 per cent of the population."

Arlene Hunt, meanwhile, is horrified at the idea that women should have their own crime writing prize. "Absolutely not!" she says. "And women don't need fainting couches, either."

'Circle of the Dead' by Ingrid Black (Penguin). 'Undertow' by Arlene Hunt (Hachette Ireland). 'Blood Runs Cold' by Alex Barclay (Harper Collins). 'The Anglo-Irish Murders' by Ruth Dudley-Edwards Poisoned Pen)

Declan Burke

© Ruth Dudley Edwards