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Sunday 25 October 2009

Writing sharp as any dagger

Gene Kerrigan is up there with the best of the best, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

We may lament that William Brodrick pipped Gene Kerrigan to the post for the 2009 Crime Writers' Association Gold Dagger last week, but we should celebrate our boy for being one of the short listed six, along with bestsellers Mark Billingham (UK) and Lawrence Block (US).

This is no Mickey Mouse prize. It's open to all thrillers, suspense novels and spy fiction written in English, and in its time has been won by John le Carre, Colin Dexter and Ian Rankin. PD James is but one of the many famous names that never made the cut. The competition is fierce.

As a long-time inhabitant of the crime-writing world, I can report that although his publishers force Gene to make an occasional public appearance, he is one of those self-effacing writers who clearly would rather die than go in for what we in the trade call BSP (blatant self-promotion). Think of the opposite of Jeffrey Archer and you've got some idea of Gene Kerrigan as a public figure. He answers questions, tells the truth and then goes home. Heaven forfend that he should hang around schmoozing, or recommending people to buy his books.

I rang him yesterday and said: "I'm writing something about you, Gene? Is there anything you'd like me to say?" The response, as I should have known, was along the lines of: "Why would you want to write about me?"

The answer, Gene, is because you're a brilliant storyteller who understands the underside of modern Dublin better than any other writer I know. From you I've learned more about its muggers, druggies, thieves, fraudsters, kidnappers, murderers, gang culture and police than I have over the years of devouring newspapers. What's more, you have an extraordinary gift for presenting the human side -- the failings of the good guys and the virtues of the bad. Even the greedy and cynical whom you believe have ruined the country are allowed to have hearts and souls. To the exceptional knowledge you've acquired as a reporter you've brought to bear your deep but unsentimental empathy for the little people.

Now before anyone says I'm smarming up to a mate, I should point out that I have met Gene maybe three times and that we disagree about more than we agree on. Yes, I always read him before anything else in the Sunday Independent, because Soapbox is always substantial and lively and usually makes me laugh. Yet I knew nothing about his crime fiction until I had to chair a panel he was appearing on. Having read one novel and been riveted, I immediately ordered the others.

Don't take my word for it. If you don't believe me, I can adduce in evidence that Roddy Doyle thinks him to be "a great writer" and Joe O'Connor thinks his writing "magnificent -- graceful, tough, hardboiled and tender, razor-sharp and gritty as it is lyrical and truthful". His publishers, Harvill Secker, are notoriously picky and take on only the best talent. And then there are the reviewers and booksellers who put him on the shortlist. If the literati weren't so snobbish, he'd be up for the Booker.

Irish crime fiction is on a roll, and international judges are taking notice. Ken Bruen has twice been on the shortlist for the Best Novel Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America, and Declan Hughes is up for it this year. Gene should be there too and no doubt will be in the future. He's so far published only three novels: Little Criminals, The Midnight Choir and Dark Times in the City. Buy them. He'll never ask you to. Indeed, I've no doubt he's now so embarrassed at what I've written that I'll have difficulty ever getting another word out of him.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards