Northern Irish crime writers have been exploring issues relating to the landscape of the Troubles for decades within the confines of a genre that is well-placed to provide close examination of social, economic and character-driven concerns. The success of Anna Burns’s Milkman has brought attention to Northern Irish writing, with some saying now is the time, post-Good Friday Agreement, to explore the complex issues.
When Milkman won the Man Booker prize it was heralded as a win for Northern Irish literature. Yet the attention the novel’s success has brought to the Northern Irish literary scene has been met with partial disdain. After all, the Northern Irish crime-writing fraternity has been producing work that explores the complexities of social unrest and political division for decades. Writers like Adrian McKinty, Anthony Quinn, Stuart Neville, Claire McGowan, Gerard Brennan and Brian McGilloway have made great use of writing about life in a trigger-happy society, with the inherent socio-economic problems providing plentiful material for their work. However, there was something different in Milkman, something that touched a nerve and suggested that now, post-conflict, we were ready to explore our violent past in a new imaginative form.
If ever a place needed retelling, then Belfast is that place. Like most writers, I don’t fully understand anything until I have written an account of it for myself. I feel that it is only now, with time providing distance from the realities of living amidst conflict that we can examine the nuances of how the incendiary atmosphere and ongoing violence has shaped us.
Belfast has changed. The security barriers around the city centre are long gone and there is a vibrancy to socialising in the Cathedral Quarter that those of us who grew up during the seventies and eighties could only find by moving away. Now Belfast is a tourist destination, cashing in on the popularity of the filming hub that produced Game of Thrones. Our landscape is now as well known for the Dark Hedges as it is for the peace walls and the graphic sectarian murals. Yet, it is with this change, this growth, that we can now begin to understand what we have survived.
In the totalitarian landscape of Milkman we come to see clearly the insidious nature of paramilitary control of society. The nameless characters and the unnamed city serve to make our plight universal, to expose the uncomfortable truths of living within the confines of a society controlled by fear and intimidation. A place haunted by the knowledge that one wrong word is enough to bring unwanted attention. Books are our narrator’s escape but reading nineteenth century literature, with her head down while she walks, trying to escape her bleak surroundings, marks her out as different and brings her to the attention of the intimidating Milkman. His character, a senior paramilitary who has a preference for young girls – “a befouler” of young girls as the book describes him ‑ is both feared and respected in the district. While stylistically inventive in its use of language, language that feels at once wordy, verbose and comical, Milkman is an immersive reading experience, which rejects a linear plot, preferring an intense study the narrator’s interior life.
Like many novels discussed in this essay, Milkman also provides a great sense of place – the ten-minute hinterland of in-between on the out skirts of the city centre is described as a bleak, eerie, ghostly place and without being named I recognised it immediately.
Perhaps the novel’s most compelling theme is the insidious nature of Milkman’s advances, with parallels being drawn between political violence and sexual violence and an exploration of the effects of living with insinuation and menace. Fear and intimidation are normalised and there is an awful sense of helplessness, for who can our protagonist turn to in this damaged society? She is powerless to change the situation; where she lives they only phone the police to shoot them. And anyway,
There was a lack of certainly as to whether or not there was anything to tell. That was the way it worked. It was constant hints, symbolisms, representations, metaphors.
But where does this exploration of a community living in Troubles-era Belfast sit within the literary tradition that has come before? Eoin McNamee has provided the most authentic telling of Northern Ireland’s violent past in his seminal body of work. From Resurrection Man to his more recent novel The Vogue, he has explored the darkness at the heart of crimes committed. Stylistically cinematic, McNamee’s prose is literary and uncompromising, taking the myth and reality of the notorious Shankill Butchers and providing a razor-sharp examination of a society that can form a character like Victor Kelly in Resurrection Man.
When it comes to writing about Northern Ireland’s troubled past and uneasy future there has at times been a fusion of genre. McNamee’s literary fiction, like Glenn Patterson’s and Kelly Creighton’s, finds a wealth of material exploring this place within the confines of crimes committed.
Not all crime fiction from Northern Ireland relies on Troubles tropes for material. Claire Allan has recently moved from writing romantic fiction to a darker brand of psychological fiction, still set in her native Derry. Adrian McKinty says: “In my hometown of Carrickfergus alone, which is a tiny place, there are two internationally known science fiction authors: David Logan and Jo Zebedee. There are no rules – thank goodness ‑ about what you can and can’t write about.”
Indeed there is a strong tradition of magical realism emerging in the writing of Jan Carson and Bernie McGill. A realist, street style has been employed by Gerard Brennan in the writing of Disorder, published by No Alibis Press, a new publishing house headed by David Torrens of the famed No Alibis crime-centric bookshop in Belfast. Brennan uses the vernacular and characters that once encountered are hard to forget, to navigate a satirical look at parts of Belfast where recreational rioting is a legitimate pastime.
Anthony J Quinn’s novels offer us a lyrical prose that like McGilloway’s explores the border and its murky hinterland. His Inspector Celcius Daly series uses the outsider character, a Catholic working in the PSNI, and the police procedural form to explore the moody, bog-trenched landscape populated by fuel smugglers, ex-cops with dodgy histories, crime overlords and informers.
We are said to read crime fiction as a flirtation with fear, savouring the nearness of violence that cannot harm and enjoying the satisfaction of solving the mystery lying at the heart of the narrative. For Anthony Quinn, who grew up in a Republican stronghold of Co Tyrone, fear and violence were never far away.
Many of us walked a tightrope with the IRA at one end, and the British Army and loyalist paramilitaries at the other. You had to be careful about what you said and wrote. Words could kill. If you said the wrong thing, you might never be seen again.
The phrase “and whatever you say, say nothing” was a mantra for survival. Only the foolhardy or overtly political talked publicly or wrote about the intimidation and violence that many ordinary nationalists experienced at the hands of the IRA, as well as the British Army. Denial, silence, putting on a brave face, these were the coping strategies during the Troubles.
Quinn is not surprised that crime fiction has become a means for Northern Irish writers who grew up during the Troubles to tell stories, “to write about what they know, to make public untold stories or those that contest the received prejudices and stereotypes of the Troubles and the subsequent ceasefire”.
In the absence of a truth commission, a working Assembly and politicians who actually take their seat, the fictional detective character seems to be the only protagonist we have that is capable of challenging the divisions of the past and of navigating its difficult and morally ambiguous terrain.
Traditionally, crime fiction has been described as a “quintessentially bourgeois” form (Ernest Mandel): despite its concern with murder and violence, it demands that the social order is, in the end, restored. This understanding of the genre is redundant in the context of Northern Irish crime fiction, especially post-Troubles, when the demand for resolution and closure cannot neatly be achieved within the confines of the narrative form.
The paradox of the state as being perceived as the moral authority by one side of the community and a divisive force by another has not been lost on crime fiction emerging from Northern Ireland. Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy series, set in 1980s Carrickfergus and Belfast, addresses the uncertainties and ambiguities of the state’s claim to moral authority. Crime fiction, at its heart, argues for social justice and it is no different when the setting is a place marked by inequalities and political violence. Sean Duffy, a Catholic navigating a largely Protestant RUC, while society around him blazes with sectarianism, uses wise-cracking dialogue and an irreverent attitude to negotiate his way out of tight spots. The taut prose, period references (Jimmy Savile, Muhammad Ali, John DeLorean) and pacy plots ensure readers are left satisfied and willing McKinty on to the next in the series.
Brian McGilloway’s Inspector Devlin series uses the border as a device to explore the differences between the Republic and the North. Garda Inspector Benedict Devlin is a perfectly placed character with a foot in two worlds, the past and the present, while the Lucy Black series feels contemporary in outlook and subject matter with issue-driven plots.
When Stuart Neville came onto the scene with The Twelve, it seemed that we were seeing the beginning of the impact of the Troubles on characters placed in a post Agreement world. How could these often thuggish, violent characters survive post-conflict? How are they affected when their raison d’être has been extinguished? Kelly Creighton’s The Bones of It also explores the impact of peace on previously violent characters. Juxtaposing father and son, Creighton examines the impact of toxic masculinity and the anger and resentments that lurk beneath the surface. But can we write about Northern Ireland without drawing on the Troubles? Stuart Neville believes it is becoming easier to do so. “Writing crime, it (the Troubles) never falls too far into the background, but it need not be the focus of the story any more. I think we’re well past that now. Writers can choose to write about the Troubles, like Anna Burns and Adrian McKinty, or choose to write around them, like my most recent books have. You can never fully escape that history, but it no longer has to dominate one’s writing.”
Neville has also developed his female character, Detective Inspector Serena Flanagan, into a series. In reference to the idea of crime fiction being somewhat undervalued in comparison with literary fiction Neville says, “There seems to be this notion that literary fiction is the One True God that we should all worship, but really, literary fiction is simply another genre, like crime, romance, sci fi, or whatever. The problem stems from conflating ‘literary fiction’ with ‘literature’; they are not the same thing, and never have been. Literature is work that stands above the rest, that earns its place in the canon over time. The Big Sleep merits that label as much as The Great Gatsby. James Ellroy is as significant a voice in American literature as John Irving. And frankly, if some are blind to that, it’s their loss.”
Adrian McKinty’s take on this lack of respect for crime writing is that it could be down to, “old fashioned snobbery, but putting a more generous spin on it, I think it’s because so much of crime fiction used to be so bad. Olaf Stapledon famously said that ninety per cent of everything is crap. And I think most of what literary critics would be exposed to would be the bestsellers, which often aren’t that great. The standard of crime fiction has gone up in the last decade or so, so though this kind of criticism is a little behind the times.”
Claire McGowan’s novels feature forensic psychologist Paula Maguire returned to her childhood home in Ballyterrin, a fictional border town. Again, the border offers opportunities to highlight the differences between North and south and to expose the difficulties of working as separate entities on one island. The personal backstory of Paula’s missing mother, assumed “disappeared” by the IRA, provides a taut thread running throughout the series. According to Claire McGowan, while male crime writers have dominated in Northern Ireland in comparison to the Republic, where writers like Liz Nugent, Louise Phillips and Jane Casey have been hugely successful, there are more female crime writers coming through now. She says she is “not sure why the crime market is so male-dominated but I imagine it’s because the Troubles has often been written about as military history”.
Stuart Neville says: “Adrian McKinty predicted a few years back that the great post-Troubles novel would be written by a woman, and he has been proven right. There have been a number of writers picking apart the legacy of the Troubles over the last twenty years, but Anna Burns has earned her accolades. The only thing that irked a little was the seeming ignorance of the literary establishment, as if no one had written about the topic over the last twenty years. The fact that much of that writing was done in genre fiction might be why they were unaware of it.”
Adrian McKinty says of Milkman, “to see a wonderful literary fiction novel on this topic [the Troubles] particularly by a woman, was thrilling. I did think it a bit funny when, a day after it won the Booker, an American journalist called me up and asked me this question: ‘Why has no one ever thought to write about the Troubles before?’ That was a bit of a facepalm moment.”
When asked about the lack of female voices breaking through McKinty says, ‘I think it just happened that way. About eight or nine years ago there was almost no scene at all and then me and Stu Neville and Brian McGilloway all kind of published at the same time and then Steve Cavanagh, Anthony Quinn, Gerard Brennan, William Shaw and Claire McGowan came along and suddenly there’s a thriving Northern Irish crime-writing scene where there was nothing before. I think the Troubles, and associated economic ruin, crushed the arts in Ulster and it was only about ten years after it was all over that various artistic communities began to reassert themselves.”
Stuart Neville says, ‘As for the gender imbalance, I’m really quite confused by this. While more female writers have emerged over the last couple of years ‑ Claire Allen stands out ‑ there remains a huge contrast to the crime scene in the Republic, where women seem to dominate. I’d hope there’s a wave just waiting to break, so we’ll see what the coming years bring.’
Writers like Adrian McKinty, Anthony Quinn, Stuart Neville and Claire McGowan use their stories to explore the Troubles past and expose tensions and contradictions, juxtaposing the demands of state and law with the requirements of justice. It is not surprising therefore that writers have turned to crime fiction as a means to reconnoitre contemporary Northern Irish society and to think about how the ongoing legacies of the Troubles impact on contemporary society. Anthony Quinn believes the crime fiction genre is a legitimate way of exploring our past. “It gives us a deeper insight into the Troubles and illuminates the splintered personal landscapes of ordinary people caught up in violence, in ways that non-fiction can never hope to replicate. Politicians lie and dissemble, and historical accounts are always subjective, but at least fiction doesn’t pretend to be anything else other than a made-up account.”
Post-conflict, Northern Ireland is living through uncertain times, with no Assembly sitting in Stormont. So-called punishment shootings and beatings still happen, and despite the decommissioning of weapons, paramilitaries can still wield power over communities. We have arrived at this peace, but still significant issues remain unresolved, providing fertile ground for crime writers.
When a call went out on Twitter asking where all the working class writers were, there was a torrent of cries that they were mostly writing within the crime genre. It seems that many such writers have found voice with the genre that perhaps more than any other allows for an exploration of society and that can bring attention to voices from every echelon of it. Crime writers know what Graham Greene and George Orwell also understood, that to fully explore society and its dark heart, is to examine what we do when pushed to the extremes. Northern Ireland and the crime genre are the perfect partnership, with many stories yet to be mined and explored.
Sharon Dempsey’s first crime novel, Little Bird, is published by Bloodhound Books.