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Scholars who take crime seriously 

March 25, 2021

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By Peter McDermott

In 2017, an emeritus professor of English at the University of Notre Dame while praising an Irish novelist, a protégé of his, in the Irish Times said that he had “too much talent to succeed as a crime writer. He doesn’t possess the fatal lack of talent required.”

Seeing an opening here, the Times within days had 13 authors of crime fiction — Irish, British and American — respond to this. One said that it was “like getting headbutted by a random stranger on your way home from a night out,” adding that the professor’s comment “is so thuggish, so mindlessly simplistic in its thinking that I don’t think we can be expected to seriously engage with it. But it is designed to insult.”

The minor storm is referenced in the essay collection “Guilt Rules All,” which provides its own reply: many writers in the genre attain literary respectability with the passage of time.

There are notable Americans of Irish heritage that belong to that group certainly, like James M. Cain and George V. Higgins, as well as someone with an even more immediate connection to Ireland, Raymond Chandler.

Patricia Highsmith is an American cited in this volume both as someone who has influenced Irish crime writing and who as a novelist has reached “canonical” status in the literary mainstream. Interestingly, her first book, “Strangers on a Train,” was made into a film in 1951 by Alfred Hitchcock, who was dismissed at the height of his fame as a light entertainer rather than the recognized artist of genius he’s become.

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Before that transformation, the New Yorker’s film critic from 1945 through 1960, for example, John McCarten, an Irish American who spent his last years in Dublin, would regularly pan the Master of Suspense. During the 1950s, however, some young French enthusiasts were writing books about Hitchcock before they themselves became directors of the New Wave. Finally in 1962, the by-then established Francois Truffaut went to Hollywood to conduct interviews with the great man about the craft of filmmaking.  The Jesuit-educated Hitchcock understood the questions in French, but his answers were in English, which were then translated for the book’s publication in France in 1966 and eventually translated back for the American edition. So at times the subject didn’t quite sound like the host of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” though the ideas were not lost in the process.

 

Brian Cliff, like his co-editor Elizabeth Mannion, has a previous book about Irish crime fiction to his name.

 

The 2015 documentary “Hitchcock/Truffaut” hears first hand from most of the leading American directors of the last half-century about how studying the interviews influenced their work.  “We became radicalized as filmmakers,” says Martin Scorsese about the “revolutionary” text. “It was almost as if somebody had taken a weight off our shoulders and said ‘Yes, we can embrace this. We can go.’”

When Hitchcock got a lifetime achievement Oscar (the Irving Thalberg award) in 1968, his brief speech, one phrase, “Thank you,” was said to have been laced with irony, given that he’d been passed over for so long.

The editors of this volume from Syracuse University Press, Elizabeth Mannion and Brian Cliff, don’t believe Irish crime writers should wait around decades to get decent critical attention, whatever about literary acceptance.

The “quick rebuttal” in the Irish Times not just from writers, but critics and academics, too, is for them welcome evidence of an “unapologetic approach” to Irish crime fiction.  They say, “Both collectively and individually, the essays gathered here take the same approach to the genre’s significance.”

Later they write that the book “seeks to reflect much of the genre’s diversity as could fit between these covers, not least in prioritizing authors whose work has, to date, received less scholarly attention.”

Mannion, the editor of  “The Contemporary Irish Detective Novel,” and Cliff, whose “Irish Crime Fiction” was featured in the Echo a year ago, are following the trail blazed by “Down These Green Streets”; but that collection, edited by Declan Burke a decade ago, was comprised of essays by the crime writers themselves. Here, only the middle of five sections is given over to essayists who not primarily academics but “readers and authors whose advocacy has helped establish the genre [and] some of the work they have found particularly notable.” They are Burke, fellow novelist Gerard Brennan and Joe Long, “who introduced the genre into the curriculum at New York University’s Glucksman Ireland House as a student in their inaugural program in Irish and Irish-American Studies.”

The series the three write about “feature protagonists who, even by the genre’s dismal standards of work-life balance, are markedly unable to draw lines between their personal lives and their vocations.”

Long explores Arlene Hunt’s QuicK Investigations series of five novels published between 2005 and 2010, which, he writes, “paved the way for many contemporary Irish crime writers, and it set a high bar from which the genre continues to benefit.”

QuicK partners John and Sarah, whose romance of years before was broken by his infidelity, have their base of operations in a “cold, damp, gloomy room” in the top floor of a Wexford Street building, which it shares with Freak FM pirate radio station, struggling solicitor Rodney Mitchell, and a grocery that that has seen better days.

“When the Gardaí won’t dig deeper, the families hire QuicK,” Long writes, “risking disappointment or disillusionment to honor love.”

Various of the partners’ relatives, gangsters, ex-gangsters gone straight and their errant sons, and a really nasty piece of work named Victor, from Manchester where Sarah went for a time when love turned sour, are all part of the mix.

Long says, “The result is an engrossing, heartfelt and haunting ride through a Dublin that, when the series was first launched, was seldom explored.”

The hope for a happy ending “carries over into the cases that each novel investigates, as Hunt’s nuanced attention to the tenuous threads that connect us to each other becomes an interrogation of secrets kept and lies told among those who love each other most.”

Many of the series examined in the essays feature paid servants of the state. Mannion takes an admiring backward glance at Bartholomew Gill’s Chief Superintendent Peter McGarr books. Gill was in fact the pen name of Irish-American journalist Mark McGarrity, who wrote from the late 1970s through his death in an accident in 2002. Mannion concludes her piece by saying that no writer since Gill has “used the Irish setting to look outward toward Irish America at such length and with such an unflinching eye.”

There are a couple of  interesting and contrasting contributions on historical crime fiction. In one, Amherst professor of English Nancy Marck Cantwell gives her reading of former Irish Times editor Conor Brady’s books that star Detective Inspector Joe Swallow of the Dublin Metropolitan Police in the era of Parnell and beyond; in the other, prominent historian Eunan O’Halpin takes a detailed look at Michael Russell’s “City” series set in the 1930s and early ‘40s, with Detective Garda Stefan Gillespie involved in adventures at home and abroad.

Richard Howard takes on the work of another prominent journalist, Gene Kerrigan, who may have turned to crime fiction, but not, he argues, at the expense of the radicalism of his newspaper columns and non-fiction books.

This excellent collection of 17 essays returns to the work-life balance issue when “domestic noir” is under consideration. In her piece, “More Than Domestic,” Fiona Coleman Coffey says that novelist Julie Crouch coined the term in 2013 saying it “takes place primarily in homes and workplaces, concerns itself largely (but not exclusively) with the female experience, is based around relationships, and takes as its base a broadly feminist view that the domestic sphere is a challenging and sometimes dangerous prospect for some of its inhabitants.”

Coffey writes, “The influence of domestic noir on Irish crime fiction has led to the emergence of a new subgenre — a maternal noir — which specifically focuses on the tension between motherhood and career.”

Sinéad Crowley’s Detective Claire Boyle series, Coffey argues, “forges new ground in this emerging category, blending the structures of hard-boiled detective fiction and the police procedural to emphasize the double standards faced by professional women, particularly around childcare and domestic responsibility.”

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