I love a good mystery. In fact, the first ‘real’ books I read were my mother’s Agatha Christie mysteries and over the years I continued the habit and enjoyed exploring this very broad, if uneven genre. One of my favorite bookstores was and is The Rue Morgue in Boulder, Colorado and back in 1989 or thereabouts, when I was reading a lot of Joyce and immersing myself in Ulysses, I was chatting one day with one of the then proprietors, Tom or Enid Schantz, about things bookish and especially Joycean. In the course of the conversation, Death of a Joyce Scholar by Bartholomew was recommended. It was set in Dublin and featured the detective, Peter McGarr. It was a most enjoyable read and I went on to read many more mysteries by the same author. For the most part there really had been no murder mysteries set in Ireland up to that time and it was fascinating for me to see an outsider’s take (McGill was the nom de plume of Mark C. McGarrity, a writer from New Jersey) on the just-pre-Celtic Tiger world of Dublin and Ireland.
Since then there has been a boom in Irish crime fiction with comparisons being made to the Scandinavian crime fiction phenomenon. Today’s genre is a bit darker than Bartholomew Gill — crime noir is an apt description — but it’s also a very rich field with some great reads. I’m not hugely well-read in the genre but I give you my take on some of the better-known writers.
First writer in the genre was probably John Connolly. His Charlie Parker series is set in the US, though, so not really Irish, and has an odd supernatural and violent tinge to it. The writing is taut and absorbing but I found one book to be enough for me.
Stuart Neville’s The Ghosts of Belfast is a real-life horror story. Set in Belfast after the Troubles, it’s a very violent but thoroughly plausible book. Gerry Fegan is a former assassin haunted by the ghosts of those that he has killed. He seeks to make reparation and find some redemption but, somehow, nothing seems to change in any essential way. I’ve not read others of his books but I recommend this one.
Ken Bruen is a star of this new genre. I’ve read one of his books, The Killing of the Tinkers, and I really didn’t care for it. I found the main protagonist, Jack Taylor, profoundly unlikeable and there seemed to be an irritating attempt to make alcoholism appear interesting in much the same way in which alcoholics like to think that they, themselves, are interesting. (The fact is that most of us are bores.) The book also felt cod-erudite as if the author was trying to impress us with his wide and deep learning. I don’t impress that easily. But, as I said, his books are very popular.
Another very popular writer is Tana French. Her In the Woods was an excellent read even if I found myself perplexed by some loose ends. There was a sub-plot that featured prominently but that never got resolved and there was some strange behavior from one of the main characters that ended up explained as nothing other than just strange behavior. Still the main character was fascinating and the story engaging — I’ll read more. Jean has read all of Tana French’s books and really likes them. Apparently they all take a character who appeared in a previous novel in a minor role and turn them into the new book’s protagonist. It makes for an interesting change of point of view.
The Wrong Kind of Blood by Declan Hughes is the first in a series featuring Ed Loy, an Irishman returned to Ireland after many years in the US. His old home of Dublin is hard to recognize and he gets himself involved in a quagmire of plots. I found it a promising debut mostly, I think, because I liked the main character — but it was too full of goings-on. Just so much happening that it was confusing.
My favorite writer of this genre, though, is Gene Kerrigan. I’ve read two of his books, The Midnight Choir and Dark Times in the City. Both were quiet, well-plotted and assured works. The characters and well fleshed out and real and the story lines come together is a very satisfying way. Both books feature morally complex situations and conflicted characters. In the first book, The Midnight Choir, there’s an attempt to do the ‘right’ thing that goes badly wrong. In the latter book, a recently released ex-con makes a spontaneous decision that results in the reader rooting (reluctantly) for the lesser of two evils.
There are other notable writers in the genre. John Banville writing as Benjamin Black has a series set mostly in 1950s Dublin and featuring the morose pathologist, Quirke (no first name given). I read the first book in the series, Christine Falls, and found the characters and their relationships much more interesting than the plot. In many ways, that’s a plus for me.
Adrian McKinty has a number of books to his name and a strong reputation. I’m not familiar with his work but I’ve had it recommended to me a number of times.
There are other writers that I have had recommended to me and that I expect to try — Brian McGilloway and his Inspector Devlin series is next on the list.