Dark Green

Irish Crime Fiction 1665-2000

by David Clark (Author)
©2022 Monographs XII, 440 Pages
Series: Reimagining Ireland, Volume 114


The book deals diachronically with Irish crime fiction, from the picaresque of the 17th century up to the late 1990s when the «Emerald Noir» boom began. Irish writers, often without due recognition, have been instrumental in the development of the genre on an international level, and figures such as Le Fanu, Meade, Childers, Wills Crofts have been responsible for many of the innovations in crime fiction which have later become standard. This book examines Irish crime writing in its widest sense, from the detective mystery to the spy thriller, and seeks to vindicate the relevance of the Irish contribution to the field of crime fiction as well as stressing the importance of crime writing within the field of Irish Studies. This work traces Irish crime fiction from the early appropriation of the picaresque, which would gain resonance throughout Europe, through the gothic, the early detective tale, to the Irish contribution to the Golden Age mystery, to Irish hard-boiled pulp and inner-city police procedurals in which crimes committed by Irish criminals are investigated by Irish agents of detection.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • CHAPTER 1. “that my Thefts might pafs undifcovered.” Picaresque, Rogue Tales, Broadsheets and Newgate Calendars
  • CHAPTER 2. “The peasantry of Ireland have, for centuries, been at war with the laws by which they are governed.” The Early Nineteenth Century
  • CHAPTER 3. “Wherever reserve exists there is mystery, and wherever mystery – guilt.” Le Fanu and the Gothic Crime Mystery
  • CHAPTER 4. “Reader, you have seen the singular and extraordinary circumstances connected with the handkerchief, the sledge, and the sack.” Sensation and Mystery Fiction
  • CHAPTER 5. “A history of crime seemed to be written on both their faces.” L. T. Meade and End of Century Detection
  • CHAPTER 6. “I just go by the rule of thumb, and muddle and puzzle out my cases as best I can.” Detection and Mystery at the Turn of the Century
  • CHAPTER 7. “Too sharp to be absolutely wholesome.” The Golden Age I: Freeman Wills Crofts
  • CHAPTER 8. “A deceptive air of docility.” The Golden Age II: Nicholas Blake and Mrs Victor Rickard
  • CHAPTER 9. “Among the poor the police are never regarded as the upholders of the common law, but as agents of the rich to oppress those without property.” Post-Revolutionary Ireland
  • CHAPTER 10. “A kind of private eye and general trouble-shooter.” Irish Hard-Boiled and Pulp
  • CHAPTER 11. “Not too quiet for crime.” Irish Crime Fiction in the Mid-Twentieth Century I
  • CHAPTER 12. “The law after all is just a machine that suspects everyone on general principles.” Irish Crime Fiction in the Mid-Twentieth Century II
  • CHAPTER 13. “His father had been on the wrong side in the Civil War.” Irish Spy Fiction in the 1960s and 1970s
  • CHAPTER 14. “Being Irish, you had a certain innate guile that allowed you to think like a criminal and keep one step ahead of them.” Irish Crime Writing in the 1970s and 1980s
  • CHAPTER 15. “It was the virus of my country’s illness that felled him.” Northern Ireland
  • CHAPTER 16. “The authority to dispose of anyone who stands in my way.” The 1980s and Early 1990s
  • CHAPTER 17. “A surly-looking cop lounging at the security desk.” Northern Irish Crime Fiction in the 1990s
  • CHAPTER 18. “Technically a private investigator.” Thrillers and the Diversity of Irish Crime Writing in the 1990s
  • CHAPTER 19. “People loved reading about crime in Ireland.” The Police and Private Detective Novel in the 1990s
  • CHAPTER 20. “Killers who chop up their victims, that’s all very American, or at the very least English. In Ireland it would only happen by accident, like most things.” Towards the New Millennium
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series Index

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I’d like to thank my colleagues from the “Amergin” Institute for Irish Studies at the University of Coruña and from the Faculty of Philology who have encouraged me and given me technical and moral support during the long years of gestation of this project. Heartfelt thanks, therefore, to Antonio de Toro, Eduardo Barros, J. Miguel A. Giráldez, José Manuel Estévez Saá, María Jesus Lorenzo and Teresa Seoane. Thanks also to the postgraduate students who have helped me, including, but not only, Clara Rodríguez, Rocío Moreno, Yarizán Pan, Paula García and Silvia Vázquez. And special thanks to Ciarán Mac Dáibhí, my Irish-language advisor.

Working on Irish literature from Galicia, culturally and emotionally close to Ireland in so many ways, but still a long and costly geographical distance away, especially in times of pandemic, I have bought a large number of books, and recall with particular affection tracking down hard-to-find copies of works by J. B. O’Sullivan and Sheila Pim. I would, however, have been lost had it not been for the excellent work of the librarians at my university, both in the central and in the faculty libraries who have helped me to obtain numerous inter-library loans. My thanks also to the helpful staff at the National Library of Ireland, Trinity College Library, the National Library of Scotland, the British Library and the Biblioteca Nacional de España in Madrid.

Grateful thanks to the great team at Peter Lang who have been most helpful in every moment.

Thanks also to my friends and colleagues in the Spanish Association for Irish Studies (AEDEI), the Spanish James Joyce Society, the European Federation for Centres and Institutes of Irish Studies (EFACIS) and the International Association for Studies in Irish Literature (IASIL). And thanks to Galicia, for giving me a home away from home.

Ba mhaith liom mo leithscéal a ghabháil freisin, mar fhoghlaimeoir Gaeilge, gur foinsí tánaisteacha den chuid is mó iad mo chuid foinsí do ←xi | xii→shaothair Ghaeilge. De réir mar a thagann feabhas ar mo chuid Ghaelige, tá súil agam níos mó leabhar a léamh sa teanga seo.

This work is part of the activities being carried out in the context of the research project “NEMICATID: Aesthetics, Ethics and Strategics of the New Migratory Cartographies and Transcultural Identities in Twenty-First-Century Literature(s) in English (2007–2019)” (PID2019-109582GB-100), funded by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation (MCI/AEI/FEDER, UE)

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Cain killed Abel, Prometheus stole the divine fire, and Daedalus was wrongfully imprisoned. Cú Chulainn killed Connia, Queen Medb tried to steal the stud bull Donn Cúailnge, and Diarmuid and Gráinne were subjected to a ferocious manhunt. Crime narratives have existed for as long as humankind has told stories. Irish crime writing has existed for almost as long as has the genre itself, and indeed has provided the English language with many of the great specialists in the field. Until recently, however, Irish exponents of the genre have generally been included within an English or British tradition of crime writing, and this status has not been repudiated by the large number of Irish writers who have set their fiction within a markedly English context, translating their criminal narratives to English geographical and social settings. Thus writers such as Eilís Dillon and Nigel Fitzgerald, both working in the middle of the twentieth century and both of whom purposely set their novels in Ireland, are in a minority when compared with all the writers who located their works in England. In this study, Irish crime writing is widely considered to be that which is produced by writers born on, or who are or have been resident in, the island, regardless of the setting of such works. As for Elizabeth Mannion, an Irish setting will be “an option rather than a criterion for defining”.1 An American writer such as Bartholomew Gill is included both for his long term residence in Ireland but also for the relevance his works had at the time of their production, their popularity in Ireland and the influence they had on subsequent Irish crime writers. Dicey Deere or Anne C. Fallon will not be included, despite the latter’s surprising appearance in an anthology of Irish crime fiction. Just as an Irish setting is an option, it is not the only criterion for inclusion in this study. Some writers of doubtful “Irishness”, such as L. A. G. Strong, have ←1 | 2→been included for motives which are generally made clear in the sections dedicated to them, and other non-Irish writers have been included for a variety of reasons. Lionel Shriver and Chris Petit, for example, made a significant contribution to the Troubles thriller, which this work wishes to acknowledge.

The linguistic question is also of great importance, as Irish crime fiction has generally been written in English, while attempts at writing in the Irish language “have generally floundered”.2 Caitlín Nic Íomhair admits that crime writing in Irish was scarce during the period covered by this volume, and only started “to gain traction” at the start of the new millennium.3 Nevertheless, she stresses the case of Cathal Ó Sándair who published 160 books, mostly for children, a pioneer in the genre in Irish, or that of Ruaidhrí Ó Báille’s novella Dúnmharú ar an Dart (1989), which gained such popularity that it was the subject of multiple reprints. Ian Campbell Ross makes reference to the writers in the Irish language who published crime fiction in magazines such as An Squab in the early years of the Free State where the state-funded publishing company, An Gúm, a branch of the Department of Education, produced intermittent works of crime narratives, mostly directed towards younger readers. Ross wryly notes the apparently contradictory attitude of the Irish authorities who, while encouraging the production of Irish crime fiction for children, effectively banned true crime magazines for over three decades.4

Irish writers have been remarkably, and for some, perhaps, surprisingly, influential within the genre. The early appropriation of the picaresque, the merging of the gothic with the process of detection, the introduction of occult detective, the medical detective, the female master-criminal and ←2 | 3→the international spy thriller: all have been part of the Irish contribution to crime fiction. Although the political and economic situation of Ireland meant that the “Irish novelistic tradition” often presents a discourse which “is directed at an ‘encoded English reader’”,5 the recent growth in both the quality and quantity of Irish crime writing perhaps requires a more extensive survey of the genre in the years prior to the boom in Irish crime writing over the last twenty-five years. Cliff and Mannion have noted that crime writing has had a “fragmented history in Irish literature”, and that the notable practitioners have worked “for the most part, isolated from each other”.6 Perhaps because of this, until relatively recently few critical studies of Irish crime writing have appeared. Declan Burke, a journalist and novelist whose defence and encouragement of Irish crime writers has been constant through his blog and newspaper reviews, edited what can be seen as the first book-length study of the genre, Down These Green Streets: Irish Crime Writing in the Twenty-First Century (2011). This study includes articles by many noted contemporary crime writers, and, of special interest, an important historical overview of the genre in Ireland by Ian Campbell Ross. Ross briefly discusses the importance of works by Le Fanu, Meade, Dowling, Wills Crofts and other important precursors, stressing the relevance of these writers, despite the fact that Ireland and Irish writers “have rarely featured prominently in accounts of early crime fiction”.7 Ross proposes a number of reasons for such neglect. These include “the ways in which the critical codification of the genre took place in Britain and Ireland”, thus subordinating “many elements of crime writing’s pre-history, not least its links with the gothic, in order to privilege the rational and scientific deduction that the ‘Golden Age’ writers valued above all else”.8 Ross also proposes that the disregard for Irish crime writing can be partly attributed to a widespread rejection of the Anglo-Irish literary tradition, predominant in the field of crime writing, coinciding with the ←3 | 4→attempt to create and develop a nationalist literary system. Finally, and not of least importance, Ross notes the fact that many Irish writers were forced to publish in Britain, leading to their perceived need to cater for a British reading public. Ross has recently expanded on this introduction in his chapter on Irish crime fiction in Liam Harte’s The Oxford Handbook of Modern Irish Fiction.

Elizabeth Mannion’s The Contemporary Detective Novel (2016) provides another important contribution to studies within the field, even though, as the title suggests, its scope is limited to recent detective fiction. Nevertheless, in her introduction, Mannion does consider the relevance of earlier formats such as the gothic and sensation fiction and their influence on recent detective writing. The first book-length monograph on Irish crime writing is Brian Cliff’s Irish Crime Fiction (2018). Although Cliff concentrates mainly on recent writers and their works, he, like Mannion, uses his introduction to discuss the historical condition of the genre in Ireland. He notes, for example, the historical tendency of Irish crime fiction to deal with “varieties of clientelism and corruption”.9 Cliff collaborated with Mannion to edit a collection of essays by various authors under the title Guilt Rules All (2020). Once again the introduction looks at the “fragmented history” of Irish crime writing, stressing the editors’ belief that it is the task of scholars “less to recover an overlooked tradition” but more “to trace the emergence of a diverse but cohesive body of Irish crime writing in recent decades”.10 The focus, therefore, is on contemporary writers, with chapters dedicated to recent authors such as Claire McGowan, Arlene Hunt, Colin Bateman, Liz Nugent, Adrian McKinty and Gene Kerrigan. Despite the emphasis on contemporary writers, the volume also contains interesting essays on Freeman Wills Crofts, by Shane Mawe, and on Bartholomew Gill, by co-editor Elizabeth Mannion. Guilt Rules All is also notable for its inclusion of the essay, mentioned above, by Caitlín Ní Íomhair, which deals with the often sadly overlooked topic of crime writing in Irish. Like Cliff’s Irish Crime Fiction, Guilt Rules All accentuates the transnational nature of much ←4 | 5→recent crime fiction, and the extent to which this has influenced and been present in crime writing from Ireland.

Early criticism on crime writing was almost unanimously dedicated to the various facets of detective fiction. Traditional accounts of the genre would trace a historical lineage leading from Poe to Holmes, from Christie to Chandler, embracing early detective tales, schematic clue-puzzle mysteries and hard-boiled pulp, accepting the police procedural as a recent addition to a limited corpus. More recent critics, however, have expanded the admittedly protean boundaries of crime writing to include the earliest crime-centred narratives, including tales of the picaresque, of prison accounts, of ballads and cautionary tales. Leading commentators like Priestman, Knight and Horsley have realised the importance of using the term “crime fiction” to include “detective-less” writing.11 This has led to the incorporation of criminal-centred narratives, but also spy thrillers, in which the espionage agent takes on a role akin to that of the detective figure. For Cawelti and Rosenberg, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes fiction had shown how the spy theme “could be synthesised with the structures of mystery and detection”.12 Clive Bloom believes that the spy thriller has its origins in “the amalgamation of the imperial detective tale and the detective novel”,13 sharing the key element of secrecy.14 Like the detective story, the “fundamental principle of the mystery story is the investigation and discovery of hidden secrets”, and this discovery generally leads “to some benefit for the character(s) with whom the reader identifies”.15

When talking of “Irish” crime fiction it is, perhaps, worth noting the difficult and often contradictory relationship that exists between crime fiction and the concept of “nation” or “state”. Since Ernest Mandel’s ←5 | 6→ground-breaking Delightful Murder: A Social History of the Crime Story (1984), many critics have highlighted the close relationship between this popular genre and a wide variety of contemporary social issues. As Haut states, “to examine a culture one need only examine its crimes”.16 The essentially “realist” infrastructure of most crime fiction gives it a particularly clear mandate to fulfil the early Marxist criteria for social fiction, providing, as it were, an accurate picture of society and its inherent contradictions. This tendency towards realism has been exploited by crime writers as a means of revealing, both explicitly and implicitly, the tensions of issues such as social class, gender, race and the relationship between the individual and society, or the authority which represents said society. It is for this reason that, while many studies have been written on class, gender and crime, for example, until relatively recently the “national” status of crime fiction has been largely ignored. The hegemony of crime fiction from major nation states with linguistic, economic and political dominance was a truism throughout the early years of the genre right up until the second half of the twentieth century. Thus American, English and French models provided the dominant examples of the genre throughout its formative and evolutionary periods. The importance and relative stability of the state as institution within these countries helped to create the different sub-divisions of the genre, with France, the UK and the USA providing the clearest examples of early etective, Golden Age, hard-boiled and police procedural fiction, to use the sub-divisions proposed by critics such as Martin Priestman and John Scaggs.17

As Mandel notes, during the nineteenth century, and coinciding with the bourgeois revolution, “a stronger state and more powerful police force were needed to keep a watchful eye on the lower orders, on the classes that were ever restive, periodically rebellious, and therefore criminal in ←6 | 7→bourgeois eyes”.18 With the reification of the concepts of law and order, of crime and punishment, the bourgeoisie became steadily more implicated in the maintenance of the status quo. Such a status quo assumed the “stability of bourgeois society and the self-confidence of the ruling class”, which “assumed that this stability was a fact of life”,19 and, as such, any revolt against social order was immediately assimilated into criminal activity, and the proletariat became identified with the criminal classes. Crime fiction, for Mandel, takes root in a society only “when bourgeois ideology in its purest sense becomes all-pervasive”.20 From the early nineteenth century up until the middle of the twentieth, the large, industrially advanced nation states were, therefore, not surprisingly, the prime producers of crime fiction. Irish crime fiction suffered from the peculiar status of Ireland as a colony and then as a nation, with its subjugation to British standards and demands. It also, however, was able to reach markets far wider than that afforded by the island, thanks to the use of the English language attracting potential readers in the USA and in the nations of the British Commonwealth. Irish crime fiction was, so to speak, caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. On one hand it was potentially denied its peculiar “Irishness” by a large section of its readership, which, on the other hand, accepted works by Irish writers as part of a wider field of English-language crime writing.

As this book seeks to demonstrate, Irish crime writing has an extremely rich and varied history. This is the first in a two-book project dealing diachronically with Irish crime fiction, from the picaresque of the seventeenth century up to the late 1990s when the “Emerald Noir” boom began. My aim is to show that there is a real and thriving history of this type of literature, and that Irish writers, often without due recognition, have been instrumental in the development of the genre on an international level. The peculiar relationship with Irish writers and crime is, of course, influenced by the complex association with crime and its detection in Ireland, ←7 | 8→itself directly related to the difficult relationship between the Irish and the forces of law and order.

It is not, perhaps, surprising, that the picaresque should be so fruitfully adopted by Irish writers. The colonial situation experienced in the island during the mid-seventeenth century lent itself to the precarious economic conditions, the distorted concept of self and the disputed sense of belonging or nationality. Richard Head, born in Ireland, but whose father was a soldier in the English army, must surely have felt the sense of displacement and liminality which finds particular resonance in the Iberian format of the picaresque tale, whose hero, using only wit and imagination, is engaged in a constant struggle to survive against the apparently unsurmountable challenges set by a hostile social system. Head’s The English Rogue was immensely popular, a best-seller in its time, widely translated and adapted, and a victim of literary piracy. The picaresque model would later be used by William Chaigneau, Thomas Amory and Charles Johnstone, and, in the nineteenth century, by Charles Lever. Even today, abundant traces of this literary mode can be found in works as diverse as John Banville’s The Book of Evidence, Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy or Liz Nugent’s Unravelling Oliver. The broadsheet ballads and Newgate Calendars, now considered to have played a fundamental role in the development of crime writing, were prolifically produced in Ireland, often differing from their counterparts from England and Scotland with specifically Irish nuances. The ballads are of great interest in that they merge politics and crime, and reached such a level of notoriety that they were effectively prohibited by the authorities of Dublin Castle in 1832. The Newgate Calendars provided early examples of criminal-centred narratives, a mode of crime writing which would remain highly popular in Ireland.

The Act of Union of 1800, which brought about the UK of Great Britain and Ireland in January 1801, would have a profound effect on Irish writing and publishing. The Irish publishing industry, which had flourished before the Union, would collapse under a barrage of restrictions and the competition from London and Edinburgh. Maria Edgeworth’s story “The Limerick Gloves” would attempt to spread the author’s support for the Union, an early example of crime writing being used to express a determined political agenda. The early nineteenth century also saw the first police ←8 | 9→forces operating on an island-wide level in Ireland, under Robert Peel’s Peace Preservation Act (1814) and the Irish Constabulary Act in 1822. Unlike their British counterparts, the Irish police were armed, billeted in barracks and were almost universally hated by the local population, who saw the police as an army of occupation. The Irish Constabulary would play a large part in the suppression of agrarian unrest and the secret societies which had arisen, and this would be reflected in works which contain many features of crime writing by authors such as the Banim brothers, Charlotte E. Tunna, Anna Marie Hall, Thomas Moore and William Carleton. Carleton particularly emphasised the importance of the past on present events, a theme which would see continual reiteration in Irish crime writing. Carleton’s criminals are moved by the necessity created by their harsh living conditions, but also by greed and avarice, encouraged by the existing political situation. Gerald Griffin also anticipated future crime writing by his recreation of events of true crime as basis for his fiction.

Much has been written about the importance of the gothic within Irish fiction. One of the primary representatives of Irish gothic, Charles Robert Maturin, examined the relationship between crime and the supernatural, and his work is of particular note for its profound psychological insights. Melmoth is a detective, a quirky ancestor of later detective figures. Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu is widely considered to be one of the founders of the modern crime narrative, one of the first writers to introduce the “locked room” mystery and the occult detective. Le Fanu was also one of the primary influences on Arthur Conan Doyle, Georges Simenon and other later writers, due to his skilful introduction of strategies and techniques such as the delayed denouement. His later work, bearing many characteristics of the then-fashionable sensation fiction transferred features of the gothic into a modern, middle-class context, featuring questions of inheritance, domestic crime, bigamy and murder, substituting the castles, towers and graveyards of the gothic for the drawing rooms and parlours of the contemporary bourgeoisie. The growth of sensation fiction – an early version in many respects of the modern crime thriller – in the second half of the nineteenth century, meant that other Irish writers such as Charlotte Riddell, Annie French Hector and Frances Hoey would obtain great popularity among Irish and English readers.

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The last quarter of the century also saw “true” narratives of policing in Ireland by writers such as Robert Curtis and Henry Robert Addison, taking advantage, perhaps, of the renewed interest in crime in Ireland, largely provoked by the activities carried out by Fenians, including bomb attacks in Britain. The period also saw a marked growth in Irish crime fiction, with the mystery novels by Richard Dowling achieving high sales in the Irish, British and American markets. Dowling’s works – mainly “triple-decker” crime romances provide a fascinating link between mid-century sensation fiction and the detective narratives from the end of the century. Although many of his novels were set in England, it is perhaps the works with an Irish setting which reveal Dowling’s mastery at its best. The Mystery of Killard (1879) and Sweet Inisfail (1882) both provide fascinating glimpses of the Royal Irish Constabulary at work. A Baffling Quest (1891), set in England, contains many traits of the modern detective mystery, with a private detective, plans of the mansion where the crime is committed and numerous elements heralding modernity, such as telephones, telegrams, electricity and forensics.

The other great figure of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century is that of Elizabeth Thomasina (L. T.) Meade who published over 300 novels and collections of short stories, and who shared the front cover of The Strand magazine with Arthur Conan Doyle, as her stories and those of Sherlock Holmes shared space within the publication. Meade has been credited with being the first writer to use a doctor as detective, the first to develop plots involving “impossible” crime, the first to create a series featuring a female murderer and one of the first writers to use a female detective. Bram Stoker, whose Dracula (1897) contained many rudiments of the detective novel, also wrote crime narratives, as did Oscar Wilde (“Lord Arthur Saville’s Crime”, 1897) and Somerville and Ross. Matthias McDonnell Bodkin introduced Paul Beck, his “plain man” detective, who would appear in a series of works in the early years of the new century. Bodkin was also responsible for the creation of Dora Myrtl, a female private investigator with all the characteristics of the “New Woman”. While the individual works featuring Beck and Myrtl are excellent, the convoluted coupling of the detectives in a romantic relationship in The Capture ←10 | 11→of Paul Beck (1909) is frankly unconvincing, as is the appearance of their offspring Young Beck in the homonymous novel (1911).

The prolific Belfast clergyman Robert Owen Hanny, writing as George A. Birmingham, produced a number of crime-based narratives, the best of which are still readable today, and Dorothy Conyers reflected the hunting and shooting manners of the Ascendancy Anglo-Irish in a number of works which often centred around the investigation of a crime. Erskine Childers, who would be executed in 1922 for revolutionary activity by the new Free State government, published The Riddle of the Sands in 1903, widely regarded as one of the first ever espionage thrillers.

The years between the end of the First World War and the beginning of the Second World War saw the advent of what has become known as the Golden Age of crime fiction. Represented by authors such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Michael Innes and Ngaio Marsh, Golden Age detective narratives are often considered to be quintessentially English, and the setting is often, in fact, the heartland of the English Home Counties. The Irish influence on and contribution to this influential period is wide and varied. The “locked room” mystery, so often employed in Golden Age fiction, was introduced by Le Fanu before being famously used by Poe in his “The Murders of the Rue Morgue” (1841) and many of the tropes first tapped by L. T. Meade are used in interwar mysteries. Also of importance is the model of the Irish “Big House” novel. “Big House” fiction had captured the anxieties of a specific social grouping – the Anglo-Irish upper-middle class and minor gentry – which was cut off from the outside world through a lack of communication with the local community, generally perceived as being hostile. The closed community of the Big House is often replicated in the Golden Age detective novel, with a large house in the south of England taking the place of its Irish equivalent. The residents and their guests are markedly disassociated from the local community, and the sense of claustrophobic endogamy resembles that of the Irish Ascendancy novel. Irish writers were also prominent among those associated with the Golden Age. Dubliner Freeman Wills Crofts, who published his first novel in the same year as Agatha Christie published hers, was extremely popular during the 1920s and 1930s. His no-nonsense police officers, most particularly Inspector French, figured in a large number of ←11 | 12→novels and short stories in which the careful study of factual information – train timetables, shipping statistics, chemical formulae – usually leads to the successful resolution of cases of an increasing complexity. The intensely factual nature of many of Wills Crofts’ works differed from much of the fiction produced in the Golden Age which, although strictly adhering to the “rules” of the genre, concentrated more on psychological factors than on an analysis of dry objective information.

The works of C. Day-Lewis, writing as Nicholas Blake, represent a highpoint within the field of Golden Age detective fiction. Blake’s novels concentrate on the human and emotional aspects of murder, and although the setting often replicates that of other writers working within the genre – the closed community, the house, school or institutional building – his sensitivity to social issues lends a sense of relevance to his works, often missing in the seemingly apolitical normality of most of the great Golden Age authors. Blake’s detective is Nigel Strangeways, an intellectual detective, initially modelled on Lewis’s friend W. H. Auden, but who develops in stature and density in the thirty years in which he featured in the novels. Another Irish writer was also a member of the Detection Club, the unofficial academy for Golden Age writers. Mrs Victor Rickard (Jessie Louise Moore) produced a number of highly readable novels during the interwar period, but her work has been sadly neglected in most analyses of the Golden Age phenomenon.

The Golden Age was, of course, as already stated, considered to be a highly “English” period of writing, and despite the important contribution of the Irish writers mentioned above, or Scots such as Josephine Tey or Michael Innes, and the New Zealander Ngaio Marsh, the central image of the Golden Age novel is that of the country house in the Home Counties. While in Britain the “clue puzzle” narrative triumphed, the political and social conditions in Ireland meant that the concerns of most Irish writers lay elsewhere. Wills Crofts was a Dublin-born Protestant, whose education and employment took him first to Belfast and then to southern England. C. Day-Lewis was a member of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy whose focus was always more directed towards London than Dublin, while Mrs Victor Rickard was the widow of an English army officer. Their interests and concerns were distant from an Ireland immersed during this period ←12 | 13→between the World Wars in a revolutionary process of war, independence, partition and civil war. Interestingly three of the most relevant writers of crime fiction working in Ireland during this epoch had participated actively in revolutionary activities. While Eimar O’Duffy wrote his crime works for purely financial reasons, Robert Brennan is notable for his use of a detective working within a contemporary Irish setting, while Liam O’Flaherty produced a number of remarkable studies of crime located in the early years of the Free State.

The popularity of American hard-boiled crime fiction would also see a reflection in Ireland. From the mid-1940s, J. B. O’Sullivan published a large number of “pulp” novels, and throughout the late 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s his works developed from his stereotypical American detectives to an innovative use of Irish police officers detecting Irish crime in an Irish setting. Brian Moore, then living in Canada, also climbed aboard the pulp bandwagon, producing a number of works under different aliases which, thanks to the paperback boom of the early 1950s, allowed the author to make some money before embarking on his “serious” writing career. Moore’s pulp works used international settings, as did many of the novels by John Welcome and Manning O’Brine. Sheila Pim and Eilís Dillon, on the other hand, adapted the Golden Age style to an Irish context. Both provide interesting portraits of the Gardaí, the former using comfortable Anglo-Irish settings, while the latter’s novels centred around the native Catholic bourgeoisie. Patricia Moyes, whose long career started in the late 1950s, would also adapt the Golden Age style to her murder mysteries which featured the English detective Henry Tibbett and which often used exotic settings. Also starting his career in the late 1950s, Nigel Fitzgerald used both Irish and international settings for his novels. Although Fitzgerald was attracted to the mid-century vogue for exotic locations, his best works are those set in his native land, which include interesting details of Garda investigations, treating the Irish poice force as a competent, modern service.

Throughout the 1960s there was a marked rise in the number of spy and international thrillers published, and a number of Irish writers excelled in this field. Brian Cleeve and Shaun Herron, for example, achieved great popularity, while Jack Higgins, born in England, but brought up by his Irish mother in Belfast, became an international best-selling author. Not ←13 | 14→surprisingly, perhaps, the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland would become the subject of much of Higgins’ fiction, as he joined the ranks of international thriller writers who would take an opportunistic interest in the state of affairs in Northern Ireland. While Higgins had actually experienced the mood in Belfast, his Troubles-based novels would rarely be anything other than formulaic. Many works, however, by writers from both Northern Ireland and the Republic, reflected the conditions in the North in excellent examples of crime fiction, or of fiction in which crime played an important part. Blair McMahon’s Nights in Armour, for example, provides a fascinating view from the perspective of a serving police officer, while Eugene McEldowney’s Cecil Megarry novels are especially interesting in the way they examine the relationship between the Northern and Southern police forces. Works by Maurice Leitch, Benedict Kiely, Terence De Vere White, Danny Morrison, David Park and Glenn Patterson, among others, have contributed texts which, to some degree or other, deal with crime within the context of Northern Ireland and its Troubles.

Meanwhile, the 1970s would see the introduction of one of Ireland’s most famous and popular detective figures. The Miss Flanagan stories from Ireland’s Own magazine appeared on a weekly basis, and the mysteries which featured this spinster and former schoolteacher reached amazing popularity. Despite, or perhaps because of, their contrived homeliness, their explicit Catholic message and their use of outmoded and well-worn techniques, Miss Flanagan became a household name and, perhaps, the first Irish detective to be widely embraced by the general population. During the same decade the first Peter McGarr novels were published, written by the American author Mark C. McGarrity under the pseudonym Bartholomew Gill. Gill’s McGarr works also achieved great popularity, suggesting, perhaps, that Ireland was ready and willing to accept popular crime fiction set in Ireland and which, although written by an American, highlighted Irish police solving crimes committed by Irish criminals.

Both McGarr and Miss Flanagan would continue to be popular during the 1980s and early 1990s, a period in which real crime in Ireland was increasing at an unprecedented rate. The mass use of narcotics, the easy access to arms, related to the Troubles in the North, and the growth and dominance of efficient inner-city gangs with charismatic, if often brutal, ←14 | 15→leaders, saw a change both in the methodology used by lawbreakers and in the sheer amount of criminal activity. Such change demanded a new way of looking at crime, both in a fictional and in a real context. As the Irish read accounts of the new gangs and their flamboyant leaders, of risky heists, kidnappings and murders in their Sunday newspapers, the number of “true crime” books would also grow. Fictional works on contemporary Irish criminal activity grew in popularity, and authors such as Joe Joyce and Vincent O’Donnell incorporated drug trafficking and gang activity in their novels; the short-lived Glendale imprint would produce a number of highly readable novels which reflected the situation. The 1990s would also witness a resurgence of the thriller. While native writers such as Sarah Michaels and Richard Crawford replicated the extraneous Troubles thriller with all its clichés and platitudes, other Irish novelists such as Daniel Easterman, Glenn Meade, Victor O’Reilly, Con Cregan and Tom Phelan would produce international thrillers written from a particularly Irish standpoint. In the same period, Brian Gallagher, Jim Lusby, John Brady and Jim Galvin with their police-based thrillers, and Rory McCormack with his novels featuring a veterinary surgeon as detective, helped to cement the existence of a growing tradition in home-grown Irish crime writing.

There were, it can be argued, three factors which strongly affected the growth of Irish crime fiction in the 1990s. The first of these was the cataclysmic economic change that came to be known as the Celtic Tiger and which rocked the foundations of the Irish economy in the middle of the decade. Between 1995 and 2000 the growth of the gross domestic product (GDP) reached a high of 11.5 per cent and the country reached a level of prosperity hitherto unknown. The second factor was the IRA ceasefire of 1994, renewed in 1997 and which lead to the peace process that would terminate in the Good Friday Agreement, bringing a period of relative stability to both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The other factor was the murder of investigative journalist Veronica Guerin by members of a leading Dublin drug gang in June 1996. This murder brought about a huge public outcry at precisely the moment when Ireland, recently entered into the dynamics of the Tiger economy, was at its highest level of self-esteem. Guerin, whose newspaper articles had resolutely condemned the drugs gangs which operated with apparent impunity throughout the Republic, ←15 | 16→was a popular public figure whose murder caused the country to call into question its own status as an advanced nation. The result was the passing of a package of anti-crime legislation which led to the creation of the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB), a multidisciplinary agency with powers to seize any assets ordained to have proceeded from illegal activity, and the design of which has since been adopted by many other countries including the UK.

The creation of the CAB and the growth of the Celtic Tiger economy saw a change in the habits of crime in Ireland. The new economic self-confidence was enshrined in effective new legislation which ensured that the gangsters of the 1980s and early-to-mid-1990s found life and criminal activity in the new Tiger Ireland much more difficult. The focus of crime in the late 1990s and in the first decade of the twenty-first century moved away from the old gang-based robbery and kidnappings towards the more lucrative and initially less perilous area of white-collar crime. The Celtic Tiger period was characterised by an enormous growth in the property market, and the quick profits that could be gained from this prompted a whole new level of criminal activity. This activity would be documented by many Irish crime writers who started writing in the 1990s, and others whose first works would appear at the beginning of the new millennium.

A large number of writers who would later achieve prominence started their activity in the 1990s. Some, like Gene Kerrigan or Liz Allen, would start as newspaper reporters who would later produce volumes of a “true crime” nature, before turning to fiction in the next decade. Others would publish their first novels in the 1990s before becoming appreciated as major figures in the buoyant world of Irish crime fiction in the 2000s and 2010s. These latter include Colin Bateman, whose comic crime thrillers would become hugely successful, Ken Bruen, whose early works contained many of the features that would bring fame to his later Jack Taylor novels, or Paul Charles, like Bruen living in London at the time. English writer Peter Tremayne inaugurated his Sister Fidelma series which would become highly influential in the sub-genre of historical crime fiction, while Eoin McNamee’s first works appeared, as did John Connolly’s first Charlie Parker thriller.

This book has been written as an introduction to the vast field of Irish crime and mystery writing since the seventeenth century until the end of ←16 | 17→the twentieth century. Although some excellent articles and chapters have appeared, this is, I believe, the first book-length study of the area. I realise that many people have become interested in the phenomenon of Irish crime fiction thanks to the flourishing state it enjoys in the first quarter of the third millennium. In this volume I hope readers will come to realise that the Irish contribution to this genre has been, although somewhat overlooked, also fruitful and influential. Realising that many of the works covered here are difficult to obtain, I have attempted to provide short, coherent summaries of their contents. For those few who have read the works, I apologise in advance, but the advantage of providing such summaries does, I believe, far outweigh the disadvantage.

The epigraphs contained within the chapter titles are quotations taken from one of the books discussed within that chapter.


XII, 440
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2022 (September)
Crime fiction Irish Studies detective fiction Irish crime fiction Detective mystery Dark Green David Clark
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2022. XII, 440 pp.

Biographical notes

David Clark (Author)

David Clark is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of A Coruña and Director of the «Amergin» University Research Institute for Irish Studies. He has served on the executive committees of both national and international organisations for Irish studies and has published widely in the field.


Title: Dark Green