Everywhere in Northern Ireland’s post-Troubles crime fiction, authors ask: What now? Where do the “fighters” go? What about those grim holdouts who refuse to acknowledge that the war is over? What about the innocents left behind—and the not-so-innocents whose connections got them through the fighting propserous and unscathed?
It’s no accident that one of the most honored novels in Northern Ireland’s current crime-fiction boom is Stuart Neville’s The Ghosts of Belfast, whose admirers include James Ellroy and which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 2010. Neville’s Gerry Fegan is a former Republican gunman haunted by the ghosts of the men, women and children he has killed. Those ghosts are only the most literal exploration of the Troubles’ afterlife to be found in contemporary Northern Irish crime writing.
Some authors turn to tragedy, as in The Ghosts of Belfast, while David Park’s The Truth Commissioner reflects an ironic, hopeless yearning for truth and justice after the Troubles. Other writers explore post-Troubles life through comedy. Garbhan Downey’s novels and stories constitute an extended sitcom whose situation is: What does one do with sectarian fighters, Catholic and Protestant alike, once the fight is over and they have families to raise, lives to live, and livings to earn? Sometimes the border between comedy and tragedy is as misty and elusive as the line between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Colin Bateman’s portrait of the fictional town of Crossmaheart in Cycle of Violence is funny, touching and sad, an inescapably human reminder that wars don’t end when the fighting stops:
“There were natural-born mentals and mental cases, nuts who had made themselves crazy through wielding a gun in the name of one military faction or another. There were natural-born cripples and those who had brought it on themselves, gunmen who had been shot, gunmen who had shot themselves, bombers who had blown their hands off, thieves who had been shot in the legs by terrorists because they (the thieves) were a menace to society, and you could see them hopping down the streets, wearing their disability with pride like it was some red badge of courage.”
Another such reminder comes in Adrian McKinty’s The Dead Yard, whose villains are a breakaway cell of Irish Republican killers in America called the Sons of Cuchulain. Peace agreements loom, and both the British and the IRA want the Sons out of the way, but war does not end with the stroke of a pen. That same McKinty has written a contender for best paragraph in post-Troubles Northern Ireland crime fiction. The book is The Bloomsday Dead, and protagonist Michael Forsythe has returned to Belfast:
“They say the air over Jerusalem is thick with prayers, and Dublin might have its fair share of storytellers, but this is where the real bullshit artists live. The air over this town is thick with lies. Thousands of prisoners have been released under the cease-fire agreements—thousands of gunmen walking these streets, making up a past, a false narrative of peace and tranquility.”
Now, tell me that thousands of crime stories are not walking those same streets, waiting to be written.
Northern Ireland’s crime writers are forever crossing the sectarian and other borders that have divided their land. Author Stuart Neville is Protestant, but Jack Lennon, the police inspector protagonist of Neville’s Collusion, is Catholic. And Brian McGilloway, from Derry in Northern Ireland, has made his hero, Benedict Devlin, an inspector with the Gardai, the Irish Republic’s police force.
“The main reason for it, I suppose,” McGilloway told Detectives Beyond Borders, “was to avoid the political. During the time of writing, policing was still a hot issue in Northern Ireland. I was aware that, as a Northern writer, people would rightly or wrongly look at the books for a political angle on the presentation of the [Police Service of Northern Ireland]. By filtering their presentation through Devlin’s eyes, it allows Devlin to direct, to some extent, the reader’s reactions and makes his response to the PSNI a personal rather than political one. . . . As for the Troubles—I wanted to write a non-Troubles book but, around the Border, it would be unrealistic to assume that they’re not there somewhere—this the only representation of the Troubles in Borderlands is the disembodied voice, talking about the past. It’s there, but increasingly insubstantial. Or that was my intention, at least.”
Here are some useful links about crime fiction from Northern Ireland:
Peter Rozovsky, Detectives Beyond Borders