Irish Crime Novels From My Shelves
When bookish American friends ask me if I can recommend any good Irish crime novels -- often after they've read Tana French for the first time -- I have to warn them that they may get a bit more, recommendation-wise, than they bargained for. Showing off the part of my bookshelf where I have lovingly collected and precariously piled crime fiction set in Ireland or written by Irish authors makes me feel a bit like this lady.
Here's what part of my collection looks like.
I still find it really marvelous that there are so many great Irish mysteries to read. When I was studying Irish Literature in graduate school in the mid-90s (and secretly dreaming of writing crime fiction), I told a professor that I wanted to focus on mystery novels by Irish writers. I was told that there really weren't enough of them to make my plan viable. I could pull elements of crime fiction out of Joyce or Flann O'Brien, of course, but in terms of actual, Irish crime fiction, well, the examples were thin on the ground. Of course, that wasn't exactly true then. It's really, really not true now. Twenty five years later there's been a rampant flowering of the crime fiction branch on the tree of Irish Literature. Back then, I ended up writing my masters thesis on the Anglo-Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen (and looking for the mystery in her work).
I've been making enough recommendations lately that I thought it would be fun to highlight some of the Irish crime novels on my shelves, by pulling down one writer a day for the month of March. I started doing it March 1 and then . . . well, you know what happened then. Getting a post up a day proved to be more than my suddenly homeschooling, writing, and quarantined brain could handle. So, I'm just adding in books as I can.
I hope readers will buy some of these books from independent bookshops in the States and in Ireland. And remember, you can order ebooks through independent bookstores too.
Here's a link to Indiebound, where you can find many of these books in stock at shops that can ship them to you. If you're reading this, I probably don't need to tell you that Covid-19 has been tough on our wonderful independent bookstores. Please support them however you can.
Irish bookstores are in the same boat. When I lived in Dublin, I spent hours and hours in Books Upstairs and Hodges Figgis. The last time I was in Ireland, I discovered some great new bookstores on my travels, including Dubray Books, the Gutter Bookshop, and Books on the Green in Sandymount. All of these bookstores take online orders and will ship. Kennys Bookshop in Galway offers free shipping.
First up: Declan Hughes's noir-y Dublin novels starring private detective Ed Loy.
The series gets off to a vivid start with this fantastic first line of 2006's The Wrong Kind of Blood: "The night of my mother's funeral, Linda Dawson cried on my shoulder, put her tongue in my mouth, and asked me to find her husband."
When I first read The Wrong Kind of Blood, I felt like I was reading something completely new, a crime novel about Dublin that attended lovingly and critically to the details of a city I knew well, a city that was changing so fast it had become a mystery to one of its native sons, who was returning home after twenty years in L.A. Watching him figure out how it had changed and how it hadn't right at the moment that I had started visiting Ireland again regularly after some time away was a rare joy.
Loy's cases start out classic L.A. private eye: missing husbands, blackmail, lost daughters, disappeared actresses, but transported to mid-aughts Dublin, where money was busy transforming city neighborhoods and their residents in unexpected ways. Hughes has a lot to say about Celtic Tiger and pre- and post-financial crisis Ireland, but mostly he has a lot to say about people. Loy's personal evolution over the course of the series is convincing and well-tended-to and the characters who surround him are Technicolor, 3-D, fully realized; they feel like actual people you've met and are now having described back to you by someone who knows them even better than you do. And he does it all in beautiful, gathering prose, as in this description of a legendary film director in City of Lost Girls: "Jack Donovan, the Jack Donovan, in a darkened Dublin bar, great handsome bull's head tipped back, plume of still-dark hair coiled over broad black-shirted back, full pint of stout held aloft to the east, shot of whiskey to the west, and the feet all pounding in a ring around him as he sinks the dark pint to rising hoots and cries . . ."
More information about Declan Hughes's Ed Loy novels and his other work here.
When I pulled The Scholar down off my bookshelf, I realized that I've loaned out its predecessor, The Ruin, to someone and must get it back!
Dervla McTiernan's Cormac Reilly books are great police procedurals featuring a complex but fundamentally decent detective main character and -- perhaps my favorite elements -- richly described Galway and environs settings and a cast of colleagues for Cormac that includes Detective Carrie Ryan. McTiernan released a prequel novella last year called The Sisters, that focuses on Carrie and her barrister sister and an early case that shaped them both. It has me even more excited about the third Cormac Reilly mystery, The Good Turn, which will be out soon.
More information about Dervla McTiernan can be found here.
Pulling Brian McGilloway's first Inspector Devlin mystery off my shelf made me remember how much I liked it and drove me to order some other Devlin novels, as well as his DS Lucy Black thrillers post haste! Devlin, a Garda detective in Lifford, in the Republic of Ireland, works right on the border of Northern Ireland. His interactions across the border with police officers and citizens in Strabane somehow throw every detail of daily life into stark relief and give this police procedural an extra level of tension and meaning. I love McGilloway's lyrical writing, his descriptions of farming and rural life, and his complicated and very human hero.
More on Brian McGilloway here.
Jane Casey's Maeve Kerrigan series is set in London, rather than Ireland, but her portrayal of Maeve, whose parents are Irish and who grew up with a sense of both Irishness and Britishness, feels fresh and true. She's also a great character and Casey gives her a string of dark and dangerous cases to tackle, which she does with intelligence and dedication. I love the way Casey handles Maeve's romantic relationships (and a not-quite-romantic relationship with a coworker) and her friendships and connections with her family.
More information about Jane Casey here.
I love Joe Joyce's tension-filled spy thrillers, set in neutral Ireland during World War II. His descriptions of wartime Dublin's dark alleys and smoke-filled rooms illuminate a part of Irish history that a lot of Americans don't know about. These novels are full of intrigue, style, and romance and his main character, Paul Duggan, a conflicted veteran of the First World War and an Irish military intelligence officer, is a sympathetic guide through the murky motivations of government officials and civilians alike.
More about Joe Joyce here.
Adrian McKinty has become very well-known lately for his blockbuster hit The Chain (which is very good), but I will always be especially partial to his Detective Sean Duffy novels, about a Catholic police detective in the largely Protestant police force of Northern Ireland, the Royal Ulster Constabulary or RUC. One of the things I love about the Duffy novels is the way they span the period of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, detailing the evolution of the conflict and the attitudes of average Protestants and Catholics to each other, to their police force, and to the governments that hold sway on their island. I also love that we get to see Duffy evolve over the years, from a young detective full of bravado and ego, to a more complex man with big existential questions, a partner and parent who is witness to the violence, humanity and more-than-occasional surrealism that inhabits Northern Ireland in the latter half of the 20th century. There are very few good guys on these pages, but the cynicism is a marvelous, textured cynicism and there are moments of pure, transcendent joy. I'm really, really hoping that Sean Duffy isn't a victim of his creator's success and that he gets many more outings . . . so I can read more passages like this one, from the opening of The Cold Cold Ground:
"The riot had taken on a beauty of its own now. Arcs of gasoline fire under the crescent moon. Crimson tracer in mystical parabolas. Phosphorescence from the barrels of plastic bullet guns. A distant yelling like that of men below decks in a torpedoed prison ship. The scarlet whoosh of Molotovs intersecting with exacting surfaces. Helicopters everywhere: their spotlights finding one another like lovers in the Afterlife."
More information about Adrian McKinty here.
Another writer from Northern Ireland on my shelves is Claire McGowan. Among other standalones and series, McGowan writes a series about forensic psychologist Paula Maguire, who works with the RUC's new iteration, the Police Service of Northern Ireland. The series, set in a fictional border town called Ballyterrin, features a smart and sympathetic sleuth with an interesting and complicated personal life and a nose for twisted psyches and dark, knotty mysteries. Paula's father is a retired detective and like Adrian McKinty's Sean Duffy, was a Catholic member of the RUC, so the past -- and the legacy of The Troubles -- is never far from the story, and Paula's present.
More information about Claire McGowan here.
Olivia Kiernan's mysteries about DCS Frankie Sheehan are dark and evocative crime novels with a really compelling heroine at the helm. In her first outing, Too Close to Breathe, Frankie gets involved in a case that may or may not be connected to one that left her injured and traumatized. I found Kiernan's description of Frankie's attempts to come to terms with her trauma especially convincing and I'm really looking forward to 2019's The Killer in Me (which I just ordered) and 2020's If Looks Could Kill.
More information about Olivia Kiernan here.
Catherine Ryan Howard
I loved the set-up of Catherine Ryan Howard's The Liar's Girl: Serial killer Will Hurley is safely behind bars when the body of a young woman is found in Dublin's Grand Canal under strikingly similar circumstances to Will's victims. Is there a copycat killer or is Will innocent? He tells police that he'll only talk to Allison Smith, the woman he was dating at the time of the murder for which he was convicted, so Allison must return to Dublin from the Netherlands where she's been living, sparking a reckoning with the truth. Howard's first novel, Distress Signals, is set on a cruise ship, which seems somehow like an appropriate read right now, and I've heard great things about her newest, Rewind.
More information about Catherine Ryan Howard here.
I love John Banville's novels (The Book of Evidence, in particular) and the day I discovered that he had started writing detective novels (under Benjamin Black) I seem to remember doing a little dance of joy. This series, about a brilliant and curmudgeonly pathologist named Quirke, who haunts the smoky corners of 1950s Dublin, is a noir-y take on a period of Irish history dominated by Irish citizens' relationship to the Catholic Church. For a long time, I used a line from Christine Falls in a writing class I taught, as an example of the power of gesture in characterization: "Rose walked to the fireplace and took two cigarettes from a lacquered box on the mantelpiece and lit both of them and handed one to Quirke.'Lipstick,' she said. 'Sorry.'”
Banville/Black's prose is full of moments of efficient and deft characterization like that, just one of their many pleasures.
Taking these down off the shelf reminds me that I haven't read the last couple ones in the series, nor seen the BBC production based on the books. I'll be rectifying that over the next few weeks. And he has a new historical mystery out, set in Prague in 1599!
More information about Benjamin Black here.
Caz Frear is a British writer (with Irish parents, I believe) who writes a great series set in London, though Ireland is absolutely and richly there in her books, and in her main character Cat Kinsella, a young police detective with the Metropolitan Police Force. I think my two favorite things about the first book in the series, Sweet Little Lies, are Cat's relationship with her dangerously charming father and her conflicted, tough-yet-vulnerable voice, which jumps out and grabs you by the collar on every page.
More information about Caz Frear here.
Erin Hart writes a fascinating series about the mysteries that link past and present, bound together in the human remains found and preserved in Irish bogs. Her main characters, an American forensic pathologist and an Irish archaeologist who uncover the long-ago (and sometimes not-so-long-ago) secrets buried with the bodies, are sympathetic guides on our journey. The romantic subplot and Hart's deep knowledge or Irish culture, music, and geography make this series a real treat.
More about Erin Hart here.
Bartholomew Gill was actually the pen name of American journalist and crime writer Mark C. McGarrity. Though his fifteen novels featuring Garda detective Peter McGarr take on drug dealing, corruption, and Irish and Northern Irish politics of the 1970s and '80s, I've always found the McGarr novels cozy and comforting reads. It must be something to do with McGarr himself, a thoughtful, compassionate leader with a leisurely way about him and a grounding in Irish history and literature.
More information about Bartholomew Gill here.
Speaking of compassionate and decent men, I absolutely love Jo Spain's main character, Garda Detective Inspector Tom Reynolds. He's a smart detective, an emotionally intelligent manager, and a good husband and father who faces domestic pressures and complex mysteries with quiet aplomb. I love the other members of Reynolds's investigative team and they provide some romantic sub-plots and camaraderie amidst Spain's well-designed plots, many of them pulled from current events in Ireland and from her own experience in Irish political life. Jo Spain has also written standalone thrillers and for television and film and I'm especially looking forward to reading her standalone Dirty Little Secrets.
More about Jo Spain here.
I love the poetic prose in Ken Bruen's Jack Taylor novels almost as much as I love the Galway setting and Bruen's honest probing of addiction and redemption. Though Jack Taylor, ejected from the Garda Síochána for drinking and bad behavior, becomes a private detective -- or rather, a finder of things -- by accident, it turns out he's meant for the work. He battles evil and himself in equal measures, not afraid to employ brutality against either one. But he also gives in to his affection and concern for his fellow human beings and his love of writers and their poems and books. I love the way Bruen references childhood memory and the Irish language and his short, poetic chapters move his twisty plots neatly forward.
Ken Bruen has written fifteen Jack Taylor novels, along with many collections of short fiction and two other crime series. More information about his work here.
Liz Nugent writes psychological thrillers that deconstruct violence, tracing crimes back to the source and showing both the before and after. A lot of reviews mention her "unlikeable" characters, but I find the idea of likeability a bit tiresome. Her complex players' likeability seems beside the point; from the first page of Lying in Wait, Lydia Fitzsimon's voice crawls inside your head and you absolutely have to find out why she and everyone around her have done the things she's done. I've been hearing great things about Nugent's newest, Our Little Cruelties. Heading off to see where I can order it now . . .
More information about Liz Nugent's work here.
Back in 2007, a lot of people started telling me that I had to read a book called In the Woods. "It's Irish. It's crime," they said. "It's right up your alley." I read it once and there was so much I loved -- but also so many questions -- that I read it again immediately. This time, I was hooked, on the voice of Rob Ryan and his friendship with Cassie Maddox, on her description of their working partnership, on the way French used touchstones from Ireland's distant past -- archaeology, fairy and folk tales -- to say something profound and terrifying about the present. I've read every one of French's Dublin Murder Squad mysteries multiple times now and I think she's a master of narrative structure and characterization. One of the things I love most about her books is the way each detective dyad functions as a marriage of sorts, and the mysteries she uncovers are really the mysteries of how humans work together, and how they love and betray each other too.
More about Tana French here.