Alex Barclay, Arlene Hunt, Niamh O’Connor and Ava McCarthy are four of the leading lights of the current wave of Irish crime writing — women who prove that the female author is very often deadlier than the male.
“Crime novels are about life, death, love, loss and broken minds,” says Alex Barclay.
“A broken mind is a very attractive thing to a woman, because there is a compulsion to understand it. I’m not saying that no man is wired that way, just that more women are.”
From the very beginning of the crime fiction genre, women have more than held their own with their male counterparts. Agatha Christie and Josephine Tey; Patricia Highsmith and Leigh Brackett; Sue Grafton and Patricia Cornwell: all have been runaway bestsellers who have explored the criminal mind in a different way to their male peers.
The current generation includes names like Val McDermid, Kathy Reichs, Tess Gerritsen and Kate Atkinson, women for whom a six-inch stiletto is as likely to be a deadly weapon as a killer heel. But it’s not all about blood, guts and gore, reckons Ava McCarthy.
“I think women simply read more fiction than men,” she says, “be it crime or otherwise, so by extension most crime fiction readers are therefore going to be women. And good crime novels, like any genre, deal with strong characters and emotions, so maybe it’s that old chestnut about women being more in touch with their feelings. Maybe women allow themselves to engage more completely with the emotions of good stories, while men, by and large, like to stick with the facts of the real world.”
Arlene Hunt, who, along with Alex Barclay, will travel to New York later this month to take part in a New York University symposium on Irish crime writing, agrees with McCarthy. “Empathy plays an important part,” she says. “Perhaps women really engage with the characters and enjoy the emotional roller-coaster that begins when you crack the spine of the new crime fiction novel. I think on the whole women really enjoy dipping into other people’s lives. I know I do. It’s escapism, isn’t it?”
McCarthy, whose novels have been set in locations as far-flung as the Bahamas, South Africa and the Basque region of Spain, concurs. “For me, writing is just like reading — it’s all about escape. So when I write, I like to escape into a world I don’t normally inhabit.”
While Hunt and McCarthy champion escapism, Niamh O’Connor pursues a gritty kind of reality in her police procedurals, drawing inspiration from real events.
“I see huge parallels with London in the 1990s and the onset of our recession and the resignation of Bertie Ahern,” she says, “who was, like Maggie Thatcher, in office for 11 years, and was repeatedly voted in despite his track record as a former Finance Minister who didn’t have a bank account. I suspect the people who voted for Maggie Thatcher didn’t like her much as a human being, either.”
Behind the various motives and agendas, however, all four women share the same age-old, primal instinct.
“I love telling a story,” says Hunt. “I love the process of writing, shaping the characters, giving them their personalities, their unique voices. There is something satisfying about creating something from nothing and fleshing it out so that it becomes recognisable to others. I hope my novels offer a semblance of humanity amongst the bloodshed, be it a kind word or a person simply doing the right thing, even when their back is to the wall.”
“With writing,” says Barclay, “you get to satisfy your curiosity every day on whatever subject, for however long. You get to meet wonderful people with amazing minds and interesting lives and experiences.” Her take on the creative process is tinged with a certain darkness, however. “Writing is more than a job,” she cautions, “it’s a compulsion. Your mind is your work space, so, unless you lose it, it’s with you all the time. When I’m working on autopsies, doing research, I sometimes think it would be quite a relief to have my brain removed for a little while, just to silence the voices …”
A similar quality of intensity drives McCarthy.
“When I sit down to write,” she says, “it’s because I have a vision in my head of a story, or maybe even of just a single scene, and I’m tingling with curiosity to see if I can chisel it out and execute it into something real. I try to make each and every scene a fully realised vision. I work through each one in intense detail, feeling it from an emotional and intellectual level, going into a kind of alpha-state.”
While all four women are unmistakably Irish writers, not all of them feel as compelled as Niamh O’Connor to set their stories at home. Arlene Hunt’s forthcoming ‘The Chosen’ is set in the US, as is Alex Barclay’s ‘Time of Death’, while Ava McCarthy’s new title, ‘Hide Me’, is set in San Sebastian in Basque Spain.
“My novels are set in Dublin,” says O’Connor, “because I believe you have to write what you know. The ebb and flow of a city is a vital part of a crime book for me. To me, Ireland is in a similar place to London in the early ‘90s, when the UK went into recession after a period of phenomenal growth. I’m just hoping that my heroine, DI Jo Birmingham, can do for Dublin what [Lynda La Plante’s] Jane Tennison did for Scotland Yard.”
For Hunt, Ireland was simply too small and too populated for her latest story. The setting for ‘The Chosen’ is the heavily-wooded mountainous borders of North Carolina and Tennessee. “Originally I looked for a remote area to set my story here in Ireland, but for the life of me, I couldn’t find a spot remote enough. I don’t think we even ‘get’ what really remote means. Think travelling for days without meeting another soul.”
“I’m actually tinkering with Boston for the setting of my fourth novel,” says McCarthy. “I don’t like the notion that just because I’m Irish, I’m expected to write about Ireland. I need to write about things that excite me, and for me, an unfamiliar setting that I need to experience and research is far more stimulating than mimicking the world I live in day-to-day.”
Home or away, male or female, hard-boiled reality or escapist fantasy, the business of writing crime fiction is the best possible career, according to Alex Barclay.
“Writing is an incredible job,” she says. “You are master of your own universe, you get to create worlds, and people, and sick scenarios, all the while drinking coffee and eating cake. What more could anyone want?”
Alex Barclay’s ‘Time of Death’ is published by Harper. Arlene Hunt’s ‘The Chosen’ is published by Portnoy Publishing. Niamh O’Connor’s ‘Taken’ is published by Transworld Ireland. Ava McCarthy’s ‘Hide Me’ is published by Harper.
Declan Burke is an author and journalist. He is the editor of ‘Down These Green Streets: Irish Crime Writing in the 21st Century’. His latest novel is ‘Absolute Zero Cool’ (Liberties Press).