10 Irish crime fiction novels you didn't know you needed in your life

Irish crime fiction has exploded into a literary phenomenon in recent times. Declan Burke selects the best examples of how the genre has developed through the years.
10 Irish crime fiction novels you didn't know you needed in your life

Divorcing Jack, by Colin Bateman (1995)

Written at a time when it was neither profitable nor popular to poke fun at paramilitaries, Colin Bateman’s debut featured journalist Dan Starkey, an amateur sleuth investigating the murder of a student and the kidnapping of his estranged wife, Patricia.

A seamless blend of hardboiled noir and hilarious one-liners, Dan Starkey was Raymond Chandler’s immortal private eye Philip Marlowe reincarnated on the mean streets of Belfast.

A courageous, ground-breaking novel, Divorcing Jack won the Betty Trask Prize and kick-started the phenomenon of Irish crime fiction.

Mary, Mary by Julie Parsons (1998)

Ireland’s relatively small population means that Irish crime novels have tended more towards the ‘whydunit’ — ie, the psychological thriller — rather than the traditional ‘whodunit’, and New Zealand-born Julie Parson’s debut Mary, Mary set the standard.

A psychiatrist who specialises in domestic violence, Margaret Mitchell returns to Ireland to begin a lethal game of cat-and-mouse when she is contacted by her daughter’s insane killer.

The novel “takes the psychological suspense thriller to places it rarely dares to go,” declared the New York Times Book Review and Mary, Mary, translated into 17 languages, certainly put Irish crime writing on the map.

Every Dead Thing, by John Connolly (1999)

John Connolly’s astonishingly assured debut introduced one of contemporary crime fiction’s most compelling characters, the tortured private investigator Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, who has subsequently featured in 17 titles to date.

Haunted by the murder of his wife and young daughter, Parker takes on a case investigating the whereabouts of a missing girl, and embarks on an epic odyssey into America’s Deep South.

The winner of 1999’s Best First Novel Shamus Award, and an LA Times Book of the Year, Every Dead Thing announced the arrival of a significant new talent on the international stage.

The Blue Tango, by Eoin McNamee (2001)

With Resurrection Men (1994) already under his belt, Eoin McNamee published the first of his ‘Blue Trilogy’ in 2001, a literary investigation of a true crime, that of the murder of Patricia Curran – daughter of the then Attorney General for Northern Ireland, Lancelot Curran — in Whiteabbey in 1952.

A darkly gothic tale that deliberately blurs the line between fact and fiction, The Blue Tango was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and set the tone for the great trilogy (it was followed by Orchid Blue (2010) and Blue is the Night (2014), the latter winning the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year) of Irish crime fiction.

The Guards, by Ken Bruen (2001)

Ken Bruen had published a clutch of London-set crime novels before setting The Guards in his native Galway.

The story centres on disgraced ex-Garda Jack Taylor, an alcoholic investigator who reluctantly stumbles towards redemption when commissioned to look into the circumstances of a teenage suicide.

The story, however, is virtually irrelevant as Bruen offers a post-modern take on the classic private eye; the literary-minded Taylor’s relationship with a Galway gate-crashing Celtic Tiger prosperity secured for Bruen that year’s Shamus Award for Best Novel.

Dead I Well May Be, by Adrian McKinty (2003)

Better known today for his bestselling series featuring RUC detective Sean Duffy, Northern Ireland’s Adrian McKinty burst onto the scene with a compelling thriller featuring the ‘unkillable’ Michael Forsythe, a rising star in New York’s underworld in the early 1990s who is double-crossed by his boss, Darkey White.

McKinty would go on to win awards for subsequent novels (he has published 18 in total), but Dead I Well May Be is a stone-cold classic, a revenge thriller written in blackly comic muscular prose that reads like a Jim Thompson noir redrafted by Cormac McCarthy.

Darkhouse, by Alex Barclay (2005)

Opening in America, Alex Barclay’s debut centres on Joe Lucchesi, an NYPD detective who relocates to Ireland haunted by his failure to prevent the murder of a young girl, where he is tracked down by ex-con Duke Rawlins, a psychopath determined to revenge the killing of his ex-partner by targeting Joe Lucchesi’s family.

A gripping psychological thriller, the novel is notable for its portrayal of the terrifying Rawlins, one of the most vivid characterisations of sociopathy in Irish crime fiction.

The Twelve, by Stuart Neville (2009)

One of the great post-‘Troubles’ novels, Stuart Neville’s Belfast-set debut opens with ex-paramilitary killer Gerry Fegan haunted by the shades of his victims.

Are his troubling visions ghosts, or are they manifestations of Fegan’s damaged psyche?

Trembling on the brink of insanity, Fegan sets out to deliver retribution on behalf of those he was ordered to kill. Nominated for a host of awards,The Twelve (aka The Ghosts of Belfast) won the LA Times Mystery/Thriller Award in 2010, and paved the way for a host of post-‘Troubles’ crime narratives.

Broken Harbour, by Tana French (2012)

A commercial and critical success since the publication of her debut In the Woods in 2007, Tana French published her masterpiece in 2012.

Detective Mick Kennedy is called to a particularly grim crime scene on a so-called ghost estate in County Dublin, there to discover young children knifed to death by their father, their mother fighting for her life.

The conclusion is obvious – or is it?

A spine-chilling exploration of how insanity can creep into the cracks exposed by financial pressures, Broken Harbour won the LA Times Mystery/Thriller Award, and can be considered the finest example to date of the post-Celtic Tiger novel.

Unravelling Oliver by Liz Nugent (2014)

“I expected a bit more of a reaction the first time I hit her.”

The brutal opening line of Liz Nugent’s debut novel sets both scene and tone, as Nugent explores the personality of the eponymous anti-hero, a charismatic man who attacks his wife Alice and puts her in a coma.

What makes Unravelling Oliver such a compelling novel is Nugent’s multi-faceted approach to characterising this apparent monster, which results in a gripping psychological character study that won the Bord Gais Irish Crime Novel of the Year.

  • Declan Burke is the editor of Trouble is Our Business: New Stories by Irish Crime Writers (New Island).

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