Book review: Down these green streets

Down these green streets
Published in The Sunday Business Post on June 26th, 2011, reviewed by Alex Meehan

ImageSo much has been written about the renaissance currently taking place in Irish crime fiction that it’s probably about time a book like Down these Green Streets appeared.

Edited by well-known author, journalist and blogger Declan Burke, this anthology is made up of essays, interviews and short stories charting the development of the Irish crime novel from its earliest incarnations to the present day, asking where it’s been, where it is, how it got there and where it’s going.

Crime fiction has been one of the literary success stories of Irish writing over the last ten years, but some interesting questions remain – why did it take so long for Irish authors to take to the genre, and what does it say about a society that it suddenly decides it wants to read about crime at home, rather than in far off places?

In his afterword, Fintan O’Toole describes Irish crime writing as “arguably the nearest thing we have to a realist literature adequate to capturing the nature of contemporary society” and Down these Green Streets certainly goes some way to analysing the role crime fiction plays in 21st century Ireland.

Divided into three sections — Out of the Past, Thieves Like US, and Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye — the first section of the book starts by attempting to explain why the kind of hard boiled private investigator so beloved of Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler just couldn’t have appeared in Ireland at the same period — creations such as Philip Marlow and Sam Spade would have stuck out rather than blended into Irish society.

Instead of streetwise private investigators suavely solving crimes and getting the girl at the same time, period readers in Ireland got a different kind of crime fiction, typified by John B Keane’s The Playboy of the Western World and Synge’s The Field.

In fact, Cormac Miller, in his essay entitled The Dead Generations, details how when one of the earliest crime authors to publish in Ireland, Reardan Conner, attempted to write stories that depicted the underbelly of Irish society, he ran afoul of the Irish censorship board.

In his autobiography A Plain Tale for the Bogs, written in 1937, he complained that “a section of the Irish and Irish-American reviewers demand that Irish novelists depict Irishmen as models of virtue and Irish women as models of chastity. God help the Irish writer who, in the genuineness of his heart thinks fit to depict an Irish villain. God doubly help him if he dares to suggest that such a creature as a prostitute exists in Ireland.”

Later on, if hard boiled crime had been published in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, it’s quite likely that there wouldn’t have been much of an audience for it anyway. John Connolly asks in his essay, No Blacks, No Dogs, No Crime Writers: Ireland and the Mystery Genre, when the troubles were filling the headlines with horror after horror, who would have the appetite for a crime novel?

Connolly points out that from the author’s perspective, it’s difficult to write a novel about common-or-garden murder, the stuff of mainstream mysteries, when, a couple of hours up the road from Dublin, soldiers, policemen and civilians are being killed on a daily basis.

“Writers who may have been tempted to create works of Irish crime fiction may instead have shied away from it for fear of becoming entangled in the larger political, social and religious questions surrounding the violence in Northern Ireland, or of being accused of trivialising it by using it as material for popular fiction,” he says.

In addition Connolly suggests that Irish society was basically not a violent place until recent times, “the elephant in the room that was/is terrorist violence excepted.” Murder, that staple of crime fiction, was not something that occupied the Irish people on a daily basis and the most notorious cases were also usually solved quickly.

With so many fiction writers contributing to this book, it’s a little surprising it doesn’t contain more fiction. Of the 30 plus contributions, there are only five pieces of fiction – short stories by Kevin McCarthy, Jane Casey, Alex Barclay, Stuart Neville and Ken Bruen.

Jane Casey’s Inheritance is nicely written and breaks up the rest of the section well. It’s the story of a burglar hoping for a big score who knocks on the door of a run-down Georgian country house on a rainy night, posing as a motorists stranded and in need of shelter. He plans to make off with what few valuables remain to the aging spinster who lives in the house on her own. Needless to say, the caper doesn’t quite turn out as he hoped.

Also of interest is Kevin McCarthy’s Twenty-five and Out, which is set in Cork in 1922 and relates how a group of Royal Irish Constabulary men spend the their last few days in uniform as they wait to be demobilised and sent home to the UK. When a clerical error means there is no transportation available to bring them to the port, they decide to take the tram through Cork, knowing that public feeling against them is at an all-time high. A near riot breaks out and the men are left to make the rest of the way themselves.

Down these Green Streets is an interesting read, and an obligatory title to add to the bookshelves of any serious fan of Irish crime fiction. The list of contributors functions as a who’s who of writing in this area – included are Cora Harrison, John Connolly, Colin Bateman, Michael Connelly, Gene Kerrigan, Brian McGilloway, and Tara Brady.

Any anthology is always going to be a mixed bag, particularly one written by 31 different authors, but an interesting and accessible history of crime fiction in Ireland emerges from the pages of Down these Green Streets, and this is a book that hard core fans will really enjoy and in which there is enough to hold the interest of the casual reader.

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