University of Alcalá de Henares, Spain | Published: 15 March, 2006
ISSUE 1 | Pages: 58-66 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2006-1340
2006 by Marisol Morales-Ladrón | This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
Since the beginning of the Northern Ireland “Troubles”, interest in exploring the social and political concerns of a region affected by sectarian violence and religious bigotry has produced a significant body of literary works within which the thriller has become one of the most suitable forms of expression. The traditional action thriller has acquired in this context a rich political dimension, producing what is now widely known as the “Troubles” thriller. The development of this mode has diverged into two categories: the “Troubles-trash”; and a more “literary” form, which draws on serious political matters to reflect upon social and religious disputes. Both kinds, however, have been criticised for offering a stagnant and reductive version of the dynamics of the conflict; a judgement that should be qualified. Bearing this in mind, the purpose of the present article is to analyse the ways in which these issues are echoed in the literary productions of three well-known writers: Benedict Kiely, Brian Moore and Colin Bateman. The research carried out for the writing of this paper has been financed by the Spanish Ministry of Education (DGICYT, research project HUM2004-02413/FILO) and by the University of Alcalá (Vicerrectorado de Investigación, research project UAH PI2004/020).
Yet, in a sense, it is hardly surprising that the climate of Northern Ireland should be a thriller writer’s dream. It provides the perfect setting for a thriller and all the necessary ingredients are available in abundance. Northern Ireland is, after all, a place of ‘dangerous passion’ (Pelaschiar 1998: 19).
Since the outbreak of the Northern Irish “Troubles” in the late sixties,1 interest in exploring the social and political concerns of a region affected by sectarian violence and religious bigotry has produced a significant body of literary works within which the popular genre of the thriller has become one of the most suitable forms of expression. Action, suspense and psychological thrillers have acquired in this context a rich political dimension that intersects inevitably with questions of identity, producing the so-called “Troubles” thriller. The development of this mode has diverged into two categories. These are the “Troubles-trash”, an extremely popular form that, according to Eve Patten, has become one of the most profitable industries in Northern Ireland since the beginning of the conflict (1995: 128-29), and a more “literary” type, which draws on serious political matters to reflect upon social and religious disputes that cut across national and cultural identities. Both kinds, however, have been strongly criticized for offering a stagnant and reductive version of the dynamics of the “Troubles”, one that bases its premises on clear-cut boundaries between opposing poles with regard to nationality, religion or politics. The purpose of this article is to analyse the ways in which these identity issues are echoed in three novels written by the renowned Benedict Kiely, Brian Moore and Colin Bateman, respectively.
Despite the fact that not all critics would consider the thriller an independent fictional category and would often include it under umbrella terms such as “crime”, “detective”, “mystery”, “suspense” or even “horror” fictions (Glover 1989: 73; Williams 1992: 144 and 195),2 differences among these modes abound. Although it is not my intention to explore conceptual considerations in depth, I think it would be helpful to distinguish some of the basic traits that characterize each mode. Crime novels in general share particular features that could be thus summarised: the construction of complex plots; the repetition of fixed patterns that are familiar to the reader; the use of type characters; the inclusion of elements of mystery, so that reading becomes a process of discovery; and the exploration of the conflict between good and evil or integrity and corruption, among some others. More particularly, conventional detective fiction has been defined as “a literature of social and psychological adjustment” whose main objective is to “provide reassurance: mysteries are dissipated, crimes cleared up, evil is punished, order restored, and endings satisfy. The experience of reading is one of recuperation, confirming us in the moral universe we know” (Glover 1989: 67-68). As a result, the process of detection undertaken by the investigator and the final defeat of crime have traditionally endowed the mode with a conservative ideology. Though similar to a certain extent, the thriller is organised around specific milieus, characters and situations, rather than around a method of presentation, “in other words, its constitutive character is in its themes … it is around these few constants that the thriller is constituted: violence, generally sordid crime,
- Different dates have been given to refer to the origin of the “Troubles”. In August 1966 there were celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising 1916, which caused some disturbances between Protestants and Catholics. Also in 1968 the Royal Ulster Constabulary intervened violently in a demonstration in favour of the civil rights. However, 1969 was the year when British troops became involved in the civil strife. See also Deutsch (1975-76: 131) and Graham-Yooll (1994: 289) for the euphemism associated to the current meaning of the term “Troubles”. [↩]
- Chandler, in his famous essay “The Simple Act of Murder” (1980), deals with detective and mystery fiction in general. Todorov establishes a clearer distinction between the thriller – the série noire –, the whodunit and a third category that has developed between these two forms, which is the suspense novel (1988: 161-63). Fowler adds that the British term “detective story” and the American “mystery” are not the same at all, “the latter merges easily into the thriller of Hammett, Chandler, or Macdonald, whereas the former remains sharply distinct. Neither the thrillers of Fleming nor the entertainments of Greene could possibly be taken for detective stories” (1982: 133). [↩]
- For a comprehensive bibliography of works of fiction related to the “Troubles”, see the following: Bill Rolston’s compilation at http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/bibdbs/fiction.htm, which is periodically updated; Patrick Magee’s book Gangsters or Guerrilla? (2001), which provides a longer and more detailed list including short stories and which can also be seen athttp://cain.ulst.ac.uk/bibdbs/magee01/index.html#appenda; and the recent study by Aaron Kelly, The Thriller and Northern Ireland since 1969 (2005), which adds more titles. [↩]
- He is referring to novels such as World Without End, Amen(1954) by Jimmy Breslin; Harry’s Game (1975) by Gerald Seymour; Interface Ireland (1979) by Kevin Dowling; andBitter Orange (1979) by Des Hamill (1980: 114). See Kennedy-Andrews’ chapter “The Troubles as Trash”, included in his study Fiction and the Northern Ireland Troubles since 1969: (de-)constructing the North (2003), for a more recent and detailed analysis of these type of novels. [↩]
- According to Deutsch, this is a general characteristic of the first stage of the “Troubles” fiction and not only of the thriller (1975-76: 149). See Pelaschiar for a commentary of an interview with the criminologist Bill Rolston, who manifests his worries for the revitalisation of a form that reduces the cultural identity of Northern Ireland to a group of violent “macho-men” terrorists (1998: 20). See also my own article about Northern-Irish literature in the political atmosphere of the “Troubles” (2000). [↩]
- Among the three, Brian Moore has been the most prolific and experienced since he has also published popular thrillers under pseudonym. In an interview, he admitted to have discovered that a narrative form like the thriller, mainly left for second-rate writers, was “tremendously powerful … the gut of fiction” (Tóibín 2000: 8). Lies of Silence was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1990. Colin Bateman, who was a journalist before he became a writer, is the most popular of the three authors of this discussion. He has published other thrillers, although not necessarily set in Northern Ireland. With his first novel, Divorcing Jack, he was awarded the Betty Task Prize in 1994. Benedict Kiely is probably the most established of the three. Proxopera is one of the first attempts to narrate the dynamics of the “Troubles”, which would be followed later by Kiely’s Nothing Happens in Carmincross (1985). [↩]
- I would like to point, in this respect, that the last Conference of AEDEI (the Spanish Association for Irish studies) celebrated in Tarragona in May 2005, centred precisely on the theme of “Re-writing boundaries”. See the forthcoming proceedings edited by Cristina Andreu for a variety of perspectives that were discussed there. [↩]
- The term “proxopera” refers to “the practice of hostage-taking and the coercion of sibilinas into delivering car-bombs” (Sampson 1998: 276). In the novel, the protagonist comments ironically on the “operation by proxy” type of crime: “Not even the Mafia thought of the proxy bomb, operation proxy, proxopera for gallant Irish patriots fighting imaginary empires by murdering the neighbours” (Kiely 1977: 58). [↩]
- In this respect, Proxopera bears some similarities with earlier novels of the “troubles”, which explored pastoral images, nostalgia for the past and an idealisation of the land. See a recent discussion of this aspect in Praga (2005: 223-32). [↩]
- Besides, according to Buckley, “there is much more to symbolism than just politics and power. Symbols are also a means through which people clarify the world” (1998: 2). [↩]
- Although it might seem that Moore’s story grew from Kiely’s, he explained that the plot was based on a real event he himself experienced in 1987, when he was going to receive his doctorate: “I was in the Wellington Park Hotel, near Queen’s University, and we had a bomb scare in the middle of the night. We were all put out in the street, and I saw these French tourists there. I was listening to them, and they hadn’t the slightest idea what was happening. So I thought about what happened and wondered about what it would have been like if they were killed and they didn’t know who killed them” (qtd. by Sampson 1998: 276). [↩]
- This element of the plot anticipated the establishment of such a body in reality with the first Stormont Assembly being elected in 1999. [↩]
- elaschiar shares the same opinion, adding to it that: “Not only has Bateman’s ironic, irreverent and highly entertaining writing voiced a new perception of Northern Irish reality from a moderate unionist point of view, but in voicing it in such an unorthodox way it has also contributed to destabilizing the conventional vision of Northern Irish Protestants as reactionary, bigoted, unimaginative and narrow-minded” (1998: 24). [↩]
- Corcoran adds that from the late nineteen sixties “writing from the North of Ireland has come to be widely regarded as among the most significant contemporary work in the English language” (1997: 131). On the other hand, Harte and Parker argue that the Northern Ireland strife has led to the enunciation of revisionist positions towards literature, history and culture that have come from the Republic (2000: 4). [↩]
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