University of León, Spain
Peter Lang: 2022. 440 pp.
The publication of Dark Green: Irish Crime Fiction 1665-2000 by David Clark is, at the very least, timely. Indeed, one could go so far as to say that Clark has, in the manner of the most able scholarly sleuths, captured the zeitgeist. Fiction and particularly crime fiction are very much in fashion and showing strikingly rude health. According to a January 2023 Irish Times report, print book sales in Ireland in 2022 reflect a 60 per cent jump from those of a decade ago. And top of the pile is fiction, taking eight of the 10 bestseller spots, with crime novels among the primary drivers of this phenomenon, at the expense of literary fiction. Across the water we find much of the same: a contest of boomings, thrivings, soarings and roarings amid a general celebration of the fact that in 2018 Nielsen, the most often cited authority on the book trade, revealed that their Bookscan data showed that crime fiction had, for the first time, surpassed the sales of “general and literary fiction” (Hannah 2018).
Quite why this is the case is a matter of constant debate. In a Guardian piece, “It’s no mystery that crime is the biggest-selling genre in books”, crime writer Sophie Hannah gleefully celebrates the development before going on to reveal that while the genre’s new status may be novel, the question “Why is there such an appetite for crime novels?” is most certainly not, constituting, in fact, the query she fields most frequently; it typically couched in a language of disapproval or interrogation: “Can you account for the unstoppable popularity of crime fiction, Ms Hannah? And where were you at 9pm on Tuesday evening? Writing a crime novel, I bet.”
Hannah turns to readers for her chief alibi. For them, it is, she maintains: “a genre that will: a) prioritise their pleasure and entertainment over anything the writer might want to get out of the experience; and b) offer a guaranteed gripping plot.” Bestselling American author David Baldacci suggests that in troubled times crime fiction provides readers with comfort in problem-solving, in a closure that serves as a counterpoint to a world in which it is hard to make sense of “what the hell’s going on”, as Hannah puts it.
Yet there may be an element of wisdom after the event in such conclusions. Our contemporary travails offer no explanation as to why the explosion of interest in crime fiction in Ireland dates back to the 1990s, precisely when the country was emerging from decades of economic difficulties and the brutal violence of The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Equally, the decade predated the fulsome embrace of consumer culture characteristic of the Celtic Tiger period, a turn which some attribute to the growth in taste for pure entertainment.
In the 1990s work of John Connolly, Eoin McNamee, Colin Bateman, John Boyne, Peter Tremayne, Philip Davison, Brian Gallagher, or Paul Carson, to name but a few key writers, we can find the stirrings of what would grow into the extraordinary phenomenon of “Emerald Noir”, which would come to be held in “worldwide esteem”, as Clarke puts it in his final chapter (375). The esteem came dropping slow, however. To the above list we could add the illustrious name of John Banville, all of whose 1990 fiction plays with criminality. But equally, he took the lead in looking down his nose at his own “detective” fiction, published under the pen name Benjamin Black, and only fully embraced the crime genre in 2020 when he finally killed the latter off. As early as 2014 he had shown evidence of his growing acceptance of his “dark twin”, publicly professing to ‘hate’ the dual classifications of ‘detective’ and ‘literature’, while proposing that “some of the best writing of the twentieth century was in crime novels. James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Richard Stark, Simenon of course—this is wonderful work and, as Elizabeth Mannion has pointed out, “shouldn’t be put off into a ghetto” (1-2).
The ghettoization has, however, been a reality, both at large and, within the academy and if Mannion’s edited volume of essays The Contemporary Irish Detective Novel went some way to redressing this problem, Clark’s Dark Green constitutes a major step in the consolidation of the genre’s esteem within the Irish academy. It, the first of a two-book project, does not, like Mannion’s study, restrict itself to the contemporary novel, but instead takes us back to the earliest Irish crime or “rogue” narratives dating from the seventeenth century, and then on an introductory treasure hunt through the ages in what is, in fact, as Clark himself notes, “the first book-length study of the area” (17). Being a pioneer does, of course, allow him to call dibs on such a delightfully appropriate title.
Such has been the explosion in crime fiction since the most recent turn of the century that Clark has taken the decision to dedicate the second volume of this survey to the most recent short two decades or so, while the first bravely covers the previous 350 years. This may initially appear lopsided, but, at just over 400 pages, this first volume reads fluently, and provides us with a good feel of the broad sweep of the story so far, while leaving us with a sense of anticipation as to how it will all work out in the condensed form of a final denouement.
This first volume is, in truth, a treasure trove. A real discovery, or recovery of hard evidence of an extraordinarily rich heritage. Clark’s book does not, in fact, answer the question above as to why the genre has become so popular. Neither does it muse excessively on theoretical matters or offer arcane interpretations of texts, authors, schools or periods. But over 20 chapters, Clarke does ably tease out nuanced differences between the various categories and sub-genres such as gothic crime mystery, sensation and mystery fiction, golden-age mystery, hard-boiled and pulp crime fiction, spy fiction, thrillers and the private detective novel, as well as revealing the particular character the fiction takes on in specific historical contexts such as those of the early twentieth century revolutionary period or The Troubles. We find out that the Irish have a particular facility for metaphysical crime writing; we find endless nuggets of curious information, such as that Flann O’Brien’s brother wrote the first detective novel in Irish; and above all we find testimony of a very rich tradition through a store of chronologically presented summaries which invites us to search out treasures mostly lost to history, while also providing key information on texts often difficult to access. But always the emphasis is on presenting the merits of the heritage itself without overbearing authorial intervention.
Clark provides us with a sweeping survey in which we get a clear sense of the most notable writers, their works and how they engage with the conventions of each sub-genre. In chapter 1, the author notes that the traditional tendency to associate crime fiction with an Enlightenment legacy of the tools of scientific detection has of late been questioned, with greater attention given to an “alternative lineage, one rooted in the popular narratives of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in the picaresque, rogue tales, broadsheets and Newgate Calendars, in the gothic and sensation fiction” (19). His study does give due account of this less orthodox tradition – one which connects it to Europe and Spain in particular, but equally his approach borrows from the best of the Enlightenment tradition to provide what amounts to a work of reference that is exhaustive and encyclopedic in its range. This is not achieved, however, at the expense of the flavor of popular storytelling which has always animated the myriad forms of the broad field of crime fiction. Perhaps the greatest strength of the study is precisely the manner in which the author manages to give the reader a feel for the drama, mystery and individual qualities of each author and text, a not insignificant achievement in a field frequently guilty of formulaic expression. The result being that the study is hugely informative, while reading with an attractively light touch appropriate to the genre.
Among the well over 100 authors whose work is examined, we find figures familiar to any student of Irish studies such as Sheridan Le Fanu, Bram Stoker, Elizabeth Bowen, Flann O’Brien, Cecil Day Lewis and Brian Moore – the latter two precursors of Banville in the use of pen names for their crime fiction, but also that of extraordinarily prolific and successful talents who have largely been forgotten. For example, L. T. Meade, author of 280 books, whose public impact in the late 19th and early 20th centuries has been compared to that of J. K. Rowling; or Freeman Wills Crofts, a once esteemed rival of Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler in the golden age of detective fiction. Fascinating characters abound: Richard Head, 17th century son of an English clergyman and pioneer of the picaresque narrative in English who was censored for obscenity and “smutty” writing; Mary Francis Cusack, a nun who converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism and back again and was influential in the early championing of Knock as an apparition site of the Virgin Mary – claiming the Virgin had spoken to her – before stealing the records of the apparitions and funds raised for a new convent and fleeing the country. Pleasure, entertainment and gripping plots are what Sophie Hannah suggests readers look for in crime fiction. Finding them in abundance in an academic study is an altogether more original achievement.
Yet, for all the entertainment, Dark Green is a work of academic rigour which sets out to do a particular job and does it very well, with the author’s work complemented by the customary quality of the increasingly substantial resource that is Peter Lang’s “Reimagining Ireland” series edited by Eamon Maher. This reader closed this book with a clear sense of having learned a great deal, of texts and authors previously unfamiliar, of new aspects of texts more familiar, of a varied and significant tradition of crime writing, and of having enjoyed what is, in plain terms, a very good read. One leaves with a renewed appetite for, and curiosity about, the genre, but also perhaps with a heightened sensibility as to the potential of one’s inner sleuth. And this eager sleuth catches the author out a little too frequently: for example, italics is conspicuously suspicious in its inconsistencies; Gerald Griffin’s aptly named The Rivals features a protagonist, Francis Riordan, who momentarily disguises as Frances; while Sheila Pim, key exponent of Golden Age style crime writing in mid-20th century Ireland, is mysteriously dispatched to her grave in 1990, when alternative sources suggest she lived until 1995. That said, these are but minor quibbles, and at the evidence of one’s own accusative zeal, one is inclined to echo Clark’s quotation from Pim’s Creeping Venom: “Once you start suspecting people, there’s no end to it. It’s like some dreadful creeping venom” (214). And if this suspect is briefly placed in the spotlight, no charges of substance need be brought.
In sum, Dark Green: Irish Crime Fiction 1665-2000 is the most substantial study on Irish crime fiction to date. It is an invaluable source of information to which any reader with interest in the field will return with frequency, and from which any student of Irish studies will significantly broaden their understanding of the diverse world of Irish literature, and of the centrality to that of crime fiction. Both will look forward to what promises to be an equally engaging sequel.
Hannah, Sophie (2018). “It’s no mystery that crime is the biggest-selling genre in books.” The Guardian(12April). https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2018/apr/12/mystery-crime-fiction-bestselling-book-genre-sophie-hannah
McGreevy, Ronan (2023). “Irish book sales enjoy another record year with Colleen Hoover the queen of the Irish market.” The Irish Times (13 January). https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/2023/01/13/irish-book-sales-enjoy-another-record-year-with-colleen-hoover-the-queen-of-the-irish-market/
Mannion, Elizabeth, ed. (2016). The Contemporary Irish Detective Novel. London: Palgrave.