Northern Ireland crime fiction: 10 books to try

With the 2018 Man Booker Prize going to a Northern Ireland author, Craig Sisterson shines his crime fiction torch towards the six counties and illuminates some seriously brilliant reads…

The Troubles. A rather understated term for 30 years of violent conflict in Northern Ireland that cost thousands of lives and left tens of thousands maimed and injured. Car bombs. Women killed in hospital beds. British paratroopers opening fire on crowds of demonstrators. Kneecappings. Molotov cocktails. Discriminatory laws. The IRA. The UVF. Police collusion with paramilitaries. Republicans and unionists alike using terror and violence as a lever.

The Troubles – two words that encompass so much
For those further afield, Northern Ireland is attached geographically to Ireland, but politically to Great Britain. It is six of Ulster’s nine counties that were partitioned off in the 1920s while the rest of Ireland (26 counties, including three from Ulster), finally threw off the yoke of British colonialism. Its birth created a divided island, a divided province, a divided people.

Those divisions festered for years, exploding into ongoing and sustained violence from the late 1960s. Battle lines were drawn between Catholics – a majority across all of Ireland, a minority in the north – and Protestants. But the conflict was more about territory and differing visions of national identity than religion. Both sides desired unity, just of varying kinds. Nationalists wanted the six counties to return to Ireland, unionists wanted to stay in the United Kingdom. Some members of both communities resolved to use violence to advance their cause.

For three decades leading up to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 – which restored self-government to Northern Ireland, saw the decommissioning of weapons, and sowed power-sharing between nationalists and unionists – violence on the streets was commonplace.

The Troubles provide the backdrop for Milkman, the ‘experimental’ and ‘challenging’ novel by Anna Burns which recently scooped £50,000 as the winner of the Man Booker Prize. The story of an un-named teenager dealing with the advances (sexual harassment) of an older, predatory paramilitary figure, its triumph has seen literary bibliophiles turning their eyes to Northern Ireland. Burns, born in Belfast, is the first author from there to win the Booker.

Here in the realm of those who love crime fiction, we’re smiling. And welcoming those newly looking towards Northern Ireland for more great stories. “Come on in, pull up a chair, grab a book, there’s plenty of fantastic tales to choose from.” For just like their Celtic cousins across the water in Scotland, it has largely been the Northern Irish crime writers who have led the way for their storytelling counterparts; who showed the courage to address and explore a violent, divisive era that many had wanted to just forget about, home and abroad.

In the past decade Northern Ireland’s crime writers have been shortlisted for and won major awards, feted by critics, and thrilled readers worldwide while offering insights into their home country in particular and humanity in general. Here’s a list of ten great novels to try. Sláinte!

The Twelve by Stuart Neville

Anyone who’s been to a Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers gig knows Armagh-born Stuart Neville is a guitar virtuoso, and over the last decade he’s shown his storytelling skills are similarly top-drawer. Recently, Neville has been writing a superb series starring DCI Serena Flanagan and psychological standalones under the pen-name Haylen Beck, but it’s worth going back to the very beginning and his raw revenge noir that scooped the LA Times Book Prize.

Recently released from prison, Gerry Fegan was once one of the most feared men in Northern Ireland. Now haunted by 12 innocents he killed while carrying out IRA missions, he’s an almost pitiable drunk, perhaps slipping into psychosis. As the country grapples with an uneasy peace, Fegan tries to find some for himself by hunting those that gave him his orders, threatening to upset the delicate politics. Brutal and brilliant, The Twelve – published as The Ghosts of Belfast in the USA – mixes violence with insights into Northern Ireland before and after the peace process. It heralded the arrival of a major talent.
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Rain Dogs by Adrian McKinty

It wasn’t until his 12th book that peripatetic Belfast native Adrian McKinty turned his storyteller’s eye to the Troubles, but boy are we glad he did. His trilogy featuring Detective Sean Duffy, set in 1980s Belfast, now numbers six books and counting, and has overflowed McKinty’s mantlepiece with major crime prizes, including the Edgar, Barry, and Ned Kelly Awards.

This fifth instalment won the Edgar for Best Paperback Original and helped cement the rise of Northern Irish crime writing on the global stage. It opens with Duffy on crowd control when Muhammed Ali visits Belfast – everyone is there, from Ian Paisley to Bono to the National Front – before getting involved in a locked room mystery when a female reporter covering the visit of a Finnish trade delegation is discovered dead in Carrickfergus Castle. Echoes for Duffy.

The Duffy series is crime writing of the highest order, blending sharp prose with expertly crafted characters, a relentless hero, and a setting so vivid you feel the rain on your face. From small crimes to big secrets, McKinty delivers superb historical noir seasoned with black humour and biting social commentary. There’s a vein of dark irreverence; genre tropes toyed with. Whoever you have on your top shelf of crime writing, create some room for McKinty. Read the Crime Fiction Lover review here.
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The Silent Dead by Claire McGowan

Claire McGowan, who grew up among rural landscapes in a small village in County Down, is one of a new generation of British and Irish crime writers who’ve rapidly ascended in recent years from fresh-voiced debutants to well-established, must-read status. McGowan’s tales starring forensic psychologist Paula Maguire are intelligent and layered. Her crime novels tick all the boxes – good mystery storylines, interesting characters, pace and depth, rich settings, underlying issues – but there’s also much more. McGowan has that magic touch for putting a fresh spin on things, making the sum even greater than its excellent component parts.

The third of six novels in the Maguire series sees the heavily pregnant psychologist assigned to a case involving the abduction and killing of suspects in an horrific bombing that sought to reignite the Troubles. Are vigilantes seeking justice, paramilitaries cleaning house, or something else? Complexities abound for Maguire, professionally and personally, as she barnstorms her way around, determined to prove she’s still capable. A very fine crime tale, full of verve and power, that intrigues the mind and tugs at the heart.
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Resurrection Man by Eoin McNamee

Before his highly acclaimed Blue trilogy that blended fiction and fact, orbiting around real-life murders in the 1950s and 1960s (The Blue Tango was longlisted for the Booker Prize), McNamee announced his arrival “as one of the leading chroniclers of Ireland’s fractured past” with this impressive 1994 debut novel. Later turned into a film starring Stuart Townsend, John Hannah and James Nesbitt, Resurrection Man centres on Victor Kelly, an unstable, psychopathic loyalist with a ‘taig’ (Catholic) surname, who revels in his violence for the cause and leads a murderous group terrorising Catholic neighbourhoods in Belfast.

As Kelly and his gang’s rampage of ritualistic killings continues, McNamee portrays the effect on those around them; mothers, lovers and Protestant neighbours. Based on the real-life Shankill Butchers, an infamous loyalist gang that terrorised Belfast from the mid-1970s, Resurrection Man is brutal with a capital B. But poetic too; a violent story delivered in stylised prose that saw McNamee compared to the likes of Cormac McCarthy. A grim tale about a divisive time that may divide readers too; a classic of Northern Irish crime writing.
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The Nameless Dead by Brian McGilloway

The fifth instalment in Derry-based author Brian McGilloway’s excellent series starring Garda Inspector Ben Devlin that spans the borderlands of the North and the Republic, The Nameless Dead sees a frustrated Devlin hamstrung by post-peace-accord politics when he’s ordered not to investigate the murder of an infant. A tip-off to the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains says the body of a loyalist informer who disappeared during the Troubles is buried on an islet in the river separating north and south.

When the body excavated turns out to be a baby, there’s initially no cause for alarm as the islet had been historically used as a burial ground for the stillborn. But when Devlin concludes the baby was murdered he can’t do anything, officially, due to the immunity rules under which the Commission operates. Missing babies, sectarian violence, the uneasy peace following war, ghost estates standing as graveyards for the Celtic Tiger boom; McGilloway layers plenty of issues and interest into this cracking tale. Devlin has had it tough throughout the series, professionally and personally, and brings real empathy to his dealings with those who’ve suffered, while rebelling against political expediency.
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Siren by Annemarie Neary

At first glance, this recent crime debut could be filed within the domestic noir wave that has been sweeping the globe. But Newry-born lawyer turned author Annemarie Neary textures plenty of politics and history into the personal stories in this gorgeously written tale.

Inspired by Neary’s own childhood growing up during the Troubles, Siren is the story of a woman once known as Róisín Burns who has spent the last 20 years trying to forget her past in New York City. As a teenager Róisín had been caught up in republican violence during the Troubles, and carries guilt herself. Shortly after her marriage crumbles, ‘Sheen’ sees someone on the news who’s also reinvented themselves: Brian Lonergan, rising political star but also the former IRA member who ruined her life. She returns to Northern Ireland to confront Lonergan, armed with evidence to ruin him. But he’s ready.

Neary neatly switches perspectives and time periods throughout Siren, offering us insights into both the Troubles and contemporary Northern Ireland. Powered by beautiful writing and some fascinating characters, Neary delivers something fresh and different. Read the Crime Fiction Lover review here.
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Thirteen by Steve Cavanagh

It began with a bomb. In just over three years Belfast lawyer Steve Cavanagh has exploded from promising new-kid-on-the-legal-thriller-block to an absolute standout of the sub-genre. His New York-set series starring conman-turned-attorney Eddie Flynn is an intoxicating cocktail of courtroom intrigue blended with plenty of out-of-court action.

The entire series is must-read, but this fourth and latest Flynn adventure may be Cavanagh’s masterpiece. “The serial killer isn’t on trial, he’s on the jury”; a great tagline, but even better is the fact that Thirteen is so much more than its high-concept premise. A Hollywood star is charged with the brutal murder of his wife. Flynn faces a defence lawyer’s worst nightmare: a client his gut tells him is innocent, while all the facts point to guilt. Is Flynn being snowed by his client’s Hollywood skills, or is something more sinister afoot?

Cavanagh keeps the revs high while delivering plenty of oomph and insights into the legal system. Cavanagh and Flynn, the best tandem to hit the courtroom crime scene since Michael Connelly introduced his Lincoln Lawyer, Mickey Haller to the world over a decade ago. Read the Crime Fiction Lover review here.
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Mystery Man by Bateman

Like Madonna, Beyonce, Neymar and Kramer, Bangor-forged screenwriter, novelist, and journalist Colin Bateman now goes by only one name. At times the court jester of Irish crime writing royalty, Bateman has been prolific since his 1995 debut Divorcing Jack, with more than 30 books now on his resume. Dark crimes, dark laughs; he’s a comic crime king.

Told in the first-person by an unnamed, hypochondriac bookseller, Mystery Man sees our hero looking to solve mysteries as well as selling them. The owner of No Alibis (nice nod to the brilliant real-life Belfast bookshop) steps in when the private eye next door vanishes, and clients start coming in asking if he can help. It shouldn’t be too dangerous, right? It could be fun, plus our narrator may even impress the pretty girl in the jewellery shop across the street.

This is crime of the laugh-out-loud variety, with a Monk-esque central character who could delight or irritate readers, depending on their preferences. There’s plenty of in-jokes for crime lovers in this marvellously ludicrous caper that is superbly told.
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The Bones of It by Kelly Creighton

A poet and short story writer who’s gotten plenty of awards attention, County Down writer Creighton turned her considerable talents to psychological crime in this 2015 debut novel.

Scott McAuley is a green tea drinking, meditation-loving student who returns home to live with his father Duke after being shunted from university. Scott, a marginalised loner, is a young man who was raised by his grandmother after Duke went to prison for killing two young Catholics. The father-son reunion is tense from the outset and gets increasingly so when Scott suspects his father of secretly seeing a woman he thinks of as ‘girlfriend material’. Duke is now reformed and a counsellor, but what has he passed on to Scott?

Told through diaries written by Scott, The Bones of It is a bit of a hall of mirrors, offering all sorts of skewed perspectives, broken shards from our protagonist’s mind. Creighton draws readers in with the power of her writing and characters, cajoling us through a slow-burn ‘crime’ plotline. An inventive and fascinating portrayal of a family torn asunder in a tale that some booksellers may put in the ‘literary fiction’ section rather than ‘crime and mystery’.
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Disorder by Gerard Brennan

While Bateman set a novel in a fictional version of legendary Belfast bookshop No Alibis, earlier this year Gerard Brennan became the first author published by the real-life store, which has been a hub for Northern Irish crime writing for years and is now a publisher too. Brennan already had eight crime novels and novellas under his belt and is also part of the surge in global recognition for Northern Irish crime writing thanks to his blog Crime Scene NI.

Like Brennan’s earliest work, Disorder fizzes with gritty violence and wry humour. More of an ensemble cast than centred on a singular figure, Disorder’s main players include a stoner student, an ambitious TV reporter, a damaged cop juggling Buddhist leanings with his fervent desire to nail a gang kingpin by any means necessary, and a loyalist hard man. When the student strolls into some ‘recreational rioting’ and shoots his mouth off to the TV journo, he opens a Pandora’s box for himself and others. There’s a manic energy to this fascinating tale that adds to rather than diminishes the enjoyment. Grins among the grit.
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Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned writer from New Zealand, now living in London. In recent years he’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at festivals on three continents. He’s been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and co-founder of Rotorua Noir.

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3 Comments

  1. Craig Sisterson Reply

    Thanks for the comments Sion and David. I did consider including PSALM KILLER, along with some other titles, eg CAL by Bernard MacLaverty. It’s great that putting together this piece the issue was ‘which 10 should I include?’ rather than scrabbling around trying to find 10 great Northern Irish crime novels. Plenty to choose from nowadays, which is brilliant.

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