Unlike the crime or detective novels that originated in Britain, Ireland’s mystery writing developed differently, reflecting that country’s economic, political, and social development. Early 20th-century Ireland was mainly an agrarian society. Apart from the Anglo-Irish ascendancy, most people were unlikely to enjoy the privilege of sitting by the fireside of an evening to read. There was, however, a strong tradition of oral storytelling, including tales of the bogeyman, the banshee, and changeling children. Two such real-life Irish mysteries have their roots in this agrarian tradition.
The Colleen Bawn tells the story of Ellen Hanley. Born in 1803 in County Limerick, by age fifteen, she was known as the Colleen Bawn, meaning pretty girl. John Scanlan, a landowner, persuaded her to marry him. It’s unclear whether the marriage was real or bogus. It happened unbeknownst to Scanlan’s mother who’d negotiated a match that would bring a dowry. Six weeks later, Scanlan arranged for his manservant, Stephen Sullivan, to kill Ellen. Scanlan was arrested and brought to trial. Because of his social standing, the trial created a sensation. It was assumed he would be acquitted as it was felt that one of the ascendancy shouldn’t suffer for a crime against a commoner. However, Scanlan was found guilty and hanged. Stephen Sullivan went into hiding but when found months later, he was also hanged.
Another woman from this rural tradition inspired fear and respect. Her life is chronicled in Biddy Early: The Wise Woman of Clare by Meda Ryan. Biddy was a mystic, born in 1798. She had a magic glass bottle that she used to foretell death and disaster. An attempt was made to try her for witchcraft but at the last minute, all the witnesses refused to testify. Working as a servant on the estate of landlord Sheehy, she joined tenants petitioning him to stop raising rents. She was evicted. That night, three other evicted tenants murdered Sheehy. It was said that Biddy foretold Sheehy of his impending doom as he threw her out of her cottage. She had four husbands and outlived them all. Her last husband was in his thirties, four decades younger than Biddy.
Detective fiction was late arriving on the Irish scene. Such fiction requires a police force, and the apparatus of the Irish State was in its infancy in the 1920s and ’30s. Crime novels had little resonance at a time of upheaval and guerilla warfare. However, the stable of Irish authors writing in the genre today is testament to a burgeoning crime and thriller scene.
One such writer is Benjamin Black, writing about lonely detective Quirke in the Ireland of the 1950s. Christine Falls provides an interesting social history of the time. Set against the backdrop of a clandestine baby trade, it’s an atmospheric read that brings to life the suffocating grip of church and establishment in that period.
Louise Phillips writes about contemporary middle-class Dublin in The Doll’s House. Here we encounter a detective and a criminal psychologist in the form of D.I. O’Connor and Dr. Kate Pearson, respectively. They investigate the discovery of two bodies in a Dublin canal. The investigation is interwoven with the story of Clodagh Hamilton’s traumatic childhood. It’s a fast paced novel with a steady ratcheting of suspense and an unexpected, satisfying ending.
The police also play a part in Declan Burke’s darkly comic Eight Ball Boogie. The focus in this Chandleresque read is on the freelance journalist Harry Rigby. The wife of a politician has been murdered and Harry has to find out why—“at 12 cents per word for the right facts in the right order.” Murky, hard-boiled, and the big easy all come to an unnamed town in the west of Ireland. Despite the chauvinistic views of this antihero, the reader feels empathy for the wise-cracking cynic. Sarcasm abounds with observations like “She was petite, five foot two at most, the kind of late twenties that takes years of practice.”
John Connolly, Irish author of the Charlie Parker series, writes thrilling tales with this former policeman at their heart. In The Wolf in Winter, Charlie Parker investigates the disappearance of the daughter of a homeless man who hanged himself. He is drawn to Prospect, a seemingly picture-perfect small town in Maine. But its efforts to protect itself and its heritage are far from anything approximating normal. A page-turning creepy read, it put me in mind of the equally disturbing Wicker Man.
Irish mystery writers have embraced the psychological thriller, often stamping out their own particular brand. Liz Nugent is one such writer who, in Unravelling Oliver, creates a whydunnit rather than a whodunnit. Set in Dublin, it opens with a husband attacking his wife. He is a children’s author, generally regarded as charming. Page by gripping page, the reader discovers otherwise. It’s not until the bitter end that the horror of the husband’s actions becomes clear.
In The Missing, Jane Casey cleverly intertwines two timelines while uncovering the mystery of two separate disappearances, both from the viewpoint of the same character, a teacher called Sarah. In the first instance, Sarah is a child and her elder brother disappears; in the second, another child disappears in the school where Sarah teaches. An engrossing read, it’s notable for its insight into the world of a child when tragedy strikes.
The fall of the Celtic tiger lends itself well to psychological thrillers such as Tana French’s Broken Harbor. The reader feels an intense sense of claustrophobia as much of the mystery centers on a half-finished house in a derelict housing scheme abandoned due to economic collapse. The Spain family has been attacked in their home, the children dead, their parents stabbed, the mother fighting for her life. A disturbing read, it’s ultimately a riveting tale of obsession and mental illness.
Sinéad Crowley adroitly explores the dangers of social media in her psychological thriller Can Anybody Help Me? Struggling with a new baby, Yvonne turns to an online forum for support. When one of her new friends goes offline, Yvonne knows something is wrong. When the body of a woman similar to Yvonne’s friend is found, the young mother realizes that they’re all in danger. Can she persuade Sergeant Claire Boyle, also about to go on maternity leave, to take her fears seriously?
Siobhán MacDonald was born in Cork in the Republic of Ireland. She studied in Galway and worked as a writer in the technology industry in Scotland for ten years, then in France, before returning to Ireland. She now lives in Limerick with her husband and two sons. Her debut novel, Twisted River (A Penguin Mystery Original) comes out on March 22.