My Top Ten Northern Irish Crime Novels
There has been an explosion in crime writing from Northern Ireland over the past decade or so. An element of this certainly has been as part of the wider growth of Irish crime writing, but in Northern Ireland there is also the specific role the peace process has played in informing the fiction that is being produced here. I think the appeal of crime fiction rests in the fact that it imposes a degree of order and justice in a world where there is precious little of either at times. Crime allows us to vicariously experience fear safe in the knowledge that right of some sort will prevail in the end. I think the catharsis that it allows, and that imposition of order on disorder, is comforting in uncertain times.
I think it is also why Northern Irish crime fiction only really found its voice after the violence here subsided: there’s no need to vicariously experience fear when you are actually undergoing it. When I wrote Borderlands in 2003, I deliberately set out to write a novel unrelated to the Troubles. But, in the writing of it, I found the events of the previous thirty years remained a constant shadow, bleeding around the edges of every narrative. The same could be argued for many of the other crime writers here. In the absence of a Truth Commission in Northern Ireland, fiction is the closest we will come to an understanding of the past even as we chart our way forward. And crime fiction, more than any other genre, works in that dual movement—a crime novel starts at the end of the victim’s story and, while the narrative has continual forward momentum, the detectives are generally working backwards from the moment of the crime to trace the initial acts and motives that lead to it.
There are so many fine Northern Irish writers I could include on this list—John McAllister, Garbhan Downey, Sam Miller, Des Doherty, Simon Maltman to name a few—but this (in no particular order) is my Top Ten of Northern Irish crime writing.
- The Cold, Cold Ground – Adrian McKinty
McKinty’s work needs no introduction, but there is no doubt that, with the Sean Duffy series, he has really reached new heights. Throwing his main character into the heart of our violent history, McKinty has grasped with both hands the role of truth commissioner, dismantling the events of the past and imposing some form of rough justice on those who hitherto escaped it in any form. He deservedly won an Edgar this year for one of the later Duffy novels, Rain Dogs, but you should start here.
- The Twelve – Stuart Neville
Again, a writer who needs no introduction, Neville’s debut novel blew everyone’s socks off when it came out. Fearless in its portrayal of the effects of the past, unflinching in examining the consequences of violence on violent men, and a cracking thriller to boot, it’s the perfect place to begin with a writer who has gone from strength to strength with each new book.
- Divorcing Jack – Colin Bateman
While Northern Ireland may not have had an appetite for local crime fiction during the Troubles, there was one writer who bucked that trend by finding a way through it, using comedy to analyze the realities of the political situation here at the time. While Bateman has focused on screenwriting more recently, his talent and dark wit are plain for all to see in this first novel in the Dan Starkey series.
- The Lost – Claire McGowan
In a male-dominated field of Northern Irish crime fiction, Claire McGowan was a welcome new voice, and her character Paula Maguire, a forensic psychologist introduced here in 2013’s The Lost, works along the border areas. McGowan is particularly adept at dialogue, and Maguire herself, as she develops across the series, is a fascinating figure.
- Disappeared – Anthony Quinn
Another book based around the border regions where Anthony Quinn himself grew up, the Inspector Daly series offers a dark, occasionally brutal depiction of the realities of policing a lawless region. Daly is an intelligent, thoughtful investigator while Quinn’s lyrical prose style is just beautiful. Again, best to start with book one and savor the whole series.
- The Defence – Steve Cavanagh
Cavanagh, a lawyer himself, brought something different to the Northern Irish crime fiction table with his Eddie Flynn novels, legal thrillers based in New York. The Defence is fast-paced and compulsively readable while Flynn is a likable, quick-thinking hero. The books may not be set in Northern Ireland, but Cavanagh’s concern with the law and justice and the frequent distance between the two is very much born of a lifetime living here.
- The Bones of It – Kelly Creighton
While Creighton may not have set out to write a crime novel, there’s no denying that The Bones of It is very much informed by crime and the effects of crime through generations. A first-person narrative told by Scott McAuley, the novel deals with father/son issues and the consequences of violence and hatred, not just on the generation that lived through the Troubles, but on the generation that followed after. Beautifully written, The Bones of It offers a chilling evocation of a damaged mind.
- The Point – Gerard Brennan
Brennan started a blog, Crime Scene NI, some years back that covered the growth of new crime writing coming from the North and became a hub of sorts for the writers from here. But Brennan is also a brilliant crime writer in his own right. Start with his novella The Point. Fast-paced and extremely witty, it showcases Brennan’s wonderfully dark sense of humor and his intuitive understanding of noir fiction.
- The Dust of Death – Paul Charles
Best known for the London-based Inspector Kennedy novels, Paul Charles moved to the southern side of the border for several books featuring his intuitive Garda Inspector Starrett. Featuring the same intricate plotting and underlying sense of humanity that one would expect from Charles, the books exploited the border region setting, focusing on the consequences of discord within families and communities and the personal cost of crime.
- The Anglo-Irish Murders – Ruth Dudley Edwards
Dudley-Edwards’s satires have hit many targets from modern art to the world of academics, but here she turns her acerbic wit on local politics to fine effect. With a complete disregard for political correctness and a sharp eye for irony, she draws attention to the absurdities of politics and politicians in Northern Ireland.