Brian McGilloway Discusses Irish Noir at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Festival

Brian McGilloway Discusses Irish Noir at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Festival

Interviewer: Hi Brian, congratulations on your panel today, it seemed to go really well! What sort of things are you looking forward to over the next few days at Theakstons? What events will you be catching?

Brian: I’m hoping to get to the Eddie Izzard one tonight because I love Hannibal. I find the third season is slightly slow but I think it’s a fantastic retelling of those characters – and I think it’s going to be very funny as well. Had I been staying around I would go to Lee Child but I have to go home early tomorrow so I’m sorry I’m going to miss that one. And I think just catching up with people. I think the lovely thing about the festival always is getting the chance to catch up with all the writers, because writing is essentially solitary. It is like you’re totally on your own, and I think particularly because of where I live on the furthest western point of Northern Ireland, you are very far away from everybody – I think it might be slightly different here, you’re more likely to have other authors kind of around and about – so it’s just nice to catch up with people and see people, compare notes and compare complaints. And also the readers and have a chance to chat about books, there was a man who came to get a book signed and then recommended one to me which I’m going to go and get this afternoon, he said “read this – you’ll love it!”

Interviewer: What was the name of the book?

Brian: It’s called Cold Killing Luke Delaney.

Interviewer:Ah, we did a poll on Facebook actually just asking about crime books that our followers like and Delaney came up a lot – our followers were saying ‘he’s underrated and you really need to check this guy out’ – and I think he actually joined in and said you know, ‘thank you’ and ‘this is great’.

Brian: As opposed to ‘you need to check me out!’

Interviewer: [laughs] Just a very humble ‘thank you’

Brian: Well he is a gent. Quite a lot of people said I should read Cold Killing, so I’m going to look that up this afternoon. So even that, getting recommendations for writers you wouldn’t have read otherwise, it’s lovely.

Interviewer: So let’s talk about the panel you just took part in, which was about Irish Noir. What do you think it is that makes Irish Noir distinct and recognisable?

Brian: The weather [laughs]. It rains all the time! That’s a tricky one, I mean I think there’s nowhere else in Western Europe with as strong a recent history of injustice, and as clear a difference in the way people as a group are treated. I think this week Teresa May announced that she was not allowing the use of water cannons by police forces in England and Wales. Police forces in Northern Ireland have been using them for thirty or forty years. In fact in the 70’s and 80’s you were lucky if they were using water cannon because generally they used plastic bullets. I think that Northern Ireland in particular has been treated very very differently and carries a weight from all of that. Even though most people now just want to move on and don’t want to be looking back. And as I said on the panel, they and anybody would like to see books not about Northern Ireland’s past.

But when I wrote my first one – I started out with Borderlands – I set out to write a straight crime novel that just happened to be set in Ireland. But as I started writing it I thought “I can’t not address that people have been killing each other for 30 years.” Not least because realistically when somebody commits a murder in Northern Ireland, realistically the first thing the police look at is “is it sectarian? Is it paramilitary?” Now it may well not be, but for them to just not even consider that is completely ridiculous, it just wouldn’t happen. And so it became quite difficult. And then I thought, you’d be insincere or you’d be failing as a writer – if as a writer you’re trying to tell the truth about a place as you see it. It would be untrue to not reference the fact that there is this 30 years of baggage, and the impact that it’s had on everybody.

I grew up in a really nice area, I grew up in Derry, and Derry is kind of strange – I mean that not in a bad way but it’s called Derry or Londonderry depending on your religion, and it’s split down the centre by a river. Politically and religiously the East Bank is predominantly Protestant and Unionist and the West Bank is predominantly Catholic and Nationalist. So much so that Margaret Thatcher thought of running the border up the centre of the town and splitting it half and half, having one half of it in Northern Ireland and one half of it in Southern Ireland. I grew up there and that kind of awareness of that history is something that nowhere else – I mean, everywhere in the British Isles has its own history – but nowhere has that recent, raw history that Ireland has.

I think that’s really what Irish and particularly Northern Irish Noir has, it carries a rawness of wounds that other places don’t have. Plus of course it has two police forces. Two completely different police forces who historically didn’t get on with one another. I live so close to the border, if somebody committed a crime in the North the first thing they did was go down South. You had to have the two police forces working quite closely together and if the relationship was antagonistic, that crime was never solved. And that still happens. Even with driving offences, people can commit a driving offence in the North and they just go back over the border again and never get caught for it. So there’s a kind of lawlessness as well, which I think is carried over… So that’s a very long answer to a short question! But, that’s what it brings, it brings a kind of rawness of recent history.

Interviewer: Do you see that changing and progressing over the years as it becomes less raw? Do you think we’ll reach a point where enough has been said?

Brian: I think it varies from writer to writer. I mean Stuart Neville has moved beyond that and certainly in my most recent book – Preserve the Dead – it doesn’t feature at all. It’s not a paramilitary book, it’s not domestic crime but it’s a ‘normal’ crime – slavery. Which isn’t that normal when you think about it [laughs]. But the political baggage isn’t there.

I think there’s an awful lot of stuff that needs to be dealt with. I think a lot of us have been writing about post-Good Friday agreement and how society changed with that and the shadows of it. Even with Little Girl Lost, it’s a book about a child who was found in the woods. She is out in the snow in her bedclothes. When the police first find her, she is not even able to talk. She’s suffering from hypothermia, she’s very clearly in shock. It was based on a story that I heard about a child in the really bad winter of 2010. There were two different cases of children who were found out wandering at night in the snow in their bedclothes. I remember hearing an interview with the doctor who treated one of them, she said for the first 40 minutes the child did nothing. Didn’t speak, didn’t do anything. Then after 40 minutes she started screaming. She said it was because for the first 40 minutes she couldn’t feel anything. She was so cold, her body postponed pain. Then when she had heated up enough for it to register it, it all hit her at one time. When I heard this, I thought “that’s us. That’s kind of what’s happened with us.” Post-Good Friday there was such a euphoria – it’s over, everything’s great. I think people mistook the absence of violence for peace. Of course the two are completely different things. But we were so happy that there was an absence of violence that people were much more optimistic and enthusiastic about the future. I think that has normalised – we have got used to feeling normal – and then that postponed pain has hit. And you see it now with the whole thing that’s going on with parades and marching bands, flag disputes, all kind of things. Recreational rioting, which is a hallmark of, particularly Derry, where kids just get bored and come out to riot for the evening, just for something to do. And that has kind of flared up again. I think a lot of that is that postponed pain, people felt great post-Good Friday and now they are starting to feel the pain of their compromises. That’s fertile ground for some of us.

And then I think some of us will also be going right back in the centre as Adrian McKinty has done. He’s gone right back into the hunger strikes onward. Trying to look at what exactly happened, making sense of things. So I think there’s still a lot to be written. Whether or not I will necessarily write any more I’m not sure. I had stuff I wanted to write about, stuff I wanted to deal with and I’ve done that for now. The book I’m working on at the moment is about people using religion to justify hate. I suppose in a modern context where a pastor preaches anti-homosexual rhetoric then a homosexual man is found dead. It’s the extent to which someone is complicit in the harm visited on others because of what they say. But then that idea of using religion to stir up hatred is pure Northern Ireland – I mean people make political careers out of wearing dog collars and stirring hatred. So even though it’s not a specifically a troubles book I think the echoes of it will still continue to reverberate through anything.

Interviewer: How important do you think the concept of justice is within Irish Noir – and exploring how it isn’t always as concrete as people may want it to be?

Well, I think that justice is a big issue in Northern Ireland in general. I think for a whole variety of reasons, not least because one of the requirements of the Good Friday agreement was that all the people who murdered were all released. So you had people who ended up serving six or seven months for killing. What was required for everybody else, what was required from the rest of us was to balance your outrage. I mean going back to Greek tragedy through Shakespeare, you have this sense that murder is, above all other things, a breach of nature. The ultimate crime against nature, against the world, against everybody else. So it’s an open breach in the community. For it to be politically justified, to say ‘Okay, you murdered people but you did it for this reason so you’ve served six months so that’s that’s okay, you’re free to go now and that’s all forgotten about.’ That’s difficult for people to take.

And yet at the same time there was also an awareness that it had to happen in order for all the other good stuff to happen – in order for them to stop killing, for guns to be put beyond use and whatever else. So I think the ambiguity of that has led to big issues of justice. How far do you compromise one in order to pursue the other? How far are you prepared to compromise justice? Of course the other thing with Northern Ireland is everybody did stuff wrong. That’s not a political comment, that’s a statement of fact. Everybody killed people. Catholic, Protestant, Nationalist, Loyalist, British, Irish Guards, RUC – were all colluded. Everybody was tied up in it and that’s quite difficult. Again, mentioning I grew up in Derry, the big historical moment in Derry was Bloody Sunday. When an army is sent in to act as a police force and then murders people, and then it’s justified. It’s very difficult growing up to go, how is that justice? That’s the big issue for Northern Irish people in general: how do you define justice? If you have law makers who are actually breaking the law, then who becomes the guardian of justice and who decides how justice is served.

But I think that happens everywhere, it’s just because Northern Ireland has got such attention that it’s more documented in Northern Ireland. I’m not suggesting for one second that police forces in Ireland, North and South were the first to have colluded with criminals. Very clearly that happens everywhere, it has just come out in Northern Ireland because it has so much attention on it. And so I think the normal person in Northern Ireland has this sense of the gap between the law and justice, and justice and injustice. And there is an interesting thing about the hierarchy of victims, whether some victims are more victims than others – are more important than others. Again, communities will tend to prioritise their own victims. I suppose understandably in some ways but it’s kind of unusual. Everyone has their own moral compass. Everyone believes what they are doing is right. You know, the person who speeds because they are late and thinks, ‘I’m not doing any harm, because it’s just…’ So everybody justifies their own choices, but in Northern Ireland you have whole communities having to do it as well. So how could you not write crime novels then?

Interviewer: Do you find that your readers who grew up in Northern Ireland and who have seen and experienced some of these things take different things from your books than readers who are ‘outsiders’, who might be aware of what happened but haven’t lived it?

Brian: Yeah, I think so. Even today at the signings, a man had come over from Derry. I know the people who grew up in the places where I did because they come up to me with a knowing smile, of – ‘we share a history, we know what’s going on here’, whereas other people not so much. With every book, everybody brings their own experiences to a book. In a way the author shouldn’t define what the book is about ever. You write it and the book goes out there and people take from it what they will. Umberto Eco said after writing The Name of the Rose that the author should die after he writes so he doesn’t get in the way of interpretation [laughs] which is a bit extreme, it means you only write one book and then that’s it!

Interviewer: It was mentioned during the panel that a little while ago many Irish Writers chose to set their books outside of Ireland rather than address the troubles. Why do you think writers made that choice and why are we seeing more Irish Noir emerging today?

Brian: It’s an interesting one. I know John Connolly first started writing he made a deliberate choice not to set the books in Ireland because it was so parochial – a crime happens and within 15 minutes everyone knows who has done it. I think the thing that Northern Irish crime had was that everyone was sick of hearing about the troubles. Nobody wanted to hear it. The very fact it’s called the troubles is a sign of that – to make it sound pleasant and less offensive. I think what has happened since then is that a rising tide floats all boats. The fact that more and more people are writing Northern Irish crime fiction means it has become more normalised and more acceptable. We mentioned earlier in the panel that things like The Fall on the BBC raised that profile. You can have quite gritty noir set in Northern Ireland. Now arguably the Fall doesn’t need to be set in Northern Ireland because it’s a serial killer story. The Northern Ireland backdrop brings a lot to it. But what it has done is allow people to go ‘maybe there’s stuff that can be written from there that’s not about the IRA and the UDF’. There’s stuff that’s going to be about crime that has that interesting backdrop but the stories aren’t really political, not about that stuff. Sp I suppose that has done a favour.

The Irish thing is unusual because it’s a completely diverse group of people. Even the five of us who were on the panel today, we’re all doing completely different stuff. We’re all writing totally different types of books. Eoin’s doing true crime stuff from the very early 40s and 50s, Adrian’s writing about the end of the troubles, Stuart’s writing psychological thrillers, I’m doing police procedurals and Steve’s doing legal thrillers set in America. Despite the fact that we’re all from Northern Ireland and our backgrounds are all feeding to the work that we’re doing, we’re all writing totally diverse books and that is what makes it really interesting. It would be mind-numbingly boring if we were all writing the same types of cases. I suppose it gives you a sense of – I mentioned this earlier – writing is a lonely occupation. It does give you a sense of ownership, it’s kind of nice to know that we’re all part of the same thing. So there is a benefit with that but I suppose the drawback is that people come with certain expectations. If people don’t like the Irish setting, then it’s going to be very difficult to break that.

With Little Girl Lost – which was kind of the breakthrough book for me – a lot of people came up and said ‘oh I really enjoyed it, I would never has read a book on Northern Ireland – but’. There is that sense that – certainly for a long time – it was quite difficult to get people to buy a book that was set in Northern Ireland. As Stuart said earlier, his first book was Close to Belfast. The name was changed here because nobody was going to buy a book called ‘Belfast’, or with Belfast anywhere in the title. So I think there is a certain reluctance of people to read Northern Irish stuff particularly. Which would be the drawback of that kind of branding. But that has changed so much in the past couple of years.

I suppose it makes sense – it is always the case with all books or any kind of format there is always a need to categorise, if only so you know where in the bookshop it should go. So it’s useful in that regard as well, we’re all together. If someone reads Stuart’s then they might read mine, or if they read mine then they might read Eoin’s. So there’s that hope as well that we might share a readership. We’re not competing with each other – book readers don’t buy one book a year, they don’t say ‘I’ve got eight pounds to spend this year and I’m going to spend it all on that one’. If they read one and they enjoy it they’re going to come back and get another one. So I think it’s a good thing generally.


Preserve the Dead – the latest book in the DS Lucy Black series by Brian McGilloway – is available to order online today as a Hardback, Paperback or eBook.