Scene of the Crime has thus far been remiss in not including an Irish author into the mix. This post redresses that oversight. Declan Burke is most verifiably an Irish author of crime fiction whose work has been compared to Elmore Leonard and Donald Westlake. Fellow Irish writer Ken Bruen calls Burke “the future of Irish crime fiction.”
Burke’s debut novel, Eightball Boogie, features pot-smoking and wisecracking PI Harry Rigby, who according to Booklist, resembles “the gin-soaked love child of Rosalind Russell and William Powell.” The same reviewer called this first novel “a wild ride worth taking,” while London’s Sunday Times concluded, “A manic, edgy tone that owes much to Elmore Leonard … could be the start of something big.”
Burke’s The Big O, is a caper crime novel about which Booklist declared, “Fans of comic noir will find plenty to enjoy here.” In a starred Kirkus Reviews article, a critic observed, “Imagine Donald Westlake and his alter ego Richard Stark moving to Ireland and collaborating on a screwball noir, and you have some idea of Burke’s accomplishment.” The Irish Times similarly felt that The Big O “carries on the tradition of Irish noir with its Elmore Leonard-like style.” Burke’s 2009 Crime Always Pays “is a worthy successor,” Dana King commented in the New Mystery Reader. King described the plot of that book as “a little like what might be expected if Elmore Leonard wrote from an outline by Carl Hiaasen.”
Burke also writes the popular blog, Crime Always Pays.
Dec, it’s grand to have you with us on Scene of the Crime.
Ah, a tricky one to begin with … I live in Wicklow on the east coast of Ireland, not far from Dublin, but my first novel, a private eye story called Eightball Boogie (2003), was set in Sligo, in the northwest of Ireland, which is where I’m from originally. My second novel, a comedy crime caper called The Big O (2007), wasn’t set anywhere in particular – the setting was an unnamed large town, or small city. The idea behind the non-specific setting was to suggest that the story could have played out anywhere in the world. That said, many of the locations I used were, in my mind, derived from places I knew in Sligo.
I was living in Dublin when I wrote Eightball Boogie, but I wanted to write a private eye story set in Sligo. Historically, serious criminal activity in Ireland had been confined to the larger urban areas, such as Dublin, Cork, Belfast, Derry and Limerick. With the advent of the Celtic Tiger, however, gangland activity started to colonise the smaller, more rural towns, of which Sligo (population circa 30,000) would be a good example. So one of the reasons for writing the book was to reflect that.
Most of my family still live in Sligo, so I make frequent trips home. In fact, even though I haven’t lived there for about 20 years, I still call it ‘home’.
Sligo is what we call a ‘garrison town’ in Ireland. Back in the days when Ireland was ruled from London, a British garrison was stationed in the town. That makes for a very sharp urban/rural divide: the town, for example, tends to support the local soccer team, Sligo Rovers, while the rural hinterland is more inclined to support the GAA football team – the GAA being the Gaelic Athletic Association, which was set up in the 1880s to countermand the cultural impact of Irish men and women playing foreign sports such as soccer and cricket.
That urban/rural divide makes it an interesting place to set a novel. Traffic allowing, you can drive into the countryside from the heart of Sligo town in five minutes. What’s interesting about that is the topography of the hinterland: within a fifteen- or twenty-minute drive from the town of Sligo there are lakes, bogs, mountains, beaches, forests, rivers and an ocean. Which pretty much allows you to use virtually any kind of setting you’d like to for a particular scene.
There are also plenty of cultural landmarks. The poet W.B. Yeats is strongly associated with Lissadell House, for example; the first ever woman MP ever elected to the British Parliament, Countess Markievicz, hailed from Sligo. Up on Carrowkeel, there are intact passage tombs that were built circa 3,000 BC, and there is another significant megalithic settlement at Carrowmore. The mythological Queen Maeve has her burial site atop Knocknerea, which overlooks Carrowmore.
Historically, Sligo town is a fascinating place. There are records of the ancient Greeks trading at Sligo port; Sligo Abbey was founded in 1252. It’s an old town, then, and the centre of the town reflects that: the streets are narrow, and there are plenty of interesting alleyways down which a man might wander who is not himself mean. The modern town incorporates many sprawling suburbs, some of which are more salubrious than others, which again makes for an interesting juxtaposition. In certain parts of Sligo, literally crossing the road can make the difference between real estate selling for €80,000 and €400,000. That in itself creates a certain tension.
There’s a saying in the West of Ireland that the Celtic Tiger never learned in swim, which is why it never crossed the Shannon into Connacht (said Tiger, presumably, being too dim to use one of the many bridges that cross the Shannon). Sligo was one of those towns that didn’t benefit hugely from the boom years, although it has transformed itself in the last decade or so. Today it’s a brash, progressive place – you can sip your café mocha on the remodeled riverfront with the best of them – but there is a sense that many of the changes are superficial, and you don’t have to go very far from the centre of town before you notice the shabby and threadbare corners, the boarded-up shop-fronts. All in all, I find it a fascinating place – but then, I’m biased. I love it.
I never set out to write Eightball Boogie as a novel. It began as a bit of fun, just noodling around the classic ‘client walks into private eye’s office’ scenario. The private eye I came up with, Harry Rigby, describes himself as a ‘research consultant’, and by the time I’d written five or six pages, I really liked who he was and the way he went about his business. The novel kind of evolved from there.
Once I had a (vague) idea of who Rigby was, and the kind of story it would be (a half-assed homage to Raymond Chandler), then Sligo itself became a huge factor in the story, as I’ve said before. That said, I was kind of presuming when I was writing the novel that the mean streets were on the way – there was low-level criminal activity in Sligo, but nothing too serious; it’s only in the last few years that Sligo has started to experience drive-by shootings and drug-related murders. So I had to invent for myself a fictional mean streets at the heart of Sligo, which the ‘locals’ called ‘Midtown’ … Once I’d established that fictional space, the rest of the story seemed to come together pretty quickly.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
In terms of location, I’m heavily influenced by a particular setting. In fact, I tend to start with a place – a rundown building on the docks, for example – and think, ‘Hmm, that’d be a nice place to set a scene.’ And then I graft the story onto that particular setting. It doesn’t always work like that, of course, but more often than not, I’ll ‘plot’ ahead in a novel by bearing in mind certain places that I’d like the story to go to. In retrospect, I suppose that that tends to give the story a certain narrative momentum, in that I need to physically move the characters here and there. It can be a pain sometimes, but it’s the way my mind works, so what can you do?
How does Harry Rigby interact with his surroundings?
Harry Rigby is a pretty cynical guy. He’s also a realist. He’s very aware of Sligo’s shortcomings, particularly as a location for someone who has set himself up as a ‘research consultant’. He’s a native, but he’s not going to pretend that Sligo is the Paris of the Northwest, or any of that rubbish. In fact, there’s only one thing that keeps him in Sligo, and that’s his son, who lives with Harry’s ex-girlfriend.
The character of the town certainly affects Harry. Sligo is a no-bullshit place to live. Sligo people are very grounded, earthy and not at all shy about letting a man know if he’s getting up himself. The place is totally at odds with Yeats’ dreamy, quasi-mystical ‘Lake Isle of Inisfree’-era poetry. That in turn means that Harry is a pragmatic man, not given to flights of fancy or self-delusion. One of the things I like about him is that he has no illusions about himself, where he lives or what he does. He also has that post-colonial attitude in spades: the distrust of authority in all its forms, and an abrasive and often confrontational approach to any kind of authority or power, regardless of which side of the thin blue line it emanates from. That very probably comes from growing up and living in a former ‘garrison town’.
Sligo people are brilliant. Yes, they’ll call you on it if they think you’re a spoof-merchant, but they’re incredibly supportive if you actually deliver on your spoofing. The local reaction has been very positive, as were the reviews. That said, they wouldn’t want to make too much of fuss, in case you start believing your own press.
Eightball Boogie was published in France and Holland, and the (few) reviews were pretty decent. I don’t know how much of a push the book got from its respective publishers, though, so it’s hard to judge.
To date, The Big O has only been published in Ireland and the US, and the reviews there have been pretty good. It will be published in Italy next year, so I’m looking forward to seeing how it goes down there.
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
Like I said, I invented a fictional space within the real Sligo for Eightball Boogie, so goofs don’t really apply there. And The Big O was a non-specific setting, who again, it’s not a goof-friendly place. Some people did complain about the fact that the setting was non-specific, though.
One goof was really beyond my control. When I was writing Eightball Boogie, I had a scene where the characters mentioned in passing the ridiculously spiraling price of real estate. Knowing that the housing market in Ireland was out of control at that point, I stuck an extra 30k or so onto what would have been at the time a very silly price to pay for that particular chunk of real estate. But I underestimated by a considerable margin. By the time the book came out, which was no more than eight months after I’d finished the final copy-edit, my ‘ridiculous’ price looked quite quaint.
Of the Sligo novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
Well, I’ve only written one novel set specifically in Sligo, as I say. Or only had one published, I should say – I’ve written another couple of Harry Rigby novels, one of which is currently out on consideration. I’ll give you a few lines from that one – it’s called The Big Empty. The bit below comes near the start of the story, as Rigby drives across town:
“It was better out in the suburbs, and it was mostly all suburbs, but the town was a heart-attack of concrete and chrome. Old streets, high and narrow, arteries that had thickened and gnarled so the traffic trickled or didn’t move at all. The light a frozen glare shot with greens and reds, blinking pink neon, fluorescent blues. Boom-boom blasting from rolled-down windows, the deep bass pulsing out muscles of sound.
“On a bad night it took fifteen minutes to crawl the two hundred yards along Castle Street into Grafton Street. The mob shuffling out of the chippers wore hoodies over baggy denims, the dragging hems frayed. Night of the Living McDead. The girls in cropped tops over bulging bellies with hipster jeans showcasing cheese-cutter thongs. In case someone might think they weren’t wearing any underwear at all, maybe.
“I skipped O’Connell Street, heading east along John Street, turning north down Adelaide and then west at the new bridge onto Lynn’s Dock, a grapefruit moon hanging low above the quays. Finn playing The Northern Pikes, Place That’s Insane. On along Ballast Quay to the docks proper, a spit of land jutting out into the sea, maybe forty acres of crumbling warehouse facing open water. Behind the warehouses lay a marshy jungle of weeds. Once in a while there was talk of turning it into a nature preserve, a bird sanctuary, but no one ever did anything about it. The birds came and went anyway.
“Down at the breakwater the Port Authority building was nine stories of black concrete, a finger flipping the bird to the town. Sligo’s Ozymandias, our monument to hubris, built back in the ’60s when Lemass had all boats on a rising tide and the docks were buzzing, a North Atlantic entry point for Polish coal, Norwegian pine, Jamaican sugar, Australian wool. Oil tankers moored down at the deepwater. Russians slipped ashore and never went to sea again. The first African, a Nigerian, was a celebrity. They called him Paddy Dubh and he never had to pay when he bought a pint of stout.
“Then the ’70s slithered in. Crude oil went through the roof. The coal stopped coming, then the sugar. The channel silted up. Paddy had to buy his own stout. Things got so bad the Industrial Development Authority had to buy the PA building and then lease back two of the nine stories to the Port Authority. Even that was a farce, the IDA loaning the PA the money to pay the lease.
“Then the ’80s, a good decade to be a weed or a rat. Everyone forgot about the docks, or tried to …”
That’s a tough question. Favourite writers? How long do you have?
I love Raymond Chandler’s novels. Eightball Boogie, as I say, was an attempt to write a ‘realistic’ private eye story – which is to say, the entirely unrealistic tarnished knight, the doomed romantic – in a Sligo setting. And even though I invented a fictional space for the story, I tried to capture a flavour of the town’s tone and mood and sense of humour.
As for The Big O, that was heavily influenced by Elmore Leonard and Barry Gifford. But that book was much more character-driven than influenced by its sense of place, so I guess it doesn’t really qualify.
Other favourite authors: James Ellroy, Adrian McKinty, John McFetridge … No, there’s just way too many to get into. And I tend to like individual books more than authors, anyway. I love The Friends of Eddie Coyle, for example, but I’m not that fussed about the rest of George Higgins’ work. Plus, I tend to read a lot that’s not crime fiction.
Last week I read John Hart’s The Last Child. Now there’s a hell of a crime novel.
What’s next for Harry?
Well, Harry Rigby is currently out under consideration in The Big Empty, in which Rigby gets commissioned by a grieving mother to investigate the circumstances of a suicide he’s a witness to. The backdrop features ex-paramilitaries going legit in the wake of peace in Northern Ireland, and attempting to salt away their ill-gotten gains. As soon as I hear more, I’ll keep you posted …
Many thanks for having me over, Syd. Truly appreciated.
And a return of the thanks, Dec.
Declan Burke can be found most days blogging at Crime Always Pays.