Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland: Generation Crime steps out of the Troubles

Adrian McKinty Image copyright Adrian McKinty
Image caption Adrian McKinty is a crime writer from Northern Ireland who is based in New York

Melbourne, Australia, 2012. It's tough to write crime when the sun is hot and you're in flip flops.

Adrian McKinty from Northern Ireland has made his name writing crime.

Sometimes he needs grit and misery to make it happen.

In sunny Australia, McKinty pulled the curtains tight in his beach house, put on a recording of rain pattering on a tin roof and cranked up the air con to ice.

Whisked back to the mean streets of Belfast 1981, he wrote a killer of a crime novel. The Cold Cold Ground, first in the Sean Duffy series, was an award winner.

McKinty is one of a generation of internationally acclaimed crime writers from Northern Ireland.

Image caption Many of Northern Ireland's new breed of crime writers grew up in the Troubles

He has won a host of awards - the Spinetingler, the Edgar Alan Poe Award and the Ned Kelly Award.

Writers like him lived out their childhoods in Northern Ireland during the Troubles.

But they strolled out of the wreckage after the ink had dried on the Good Friday Agreement.

In peace, they saw their country through a different lens. Belfast was grey and industrial - perfect for gutsy detectives and whodunnits.

McKinty grew up on a loyalist estate in Carrickfergus. Life took him to university in Oxford to study philosophy and on to America and Australia.

Image caption Soldiers were a common sight on the streets of Belfast during the Troubles

Now he lives in New York. When he started crime writing, nobody wanted to hear about home.

"They warned me not to set my books in Northern Ireland. Box office poison, they said, nobody would want to read them.

"So, I wrote about Denver and New York, I even set a book in Cuba and I had only ever been there for two weeks."

But not Northern Ireland, never home.

'Box office poison'

Until that day in Melbourne, when he pulled shut the curtains and dreamed up Detective Sean Duffy - a hard-boiled Catholic cop, a middle class bohemian living on a loyalist housing estate north of Belfast. The locals would hate him.

He wanted "sandpaper fiction", he says - to rub people up the wrong way. Duffy with his vodka gimlets and intellectual ways and Velvet Underground tastes was perfect.

The book wrote itself. It was, says McKinty, "like turning on a tap".

Once he started, his childhood was like mining "gold". It was rain, helicopters, soldiers, fog, bomb sites.

Image caption A new generation of crime writers grew up in the shadows of the Troubles

The Cold Cold Ground is set in 1981.

"The year of the hunger strikes - the memories of that time are burned on my brain," he says.

Book two covered the following year.

"That was De Lorean - We went to the De Lorean factory on a school trip."

From a distance, he discovered a strange beauty about the past.

"My wee brother and I would take our bikes and ride up Knockagh mountain close to Carrickfergus and gaze down on Belfast," he remembers.

"There were petrol bombs arcing through the air, Gazelle helicopters hovering above the city, it was beautiful. I remember going to see Blade Runner and thinking 'I'm living in Blade Runner'."

Now he is firmly behind Noireland - an international crime festival set in Belfast.

"That fact that Belfast can host a crime festival is brilliant, I'm all for it" he says.

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption David Torrans in his Belfast bookshop which has become a community hub

David Torrans is one of a dying breed, an independent bookshop owner.

He runs No Alibis on Belfast's Botanic Avenue, a ramshackle haven of a book shop with treasure in every dark corner. First editions, signed copies, posters are piled up.

Torrans is also the director of the Noireland international crime festival which is gearing up for its second run in Belfast.

His love of crime fiction dates back to the day he spotted treasure in his father's old work bag when he was 11 years old.

"My father always had a book in that bag. One day I reached in and lifted a glossy-covered Mickey Spillane. The story usually involved a fit guy with a gun and a voluptuous woman with raven or blonde locks.

"I remember reaching down for it and my dad patting me on the shoulder and saying: 'Not yet son, maybe in a few years'."

He opened his bookshop, No Alibis, on Belfast's Botanic Avenue, 21 years ago.

There were few Irish crime writers back then - he names Eugene McEldowney, Colin Bateman and Eoin McNamee.

"When a place is going through a sense of political and cultural turmoil, people who are living through it do not necessarily want to write about it," he points out.

There were also what he calls "Troubles trash".

Image copyright Noireland
Image caption Actor Aidan Gillen took part in the first Noireland International Crime Festival

'Lost, hopeless souls'

"Those were writers who did not necessarily live here. They might have flown in quickly for a little research and flown out again. They had a clich├ęd, un-nuanced picture of what this place was.

"Then came the peace process and people who had grown up here and who would have lived through the Troubles ... post Troubles were reflecting from a different perspective.

"There was a new cadre of younger writers from here who decided to go the crime route, people like Claire McGowan, Adrian McKinty and Stuart Neville."

Why this sudden flare of interest in crime?

"The city lends itself to crime fiction. Crime calls for a dark city full of lost and hopeless souls, industrial places. There is corruption and exploitation and there's a flawed investigator trying to overcome injustice and keep sanity."

Noireland is a festival that is wider than the writers. The first festival also featured Adrian Dunbar and Jed Mercurio from the detective TV series Line of Duty and actor Aidan Gillen of The Wire and Game of Thrones fame.

The next Noireland, scheduled for March 8 - 10 in Belfast is billed as "bigger, better, deadlier".

Image copyright Claire Allan
Image caption Writer Claire Allan moved to the "dark side" in 2016

Writer Claire Allan is a recent recruit to crime fiction. She is from Derry and is a journalist turned novelist.

She wrote for the Derry Journal and is proud of the coverage she and her colleagues at the paper gave to the Bloody Sunday Inquiry.

"It was history, it was righting a wrong and we were the paper of record," she says with pride.

Allan started out writing women's fiction in 2005, but eventually the allure of crime proved hard to resist.

"I moved to the dark side in 2016," she jokes. For her, it has been a "pleasant surprise".

"I wanted to write something a bit more serious," she says. When she did, the advice from her editors was to keep going.

Image copyright Channel 4
Image caption Allan says she won a lot of readers who had enjoyed watching Channel 4's Derry Girls

"Go darker, unleash your dark side, they told me."

Allan sees it as a challenge. At first she felt daunted.

"I thought crime writers were super intelligent and were able to plot meticulously. But when I started, I found it exhilarating."

She was also unsure of the role her home city in Northern Ireland should play.

"What does someone in London care about Shipquay Street, I said.

"But my editor said to really bring in Derry. The success of Derry Girls did me no harm. I got a lot of readers who loved Derry Girls."

The Troubles are there, in the background. But they are not central to her stories.

"We cannot escape the Troubles, it's our history. The past is there in the bullet marks on the walls... my latest novel features a trauma nurse who worked through the Troubles."

Image caption Why would anyone want to know about Shipquay Street asked Allan

Allan's first crime novel, Her Name was Rose, made the US Today Bestseller list and also proved a hit in Canada and Australia.

"I was never published there before," she says.

Does she understand why a life of crime writing has appealed to so many in a relatively small place.

"Perhaps it's because we dig deeper and we take it to a more human level," she says.

"Or perhaps it's that Irish people are really good story tellers."

Noireland, the International Crime Fiction Festival runs from March 8 - 10 2019 in Belfast.

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