The Troubles live on in Belfast Noir, a genre perfectly suited to its crimes
On the Shelf
Northern Irish Crime Fiction
“Belfast Noir” by Adrian McKinty, Stuart Neville, Flynn Berry, Kelly Creighton and Sharon Dempsey
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In a time of war, what is the role of the lawman, the keeper of civil order, whose cause is justice rather than victory and whose quarry are criminals, not combatants?
Such questions resonate from Gaza to the still-unsettled British Isles. And they rise to the surface in a relatively recent genre of fiction, and one of my favorites: what has sometimes been called “Belfast Noir.” Adrian McKinty, Stuart Neville, Flynn Berry, Kelly Creighton and Sharon Dempsey — among others — write detective fiction against the backdrop of modern Northern Ireland. (McKinty and Neville co-edited a collection titled “Belfast Noir.”)
Unlike tidier mystery genres, noir tends to operate in a murky moral universe navigated by an imperfect hero. Northern Ireland’s history makes it ripe for the genre. While the Troubles came to an end with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, this year’s Easter riots demonstrated that sectarian divisions, Brexit and a crippling economic downturn have combined to make the peace fragile again. As the six Ulster counties observe their ambivalent centenary, their crime fiction leads readers through streets where unresolved tensions cast cold shadows and clarity is elusive.
“Northern Spy,” a recent entry from Berry (an American), is set in the present day but the echoes of the Troubles — the two-decade-long civil war that claimed more than 3,500 lives — persist. The story centers on Tessa, a young mother in Belfast who discovers that her sister, Marian, may be a member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). When Tessa is approached by authorities to help bring her sister in, she is forced to choose between her hopes for a permanent peace and her loyalty to family and community. She must also confront her role as a bystander. “Maybe the problem is me,” she thinks, “and people like me, standing in the way of the rebellion, for believing this version of civilization can be improved.”
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The question of what constitutes doing the right thing suffuses much of Belfast Noir. In “The Ghosts of Belfast,” the first in Neville’s Belfast series, those who served the IRA or the Ulster Defence Force (UDF) struggle to reconcile their lives in peacetime. A former IRA assassin is haunted by the ghosts of those he killed, who demand he seek justice against those who made the orders.
What other way is there to atone for the things you did when talking about them could get you killed? And how can a detective, in turn, do his job when no one will talk? The noir investigator is usually an outsider, but especially in Northern Ireland, where being neither pro-Catholic nor pro-Protestant (merely pro-justice) is not an option. Many of the detectives in the genre suffer from addiction, depression and PTSD.
Adrian McKinty, whose seventh Sean Duffy novel is set to publish in the fall, has created a character whose outsider status is manifold: Duffy is a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) despite being a Catholic; he lives in a Protestant neighborhood; his Bohemian streak draws suspicion. Every morning, he must check underneath his car for bombs. (Many RUC officers kept their jobs hidden during the Troubles.)
Yet for all the dangers out on the street, as McKinty pointed out in an interview, “the biggest killer of policemen back then ... was suicide.” As he put it, “wives were always leaving, the liquor was always handy and every cop had a gun.”
These conditions make for a hard life, but often a good story. The Irish have long held a reputation for a poetic approach to life, and while crime fiction is often dismissed as formulaic, Belfast Noir is rich with gorgeous writing about awful behavior. McKinty opens “The Cold Cold Ground” — the first Duffy novel — in the aftermath of Bobby Sands’ death from his hunger strike.
“The riot had taken on a beauty of its own now,” McKinty writes. “Arcs of gasoline fire under the crescent moon. Crimson tracer in mystical parabolas. Phosphorescence from the barrels of plastic bullet guns. A distant yelling like that of men below decks in a torpedoed prison ship. The scarlet whoosh of Molotovs intersecting with exacting surfaces. Helicopters everywhere: their spotlights finding one another like lovers in the Afterlife. And all this through a lens of oleaginous Belfast rain.”
Creighton, author of the DI Harriet Sloane series, sees the genre as infinitely capable. “Great crime fiction isn’t just about formula,” she said in an email. “It doesn’t tell you how to think. Crime fiction sees everything; societal issues are made miniature through the families we write about.”
While McKinty and Neville often focus on working-class life, Creighton and Dempsey add gender to the mix. “I think women understand fear; we know what [it] feels like to be threatened, to feel watched,” Dempsey said via email. That fear was exacerbated by the enforced silence. “[W]e were told growing up: whatever you say, say nothing. It was too dangerous to speak out.”
Not long ago, Adrian McKinty was a frustrated author who was evicted from his home because the money he made from his side gig as an Uber driver wasn’t enough to pay the bills.
Like so much fiction about traumatic events, Belfast Noir took decades to germinate, to gain perspective on the Troubles. Now it deals with the universal phenomenon of generational trauma. “We need to shine light on the wrongs of the past and we can now, post-conflict, create new narratives that say something about how we are still dealing with past traumas,” Dempsey said.
In Dempsey’s “Little Bird,” Declan works as a forensic psychologist, using scientific principles to bring order and objectivity to his investigations. But Declan can never erase his subjectivity; a car bomb left him permanently wheelchair-bound. His past governs his present choices, colors his daily work.
Compounding the detective’s issues, the governing ethos of the Troubles was witness intimidation — say nothing — and bad habits die hard. McKinty’s Duffy has yet to see a suspect prosecuted in court. One of Neville’s detectives must go on the run to avoid retribution; other characters flee the country after their communities turn against them.
Working in this impossible dynamic, sometimes the outsider detective is forced to work outside the legal system, committing additional violence — or using sectarian animosities as a tool for vigilante justice — and trying to make their peace with it. To read these books is to find oneself asking what constitutes a happy ending when order cannot be restored.
Nearly 3,000 years ago, Thucydides wrote in his History of the Peloponnesian War that there could be no question of justice in a system in which “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” That is the state of play in Belfast Noir, and it makes the genre much more than a set of puzzles to be solved. Without justice, eureka moments ring hollow; achieving real solutions means breaking the law, accepting community banishment or learning to live with failure.
Readers who enter this world have their own set of challenges: Give up on the genre expectation that the detective always gets their “man.” Instead, walk in their shoes, learn about the world as it was and in many ways remains.
“The Troubles” seems incommensurate — euphemistic even — as a descriptor of the social fission that cleaved Northern Ireland in the late 20th century.
Berry writes for a number of publications and tweets at @BerryFLW.
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