Finders: Justice, Faith, and Identity in Irish Crime Fiction
- By Anjili Babbar
- Syracuse University Press
- 288 pp.
- Reviewed by Bob Duffy
- March 17, 2023
Sussing out the throughline among popular Gaelic gumshoes.
In the short volume of academic lit-crit Finders, Anjili Babbar tackles a distinctive school of popular novels that share a common setting and a bleak ethos. These stories take place in Ireland (mostly Northern) during and following the Troubles of the 1970s and 1980s. Babbar discusses 11 authors, many of whose works are peopled by characters caught up in — or inadvertently straying into — the bloody trail of violence and retribution that runs from the last century’s horrid sectarian upheavals and tumbles along with chilling persistence nearly to our own day.
Babbar writes about mass-market authors yet doesn’t hesitate to apply the methods of formal thematic criticism to her analysis, unabashedly marshalling the lingo of scholarly discourse. And (brava!) she reproaches “genre elitism,” both overtly and through the unalloyed respect she accords her subjects. They may be the “popular” novelists that you’ll come across in airports and on the subway, but that doesn’t mean they don’t merit intelligent commentary from the English Department.
The author’s take is erudite, at times a bit stiffly so. Among the writers she examines are the creators of bestselling series that star recurring crime-solving prodigies like Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor, Brian McGilloway’s Lucy Black, Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy, and Claire McGowan’s Paula Maguire. Add to that selection Stuart Neville’s Belfast novels, some of which feature recurrent police protagonists.
The fictive world these “finders” inhabit is desolate and blighted. Here’s Babbar’s description of Ulster’s capital city, as portrayed by McKinty: “[It’s a] city effectively ruled by criminals under the guise of vigilantism…a kind of dystopia, where riots, bombings, dismantled industry, unemployment, emigration, substance abuse, and depression are the norm.” At the same time, it’s a landscape steeped in overt or barely submerged hostility, often flaring into sudden, deadly violence.
The implacable Irish Republican Army (IRA) and its paramilitary offshoots, nursing centuries-old grievances, bristle with armaments covertly supplied by stateside Irish American dreamers. The other side of the conflict, the Protestant factions in the North, are commensurately hateful. And they’re buttressed by the British Army, thrust in by Margaret Thatcher to quell the bloodletting but all too often perpetuating it.
And it’s more than overt sectarian violence. The paramilitary squads on both sides have pushed beyond kidnappings, murderous reprisals, and indiscriminate street bombings into moblike extortion and larceny. Even when a refereed peace arrives, the bitter bloodshed persists, fueled by a resurgent resentment among surviving victims, as confessed vigilante killers are effectively pardoned in the interest of no-fault forgiveness.
The keynote in most of these novels is a kind of noir, a pit-of-the-stomach irony, with detectives who venture into hostile neighborhoods routinely checking the undersides of their parked cars for mercury-switch bombs, and many police tagged as suspect outsiders. Writes Babbar on McGilloway’s Ulster detective Lucy Black:
“Lucy is not especially targeted as a Catholic officer, and she can rely on cooperation from at least some members of the community, albeit often behind closed doors and out of sight of their neighbors.”
And as Babbar sees McGowan’s forensic psychologist heroine Paula Maguire, “[She] is perhaps the most obvious ‘finder’ in Irish crime fiction, as she literally searches for missing persons while figuratively searching to expose the truth.” Shorn of its locality, this depiction could apply just as aptly to the Spades and Marlowes of 1930s and ‘40s California.
All these popular authors are singularly skilled storytellers, far more so than your average run of crime-series mavens from Amazon’s email push-out roster. This reviewer is an avid booster of the creative company Babbar chooses and is pleased to note the remarkable insight and thoroughness she brings to her textual and character-centered analysis of them.
She covers other authors, too, including John Connelly (the Charlie Parker series), Alex Barclay, and the incomparable Tana French. She does aim a barb — in an essay apparently written before he began to write literary detective thrillers under his real name (beginning with Snow) — at John Banville, the new master of the genre.
If “mass market” carries an unwelcome aroma for you, reader, please know that the characterization is mine, not Babbar’s. Read a few of these books for yourself. You may find this Irish school of creativity addictive. The novels are gripping and propulsive, and Anjili Babbar gives you some solid guidance in approaching them.
[Editor’s note: Anjili Babbar will speak at the 2023 Washington Writers Conference on May 13th in Rockville, MD. Learn more here.]
Bob Duffy, a retired brand consultant and ad guy, is a Maryland-based writer and critic.