The first chapter of my Breaking debut was scribbled on the back of my son’s homeschooling copy during the pandemic as I watched my kids play on the beach. I perversely imagined the horror of something happening to them on my watch. I wanted to write the ultimate horror story: losing your child and being blamed for it. Now the story of Mirren Fitzpatrick, whose eight-year-old daughter disappears from a Florida resort while drinking at a nearby bar, is set to hit Irish shelves.
But what really drives authors, especially Irish novelists, to tackle such nightmarish subjects?
With 12 mystery novels to her credit, author Arlene Hunt puts it down to the expectations surrounding women and motherhood. “Women are consistently seen as mother figures and childbearing is a ‘dignified’ and ‘natural’ enterprise. If a woman balks at this or rejects the status quo, society can be tough.
It’s finding something really dark and finally being able to find light at the end of it all.
Author of bestsellers Hide and Seek and All Her Fault, Andrea Mara agrees. “I spend about 50% of my time picking on my parenting. I spend the other 50% of my time worrying about what might happen to my kids. So rather than going too far in the self-flagellation, I channel the guilt and worry into the books, and I play them there. Always with a happy ending, of course.
Holding motherhood to women as some sort of holy grail isn’t new, of course, but it’s relatable. Author and former journalist Claire Allan says it’s only natural that we deviate from this when writing. “You can examine this from a safe distance through fiction. It’s finding something really dark and finally being able to find some light at the end of it all.
Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin, writing as Sam Blake, thinks it could also be down to prospects. “I think women understand emotion and fear, and how relationships can be complex and not always rosy. We bring that to the page in many forms, but the mother-child dynamic is one that many of our readers relate.
But is using the lens of crime to examine these types of dynamics entertaining or rewarding?
Patricia Gibney, who has two million sales to her credit, thinks it’s a bit of both. “Real life crimes have always been scarier than anything I have written in my books. I grew up in those dark times in Ireland where secrets and lies were prevalent. Most of those secrets involved abuse and persecution of the most vulnerable in our society.While writing mystery novels, it is comforting to know that there should be some kind of justice at the end of the book.
Take Sinead Crowley’s latest dual-timeline thriller The Belladonna Maze, for example, which puts a unique spin on the sins of the past. Author Fiona Gartland also deals with this type of meandering deception in her novel Orchids and Lies. Louise Phillips, winner of Ireland’s Mystery Fiction of the Year, attributes our preoccupation with the macabre to a troubled past: “We don’t need to look far back to recognize the dark cloak the church has placed over women in society, fueling the ideology of women as sinners rather than victims, arguably creating a more misogynistic society.
“If detective fiction acts as a mirror of society and its cultural norms, then I suppose there are many reasons why my writing tends to explore darker issues, and why female voices are currently heard high and loud.”
Year after year, the detective, mystery and thriller genre has consistently topped the bestseller charts. Interestingly, on a per capita basis, Irish female thriller writers punch above their weight internationally. No longer limited to names like Jo Spain, Jane Casey and Liz Nugent, it’s about the rising tide lifting all ships, says Andrea Mara. “As more and more female Irish writers continue to do well, this has created a subgenre, sometimes referred to as Emerald Noir, and this in turn creates a synergy that makes it easier for everyone to succeed.”
Andrea Carter, author of the Inishowen Mysteries, believes this unprecedented Irish success in the genre is due to our unique ability to tell a story about what is happening around us. “We are a nation of storytellers and we value literature here. But to write the crime well, you have to understand the fear. The latest Garda review shows the majority of killings in Ireland last year had a domestic violence motivation. When it comes to domestic and sexual violence, the victims are mostly women and the perpetrators mostly men, so there’s a reason women here understand fear.
What about the so-called rift between Irish writers and the Irish criminality writers? Queen of the twist, Catherine Ryan Howard, whose book Run Time has climbed the charts in recent weeks, admits she has observed an “us and them” narrative at times. “We’re lucky to have about as many literary festivals in this country as we have female crime writers, but a lot of them exclude commercial fiction even though we have the statistics to prove that’s what the majority of people like to read – and so, therefore, they also exclude those readers.
“What really annoys me, however, is people who dismiss our work as not being as important or ‘worthy’ without ever having read anything about it. Crime fiction has always been a mirror of society, and due to the pace of editing, it often manages to do so long before our literary counterparts have completed their first drafts. But then, it’s very, very difficult to live alone writing literary fiction; I feel very lucky to be able to do this job full time.
It’s fair to say that, blood spattered or not, all writers share the vulnerability that comes with self-expression. Cork-based author of Cruel Deeds Catherine Kirwan started writing fiction in her 40s. “It was only then that I gained enough courage to deal with the fear of exposure that is an inevitable part of the writing process. For me, the end result is worth it. It was like the answer to a prayer I couldn’t remember saying.
It’s no coincidence that breaking first came to me at the height of the pandemic, when times were strangely uncertain. A bereavement also made me reflect on the impact people have on shaping our lives. But most importantly, I discovered that when I couldn’t control what happened in the world around me, I had to create my own. Then, like all good crime novel writers, I decided to burn it down completely.
Break by Amanda Cassidy is published by Canelo.