Belfast Red and Noir

As an author I wear a few hats. In my short stories I write what people would call ‘literary fiction’, I write poetry, and I am also a ‘genre’ writer of a female-led detective series. My debut novel, The Bones of It, could have equally sat on a literary or crime shelf. In the end it was marketed as crime, which some reviewers thought stopped the book from reaching its true potential. I’m torn on that idea, but what I do know is that Ireland has a lot of love for that which is literary.

New books can be wrongly – in my opinion – sorted into one of two categories: high art or popular art, and there can be snobbery about ‘genres’, which are deemed to be ‘popular’. They are often excluded from the canon, which I take exception to. 

Great crime fiction isn’t just about formula. It doesn’t tell you how to think. Great crime fiction has you questioning your opinion on an issue long after you have made your way down your to-be-read pile. Crime fiction sees everything; societal issues are made miniature through the families we write about. Northern Irish crime fiction always manages to deal with the most serious of themes with a dark, incomparable humor. Our dialect is colorful and warm, though our stories are gritty and informed by a difficult past. Crime writers have as much of a love for language as any ‘literary’ writer I know. We might be told that crime is more plot-driven, but it is just as important that the style is well considered, and that the characters jump off the page and grab you by the scruff.

Regardless of whether I had to pinpoint my first novel as crime or not, I was always proud to be called a crime writer because just as I love literary writers, many of my influences are crime writers. Plus, I was writing crime; working behind the scenes on a detective series. It was important to me to set it in Belfast and to have a strong female lead. In fact, gender is hugely interesting to me across any and all of my writing. The Bones of It was a post-Good Friday Agreement novel about the effects of toxic masculinity, which is sadly still prevalent in Northern Ireland. Our society remains immensely patriarchal. For one, we are part of the UK but not where women’s reproductive rights are concerned. 

The DI Harriet Sloane series has had three published books: The Sleeping Season and Problems with Girls. The Town Red launched last week. The series has been called ‘unapologetically feminist’ and that lifts my heart, especially in a genre that can be sexist. The Sloane series always takes a side glance at how women are judged and treated in Northern Ireland, and the world at large. 

Harriet Sloane works in a male dominated workplace and is, herself, the victim of a serious crime. However, she doesn’t want to report this, and actually has little faith in the system in which she works. Some say that when watching our favorite police shows we are consuming pro-cop propaganda, but I hope the DI Sloane series has way more balance and realism. Sloane’s storyline was actually inspired by real accounts of local women who have been stalked or been the victims of domestic violence. Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK or Ireland that does not yet have its own stalking legislation. 

Growing up here through the Troubles has undoubtedly influenced the main theme of my work, which is violence: its origins and effects. Harriet comes from a middle class background because women from all backgrounds encounter domestic violence, even strong-willed detectives from wealthy families. She works for the PSNI in East Belfast: a working class area from which Harriet is an outsider, even though she grew up only fifteen minutes away. Before Harriet Sloane, my main characters were always from the working class background I knew personally. I have really pondered writing about class in recent years since it was brought to our attention that in the UK there is a tangible need to promote more working class voices. Though in Northern Ireland, I would guess that most of us come from that background. Crime writers especially. 

The ‘Belfast Noir’ genre has been thrilling to watch, first as a reader and now as a writer.  There is a fantastic group of female crime writers in Northern Ireland. Namely Sharon Dempsey, Catriona King, Kerry Buchanan, Claire Allan, Rose McClelland, and many more yet to be published. Their books fill me with excitement for the growth and evolution of ‘Belfast Noir’.

Though the Republic of Ireland is dominated with successful female writers, in Northern Ireland we have been banging our heads against a brick wall for some time. At last local women crime writers’ work is making its way out there, equipped to fill the voids in our collective story about a complex but fascinating place. 

The Town Red is out now.

Read more about the Sloane series here.

Thank you to Lorraine Berry whose LA Times article on Belfast Noir got me thinking about gender and class in NI crime fiction and inspired this response.



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