The noir novel is a product of media culture. It is thus fitting, that in Ireland as elsewhere, some of its first and most celebrated practitioners are, or were, journalists. Although Irish noir appeared only much later than say its counterparts in the US, France or Italy, in an era already dominated by multimedia, it is worth noting that it retains such a link with the printed press. Colin Bateman, one of the genre’s pioneers with his 1994 Divorcing Jack, was a journalist in Northern Ireland, working for the County Down Spectator. His subsequent novel, Belfast Confidential, examines the life and scandals of a local newspaper. His recurring character, Dan Starkey, is a journalist in Belfast, and seems to be an alter ego of the author. In Dublin, John Connolly, now the most internationally successful Irish noir author wrote his first novel All the Dead Things (1999) while working as a journalist for the Irish Times.
Gene Kerrigan, who received the most recent CWA Gold Dagger for the best crime novel (2012) has been known for decades in Ireland as a political journalist, writing for the now defunct political magazine Magill, and chronicling in the Sunday Independent. He published true crime and court cases books (Hard Cases: True Stories of Crime and Punishment, Virgin, 1995) before embracing the noir genre towards the end of the boom years of the Celtic Tiger. Little Criminals was published in 2005 and Kerrigan has published three more noir novels since, forming a “Dublin tetralogy “, each of them being located in the Irish capital. There is no unifying first person narrator or recurring detective. Certainly sporadic references are made to some members of the police hierarchy (such as “Detective Chief Superintendent Hogg”), but their presence is remote. Whilst they contribute to strengthening the consistency of the novels’ referential universe, they do not create any familiarity, or empathy with such individuals.
Greater continuity seems to be granted to the criminals. While police officers are presented as interchangeable and fallible, criminals in this cycle of novels enjoy more stability, and a more complex characterisation. The story of the brothers Jo-Jo and Lar Mackendrick stretching over several books strengthens their ominous presence, and gives a disturbing sense of their grip over the city. Disorder appears thus as the cohesive factor of the cycle. Another is the representation of the city, throughout the four novels. Yet another resides in the obsessive recurrence of the same moral, legal and ethical conflicts, affecting different characters. Both The Midnight Choir (Vintage, 2006) and The Rage (Harvill Secker, 2011) show characters of detectives plagued with the temptation of swearing a false oath, showing their flawed belief in a possibility to give justice while undermining the judiciary process.
An important part of the interest of this last novel revolves around moral choices. Each of the main protagonists, the policeman, the thug, and the nun has dark secrets. Their choice may or not re-open a can of worms. There are worms, too, nibbling their way through the very stage they are standing on: Irish post-boom society is depicted in all its putrefaction; crooked speculators and bankers, and developers blinded by greed and hubris. The corrupt and the wasteful meet in a place where credit and illusions have run out. In the midst of this disaster, the greatest bankruptcy resides, as Kerrigan shows persuasively, in the lack of education, principle and backbone of the profiteers and their privileged and naively materialistic offspring. Certainly, their arrogance and stupidity lands these children of capitalist accumulation into trouble. But in this great market place that is a neo-liberal society, the law, of course, is a commodity and sentences look negotiable, with the best professionals, those with the highest market value, seemingly able to command beyond extortionate fees, desired outcomes in the court. The real problem is therefore not justice, but predictably, finance. What happens, after corruption and free cash have so comprehensively oiled the social machinery, when credit suddenly runs out?
The Rage, following the previous novels, represents the divisions of a society fragmented not only by the triumph of market ideology, but broken into a thousand pieces by the resulting crisis:
At first it seemed almost a technical hitch, like someone needed to sort out a knotty little arithmetic problem. Then, house prices went through the floor, jobs evaporated, factories and businesses that had been around for decades folded overnight. There were hundreds of thousands of houses and flats empty, hundreds of unfinished estates in which no one lived or would ever want to live, all built with borrowed money to take advantage of tax breaks. The knowledge that all the backslapping and arrogance of the previous decade was nurtured in bullshit made the country blush like a teenager caught posing in front of a mirror. (p. 9)
The uncompromising statement made by Kerrigan, showing that the economic crisis reflects a moral and intellectual one, stretches over different layers of society and encompasses all the microcosms represented in the novel. South Dublin Lawyers are no smarter or more intact than Northside gangsters. Nuns and the Church have certainly lost their pretence of holiness in the wake of the scandals and infamies committed under the guise of religion. But in fact, the entire population of the Island, at least the one called active, shares the responsibility in this debacle. As noted by one character:
Trade Unions are out of fashion now, but everything we ever got, we had to fight for it – money, hours, conditions. Today, it’s like everyone’s grateful to be a unit of labour, to be plugged in or pulled out according to their master’s will (p.69)
The Rage shows that contrary to the various catechisms, indoctrination and apologies for self-regulating markets which became the official faith during the decades of economic growth in Ireland, it is not class struggles that destroyed Irish society. It is, on the contrary, the fear of conflict, the desire for consensus and the lack of political mobilization which led citizens to turn a blind eye to and ultimately be fooled by, the prevarications of those who claimed to guide Ireland towards modernity. The narrative suggests parallelisms between traditions, represented by the nun, and new elites. It points at the replacement of one system of domination with another, just as an obscure, deceptive and coercive discourse, that of the banks, has merely replaced, and updated, a more traditionally oppressive one, that of the church.
Factors of real social danger do not just lurk in the margins, they are at the very heart of institutions. Thus, organizations supposed to safeguard credit are the most discredited, no public body has failed more appallingly the most innocents than the church, and nothing is further removed from the idea of justice that the judiciary. The greatest achievement of The Rage, beyond the quality of the plot and the energy of the pace, is its depiction of a society in which masks have fallen.
(This post was first published on Europolar (http://www.europolar.eu) : Dominique Jeannerod, Rage and outrage in Dublin noir, Europolar, Feb, 2013)