A Dark Dawn in Belfast

Author Matt McGuire might have moved to Australia, but his debut novel is rooted in his home town of Belfast

The natural habitat of the writer is the coffee shop (coffee, free wifi, a place to sit out of the weather and coffee). That can make it a bit difficult to pick one particular crime writer out of the typing crowd. Luckily enough, Belfast-born Matt McGuire, author of the debut detective novel Dark Dawn, has spent the last few months in Australia. His tan gave him away.

'In Australia it's 18 degrees,' McGuire notes, sitting down with his coffee. 'That's our winter.'

The author's enviously sunny stint in Australia is the result of a continent-share agreement he made with his Kiwi wife. They had spent eight years living in Scotland, where McGuire taught English at the University of Glasgow, and wanted to go to New Zealand to 'see if we liked it'.

'Except New Zealand is a very small country,' McGuire explains. 'It only has four universities, so we had to expand the search. The University of Western Sydney offered me a job, so we packed up and flew over.'

It turned out to be a good place to move for an up-and-coming crime writer. Although Australian literature doesn't get much airplay over here, except for a few big names, it has a vibrant crime fiction scene. For McGuire it has been a fascinating exposure to a whole new pool of authors. Although he notes that Australian fiction, perhaps as a result of their history as a penal colony, tends to have a 'real soft spot for the criminal'.

'There's a lot of Oz crime fiction that's all about the criminals rather than the cops,' he notes. 'Although there are some really good police-based ones too.'

Despite McGuire's interest in Australian crime fiction, DS John O'Neill – the protagonist of Dark Dawn – keeps his roots firmly planted in Belfast. Set back in 2005, before the Celtic Tiger went mangy, Dark Dawn sees the newly promoted, not yet ratified, detective trying to solve the murder of a knee-capped teenager in a 'post-Troubles' city.

'It was probably inspired a little by Ian Rankin's Rebus books,' McGuire says. 'He has Edinburgh as a character, I wanted Dark Dawn to have Belfast as a character.'

The novel was also partially inspired by one of McGuire's favourite TV shows, David Simon's The Wire. It adopts The Wire's non-centralised character focus, following characters from both sides of the legal divide and at different levels in their respective hierarchies.

'I loved the way it was the same story from different perspectives: the corner dealers perspective and the guys further up the chain of command – management's perspective,' McGuire says. 'In Dark Dawn there's the CID officer in charge of the investigation, the two hoods and an ex-paramilitary guy who is trying to figure out what a normal life looks like.'

McGuire obviously knows his way around the hard-boiled streets of genre fiction, particularly the Scottish variety. In fact, he was inspired to write Dark Dawn while in the middle of writing a non-fiction history of the Scottish crime genre.

'I am still writing that actually,' he says. 'I was looking at contemporary authors like Ian Rankin, Val McDiarmuid as well as older ones like Arthur Conan Doyle. Then I thought, surely the best way to understand the crime novel is to write one yourself?'

McGuire's academic background, however, was both a help and hindrance in writing the novel. He points out that as an academic he's used to sitting down and just writing for five hours. On the other hand, he admits that his default setting when writing is 'too much information'. In Dark Dawn he had to work on paring back and boiling down the narrative.

He credits Dashiell Hammett, one of the founding fathers of the hard-boiled genre, with helping him come to terms with that. 'Detectives don't have waxy moustaches, they aren't old ladies and there's no cunning criminals. It's a lot messier and rougher round the edges than the golden-age Agatha Christie type stuff.'

McGuire is only back in Belfast for a fleeting visit, then it's back to work in Sydney. And some of Northern Ireland's home-grown crime authors are going back with him – in book form at last. In the middle of putting together a course on crime fiction for his Australian students, McGuire is hoping to introduce his Australian students to authors such as Colin Bateman, Stuart Neville and Brian McGilloway.

The only problem is that in Australia Northern Ireland 'isn't even on the radar', so novels referencing local history and politics will be challenging for his students. Although he has been teaching them some Northern Irish phrases – 'it's minging' and 'it's pelting down' - during the months he's already spent with them.

Still, McGuire is hopeful that by giving the students some real 'page turners', he can sneak the history and politics in the back door.

'That's what really good crime fiction does,' he says. 'It masquerades as an airport book, but is secretly doing something a bit more sophisticated.'