Requiems for the Departed

Some of Northern Ireland’s big name crime-writers reimagine Celtic myths in Requiems for the Dead, an anthology from Morrigan Books

'Queen of the Hill' by Stuart Neville

Queen Macha wasn’t a difficult choice for my story. After all, my home town of Armagh is named after her. So Ard Macha, meaning Macha’s high place, becomes Queen of the Hill, and she allows me to set a story in my own neck of the woods for the first time. But Macha is a slippery customer, and she could be any one of three mythical figures. Rather than choosing one, my Queen of the Hill takes a little from each. For example, the legend of the race against the king’s horses in which she gave birth to twins as she crossed the finish line becomes a game of poker and a ruined pair of shoes. But one aspect of the legend is universal in all versions: her domination of the men she rules. She is a fearsome warrior of course, but she also used her sexuality to control those who desired her. In other words, she was that great archetype of noir fiction, the character that drove so many men to their dooms: she was the original femme fatale.

Watch out, or she’ll be the death of you.

'Red Hand of Ulster' - A Karl Kane Mystery by Sam Millar

Of all the bloody scenes in Ireland’s past, none was as personal as The Red Hand of Ulster when the High King, O’Neill, and a man named Dermott both wished to be king of that coveted piece of Ireland. The High King suggested a horse race, and first to touch the land would become the winner and sole owner of Ulster. As the two came in sight of the ending point, it seemed that Dermott would win, so O’Neill cut his hand off and threw it. It reached the goal ahead of Dermott’s horse, winning for O’Neill the crown of Ulster. For me, this was the perfect background for Belfast PI, Karl Kane, when he went in search of the elusive Red Hand of Ulster serial killer. I enjoyed the story so much I decided to expand it into a full length novel in the Karl Kane series, due for 2011.

'She Wails Through the Fair' by Ken Bruen

I chose the banshee because my father, who was the most sceptical and cynical of men, truly believed he’d seen the banshee before his mum’s death and the story always stayed in my mind.

And he was a man who never took a drink his whole life!

'Red Milk' by T A Moore

I love mythology, all kinds of mythology, anyone who has dipped into the world I created in The Even won’t be surprised to read that. I have well-thumbed copies of The Heroes’ Journey and The Masks of God by Joseph Campbell on my shelves and I am fascinated by the similarities and even more by the differences in myth cycles. If I’d known it was an option when I was a child I’d have told people I wanted to be a mythologist (instead I told them I wanted to be a jockey).

Irish mythology though, that has a special place in my heart. Amidst all my promiscuous myth loves, it’s the one I always come back to. It resonates with me, my ideas and my narrative aesthetic.

So when the editors approached me to write a story for this anthology I wasn’t lacking in ideas, if anything I had too many of them. Partholon and his sorry fate? Fercherdne’s homicidal loyalty to his lord? How could I choose? In the end, and again no one who knows me will be surprised, the story I picked is one of the less heroic of the heroic tales: the fate of King Bres.

It was the pragmatism that appealed — there is a surprising vein of it running through Irish myth. Once I had that idea in my head, the rest of the story took shape around it. My shabby, seedy world of drug dealers, mother’s grief and compulsion. I hope you like it. I certainly enjoyed writing it.

'First to Score' by Garbhan Downey

I wrote this piece in late 2004 for a book of short stories I was finishing, called Off Broadway (Guildhall Press, 2005). The collection, set in the North’s post-ceasefire underworld, owes considerable stylistic debt to New York’s finest son Damon Runyon. And in deference to the master, most of the yarns were blackly comic escapades, loosely based on unprintable stories I’d come across as a working journalist.

‘First to Score’ was a little different. As a ten-year-old Horslips fan, I’d become enthralled by the legend of Diarmaid and Grainne after hearing their take on the story in the song ‘Warm Sweet Breath of Love’ (Book of Invasions, 1976). So, almost thirty years on, in a bid to leave a subtle Celtic stamp on my new book, I thought it’d be fun to transfer the couple’s doomed elopement to present-day Derry, to see if they’d fare any better.

'Diarmaid and Grainne' by Adrian McKinty

When I was eight years old I read the novel The High Deeds of Finn MacCool by Rosemary Sutcliffe. The most compelling part of the story for me was the tale of Diarmaid and Grainne. I’ve never forgotten it and I liked the idea of putting a contemporary spin on this classic.

'Fisherman's Blues' - An Inspector Devlin Story by Brian McGilloway

The myth of Finneagas is one that has always stuck with me and, as may be evident from the story I wrote using it, it is the one key incident that really stood out; the blistering of the fish skin and the nature of accident. I also liked the idea that the fish confers knowledge, as this is what a policeman is constantly seeking. In this case, it’s not so much the fish as the character of Finneagas who has the knowledge, of the river and those who fish it. And the pressing of the blister struck me as something that a man who means well but often makes mistakes would do — perfect for Devlin then. As for the nature of accident in crime? Not all killings are planned, nor are they motivated by the promise of millions.

Requiems for the Departed is out on the 1st June 2010 from Morrigan Books.