The Decline of the Irish Murder

Author and performer Reggie Chamberlain-King on crime and punishment in fiction and song

The Literary Lunchtime series at the Ulster Hall on August 23 took a dark – even murderous – turn. Reggie Chamberlain-King, in his second appearance as part of the series, sang murder ballads (surprisingly chipper), quoted Orwell and read two of his Brittaine & Molloy murder mysteries.

Wielding a tambourine, Chamberlain-King kicked off the hour with a rendition of ‘The Ballad of William Bloat’. It’s a gory little tale about domestic discontent and abuse. ‘So one day at dawn, with her nightdress on / He cut her bloody throat.’

Oddly, it ends on a note of nationalistic pride. Apparently Mrs Bloat survived since the ‘razor-blade was German made’, but William successfully hung himself because ‘the sheet was Belfast linen’. Is that really the best way to promote your city’s exports?

The happy ending, however, isn’t all that unusual. Murder ballads, like traditional English detective stories, as Orwell points out in his essay ‘The Decline of the English Murder’, are all about restoring the status quo. They reassure us that murder really doesn't happen very often.

Unfortunately Chamberlain-King, as an artist at least, isn't reassured at all. Without that much to research and gain inspiration from, crime writers like him inevitably spend a lot of time coming up with ways to kill and frame people. It's not the healthiest way to spend your time.

To remedy that incessant darkness, Chamberlain-King wrote the Brittaine & Molloy murder mysteries, a series of short stories that takes an entirely different tack. In the stories, instead of crafting a seamless crime for his characters to solve, Chamberlain-King presents a mundane death and has his detectives complicate it further.

How to describe Brittaine and Molloy? They are like Holmes and Watson, if they were homeless and possibly delusional – and Holmes was an acerbic elderly woman with the utmost contempt for things like clues and evidence. It shouldn’t work, but it does.

Brittaine, meanwhile, is a ferociously enjoyable character. It’s great to see a female detective who is confidently and openly intelligent.

Ratiocinative detection tends to be the preserve of men – Holmes, Hercule Poirot, C Auguste Dupin. Female detectives, on the other hand, generally obfuscate their cleverness – Ms Marple, Tuppence Beresford – but not Brittaine. She is as arrogantly, condescendingly intelligent as Holmes ever was.

Although Brittaine and Molloy might not be able to carry a book on their own, as short stories they are quirky enough to appeal. But the talk here is mainly about 'The Decline of the Irish Murder'.

In Orwell's essay he went on to blame the so-called decline of the genre in Ireland on the rise of American hard-boiled fiction. The noir detective abandoned ratiocination in favour of questions and thumping, and functioned in a world where nothing started or ended right.

Chamberlain-King, however, turns to a song, ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’, to demonstrate his point. It is a catchy little tune about kidnapping, rape and murder, and was written by Nick Cave for Kylie Minogue, based on the possibly Irish traditional ballad ‘Down by the Willow Gardens’.

Unlike ‘The Ballad of William Blunt’ or the lilting and infanticidal ‘Down by the Loney-o’, however, there is no poetic justice meted out. The man just ‘plants a rose between her teeth’ and leaves. Rather than functioning on a reassuring level, it frightens.

It also proves you probably don’t want Nick Cave writing you a love song (probably a lovely man, but definitely a creepy song).

The next Literary Lunchtime will be a reading with Jamaican-born author, Kei Miller on September 19. Image above credited to Ron Moore.