Northern Noir

Three of Northern Ireland's finest crime authors, Brian McGilloway, Stuart Neville and Steve Cavanagh, share literary insights at Libraries NI Catch a Crime Writer event

It might, as Derry author Brian McGilloway points out, be difficult to sell a book with ‘Belfast’ in the title. Nevertheless, crime fiction from Northern Ireland has never been hotter.

McGilloway is a teacher turned author who has helped direct the literary spotlight onto Northern Ireland in recent years with his critically acclaimed Inspector Benedict Devlin and DS Lucy Black series. His job tonight, however, is to lead a discussion with fellow crime writers, Stuart Neville and Steve Cavanagh, who have gathered at Coleraine Library for a night of Northern Noir, part of the Libraries NI Catch a Crime Writer series of events continuing in February 2015.

Missing from the line-up is Eoin McNamee – Man Booker Prize nominee, New York Times besteller, and author of 17 novels, including the critically acclaimed Resurrection Man, a fictionalised account of the horrific crimes perpetrated by notorious Loyalist murderers the Shankill Butchers during the height of the Troubles – who has succumbed to a recurring bout of Chinese Flu.

That is a shame, as McNamee has been installed as Libraries NI writer-in-residence for the forthcoming Creativity Month, taking place in venues across Northern Ireland throughout March, and has a wealth of experience to draw upon, and wonderful work to read from, at these kind of literary events. No doubt he will be over his flu by the time March comes around.

McGilloway is, however, also a New York Times bestseller, while Neville adds a prestigious 2015 Edgar Award nomination to his myriad of literary achievements. Meanwhile, solicitor by day, writer by night, Steve Cavanagh, is on the cusp of success with the forthcoming publication of his novel, The Defence. The audience – a pleasantly full-bodied one for a mid-week event on a chilly February night – subsequently awaits with interest for the discussion to begin.

What connects the panel, McGilloway begins, is their preference for the noir genre, as well as the fact that all three (plus McNamee) appeared in the short story collection, Belfast Noir. Co-edited by Neville, the book was published in 2014 and presents a feast of edgy writing by Northern Ireland’s growing group of crime novelists.

Given that, up until a few years ago Northern Ireland was better known for its real-life crime as opposed to the fictional kind, what then inspired these writers to embrace the noir genre? For Neville, he came to crime through horror, thanks to a little known author named Stephen King.

'Because I grew up in the 1980s, I read Stephen King and he was a big influence on me,' Neville recalls. 'As an adult I then got into writers like James Ellroy. I think all writers are a product of what they read. I started writing a horror novel and it turned into crime.'

Cavanagh agrees. 'I would have read a lot of sci-fi and horror, but my mum was a huge reader and loved crime fiction. She gave me a copy of The Silence of The Lambs when I was about 13 and said I had to read it. I hadn’t read anything like it before.'

With crime authors often expected by publishers to produce a book a year, writing is now the norm for the panel but, asks McGilloway, how easy was it to get published in the first place?

Neville’s story is an aspiring author’s dream; a rejected writer’s envy. His first book, The Twelve, was published in 2009 after an editor spotted his short story on an online publication. To be fair, he adds, it was the third novel he had written – the other two will never see the light of day, he assures us.

Neville had sent that third manuscript to a few publishers, before leaving it aside and writing the short story about the book’s main character. Unexpectedly, it hooked him a deal. As for Cavanagh, he suffered the usual bout of rejections – was told his book would never be published – and then struck gold with a big UK publisher.

McGilloway has similar tales to tell, having previously been informed that he would never make it as a crime writer by some, before going on to prove them unanimously wrong. The point, they say, is that no-one knows what will sell, and so writers should never give up: one publisher’s rejection could be another’s commission.

As for writing about Northern Ireland as a Northern Irish resident? Expect the inevitable misunderstandings, says McGilloway, when your readers think that you have written about yourself and people you know. Which can get tricky, he adds, when your lead character is in bed with an old flame.

Meanwhile, all writers write in their own way, and we learn that Neville needs to know exactly where he is headed when he writes – the ending must be set. How he gets to that ending however, is 'entirely up for grabs'. McGilloway, alternatively, often begins with a precise situation – ‘what would happen if?’ – but rarely knows where the book is going. As for Cavanagh, he took a ‘what if?’ and wondered how he could make it worse for his character, and then worse again.

With each of the authors publishing fresh titles in 2015, McGilloway sums up what crime writing means for him and, he suggests, a fair few other crime authors as well.

'Particularly when you have children, there’s a yearning for order that’s missing in the world,' he says. 'That’s crime writing.'

Visit the Libraries NI website for information on forthcoming Catch a Crime Writer series.