This packed-room symposium quickly turned from three writers talking about their novels to a thoughtful state of the union on the purposes and thrills of modern crime fiction.
The Dublin Writers Festival held its talk titled “The State of Crime” in a mysteriously out-of-the-way location: a small event room at the Central Library located up a staircase in the middle of the Ilac shopping center. It wasn’t spacious enough for the crime fans and would-be crime writers in attendance, so chairs were added and the doors closed on those who had arrived too late.
What they missed turned out to be less about crime and mysteries themselves but what’s behind them, and why one would want to write them.
Since Arne Dahl was the writer at the table who had come the furthest, moderator Declan Burke gave him the first shot among the three at talking about his work. Even though each of the writers present was uncommonly germane and succinct, this was likely the best choice, as Dahl had already written some 15 crime novels under that pen name (his actual name is Jan Arnald).
Looking fully the part, crisply attired and carefully stubbled, Dahl spoke modestly but fascinatingly about his novels being ways to wrestle with the rapidly changing nature of Swedish society. To his way of thinking, his Intercrime novels – a ten-book, multi-character series about a police crime squad, of which only a few have so far been translated into English – were something of a corrective to the once-pervasive Swedish complacency about life in the supposedly “perfect welfare state”.
Although Dahl emphatically stated that his books came out of a true “joy of writing”, he would return several times over the course of the event to the swift changes convulsing once-placid and homogenous Swedish society, from immigration to increasing economic inequality.
First-time writer and Irish television correspondent Sinead Crowley also had a modern topic in mind for her novel, Can Anybody Help Me?, though she also emphasized that the story came first; only after her first inspiration did her idea become a thriller. Recalling Stephen King’s dictum of “What if?” from On Writing, she described how, as an expectant mother, she started reading online forums about parenting and discovered that the person behind a particular screen name was actually somebody she knew in real life; this revelation then became a novel about a young mother whose life is threatened after becoming engaged in one of these forums.
Brian McGilloway’s detective tales sprung out of parenthood, as well. McGilloway, a northern Irish novelist whose novels have been notching up runs on the New York Times bestseller lists, spoke about writing his Inspector Benedict Devlin series almost as a way of “psychologically making the world safe for my son.” After having a daughter, then, he started his DS Lucy Black novels in part to create a character who was the sort of woman he hoped his girl would grow up to be.
McGilloway, a former English teacher who wore his background lightly, said that he saw crime fiction as existing “in a direct line from Greek tragedy”, since it was also about the “break” in the natural state of existence and the restoration of a new order. A variation on this point of view was echoed by Dahl, who again referenced the “false illusions” of Swedish society and the tensions over the things cracking that facade which he thought were also echoed in the popularity of other Scandinavian crime writers after the inevitable question was asked about the surprising recent popularity of those authors.
Although of the three, Crowley seemed initially less engaged in the broader implications of crime writing, she later spoke about the growth in so-called marriage or domestic noir, which some commentators had described as breaking out with the success of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Crowley noted that the increase in stories based around the “idea that you’re not safe inside your front door” was an interesting development, since in reality most female crime victims are threatened by somebody they know.
As with many events at the Festival, the talk turned to writing mechanics. Moderator Burke suggested that aspiring writers not try to put everything into a first draft. He preferred just banging it all out once, messy or not, and then going back and fixing anything from plot to characterizations on multiple later passes. Dahl suggested writing one short story a year in addition to novels, since the compressed space “sharpens your pen”. He also thought it helpful, and possibly even necessary, for crime writers to read Macbeth once a year.
Fortunately, perhaps, for the many aspiring writers in the room who despaired of being able to find the time or resources for a proper amount of research, both Crowley and McGilloway admitted to only going to the police to ask questions after they had written their first books. To illustrate a discussion thread about ensuring a balance of humor amid the mayhem both for readers’ sake and to accurately reflect the black-comic mindset of many law enforcement types, McGilloway told about going to the Garda (police) station to ask one of his post-publication research questions, essentially: “Where do you keep your guns?” “In a locker in the back,” the officer replied, deadpanned, “The key’s under the counter. Lock up when you leave.”