British and Irish Literature Irish Crime Fiction
Brian Cliff
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0173


Irish crime fiction is still an emerging field of study. Much of the scholarship concerns Northern Ireland, though that often pays little attention to popular fiction, as is true of Irish Studies more generally. Among the studies most directly concerned with genre fiction, two further focal points are clear. The first is the work of Tana French, among the most prominent Irish crime writers. The second is more general: crime novels read as reflecting on the Celtic Tiger (Ireland’s economic boom in the late 20th and early 21st centuries), on the crash that ensued, and on the cultural complexes arising from and contributing to that boom. Across these focal points, several thematic patterns are clear but not yet fully addressed by scholars: corruption on all sides of the law; a narrative resistance to closure and resolution; Gothic influences; adaptations of domestic noir; and the systemic abuse of women and children by the church, the state, and institutions like the Magdalen Laundries. Indeed, if one category of crime is a defining marker of Irish crime fiction, it is likely to be corruption in all its forms, literal and figurative alike, from Gothic allegories to ripped-from-the-headlines realist narratives. Little attention, however, has been paid to most crime writers predating this contemporary proliferation: even writers who were just barely ahead of the curve—such as Julie Parsons, Vincent Banville, Eugene McEldowney, and Gemma O’Connor—are not regularly addressed at length in scholarly accounts. While Irish contexts and settings distinguish Irish crime fiction from its international counterparts—including the English, Scottish, and American work to which it is most often compared—its particularity is further signaled by several patterns. One is an insistent avoidance of the closure popularly associated with the genre, as in Alan Glynn’s conspiracy thrillers, where uncertainty is an inescapable baseline. Elsewhere, this avoidance reflects Irish literary inheritances like the supernatural, pronounced in the novels of French and John Connolly, and less overt but still clear across their contemporaries’ writings. A third pattern is discernible in the varied means by which Irish writers have adapted familiar subgenres—the police procedural, the private eye, the serial killer—to Irish contexts, which have proven inhospitable to some of these subgenres, a challenge some writers have addressed by setting their work abroad. A final hallmark of Irish crime fiction is a generic instability, a promiscuous mingling of genre elements, including folklore, the supernatural, and romance.

Surveys and Antecedents

Studies of Irish crime fiction are appearing more frequently but have much ground to cover. This is true despite the fact that the fiction itself has been culturally prominent for at least two decades. The emergence of crime fiction from Ireland was delayed relative to its development in England, Scotland, and the United States by a number of factors, enumerated in Hughes 2011, Nic Íomhair 2020, and Ross 2020. These factors include, among other elements, the cultural nationalism that saw the genre as a foreign importation; the lack of a sense of urban space as acute as that which shaped American and British crime fiction; and the overwhelming shadow cast by paramilitary violence in and around Northern Ireland. These forces have also slowed the emergence of a corresponding scholarship. Irish crime fiction does not always reflect what Connolly 2011 suggests is a habitual critical assumption that Irish writing must be about Irishness, an assumption that continues to mark some Irish Studies scholarship. Despite these hindrances, authors and critics have begun tracing the longer, wider outline of Irish crime fiction. Glynn 2011 addresses the role of violence and crime in some key Irish novels that do not fit within the genre, while others—Clark 2014, Davis 2007, Jeffery and O’Halpin 1990, Ross 2011, and Ross 2020—trace this outline in part by identifying significant earlier crime writers who have been overlooked, by Irish literary scholarship if not always by crime fiction scholarship. The Dublin-born, Belfast-raised Golden Age crime writer Freeman Wills Crofts, for example, remains to a large degree in print, and a notable name in the history of twentieth-century mystery writing, but largely unaccounted for within Irish Studies. The reasons for the paucity of notice given to these writers are varied: the absence of peers, emerging in a relatively fallow period for domestic publishing, setting their novels outside of Ireland and the diaspora, or, as Cliff 2018 suggests, running afoul of the generic dispositions of Irish Studies.

  • Clark, David. “Emerald Noir? Contemporary Irish Crime Fiction.” In East Meets West. Edited by Reiko Aiura, J. U. Jacobs, and J. Derrick McClure, 144–156. Papers from the 13th International Conference on the literature of Region and Nation, Biwako, Shiga Prefecture, Japan, 2010. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2014.

    Wide-ranging essay that balances Irish and crime fiction critical histories, and valuably highlights the significance of earlier exemplars of Irish crime fiction like Eilís Dillon and Freeman Wills Crofts. Discusses the often-overlooked significance of true crime narratives in the development of Irish crime fiction.

  • Cliff, Brian. Irish Crime Fiction. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

    DOI: 10.1057/978-1-137-56188-6

    The first monograph on the subject, with chapters on Northern Irish novels, transnational Irish crime fiction, contemporary Ireland, and women in Irish crime fiction. Addresses the lack of attention Irish Studies pays to popular fiction and extends the focus to include settings, contexts, and characters beyond the island’s (and the discipline’s) various boundaries.

  • Connolly, John. “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Crime Writers: Ireland and the Mystery Genre.” In Down These Green Streets: Irish Crime Writing in the 21st Century. Edited by Declan Burke, 39–57. Dublin: Liberties Press, 2011.

    Useful first-hand account of the often-veiled relations between crime writing and more established Irish literary traditions, with those traditions’ complicated responses to genres perceived as imported. Explores the tension between crime writing, widely seen as fundamentally rationalist, and a literary culture more historically receptive to Gothic, supernatural, and anti-rational modes. Pointedly rejects the assumption that being an Irish writer necessarily means writing about Irishness.

  • Davis, J. Madison. “Sister Fidelma and a Wealth of Broken Noses: A Survey of Irish Crime Writing.” World Literature Today 81.1 (January–February 2007): 8–10.

    A glancing survey of some of the earlier writers in the late-20th-century boom in Irish crime fiction.

  • Glynn, Alan. “Murder in Mind: The Irish Literary Crime Novel.” In Down These Green Streets: Irish Crime Writing in the 21st Century. Edited by Declan Burke, 117–129. Dublin: Liberties Press, 2011.

    A chapter by a novelist whose work with wide-ranging conspiracy narratives stretches the scope of Irish crime fiction. Considers the wider presence of violence in Irish literature, discussing four novels that hinge on murders, while explicitly declining to identify them as representatives of a putative ur-genre: Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman (1967), John Banville’s The Book of Evidence (1989), and two Patrick McCabe novels, The Butcher Boy (1992) and Winterwood (2006).

  • Hughes, Declan. “Irish Hard-Boiled Crime: A 51st State of Mind.” In Down These Green Streets: Irish Crime Writing in the 21st Century. Edited by Declan Burke, 161–168. Dublin: Liberties Press, 2011.

    A chapter by a dramatist and a novelist who was among the first to adapt private eye narratives to Irish settings. Other Irish novelists have pointed to Ross Macdonald’s importance for them, but Hughes here offers a more developed articulation of that importance, part of his wider discussion of American culture’s influence on his generation.

  • Jeffery, Keith, and Eunan O’Halpin. “Ireland in Spy Fiction.” Intelligence and National Security 5.4 (1990): 92–116.

    DOI: 10.1080/02684529008432081

    Extensively detailed survey, beginning with Erskine Childers and considering latter-day Troubles thrillers, in which the authors identify a recurring strain of uncertainty that bestows more complexity than the reputation of “Troubles trash” would have it. Particularly valuable for its extended examination of spy thrillers written or set on either side of World War I and World War II, contexts and political dynamics otherwise relatively little attended to in accounts of Irish crime fiction.

  • Nic Íomhair, Caitlín. “‘A Land of Shame, a Land of Murder and a Land of Strange, Sacrificial Women’: Representations of Wealth, Gender and Race in Modern Irish-Language Crime Fiction.” In Guilt Rules All: Irish Mystery, Detective, and Crime Fiction. Edited by Elizabeth Mannion and Brian Cliff, 55–71. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2020.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctvz9389g.8

    The only English-language scholarly account devoted to Irish-language crime fiction (though Ross 2020 also discusses it). Perceptively surveys the ways that Irish-language fiction has adapted various subgenres and accounts for the paucity of attention to these novels within Irish Studies.

  • Ross, Ian Campbell. “Introduction.” In Down These Green Streets: Irish Crime Writing in the 21st Century. Edited by Declan Burke, 14–35. Dublin: Liberties Press, 2011.

    A concisely substantial prehistory of Irish crime fiction, connecting the genre to varied Irish antecedents, as catalogued in the “Further Reading” list Ross and Shane Mawe contributed to this same collection. Valuable discussion of how Gothic literature, Enlightenment rationalism, and the interactions between the two—along with, notably, American crime writing—have influenced Irish crime fiction. Offers suggestive political, historical, and economic grounds for the genre’s belated development in Ireland.

  • Ross, Ian Campbell. “Irish Crime Fiction.” In The Oxford Book of Modern Irish Fiction. Edited by Liam Harte, 353–369. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020.

    Ross is deeply knowledgeable about both Irish contexts and the longer history of crime writing. He notes key differences from British and American crime writing and emphasizes the diversity of Irish forms of the genre. Useful in every regard, but especially strong on materials from the 19th century into the 1950s (followed by several decades of a lull in Irish crime writing) that are otherwise largely unaddressed in Irish Studies crime fiction scholarship.

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