Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Garbhan Downey, humor, and (the specter of) violence

I write often about Northern Ireland crime fiction and, from time to time, about humor in crime writing. In the latter discussions, readers sometimes express reservations about whether laughs and mayhem are a suitable combination.

One answer, as long as the author does not make light of violence, is that the combination is true to life. All kinds of people see the absurd or the comical in unexpected situations. Why should criminals, police, or victims be any different?

Another is that humor can sharpen the threat of violence rather than blunt or belittle it. Here's an exchange from Across the Line, the latest novel by Derry's own Garbhan Downey, whose books about Northern Ireland are comic and nothing but comic, but always with an edge of menace understandable in a land so long wracked by bloody conflict and still occasionally shaken by violent aftershocks:
"`One more word and I'll bury you in my back garden. And I'll get Derry's top cop to swear in court that you never got off the plane.'

"`Some republican you are,' laughed Dee-Dee. `Get into bed with the cops one time and you're colluding against your own people.'"
Downey's novels are comic in the classic sense, with resolution coming when lovers pair off with their appropriate matches, but that reference to collusion had to have caused some squirming in Northern Ireland, where the ideological purity of paramilitaries on both sides of the sectarian fighting has long come into question. It's not for nothing that Stuart Neville titled his second novel Collusion.

What do we learn from this, other than that Northern Ireland has some interesting crime writers? Maybe that tragedy and violence are fertile soil for humor that has an edge. What do you think, readers?
***

(New Year's fireworks near my house, with color temperature adjusted. If I had a sound file, you'd be able to share my favorite sensory experience of 2013 so far: the car alarm several blocks from the pyrotechnics that went off in sympathy with each blast: Boom! Boom! Whine! Whine! Boom! Boom! Whine! Whine! etc., etc.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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10 Comments:

Blogger seana graham said...

New Year's resolution: finally get around to reading Garbhan Downey.

Happy New Year!

January 01, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's a resolution worth keeping. And a Happy New Year to you, as well.

January 01, 2013  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Garv is great isn't he? Unlike you I've yet to meet the man but I feel that I know him through his wonderful writing...

January 02, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

What do I learn from this?

Well, I learn that I am a bit (well, a large bit) ignorant about the whatever distinctions might exist between Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland crime fiction. Surely there are differences that grow out of the different political, cultural, and social environments.

I just read Stuart Neville's _Ratlines_, which takes place in the 60s in ROI. The tensions within that context/setting are significant. Yet I must assume (rightly or wrongly?) that the NI context/setting raises different tensions. Yes? No?

Peter, I suspect you, Adrian, and others can weigh in on this one.

January 02, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I've never thought about the matter much, but I'd have assumed you knew him. It must take an unusual blend of nerve and talent and tact and experience to be able to write so entertainingly about such matters, or else just common sense, a good ear, and a fondness for Damon Runyon.

This book of Garbhan's has some good soccer jokes in it, too.

January 02, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., I'm not sure about stylistic differences, but I can make a few guesses about particular stimulants to crime writing from Northern Ireland:

Violence is a good stimulant. Crime writers from the north have lived through low-level civil war and, more interesting, its weird and morally equivocal aftermath. The air there is dense with moral, political and ethical questions.

And could anything stimulate the imagination more than the very fact of a divided island? No wonder so many crime writers there cross borders in their books. Brian McGilloway calls his first novel "Borderlands" and opens it with a body found straddling the border. McGilloway, who is from Northern Ireland, writes in the persona of a police officer from the Republic--who works closely with a colleague from the north. Stuart Neville, a Protestant, writes novels with a Catholic protagonist. So does Adrian McKinty. So I'd say Northern Ireland provides stimulation to fertile imaginations that many other places do not.

January 02, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

In Neville's latest, the protagonist is a Protestant who also made the mistake of serving in the British Army in WW2, and that does cause him some problems back home in the 60s.

January 02, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

German bombing took a heavy toll on Belfast during the war, and across the border, Eamon de Valera infamously sent condolences on Adolf Hitler's death. So World War II put in motion complications in Irish history that I haven't explored yet. An interesting country, Ireland is.

January 02, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

And Neville's latest adds to the complications to which you have alluded by including the killing of former-Nazi expatriates in 60s ROI.

I had no idea that ROI was so "friendly" and "hospitable" to some of England's worst enemies.

January 02, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Tactically, at least, I think the official Irish sympathy for Germany would have stemmed from an antipathy toward the possibility of alliance with England. I think I read that Churchill offered de Valera Northern Ireland in return for Ireland allying itself with Britain.

January 02, 2013  

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