Thursday, December 2, 2010

Aunt Agatha's Top Ten for 2010

I'm thrilled to have received this glowing review from Robin Agnew at Aunt Agatha's Mystery Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Makes all those months (*ahem* years) of tearing one's hair out seem worthwhile!
"If I were pressed, I would have to say this was my favorite book of the yearin my initial review I said that the best books are read with a lump in your throat, thanks to a combination of emotion, narrative and character. The third in Hart's fine Nora Gavin series, this is just such a book. Hart's time off has matured and deepened her writing even morewhich is saying a lot. In this one she weaves together myth and metaphor to tell the surface-simple story of Nora returning home to Minnesota from Ireland to find out who was responsible for her sister's five year old murder. Grief and distance have created an estrangement between Nora and her parents; she's coming home to old family entanglements that have to be dealt with as well. Hart is a writer who has many similarities to Elizabeth George, P.D. James, Louise Penny and Deborah Crombie, with a similar skill set of complex character development and a story that accumulates more depth as the book progresses. She also shares some of Penny's poetry.  This is a compelling and well crafted story of grief and attachment, highlighted by lovely writing.  Welcome back to a major talent."
Robin Agnew, Aunt Agatha's Mystery Books

Read all of Robin's Top Ten for 2010 reviews at Aunt Agatha's website.

Monday, November 22, 2010

FALSE MERMAID out in audiobook format

Rosalyn Landor
Photo by Arielle Rudman

FALSE MERMAID is now out in audiobook from, and I’m happy to report that it’s read by none other than Rosalyn Landor, who also read the unabridged versions of HAUNTED GROUND and LAKE OF SORROWS (under a different stage name, Jennifer McMahon). 

Roz is an amazing reader, who has also narrated the work of P.D. James, Elizabeth George, Ruth Rendell (AND Barbara Vine!), Henning Mankell, Peter Robinson, Charles Todd, and that’s just in crime fiction — she’s also well-versed in historical fiction, romance, so-called chick-lit, and literature, including A.S. Byatt’s latest, THE CHILDREN’S BOOK. You can see a sampling of Roz's recent narration work at

And in addition to doing audiobook narration, Roz is a multi-talented actress with extensive theater, film, and television credits. Mystery fans might be pleased to know that Roz has appeared in Rumpole of the Bailey and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, starring Jeremy Brett. (Roz played Helen Stoner, step-daughter and would-be victim of Dr. Grimesby Roylott in The Speckled Band. And for all you sci-fi geeks, she was also in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation...)
The audiobook of FALSE MERMAID was released while I was in Ireland in mid-September, but I haven't yet trumpeted the news to the whole world. (See post below for explanation...)

Monday, November 8, 2010

Falling Down a Mountain

Just after leaving the Hart of Ireland tour group in Galway on September 17, I zipped out to Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands, with my aunt and uncle. They were staying on an extra week after the tour, and I was to drive them around to some of my favorite places -- bogs, ancient stone forts, holy wells, etc.

Dún Aengus, Inishmore, Aran Islands, Co. Galway

Our first stop was going to be Dún Aengus, an ancient cliff-fort at the edge of the big island of Inishmore. We took a minibus up to the interpretive center, and started to climb to the fort. Ironically, I'd spent a good bit of time warning my wonderful aunt and uncle that the path was rocky (here's an excellent picture of the spot), and that it wasn't exactly a walk in the park -- so it was particularly ironic when I was the one who took a tumble.

Now, I don't recommend breaking a bone on an island with a population of 800. No hospital facilities, only a doctor's dispensary. But the doctor was very nice, and suspecting a fracture, she shipped me off on the 8-seater plan to Inverin, where I got a cab to the University Hospital in Galway.  X-rays there confirmed a fracture of the surgical neck of humerus, in other words, the long bone of the upper arm, right near my shoulder.

Okay, not my bone -- but similar!
All the while, a song kept running through my head...  "The Sick Note" or "Why Paddy's Not At Work Today":
Dear sir, I write this note to you to tell you of my plight
For at the time of writing I am not a pretty sight
My body is all black and blue, my face a deathly grey
And I write this note to say why Paddy's not at work today.

Whilst working on the fourteenth floor, some bricks I had to clear
To throw them down from such a height was not a good idea
The gaffer wasn't very pleased, he was an awful sod
He said I had to cart them down the ladder in my hod.

Now to clear away these bricks by hand, to me seemed very slow
So I hoisted up a barrel and secured the rope below
But in my haste to do the job, I was too blind to see
That a barrel full of building bricks was heavier than me.

Now when I had untied the rope, the barrel fell like lead
Clinging tightly to the rope I started up instead
I shot up like a rocket till to my dismay I found
That half way up I met the bloody barrel coming down.

Well the barrel broke my shoulder, as to the ground it sped
And when I reached the top I banged the pulley with my head
I clung on tightly, numb with shock, from this almighty blow
And the barrel spilled out half the bricks, fourteen floors below.

Now when these bricks had fallen from the barrel to the floor
I then outweighed the barrel and so started down once more
Still clinging tightly to the rope I fell towards the ground
And I landed on the broken bricks the barrel scattered round.

As I lay there moaning on the deck I thought I'd passed the worst
But the barrel hit the pulley wheel, and then the bottom burst
A shower of bricks rained down on me, I hadn't got a hope
And in all of this confusion, I let go the bloody rope.

The barrel then being heavier it started down once more
And landed right across me as I lay upon the floor
It broke three ribs, and my left arm, and I can only say
That I hope you'll understand why Paddy's not at work today.
I even started composing my own (albeit much abbreviated) version:
While climbing up Dún Aengus, I had nearly reached the top
When my foot went out from under me and I did a belly-flop
Chevaux-de-friese outside Dún Aengus (photo by Betty Rogers)

Another view of the chevaux-de-friese (photo by Betty Rogers)

Cliffs at Dún Aengus (photo by Betty Rogers)

Cliffs at Dún Aengus (photo by Betty Rogers)

So the upshot was that I had a whirlwind tour of most of the hospitals, clinics, and x-ray and A&E departments of west Galway, was forced to cancel my Saturday night reading at Portumna Castle (rats!), and had to cut the whole trip short. And I didn't get a lick of research done for Book Four. Very disappointing altogether. I guess I'll just have to make another trip to Ireland in the spring.

It's been just over four weeks now, and I'm on the mend. Fortunately the writing hand is still intact, and I've become quite proficient at putting socks on one-handed.

Minnesota Library Association annual meeting, October 7 in Rochester, Minnesota
(photo by Dáithí Sproule)
The only silver lining is that everything is fodder for a writer. Now everyone is asking whether Nora Gavin is going to break her arm in the next novel. I can't say whether that will happen, but it's likely that someone is going to break something!

So thanks to everyone for the well-wishes. I'll be back in fighting form in no time.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Hart of Ireland Tour Photos - September 2010

Round tower at Glendalough, Co. Wicklow

Kevin's Kitchen, Glendalough, Co. Wicklow

Hawthorn berries at Glendalough, Co. Wicklow

Taking the cure from a bullaun stone at the "Meeting of the Waters," the rivers Avoca and Avonmore

Music night at the Teachers' Club in Dublin with Jock Burns, concertina; John Kelly, fiddle; and Pat Good, guitar and vocals

Traditional musicians Jock Burns, John Kelly, Jimmy Kelly, Brian McCarthy

Death mask of Jonathan Swift, dean of Saint Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, and author of Gulliver's Travels and A Modest Proposal 
Neolithic burial mounds at Knowth, part of the ancient Brú na Bóinne complex along the Boyne River

Kerbstone at Knowth

From the slopes of Ceide Fields, Co. Mayo, looking out to sea -- part of 5,000-year-old complex of field enclosures

The 4,300-year-old Scots pine tree that dominates the center of the building at Ceide Fields

Harvest knot made from wheat at the Museum of Country Life, outside Castlebar, Co. Mayo

Famine memorial coffin ship, Murrisk, Co. Mayo

Fairy tree, Killary Harbor, Co. Galway

Aunt Betty in the doorway of the old cottage at Rathbaun Farm, Ardrahan, Co. Galway

Window of the old cottage at Rathbaun Farm, Ardrahan, Co. Galway

The Cliffs of Moher, Co. Clare

Statuary inside the grotto at Saint Bridget's Well, near Liscannor, Co. Clare

Sile-na-gig at the ruined church of Kilnaboy, Co. Clare

Blackthorn berries on the path to Dun Aengus, Inishmore, Co. Galway

Flower on the path to Dun Aengus, Inishmore, Co. Galway -- can anyone identify this? Last photo I took before falling and breaking my shoulder!

Romanesque doorway at 12th-century Clonfert Cathedral, Clonfert, Co. Galway

Detail from the Romanesque doorway at Clonfert Cathedral, Clonfert, Co. Galway

Detail from the Romanesque doorway at Clonfert Cathedral, Clonfert, Co. Galway

A high cross from the monastery at Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly

Looking through the window at Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Ireland snaps - Port, County Donegal

I promised to post more pictures of the Irish and American settings for FALSE MERMAID...

This batch is from An Port, County Donegal, the model for my abandoned fishing village of Port na Rón, or Seal Harbor. It's a beautiful, desolate place, surrounded by blanket bog. All you can hear is the noise of the surf knocking stones together on the beach.

My favorite sort of spot!

Bogland near Port, County Donegal
Looking back towards Glencolumbkille from Port, County Donegal
The harbor at Port, County Donegal
The stony beach at Port, County Donegal
Bridge at Port, County Donegal
Looking down on the  harbor at Port, County Donegal
Lumpy pasture at Port, County Donegal (ovine evidence in lower left!)

Pier at Port, County Donegal
Waterfall on the far side at Port, County Donegal

Monday, August 2, 2010

Book Club Reader Guide for FALSE MERMAID

Just finished the book club discussion questions for FALSE MERMAID. These will appear in the trade paperback edition coming out in March 2011. Let me know if you have other ideas or suggestions for discussion!

1. False Mermaid opens with a newspaper article about the disappearance of a young Irish woman believed in some quarters to have been a selkie (a seal temporarily transformed into a human). What ideas and images did this newspaper article bring to mind? How did the piece set up or color your impressions about how the novel would take shape?

2. What parallels do you see between the murder of Nora’s sister in Saint Paul, and the hundred-year-old disappearance of Mary Heaney, the young Donegal woman who was rumored to be a selkie? How relevant is the selkie story to the tale of Mary Heaney, or to Tríona Hallet’s death?

3. In the selkie myths from Ireland and Scotland, a fisherman captures the selkie by stealing her sealskin, which gives him power over her. Nora believes that her brother-in-law Peter Hallet had some sort of power over her sister Tríona. Did Peter Hallett actually wield such power over his wife, and what is the metaphorical ‘sealskin’ he has stolen from her?

4. Nora remembers what Tríona said, that Peter’s behavior seemed harmless at first, but that she ‘let things go too far.’ What do you think Tríona meant by this? Do you think it’s possible that she still loved her husband?

5. What are some of the qualities we associate with mermaids and selkies? They’ve been portrayed in art and literature as wild, primitive, irresistible, sometimes dangerous or wicked. They live in the sea—an unfathomable, mysterious world that’s inaccessible to humans. Some people say that on a psychological level, the mermaid/selkie’s dual nature—part human, part animal—represents men’s irrational fear of female sexuality. What do you think?

6. Why do you think that so many people—and so many women, in particular—identify with the plight of the selkie, the mermaid, the fairy-bride? What sorts of impossible choices are ordinary human beings faced with every day—choices perhaps given symbolic flesh by the selkie’s dilemma?

7. Division is one of the major themes in False Mermaid. The novel itself can be seen as divided, on the one hand functioning as a detective story, complete with forensic evidence and clues, and on the other hand exploring the mysterious underworld of the subconscious. Many characters in this novel are also divided, either figuratively or quite literally; what sorts of references to divided creatures did you perceive as you read the story?

8. Shape-shifting and transformation are among the major themes in False Mermaid. Several characters are shown changing shape, wearing disguises, or assuming a different identity. Can you think of several instances where this sort of change is depicted or suggested?

9. Ireland has long been a place where belief in the otherworld remains strong. But doesn’t the American portion of False Mermaid also contain other-worldly elements? Which characters, scenes, or images in the Saint Paul-based chapters help to underscore the novel’s other-wordly atmosphere?

10. There are numerous fairy-tale elements in False Mermaid: the unsettling danger that lurks in the woods at Hidden Falls, the crone on the park bench who tells Nora where to find Harry Shaughnessy, the one-eyed seal that appears in Seattle and later in Ireland, and perhaps most especially the notion of a seal shedding its skin and transforming into a human. How do these fairy-story elements and characters get under the surface of human emotions, and in what ways do you think they connect with our subconscious?

11. A woman leaving her husband, even an abusive one, was so unusual in the past that legends like that of the selkie may have been made up to explain it. What other bits of lore and legend could be interpreted in similar ways?

12. Tales of fairy abduction, fairy brides, selkies, and changelings often refer to the person in question being out of sorts, not herself—as in the lyrics of the mermaid song: ‘It seems you’ve faded away and abandoned the love of life.’ People who had lost the love of life were supposedly more susceptible to being taken away or transformed by other-wordly powers. Do you think stories of shape-shifting, abduction, or “spirit sickness” might have been a way to explain things like mental illness or depression in an age before these subjects were as broadly understood as they are now?

13. Each section of False Mermaid begins with a quotation from a Victorian folklorist or naturalist. What did you learn about the prevailing Victorian attitudes toward the subjects these men were writing about—the relationships between humans and animals, between civilized societies and so-called ‘primitive cultures’ (which included most of Irish rural culture at the time), and unsettling, ancient notions of female emancipation represented by the selkie stories?

14. Both Nora Gavin and her sister fear that they’ve lost the ability to distinguish truth from falsehood. Think about the different meanings of the words ‘true’ and ‘false.’ In folk songs, people are sometimes described as ‘true’ or ‘false’ lovers. How do these different meanings come into play in False Mermaid?

15. The title False Mermaid is an obvious reference to the botanical clue that eventually solves Tríona’s murder, but are there other references to a ‘false mermaid’ in the story? Did this story make you examine your own ideas and perceptions about gender roles and sexuality?

16. What sorts of experiences and connections do Elizabeth, Tríona, and Nora have with seals in this novel? If the one-eyed seal is a symbol, who or what do you think it represents? Doesn’t Cormac also discover something about his own previously unknown connections with seals and selkies?

17. Nora Gavin, in observing Elizabeth’s first meeting with Garrett Devaney’s daughter Róisín, thinks about the way children use ‘animal ways of knowing.’ Cormac and Devaney both seem to believe that children perceive much more than adults realize. How important is the element of nonverbal communication in this story? Do you remember any scenes where a person’s behavior is at odds with the words that character speaks?

18. Music plays a strong role in False Mermaid; it’s one of Nora’s strongest connections to her sister. Cormac also discovers that his father played traditional music at one time, something he didn’t realize that they had in common. How is music part of the thread of nonverbal communication that winds throughout this story?

19. Water is another important element in False Mermaid. The Atlantic and the Mississippi River are central to each setting. Why do you think water is such a powerful force in the human imagination?

20. The novel ends with Elizabeth unable to believe her father culpable in her mother’s terrible murder—how realistic do you think this choice was? Why do you think the author chose to leave Elizabeth Hallett’s feelings for her father unresolved?

21. Which were the most memorable scenes in False Mermaid? What ideas or images stayed in your mind after reading the book, and what were the most interesting bits of insight or information you gained?

22. How does Erin Hart’s work fit into the tradition of mystery/crime writing? Are there any authors—past or present—that you would consider similar in style or tone?

Many to Wendy Webb, Marlyn Beebe, Marlys Johnson, and Linda White for their excellent ideas and suggestions. Go raibh mile maith agaibh!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Reader's Guide for FALSE MERMAID

I'm working on the Reader's Guide that will be in the trade paperback edition of FALSE MERMAID. I've got lots of questions of my own, but wondered if anyone who's read the book would like to contribute a question or two. Anybody whose question ends up in the book club edition will receive a little prize -- a cool FALSE MERMAID refrigerator magnet -- and of course a humble author's undying gratitude!

Just send any questions to me at:

My official deadline is August 1, but I'd love to get them in sooner!

Go raibh mile maith agat!*

-- Erin

* A thousand thanks

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Minnesota Crime Wave Presents - Interview

The wonderful Minnesota Crime Wave (Carl Brookins, Ellen Hart and William Kent Krueger) has just posted a new round of interviews on their website, including Brian Freeman, Cara Black, Richard Thompson, Judith Guest, and yours truly. (Parts Two and Three are below; I'm not actually interviewed in Part One of program #22.)

Check the Minnesota Crime Wave site for lots of fascinating discussions with local and visiting crime writers...

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Bleeding Green: Irish Crime Fiction Overview

My first novel, HAUNTED GROUND, was based on a true story I heard from an Irish archaeologist: In 1955 two farmers, cutting turf for their fire in the west of Ireland, discovered the perfectly preserved, severed head of a beautiful red-haired girl. From all appearances, she had been decapitated, and her remains had been buried in the bog for about 350 years. The moment I heard that story, I was convinced that it would make a smashing opening for a crime novel. Questions burst like fireworks in my head. Who was the girl? How did she come to be buried in the bog, and what crime could she have committed—why else would someone have deliberately cut off her head? And archaeology seemed a particularly apt metaphor for police work: digging through layers, searching for incomplete fragments that might help piece together a picture of the past.

In 1996, when I started writing HAUNTED GROUND, I decided it might be wise to undertake my own cursory survey of existing Irish crime writing. Feeling like an American upstart, trying to screw up my courage in order to write a story set in a country that was not my own, I wanted to see who else was writing crime fiction in and about Ireland. I scoured libraries and bookshops, expecting to be inundated.

Ireland seemed to me a setting rife with raw material: its long history of violence and bloodshed, including an underground guerilla war that has raged for centuries; a culture, like every other, replete with domestic secrets and resentments, not to mention decades of repression in the name of morality. The ruins and stones underfoot seemed ready-made set pieces for dark and moody crime fiction. And yet Ireland seemed oddly under-represented in the field. I admit that I took my survey no further—I had a book to write.

But when I was invited to this conference, I decided to approach this lingering question as a detective might: interviewing fellow writers and experts, tracking a few clues and even dreaming up a few theories of my own.

I make no pretensions to scholarship, but only note here some trends and convergences that I and others have observed.

When I say that Ireland seemed under-represented in crime writing, it’s not that crime is not present in Irish writing in general. The element of crime figures profoundly in Irish literature. One has only to look into the work of contemporary icons like Edna O’Brien and William Trevor—among others—to see that crimes, criminal psychology, and aberrant behavior are as much a part of their work as in that of any self-professed crime novelist.

Perhaps that’s where most Irish crime fiction was hiding, in amongst the general fiction. But why? Where was the writing that publishers, bookshops, and libraries might shelve under the heading “Crime Fiction”?

Rural society, low crime rate

Perhaps one reason that crime writing has been slow to take off in Ireland is that—outside of Dublin, of course—Ireland has remained, until quite recently, a very a close-knit mostly rural society. Violent crimes were committed, of course, but oftentimes there was not a lot of mystery about whodunit. Most murders, in particular, were solved very quickly, since they were rarely committed by someone unknown to the victim.

But—no doubt sharing my view about its mystique—several British writers of the early twentieth century used Ireland as a setting: Sheila Pim, who wrote what might be called traditional village mysteries, and others including Nicholas Blake (Cecil Day-Lewis, A Private Wound,1939) and Michael Innes (J.I.M. Stewart, The Case of the Journeying Boy, 1949).

I queried John-Gavin Scaggs, a professor at the University of Limerick, whose new book, Crime Fiction was published in 2004, and he observed that, “…while rural idylls are central to the fiction of Agatha Christie, the painful truth of rural existence in Ireland probably made an approach like Christie’s either unpalatable or unworkable for most Irish writers of the same period.”

However, in the early 1950s, an Irish children’s author named Eilis Dillon published three detective novels, the first of their kind to be set in Ireland. Scholars of the genre politely dismiss those stories today as “mainly interesting as vintage works.”

I was hard-pressed to find any crime writing at all between the late 1950s and the early 1980s, when Donegal writer Patrick McGinley explored some dark territory in rural Ireland. But his influence was clearly closer to the kind of fantastical, absurdist writing coming from fellow Irish authors—Flann O’Brien springs to mind—than any British crime writer.

Political violence took center stage

It’s probably not coincidence that this empty period in Irish crime fiction writing coincided with the worst of the recent so-called Troubles in the north of Ireland. Another factor in the Irish lag in crime writing might be that political violence has long overshadowed what might be termed ‘ordinary crime’ in Ireland. Novelist John Connolly points out, in trying to explain the lack of Irish crime fiction: “Many of those writers who have tried to write mystery novels have ended up using the structure to explore the situation in Northern Ireland, since there was no crime to compare with what was happening across the border.”

On the other hand, it’s important to point out that political violence has more recently given rise to variations in the crime genre in Ireland, in the work of writers like Eoin McNamee, Eugene McEldowney, among others. While not the major focus of the plots, Northern Ireland politics also flavors the writing of many others as well, including Colin Bateman, and John Brady.

A literary tradition suspicious of success

Perhaps Ireland’s late entry into crime writing had something to do with a literary tradition that was just that—literary. Crime writing has long languished in the cellar, the unacknowledged bastard child of literature, which has probably discouraged some young Irish writers from giving it a try. In a few instances, there’s been outright hostility to writers of genre fiction.

A case in point: Ken Bruen’s works are praised around the world. Bruen’s works are sharp, violent, stark, and funny—what some have called ‘Hibernian noir.’ One critic described his novels as “crime fiction on the scale of Sophoclean tragedy.” Yet in the first fifteen years of his career as a crime novelist, Bruen never had a book reviewed in the Irish newspapers. When he attended a literary festival a few years ago, a well-known poet was quoted as saying that it was a “thundering disgrace” that someone like Bruen had been invited and that he should be summarily ejected.

But literary snobbishness is hardly unique to Ireland, and doesn’t really explain the lack of crime fiction. In trying to characterize Irish crime writing, it’s important to look to the larger literary universe. Because it’s written mainly in English, Irish fiction has always been held up beside British and American fiction, its characteristics analyzed within that context.

Ireland has always enjoyed what might be termed an idiosyncratic literary tradition, if there can be such a thing. In Irish literature, as in other avenues of Irish life, there is a natural and inborn rebellious streak. James Joyce once confided to a friend: ‘It is my revolt against the English conventions, literary and otherwise, that is the main source of my talent.’

Terry Eagleton, a professor of English literature at Oxford, who has written extensively about Irish literature, puts it this way:
Unhampered by an imposing classical tradition, fiction in Ireland was free to fantasise, experiment, mix its genres, make it up as it went along. It is no accident that in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, the country produced two of the greatest anti-novels of all time, flouting the sedate protocols of English literary realism.
He says, further:
Irish writers were never as convinced as their English counterparts that there was some inherent merit in reflecting the world as it is. . . From Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels to Patrick McCabe’s Mondo Desperado!, it is non-existent worlds which enthral the Irish imagination, realms of extravagant fantasy which can be played off against the small-town tedium of the actual. A literature which includes such spiritual extravaganzas as Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent, Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, Sheridan Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Samuel Beckett’s Molloy and Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman can hardly be accused of slavishly mimicking Trollope and Thackeray. Irish fiction never bothered its head too much about well-rounded characters, narrative continuities or integrated endings…
Eagleton says, which some consider fairly critical to crime writing as a form. Instead, Irish fiction in general carried a lot from the Irish language in its genetic makeup—a love of language, color, and exaggeration, a passion for satire, riddles, and double-meanings. So it seems quite natural to postulate that the detective story—and especially the staid British detective story, which in its early structure tended to follow certain narrowly prescribed literary conventions—was not a form that would have appealed to many Irish writers.

And as the contemporary Irish crime novelist John Connolly notes (a little distastefully, it seems):
In what is regarded as ‘Golden Age’ detective fiction, the books of Christie, Sayers, etc… there is a conservatism which is a product of their time, a faith in the institutions of law and of the state…
Some would argue the point further, citing that the conventional values of detective fiction—pitting the forces of law and order against law-breakers—runs in opposition to one of the deepest undercurrents of Irish culture, which is an abiding mistrust of convention and authority. In a country racked by civil unrest and rebellion for hundreds of years, where ordinary citizens could so easily run afoul of the law by asserting their natural human rights, where outlaws and brigands enjoyed the status of popular heroes, most things do not operate by a strict black-and-white moral code.

John Connolly, again:
In Chandler, Hammett and Macdonald, there is no real sense that the police or the government will stand up for you if you are poor or vulnerable, so frequently those who act on behalf of victims come from outside the law. They are independent operators or, even when they are policemen, they are mavericks, uncomfortable with the ways in which their peers and superiors work… in Chandler and Macdonald, there is a lot of pity for the victims. Marlowe hears voices crying in the night and goes to see what’s the matter. Archer cannot ignore a plea for help. They aren’t motivated by money, or because they carry a badge and it is expected of them that they do their jobs. They act because if they do not, they are less than human. So when I came to write my own novels, I found myself naturally attracted to an American, rather than a British, tradition.
Ken Bruen also cites his influences as Chandler, James M. Cain, and James Ellroy as the writers who influenced him most, and their literary offspring could be said to include others as well:
  • Colin Bateman’s wise-cracking Belfast journalist Dan Starkey, who is usually caught up in circumstances beyond his control and trying to wisecrack his way out of a jam
  • Vincent Banville’s private eye John Blaine, known for taking hardboiled metaphors and machine-gun repartee to a new level.
  • There’s also newcomer Declan Burke, writing about private eye Harry Rigby, whose patter is so over the top that one critic described him as ‘the gin-soaked love child of Rosalind Russell and William Powell.’
Even Irish police procedurals tend to favor the conflicted, usually hard-drinking maverick hero as well. Some examples might include Eugene McEldowney’s Belfast RUC Superintendent Cecil Megarry; Jim Lusby’s Inspector Carl McCadden series; and John Brady’s Matt Minogue, who has been called “Dublin’s answer to Maigret.”

Some cops go even further than taking an extra drink or breaking a few procedural rules, crossing into anti-hero territory: Adrian McKinty’s hero, Alexander Lawson, is an conflicted ex-cop with an active heroin habit. Ken Bruen’s policeman, Jack Taylor, is a drunken shambles, brimming with wry humor and a sense of his own mortality, on occasion just as casually amoral as the criminals he’s charged with bringing to justice.

Other currents Irish crime writing

After having traced this strong connection from hard-boiled American writers back to Ireland, you may be wondering, as I was, where are all the dames—excuse me, the women—in Irish crime fiction? What had happened to women crime writers since Eilis Dillon penned her three detective stories in the mid-fifties?

Again, there seemed to be a thirty-year gap, until Jo Bannister, from Northern Ireland, started writing a police procedural series in the 1980s. But the series was set in England. Bannister has since started a new amateur sleuth series set in Northern Ireland.

Irish born Ruth Dudley Edwards has written several books in her satirical mystery series, set in Oxford, which gleefully skewers British academia.

The last ten years or so have seen the emergence of newer female writers like Julie Jordan, who writes strong psychological suspense, and brand-new authors like former journalists Ingrid Black and Liz Allen, whose work favors the fast-paced modern thriller.

Of the writers who turned up in my initial, and admittedly cursory survey, I found Gemma O’Connor most like the kind of writer I hoped to be. She created complex characters and stories, drew connections to Irish history, and had a strong and immediate sense of place.

I will admit that some of my greatest influences were British crime novelists. (My favorite mystery writer is the great P.D. James.) But the story I felt compelled to tell was that of a red-haired girl from Ireland, and I was intrigued by the notion of telling it in my own peculiar and idiosyncratic way, blending what I knew of traditional music and folklore of Ireland with history and archaeology and modern forensics. And in so doing, I became part of another element of Irish crime fiction. The Irish diaspora has given rise to a whole sub-set of stories set in Ireland, but written by non-Irish writers:
  • The popular Peter McGarr series written by Bartholomew Gill, the pen name of Mark McGarrity, who was born in the Providence, Rhode Island, and received a master’s degree in literature at Trinity College in Dublin.
  • Boston-born Ann Fallon also attended Trinity and lived in Dublin for a number of years, and uses her experiences to write the adventures of a Dublin solicitor called James Fleming.
  • The Sister Fidelma series, set in 7th-century Ireland, is written by Peter Tremayne, the pen name of Peter Beresford Ellis, a popular and well-known British historian whose field of study is the ancient Celts.
I hope this brief, non-exhaustive survey has give you some little insight into Irish crime writing. I have to admit that looking back now, I realize that—checkered though its history may be—there’s actually more Irish crime fiction than I imagined.

And I have a suspicion that there will be much more, though it may not take the exact shape one might expect. Because, to paraphrase Terry Eagleton’s assessment, Irish crime fiction—like Irish fiction in general—is free to fantasise, experiment, mix its genres, make it up as it goes along.

Ireland is a marvelously complex and contradictory place, where unseen worlds exist side by side with grim reality; where writers can carry on what is distinctive in the voice of Irish literature, and still maintain their own quirky and idiosyncratic styles; where there are enough stories, enough writers, and enough diverse styles to support a lively and burgeoning crime writing tradition.

Originally presented at the First European Detective Novel Meeting - Barcelona, January 2005

Saturday, May 1, 2010

FALSE MERMAID Makes Booklist's Top Ten Crime Novels for 2010

Just got the thrilling news that Bill Ott at Booklist has selected FALSE MERMAID for his Top Ten Crime Fiction Novels of 2010. (The magazine does a Mystery Showcase in May, so their year goes from April to April.) Here's the entire Top 10 list:
  • Louise Penny ~ The Brutal Telling
  • Gar Anthony Haywood ~ Cemetery Road
  • Craig Johnson ~ The Dark Horse
  • Johan Theorin ~ The Darkest Room
  • Erin Hart ~ False Mermaid
  • Stieg Larsson ~ The Girl Who Played With Fire
  • Laurie R. King ~ The God Of The Hive
  • John Burdett ~ The Godfather Of Kathmandu
  • Olen Steinhauer ~ The Nearest Exit
  • Simon Lelic ~ A Thousand Cuts

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Guest blog at Jungle Red Writers, tour dates, local bestseller list!

I've been guest blogging this morning over at Jungle Red Writers, a six-woman crew (Rhys Bowen, Jan Brogan, Hallie Ephron, Rosemary Harris, Roberta Isleib, and Hank Phillipi Ryan), who provide some of the liveliest discussion in the mystery world. My guest piece is about what I have to know to begin writing a crime novel. I'm VERY curious to know how other writers work, so stop by and contribute to the discussion if you can...
Ruth Rendell, speaking at Bouchercon in Las Vegas, was asked whether she always knew who the killer was before she started writing a novel. "Oh, yes, I always know," she said, in her wonderfully plummy English voice. "And then I change it."
On the road now in Chicago, going to the great Centuries and Sleuths bookstore this afternoon, and then on to The Little Read Book in Wauwautosa, WI tomorrow. Then it's on to Cleveland, Buffalo, Philadelphia, New York, Connecticut, Boston, Providence, Vermont, and New Hampshire. Dates are posted on the website, with more coming soon... 

And thanks to everybody in the Twin Cities for putting me on the Star Tribune's local bestsellers list for two weeks in a row!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Why I am crazy about Bill Ott...

One of the most rewarding experiences for a writer is to feel as if all the difficult things you've struggled so hard to describe are being taken in and understood by readers. So it's doubly rewarding when one of your readers also communicates that understanding to the wider world. That's why I'm crazy about Booklist's Bill Ott. He gets what I'm trying to do. As in:
"the culture of traditional Irish music is integral to her stories, not merely as set decoration but as a key, plot-driving mechanism. Similarly, the folklore and mythology of Ireland give the novels a thematic depth and metaphorical richness that sustain the reader far beyond questions of whodunit."

Go raibh mile maith agat, Bill!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


When I first conceived of an archaeological crime novel set in Ireland (way back in the mid-Eighties), I couldn't really find anything that fit the ideas tumbling around in my head.  You'd imagine, wouldn't you -- and I certainly did -- that the very act of unearthing of human remains was a situation ripe for mayhem and skulduggery. 

Imagine my delight, then, in the recent discovery of a new series of archaeological crime novels by Elly Griffiths, set in the English coastal marshlands, full of Iron Age artifacts and holy places... Here's a short review!

by Elly Griffiths
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN 978-0-5472-2989-8
Against the eerie backdrop of the Saltmarsh—a dangerous, desolate stretch of coastline that’s not quite earth, not quite sea—forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway stirs up fears and passions among the living even as she unearths Iron Age remains.

Although she’ll admit to being a walking cliché—she’s an overweight, unmarried, cat-loving academic—Ruth Galloway actually defies such slender classification. She’s an uncommon, down-to-earth heroine whose acute insight, wry humor, and depth of feeling make her a thoroughly engaging companion on this spooky, sometimes harrowing ride.

Early on, Ruth is called to a site where the body of a young girl has turned up on the Saltmarsh; the police fear it might be a child who went missing ten years previously. That’s where ancient history begins to cross paths with a not-so-distant past, and Ruth must tread carefully on the shifting quicksand of the Saltmarsh, and fathom the depths of her own history to determine whom to trust—even among her closest circle of old friends.

Like her protagonist, author Elly Griffiths has a strong affinity for ‘the crossing places,’ the borderlands between realms, those liminal places in the human psyche that link past and present.
 And the good news is that there are three more books in the series!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Trade reviews of FALSE MERMAID

Okay, modesty really should forbid, but what the heck... I'm verklempt!
"Rich in human drama, complex relationships, and vivid local color. Few writers combine as seamlessly as Hart does the subtlety, lyrical language, and melancholy of literary fiction with the pulse-pounding suspense of the best thrillers."
—Booklist (starred review)

"Readers will find this passionate, complex novel almost impossible to put down."
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Pinpoint plotting and sure sense of place make this tale a winner."
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"A haunting, eerie page-turner..."
—Irish America Magazine

"Rich with atmosphere and Irish legend, this exceptionally crafted story of murder, family secrets, and redemption is a welcome addition to Hart's suspenseful series. Nora Gavin is an intelligent and engaging protagonist who leaves the reader anxious for her next adventure."
—Library Journal

"Wherever she goes, Nora Gavin is haunted by the unsolved murder of her sister. Now she is ready to make a final assault on the man she believes to be guilty. Her efforts will unearth dark secrets, and bring closure to old wounds. There is a subtle, lyrical quality to Hart's writing, coupled with an emotional insight into even the most peripheral characters. Immensely enjoyable, especially for fans of her earlier work."
—Jennie Turner-Collins, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Cincinnati

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Conjuring images

Hardcover copies of FALSE MERMAID are supposed to be arriving next week, and the giddiness is setting in. I'm trying to revisit all the images that helped shape the story, to begin putting together the multimedia presentation that will resemble the slide show that plays in my head: a leaf-littered riverbank, scullers on still water, the polychromed ceiling of a library reading room, an abandoned village, craggy cliffs and seabirds and curious seals. These are all the pictures in my head as I think about FALSE MERMAID, and that I hope to conjure in the reader's imagination. I'll start posting some pictures here to give you an idea...