There never seems to be a shortage of crime novels from Irish writers — particularly in recent years in the north — but there’s no doubt that our authors seem to have a flair for the genre. One of the latest literary offerings subsequently comes from Liberties Press author, Jarlath Gregory, a Crossmaglen native now resident in Dublin.
Having grown up in the South Armagh area, Gregory also formerly spent some time in Belfast, before studying sociology and social policy at Trinity College Dublin.
'Crossmaglen in the 1980s was a world of checkpoints, soldiers, and outbursts of violence,' he says. 'I was only in Belfast briefly and moved to Dublin to study, then stayed. In the Nineties, there seemed to be more opportunities in Dublin, and I love the excitement of the city after dark. Belfast had a very settling down sort of culture, whereas people in Dublin were constantly on the move.'
Gregory is the author of two previous books — the coming-of-age Snapshots, also set in Crossmaglen, and the tragi-comic G.A.A.Y: One Hundred Ways to Love a Beautiful Loser, which is set in modern Dublin. Both novels feature lead characters who are gay, the reason being that 'gay characters were vastly underrepresented in popular culture when I started to write,' says Gregory.
His latest novel, The Organised Criminal, also includes a gay character, but this time, the focus has shifted to crime, with sexuality on the side-lines. Indeed, the book has been described by the Irish Times as 'a fascinating post-Troubles tale of moral ambivalence in a community still struggling to accommodate its very particular history.'
Published in June this year, The Organised Criminal revolves around Jay O’Reilly, who’s returned to Crossmaglen for a family funeral and is offered a job by his smuggler father.
Despite his reservations and wish to distance himself from his family’s criminal background, O’Reilly nevertheless accepts the position, and a tale of ‘fear, family-ties, male friendship and power’ subsequently unfolds.
Liberties Press describes the book as one 'brimming with rage and indignation, hewn from the very darkest of materials but always tempered with well-judged humour and sharply observed detail. It is about blood, family and organised crime; a novel of ideas as well as a cleverly drawn crime thriller.'
Gregory himself, says he was inspired by the 'inherent drama to life in Northern Ireland' when writing, and was keen to explore afresh the underlying social issues prevalent in the community.
'We've all read a lot of journalism about social issues in Northern Ireland, but I thought it would be interesting to take the premise of a smuggling family, and make it the backdrop of a fictional crime story,' he says. 'I'd describe it as a literary thriller. I think TV shows like The Fall and Game of Thrones have helped make Northern Ireland more interesting to potential readers.'
At the centre of the book is the friendship between O’Reilly, who’s straight, and a tradesman, who’s gay. However, Gregory says that unlike his earlier novels, this is merely by-the-by. In The Organised Criminal, the characters’ sexuality doesn’t take centre stage and is simply a reflection of modern-day friendships which would have been rarely seen until quite recently.
'I feel like popular culture has begun to catch up with the everyday reality of ‘out’ gay people in all walks of life,' he says. 'It was important to me to have gay lead characters in my first two books, but I think we've reached a point where gay characters can be in a supporting role without it being problematic. Ten or 15 years ago, a gay/straight friendship without sexual tension wouldn't have been realistic. It's the norm now.'
Having decided by the age of 10 that he wanted to be a writer, Gregory’s own literary influences have come predominantly from the world of crime writing. Indeed, he cites Agatha Christie as a firm favourite growing up and quickly began studying form and plot as he read in those formative years.
'I remember reading books and thinking about the person behind the words,' he says. 'It dawned on me that ‘I could do that,’ and I started paying more attention to how stories were structured — trying to work out how authors pulled off certain tricks.
'I became obsessed with Agatha Christie and crime fiction plots,' he adds. 'My teachers in secondary school encouraged me to read more widely, which of course was a good thing, although I do go back to crime fiction for tips on plotting.'
These days, Gregory’s writing — like most authors — is fitted in and around his day job, although writing full-time remains the ultimate dream. Meanwhile, his next project is already underway, with more crime stories on the horizon in the Sean Vaughan Mysteries.
'I'd like to do a series of classic-style mysteries set in the modern day, but I'm taking my time with it, to get the tone, characters and setting right,' he says. 'Ideally I'd like to continue with both crime fiction and literary fiction.
'The hardest part is making time to sit down in a room on your own and begin. There's no point staring out of windows and dreaming about the literary parties you'll attend when you're published. I'd advise anyone to just sit down and get on with it. I'm afraid it's less dazzling literary soirees and more endless cups of tea while frantically scribbling in notebooks.'
The Organised Criminal is available now from Liberties Press.