Tacitly or otherwise, the literary legitimacy of crime writing and crime thrillers is often called in question.
Rightly or wrongly, they’re viewed in disparaging terms as airport books. Author and literary polymath Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin feels that the sheer popularity of crime writing produces snobbiness in literary circles. A book may indeed be an easy read, she tells the Irish World, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an easy write.
“In order to produce a book that’s a fast-paced read, where you’re completely immersed and not conscious of the fact you’re reading, is really hard,” she says. “People sometimes think that if they can’t understand something or it’s hard, then it must be better. That doesn’t make sense to me.”
As a notable author, literary agent, event programmer and as the founder of both the literary scouting firm The Inkwell Group and learning-tool website Writing.ie, Fox O’Loughlin is as immersed as anyone in the Irish literary world.
Since sales can be lucrative, crime writing is understood by many to be the lifeblood of publishing, but this misrepresents some of the vital craftsmanship within the genre.
Though derisory attitudes toward crime writing frustrate Fox O’Loughlin — most famous in the genre for her trilogy of books under the pen name Sam Blake which follow an Irish garda called Cathy Connolly — she is using a recently founded crime fiction festival in Ireland to both celebrate and capitalise on an unprecedented wave of talented writers in the genre.
Having previously written romantic fiction, crime was both new and familiar to Fox O’Loughlin: her series’ first book was her crime debut yet her reading habits almost always skewed crime.
“I’m like a lot of crime writers who are just really into mystery. Basically, all writers are just very nosy people; they want just want to know what’s going on and how things happen,” she says. “We’re really interested in motivation and what makes people tick.”
When she was younger, she devoured Enid Blyton and became entranced by the Hardy Boy series — a literary cocktail that dragged her into the world of detective fiction. Crime readers, she says, are normally the type of people who do crossword puzzles.
“I just love a really good thriller; I love a book where I don’t know what’s going to happen. I like twists, I like surprises, and I like to get to grips with a real page-turner — and I think that’s what crime gives you,” she says of the signifiers of a positively addicting crime book.
“It’s the tension, it’s the mystery; you have to be passionate about the protagonist, because you’re spending a lot of time with them. As a writer, you’re always trying to create really empathetic protagonists…you really need to create the world so readers can really [enjoy an] intriguing world, with intriguing characters.”
Most noticeable about the current flock of Irish writers is that they are, by and large, all women. From Liz Nugent to Jane Casey, Tana French to Patricia Gibney, Jo Spain to Katherine Ryan-Howard, Andrea Carter to Andrea Mara. (It’s “easy to programme events”, Fox O’Loughlin adds, with such vast amounts of talent.)
Historically, Ireland has not been seen as a stronghold of crime writing. But the presence of so many females says something about the nature of crime in Ireland, either past or present, and how Irish women process and understand it.
“One thing about crime is that it’s a way for people to control their fears. Everybody is frightened of something, but, in a crime novel, you know there is going to be a resolution in the end,” explains Fox O’Loughlin.
“In many ways [crime writing] is a way of coming up close against that fear factor, but everything being under control. From a female point of view, women are often victims of crime. As writers, we like to be able to control our space and that’s a big factor in the amount of fantastic female crime writers.”
Murder One is the international crime writing festival which Fox O’Loughlin founded last year, the only genre-driven festival in the Republic. As well as spotlighting and giving a voice to the brightest of Irish crime writing talent, the festival aims to attract some of the biggest global names in the genre to share their stories.
Last year, it hosted two of the genre’s foremost writerly talents in bestselling American writer Michael Connelly and English writer Peter James, who has managed global sales of his books of over 19 million.
This time around, the festival is being run differently. Last weekend, the festival kicked off with talks from six esteemed crime writers, including James Elroy and Jeffery Deaver. The main weekend, boasting a busy schedule of events and workshops, is being held in November.
The idea for the festival was spawned a long time ago, Fox O’Loughlin explains. Considering the current wave of the talent, the amount of enthusiastic readers, her own expertise, and the gaping niche for such a festival, she decided to take action.
“As a crime writer, I loved doing festivals and meeting readers. I think, for all writers, it’s an opportunity to get from behind the typewriter and get the feel the real world,” she says.
Eventually, with some time and careful reputation-building, O’Loghlin hopes the festival can become an international pillar of crime writing. It has already grabbed the attention of eagle-eyed publishers, who are seeing the continued promise of crime writing in Ireland.
Down the road, funding may become a stumbling block, she says. Currently, assistance from from Dublin City of Literature, Dublin Events and Dublin Libraries — as well as generous readers — is keeping everything running smoothly.
But crime writing, in many ways, has a bright future. And the emergence of giant streaming services like Netflix and Amazon — voracious content hoarders with seemingly bottomless budgets — provides a secondary hope for many writers.
“You write for the book rather the screen…but, absolutely: If you can sell rights for something, that’s the only way writers can make any real money,” she says.
Never one to rest on her laurels, Fox O’Loughlin has just finished another book. Diverging from her recent series in tone and theme, the book is a psychological thriller called Keep Your Eyes on Me.
You would be forgiven in thinking that style is the sole reason that crime is one of, if the highest selling genres in Ireland and the world over. But a lucid, blitzing style is not the only selling point as Fox O’Loughlin’s branching out suggests: a broad church of diversity of topic and theme go a long way in solidifying the genre’s urgency.
“When you say crime, you tend to think of the straight murder mystery or detective story,” Fox O’Loughlin adds. “But it covers everything: right the whole through from romance to science-fiction to spy stories to historical cold war fiction.”
Humans will never tire of stories of brazen thievery, bloodlust, fury or revenge. And, by the end of a well-constructed book, if readers can at least see a part of themselves mirrored back in characters who use brainy perception and problem-solving to reach a satisfactory conclusion, then that alone is worth the plunge.