A Sleekit Wee Book
Akashic Books, 2014
Reviewed by Seana Graham
I’ve been looking forward to this recent offering from Akashic Books ever since I heard it was in the works. The Brooklyn based Akashic began their highly successful International Noir series in their own backyard back in 2004 with Brooklyn Noir, but soon took it on the road, publishing themed anthologies from the famous cities of the world. This one is of special interest to me for two reasons. It dovetails nicely with my own interest in Irish, and perhaps particularly Northern Irish crime fiction. And its editors are two of the best crime fiction writers going right now and not just in a regional context. They have opted not to feature their own work in this anthology, generously giving the limited space they had to others, but their introductory essay sets the tone for the enterprise.
And it’s a terrific collection. The authors run the gamut, ranging from New York Times bestsellers like Lee Child and Brian McGilloway to some who are just starting out. Set largely in the neighborhoods of Belfast itself, with a few ventures into outlying areas, the book is divided up into four sections: “City of Ghosts”, “City of Walls”, “City of Commerce” and “Brave New City”. Although definitely a snapshot of the present moment in Irish crime writing as the editors wish it to be, it is also a ghost haunted book, with the violence of the Troubles not long past, and maybe not even past at all, and the city’s future and fortunes hopeful and foreboding all at the same time.
Several things struck me about the collection as I read. First, I was heartened to see that in a tough guy genre, there’s a pretty generous representation of women writers and not just a token sample. Secondly, I enjoyed the pacing of the selection. Just when you might be getting too much of the salty language of the underworld—and there’s plenty of profanity, so be forewarned—you will come across Claire McGowan’s cheeky and irrepressible Aloysius Carson, Private Eye, who runs his office out of his mum’s front room. Not that this story is any cozy either. It is called “Rosie Grant’s Finger”, after all.
But perhaps the most striking thing of all is the fact that such an anthology even exists. Although many of the stories do treat of the sectarian violence of the past decades, there is no sense of the editorial vision being weighted toward one side or the other of the conflict. McKinty hails from the Protestant town of Carrickfergus, and Neville from the predominantly Catholic Armagh. The fiction writers come from both sides of the divide as well, and from different generations of experience. I found an interview by Mark Thwaite with Neville over at Book Depository in which he was asked whether he thought those in the post-conflict era were still struggling with the past or if they were already beginning to forget those dark times and I thought it an apt way to summarize the intent of this book as a whole:
“We’re starting to look back on past events in a more objective way. As a society, we have to move away from the idea of the Troubles being something the ‘Other Side’ did to us. All factions need to stop pointing the finger, looking for blame, and start looking inward. All of us, from whichever side of the divide, are going to have to face up to some uncomfortable truths that we were perhaps blinkered to in the past. I believe fiction will be the driving force in this, whether on page or on screen. The most interesting fiction about any conflict doesn’t come until it’s over. Take Vietnam or World War II, for instance. The best stories about those wars didn’t appear until years later. The next decade will be a very interesting time for writing from this part of the world.”
Indeed it will.
Oh, and sleekit? As a Scottish word, it’s no surprise that it crossed over and became an Ulster Scots word as well. In the vernacular it means “sly, cunning, deceitful”. I hope the editors and authors will know that I mean it entirely as a compliment.