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“For the Readies”: Brendan Behan, Crime Fiction, and the Dublin Underworld

From: Éire-Ireland
Volume 49, Issues 1 & 2, Spring/Summer 2014
pp. 92-105 | 10.1353/eir.2014.0007

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Brendan Behan emerged as a successful writer in the 1950s at the same time as the cult of the “working-class writer” fashioned the tastes of the London literary marketplace. He had all the right qualifications to suit these tastes, having been born into a family of trade union activists and socialist republicans in northside Dublin, and having been an apprentice housepainter, a borstal and prison inmate, and a republican rebel. In his writings he charted the rhythms of working-class life:

All our mothers had all done the pawn—pledging on Monday, releasing on Saturday. We all knew the chip shop and the picture house and the fourpenny rush of a Saturday afternoon, and the summer swimming in the canal and being chased along the railway by the cops.1

Before Behan became famous as the author of The Quare Fellow (1954), The Hostage (1958), and Borstal Boy (1958), however, he was the secret author of a crime novel. Although almost completely disregarded as part of Behan’s oeuvre, it is a novel that I will argue had a significant impact on how he shaped the works that brought him success, particularly The Quare Fellow.

Behan’s first sustained work of literary writing was the serialized crime thriller, The Scarperer, published under the pseudonym “Emmet Street” in thirty parts in the Irish Times in the autumn of 1953.2 The advertisement notifying the newspaper’s readers of its forthcoming publication called it “an original serial thriller” that would be “unusual—exciting—fascinating in its glimpses of Dublin’s underworld, and full of the racy humour of the city’s streets.”3 When publication began two days later, the claim to be “a new serial of Dublin’s underworld” was repeated in the strapline, and the story begins in the food queues of the Mendicity, a charitable institution for the homeless, where a fight threatens to break out between two women engaged in trading insults.4 It differs somewhat from the serial fiction that immediately preceded it, which ends rather tellingly with a character called Georgina retrieving her jewel-encrusted platinum cigarette case from Alan with the words, “‘Alan, my sweet, you are angelic,’ she said, and enfolded him in her arms. ‘Let’s go and ring up everyone we know, and have a little beat up.’”5 The Scarperer sits oddly too beside an illustrated column of fashion advice that counsels readers to “Be Smart in Separates,” and next to home baking recipes for “Nut and Date Bread,” which “is delightful when sliced and buttered for afternoon tea.” An advertisement on the same page shows a society hostess “grace” her table with a “magnificent centre-piece of Waterford Glass,” while another columnist reflects on the lives of his school friends in an article called “The Old School Tie.” The first public readers of The Scarperer were unlikely to be intimate with the kinds of people and places associated with “Dublin’s underworld,” and so Behan, writing under the pseudonym that he had borrowed from a northside working-class street adjacent to his own childhood home, was acting as tour guide to the underclass for the entertainment of fashionable, bourgeois Dublin.

If, as Gill Plain has argued, crime writing is about “confronting and taming the monstrous,” then it could be argued that Behan’s serial novel was designed to satiate the curiosity of a growing middle-class urban bourgeoisie anxious about social discontent.6 Two years previously in the pages of the same newspaper, a staff reporter exposed the same “Dublin underworld” to scrutiny after living in disguise among the “down-and-outs.”7 “Dublin has an underworld,” the reporter declared, “It is around every slum street corner. It is in the tall, gaunt tenements, the cheap lodging houses and the even cheaper eating-dives. Here the out-of-work and the penniless meet the petty criminals.” In a series of three feature-length, illustrated articles the reporter documented the prostitutes and pimps, the criminals and gang members, and the homeless, unemployed, and low-wage laborers whom he encountered in the pubs, doss-houses, and fish-and-chip shops of Dublin’s slums.8 These people and places...

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