- "Down These Mean Streets":The City and Critique in Contemporary Irish Noir
At the start of the novel Sanctuary (2008), Jack Taylor, the hard-drinking, fast-talking Galwegian private eye, stands alone. He is rootless, despairing, and aging: "I was standing on the bridge that faces the Spanish Arch and the rain was pelting down, drenching me to the core.… I was soaked. And thinking. I should have been in America, even better down in Mexico. Yeah, I'd sold my apartment and was sitting on my suitcase, waiting for the cab to the airport. Then the phone had rung. Even now, I cursed myself for answering" (11). It's in the midst of this crisis, this attempt to leave the city and its violence, that Taylor is required to stay, initially to care for Ridge, his old Garda partner, who has just been diagnosed with breast cancer, but then, subsequently, to investigate a serial killer who is stalking Galway's mean streets. Judges, policemen, and nuns are turning up dead, their bodies showing signs of mutilation and torture. Taylor's investigations inevitably draw him into a sordid underworld of right-wing groups, political corruption, drugs, and rape. To solve the case, he must chart the landscape of a segregated city, replete with dark alleys and cellar hideouts but also in architecture and symbols of cosmopolitan urban prosperity. The loss of the old geography merely adds to his emotional disengagement. His new apartment is "tiny, just a living room and bedroom, and costs a fortune" (20). The quays are a "tourist haunt" and "every barman a non-national" (65). No one knows what the "swamps (old playing fields) close to Nimmo's pier" are anymore—"you have to be real old [End Page 39] Galway" to know that (68). Taylor, predictably, uncovers the crimes, saves others from falling victim, and, in the process, manages to bring himself halfway back from despair.
Much of this is familiar, of course. The language of the hard-boiled detective novel, the imagery of film noir, has been more or less the exclusive domain of one or two American big cities, most notably Los Angeles, both prewar, with the literature of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and postwar, with the appearance of a plethora of films defined less by a common theme than by a shared mood and atmosphere: dark, downbeat, paranoid, and pessimistic. It was only later, in 1955, that a pair of French critics, Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton, reading this outpouring of American films against the backdrop of European existentialism, popularized the term film noir. Los Angeles, with its slippery economy and its new, glossy superficial culture, was the perfect urban environment for expressing the violence, insecurity, and transforming morality of the time. But Taylor's milieu is Galway, and Ireland, not America, is the landscape that is changing, providing the conditions in which noir can flourish. Crime writing from Oedipus to Poe has always been a way to understand society's fears and desires. In contemporary Celtic noir the ongoing tensions of modernity—wealth and exclusion, development and nostalgia, pace and custom, rage and justice—are reexamined. Hard-boiled fiction allows one to move through the murky structures that bind us together. As Vikram Chandra has written, "As the detective follows the crime, he moves through society, from high to low, and uncovers things that explain the culture" (Ermelino). The Celtic Tiger, R.I.P., presented its citizens with equal measures of prosperity, confusion, violence, and hope. Now that the boom has officially busted, the popular, mass-marketed paperbacks that became a staple of the Irish literary diet in the 1990s and the early years of the new century have proven to have offered not only a critique of the Tiger years but also a prescient image of the post-collapse darkness.
In 2005, Declan Kiberd wondered why, in contemporary Irish literature, there appeared to be no fiction about the then-thriving economy; Kiberd compared novels about the greed and superficiality of 1980s America, such as Bonfire of the Vanities and Bright Lights, Big City, and inquired why no such literature was being produced reflecting [End Page 40...