Irish Crime Fiction Writers Bring Murder in the Morning to Menlo College

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Three women in Irish crime fiction, Claire McGowan, Niamh O’Connor, and Louise Phillips were guests at a literary discussion Murder in the Morning, presented by the Bowman Library and the Writing & Oral Communication Center of Menlo College. Erik Bakke, Director of the Writing Center, moderated the discussion with the acclaimed trio, who recently appeared at the Los Gatos Writers Festival. They discussed their craft and read from their books.

Bakke started the discussion with a quote from author Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings” that dismissed endings. “Beginnings are always more fun. True connoisseurs, however, are known to favor the stretch in between, since it’s the hardest to do anything with. That’s about all that can be said for plots, which anyway are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what. Now try how and why.”

Claire McGowan admitted she was rattled when she once met Margaret Atwood. She recalled “I dropped a glass of wine!” When asked about the role of humor in her work, McGowan, from Northern Ireland, spoke of her country’s penchant for black humor. “Gallows humor,” as she termed it, is a way to deal with political troubles.

Her first novel, The Fall, was published by Headline in 2012. She has also written a series of novels about the forensic psychologist Paula Maguire, which currently consists of The Lost (2013), The Dead Ground (2014), The Silent Dead (2015) and the novella Controlled Explosions (2015). There are three more novels to follow in the series. This crime series has been optioned by BBC Drama. Her newest book is A Savage Hunger.

McGowan read an excerpt from one of her short stories from Belfast Noir. Her selection, “Rosie Grant’s Finger” is an offbeat comic tale featuring an 18-year-old private eye in Belfast. As a genre writer, McGowan says you “have to deliver a happy ending.”

Based in County Wicklow in Ireland, writer Niamh O’Connor was a journalist for the Irish newspaper Sunday World, where she was the True Crime editor. She has also produced best-selling books of high-profile crimes as well as detective fiction with the central character of DI Jo Birmingham. Her most recent book is Blink. She described crime writing as, “there’s always a body in there.”

O’Connor writes, “Personally, I’ve turned from true crime writing to fiction to get around the restrictions of libel law, while highlighting the shortcomings in the justice system.”

Louise Phillips is an author of four bestselling psychological crime thrillers, each short-listed for Best Irish Crime Novel of the Year. She noted that “a story starts with characters. Someone once told me there’s a limit to how good your good guy can be, but there are no limits to how bad your bad guy can be, as long as you’re not writing just for shock value. Voice is the key thing. Remember, if you can place your character in a situation, then you know them well. One of the best parts of the job is the slow disclosure of knowing what your readers don’t.”

When researching The Doll’s House, Phillips was fascinated with learning about how our brains are wired. “The more times we recall memories, the more comprised they become, and the less we can trust them. Somewhere in our minds, the truth is there.”

Phillips, who describes a story as “a journey,” read from Red Ribbons, her book that comes out in the US in November. The book is about the murder of missing schoolgirls found buried in the Dublin Mountains.

All three writers agreed that to crystalize their characters, it helps to be people- watchers, sponges and observers, and to write, as Phillips quipped, “as long as something sinister is going on.”