Canon law: saints and sinners in Irish crime fiction

A new book examines questions of justice, faith and identity in contemporary Irish crime writing

Set in contemporary Galway, Ken Bruen’s hard-boiled Jack Taylor series begins with Taylor’s assertion that he cannot identify as a detective or private investigator because, in Ireland, those labels have negative connotations associated with snitching. Instead, Taylor adopts the title “finder”, a homage to St Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of lost articles and missing persons.

Bruen is part of a tradition of Irish crime writers who use the complex imagery associated with saints in their narratives. It is a remarkable choice in a genre that blossomed with the rise of secularism, for which canonical authors such as SS Van Dine (and even the Catholic priest Ronald Knox) established rules that cautioned against the inclusion of supernatural elements.

But if early crime fiction offered reliance on deductive logic and the law as an alternative to religious faith, hard-boiled convention highlighted corruption and discrimination in criminal justice systems. Using saints as symbols, Irish writers explore how ideals can be rescued from imperfect institutions to create clearer paths to justice and to better understand the role of the individual within them.

My book, Finders: Justice, Faith, and Identity in Irish Crime Fiction, examines some of the ways Irish authors reimagine how we talk about justice. This reimagination includes careful consideration of systemic values that are worth preserving, the effects of individual ethics on this evaluation, and the benefits and challenges of establishing a personal code in an era when the markers once used to delineate identity have largely fallen away. It also includes an interrogation of the language central to discourse about justice, suggesting that individuality results in diverse connotations of words – including the word “justice” itself.


By refusing the “investigator” title and aligning his character with St Anthony, Bruen accomplishes several things. He underscores that perspective colours how we view verbal signifiers; he rejects the idea that deductive logic and religious faith are dichotomous; and he indicates that defining justice according to a single outlined code, such as the rule of law or that of the church, is reductive and unviable.

Jack Taylor shapes his process as a detective through a combination of legal, religious, and personal ethics. At its best, this solution allows him to distance himself from those aspects of the law and religion that he finds distasteful. He gets vengeance on predators who evade the law through connections or cautiousness and withholds judgment against people deemed immoral by the more religious characters in the novels. In so doing, he emulates Anthony who, according to tradition, worked to abolish debtors’ prisons and to educate the populace, an effort that St Francis feared might diminish the power of the church.

At its worst, however, Taylor’s attempts to transcend prescribed codes of justice result in vigilantism that leads to the death of innocents and makes him indistinguishable from the criminals he pursues. This conundrum resounds throughout Irish crime fiction, in novels by authors such as John Connolly, Alex Barclay and Tana French. It develops especial poignance in works set in the North, where the spectre of the Troubles is a reminder that unbridled vigilantism can have effects as devastating as extreme institutional corruption.

Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy, a detective in the Royal Ulster Constabulary in 1980s Carrickfergus, adopts Michael the Archangel as his protector. The patron saint of police officers, Michael represents certain absolutes, such as primacy of legal over vigilante justice and faith in clear distinctions between good and evil. In the Duffy series, he reflects the detective’s decision to join the police force rather than the IRA and his desire for clear-cut cases and easily identifiable villains and heroes.

But Michael’s identity is also more complicated. McKinty remarks that the Archangel “is a wonderful combination of soft and hard, masculine and feminine, angel and human”. As a Catholic peeler working and living among Protestants, Duffy defies stereotypes central to the conflict in Northern Ireland, suggesting that efforts to establish identity based on a single factor, in opposition to an “other”, are fallacious.

Other characters in the Duffy series also comprise contradictory features: paramilitaries, police, Special Branch operatives and citizens are deeply humanised, with multifaceted personalities and surprising, incongruous behavior. The delineations of good and evil Duffy yearns for prove elusive, and he repeatedly questions whether his own actions are a benefit or a bane to his society.

St Michael is traditionally summoned for help with internal conflict, a reminder that people are subject to contrasting impulses, and that the shortcomings of both individuals and institutions might be rectified. In the Duffy series, we see glimmers of hope for a criminal justice system besieged by paramilitary violence and the mistrust of the populace. Duffy and his closest colleagues rise above their circumstances (and the RUC’s reputation) through an emphasis on equity and empathy.

In the work of Brian McGilloway and Claire McGowan, similar promise exists in the peace process and the new, community-centred Police Service of Northern Ireland. In McGowan’s Paula Maguire series, the early release clause of the Good Friday Agreement is a deeply challenging but necessary “price of peace”, while McGilloway’s Lucy Black novels express optimism that tribalism engendered by contemporary politics can be ameliorated, just as sectarianism was in Northern Ireland.

For other authors from the North, imperfect justice is more problematic. In The Twelve, Stuart Neville’s Gerry Fegan, a former paramilitary hitman, avenges his own victims by murdering his compatriots who, pardoned for their crimes, have remained influential in Belfast. For Fegan, significant issues persist in Northern Ireland and, despite appearances, people are incapable of substantive change, a point which is emphasised by his own tenacity as a killer.

Characters with equally complex relationships to justice abound in Irish crime fiction, in conjunction with anxiety about the fragility of progress. In Gerard Brennan’s Disorder, a detective with promise in the PSNI destroys himself through a personal vendetta as Belfast reverts to sectarian chaos.

Both The Twelve and Disorder are subverted redemption narratives, with protagonists whose flaws prove as difficult to overcome as those of their society. In these novels, self-deception is literally deadly, whether it manifests in blindness to personal motivations or optimism that avoids reckoning with historical trauma and the social factors that contributed to it.

Steve Cavanagh’s The Defence takes this argument to New York City, where conman-turned-lawyer Eddie Flynn contends with the paradoxes of identity and an inequitable criminal justice system. In moments of stress, Flynn dwells on the St Christopher medal inherited from his Irish emigrant father, who taught him the art of the grift.

While Christopher is commonly associated with redemption, his tradition is nuanced: desirous of serving a peerlessly powerful leader, Christopher adopted Christianity only after realizing that the devil feared Jesus Christ. Unskilled at prayer and fasting, he put his more innate talents to the service of humanity, using his physical strength to help travellers cross a river.

In The Defence, Christopher symbolizes Flynn’s ultimate embrace of all aspects of his character: he becomes equal parts lawyer and hustler, achieving his ends through both legal justice and criminal connections. In this respect, the novel suggests that the route to redemption is not through adherence to a specific preordained code, but through an acceptance of the multifarious nature of identity.

In a vital way, such an acceptance is at the heart of Irish crime fiction, as characters explore what constitutes “justice” for them in various contexts, their shifting roles in its pursuit, and the extent of their faith in legal norms, religious values, and themselves. These numerous facets of individual perspective are one component in a broader conversation about the challenges of discourse about justice. If individuals comprise multiple and fluctuating viewpoints, the possibility of reaching a consensus of meaning and value across individuals appears impracticable.

Based on three related historical trials in Northern Ireland, Eoin McNamee’s Blue Trilogy novels study the way that perspective impacts our understanding of justice. Authorial reflections on the process of true crime research parallel efforts by detectives, defendants, and the public to grasp the causes of violent crimes, identify perpetrators, and determine appropriate penalties.

For McNamee, objective truth is elusive because subjective experience engenders diverse interpretations of events, and because details become distorted in our efforts to create cohesive narratives to make sense of the unknown. Collectively, however, the stories people tell about themselves and their communities offer crucial information about priorities, ideals, and fears, both within specific societies and more ubiquitously.

The authors in Finders make a case for the value of their own stories by employing a genre that did not flourish in Ireland until the twenty-first century, despite its enormous popularity in Britain and America. Approaching crime fiction as outsiders, they question the universal applicability of its tropes, including secularism and the capacity of deductive logic to uncover truth.

At the same time, working in a traditionally non-Irish form liberates writers from the expectations of Revivalism and American idealism, emphasizing that heritage and history are only two of many aspects of perspective. First-hand experiences of tribalism, vigilantism and mistrust of government agencies are viewed both in the context of Irish society and as demonstrably global issues; moreover, these experiences are interwoven with singular and often contradictory viewpoints that defy easy classification.

The result is a canon that makes numerous distinct contributions to crime fiction, while indicating that there are many more to come. Guided as much by interviews with the authors as by analyses of the texts, Finders pays tribute to the heterogeneous voices that constitute Irish crime fiction.

Finders: Justice, Faith, and Identity in Irish Crime Fiction by Anjili Babbar is published by Syracuse University Press