Top six: crime fiction from the Celtic fringe

Happy St Patrick’s Day! While the descendants of Irish immigrants in Chicago dye the river green, and even those with no ties to Ireland make the most of the excuse to drink Guinness in Irish pubs dotted across the world, we thought we would celebrate in our own way. With some crime fiction, of course. However, this time we go beyond the borders of Ireland and travel throughout the Celtic fringe, with its unique culture, rugged moors, misty climate and general sense of brooding mystery… all of which provide the perfect backdrop for a crime story.

Ireland

Anna Sweeney’s Deadly Intent was initially published in Gaelic and is very much concerned with present-day problems such as trying to make a living in remote though picturesque locations and the challenges of a mixed-race family in a small Irish village on the Beara Peninsula in southwest Ireland. The claustrophobic community rings very true, as does the despair of youngsters trying to escape from its stranglehold, or the way people can suddenly turn against ‘outsiders’. The barren Beara countryside becomes a moody, glowering presence, almost an additional character in the book, with frequent references to ancient stones, isolated paths and ancient homesteads. An atmospheric read, and although it isn’t the most enticing advertisement for tourism in the Emerald Isle, it might be the most authentic Celtic crime novel you’ll find – it was originally written in Irish Gaelic.
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Brittany

Just across the Channel there are last bastions of Celtic culture across the northern regions of France and Spain, including in Bretagne, home of the Bretons. Death in Pont-Aven introduces us to Commissaire Dupin, a cantankerous Parisian caffeine junkie, who has been exiled to the small Breton village of Pont-Aven, a sleepy community near the sea. Everyone knows everyone else and nothing much seems to happen, until the owner of the local hotel is found murdered. The local community is shocked and immediately closes ranks. Dupin has some difficulty getting people to talk, especially since there is ongoing rivalry and hostility between the agricultural and fishing communities in the region. Despite the French name, Jean-Luc Bannalec is in fact the pseudonym of German author and publisher Jörg Bong. He seems to have captured the unique Breton culture exceedingly well in his five novels (to date) and has consequently been awarded the Mécène de Bretagne award, for being an ambassador of Breton culture, tourism and economics.
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Scotland

The Shetlands and the Western Isles are popular settings for contemporary crime novels, even though crime rates there are extremely low. However, The Visitors by Simon Sylvester, set on the fictional isle of Bancree, is a heady mix of Celtic myth and modern life, with a plot that ebbs and flows like the waves surrounding it. The author is careful not to idealise the picturesque if frequently misty setting: Bancree is a community hanging on to life by its fingernails. The old industries have gone, and what work remains is a boat ride away at the fish farms or whisky distillery in Tanno. Nobody moves to Bancree, and very few leave it. This is both a coming of age story and an investigation into a sudden disappearance, but it also contains more than a little sprinkling of superstitions such as the mythical selkies – half-seal, half-human. It’s one of our Recommended books
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Cornwall

Elizabeth Hand is the kind of author who enjoys playing with mystical concepts in her books and in Hard Light she explores both neolithic religion and 1970s underground culture. After a series of bizarre drug-fuelled misadventures and dangerous encounters, punk photographer Cass Neary ends up in Cornwall, on a decrepit farm near an old castle and an ancient burial barrow. Inside is an amazing chamber that lets a beam of light shine in only at certain times, illuminating a ritual site. Alongside real punk bands, movies and photographers, the author weaves in fictional ones, including decrepit singer Poppy Teasel, proud owner of some thaumatropes. These spinning discs which produce an optical animation effect date back to the Ice Age and might link to some strange rituals Cass has observed in a cult film to activities around the neolithic ruins on the Cornish heath. The final straw is when an 11-year-old girl invites Cass to see dead babies… A clever and poetic blend of ancient and modern myth-making.
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Isle of Man

Chris Ewan has developed a reputation for tense thrillers but Dark Tides is particularly sinister. It’s set’s set on the Isle of Man around Halloween, and will succeeds in scaring you without ever being overtly graphic or bloodthirsty. The Manx Halloween is very much based on the pagan festival of Hop-tu-naa. When police officer Claire Cooper was eight her mother disappeared during this night of devilry. A few years later, Claire’s friend died accidentally during a Hop-tu-naa prank that went wrong. As the festival approaches again she is convinced that the killer still has unfinished business… and that unfinished business might just be her. Local traditions and atmosphere are effortlessly conveyed, without ever descending into tourist guide speak.
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Wales

Dylan H Jones’ Anglesey Blue introduces DI Manx Tudor, who had previously managed to escape the remote island environment of Anglesey and his unhappy family history when he joined the Metropolitan Police. However, he has now been sent back to his Welsh roots, and it is proving a bittersweet experience. Anglesey may be a small community with colourful characters, where everyone knows everyone, but it is also facing an increasing drug problem and a spate of murders which seem to have something primitive and symbolical about them: crucifixion to a fishing boat, burning at the stake… An entertaining police procedural with an unusual setting, showing all the challenges of a small team without any of the usual resources necessary for a murder investigation.
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Interested in Scandinavian crime fiction? Check out our favourite Nordic noir novels of 2016 here.

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4 Comments

  1. Elena Reply

    The Northern regions of Spain are usually considered part of the Celtic Fringe too, and I highly recommend Dolores Redondo’s Baztán trilogy for a taste of a part of Spain most foreigners have not heard about.

    1. MarinaSofia Reply

      That’s an excellent addition, thank you, Elena. We have reviewed the two Redondo books which have been translated into English and they are certainly full of the myths and superstitions of the region, so would fit in well with the ‘Celtic’ theme.

  2. Terence Huckle Reply

    A word for Harry Bingham’s Fiona Griffiths series…police procedural where the heroines dysfunction is as much an asset as it is unlikely (despite that implausibility very readable)

    1. MarinaSofia Reply

      Absolutely – here at CFL we are great fans of the series and have reviewed quite a few of the books. This was not designed to be a comprehensive list of authors from the Celtic fringe, but more of an intro to books which have a bit of a Celtic theme (including the myths and rituals) running through them.

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