BACK in 1998, Julie Parsons was something of a trailblazer. Her debut crime novel, Mary Mary, showed that Irish women could achieve international success with literary, yet very grisly crime fiction.
Move on 19 years — and nine since Parson’s sixth successful novel — and the crime market is flooded with women. At a recent reader event, Julie was astonished, although thrilled, to see so many younger Irish women writing successfully in the genre.
“Liz Nugent said that night, ‘your books really showed me how to do it’. That was lovely,” says Julie, over coffee at the Royal Marine Hotel in Dún Laoghaire.
Why does she think that is?
“I think it’s because crime is about people; about the nitty-gritty of personalities. I don’t see it as genre fiction. It’s about stories, and the most interesting stories have life and death in them, and moral dilemmas and good and evil. Those things are so fascinating.”
Her long-awaited seventh novel includes all those elements. Set in a run-down square in Dún Laoghaire, it starts with the murder of a retired judge. His body is discovered by Michael McLoughin, the detective Julie introduced to the reader in Mary Mary, who is, also, now retired, and living next door to the judge.
As the plot unravels, and more and more secrets emerge, it’s clear that Julie has lost none of her skill. She keeps the tension taut throughout, and her descriptions are as grisly as ever, particularly at the book’s climax. They’re hard enough to read — what were they like to imagine, and write?
“I was pretty shattered afterwards,” she says. “My response was to go to bed and instantly go to sleep. With my first books I had a really strong synopsis and knew exactly what was going to happen. They have got looser, and with this one, I had no idea how it was going to finish. I knew there’d be a confrontation, but not exactly who it would involve or how it would pan out.”
Julie’s eyes light up as she talks about her craft; of the magic of writing, and of its mysterious ways.
“It’s not so much that the characters take over, I don’t believe that, but there’s all this stuff below the surface in your subconscious. When you sit down and look at the screen you free it. It comes out.”
Why the nine-year gap? Julie was caring for her mother who, miserable in a nursing home, was suffering from a weird kind of dementia, along with a physical collapse.
“She could not understand what had happened. She couldn’t drive, she couldn’t go home, and she’s always hated feeling stuck. She had terrible hallucinations and would imagine rats under the bed, and sometimes she’d say, ‘Mummy, you have come to me’. When I explained that I was her daughter, Julie, and her mother had been dead since 1958, she said, ‘Why did nobody tell me?’ She was heartbroken and grief stricken and so was I.”
The two clearly had an extraordinary bond. One of four children, Julie was born in New Zealand. Her parents had emigrated there after the Second World War. Both had been involved; Julie’s father as a doctor in the British army, her mother as a Wren, and they found Ireland of the 1940s grim and difficult.
When Julie was four, her father was lost at sea, leaving her mother to cope with little money. Arriving back in her native Dún Laoghaire in 1963, she made a colourful picture, with her peroxide blond hair and her perceived outlandish ways.
“One time she got up a ladder in a pair of shorts and creosoted the house. Nobody did that! A crowd soon gathered.”
When Julie became pregnant in the 1970s, a time when families shunted their daughters into mother and baby homes, her mother proved her worth.
“When I told her, she was delighted. She rang all her friends and family and said, ‘I’ve got some fantastic news. I’m going to be a grandmother. Julie is having a baby.’ She adored my daughter, and incorporated her into her circle of friends, and they were conservative.”
Watching her mother deteriorate, Julie started thinking about her mother’s life. And of the stories she would tell of her childhood in Dún Laoghaire as the daughter of the Rector of the Mariner’s Church. The congregation had dwindled and it was closed in the 1960s and is now a museum. Julie wondered what had happened to the once thriving congregation.
Looking in the marriage and birth records for the church, between 1900 and 1939, she discovered 48 families, and she set out to find them. Many had emigrated, or married Catholics, but she heard some interesting stories. One, in particular, struck her.
“Andrew Knight was an inspector on the Dalkey tram. He lived in Clarinda Park with his wife and four children. One day some RIC men asked him who the last two men to get onto the tram were, and he pointed them out. The next day his body was found under a hedge. He’d been shot as an informer. Nobody was ever held to account.”
After her mother died in 2007 — and she had dealt not only with her grief, but with all the work that comes after a death — she got back to writing, trying first a play, then a novel that was not a thriller. Nothing gelled.
Then, still haunted by her father’s mysterious death, she decided to reintroduce McLaughlin, who, as told in Mary Mary, had lost his father in an IRA shooting.
“I started thinking about him, and the unresolved nature of his father’s death and how it tied in with the story of Andrew Knight. And yes, I suppose, about the unresolved nature of my own father’s death. Writing, for me, is about tying up loose ends and finding answers to questions.”
Politics leaked into the text too. With the 1916 celebrations starting to be planned, she was thinking of all the devastation left as a result of the North’s troubles, and pondering on those who had turned from violence and become the peacemakers.
“I don’t think what happened in Northern Ireland in the last 30 years was justified,” she says.
“People made a choice. The SDLP made a choice and chose the non-violent route. Yes, it was a sectarian state with incredible gerrymandering and bigotry, but what was achieved by all that death? And what of the people left injured or traumatised whose lives were never the same again? We don’t hear about them.”
With those overtones, the novel is as thought provoking, as it is clever. And it’s the characters, from the judge’s unlikely friend, Samuel, to the impoverished yet genteel Gwen, shaped by their, often difficult pasts, who drive the plot and make sense of the whole.
The judge’s poodle, Ferdie, was created in memory of Peppi, a childhood pet who ended up under the wheels of the 7A bus proved useful in forwarding the plot.
“My daughter Harriet had a Cavachon. When she’s out with him, people stop and talk. Everybody knows Alfie.”
Julie’s life with her husband, John Caden, her daughter, stepchildren and grandchildren is a full one. Yet she’s a disciplined writer who pens 750 words a day.
“I do that, and I don’t think too much about what comes next. When I’m happy with the words, I think about what I’m going to write tomorrow.
“EL Doctorow said in an interview that writing a novel is like driving a car cross country at night. You keep on following the lights and eventually you reach your destination. That has always been my motto.”