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By Milton C. Toby

Like many successful authors, Irish journalist Gerard O’Donovan has a resume brimming with travel and many different jobs.  Unlike most authors, though, one of O’Donovan’s early attempts at crime fiction was shortlisted for a prestigious award, the Debut Dagger presented by the Crime Writers’ Association in England.  Travel broadened O’Donovan’s perspective while confirming his love of Ireland; the Debut Dagger nomination was an affirmation of his talent.

“I am resolutely Irish,” O’Donovan explained.  “Growing up in the Ireland of the 1970s was great fun but suffocatingly uniform in terms of cultural experience. I read a great deal and loved film and television, almost all of which was imported from other cultures—Britain, America and western Europe, and I spent much of my teens dreaming of experiencing cultures other than the one I’d been brought up in.

“As a result, I’ve escaped the confines of Ireland to live and work for extended periods in Spain (Madrid), Germany (Frankfurt, Heidelberg and Nuremberg), Austria  (Vienna), Israel (Negev Desert) and Britain (London, Suffolk and Bristol). And I’ve spent time in quite a few other countries as well, including the US and Canada.

“I think my love of Ireland, and my own sense of Irishness, has only deepened as a result of all that, especially in recent years when I’ve been largely based in the UK. It also gives me a wider cultural perspective and I think that comes through in my writing.”

O’Donovan did not win the Debut Dagger.  His nominated entry, in fact, never was published.  But overall the experience was a positive one.

“My novel White Lion—a dark and very bleak tale of sexual passion and psychotic violence—did not win, but being on the shortlist opened some very useful doors for me. A nomination makes agents and publishers prick up their ears. And while my dreams of overnight fame and fortune weren’t realized, being shortlisted did give me the confidence to think I must be doing something right.”

Apparently so.  O’Donovan’s debut novel, The Priest, is due for release in most English markets in November from Little Brown/Sphere.  The United States/Canada edition will be released by Scribner in March 2011.  Set in Dublin, The Priest features an unlikely alliance between Detective Mike Mulcahy and investigative reporter Siobhan Fallon, both on the trail of a serial sex attacker.  It is the first of a planned series involving the two protagonists.

“I’m just putting the finishing touches to the follow-up book,” O’Donovan explained, “due to be published in autumn of next year.  In that book Mulcahy and Fallon take on a murderous gang of drug smugglers.  I already have story ideas for books three and four. I love working with the combination of male/female, cop/journalist—the different ways Mulcahy and Fallon see things, their opposing methods of working and values.  Of course it doesn’t hurt to have an occasional flicker of sexual tension between them either.”

The Priest is riding a wave of popular Irish crime fiction, led by Ken Bruen and other authors, and like those books O’Donovan’s novel relies on setting as an essential element of the story.

“There’s been a huge explosion of Irish crime writing in the last few years,” O’Donovan said.  “A lot of it is fairly noir-ish and private-eye based, whereas I like the realism and focus that police investigations and journalism can bring to a story.

“To my mind writers have a duty to make their settings as accurate and authentic as possible. As such, The Priest is so firmly rooted in the changing cultural values and current social and economic situation in Ireland generally, and Dublin specifically, that I cannot honestly see it working in any other context.

“Dublin is my home town, and I put a lot of effort into capturing the spirit and personality of the city.  In many ways I think living away from Dublin actually helps rather than hinders me in that. It’s a kind of homesickness I suppose, the opposite of never appreciating the place that you’re from, and also gives an insight into how outsiders see the Irish.”

O’Donovan lives near Bristol on the western coast of England where he works on a freelance basis writing about television.  He has been a journalist for more than 20 years, a background in writing that has helped his fiction.

“Working for newspapers gives me insights into the background and character of one of my series protagonists, reporter Siobhan Fallon,” he explained.  “And I think a familiarity with the structure of TV drama can give a useful grounding in plot construction and characterization. But the sort of writing that goes into a 650-word, quick turnaround piece on the latest gangster drama from HBO is so different from that required to write a cleverly constructed 100,000 word crime thriller, it is hard to compare them—not least in terms of sheer stamina. That said, it’s all good practice and gets you used to writing to deadlines, having your work edited and perhaps most importantly, writing with the reader in mind.”

For some readers The Priest might blur the distinction between “crime fiction” and “thriller,” but that is not a problem for O’Donovan.

“I do not distinguish between these genres,” he said.  “I think it is my fundamental duty as a writer to thrill readers, whether by writing the most gripping dénouement imaginable, or involving them so much with the characters and story that they don’t want to put the book down. That’s my aim at least. When I was a teenager I was a voracious reader of quite old-fashioned thriller by writers like Alastair MacLean, Desmond Bagley and Len Deighton as well as Frederick Forsyth, Michael Crichton and Bernard Cornwell, all of which have action, thrills and, in some, strong elements of criminality

“The writer who made me turn to crime, so to speak, for my own fiction was Thomas Harris (in particular Red Dragon), who revealed that the element of mystery or puzzle in crime writing doesn’t need to be the main point of the book; it can be put to even better use alongside action and narrative as another device to thrill readers and keep them glued to the page. For me, the combination of crime and thriller makes for the perfect book.”

Milton C. Toby