13 January 2016

How an old Irish myth became a crime novel

Guest post: Alan Walsh on how he reworked the Irish legend of Deirdre of the Sorrows into a modern crime tale for his debut novel 'Sour'

It was definitely moving back home that encouraged me to write Sour in its final form. It's funny how you think of these things much later and what really dawns on you is the effect certain things had that you never noticed at the time.

I had started out writing it in London and back then it was a project mired in nostalgia and rose-tinted glasses. I was pining for home. I hadn't ever intended on going to live there and even though I was enjoying the nightlife and the bright lights, I knew it wasn't where I wanted to stay very long and was actively looking to move home to Dublin.

Here's how active: I was listening to Irish music on Spotify and watching Pure Mule DVDs on my laptop at night. Pathetic. It's pretty embarrassing now but probably very normal for an ex-pat to find solace in romanticising everything about his homeland. This was where the mythology came into it.

I'd been interested in Irish mythology somewhat as a boy, the way you hear the stories told, and the fact that the heroes and heroines, the gods and monsters weren't ever as downright moral and straightforward as the heroes I grew up reading in comic books and on TV. Fionn Mac Cumhaill wasn't always the good guy. Culchullain didn't always win. Deirdre didn't always wind up with a happy ending.

I found my way back to all of this through a £5 compendium of Irish folklore picked up I think at a train station bookshop somewhere on the Tube circuit.

The thing is, I was already writing a crime story. It was about a young girl murdered in a small town and the way I'd planned it working out was that the whole town was involved and would be found, ultimately, to blame. But it wasn't really taking off the way I'd hoped. That's when I hit upon Deirdre's story.

Deirdre of the Sorrows is the story of a young girl, prophesied to be so beautiful she'd cause only death, who runs away from her betrothed, the high king of Ireland, with her young lover and his brothers. In one of the most tragic ends to a myth, Deirdre and her love are tricked into returning to the king, her lover is murdered and she winds up committing suicide when she realises her fate, staying with the old king forever. It's well worth a read.

What struck me immediately was how similar this was to a lot of the themes I was writing about. In fact, it wasn't all that hard to sit down and rework the piece, based on a retelling of the old myth.

There was an investigator, a groundskeeper, Conall Donoghue, who would be the hinge from which everything worked, trying to figure it all out. There would be the girl, Dee, her father, the local landlord, and her boyfriend and his brother, who would run away together. The book only really found its voice when I came home, though.

I found a job working in a small company in Sandyford and had begun travelling around the country a little bit, seeing the sights I'd missed while away. The impression this made on me was tremendous. The rose-tinted glasses slipped away, the myth fell apart.

Ireland was there just as ever, sarcastic and bawdy and filled with gallows humour, drinking, self-deprecation mixed with bragging, crazy small-town characters, beating rain and chronic hangovers. There was no way I could write a solemn myth as a classy rural murder story. It right away started to change, quite naturally.

The characters in the town arrived in from different myths. Fionn MacCumhaill was a local thug, drinking cans in a ghost estate and playing Xbox with his mates. Cuchullainn as an old, retired traveller, bossed by his wife. The Puca was a drunken shape-shifter, drifting in and out of scenes, telling the whole story.

If anything I was wrestling to keep it within the lines of a murder story. I think it breaks out once or twice into something else. But, in the end, it's a tale of a runaway girl, trying to free herself from an oppressive town and tyrannical parents and find herself out in the big, bad world.  It's the story of how that all goes wrong. Of who kills her, where the clues are pointing and who in the town even cares at the end of the day. It's a murder story with distinctly Irish roots and, if I may be so bold, a truly Irish character.
  • Sour by Alan Walsh is published by Pillar International Publishing