Co Down crime author Gerard Brennan on joy of writing strong female-led new novel Shot

David Roy chats to Co Down crime writer Gerard Brennan about creating a strong new female detective for his latest Northern Ireland-set novel, Shot...

Crime writer Gerard Brennan's new book, Shot, is out now. Picture by Mal McCann
Crime writer Gerard Brennan's new book, Shot, is out now. Picture by Mal McCann

"SHANNON McNulty was born to give me a break from another book I was writing," explains Co Down crime author Gerard Brennan of how his new heroine was 'birthed' as a stress buster while working on his acclaimed 2018 novel Disorder.

Written in a dialogue-driven 'third person objective' style a la Dashiell Hammett, the Belfast-set Disorder – the debut publication from No Alibis Press – was a frenetic affair featuring many different characters all caught up in a spate of 'recreational rioting' in the city.

By contrast, Brennan's fifth novel centres entirely on Shannon McNulty, a talented 30-something Detective Sergeant who returns home after a decade on the force in London and immediately finds herself grappling with the harsh realities of being a cop in a Northern Ireland that's not quite as progressive as its tourist board ads would have people believe – not to mention her own 'complicated' family history.

"I needed a break from the style I was writing in, which had a restrictive POV and was quite fast paced with a lot of different characters," explains Brennan, who has a master's and PhD in Creative Writing from Queen's University Belfast.

"I wanted something that was a more simple first-person narrative: somebody who would take a bit of time thinking about what they would be doing, and just to be inside one head as well instead worrying about seven or eight key players."

Thus, Shot – the first in a planned series of novels featuring his new female protagonist – finds him/us taking DS McNulty's highly observant, slighty sarky and often hungover POV as she attempts to unravel two very different crimes: her first order of business upon returning home to her native Warrenpoint (also Brennan's hometown) is to attend the funeral of her Uncle Brendan, a notorious 'ordinary decent criminal' who has died in violent circumstances.

With McNulty's newly minted PSNI credentials making her a figure of suspicion within her own clan, whose less than kosher reputation now precedes her at every professional turn, the intrepid cop resolves to solve her uncle's murder 'off the books' just as she is made lead detective on a high-profile investigation involving an assault on the daughter of a leading DUP man at Belfast's premier gay bar.

Notorious for his homophobic rhetoric, this regressive unionist and Northern Irelnad Assembly junior minister is most unimpressed to find a female cop who 'kicks with the wrong foot' in charge of the case, which appears to involve a drug dealing drag queen.

The political big wig is also a member of the same congregation as McNulty's overbearing new boss, Detective Inspector Wilson, meaning the plucky DS and her greenhorn partner Detective Constable Davy Craig can't afford to put a foot wrong – especially once events take a sinister turn which calls the victim's version of events into question.

Initially sent out to agents while Disorder was in the process of being published by No Alibis, it took a while for Shot to find its home with Glasgow-based imprint Dockyard Press.

"My agent tried really hard for about two years to place it somewhere, " reveals Dundrum-based Brennan, a father of three who works in a care home in Downpatrick when not penning crime fiction.

"We came very close in a lot of spots. One publisher's rejection letter made me laugh – they said they loved the book but that they 'already had an Irish writer' who they wanted to concentrate on.

"I always thought I could be rejected for being a straight white male writing in a woman's POV – but I never thought it would be my Irishness that backfired on me."

In the end, it took a fellow Celt and crime writer to fully get behind DS McNulty, as Brennan explains.

"Barry Graham is a very interesting character," he tells me of the Dockyard Press founder, who set up the imprint to be run by all of its published writers, helping them to retain creative control over their work.

"He's a Buddhist monk but he's also a noir writer from Glasgow. I met him in 2018 when he was telling me about this idea he had for setting up a new publisher who was going to do things their own way by thumbing their nose at Amazon.

"Basically, [Dockyard] won't make their books available in Kindle form until Amazon start treating their workers better. I thought that was kind of fun, and to be honest my Kindle sales weren't as good as my book sales for Disorder anyway.

"It also didn't hurt that he offered me a ridiculously generous royalty on it, higher than I've got for any of my work, ever."

Brennan also views the change of publisher as an opportunity to reach new readers, something that creating a feisty new female crime fighter to be the voice of his latest series should also help with – although, as the author explains, DS McNulty actually has her roots in the 'femme fatale' featured in another of his Warrenpoint-set stories.

"Years ago, I wrote a story called The Point which featured a character called Rachel O'Hare," says Brennan, referencing the comedic 2011 novella which first put him on the map as 'one to watch' and spawned a sequel, Breaking Point, in 2013.

"I really liked her and wanted to put her into something else, but in the end I decided Rachel was a bit too contrary to become a cop. So, I decided to base Shannon on her – I kept the toughness and the attitude and just changed her appearance and made her a little bit more law-abiding.

"Plus, I still have other things I want Rachel to do which wouldn't have worked if I suddenly gave her a PSNI uniform."

Indeed, the author tells me that a third 'Point' novella is in the pipeline, along with a sequel to Shot: titled Drag, the next McNulty novel will find Brennan's tough copper and her partner DC Craig back to tackle a whole new case.

"With Shannon, I really wanted to write a strong woman," explains the author of his new central character, whose name was inspired by another complicated crime fiction copper – Jimmy McNulty from TV hit The Wire.

"I have a lot of strong women in my life – my mum, my two sisters, my wife and my daughter. I work in care too, so every woman I come in contact with is a fearless warrior, basically. A lot of my other books have tended to be quite masculine, so it was really good to explore a more feminine approach to a crime story."

He adds: "That's one of the reasons I didn't start Shot off with a 'dead female victim' as an opening scene. In fact, part two of the McNulty series is already with the publisher and it intentionally starts with her at the crime scene of a dead man who's been the victim of a sex crime. I want to get away from that whole trope, or at least reverse it as much as I can."

:: Shot is available now, published by Dockyard Press. Buy online via Dockyardpress.com/store/c8/Gerard_Brennan