As someone whose Irish ancestors came to America during the potato famine, I’ve always gravitated toward whodunits set in the Emerald Isle. I've recently been streaming Gillian Anderson in The Fall, which is currently free on Peacock. It's a three-season crime drama series based on the BTK Killer that's set in Northern Ireland. I started the show mainly because of nostalgia for Dana Scully in The X-Files but kept going because its depiction of DCI Stella Gibson's cat-and-mouse game with serial killer Paul Spector is intensely dark and complex.
As for novels, the Irish noir scene has come into its own in recent years and women authors are some of the best in the field. Whether you’re seeking a psychological thriller, a gritty urban murder tale or a police procedural, Irish crime writing has what you’re looking for.
Here are seven Irish mysteries worth reading. I’ve included some of my all-time favorites, as well as a few recent novels by authors you may not know yet:
1. In the Woods by Tana French
Tana French, an American-Irish writer who lives in Dublin, is the queen of Irish crime fiction. If you haven’t read her police procedural series yet, In the Woods is the perfect place to start.
The first of her Dublin Murder Squad mysteries, the novel begins in 1984 when one of three kids doesn’t come home after dark and the second is found clutching a tree trunk with no memory of what happened. Years later, the missing girl’s body appears at an archaeological dig site and one of the investigating Gardai happens to be the boy who lost his friend.
Winner of a slew of awards, In the Woods is a taught, intricately plotted thriller and the ending is, well, strange and fabulously unsettling (let’s just say I spent a solid hour googling about it).
A close runner up is French’s The Secret Place, which is set at the private school where one of the murder squad’s children is a student. Like In the Woods, a paranormal undercurrent runs through the novel, this time to an even greater degree.
While that may put some readers off, the latent wiccan in me can’t get enough of it. And if you’re somebody who figures out the murderer’s identity by chapter 2, I’m betting you won’t when it comes to French’s books.
If you'd rather stream your suspense you can watch Dublin Murders, an eight-part series based on French's novels, which is currently free on Roku.
2. The Mountains Wild by Sarah Stewart Taylor
Sarah Stewart Taylor’s thriller tells the story of Maggie D’Arcy’s search to find out the truth about her cousin Erin’s disappearance 23 years earlier in the Irish countryside. Another woman has just gone missing in the same area and Erin’s bloody scarf has turned up at the site of the abduction.
To make matters worse, a number of women have vanished from the same area over the intervening years and at least two of them were murdered. Maggie, now a cop, sets off for Ireland, where she hopes to help the Gardai in their search to catch a killer before it’s too late.
The Mountains Wild is both a gripping mystery and a love letter to Ireland (as Taylor states in her acknowledgments). Though she lives in the U.S., Taylor studied at Irish Literature at Trinity and her connection to the country comes through on every page.
The novel is full of references of Irish literature, history and landscape, including snippets of “rebel songs that tell stories” and even some arcane Joycean allusions to chickens.
3. The Liar’s Girl by Catherine Ryan Howard
Catherine Ryan Howard’s novel makes every bad relationship you’ve been in seem positively wonderful. Its protagonist Alison Smith is a student at St. John’s College in Dublin when an unknown assailant murders her best friend.
Well, maybe not unknown, because it isn’t long before police arrest Alison’s boyfriend, the first guy she’s really fallen in love with. After his conviction, she flees Ireland for the Netherlands but several new murders force Alison back to her homeland. Is a copycat killer at work or is it possible Will was wrongly sentenced?
Police aren’t sure but they believe Alison may be the only person who can enlist Will’s help in discovering the truth. This suspenseful read also has an ending that may surprise you, so don’t think you know who the killer is until the final chapter.
Originally from Cork, Howard is currently based in Dublin and recently signed a two-book deal with Corvus books.
4. Things in Jars by Jess Kidd
The one may be a bit of a stretch because it’s set in London, not Ireland. But I’m keeping it on my list because Jess Kidd hails from County Mayo and the novel’s main character, Bridie Devine, is a redheaded, pipe-smoking Irish immigrant who makes her living as a private detective.
There’s also Ruby Doyle, an Irish boxer/ghost who appears and disappears at will throughout the tale. While Things in Jars chronicles the sometimes nefarious efforts of Victorian scientists to collect natural oddities, there’s a strong supernatural element (if the ghost wasn’t already a tip-off, let me say there’s a “Winter Mermaid”).
And if you’re determined to read something set in Ireland, you can try Kidd’s second novel, Mr. Flood’s Last Resort. Just as peculiar as Things in Jars, it features an Irish hoarder, feral cats, a gothic mansion and a sprinkling of otherworldly saints.
5. Stolen Girls by Patricia Gibney
Released in February, Patricia Gibney’s new novel features PI Lottie Parker, a harried single working mom trying to keep her family from falling apart while pursuing her career.
Still recovering from her last case, Lottie is tasked with investigating the gruesome murder of a pregnant woman. It’s not long before a second body turns up and then two more girls go missing. Though the book is set in Ireland, Kosovo also comes into play, as does sex trafficking, self-harm, rape and organ farming.
There are plenty of twists and turns to keep you guessing and while some readers may not take to Lottie, I find her flaws as a mother and a boss terribly refreshing, not to mention comforting.
If you’re the type of person who likes to begin at the beginning, you’re in luck: this is only the second book in the series and the first, The Missing Ones, is just as good, if not better.
6. Cruel Acts by Jane Casey
The eighth installment in Jane Casey’s bestselling police procedural series won the Irish Independent Crime Fiction Book of the Year in 2019.
Like Bridie Devine, Maeve Kerrigan is a detective working in London who refuses to be beaten down by circumstance. And like The Liar’s Girl, Cruel Acts also centers on a serial killer who may have been wrongly convicted.
The difference in this case is that Leo Stone has been set free on a technicality and Maeve doesn’t believe his protestations of innocence. Even worse, there is the possibility that Stone’s murdered more than the two women he was initially sent to prison for.
This one’s got plenty of clever plot twists and the developing relationship between Maeve and her partner Josh Derwent also kept me guessing.
7. Last Goodbye by Arlene Hunt
This police procedural is Hunt’s ninth novel and the first in a series featuring detectives Eli Quinn and Roxy Malloy. It begins on a winter morning when a couple is found murdered in their home outside Dublin.
“The woman’s body lay on the bed, hair fanned out in a golden halo, blue eyes open. On the table stood an unmistakable sign: a bouquet of bright yellow roses…”
This is a fast-paced, addictive page-turner filled. I loved the chemistry between the old-school detective Quinn and Roxy, who is a newbie six months away from becoming a sergeant. The secondary characters also kept me reading, especially The Wolf — who may or may not be the killer.
If you like your Irish fiction even darker, Hunt’s next thriller is a runner-up pick. The novel reveals the dark underbelly of Dublin, where rival mafia gangs the Wards and the Kennedys fight for ascendancy. Yulia and Celestine are sisters who imagined Ireland would allow them to find peace, but instead they become trafficking victims whose lives are in danger. Packed with plenty of gritty action, No Escape will likely appeal to fans of the Dublin crime scene.
Whether you like your whodunits dark or light, contemporary or historical, Irish women writers offer plenty to choose from.