Lil ol Lady Justice

author anne crosse

A portrait of Irish writer Anne Crosse

by publisher, Erik Empson

One might, on arriving in Ireland for the first time, disembarking the ferry as I did in Rosslare, think that one had got on the wrong boat and landed in Holland or such like, given the orderliness of the place – trimmed verges, perfectly asphalted, well-maintained roads, and impeccably pristine houses. Perhaps the first tell-tale sign that you aren’t would be the unmistakable Atlantic blue of the skies, radiating above the open green fields, in contrast to the more ashen hues found on the shores of the North Sea.

On a small-scale topographical map, or from one of its highest peaks, much of the landscape of Ireland looks relatively flat. Grand hills rise here and there, but for the most part it looks level. Only on the ground, so to speak, does one see that far from being an extensive plain, the terrain is in fact knobbly, bumpy, full of small ups and downs, and roads that twist in and out of thickety hollows. This unevenness is reflected in the human geography too.

I head inland to meet Anne Crosse, who is a fragile, shy looking woman, who looks like she is hiding inside herself. An unexpected gust of wind might bowl her over or carry her across the street like an autumn leaf. Which is why my first impression is one of concern. Had I drawn our precious author out of the safe place of her home into danger? Her hometown, Tipperary, where she was born, and to where she returned in her early forties after a stint in London, is desperately in need of a bypass. If lorries could thunder through, they would, but rather they barge and bustle in stops and starts along the main route that bifurcates the town, hissing and pissing, and only just missing. No, her youngest son delivered her to the cafe, and is picking her up. Phew!

If I was worried about Anne’s fragility, I shouldn’t have been. She soon shows herself to be strong in character, and like the best people, capable of infinite self-mockery. She hasn’t replaced her car, because they don’t make them small enough for her not to have to strain to look over the dashboard. Now her son drives “Miss Daisy”. A shame, because when younger she would relish motoring around, and it is impossible not to share her zeal when recounting how in the summers she would visit her uncle Raymond, a monk at the Cistercian Mount Melleray Abbey, high up on the slopes of the Knockmealdown Mountains, and swoosh up and down the roads with abandon, her copper hair billowing in the breeze.

Anne’s first three books are a series of mysteries set in Magnerstown, a fictional representation of Tipperary. I joke that she didn’t mention the desperate need for a bypass, and I am corrected. In her fourth book, which she is just putting the finishing touches on, a factory is knocked down to make way for one, leading to all sorts of local shenanigans including a rat infestation. And these are typical themes she wants to explore. For all the gentle exterior, Anne has a wickedly dark impish streak and a devilish imagination. Is it something in the water, or the lack of it? Have the giant batteries of the Bulmers cider breweries in nearby Clonmel, whose plumes of white clouds can be seen from miles around, used it all up?

If one might not make Anne out straightaway, the same could be said for her books. Less genteel than the author, they are comic, irreverent and slightly disconcerting. The main protagonist, Robert Carroll, a drunken detective who is rude, ignorant and brash, has few redeeming qualities. Even the kind woman in the first book who manages to befriend him, eventually runs a mile. Anne breaks with the rules of her murder mystery genre. Cozy in style but noir in themes and content: human body parts turn up vacuum sealed in a meat processing plant, local troublemakers are unceremoniously thrown down a well – in her own idiosyncratic way Anne is righting the world’s wrongs by taking the bad guys round back and giving them a good dusting.

And maybe part of this need to correct some enduring injustices stems from her own family’s misfortune, which has clearly left its mark. An uncle of hers who couldn’t find work ended up joining the British Army during WWII. As a prisoner of war, he was being transported by the Japanese on the SS Kachidoki Marus transport ship only for it to be sunk by a US submarine, leaving him to drown in the distant waters of the Pacific. Another uncle returned home after surviving the war serving with the British, only to be shot in the back by an Irish rebel on the steps of the local hotel. When he was dying Anne’s mother, his non-smoking sister-in-law would light a cigarette for him. Her father-in-law was killed during one of the battles for the Gothic line in the Italian campaigns that included the legendary struggle for Monte Cassino (the picture to the left is of Anne’s mother-in-law at her husband’s grave in the Gradara War Cemetery).

Of course, Anne’s family weathered these traumatic blows as one had to. And it did not stop her from living her life to the full, leaving the comparative backwater of Tipperary for the heady lights of London, and only looking back when she decided to put some distance between herself and her husband. Who quickly followed when her own father found him a job back in Ireland. When in London she worked a variety of roles. She had a stint working in the cloakroom in the Hammersmith Odeon – she recounts with glee how Tommy Cooper once asked her what the time the lights went on so he could escape with his mistress undetected, plus how she scandalised her manager by charging him the normal fee – and as a secretary for a German pilot turned businessman, who after being shot down in the war, stayed on in the UK and married an English woman who was one-armed due to the bombings he had been part of.

Hearing these stories, I begin to understand Anne’s writing a little more. She turns tragedy into mirth, and delivers the weighty sword of justice on wrongdoers – sometimes gracefully, often with brute force. She is a killer lil’ ol’ lady, and if you are too big for your boots, or acting the maggot, you have it coming.

Death comes to Magnerstown

From culchie to sassy Londoner, Anne is something of an Anglophile for sure, and lowers her voice to confess that in her region she’d probably be considered a West Brit. How deep this sentiment runs isn’t clear, and it may have been in jest that she poo-poos the benefits of the free state, but she bemoans that with Brexit she’s now unable to procure her favourite home comforts from M&S and such like. It is, however, no doubt in part this disposition that allows her to project aspects of Ireland that are absent from its soft cultural nation branding, and voice some of the vices and victims of its darker underbelly. And there are a fair few – not least the dangerous alignments of church and state, and the nepotism and cronyism that accompany a small aspirant state with powerful neighbours and benefactors.

Indeed, as one travels through the charming, curated landscape, one is reminded that it was not only England that held sway here. The religiosity is deep seated, spoon fed to infants, as much as liquor souses the old. Statues and homemade icons of Jesus and the Madonna scar places like the bullet holes in Dublin’s GPO. Much the same as in the country of its spiritual pater and fellow siblings like Poland. Anne has avoided the stereotype of the Irish and with her flawed, damaged heroes repainted the scenery with a palette lacking nostalgia and heavy with irony.

I leave Anne in the Jack Judge hostelry – named after the man who wrote the song that immortalised Tipperary – nursing the tonic water she has stuck to throughout our meeting, after the hundredth reassurance her son was picking her up and she wouldn’t have to traverse the street. The next day I will climb Cush, a prominent hill in the Galtee mountains to the south, and observe just how cloistered and isolated Tipperary sits. I carry with me the consciousness of how much we owe to the generations that come before us. But it is no burden, rather a warm sentiment that the harsh wind and impending rain will not extinguish.

Anne’s fourth book in her Magnerstown mystery series will be available before the end of the year. For links to purchase her first three books, click here.

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