A misty portrait of crime writer Linda Hagan
by publisher, Erik Empson
From the outskirts of Dublin I head north, intending to go to Belfast, but something I can’t explain stops me from crossing the threshold that was and wasn’t, is and isn’t, will be and won’t be, a border, and instead I U-turn and find a place to bed down on the south shore of Carlingford Lough. It is a glacial fjord connected by canal to the largest lake of the British Isles, Lough Neagh, which swallows almost half of Ireland’s rainfall. The next day I climb Slieve Gullion, an impressive peak which lies in the centre of a ring dyke of the same name, the clumsy remains of a caldera that attests to the momentous upheavals in the island’s primeval past. The idea was to get the lie of the northern lands before heading to County Antrim but the unpredictable weather outwitted me, and all I saw was mist.
This, I confess, added to my apprehension about meeting Linda Hagan, our most recent signing and the next author on my tour. Having read only two of her books, I felt I knew her least of all. That and the fact she is an English teacher. Ok, mostly that. I had run-ins with this species before at school – one was even called Miss Driver! Mostly, they didn’t end well.
I meet Linda in Carrickfergus where she has lived for most of her adult life. As a teacher of secondary school girls for much of her career, it wasn’t difficult to picture her stern side. Not least because I thought I spotted it sitting in the cafe waiting for me. Never a good sign – am I late? Did I forget to hand in the homework? What homework? An austere grey blazer doesn’t help assuage my fears. She cuts an imposing figure. It’s going to be lines or detention, once more. But wait! Is she possibly as nervous as I am? Have the tables been turned? Suddenly, when Linda breaks into a smile, it is like a huge gust of wind has blown the mist away, and I am left with a heartening vista of unbridled warmth. After a few moments of conversation, rather than the fierceness I anticipated, I’m met with a guarded shyness and the modesty of a gentle and unassuming lady.
A teacher’s severity is a functional attribute – do or die – one borne of the tough love needed to channel wild young spirits into fruitful avenues. But a writer’s role is to seduce, charm, infect, incite. Can the two coexist? Clearly Linda is no stranger to the written word. But without daring repeat the famous adage of George Bernard Shaw as regards teaching and doing, it is fair to say that educators don’t always make the best writers. And writers often find it very difficult to teach what they do and how they do it. So it is rare to find a writer and educator who accomplishes both with apparent ease. Even more so, one who enjoys both activities to the full. Yet in Linda, one finds exactly that.
Having now retired from teaching, Linda seized the opportunity provided by the pandemic to fulfil her life-long ambition to write a novel. Yet what came out of that wasn’t one novel but three and – regrettably like Covid-19 – she fortunately hasn’t stopped going since. They are murder mysteries set locally but furnished with carefully chosen characters, fashioned warts and all.
She has form. As an only child, in her east Belfast home Linda would play on the stairs with figures cut out from newspapers, creating small worlds known only to her. This was a time when The Troubles were kicking off, and no doubt it allowed an escape from the scary, incomprehensible adult realm of strife. But as she grew up, she set these childish indulgences aside and, rather than pursue her own ambitions, put her mind to helping others achieve theirs. There is a genuinely kind sentiment behind the ever-forgiving, ever-giving maternal form of nurture that is teaching, but it is clear that in focusing on writing – she works on it three hours solid every morning – Linda is now doing another thing she truly loves.
She has raised two successful daughters, gained a PhD in education, taught for years, and become a passionate researcher and advocate for the tongue of the Ulster Scots – enlisted by the EU to help its efforts to support minority language communities in pedagogy. The language – or is it a dialect? I think we settle on something in between – is mostly spoken in and around her home county. It is recognisable to my English ear, and comprehensible when Linda drops effortlessly into its surprisingly soft tones. It does contrast to the harsher Belfast accents one hears, and my guess is that it’s more Scottish than Irish.
Though coming from the region of Carrickfergus which Linda knows intimately, her protagonist DCI Gawn Girvin, who appears first in THE PERFUME KILLER, an ex-soldier turned cop who isn’t into small talk or doilies, most probably, doesn’t speak the dialect in her books, so future readers need not fear some undecipherable prose to rival COLD COMFORT FARM. Indeed, the Ulster Scots’ language has rarely been written down, and if it had been, there would likely be as many versions of the spelling as there are speakers – but Gawn’s name is of the area, and during her investigations the detective often has to correct the embarrassed uninitiated who opt for the phonetically easy option of Gorn, rather than the correct Garn.
We discuss whether such a minority tongue can flourish or whether her work is more conservation than innovation. A bit of both is the answer. Inevitably it has to evolve and part of that is conscious, part organic. The delightful langblether for telephone certainly has a place in this world, long may it stay. It competes with the Welsh vernacular popty ping for microwave, which itself appears to be a perversion of the official popty microdon; but the creative dispositif is clearly different.
Both, I suppose, lack the possibility of real demarcation along the Sausserian lines of langue and parole. Regardless, having based Gawn Girvin’s adventures in her home town and other areas she knows deeply, Linda’s readers enter a wonderfully credible and nuanced world.
Linda does bristle slightly at my mention of Carrickfergus being off the beaten track. In fact the walled town and impressive Anglo-Norman castle predates Belfast which only came to being in a real sense in the Victorian epoch. In one’s mind’s eye it is not hard to banish the coal-fired power station that lies to the north – if only it were so easy to rid ourselves of this dirty technology, the wind farms scattered across the northern glens of the county being so much more elegant ways to light our way – squint away the neon signs of the chain stores threatening the quainter high street shops, and see the town a little as it stood then. The almshouses forming part of the town wall, the thatched cottages of the poor beyond its walls. But what does it matter? Linda is a blow-in anyhow; like most of the authors I’ve met so far, she cannot totally lay claim to the place where she lives.
Like the subtleties of language, the history of the social and cultural landscape, its various migrations and allegiances, is even harder to fathom. Linda guides me patiently to peer into its murky complexities, colder than the loughs, and craggier than the peaks. For obvious reasons, identity in this part of the world is a sensitive topic but far deeper currents are at play than are seen on its sensational surfaces. More fundamental and determining of the human condition than identity, which is inevitably an inherited or borrowed trope, is recognition. Perhaps the strongest human bonds that exist, those between mother and child, actually have nothing to do with identity at all. The meeting of a baby and mother’s gaze and the mutual pleasure derived therein, is antecedent to and irrespective of any quality either subject has. Moreover, what most students require from a teacher, is less a good mark than a recognition of their self.
I find some confirmation of this. Though careful and deliberate in much that she says, Linda’s glee that former pupils – schoolkids, with their direct line of communication with the gods of cool, being the harshest of critics – are impressed with her literary achievements, is evidently difficult to contain. Kudos from these sources is as rare as a still day on the lough, and treasured when found. Once again, here recognition holds sway. It’s a two-way street.
Our chat is briefly interrupted by a phone call from Linda’s “eight year old” – surely not, I think – but it is her youngest grandchild, who is keen to stay the night with his elder sister over at his grandmother’s home. Oh yes, a familiar story: the kids are brought up with no elbows on the table and no treats between meals, but when the grandchildren come along, the frontiers break down – she allows them to stay up way beyond their bedtime, and they inevitably relish it. If there was a stern side to Linda – she assures me she was known to be very patient, and thus all the more effective when she lost her cool – it has long since dissipated. Perhaps, for someone who has had to maintain the face of authority, the transition is more extreme and more rewarding; as is, certainly, her newfound, total freedom to write.
Linda Hagan’s third book in the DCI Gawn Girvin series will be published in a matter of weeks.