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Karma police

Author Darragh McManus talks moral fables, educated vigilantes and working to the soundtrack of his own screams with Brendan Daly

Even Flow is the new book from Crusheen-based writer Darragh  McManus.DARRAGH McManus is talking about the origins of his new crime novel, Even Flow. The journalist and writer, who lives in Crusheen, traces part of the book’s beginnings to his university days in Cork in the early ’90s and, in particular, to a spate of violent attacks on college students suspected of being gay.

Labelled ‘queer-bashing’ by the media at the time, Darragh – like his peers – was outraged by these incidents. In the middle of student debates on how best to react to these crimes, the author started to imagine how a fictional vigilante gang might respond.

“I thought it’d be really funny if there was a group of ‘queer-basher bashers’ – a gang who picked on ‘queer-bashers’,” he laughs. “It was a joke, but then the idea took hold: ‘What if I did write a story like that?’

“I wanted a gang of feminists and gay rights activists that were the antithesis of the stereotype: they’re sensitive, thoughtful and well-educated, but they’re also physically courageous, able to fight – and ruthless. They’re cool and daring and have a lot of flair.”

With this, Even Flow was born. Set in contemporary New York and adopting the tone of Elmore Leonard, the fast-paced action revolves around the 3W Gang. They’re a group of vigilantes with a difference: bright, dynamic young men determined to punish – using spectacular set-pieces – anyone who doesn’t share their vision of a tolerant society.

Darragh is engaging company. As he sips a coffee, he listens attentively to each question before delivering considered, articulate responses – usually sprinkled with his trademark, self-depreciating humour.

“It’s a moral fable wrapped up in a thriller,” he says of the novel, before worrying that such a description might sound pretentious.

“First and foremost,” Darragh insists, “the book is an entertainment. It’s not a beating-you-over-the-head polemic. But there is an argument being made – not by the author, at all. The book is making a contention, but both sides are being heard. The moral heart of the book is the gay cop chasing the gang. He understands why they’re doing this, but he still wants to stop them.”

The 3W Gang’s influences are central to their identity. The members take their names from three gay icons: playwright Oscar Wilde, poet Walt Whitman and film director John Waters. Drawing on the tradition of militant urban guerrillas like the Baader-Meinhof Group in 1970s West Germany, the 3W Gang consider their activities a form of performance art rather than illegal violence. They’re inspired by the way grunge music reconciled masculine and feminine impulses into a healthy whole.

“They’re the ‘new man’ in excelsis,” Darragh  explains. “They’re very feminist, pro-gay rights and very anti-machismo, homophobia and misogyny. They’re the children of movements since the ’60s, like feminism, gay rights, irony and post-modernism. They’re like Germaine Greer crossed with Dirty Harry crossed with Kurt Cobain.”

For the 3W Gang, committing an act of terrorism is not the end result but, instead, just the beginning: they want their stunts to prompt discussion and shape public opinion.

“They’re starting a programme of ‘re-education’ of society by selectively punishing people and filming the crime as part of this spoof TV show that they call ‘Karma TV’. It’s like an accelerated karma. And they broadcast this to provoke debate.”

Darragh wrote a rough draft of the story about 10 years ago and explored various formats for it – including as a film script. He remembers writing the novel as an “easy” experience and submitted the manuscript to Roundfire Books in the UK last summer. The response was almost immediate.

“They got back to me within a week with an offer of a contract,” he says. “I couldn’t believe it. I was like, ‘I must be reading this email wrong’ because it’s usually 12 months or so before they reply.”

Even Flow is his third book. GAA Confidential, his 2007 debut, was an eclectic exploration of the role and significance of the GAA in Irish life. He followed it in 2011 with a comic novel Cold! Steel!! Justice!!!, which gleefully played with the conventions of 1980s police films, and was released as an e-book under the pen-name Alexander O’Hara.

As a freelance journalist, Darragh writes features, reviews and opinion pieces for publications as diverse as The Sunday Times, The Guardian, The RTÉ Guide and U Magazine. He contributes a weekly radio review to The Irish Independent. He also spent a few years in The Clare Champion newsroom as a sub-editor and columnist.

“I can’t write and listen to the radio at the same time. I have to have silence – only, as I say, the soundtrack of my own screams,” he laughs.

“But in your life, you’d have the radio on during breakfast, lunch or in the car. Generally, I’d pick two radio programmes a week. Hopefully, you’d find a common theme or you might be able to make a comment on some wider aspect of society reflected in the programmes.”

Darragh’s next book, The Polka Dot Girl, is already written and will appear in the spring of 2013. Channeling the spirit of Raymond Chandler, this detective novel incorporates the conventions of noir fiction – the hard-bitten cop, the femme fatale, the mastermind villain, the self-destructive victim – but also undermines these ingredients by making all the characters female.

“Noir novels usually start with a dead body being pulled out of the harbour in the middle of the night and that’s how this starts, ‘She was dead by the time I got there’. I had an idea in my head of Winona Ryder for how this character would physically look: early 30s, very small, short, cropped black hair.

“It was great fun to write, just finding the tone. I wanted the book to have its own voice and for the story to stand on its own; that if you changed half the characters to men, it would still be an entertaining, convoluted noir mystery with all the conventions of the genre. The all-women thing is not superfluous. I think it’s better that they’re all women – you get sucked into this murky, sexy, spooky, dreamy city.”

Even Flow is published by Roundfire Books.

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