Celebrating its sixtieth anniversary this year the Crime Writers Association is known for supporting and promoting authors at all stages of their career and boasts the top crime writers in the world as members. Every year the CWA runs the prestigious Dagger Awards, which celebrate the best in crime writing. These include The Diamond Dagger for sustained excellence in crime writing and for having made a significant contribution to crime fiction, which is nominated and voted for exclusively by members of the CWA.
For over a decade, the CWA has been encouraging new writing with the Debut Dagger competition. Unpublished writers can enter the competition by submitting the opening chapters and synopsis of a proposed crime novel. The submissions are judged by a panel of top crime editors and agents, and the short-listed entries are offered to publishers and agents who specialize in the crime genre. Publication isn’t guaranteed, but to date, sixteen winners or short-listed entrants have been published as a result of this award, and some have gone on to win further awards for their work.
Born and raised in New York, but currently living in Co. Meath, Áine Ó Domhnaill was delighted [something of an understatement, read ecstatic, thrilled and add your own adjectives!] to find her novel The Assassin’s Keeper on the prestigious Debut Dagger shortlist.
Catching her literally hours before a flight to New York, I wanted to know all about Áine and the book. Firstly she explained the story that had caught the judges eye: “The Assassin’s Keeper is the first book in a chronologically reversed trilogy of the same name that spans over a 40 year period. It takes place in an almost futuristic New York City, where the streets are governed by criminals, and cadaver trading and public execution becomes the norm. We follow Charles St. Vincent, the handsome but masochistic Assistant District Attorney and alcoholic who has taken on the role of being the cape-less crusader of the city. But nothing comes easy when there’s a hit hanging over your head.
Charles, both in and out of the courtroom, goes head to head with the biggest criminal organization the country has seen, enacting revenge twenty years after the deaths of his lover, Ann, and her vigilante father, Seamus Killian. But it’s in his revenge that he inadvertently sparks the biggest mafia war that New York will ever see.
While we see a war unravel before us, Charles takes us back to the 80’s and 90’s to show his transition from an awkward teenager in love with the girl next door to becoming one of the greatest assassins of our time, a concept that no one ever anticipated.
Meanwhile, Federal Agent Clarence Lacy has it in for Charles and will stop at nothing to prove he’s the vigilante of the city, a notion so ridiculous that it might cost him everything.
But what do dead vigilantes have to do with today’s war? Will Charles live long enough to see the war he’s created? Or worse, will Lacy catch him first? And what happens when everybody in New York is forced to choose sides?”
Described by the judges as well-written with immediate action, The Assassin’s Keeper calls on Áine’s New York childhood for setting and location. I asked Áine when she had started writing. She explained, “It’s a funny story, really. Five years ago I was living down in the southern states in America, and I began to see a counselor due to some rough patches I was facing. Now, here was a very conservative, Kentucky bred, Born-Again Christian who would cringe over every F-word I’d utter in his office – and there were quite a few. So he told me to write. And I hated it. But for whatever reason, I liked the shock value, and so I came back with a violent, action packed piece of work sprinkled with profanity, just to see his reaction.
‘That first time, I waited as he read it. I remember thinking he was going to call in the guys with the butterfly nets as he finished the last page. He took of his glasses, rubbed his brow and exhaled. There was a long silence. And then he leaned in and said “That was the best f***ing thing I ever read.”
‘From then on, I’d write something new every week and he’d keep me an extra ten minutes (taking someone else’s well-paid time) just to read him new chapters. And THAT was how “The Assassin’s Keeper” was born. I haven’t stopped writing since.
‘I have about 8 novels in the works, but there are two I’m really focusing on. The Children of Freedom is a gritty fiction about a religious cult told by a young girl who goes missing and her stalker, Freedom.
Swept is a another story I’m working on, set during WW2 about 6 very different people (including a Nazi and a washed up Vaudeville actress) with slight superhuman powers trying to escape the clutches of ‘The Sweeper,’ the villain who wants their powers to use against the Axis powers in the military.”
Always interested in a writer’s inspiration, I wondered how the idea for The Assassin’s Keeper had come to Áine, and, after that initial encouragement, how long it had taken to finish. She revealed, “Film is the reason I write. I’ve been an avid film buff since I was a child, going to the theaters with my father since 1989 (when I was 4, I can still vividly remember ‘The Adventures of Milo and Otis’ and ‘Batman’). And after I saw Goodfellas for the first time (at way too young of an age), I knew I wanted to create mobster flicks! Of course, this was just the wishful thinking of a child. But when I first put pen-to-paper many years later, I knew that that was exactly what I wanted to write. And it came naturally. But much of it has a lot to do with being born and raised in New York.
‘The Assassin’s Keeper took 5 years to write, but only because I was preoccupied with the demands of daily life. But if I’d the time to devote, it would have taken me only a quarter of that. I am a full out binge writer. Some days I can write 50 pages in one shot, usually when an insomnia bout rears its ugly head. And then I go for weeks of writers’ block and procrastination. I try to have a routine, but it’s useless for me. I live on a farm on Co. Meath with a million dollar view, but I have to keep my back to the windows. I just got a desk this last Christmas so I face a blank wall and crank up the music on my headphones (right now it’s Apocalyptica). I can never write in silence. ”
With this total immersion approach I asked about how much plotting and planning goes into Áine’s stories. She told me, “I definitely write blindly. It allows me to surprise myself once in a while. Besides, I’m the most disorganized person on the planet. Even when I’ve tried outlines, I never adhere to them.”
The Debut Dagger Award is without doubt one of the most prestigious in crime fiction – I asked Áine how she felt about being shortlisted, to which she laughed, “I was literally waiting for a phone call to tell me there was this big mistake. I honestly didn’t realize how big of an award it was until afterwards. I said to friends, “Oh, you’ve heard of this thing?” and they’d respond with, “Umm…yes.”
‘I think I was more surprised in the fact that I was the only one from Ireland who was shortlisted, since we all know Ireland breeds fantastic and talented writers. After so many rejections, I was definitely shocked. I cried. Even more surprised that it was from an older draft (I swear the latest draft is far better). And the reaction has been mostly positive! I have a lot of people rooting for me, which is great because I never thought I’d get anywhere – a lot of people said I’d never get anywhere. But it’s so nice to have this new-founded support. Really means so much to me.”
Each of the shortlisted authors are in with a chance to win the first prize of £700, and all shortlisted entrants will receive a professional assessment of their entries. The winner will be announced at the televised Awards dinner in London on 15th July. You can show your support for Áine by liking her Facebook page here: www.facebook.com/theassassinskeeper.
We’ll be rooting for her!
March 2014 Update
Aine didn’t win the Debut Dagger, but when she finished her next book, The Children of Freedom, she emailed it to Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin at Inkwell. One of Inkwell’s editors had worked on The Children of Freedom and Vanessa had been in regular touch with Aine to see how it was progressing. That was late on a Tuesday evening; Vanessa had just returned from a trip to London the day before and she knew someone who was looking for a sensational crime novel. She sent it straight over. On Thursday Simon Trewin Head of Literary at WME signed Aine, and on Friday he sold the book to Harper Collins in the first of a series of spectacular deals. The Bookseller have the story here.
Aine is now Jax Miller and the book is Freedom’s Child.