Tyrone writer Anthony Quinn shares his name with a legendary actor - and now he's on the brink of attaining widespread fame in his own right. A television company is planning to make a series based on his debut detective novel - with Ciaran Hinds in mind for the lead role - and leading UK publishers Head of Zeus has just given him a five-figure advance for his third book, due for publication next year.
What's more, Quinn's debut novel Disappeared, which is set in counties Tyrone and Armagh, has been selected as one of the books of the year by two national newspapers, The Times and the Daily Mail. It also reached No 2 in the Amazon downloads in Australia last week, and was shortlisted for the Strand Literary Award in the US.
Quite a list of achievements for someone who was so shy as a child that he remained mute most of the time, and who received 40 rejection letters from publishers before he was signed up by Otto Penzler's Mysterious Press, a famous New York publisher.
"It feels a little unreal to have the Daily Mail acclaim me as a star of the future and to see it reviewed so well by the UK national press, and I think that's my saving grace," he says. "I have a busy home life, juggling looking after our four children and working as a reporter, and there's not much room for a big-head about the place. I have a very tight schedule and I just keep to that. I rise at 6am and work for a few hours, and resume last thing at night for a couple more."
Despite the big advance and accolades, Quinn (43) is still working his day job with the Tyrone Times. In his spare time, he's putting the finishing touches to his third novel, in which his middle-aged, semi depressive and insomniac detective, Celcius Daly, investigates unsolved murders that took place during the Troubles. As in the darker Nordic crime dramas, Daly is an outsider, a Catholic detective, who has to pit himself against criminals as well as the institutional bias of the police force.
When we first meet him in Quinn's debut Disappeared, Daly's colleagues suspect him of being a traitor, of harbouring misplaced loyalties to the wife of a suspected IRA man. While making it harder for him to succeed as an investigator, his outsider status also leaves him more empathic and perceptive, and more of a risk-taker than his colleagues. All making for good meaty fiction and potentially compelling drama.
So how did Quinn make such a page-turner out of territory many publishers have, until recently, viewed as a turn-off?
"It took a long time to get anyone to even look," he says, speaking at his home near Dungannon. "Time and distance from the Troubles has changed that. I think the Troubles has shaped the mind-sets of many writers and influenced them in powerful, sometimes subconscious ways.
"I'm sure I wasn't the only child during the Troubles who went to sleep dreaming of a good hero who would deliver justice and fairness to a society riven with murderous acts.
"In many ways, I've been replaying this struggle between good and evil in my mind since my earliest days; it was the over-arching narrative of my childhood, and one that still fascinates me today. Fortunately, we now have a largely peaceful society in Northern Ireland, but there are still tensions roiling the calm. I think fiction is a great way to explore these tensions and interrogate the past."
Quinn wooed his wife Clare with Yeats poetry (more of which later). They have four children, Lucy (10), Aine (8), Olivia (6), and Brendan (3). He comes from a family twice the size, and grew up on a farm in the 1970s. His mother taught him to read and write at the age of four, giving him her love of literature, while his grandfather and uncle next door spent evenings telling him Irish folk stories, full of ghosts, shape-shifters and spirits, mischievous fairies, bewitched cattle, curses and cures.
Although he was able to read and write before he went to school, he needed a speech therapist to help him communicate verbally.
"Socially, I was painfully shy, mute almost," he recalls. "My twin sister Eileen and I invented our own language as toddlers, and stubbornly refused to abandon it as we grew older.
"Our younger sister, Rhoda, had to translate for our parents, who found our lingua franca incomprehensible. I remember a speech therapist telling my mother that it was such a lovely thing that my twin sister and I had between us, but she was going to have to put a stop to it. I was annoyed with her because she insisted her word for 'tree' was correct and ours wrong. Even then, I knew that language belongs to the user. The way we speak, our vernacular, is something we absorb from our environment, and is an important part of our identity.
"Growing up isolated on a farm and surrounded by babies, it was only natural that we blended so many baby-words into our vocabulary. Their loss left me with a slightly rebellious attitude towards the English language. After all, it had usurped my first tongue, a language that belonged to my sister and me."
Anthony went on to spend most of his adolescence and young adulthood writing moody poetry, and although he "shivers at the thought of it ever seeing the light of day", his whole family knew he'd one day become a novelist.
He was prompted to write Disappeared because - although quite a bit of crime fiction is emerging from this part of the world - he didn't feel as though any of it did justice to the landscape and people he knew. His research is based upon his own personal experiences of the Troubles, and the stories he encounters as a journalist.
"I wanted to introduce international readers to the mood-enhancing beauty of the Irish landscape and also its darkness. I take a guilty pleasure in drawing the reader's attention to its strangeness, making them shudder at a gruesome-looking blackthorn tree, a rotting cottage, or a treacherous bog. I wanted readers to feel the dark gravity of the border countryside, its interlocking parishes of grief, its mesh of twisting roads, the sense that out there amid the blackthorn thickets and swirling mists, loose bits of the past are still wriggling their way through the shadows."
The UK and Irish publishers Quinn approached loved the writing but thought the plot was too immersed in the Troubles to become a commercial success. Ironically, Disappeared had to be published across the Atlantic before it could become a success at home. In 2012, it was shortlisted for the Strand Literary Award, which is judged by book critics from the Washington Post, the LA Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and other US newspapers. It was also picked as one of the top thrillers of the year by Kirkus Reviews.
After being published in London by Head of Zeus in August this year, the book was given great reviews in the Daily Mail, The Times and The Sunday Times, as well as the Irish Independent.
Quinn's next book, The Blood Dimmed Tide, an historical thriller featuring WB Yeats, was published in October by London publisher No Exit Press, and has been acclaimed as an Irish Shadow of the Wind.
"It might seem bizarre material for a crime novel - the doomed search of a Nobel Laureate poet for evidence of the supernatural - but I've been a fan of WB Yeats and his poetry for years, so much so that I was able to recite several of his longer poems in order to woo my wife Clare on the evening we first met," he says.
"The beaches where he composed some of his most famous works are places that I visit frequently. Over the years, I've often wondered what went through his mind as he trod the shoreline at Lissadell and Rosses Point. So I didn't have to travel too far mentally to arrive at the idea of a supernatural mystery thriller with Yeats at its heart, and the silver strands of Sligo as its stage.
"Yeats was very good company in the 14 months it took to research and write The Blood Dimmed Tide. I hope that he will prove equally irresistible to readers!"
From social worker to author
Anthony Quinn was born in 1971 in Co Tyrone. After completing an English degree at Queen's University, he followed various callings - social worker, counsellor, lecturer, organic market gardener, yoga teacher - before becoming a part-time journalist and full-time father. His short stories have been short-listed twice for a Hennessy/New Irish Writing Award. He was also the runner-up in a Sunday Times New Food Writer competition.