Back to UCC for Cork’s Crime Writing Queen

Following the release of her third book, set in her alma mater, UCC alumna and author Catherine Kirwan reflects on her lifelong love of crime fiction, her unique path into the world of writing, and that Graham Norton moment. In conversation with Jane Haynes.

22 Jun 2023

I think she’s really good.

When Graham Norton uses these words to describe you, it’s kind of a big deal. This is what Catherine Kirwan, Cork author and fellow UCC alumna, discovered when the beloved entertainer proclaimed himself a fan of her crime fiction novels.

"It’s hard to beat that – I just couldn’t believe it," says Catherine.

"His sister had given him my first book for Christmas, and he had read it and enjoyed it and mentioned it on his radio show – which he didn’t have to do. And then, it turned out he had read my second book, and he mentioned it in an interview he did with the Irish Examiner.

"He’s a great hero of mine; I mean, I love him – everybody does!"

Life has been full of these pleasant surprises for Catherine, a UCC Law graduate, since she published her first novel, Darkest Truth, four years ago. Hailed as a ‘wonderfully assured debut’, Darkest Truth follows the story of Cork solicitor Finn Fitzpatrick as she investigates the death of a grieving man’s daughter. Full of gripping twists and turns, the novel proved to be a hit – quite the achievement for an author who started writing less than a decade ago with the intention of merely ‘giving it a go’.

"I had always thought about writing, but something stopped me – I just didn’t have the confidence to even try," says Catherine, who works full-time as a solicitor at Finbarr Murphy & Co., in the heart of Cork city.

"Then I copped myself on and said, ‘Sure, I might as well give it a go’ – and that’s what I did. From then on, once I started, progress has been quick."

She isn’t exaggerating with that last statement. Having written a first draft of her debut crime novel, Catherine locked the story away until, one day, fate intervened in the form of a Facebook post promoting the Daily Mail Penguin Random House First Novel Competition. A respected hub for budding new talent, the competition seeks debut novels from unpublished writers. Catherine’s interest was piqued, and she decided to enter – all the while thinking ‘nothing will ever come out of this’. Fast-forward four months, and Catherine received a call from one of the competition judges informing her that she was in the top 10 of 5,000 submissions, with six to be shortlisted for the final. Catherine would eventually be informed that while she had not won, she had placed within the top six.

"I just want to write better and better books – that’s my main ambition. It’s all about the writing."

The achievement instilled a sense of renewed confidence in Catherine – but it also brought a wonderful surprise. That judge who had contacted her, Luigi Bonomi, was a top literary agent in London, and he was keen to read the rest of the novel. After ‘having another go’ at the book, Catherine sent on the completed work and was delighted when Luigi asked to formally represent her. Darkest Truth was released in 2019, followed by the next instalment in the Finn Fitzpatrick series, Cruel Deeds, in 2022.

Celebrity fans aside, Catherine’s books have made waves among the broader community of crime fiction readers. And while you may be tempted to think that Catherine deliberately tapped into the recent true crime zeitgeist, for her it comes back to writing about something that she has always truly enjoyed.

"I’ve been reading crime fiction my whole life, including the 'kiddie version' – The Secret Seven, The Famous Five, Nancy Drew," she recalls.

Catherine wanted her ‘dogged’ protagonist, Finn, to be a cross between Nancy Drew and Ian Rankin's John Rebus; and as for the stories themselves, it was important for her to balance the darkness with a little light as well as satisfy the cravings of her audience.

"Everything has to be tied up at the end, because that’s what we want as crime readers – we want to be totally taken up by the plot, not knowing what’s going on, and trying to figure it out and get to the conclusion. If we guess the ending, it’s kind of disappointing, because we want the writer to cod us completely!" she explains.

"It should be totally engrossing. What you want when you buy a book is to not be able to put that book down."

Reader satisfaction will give a boost to any author, but it’s the interactions and discussions sparked by Finn’s escapades that have really delighted Catherine and motivated her when she needed it the most. She recalls a standout moment last year, from a local reader event:

"There was a big disagreement between the readers there, about some aspects of things in my books, which I found hilarious and really encouraging. Of course, you go through peaks and troughs, but knowing that people care that much about my characters was just brilliant … It was huge encouragement for me, especially because I was trying to finish my current book at the time."

Catherine's latest novel, A Lesson In Malice, is set in UCC

The book in question, A Lesson in Malice, not only sees the return of Finn but is also set in a very familiar location – none other than Catherine’s alma mater! Released on 29 June, the story follows Finn as she returns to UCC to speak at a conference – only to end up embroiled in a murder-mystery.

For Catherine, who loved her time in the university and formed some of her closest friendships during her student days, setting the story in UCC was a no-brainer. With plenty of well-known campus spots making cameos in the book, Catherine is also extremely aware of the significance of choosing such a beloved setting for her story.

"All of the characters are made up – completely made up!" she says, assuredly.

"I made a massive effort to ensure that I wouldn’t be inspired by any real-life people – I do that in all my books."

While Catherine is already thinking about book four, she insists that she won’t be going full-time as an author in the near future but will continue to enjoy writing in her spare time.

"I just want to write better and better books – that’s my main ambition. It’s all about the writing," says Catherine.

"If the priority is the book, everything else will hopefully follow."


A Lesson in Malice is published on 29 June 2023 by Hachette Ireland, and the launch takes place in Waterstones Cork at 6pm on 4 July. All are welcome to attend. An event at UCC, jointly hosted by the School of English and the School of Law, will take place in the autumn. Full details to be announced later.

Photography: Diane Cusack

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