“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Reviews: Irish Times Crime Fiction Column, July 2015

PSNI Detective Chief Inspector Serena Flanagan was a memorable character in the supporting cast of Stuart Neville’s The Final Silence (2014), but Those We Left Behind (Harvill Secker, €16.99) sees DCI Flanagan move to centre-stage. Set in contemporary Belfast, the story opens in 2007 with the aftermath of the brutal killing of David Rolston by his foster charges 12-year-old Ciaran and 14-year-old Thomas Devine. The story then moves forward to the present day, with Ciaran – who pled guilty to David Rolston’s killing, and with whom Flanagan developed an unusually intense bond – about to be released on parole. Questions remain about who was truly guilty of David Rolston’s murder, however, and Daniel Rolston, whose family was destroyed by the allegations the teenage boys made against his father in the wake of the killing, is determined to get to the truth. Stuart Neville’s career to date (this is his sixth novel) has been characterised by a particular fascination with the ripple effect of lethal violence, and Those We Left Behind, as the title suggests, explores the physical and psychological damage wrought by the actions of two apparently sociopathic young boys, while simultaneously examining the factors that led the boys to behave in the way they did. Serena Flanagan is a compelling character, professionally capable and hard-nosed but emotionally vulnerable in her private life, although it’s young Ciaran Devine that provides the most haunting character in Neville’s best novel since his debut The Twelve (2009).
  Set in 1997, F.H. Batacan’s debut novel Smaller and Smaller Circles (Soho Crime, €19.50) – which won the Philippine National Book Award in 2002 – opens with the discovery of an eviscerated young boy at a Manila rubbish dump. The investigation into the boy’s murder is headed by the National Bureau of Investigation’s Director Latimosa, but Batacan’s story focuses on Jesuit priests Jerome and Saenz – the latter a forensic pathologist – as they uncover a serial killer’s bloody trail, their endeavours hampered by the fact that no one seems to believe the Philippines could ever harbour a serial killer. Saenz is a likeable protagonist, a contemporary Fr Brown as motivated by compassion as he is by justice, and an experienced campaigner against the particular kind of abuse of power perpetrated by the Catholic Church that underpins the story. Hailed as the first Filipino crime novel, Smaller and Smaller Circles is a fascinating snapshot of a country still struggling to come to terms with the poverty, corruption and brutality of the Ferdinand Marcos era.
  Opening in Athens in 2010, Leo Kanaris’s debut novel Codename Xenophon (Dedalus, €14.99) introduces private detective George Zafiris, who is commissioned to investigate the murder of John Petrakis on the island of Aegina. The suspects are as plentiful as the red herrings, not least because Petrakis was an eminent scholar with a penchant for exploring the taboo aspects of classical Greece, but in keeping with the private eye tradition, Kanaris – a pseudonym for author Alex Martin – and his creation are as interested in investigating their time and place as they are in pursuing justice. “The laws were ever more elaborate in their complexity, the people ever more ingenious in their evasions. Each tormented the other,” Zafiris tell us as he seeks to throw light into the shadow of crippling austerity that looms large over the story. The narrative flits from a frenzied Athens to the idyllic islands as politicians, Russian crooks, corrupt (and/or incompetent) policemen thicken the plot, the world-weary Zafiris nimbly negotiating a Byzantine culture in which morality, truth and justice are malleable concepts. The first in a proposed quartet to feature George Zafiris, Codename Xenophon is a bleak but blackly comic tale that does full justice to its laconic, Chandleresque heritage.
  Kelly Creighton’s Belfast-set debut The Bones of It (Liberties Press, €12.99) is a first-person narration from Scott McAuley, who has recently been kicked out of university and appears to be telling us his story from a secure institution. On the face of it – according to himself, at least – a mild-mannered, green-tea-drinking peacenik, Scott drip-feeds us ominous snippets from the year gone by, detailing his obsession with Polish co-worker Klaudia and his relationship with his bitterly despised father Duke, who is now a post-Troubles conflict counsellor but who was once imprisoned for stabbing to death two Catholics in a sectarian rage. Blackly comic in tone, The Bones of It is a bildungsroman that gradually evolves into a slow-burning psychological exploration of the mind of a most unlikely killer. It may well prove a little too slow-burning for those who prefer their crime novels pacy and packed with incident, but it is an engrossing tale of the consequences of living a life steeped in a culture of violence.
  Simon Mawer’s tenth novel, Tightrope (Little, Brown, €25.50), reprises the character of Marian Sutro, an SOE agent who parachuted into occupied France in 1943 in The Girl Who Fell From the Sky (2012). Tightrope opens in 1945, with Marian leaving behind the horrors of Ravensbruck, arriving home to Britain in a very fragile physical and emotional state to discover that the black-and-white certainties of wartime have been replaced, in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, by shades of grey. Spanning the decade following WWII and incorporating the first frosty encounters that would lead to the Cold War, Tightrope is a nuanced spy novel akin to the best work of John Le Carré in that it bypasses the cloak-and-dagger conventions in pursuit of the noble flaws, foibles and idiosyncrasies that lie at the heart of the most fascinating spies. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize for The Glass Room (2009), Mawer here delivers an absorbing tale about an extraordinary woman who finds her understanding of duty, patriotism and honour ripped to shreds by epoch-defining circumstances. ~ Declan Burke

  This column was first published in the Irish Times.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Review: SILVER BULLETS by Elmer Mendoza

Detective Edgar ‘Lefty’ Mendieta, the main player in Elmer Mendoza’s English-language debut, likes ‘an impossible case’. Not because Lefty is any kind of cerebral sleuth, a Poirot or Holmes seeking out the most difficult crimes in order to stimulate his little grey cells, but because Lefty is a Mexican policeman operating in the city of Culiacán with the Federal Preventative Police, and his experience is that murder cases tend to be ignored, covered up, deliberately botched or otherwise swept under the carpet. It’s for the best, Lefty believes, if his superiors declare a murder ‘an impossible case’ as soon as possible, and preferably before Lefty gets to the crime scene, so as not to wastefully expend the already pitiful resources of the FPP.
  Unfortunately for Lefty, the murder of Bruno Canizales can’t be easily filed under ‘impossible’, especially as the murderer rather flamboyantly used silver bullets when assassinating the high-profile bisexual attorney. Was the killer Canizales’ tempestuous lover Paolo Rodriguez, who subsequently committed suicide? His other tempestuous lover, the dancer Francisco Aldana? Or was the murder orchestrated by the all-powerful ‘Narcos’ who control Mexico’s drug trade, and who control virtually every politician, judge and policeman in the country?
  Lefty Mendieta is a terrific creation, a gloomy, intellectual introspective who is resolutely cynical about the world and his place in it. “What did he know about modernism, or postmodernism for that matter, or intangible cultural heritage?” Lefty asks of himself on the very first page, establishing the parameters of Elmer Medoza’s investigation into contemporary Mexico but also, courtesy of the high-falutin’ pondering, tipping us the wink that Mendoza’s own exploration of the culture will very likely shed no more light on the truth than one of Lefty’s ‘impossible cases’.
  And so it proves, as Lefty doggedly pursues the clues and the killer with the penchant for silver bullets, his efforts leading him down numerous blind alleys as he wonders about the significance of the bullets themselves and whether they are being employed for mythical purposes in order to kill a modern vampire or a werewolf. Lefty is happy to reference James Bond and Gary Cooper, but he’s no hero or tarnished knight, willing to acquiesce when his boss tells him to drop the case and equally happy to accept bribes in the form of cash in a brown envelope. That said, he’s no coward either, and he goes where the investigation leads him, even when it takes him right to the gates of the region’s most feared Narco, Marcelo Valdés. Not that Lefty, living his life according to the surreal logic of contemporary Mexico, is a slave to procedure: “He reminded himself that no expert follows the evidence, since in this business the truth always resides precisely where it should not.”
  For all of Mendoza’s comic asides, however, Silver Bullets is a serious novel about an entire culture in thrall to the ‘Narcos’. In Mendoza’s poverty-stricken Mexico, the cops are corrupt and the bad guys are the people’s champions, benefactors of communities and heirs to the romantic ideal of the outlaws who destroyed the status quo of the landed gentry. Mendoza’s style is as dense in its own way as James Ellroy at his best (or worst), with dialogue condensed into paragraphs with little by way of punctuation to tell the reader who is speaking. The effect is that you pay very close attention to who is speaking or you quickly find yourself lost, an effect that suggests Mendoza is criticising those who only glance at Mexico’s tragedy and then avert their eyes.
  It’s a superb novel, a blackly comic tale akin to the bracing realism of Dashiell Hammett’s early work that leaves the reader feeling claustrophobic, grimy and entirely hopeless about Mexico’s immediate future – a country where, as Lefty Mendieta grimly observes, “Nothing is true, nothing is false.” ~ Declan Burke

  Silver Bullets by Elmer Mendoza is published by MacLehose.

  This review was first published in the Irish Examiner.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Review: THE GOLDEN AGE OF MURDER by Martin Edwards

“Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” demanded Edmund Wilson in a New Yorker essay published in 1945. Taking its title from Agatha Christie’s Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? (1926), the essay describes the detective novel as ‘sub-literary’, a perhaps understandable addiction that ranked somewhere between crossword puzzles and smoking.
  Only a year earlier, however, John Strachey, writing in The Saturday Review, had declared that readers were living through ‘the Golden Age of English Detection’, describing detective fiction as ‘masterpieces of distraction and escape.’ So popular and pervasive were Golden Age mystery novels that Bertolt Brecht – tongue firmly wedged in cheek, no doubt – could claim that, “The crime novel, like the world itself, is ruled by the English.”
  The contradictions persist to this day. The Guinness Book of Records claims that Agatha Christie, with sales in excess of two billion, is second only to The Bible and William Shakespeare in terms of books sold. And yet the perception remains that Golden Age mystery novels were no more than bland exercises in puzzle-solving, comfort blankets for a middle class readership all too eager to be persuaded that while the country house defences might be breached, and the village green become stained with blood, such anomalies would be detected by ‘the little grey cells’ of superior education and the status quo quickly restored.
  “The received wisdom is that Golden Age fiction set out to reassure readers by showing order restored to society, and plenty of orthodox novels did just that,” writes Martin Edwards in the opening chapter of The Golden Age of Murder. Yet the best of the Golden Age writers, he argues, and particularly those members of the Detection Club who account for the book’s subtitle, ‘The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story’, defied stereotypes and were ‘obsessive risk-takers’ as they reimagined the possibilities and potential of the crime novel. “Violent death is at the heart of a novel about murder,” writes Edwards, “but Golden Age writers, and their readers, had no wish or need to wallow in gore … The bloodless game-playing of post-conflict detective stories is often derided by thoughtless commentators who forget that after so much slaughter on the field of battle the survivors were in need of a change.”
  Edwards, an award-winning detective novelist and the Archivist of the Detection Club, has written a fabulously detailed book that serves a number of purposes. A rebuttal of the ‘perceived wisdom’ that Golden Age mystery fiction was trite and clichéd is to the forefront, but The Golden Age of Murder also functions as a history of the Detection Club, which was formed in 1930 and over the years included in its membership Christie, Sayers, Berkeley, G.K. Chesterton, Freeman Wills Croft, Ronald Knox, A.A. Milne, Baroness Orczy, Helen Simpson, Hugh Walpole, Gladys Mitchell, Margery Allingham, John Dickson Carr, Nicholas Blake, Edmund Crispin and Christianna Brand, among many others.
  Through this framework Edwards weaves a mind-boggling number of plot summaries of novels (without, naturally, ever giving away the all-important crucial twists), the authors’ fascination with real-life crimes, and the way in which the Golden Age mysteries reflected the turbulent decades of the 1920s and 1930s and on into the Second World War, persuasively arguing that, “The cliché that detective novelists routinely ignored social and economic realities is a myth.” Equally fascinating is his documenting of the frequently tortured private lives of the authors, with Edwards turning detective himself as he explores how alcoholism, unacknowledged children, repressed homosexuality, unrequited passion, radical political activism and self-loathing – to mention just a few examples – found their way into the writers’ novels.
  There are also a number of intriguing digressions, such as when Edwards notes the relationship between detective fiction and poetry. T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, W.H. Auden, Cecil Day-Lewis (who published his crime novels under the pseudonym Nicholas Blake) and Sophie Hannah are among those name-checked as critics or authors: “From [Edgar Allan] Poe onwards, a strikingly high proportion of detective novelists have also been poets,” says Edwards. “They are drawn to each form by its structural challenges.”
  As a novelist himself, Edwards can be cynically humorous about the publishing industry (“Allen [Lane] met Christie when she called at the office to complain about the dustjacket of The Murder on the Links, having failed to realize that when a publisher asks an author’s opinion of a jacket, the response required is rapture.”) and his quirky style is reflected in his chapter headings (Chapter 15 is titled ‘Murder, Transvestism and Suicide during a Trapeze Act’).
  For the most part, however, Edwards plays a straight bat with a sustained and impassioned celebration of the Golden Age mystery novel. The Golden Age of Murder is as entertaining as it is a comprehensively researched work, and one that should prove essential reading for any serious student of the crime / mystery novel. ~ Declan Burke

  This review was first published in the Irish Times.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Best Books 2015: January – June

It being the end of June, and thus halfway through the year, I thought I’d post a list of the best new books I’ve read so far in 2015. In order of my reading them, they are:

Acts of the Assassins, Richard Beard.
On the basis of its opening 20 pages or so, the second offering Richard Beard’s ‘Messiahs Trilogy’ – the first, Lazarus is Dead, was published in 2011 – is an audacious take on the crime / mystery novel. Beard is clearly a student (or perhaps scholar might be more appropriate) of the crime fiction genre, given that the story begins as a straightforward police procedural investigation but also broadens out to incorporate other sub-genres such as the spy novel (“Jesus has skills, fieldcraft …” muses Gallio on his foe). The serial killer novel also looms large when it is discovered that the disciples, having exiled themselves to various parts of the empire, are being bumped off one by one, murdered by some shadowy killer in a variety of gory deaths, such as beheadings, flayings, stonings and so forth.

For the rest of the review, clickety-click here

The Shut Eye, Belinda Bauer.
A ‘shut eye’ is a magician so good at persuading the audience the illusion is real that he comes to believe in the trick himself. In Belinda Bauer’s superb sixth novel, The Shut Eye (Bantam Press, €22.50), the phrase refers both to Richard Latham, a celebrity psychic helping the police with their enquiries into the disappearance of young Edie Evans, and to DCI John Marvel, the detective inspector leading the investigation. Marvel is resolutely old-fashioned about police work (“John Marvel didn’t believe in coincidence any more than he believed in global warming …”) and refuses to countenance any supernatural aid, but his hardnosed materialism is shaken to the core when he meets Anna Buck, whose young son Daniel has also gone missing, and whose grief-wracked visions appear to offer clues to the whereabouts of Edie Evans. The Shut Eye is an unusual but absorbing police procedural that also functions as a thoughtful meditation on faith, hope and belief. John Marvel may well be a no-nonsense copper, but in a genre that has been dominated in recent times by the CSI school of facts and evidence, Marvel’s journey towards the truth is refreshingly unconventional.

A Song of Shadows, John Connolly.
The 13th novel in the Charlie Parker series, John Connolly’s A Song of Shadows (Hodder & Stoughton, €22.50) opens in Maine’s remote coastal town of Boreas. Recuperating from grievous wounds sustained in his previous outing, A Wolf in Winter (2014) – Parker was declared clinically dead before being resuscitated – the private investigator is drawn into a bizarre case when an obsessive Nazi-hunter is discovered dead on a nearby beach. No stranger to evil, and still coming to terms with his experience of another realm about which “he still had questions, but no doubts,” Parker finds himself immersed in the horrors of the Holocaust, and determined that this particular evil will not thrive on his watch. Connolly has been engaged for some years now in gradually refining the supernatural and horror tropes that gave the Parker novels their distinctive identity, and A Song of Shadows, blending the language of myth and New Testament into a hardboiled tale, marks a significant shift in Parker’s metamorphosis into an explicitly Christ-like figure (“This one bleeds from the palms,” observes one of his foes). That notion has been explored before, most notably by Ross Macdonald and James Lee Burke, and while A Song of Shadows more than earns the right to be judged in such company, Connolly further appears to be breaking new ground, not least in terms of Parker’s haunting relationships with his daughters, one dead and one living. It’s a fabulous piece of work, in both senses of the word, from one of contemporary fiction’s great storytellers.

Mrs Engels, Gavin McCrea.
Gavin McCrea has crafted a beautifully detailed historical fiction in Mrs Engels, and the political backdrop is indeed a compelling one as he describes the revolutionary frustrations of Engels and Marx, the fall-out to the Franco-Prussian war and the consequent rise and fall of the Paris Commune, and the rise of militant Irish nationalism in Britain. Lizzie’s drawing room hosts agitators, revolutionaries and activists of all hues, but there’s none so fascinating as Lizzie herself, toasted at one point by Engels as a ‘Proletarian, Irish rebel and model Communist.’ In truth, Lizzie is far more difficult to label that her lover realises. From the very beginning Lizzie tells us that she’s a pragmatic woman whose loyalty is only her own survival: “Establish yourself in a decent situation,” is her advice to all young women, “and put away what you can, that, please God, one day you may need no man’s help.”

For the rest of the review, clickety-click here

Disappeared, Anthony J. Quinn.
First published in the US, and shortlisted there for a Strand Literary Award, Quinn’s debut propels the Tyrone author into the first rank of Irish crime writing. An eye for vividly contrasting imagery means that Disappeared is superbly evocative of its bleak setting, such as when Daly leaves behind the rural shore of Lough Neagh to drive into Portadown. “The shapes of trees shining in the frost were like the nerves and arteries of a dissected corpse,” writes Quinn; little more than a paragraph later Daly is contemplating Dalriada Terrace: “The street felt like a dingy holiday resort inhabited by the inmates of a concentration camp.”

For the rest of the review, clickety-click here

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, David Shafer.
For all its conventional narrative scenarios of innocent civilians at the mercy of dark forces and its bleak dystopian vision of the near future, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is by no means a standard techno-thriller. For one, Shafer has sufficient confidence in his readers to craft a slow-burning tale that is, for all its gleaming hardware and plans for a ‘New Alexandria’ of a globally centralised library-for-unimaginable-profit, very much a character-driven tale. Leila, Leo and Mark are richly detailed and empathic creations, their quirks and idiosyncrasies integral to the way in which they gradually uncover SineCo’s foul machinations. Moreover, the writing is a joy, Shafer employing both sly wit and a sharp eye for the telling image. “The grandeur fled,” Leo observes as he emerges from a reverie of a better world, “like shining back into shook foil.” Leila decides that Myanmar ‘sounded like a name cats would give their country.’ Indeed, the entire novel – all 422 pages of densely packed text – is littered with deliciously wry snippets and quotable lines, which gives the overall impression of a Neal Stephenson novel redrafted by Carl Hiaasen in blackly humorous form.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Review: MRS ENGELS by Gavin McCrea

“No one understands men better than the women they don’t marry,” declares Lizzie Burns, the eponymous narrator of Gavin McCrea’s debut novel Mrs Engels (Scribe) and – the title notwithstanding – the unmarried long-term lover of Frederick Engels, who co-authored The Communist Manifesto with Karl Marx. A marginalised figure in the history books, the fictional Lizzie Burns is a marvellous creation: an illiterate Irish daughter of the Manchester slums whose withering deprecations cut a swathe through the self-delusions and hypocrisies of the founding fathers of Communism.
  The novel opens in 1870, as the expected Revolution draws near and Frederick and Lizzie move to London from Manchester to be closer to Karl and Jenny Marx. They move into a grand house in Primrose Hill, where the addition of a couple of servants proves vexing to Lizzie, who finds herself working harder to keep tabs on her girls than she ever did when she kept her own home. Such paradoxes are rife in Mrs Engels: Frederick, when Lizzie first meets him, is often vilified by the comrades as a ‘capitalist and millocrat’, a well-heeled German immigrant accustomed to moving in the best social circles. “It’s not uncommon that [Frederick] has to answer to this charge,” Lizzie observes, “not uncommon even though the world knows he worked in that mill to keep Karl and the Movement afloat. And knock me acock if I ever see Karl having to defend himself in this way.”
  Gavin McCrea has crafted a beautifully detailed historical fiction in Mrs Engels, and the political backdrop is indeed a compelling one as he describes the revolutionary frustrations of Engels and Marx, the fall-out to the Franco-Prussian war and the consequent rise and fall of the Paris Commune, and the rise of militant Irish nationalism in Britain. Lizzie’s drawing room hosts agitators, revolutionaries and activists of all hues, but there’s none so fascinating as Lizzie herself, toasted at one point by Engels as a ‘Proletarian, Irish rebel and model Communist.’ In truth, Lizzie is far more difficult to label that her lover realises. From the very beginning Lizzie tells us that she’s a pragmatic woman whose loyalty is only her own survival: “Establish yourself in a decent situation,” is her advice to all young women, “and put away what you can, that, please God, one day you may need no man’s help.”
  It’s a pragmatism born of surviving the worst of Manchester’s Victorian slums, and in overcoming the personal tragedy that brought Lizzie and Frederick together but which haunts them for the rest of their lives. Through it all Lizzie retains her robust sense of humour and her irreverent refusal to kow-tow to those who consider Frederick and Karl geniuses (“As for Karl, the state he was in, he was unable to mastermind the evacuation of his own bowels.”)
  Bawdy and uncouth, very much a woman who lives life on her own terms despite her economic dependence, Lizzie Burns is one of the most charming fictional comic creations of recent times. If that were all Gavin McCrea had achieved with Mrs Engels, it would have been plenty; but Lizzie Burns is also a heartbreakingly poignant heroine, a woman fully aware of her status as ‘a pauper woman on an expensive couch’ who has to endure society’s jibes about ‘my hike to the higher caste’, and a woman who above all craves the love of a complex man hugely conflicted about his entitlement to love her.
  Laugh-out-loud funny, touching and tender, and almost Dickensian in its physical descriptions of the Industrial Revolution’s worst excesses, Mrs Engels is a stunningly accomplished debut novel. ~ Declan Burke

  This review was first published in the Irish Examiner.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

News: Jim Crace Wins the IMPAC Prize

Hearty congratulations to Jim Crace, whose HARVEST won the IMPAC Prize earlier today. My favourite Crace novel will always be QUARANTINE, I think, especially if Crace makes good on his promise that HARVEST will be his final offering, but I hugely enjoyed HARVEST too. I interviewed Jim Crace early last year, on the publication of HARVEST, and he proved marvellous company, self-deprecating and entirely unencumbered by anything remotely approaching ego. To wit:

“Sometimes you do a bit of writing,” [Crace] continues, “and right from the word go until almost the finish it’s like pushing a great chunk of granite up a hill. But at some point, that piece of granite will turn into a helium-filled balloon. Normally, with a book of mine, that moment of loss-of-weight happens halfway through, or towards the end. With this book it happened on the first page. That book became full of hot air,” he laughs, “very early on.”

  For the rest of the interview, clickety-click here

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Review: DISAPPEARED by Anthony J. Quinn

“The normal standards of right and wrong did not apply to his parishioners,” observes Fr Jack Fee early on in Anthony J. Quinn’s Disappeared, “only what was necessary or unnecessary for survival.”
  Set on the mist-shrouded southern shores of Lough Neagh in the post-Troubles era, the events of Disappeared are deeply rooted in Northern Ireland’s recent past, when Fr Fee envisaged “his parish as not so much a sanctuary for a God-fearing flock, but as a no-man’s land between two armies, an arena for IRA ambushes and British Army patrols.”
  The lines of conflict may have been sharply defined in Fr Fee’s mind, but it’s in the shadowy cracks between warring forces that Quinn’s novel thrives. Inspector Celsius Daly of the newly created Police Service of Northern Ireland is called to a remote island on Lough Neagh, where he discovers the corpse of Joseph Devine, an old man who has been murdered in a savagely grotesque fashion. It emerges that Devine, ostensibly a respectable clerk during a long but unremarkable career spent working for a local legal firm that specialised in representing Republicans, was a valuable informer for the RUC’s Special Branch. Who or what was Devine murdered to protect?
  First published in the US, and shortlisted there for a Strand Literary Award, Quinn’s debut propels the Tyrone author into the first rank of Irish crime writing. An eye for vividly contrasting imagery means that Disappeared is superbly evocative of its bleak setting, such as when Daly leaves behind the rural shore of Lough Neagh to drive into Portadown. “The shapes of trees shining in the frost were like the nerves and arteries of a dissected corpse,” writes Quinn; little more than a paragraph later Daly is contemplating Dalriada Terrace: “The street felt like a dingy holiday resort inhabited by the inmates of a concentration camp.”
  Quinn’s seriousness of intent is quickly apparent. Disappeared is not a conventional crime novel in the sense that justice delivered ensures a happy-ever-after ending. Celsius Daly is under no illusion that the post-Troubles ceasefires have suddenly created a utopia in Northern Ireland; indeed, few of the characters ever bought into the accepted narrative of the Troubles in the first place. “We never had an armed struggle,” says Tessa Jordan, the still grieving widow of Oliver Jordan, a young man murdered for being an informer almost two decades previously. “The whole thing,” she claims, “was a horrible game run by secret agents and psychopaths.”
  Daly, recently returned to Northern Ireland from Scotland, is no innocent abroad in a strange land, but he is relatively untainted by the sense of ironic fatalism his colleagues tend to don as armour against futility. “That was the horror of the cease-fire,” observes one character, “that your perceptions could be so blurred you no longer recognized the terrorist.” For all his faults – and Celsius Daly is fully aware of the many flaws that make him a plausibly fascinating character – the detective has yet to fully extinguish ‘the distinction he made between good and evil’, or his belief in the necessity of justice, however belatedly it might arrive. “Perhaps it’s time you learned to live with a little uncertainty,” one of Daly’s colleagues advises, but these words of wisdom, which could serve as a mantra for Northern Ireland’s immediate future, are eventually rejected for a more positive aspiration for his country.
  Downbeat, bracingly pragmatic, beautifully written and steeped in the genre’s lore, Disappeared is a post-Troubles debut crime novel to rival Stuart Neville’s The Twelve or Brian McGilloway’s Borderlands. Anthony J. Quinn is a name to watch. ~ Declan Burke

  This review was first published in the Irish Examiner, June 13th.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Reviews: Irish Times crime fiction column

Stephen King’s Finders Keepers (Hodder & Stoughton, €29.50) opens in 1978 with the murder, during a home invasion, of ‘America’s reclusive genius’ John Rothstein, the author of the acclaimed Jimmy Gold trilogy. The police suspect the burglars were after the cash Rothstein kept in his safe, but the reader already knows better: the killer is Morris Bellamy, John Rothstein’s most avid fan, who has come in search of the notebooks and the novels it’s rumoured the author has continued to write ever since he ceased publishing. A sequel-of-sorts to King’s Mr Mercedes (2014), which also featured retired police detective Bill Hodges, Finders Keepers reprises the kind of murderous literary obsession King wrote about in Misery (1987). Rothstein is a Salinger figure, of course (his last published short story is ‘The Perfect Banana Pie’), but while King does on occasion use Rothstein as a stick to beat the American literary establishment, the story evolves as a clash between those who want Rothstein’s notebooks only for they are worth in terms of ‘the Golden Buck’ and those who cherish them as cultural treasures. Littered with literary references, the novel is a hugely enjoyable thriller that unfolds in a style reminiscent of the late, great Elmore Leonard.
  Disclaimer (Doubleday, €19.50), the debut novel from former BBC arts documentary director Renee Knight, begins with Catherine Ravenscroft vomiting with the shock of discovering that she is the anti-heroine of a novel called The Perfect Stranger: “ … the details are unmistakable, right down to what she was wearing that afternoon.” (To hammer home the message, the traditional disclaimer in Catherine’s copy of the book has red line drawn through it.) The mystery behind the events of ‘that afternoon’, which took place some two decades ago when Catherine was holidaying in Spain with her five-year-old son Nicholas, provide both Disclaimer and the novel-within-a-novel The Perfect Stranger with their narrative drive, as Catherine strives to discover exactly how retired English teacher Stephen Brigstocke, the author of The Perfect Stranger, came by his information, and why he might want to destroy her life by revealing her terrible secret. In the process Renee Knight broaches the taboo subject of ‘the mother who put herself before her child’, exploring how Catherine’s actions led to tragedy and the destruction of two families. An enthralling take on the ‘domestic noir’ sub-genre, Disclaimer is equally fascinating – unsurprisingly, perhaps, given Renee Knight’s former career – as a commentary on subjective truth.
  Prodigal son Jay O’Reilly returns home to the ‘no man’s land, the border, bandit country’ of South Armagh in Jarlath Gregory’s The Organised Criminal (Liberties Press, €12.99), where his father Frank holds sway as the area’s most notorious smuggler. When Frank offers Jay a life-changing criminal opportunity, Jay throws it back in his face, but soon Jay has been overtaken by events and is plotting to destroy his father’s empire from within. The Catholic Church and ‘the Troubles’ cast long shadows across Gregory’s story, which provides a cultural and historical context for Frank’s activities while simultaneously damning him for taking advantage of his own people. “Have you forgotten what it was like,” Jay asks his friend Martin, “the last time this town fell into the hands of people with guns?” The frequent narrative digressions and occasional diatribes do slow the pace of The Organised Criminal, but overall it’s a fascinating post-Troubles tale of moral ambivalence in a community still struggling to accommodate its very particular history.
  The 11th novel in Norwegian author Karin Fossum’s Inspector Sejer series, The Drowned Boy (Harvill Secker, €20.55) opens with Sejer and his colleague Skarre attending the tragic death of toddler Tommy Zita, who fell into a pond beside his family home – or so his mother, Carmen, claims. Prompted by Skarre’s instinct that something isn’t quite right about the scene, Sejer interviews Carmen and her husband Nicolai, curious in particular as to how they both reacted on the night Tommy was born and they first realised he was a Down syndrome child. Fossum’s Inspector Sejer novels are invariably morally and psychologically complex affairs, but The Drowned Boy might well be her crowning achievement to date. Essentially a whodunit with only one real suspect, the story is notable for its empathy for both victim and killer alike as Fossum employs a spare style and austere tone (beautifully translated here by Kari Dickson) to explore the limitations of justice and truth as Sejer quietly goes about his business according to his life’s guiding principle, the deceptively simple belief that, “It’s important that everything is right, it’s fair.”
  Philip Kerr’s police detective Bernie Gunther is a superb example of that crime fiction staple, the moral individual who finds himself in conflict with the corrupt apparatus of the State. Bernie, to be fair, is a more errant knight than most, not least because he serves the Nazi administration, and never more so than in the tenth Bernie Gunther offering, The Lady from Zagreb (Quercus, €28.50), which opens in Berlin in 1942 with Bernie a reluctant speaker at the International Convention on Crime. Subsequently commissioned by Joseph Goebbels to investigate the whereabouts of a missing man who was last heard of joining a monastery in Croatia, Bernie finds himself negotiating the killing fields of the Balkans and witnessing the worst excesses of the genocidal Ustaše. Kerr has Gunther mockingly reference Sherlock Holmes on a number of occasions, and the overall mood is enjoyably knockabout Chandler, but the juxtaposition of Gunther’s gallows humour and the bitingly satirical undertone (such as when Gunther is seconded to the Nazi’s ‘War Crimes Commission’) lend themselves to a bracing fatalism as Kerr explores the darkest corners of the human psyche and what Gunther describes as the impossibility of a restoration of the moral order. ~ Declan Burke

  This column was first published in the Irish Times, June 6th.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Taking A Break …

Sincere apologies to anyone who has arrived here – panting hotfoot, no doubt – to hear the latest in Irish crime fiction news, because yours truly is taking a bit of a break from the blogging game and adjourning to the back garden (right) to plot the next novel. Normal-ish service will be resumed fairly quickly, I’d imagine, once I realise that the plot to the next book will be pretty much the same plot I’ve been using for the last ten years or so, but set somewhere sunny / in the past / on board a submarine. In the meantime, happy reading folks, and see you soon …

Publications: Irish Crime Fiction 2015

Herewith be a brief list of Irish crime fiction titles to be published in 2015, a list I’ll be updating on a regular basis throughout the year. To wit:

GUN STREET GIRL by Adrian McKinty (January 8)

MARKED OFF by Don Cameron (February 9)
TAKEN FOR DEAD by Graham Masterton (February 12)

WHITE CHURCH, BLACK MOUNTAIN by Thomas Paul Burgess (March)
THE DEFENCE by Steve Cavanagh (March 12)
THE LAKE by Sheena Lambert (March 19)

A SONG OF SHADOWS by John Connolly (April 9)
KILLING WAYS by Alex Barclay (April 9)
THE ORGANISED CRIMINAL by Jarlath Gregory (April 9)
I AM IN BLOOD by Joe Murphy (April 30)

A MAD AND WONDERFUL THING by Mark Mulholland (May 8)
THE BONES OF IT by Kelly Creighton (May 15)
THE NIGHT GAME by Frank Golden (May 28)
EVEN THE DEAD by Benjamin Black (May 28)

BLOOD SISTERS by Graham Masterton (June 1)
ONLY WE KNOW by Karen Perry (June 4)
AFTER THE FIRE by Jane Casey (June 18)
ALOYSIUS TEMPO by Jason Johnson (June 25)
THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND by Stuart Neville (June 26)

ARE YOU WATCHING ME? by Sinead Crowley (July 2nd)
GREEN HELL by Ken Bruen (July 7)
BARLOW BY THE BOOK by John McAllister (July 26)
FREEDOM’S CHILD by Jax Miller (July 30)
HIDE AND SEEK by Jane Casey (July 30)

PRESERVE THE DEAD by Brian McGilloway (August 6)

WITH OUR BLESSING by Jo Spain (September 3)
THE GAME CHANGER by Louise Phillips (September 3)
DEATH AT WHITEWATER CHURCH by Andrea Carter (September 3)
A DEADLY GAMBLE by Pat Mullan (September TBC)

DEAD SECRET by Ava McCarthy (November 19)
THE SILENT DEAD by Claire McGowan (November 19)

  If you’re an Irish crime writer with a book on the way, please feel free to drop me a line (including details on dates, publisher, etc.) if you’d like to be included in the ongoing updates.

  NB: Publication dates are given according to Amazon UK, and are subject to change.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

One to Watch: ALOYSIUS TEMPO by Jason Johnson

Featuring one of the most deliciously monikered protagonists in the (admittedly short) history of Irish crime fiction, ALOYSIUS TEMPO (Liberties Press) is Jason Johnson’s fourth novel. Quoth the blurb elves:
Aloysius Tempo creates ‘accidents’ that kill. He fled a notorious Irish care home and has built a life as an unarmed hitman, travelling Europe and ending lives for cash. Now veteran government recruiter Imelda wants him back to slay four of the nation’s most hated people; a loan shark, a shamed priest, a wildly controversial female politician find themselves in his sights. But when he learns more about the fourth person on the list, everything changes for Aloysius Tempo.
  ALOYSIUS TEMPO will be published on June 25th.

Launch: THE BONES OF IT by Kelly Creighton

Kelly Creighton launches THE BONES OF IT (Liberties Press) at Belfast’s No Alibis on June 4th, and Brian McGilloway, for one, is very impressed. To wit:
No Alibis Bookstore is pleased to invite you to the launch of Kelly Creighton’s debut novel, ‘The Bones of It’. This FREE event takes place in store on Thursday 4th June, 6:30pm.

‘A brilliant crime debut, chilling, compulsive and beautifully written. Fans of The Butcher Boy and The Book of Evidence will find much to love in The Bones of It. A hugely impressive addition to the growing body of Irish crime fiction. I look forward to reading much more from Kelly Creighton.’ – Brian McGilloway
  For all the details, clickety-click here

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Interview: Douglas Kennedy, author of THE HEAT OF BETRAYAL

I had an interview with Douglas Kennedy (right) published in the Irish Examiner last week, on the publication of his latest novel, THE HEAT OF BETRAYAL (Hutchinson). In the novel, married couple Robin and Paul travel to Morocco for a working holiday, only for Robin to discover a particularly cruel ‘intimate betrayal’ by Paul:
What follows is a thrilling tale as Robin sets off alone in a strange land to find her husband. The opening, which moves from Casablanca to Essaouira, is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, but Douglas also had more literary inspirations to draw upon.
  “There were two novels that were in my mind, or two writers I should say. The first was Paul Bowles, with The Sheltering Sky, which is an extraordinary book. But I was also thinking about Patricia Highsmith, and Highsmith was always very interesting on Americans abroad, especially a couple in trouble, with secrets. I also had in mind [VS] Naipaul, who in one of his books talked about a certain kind of Leftist from the West, who would always turn up in centres of revolution with return air-tickets,” he laughs.
  For the rest of the interview, clickety-click here

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

One to Watch: HIDE AND SEEK by Jane Casey

An Edgar award winner earlier this year for THE STRANGER YOU KNOW, featuring London-based detective Maeve Kerrigan, Jane Casey also writes YA crime fiction. HIDE AND SEEK (Corgi) is the third novel to feature Jess Tennant, with the gist running thusly:
If I hadn’t walked into the room at that moment, maybe everything would have worked out differently. Maybe everything would have been all right after all . . .’
  Port Sentinel may be a beautiful seaside tourist trap, but in the short time Jess Tennant has lived there, it has seen its fair share of tragedy. Tragedy that somehow Jess keeps getting caught up in.
  A schoolgirl from the town goes missing, leaving her diary behind and a lot of unanswered questions. Has she run away from her unhappy home or is there something much more sinister going on? And can Jess find her before it’s too late?
  HIDE AND SEEK will be published on July 30th.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Publication: BLOOD SISTERS by Graham Masterton

BLOOD SISTERS (Head of Zeus) is the fifth novel from Graham Masterton to feature Cork-based detective Katie Maguire. To wit:
Katie Maguire hunts a serial killer targeting nuns in the gruesome new thriller from Graham Masterton.
  In a nursing home on the outskirts of Cork, an elderly nun lies dead. She has been suffocated. It looks like a mercy-killing - until another sister from the same convent is found viciously murdered, floating in the Glashaboy river.
  The nuns were good women, doing God’s work. Why would anyone want to kill them? But then a child’s skull is unearthed in the garden of the nuns’ convent, and DS Katie Maguire discovers a fifty year old secret that just might lead her to the killer ... if the killer doesn’t find her first.
  BLOOD SISTERS is published on Kindle on June 1st, with the hardcover edition due on October 8th.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Retro: DANNY, THE CHAMPION OF THE WORLD by Roald Dahl

I had a whale of a time last week reading Roald Dahl’s DANNY, THE CHAMPION OF THE WORLD as a bed-time story. Lily, recently turned seven years old, was thrilled by the story, and particularly impressed with Danny’s dad William, upon whom she bestowed what appears to be the ultimate accolade in fatherhood by describing him as ‘a very daddish dad’.
  All of which was marvellous, because I vividly remember reading DANNY as a child myself, and it’s a book that has stuck in my memory for the best part of 40 years. That may well be, as I realised on re-reading it, that DANNY is essentially a ‘heist’ story, as Danny and his dad set about sabotaging local landowner Mr Victor Hazell’s shooting party by poaching his entire stock of pheasants, and with the tacit approval of the entire village – doctor, vicar and policeman included – to boot.
  Like many crime writers, and certainly on this side of the pond, I read Enid Blyton voraciously during my childhood – the Famous Five, the Secret Seven, the Five Finder-Outers, the Adventure stories featuring Philip, Dinah, Lucy-Ann and Jack (and parrot Kiki), the Barney Mysteries, but also the Twins of St Clare’s and the Malory Towers books – but if memory serves, DANNY is the first book I read that was a mystery / crime story told from the perspective of the criminals. It’s also true that Danny and his dad aren’t poachers from need, driven to steal by hunger and want, but for the sheer thrill of it – the excitement of the deed itself, and the exhilaration of having pulled off the big one. And it’s not as if William is a Robin Hood character – William intends to share the proceeds of his heist with his friends, certainly, but given that said friends are a doctor, vicar and policeman, it’s not exactly a case of robbing the rich to give to the poor.
  When I suggested to Lily that perhaps we shouldn’t be ‘up’ for Danny and his dad, because they were stealing from Mr Victor Hazell, she was having none of it. Mr Victor Hazell is a nasty piece of work, a snob and a bully, and he fully deserves his comeuppance, even if that involves Danny and his dad breaking the law.
  It’s a similar kind of story to FANTASTIC MR FOX, of course, which we also enjoyed a couple of months ago, although in that case – from a moral perspective – Mr Fox steals in order to feed his family, and then reacts in spectacular fashion to the subsequent persecution. DANNY, THE CHAMPION OF THE WORLD is another matter entirely, a genteel story of sticking it to The Man for no other reason than The Man owns pheasants that taste good when they’re roasted.
  No wonder Lily loved it so much. Next week we’ll probably move it up a notch to Richard Stark’s THE HUNTER.

Friday, May 29, 2015

“Ya Wanna Do It Here Or Down The Station, Punk?” Sheena Lambert

Yep, it’s rubber-hose time, folks: a rapid-fire Q&A for those shifty-looking usual suspects ...

What crime novel would you most like to have written?
Kevin Barry’s CITY OF BOHANE – although there is no way that book would ever have found its way inside my head.

What fictional character would you most like to have been?
Mrs Danvers …

Who do you read for guilty pleasures?
Penny Vincenzi. Like Jilly Cooper, but better. Give me champagne-drinking, horse (and other people’s husbands)-riding, upper-class, family saga escapism over James Joyce any day. Sorry, James.

Most satisfying writing moment?
Seeing my first full-length play, ‘Glanaphuca’, come to life onstage in rehearsed reading at The New Theatre in Dublin last year. It’s something a novelist never gets to see – but as a playwright, I observed my characters as real, living people for two hours on a cold day in December, and not only did I get to hear them speak, I got to witness the audience’s reaction to them. Amazing. Amazing.

If you could recommend one Irish crime novel, what would it be?
Liz Nugent’s UNRAVELLING OLIVER.

What Irish crime novel would make a great movie?
THE LAKE, of course! And I cannot wait to see ‘City of Bohane – The Movie’ when it comes out (I think there is a screenplay in the works …). I’m picturing a ‘Sin City’-type production myself.

Worst / best thing about being a writer?
Best: Being able to work anytime, anywhere. Worst: Your siblings looking at you like you should probably be trying to get a real job.

The pitch for your next book is …?
Some family trees should never be climbed.

Who are you reading right now?
Just finished ALL THE THINGS I NEVER TOLD YOU by Celeste Ng.

God appears and says you can only write OR read. Which would it be?
Write of course! I LOVE reading my own stuff!!

The three best words to describe your own writing are …?
Original, readable and fabulous.

Sheena Lambert’s THE LAKE is published by Killer Reads.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

One to Watch: WITH OUR BLESSING by Jo Spain

Jo Spain’s debut novel WITH OUR BLESSING (Quercus) was shortlisted for the Richard & Judy ‘Search for a Bestseller’ competition in 2015. Quoth the blurb elves:
It’s true what they say ... revenge is sweet.
  1975. A baby, minutes old, is forcibly taken from its devastated mother.
  2010. The body of an elderly woman - tortured to death - is found in a Dublin public park in the depths of winter.
  Detective Inspector Tom Reynolds is working the case. He’s convinced the murder is linked to historical events that took place in the notorious Magdalene Laundries.
  Reynolds and his team follow the trail to an isolated convent in the Irish countryside. But once inside, it becomes disturbingly clear that the killer is amongst them ... and is determined to exact further vengeance for the sins of the past.
  WITH OUR BLESSING will be published on September 3rd.

News: Eoin McNamee’s BLUE IS THE NIGHT wins the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year

It’s turning into something of an Eoin McNamee week on CAP, which is never a bad thing. The heartiest of congrats to Eoin (right), whose excellent BLUE IS THE NIGHT (Faber) last night won the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year last night, the prize awarded on the opening night of the Listowel Writers’ Week.
  I interviewed Eoin on the publication of BLUE IS THE NIGHT, and he had this to say about the central mystery at the book’s heart:
“I always like to quote Francis Bacon,” says Eoin, “who said that the job of all art is to deepen the mystery. This book is about the mystery of Patricia Curran, and what really happened to her, and by extension the mystery she inherited from her family, her father and her mother.
  “I started out originally, perhaps, to find out who killed Patricia Curran,” he continues, “but the book became about something other than that. It became more about ‘What is mystery?’ What is it that drives these stories, that drives people’s compulsion towards these stories?”
  For the rest of the interview, clickety-click here
  For more on the Kerry Group awards, clickety-click here

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

News: Eoin McNamee’s BLUE IS THE NIGHT in the Irish Times Book Club

Eoin McNamee’s excellent BLUE IS THE NIGHT (Faber) is the new selection for the Irish Times Book Club. To wit:
Blue is the Night by Eoin McNamee (Faber, £7.99) is the new Irish Times Book Club choice. The third and final novel of his acclaimed Blue Trilogy, following 2001’s Booker longlisted The Blue Tango and 2010’s Orchid Blue, it can also be read as a standalone work. It has been shortlisted for the €15,000 Kerry Irish Novel of the Year Award 2015 to be announced on Wednesday at Listowel Writers’ Week.
  Set in Belfast in 1949, Lance Curran is set to prosecute a young man for a brutal murder, in the “Robert the Painter” case, one which threatens to tear society apart. In the searing July heat, corruption and justice vie as Harry Ferguson, Judge Curran’s fixer, contemplates the souls of men adrift, and his own fall from grace with the beautiful and wilful Patricia. Within three years, Curran will be a judge, his 19-year-old daughter dead, at the hands of a still unknown murderer, and his wife Doris condemned to an asylum for the rest of her days. In Blue Is the Night, it is Doris who finally emerges from the fog of deceit and blame to cast new light into the murder of her daughter – as McNamee once again explores and dramatises a notorious and nefarious case.
  For all the details on the Irish Times Book Club, and how you can win a signed copy of BLUE IS THE NIGHT, clickety-click here
  For a review of BLUE IS THE NIGHT, clickety-click here