With his first two novels, THE WRONG KIND OF BLOOD and THE COLOUR OF BLOOD, Declan Hughes established his series protagonist, Ed Loy, as a private investigator very much in the mould of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer. The novels, set in a fictionalised Dublin, Ireland, are largely concerned with dysfunctional families, and how the sins of the father (and / or mother) are almost inevitably visited on their offspring. There is at times an almost Biblical quality to the way in which Hughes insists that the blood passed on is diseased by deeds which, if not exactly Evil with a capital E, are certainly the venal outworkings of an ambitiously grasping generation infected by the vast sums of newly available cash sloshing around courtesy of Ireland’s ‘Celtic Tiger’ economic boom.
Hughes returns to this theme in his third novel, THE DYING BREED (aka THE PRICE OF BLOOD for its U.S. release, through William Morrow). Commissioned by a dying priest, Fr Vincent Tyrell, to find a former jockey who has gone missing, Loy has only a name to go on. But Fr Tyrell’s name is in itself evocative: the priest is the brother of the hugely successful racehorse trainer and breeder FX Tyrell. Soon Loy finds himself immersed in the murky underworld of Irish horse racing, with dead bodies piling up as he inches closer to the dark heart of a family that appears to have much in common with the Medicis and the Borgias.
Hughes, a former playwright, is a veteran at establishing mood, pace and tone at an early stage, and the Christmas period during which the events swiftly unfold is as much a player in this story as any of its flesh-and-blood characters. He’s also very good at weaving together a number of diverse sub-plots, and here touches on a number of hot-topic issues of recent Irish history: corruption in Irish horseracing; neglect and abuse in Church-run industrial schools; the declining influence of the Church when juxtaposed with the inexorable rise of Mammon; the infiltration of all levels of Irish society by illegally amassed wealth. The style, which is of the tough, hardboiled variety, owes as much to Raymond Chandler as it does Ross Macdonald, with Hughes showcasing a deft hand at leavening the grim tone with flashes of mordant wit: “Neither had been a jockey; the plasterer sounded amused at the suggestion, the solicitor mysteriously outraged, as if I’d accused him of being a sex criminal, or a DJ.”
The plotting, dense and complex, draws the reader further and further into a web so tangled that it becomes claustrophobic, and while the ambition is laudable, there is a sense that Hughes may well have bitten off more than he can comfortably chew. By the denouement, events have turned so complicated that Loy finds himself unable to be in at the death, and so must hear how the climactic finale occurred second-hand, courtesy of his excitable sidekick, Tommy. In saying that, there is also a palpable sense that Hughes has enough confidence in his ability to bend the rules of the first-person narration out of shape, and ironically comment on the limitations imposed by the genre, and in this he is in the vanguard of a number of Irish writers who are testing the limits of the conventional crime novel, among them Tana French, Ken Bruen, Benjamin Black, Brian McGilloway, Gene Kerrigan and John Connolly.
In the end, all crime novels should be judged on how well they convey their insights into the environment that caused them to come into being, and on that reckoning Declan Hughes has confirmed the promise he has shown with his first two novels. THE DYING BREED is a complex, labyrinthine, gritty, coarse (and, yes, bloody) novel that exudes a brash confidence and an ambition that lies beyond its grasp – a description, it should be said, that could easily be applied to the nation that spawned the novel. It may not be the Great Irish Crime Novel some of us were hoping for, but as a snapshot of modern Ireland, it is a clearly focused picture of our faults and failings, and perhaps even our virtues too. – Declan Burke
“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. “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.