BLOODLINE is the debut novel from Brian O’Connor, the Irish Times’ racing correspondent. The novel opens with a bang, when a young stable-hand, Anatoly, one of a number of Ukrainians who work at Bailey McFarlane’s horse-racing yard, is discovered in a disused stable with the back of his head smashed in.
It subsequently transpires that Anatoly was dabbling in cocaine, and that he was gay, although O’Connor goes out of his way to stress that illicit drug-taking is very much a rarity in Irish racing; indeed, he also goes out of his way to suggest that homosexuality would be considered a rarity too.
The murder has, initially, little impact on Liam Dee’s life, but O’Connor is very good at fleshing out the effect of the violent death on the world of Bailey McFarlane’s stables. Anatoly might be a humble stable-hand, but O’Connor expertly creates a stables that is almost a tiny village in itself, and one in which the death of the young man has a traumatic impact, not least on the group of Ukrainians.
He’s also very good at detailing the pragmatic response of those engaged with the horses, whose concern is first and foremost that the events do not impact negatively on the horses themselves. BLOODLINE is strong on the relationship between racing folk and their horses, and the nuances of the bond between riders and mounts.
Liam Dee is horse-whisperer-in-chief, a champion jockey in his mid-thirties who is starting to experience some doubts about the wisdom of continuing his career. He’s a very likeable character, hard as nails (as you’d expect a jockey to be), but a thoughtful, empathic character too, particularly in his dealings with Bailey McFarlane. His age, and the effect of a new romance with the Ukrainian beauty Lara, results in Liam wondering if his life might not be due a new beginning. As an unusually tall jockey (‘half an inch under six feet’), Liam is constantly battling with his weight - some of the most sharply observed sections of the book detail Liam’s struggle to shed a pound or three immediately before a race, in order to make the correct weight.
O’Connor’s insights as a racing correspondent give all of these elements an authentic feel, although it’s notable that most of the conflict Liam Dee experiences is internal. The racing world is notorious for its scandals, particularly when it comes to allegations of race-fixing, but O’Connor makes no reference whatsoever to any kind of illicit behaviour by jockeys in this respect. Indeed, he goes out of his way to emphasise their raw-boned nobility, and the camaraderie that exists between the jockeys. The racing world depicted in BLOODLINE isn’t exactly squeaky clean, but by the same token there’s much less of a whiff of sulphur than a casual reader might have reasonable expected. The characters play hard, bend the rules, and take every advantage going in a very tough sport, but there’s no suggestion that they cheat one another, or resort to artificial stimulants, etc., either for jockeys or horses.
One of the more interesting aspects of BLOODLINE is O’Connor’s decision to people the riding stables with Ukrainian immigrants. It’s plausibly done, and at one point O’Connor has Lara, a gorgeous blonde Ukrainian, refer to her Cossack heritage to explain her expertise with horses. For all that the Ukrainians are accepted for the ability to do the job required, however, there remains an undertow of conflict. Shortly after the death of young Anatoly, a fist-fight breaks out in the yard between the Irish stable-hands and the Ukrainians. The violence allows festering resentments to come to the surface: the Ukrainians believe they are not being given their full due, while the Irish lads resent the fact that foreigners have come to Ireland to take jobs from Irish men and women, particularly at a time of economic downturn. While O’Connor is broadly sympathetic to the plight of immigrants far from home, there are also strong hints - Anatoly’s dabbling in cocaine, for example - that he is also referencing the extent to which some immigrants can bring their particular brand of criminality with them when they move to a new country.
O’Connor has cited Dick Francis as an influence, as you might expect, and the scenes in the novel in which Liam is riding give a visceral sense of what it must be like to be aboard a ‘half-ton of horse flesh’. Similarly, the scenes in which Liam purges himself - ‘wasting’, they call it - in order to make the right weight for a ride are equally convincing. Liam more or less starves himself for most of his life, endures long slogging runs to work off weight, and tortures himself in saunas to sweat off even half a pound.
All told, BLOODLINE is a smart, authentic murder mystery set in the Irish racing world, a quietly assured debut that whets the appetite for more. - Declan Burke
Brian O’Connor’s BLOODLINE is published by Poolbeg.
“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.