THE DEAD EIGHT bears comparison with the work of Eoin McNamee and John Banville, both of whom have written literary fictions based on true-life crimes in Irish history. The case at the heart of Carlo Gébler’s latest novel is that of Tipperary man Harry Gleeson, who was executed in Mountjoy Prison in 1941 for the murder of Mary McCarthy.
Gleeson was a mild-mannered farmer and a kindly neighbour to Mary McCarthy, who was framed for her murder in order to preserve the Christian reputation of the novel’s setting, the Tipperary town of New Inn.
“THE DEAD EIGHT is not a documentary recapitulation,” Gebler informs the reader in an Afterword, “but a hybrid that combines some factual content with a great body of invented speculative material.”
While Gleeson was the innocent victim of a miscarriage of justice, Gébler’s fictional take on the story allows him to focus on the woman he was accused of murdering, Mary McCarthy, aka ‘Foxy Moll’. She too was a victim, although not simply of a brutally callous murder committed by men in order to preserve their reputation.
Foxy Moll was mother to seven children, all of them to different fathers, and Gébler spends the first half of the story recounting Foxy Moll’s various trysts, all of which amount to a kind of prostitution, albeit one for which she was rewarded with gifts rather than money. The litany of encounters quickly becomes repetitive, as Foxy Moll is wooed, seduced and inevitably abandoned, as often as not as soon as she is made pregnant.
Meanwhile, given that she received very little education in the orphanage where her mother left her, and that the greater part of the story is told through Foxy Moll’s eyes, Gébler’s style is authentically simplistic in its prose and necessarily limited in its worldview.
That said, THE DEAD EIGHT is a novel which rewards patience. Pace and tension are noticeably enhanced in the novel’s second half, when two of the major players in Harry Gleeson’s wrongful conviction appear. JJ Spink is a former Republican activist who still retains a whiff of cordite, even as Foxy Moll falls for his blandishments; meanwhile, Sergeant Daly, newly stationed in New Inn, has a well-deserved reputation for bending the rules out of shape in the pursuit of his personal interpretation of law and order.
It’s at this juncture that Gébler’s literary account begins to take on the quality of what Eoin McNamee describes as the Calvinist quality of noir fiction. Harry Gleeson’s fate is sealed as surely as if it were predestined. Justice and God are equally blind to the self-aggrandising scheming of Spink and Daly, while the New Inn community turns a cold shoulder on an innocent man in order to preserve its patina of respectability.
It’s a powerful tale and one well told, even if the first half could have been pruned slightly for the purpose of creating a more propulsive narrative momentum, particularly as the blurb advertises the novel as an account of Harry Gleeson’s betrayal. Ultimately, however, THE DEAD EIGHT is much more interested in the fate of Mary McCarthy, and the forces - social, moral, cultural - that in the grander scheme of things made her a victim of a more far-reaching conspiracy, that of a poisonous misogyny that created the social conditions in which a woman can remain the plaything of men for so long as she remains useful, then be swept from the board like a sacrificial pawn.
The story might span the first half of the 20th century, but it’s a tale that’s as timely and relevant as tomorrow’s headlines. - Declan Burke
This review was first published in the Sunday Business Post.
“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.