A venal solicitor, a woman scorned, a gangland boss, a desperate ex-con, a tabloid journalist: from the very beginning of Michael Clifford’s GHOST TOWN (Hachette Books Ireland), it’s clear that happy endings will be at a premium.
This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Clifford’s work. A political journalist with the Sunday Times and Irish Examiner, he has also written and co-authored a number of non-fiction titles about the less edifying aspects of Irish political life in the last decade.
The large cast of criminally-inclined protagonists who constantly butt heads here is reminiscent of an Elmore Leonard novel, although GHOST TOWN isn’t written in Leonard’s laconic, blackly humorous style. Clifford’s prose is direct and unadorned, as you might expect from a working journalist, the lack of frills and relentless narrative momentum suggesting the work of Michael Connelly.
If there’s one novelist GHOST TOWN evokes more than any other, however, it’s Clifford’s peer, the author and journalist Gene Kerrigan. The comparison is most valid in terms of Clifford’s ability to draw characters, and particularly those we might be inclined to class as villains, in a more fully rounded way than is often the case in mainstream crime fiction. While it might be stretching the point to suggest that Clifford sympathises with those who flout and break the law, there’s no doubt that he is aware, and is keen to make the reader aware, of the extent to which crime’s roots are buried in an individual’s environment.
The character of Joshua ‘The Dancer’ Molloy, for example, who is in many ways the novel’s fulcrum and main metaphor, was a superb prospect as a footballer in his early teens, but later succumbed to the easy money offered by a toxic version of ambition that seeps into the fabric of Dublin’s deprived housing estates. An ex-con and recovering alcoholic whose twin goals in life are to stay alive another day and be reunited with his young son, Molloy is a fragile, pitiable but ultimately defiant avatar for a modern Ireland that is still trying to find its feet after being forced to kick its addiction to cheap credit.
Indeed, so relevant is it to Ireland’s current woes, many of which were self-inflicted, GHOST TOWN could well be set next week. Pitched against the backdrop of the recession and the ongoing seismic shudders of the burst property bubble, this is a timely tale in which - as is the case with Tana French’s forthcoming BROKEN HARBOUR - the ‘ghost estates’ that blight Ireland physically and psychologically are crumbling momunents to greed and hubris.
In fact, the novel’s arc can be traced through its various properties. Opening on a west Dublin housing estate haunted by the victims of successive governments’ laissez faire policies, diverting through a coveted mansion in the prosperous suburbs of south Dublin secured on the promise of a property boom on a paradisical West African coastline, and climaxing on an upmarket ‘ghost estate’ where the unfinished villa-style buildings rot from neglect, the novel implicitly suggests that the various criminals who populate his pages, despite their delusions of grandeur, are little more than toys in a vast game of doll’s house.
But who is it that plays with the dolls? And will they ever truly answer for their actions?
Great crime fiction is honour-bound to tell the truth of its time and place, to expose the culture’s flaws and failings. On that basis, GHOST TOWN is a very fine addition to the canon of Irish crime fiction. - 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.