“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.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

A Good Bad Review

I stumbled across a review of SLAUGHTER’S HOUND the other day, one which I remember reading shortly after the book was published last year. It was in the Irish Independent, and I remember being irked by one aspect of it, although at the time it was all incredibly busy both professionally and personally and I didn’t get the time to address said issue.
  In general it’s fair to say, I think, that the gist of the review was a thumb’s down. For starters, the reviewer was less than impressed by the hardboiled narrator’s bona fides:
“In the much-imitated tradition of Raymond Chandler, Harry [Rigby]’s the book’s narrator and this poses a problem because, unlike Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, who embodies a moral code to match his tough-guy exterior, Harry’s just as much of a thug as most of the lowlifes he confronts and thus his railings against the greed and iniquities of contemporary Ireland register as an authorial intervention rather than as the expression of believable character.
  “And the same goes for the cultural name-dropping that recurs throughout. It’s to be severely doubted that this ultra-violent hard man, who thinks nothing of gouging out someone’s eyeball, would effortlessly name-check Marx, Engels, Jackson Pollock and William Gaddis, while also quoting Hopkins and Yeats, airily referring to “Joycean fabulists”, deeming something to be “a metaphysical gambit bordering on the Cartesian” and advising a scheming matriarch to “brush up on your Milton”.
  To which I can only reply, in time-honoured faux-Flaubertian fashion – try saying that three times after a jigger of rum – ‘Harry Rigby, c’est moi.’
  The review climaxes thusly:
“The result is as bleak a picture of contemporary Ireland as you’ll encounter -- though undermined by the reader’s sense that the author has nothing interesting to say about such an Ireland and that it’s all merely being served up for lurid thrills. On that level, the book is brutally efficient.”
  All of which, of course, is fair comment. Every reviewer is as entitled to his or her opinion as I am when I’m reviewing books or movies, and bad reviews are all part of the gig.
  But the bit I took issue with refers, in the context of Harry being a ‘horrible human being’ to “the abuse [Harry] had just meted out to his ex-partner and to the troubled son he professed to care about.”
  ‘Abuse’ is a loaded word these days, and could easily be interpreted as domestic, physical, psychological or even sexual abuse; it was irritating that such a potentially loaded word was simply dropped in with no context. Harry Rigby is no one’s ideal of a perfect man, but the ‘abuse’ he gives his ex-partner Denise comes in arguments in which they both try to score points by re-opening old wounds, an exercise in which Harry comes off a very poor second-best. Certainly Harry could be accused of emotional neglect of his son, Ben, and certainly emotional neglect is a form of abuse; although it’s worth pointing out, I think, that most of the narrative thrust of SLAUGHTER’S HOUND is bound up with Harry’s attempts to make good on that neglect.
  Having said all that, I got a nice bang out of reading the review the second time around, mainly for the line, “the author has nothing interesting to say about such an Ireland and that it’s all merely being served up for lurid thrills.”
  I don’t believe that all Irish crime fiction should say something ‘interesting’ about the Ireland of today, of course, but I do believe that all fiction should be judged by the same standard across the board, regardless of its genre – in other words, a book is either interesting or it’s not; it’s good or it’s not. The best thing any reviewer can do for a writer – not for the writer’s sales, or the writer’s ego, and so forth, but the best thing for the writer – is for a reviewer to take a writer’s book seriously, and review it in a serious fashion. On that level – the sloppiness of the ‘abuse’ reference aside – the review was brutally efficient, and very pleasing indeed.

5 comments:

seana graham said...

Hmm. I never would have characterized Rigby as a "thug". Ruthless in certain situations, but that's something quite different. So I didn't have a problem with the idea that he would be well educated.

Dana King said...

I take issue with one comment:

Harry’s just as much of a thug as most of the lowlifes he confronts and thus his railings against the greed and iniquities of contemporary Ireland register as an authorial intervention rather than as the expression of believable character.

Why would a "thug/lowlife" not have issues with the iniquities of contemporary Ireland? Seems to be that would be a popular rationalization for such a person.

That Harry doesn't use it as a rationalization indicates he is not really a thug/lowlife (well, a little), as Seana indicates above.

Harry's a bright, self-aware man who recently had several years with nothing better to do that read and be careful in the shower. The fact he's learned a few things and thinks about them doesn't mean the conclusions he draws about how to act are good decisions.

EileenK said...

Wow. I saw Harry in the grand tradition of the last moral man, doing immoral things to survive in an even more immoral universe. I'm reading Philip Kerr's A Man without Breath. Kerr's Bernie Gunther is in that same tradition. I suspect yon reviewer has a hard time with moral ambiguity.

Richard L. Pangburn said...

I don't see the moral ambiguity of a literary mind who endulges in existential violence, such as with Declan's Harry and Ken Bruen's protagonist.

I do certainly see the moral ambiguity of pious minds who partake of and condone systemic killing of the Other.

Holly said...

Gorgeous!