“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.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Reviews: Gerald Seymour, Louise Phillips, Dominique Manotti, Conor Fitzgerald

Gerald Seymour’s Vagabond (Hodder & Stoughton, €20.85) opens in contemporary Northern Ireland, with MI5 shadowing a dissident Republican group trying to buy weapons from a Russian arms dealer. In France, the former British Army intelligence agent-handler Danny Curnow – call sign ‘Vagabond’ – is now employed driving tourists around the historical sites of the Normandy Landings. When Malachy Riordan leaves Tyrone for Prague in the company of double agent Ralph Exton, Danny gets the call he has dreaded for two decades: come in from the cold, there’s dirty work to be done. Seymour’s multi-stranded narrative of dark deeds and black ops is fuelled by an exhilaratingly bleak cynicism. Here the ambitiously self-serving prosper, and the traditionally noble virtues of loyalty, friendship and patriotism are so many exploitable weaknesses. The pace is funereal and the tone elegiac as the story draws together a number of strands of recent history, with ‘Desperate’ Dan Curnow at the heart of the tale and emblematic of the novel’s overall thrust in his beguiling blend of pragmatism, brutality and unswerving faith in the notion of sacrifice on behalf of the greater good. Seymour, who debuted with Harry’s Game in 1975 (this is his 30th novel in total), tends to be overshadowed by John le Carré as one of the great British post-Cold War novelists, but Vagabond confirms that he deserves to be seated at the top table.
  Louise Phillips’s The Doll’s House, her second novel, won the crime fiction award at the Irish Book Awards in 2013. Last Kiss (Hachette Books Ireland, €14.99) is Phillips’ third novel to feature Dr Kate Pearson, a Dublin-based criminal psychologist who assists the Gardai in investigating their more perplexing murders. Here Dr Pearson attends a bizarre murder scene, in which the male victim is discovered laid out in what appears to be a homage to Tarot card scenario. By then the reader has already met the killer, an unnamed character who offers a first-person insight into her motives. It’s an unusual and deliberately unsettling narrative gambit, as the first-person voice affords the killer a chilling intimacy (“I kill people,” she states in the opening chapter) that somewhat distances the reader from Dr Pearson’s third-person account, and the truth and justice she pursues. Nevertheless, the blend of first- and third-person narratives gives the story tremendous pace as Dr Pearson is dispatched to Paris and Rome in the company of DI Adam O’Connor, their personal and professional lives overlapping as they try to build a profile of the killer from her previous murders. The recurring Tarot card motif and references to archetypal European folktales serve notice that Phillips is engaged in exploring the dark matter of damaged sexual identity, and while the third act veers off into potboiler territory, the abiding impression is of the empathy Phillips evokes on behalf of her anti-heroine, who is as fragile as she is lethal.
  The fifth of French author Dominique Manotti’s novels to be translated into English, Escape (Arcadia Books, €11.99) opens in 1987 with a prison break in Italy. Filippo, a petty criminal, and Carlo, a former leader in the Red Brigades, immediately go their separate ways; but when Carlo is subsequently shot to death during a bank raid, Filippo makes his way to Paris, claims refugee status, and writes a novel about his experience. The book’s blend of fact and fiction makes it a literary sensation in France, where Lisa, an expatriate Italian journalist, and Carlo’s former lover, realises that Carlo’s death was a murder designed to cover up political corruption. “People don’t do politics any more in Italy, they do business, it’s the grand ball of the corruptors and the corrupt,” Lisa tells one of her friends, which gives a flavour of the bracing cynicism that underpins Escape. Translated by Amanda Hopkinson and Ros Schwartz, and rooted in the radical Italian politics of the 1960s and 1970s, it’s an unconventional tale more concerned with the unintended consequences of writing a political crime novel than pandering to the genre’s traditional pursuit of justice. Indeed, there may well be an autobiographical aspect to the character of Lisa, as Manotti – who was herself a union activist during the 1960s – charts Lisa’s growing awareness that fiction rather than fact may prove the more effective long-term strategy in ‘the battle to salvage our past’.
  Rome-based police detective Commissario Alec Blume returns for his fifth outing in Conor Fitzgerald’s Bitter Remedy (Bloomsbury, €13.99), although it’s a rather offbeat police procedural, given that Blume – recently a father, and apparently suffering something of a nervous breakdown as a result – is taking a sabbatical in a picturesque mountaintop village in order to study herbal remedies. Approached by a local nightclub owner, Niki, to investigate the whereabouts of one of his employees, the missing Romanian dancer Alina, Blume reluctantly agrees, and finds himself dragged into the sordid world of people-trafficking. The American-born Blume has an outsider’s eye for the quirky detail in Italian culture (and particularly its policing), which is given an added dimension here with Blume out of his jurisdiction and the comfort zone of his beloved Rome. There’s an element of the old-fashioned ‘Golden Age’ mystery investigation at play here, with Blume something of an amateur sleuth bumbling his way around a picture-postcard setting, trying to lay to rest some of his own ghosts even as he excavates some long-buried skeletons. As always, the incorruptible Blume’s attempts to locate the truth is given a blackly comic sheen courtesy of the detective’s spiky, morose personality – the deadpan dialogue is often hilariously abstruse – but the comedy is invariably contrasted with the brutality of the crime being investigated, via the missing Alina’s parallel narrative, which details the harrowing experience of being trafficked into prostitution.

  This column first appeared in the Irish Times.

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