“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.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Reviews: Lehane, Minato, Bateman, Tey, Child

Mystic River, Shutter Island and Gone, Baby, Gone were all very fine film adaptations of Dennis Lehane novels, so there’s a kind of inevitability to the fact that Lehane’s latest offering, The Drop (Abacus, €11.95), is published as a tie-in with the cinematic release of the movie of the same name (the book began life as a short story, ‘Animal Rescue’, before Lehane, previously a writer on The Wire, developed the short story for the film’s screenplay). Bob Saginowski works as a barman at a Boston bar which serves as a front for the laundering of illicit cash by Balkan gangsters. A lonely, God-fearing man, Bob’s life of quiet desperation becomes more emotionally involving than he might prefer when he adopts a brutalised puppy and incurs the wrath of the neighbourhood’s resident sociopath. When Bob’s bar is held up at gunpoint not long afterwards, and the Balkan mob demand its money be retrieved regardless of the cost, Bob realises that the time has come when he must step up and make a stand for what matters. Unsurprisingly, given its origins, The Drop is a slim novel but it’s one that bears the unmistakable Lehane imprint. Saginowski is an archetypal Lehane hero, an introspective, put-upon man with deeply held moral principles and a long, slow-burning fuse. The prose lacks the elegance of Lehane’s recent historical epics The Given Day (2008) and Live By Night (2012) but the story compensates with its incident-packed intensity, dialogue-driven narrative and sharply etched characters.
  Kanae Minato’s Confessions (Mulholland Books, €13.40) opens with middle school teacher Yuko Moriguchi informing her class of the tragic death of her four-year-old daughter, and of the terrible revenge she has wrought on the two pupils who murdered her child. Moriguichi’s ‘confession’, however, is only the opening salvo: the book is composed of a number of first-person accounts from characters who all have secrets to hide and sins to expiate, including those of both the young killers. The intimate nature of the narrative contributes to a harrowing account of a generation of Japanese teenagers that has lost its way, particularly as Minato eschews sensationalism for a style that favours a crisp, clear-eyed account of the various motives and agendas (the novel is translated with impressive economy by Stephen Snyder). Despite the bleak tone, however, the intimacy of the first-person accounts affords Minato the opportunity to delve deep into each character’s personality, which hugely complicates the reader’s response to the story by giving these ostensibly soulless teenagers an unexpected poignancy.
  Colin Bateman’s Belfast-based Dan Starkey – formerly a journalist, now a private investigator – has been charting the changes in Northern Ireland since he first appeared in Divorcing Jack (1995). The Dead Pass (Headline, €18.99) is Starkey’s 10th outing, and finds him in unfamiliar territory in Derry – or Londonderry, as he insists on calling it – when he is commissioned by concerned mother and former political activist Moira Doherty to find her missing son, Billy. What follows is an old-fashioned gumshoe tale of snooping, beatings and snide quips, shot through with Bateman’s anarchic sense of humour (the story involves dissident Republicanism, a teenage Messiah and soft-core pornography), as Northern Ireland’s ‘Sam Spud’, as one character dubs him, doggedly pursues the trail of justice and truth. Despite all the gags, puns and post-modern re-imagining of the role of the fictional private eye, The Dead Pass is most notable for its sombre undertone, as the investigation wanders up and down Derry’s backstreets and comes to the conclusion that Northern Ireland’s post-Troubles peace is a very fragile construct that could very easily splinter or explode.
  First published in 1952, and the last of Josephine Tey’s novels to feature Inspector Alan Grant, The Singing Sands (Folio Society, €29.99) finds Grant suffering from a breakdown and taking himself off to the Highlands to recuperate on a fishing holiday. Disembarking from the train in Scotland, Grant realises that a man has died in the compartment next to his. When Grant finds himself in possession of the dead man’s newspaper, upon which has been scrawled some intriguing lines of poetry, his policeman’s mind goes into overdrive. Beloved by crime and mystery writers, Tey is regarded as one of the most brilliantly imaginative of the UK’s ‘Golden Age’ of mystery authors. Delivered in a crisp, formal and lyrical style, this reissue from the Folio Society – which is beautifully illustrated by Mark Smith – showcases Tey’s facility for a plot that is as absorbing as it is incredible (the tale turns on the discovery of a very unusual ‘Atlantis’). The Singing Sands is as good a place as any to rediscover (or discover) one of the great mystery writers, although purists may instead point you to the standalone titles The Franchise Affair (1948) or Brat Farrar (1949), both of which are also reissued by the Folio Society.
  Personal (Bantam, €18.99) is Lee Child’s 19th novel to feature the nomadic Jack Reacher, an ex-Military Policeman who wanders the United States dispensing rough justice. When a sniper attempts to assassinate the French president from a distance of 1,400 yards, Reacher and his former colleagues at the CIA come to the same conclusion: the sniper can only be John Kott, an ex-Special Forces operative whom Reacher sent to prison some 15 years previously, and now on the loose. Dispatched to London, Reacher’s mission is to prevent Kott from killing a world leader during the forthcoming G8 Summit – but first Reacher must negotiate the labyrinthine world of London’s criminal gangs. Child employs a laconic tone and dust-dry humour as he delivers yet another convoluted tale in direct and forthright prose, a blend that seems to mock the self-effacing Reacher’s rather implausible invincibility even as the story itself celebrates our need for such heroes.

  This column was first published in the Irish Times.

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