“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.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Reviews: Irish Times Crime Fiction Column, July 2015

PSNI Detective Chief Inspector Serena Flanagan was a memorable character in the supporting cast of Stuart Neville’s The Final Silence (2014), but Those We Left Behind (Harvill Secker, €16.99) sees DCI Flanagan move to centre-stage. Set in contemporary Belfast, the story opens in 2007 with the aftermath of the brutal killing of David Rolston by his foster charges 12-year-old Ciaran and 14-year-old Thomas Devine. The story then moves forward to the present day, with Ciaran – who pled guilty to David Rolston’s killing, and with whom Flanagan developed an unusually intense bond – about to be released on parole. Questions remain about who was truly guilty of David Rolston’s murder, however, and Daniel Rolston, whose family was destroyed by the allegations the teenage boys made against his father in the wake of the killing, is determined to get to the truth. Stuart Neville’s career to date (this is his sixth novel) has been characterised by a particular fascination with the ripple effect of lethal violence, and Those We Left Behind, as the title suggests, explores the physical and psychological damage wrought by the actions of two apparently sociopathic young boys, while simultaneously examining the factors that led the boys to behave in the way they did. Serena Flanagan is a compelling character, professionally capable and hard-nosed but emotionally vulnerable in her private life, although it’s young Ciaran Devine that provides the most haunting character in Neville’s best novel since his debut The Twelve (2009).
  Set in 1997, F.H. Batacan’s debut novel Smaller and Smaller Circles (Soho Crime, €19.50) – which won the Philippine National Book Award in 2002 – opens with the discovery of an eviscerated young boy at a Manila rubbish dump. The investigation into the boy’s murder is headed by the National Bureau of Investigation’s Director Latimosa, but Batacan’s story focuses on Jesuit priests Jerome and Saenz – the latter a forensic pathologist – as they uncover a serial killer’s bloody trail, their endeavours hampered by the fact that no one seems to believe the Philippines could ever harbour a serial killer. Saenz is a likeable protagonist, a contemporary Fr Brown as motivated by compassion as he is by justice, and an experienced campaigner against the particular kind of abuse of power perpetrated by the Catholic Church that underpins the story. Hailed as the first Filipino crime novel, Smaller and Smaller Circles is a fascinating snapshot of a country still struggling to come to terms with the poverty, corruption and brutality of the Ferdinand Marcos era.
  Opening in Athens in 2010, Leo Kanaris’s debut novel Codename Xenophon (Dedalus, €14.99) introduces private detective George Zafiris, who is commissioned to investigate the murder of John Petrakis on the island of Aegina. The suspects are as plentiful as the red herrings, not least because Petrakis was an eminent scholar with a penchant for exploring the taboo aspects of classical Greece, but in keeping with the private eye tradition, Kanaris – a pseudonym for author Alex Martin – and his creation are as interested in investigating their time and place as they are in pursuing justice. “The laws were ever more elaborate in their complexity, the people ever more ingenious in their evasions. Each tormented the other,” Zafiris tell us as he seeks to throw light into the shadow of crippling austerity that looms large over the story. The narrative flits from a frenzied Athens to the idyllic islands as politicians, Russian crooks, corrupt (and/or incompetent) policemen thicken the plot, the world-weary Zafiris nimbly negotiating a Byzantine culture in which morality, truth and justice are malleable concepts. The first in a proposed quartet to feature George Zafiris, Codename Xenophon is a bleak but blackly comic tale that does full justice to its laconic, Chandleresque heritage.
  Kelly Creighton’s Belfast-set debut The Bones of It (Liberties Press, €12.99) is a first-person narration from Scott McAuley, who has recently been kicked out of university and appears to be telling us his story from a secure institution. On the face of it – according to himself, at least – a mild-mannered, green-tea-drinking peacenik, Scott drip-feeds us ominous snippets from the year gone by, detailing his obsession with Polish co-worker Klaudia and his relationship with his bitterly despised father Duke, who is now a post-Troubles conflict counsellor but who was once imprisoned for stabbing to death two Catholics in a sectarian rage. Blackly comic in tone, The Bones of It is a bildungsroman that gradually evolves into a slow-burning psychological exploration of the mind of a most unlikely killer. It may well prove a little too slow-burning for those who prefer their crime novels pacy and packed with incident, but it is an engrossing tale of the consequences of living a life steeped in a culture of violence.
  Simon Mawer’s tenth novel, Tightrope (Little, Brown, €25.50), reprises the character of Marian Sutro, an SOE agent who parachuted into occupied France in 1943 in The Girl Who Fell From the Sky (2012). Tightrope opens in 1945, with Marian leaving behind the horrors of Ravensbruck, arriving home to Britain in a very fragile physical and emotional state to discover that the black-and-white certainties of wartime have been replaced, in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, by shades of grey. Spanning the decade following WWII and incorporating the first frosty encounters that would lead to the Cold War, Tightrope is a nuanced spy novel akin to the best work of John Le Carré in that it bypasses the cloak-and-dagger conventions in pursuit of the noble flaws, foibles and idiosyncrasies that lie at the heart of the most fascinating spies. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize for The Glass Room (2009), Mawer here delivers an absorbing tale about an extraordinary woman who finds her understanding of duty, patriotism and honour ripped to shreds by epoch-defining circumstances. ~ Declan Burke

  This column was first published in the Irish Times.

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