“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, September 3, 2015

Reviews: Irish Times crime fiction column, August 29th

“Life, unlike crime, was not something you could solve,” observes the retired Parisian police inspector Auguste Jovert in Mark Henshaw’s The Snow Kimono (Tinder Press, €22.50), the Australian author’s first novel since he published his debut, the award-winning Out of the Line of Fire, 26 years ago. Jovert is ruminating on his conversations with Tadashi Omura – a former Professor of Law at the Imperial University of Japan, and a devotee of himitsu-e puzzles – who opens the novel by spinning Jovert an engrossing yarn about Kumiko, the young girl he raised as his own daughter after his old friend, Katsuo, went to prison in disgrace (the theme of fathers and their strained relationships with daughters is a constant: Jovert, formerly a ‘specialist interrogator’ with the French Territorial Police in Algeria, has recently received a letter from a young woman in Algiers who claims to be his daughter). What transpires is a story that is almost the antithesis of the conventional detective novel, a subtly wrought meditation on human frailty in the framework of an extended confession, with Jovert playing the part of reluctant confessor to an elaborately woven and beautifully detailed declaration of guilt.
  Andrea Carter’s debut Death at Whitewater Church (Constable, €22.10) opens in the northeast corner of Donegal, where solicitor Ben O’Keefe lives a life that ‘was sort of a half-life’, filling in time as an observer and facilitator of the lives around her. While helping to survey the deconsecrated church at Whitewater near the village of Glendara, Ben discovers a human skeleton in the church’s crypt; when it emerges that the remains are recent, and likely those of Conor Devitt, who disappeared six years previously on the eve of his wedding, a murder investigation begins. The shadow of the Troubles hangs over the events of this contemporary-set novel, although the story itself takes its cue from the Golden Age of mystery fiction, with Ben O’Keefe – an amateur sleuth who is by her own admission far too nosy for her own good – something of a latter-day Miss Marple as she surreptitiously investigates the cat’s cradle of possible motives for Conor Devitt’s death. Ben O’Keefe is an engaging character, one reminiscent of Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan in her exemplary public professionalism and private self-doubt, and Death at Whitewater Church is a charming debut that bodes well for Carter’s future.
  A Little More Free (ECW Press, €14.99) is Canadian author John McFetridge’s second novel to feature Montreal Constable Eddie Dougherty. Opening in 1972, as Montreal hosts the legendary ‘Summit Series’ of ice hockey matches between Canada and the USSR, the story finds Dougherty investigating the deaths of three men who burned to death in a nightclub fire, and also the robbery of millions of dollars worth of paintings from the Museum of Fine Arts. McFetridge’s previous novels (this is his sixth) have been compared with those of Elmore Leonard, but the Eddie Dougherty novels have more in common with the work of Michael Connelly: Dougherty is a smart, pragmatic but deep-thinking cop who winkles out the truth by virtue of dogged police-work. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the Dougherty novels is the way McFetridge opens a window onto Canada’s recent and turbulent past (both of the cases Dougherty investigates are historical events), with the title of A Little More Free alluding to the wider backdrop of Dougherty’s investigation, which leads him into the murky world of US Army deserters and those fleeing the Vietnam War-era draft.
  Julia Heaberlin’s third novel, Black-Eyed Susans (Penguin, €19.50), is a cleverly constructed tale that advances along parallel narratives. In 1995, in conversation with her psychiatrist as she prepares to testify in court, Texan teenager Tessie tries to remember the details of her miraculous escape from a serial killer who dumped her body into a pit containing the bones of some of his previous victims. Meanwhile, in the present day, the older Tessie, now calling herself Tessa, is convinced the killer has tracked her down, which means that Tessie’s testimony two decades previously sent the wrong man to death row. With Terrell Goodwin’s execution date looming, can Tessa finally unlock the dark secrets buried in her subconscious and save an innocent man’s life? A superb psychological thriller strewn with gothic motifs (Edgar Allen Poe, and particularly his story ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, is regularly referenced), Black-Eyed Susans is a haunting account of Tessa’s painful journey towards understanding the unpalatable truth of her life-defining experience (“I am sane, and I am not, and I don’t want anyone to know.”), which also functions as an engrossing exploration of the morality of the death penalty.
  Jamie Kornegay’s debut novel Soil (Two Roads, €20.99) centres on environmental scientist Jay Mize, who has relocated his wife Sandy and young son Jacob to a corner of rural Mississippi in order to create a self-sustaining farm in anticipation of the climatic apocalypse Jay believes is imminent. Devastated when floods destroy his crops, and terrified of being accused of murder by the sociopathic Deputy Danny Shoals when the receding waters reveal a corpse on his land, the increasingly paranoid Jay decides to dispose of the body himself rather than alert the authorities. A slow-burning noir influenced by the Southern gothic tradition, Soil is a hugely impressive debut in which the central narrative of Jay’s psychological breakdown and his family’s destruction leads us into the darkest recesses of the South’s history (Jay’s ancestry is tainted by the worst kind of Jim Crow legacy). Kornegay is superb at evoking the minutiae of small-town America, and despite their different settings – Soil vividly depicts the sweltering Mississippi delta – this heart-breaking tragedy bears comparison with Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan and Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. ~ Declan Burke

  This column was first published in the Irish Times.

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