The title of Sheila Bugler’s third book alludes to the fact that the crime novel is the adult version of the child’s fairytale and cautionary fable. Set in London, and featuring the dogged DI Ellen Kelly of Lewisham CID, All Things Nice is a police procedural rooted in the nursery rhyme that warns us boys are composed of slugs and snails and puppy-dogs’ tails.This review was first published in the Irish Examiner.
The story opens with the murder of Keiran Burton, who is discovered stabbed to death in a laneway on the morning after Charlotte Gleeson celebrates her birthday party. Keiran, we discover, is not a particularly nice man: he is a womaniser, a hypocrite, a leech on Charlotte’s daughter Freya and a man so morally degenerate he sleeps with Charlotte. Not that Charlotte is entirely innocent in the matter: emotionally estranged from her husband Nick, and an alcoholic prone to making bad decisions when it comes to men, Charlotte’s loneliness drove her into Keiran’s arms. Now, suffering the amnesia of a crippling hangover, Charlotte is terrified that she might be the killer. She argued with Keiran, she knows that; worse, Keiran wouldn’t be the first person Charlotte had ever stabbed …
It should be an open-and-shut case for DI Kelly, but Keiran Burton isn’t the only sleazy man in All Things Nice. There is Nick Gleeson, the successful but self-absorbed restauranteur who is more interested in his current extra-marital fling than in comforting his bereaved daughter Freya; and Pete Cooper, a violent gangland kingpin and single father who has an unhealthy obsession with the love life of his own daughter, Cosima.
DI Kelly tracks the slimy trails of these slugs and snails through the leafy boroughs of affluent South London according to the conventions of the police procedural, but the central investigation is woven around Kelly’s complicated personal life. Recently widowed, and raising her children alone, she is haunted by grief and further wounded by her rejection by her birth mother, Noreen. Not that Kelly allows her personal difficulties to impact on her professional life: she is every bit as self-confident as Nick Gleeson, and brutally violent as Pete Cooper, when the occasion demands. Remembering the face Billy Dunston, the man who killed her husband, she falls asleep smiling as she recalls how ‘she held the gun against his head and pulled the trigger.’ That vigilante streak notwithstanding, Kelly can still tell herself that, “The reason she found it so difficult to fit in was because there weren’t many people as bloody good at being a detective as she was.”
The plot doesn’t spring too many surprises, as Ellen Kelly uncovers ‘bits and pieces of truth hidden amongst the lies everyone was telling,’ but what gives All Things Nice real bite as the story progresses are the growing similarities between DI Kelly and the men at the heart of her investigation (Kelly, sensitive to slights real and imagined, would likely be outraged to be told this). Indeed, all the main players, Kelly included, are struggling to cope with damaged childhoods and the life-long consequences of wounds inflicted on impressionable minds: oddly, it’s only the murder victim, Keiran, who doesn’t benefit from an extended backstory that might allow us to empathise with him. Nick Gleeson and Pete Cooper are portrayed as lurid rogues for most of the novel, but it’s only in the final stages that we begin to understand why they behave as they do. Their actions may be foul, and the reader understands that the genre’s conventions demand that such men cannot be allowed to go unchecked if society is to thrive, but their reasons for acting as they do are the stuff of classical tragedy, and resonate long after the book is put away. ~ Declan Burke
“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.