Praise for Declan Burke: “Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “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, August 1, 2018

Review: WHISTLE IN THE DARK by Emma Healey

Emma Healey’s Whistle in the Dark (Viking) begins where more conventional novels might end, with teenager Lana Maddox, who has been missing for four days in the Peak District, safe in hospital and being fussed over by her parents, Jen and Hugh. Lana doesn’t appear to have suffered any physical trauma, but her inability – or unwillingness – to remember where she was, or what happened, or who she was with, allows Jen’s vivid imagination to run riot.
  Is Lana so traumatised that she refuses to engage with her experience? Was she abducted by the oddball birdwatcher Matthew, with whom Lana had begun a tentative romance? Or was she subjected to bizarre horrors by Stephen, a member of the New Lollards Fellowship religious cult, and who has an unhealthy obsession with children descending into hell? Complicating matters further is Lana’s depression, which predates her disappearance and has previously manifested itself in self-harm and suicidal ideation.
  Healey’s second novel reprises a number of elements from her debut, Elizabeth is Missing (2014), which won the Costa Book Award for First Novel. There the mental health issue was dementia, with octogenarian Maud assuming the role of amateur sleuth as she investigates the whereabouts of her missing friend. Here Jen imagines herself ‘a female detective who was also an artist’, who follows Lana to school, ‘shadowing her own daughter, like some grubby detective in a hardboiled crime novel.’ The references are self-mocking, however, accentuating the extent to which Jen has discovered herself lost in the labyrinth of Lana’s depression, failing miserably to decipher the signs and decode the teenage world: ‘Lana, who wasn’t talking to her that day, wasn’t talking to her in an ordinary teenage way, or perhaps wasn’t talking to her in a troubled teenage way. How were you supposed to tell?’
  As the novel proceeds, however, the reader begins to wonder exactly whose mental health is being investigated. Jen starts to hallucinate, seeing a cat wandering her home in the small hours; she grows excessively, although perhaps not entirely unjustifiably, irritated with being referred to as Mum by Lana’s psychiatrist, Dr Greenbaum. As Jen stalks her daughter on-line, endlessly obsessing over the meanings of Lana’s social media posts, she gradually becomes aware of ‘the hum of paranoia beneath her thoughts, a hum that rose in pitch whenever she and Lana were alone together.’
  It’s a gripping tale, one that explores in an accessible, informal style the myriad difficulties in dealing with a loved one’s depression – the reader, given access to Jen’s internal monologues, can hardly fail to be charmed by her whimsical attempts to impose order on her chaotic thought processes. An accomplished amateur artist, Jen is also capable of delivering arresting visual imagery, such as when she remembers the day Lana jumped off a tube onto the platform just as the train was about to pull away, leaving behind a frozen Jen, who instantly recalls the flickering film footage of Emily Davison throwing herself under the king’s horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby: ‘The moment when the small body detached itself from the crowd and then disappeared under the hooves, seemed literally to dissolve on impact.’
  Lana, for her part, is a bracingly spiky character, resistant to her mother’s probing, refusing to provide reassurance, and generally behaving as teenagers tend to do as they struggle to establish an independent identity. Her fascination with the more macabre representations of organised religion – descents into hell, the comparison of her own self-harm with stigmata – culminates in Jen’s mother Lily drawing parallels between Lana and Jesus, comparing depression to a spell in the wilderness and suggesting that the cave in which Lana took shelter might be considered a tomb from which she reappeared after a number of days, which theory Jen dryly debunks by reminding her mother that Lana isn’t exactly the soul of kindness.
  Pervaded by that quality of deadpan gallows humour, and strewn, as any self-respecting parody of a detective novel should be, with a veritable shoal of red herrings as to what really happened to Lana, Whistle in the Dark is a deeply affecting account of one woman’s quiet but unyielding refusal to allow hope succumb to helplessness and despair. ~ Declan Burke

  This review first appeared in the Irish Times.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Review: FORCE OF NATURE by Jane Harper

A three-hour drive east of Melbourne, the Giralang Ranges is a heavily forested wilderness, its demanding terrain the ideal setting for fostering cooperation and boosting morale during a corporate team-building exercise. When Alice Russell fails to return to base after a weekend hike, local law enforcement officers assume she got lost or injured, and is awaiting rescue. Federal Agent Aaron Falk and his partner Carmen Cooper suspect otherwise, however; Alice is a whistle-blower with dirt on the BaileyTennants accountancy firm, which Falk and Cooper believe is a front for laundering the proceeds of criminal activity. Was the team-building exercise an elaborate ruse to lure Alice Russell into a remote region where she could be silenced for good?
  Australian author Jane Harper’s debut The Dry was published to widespread acclaim last year, and deservedly won a number of prizes. Force of Nature (Little, Brown) is an accomplished follow-up which reprises a number of elements that contributed to The Dry’s appeal, a gripping tale in which the landscape is as pitiless an antagonist as any human killer. The story opens with the news of Alice Russell’s disappearance, which brings Falk and Cooper to the Giralang Ranges, where they proceed to interview the women who accompanied Alice on the hike. Their investigation is interspersed with flashbacks to the hike itself, as the group of five women – representing the various strata of the BaileyTennants’ hierarchy – begin in a mood of cheery optimism before quickly degenerating into bickering, open loathing and physical confrontation as the wilderness strips away their pretensions to civilised professionalism.
  It’s an absorbing tale, in part a contemporary psychological thriller and partly a clever reworking of conventions borrowed from the Golden Age of the mystery novel. The lodge where Alice’s hiking companions wait to hear of her fate could easily be a country house in a Ngaio Marsh whodunit, with Falk and Cooper an Inspector Alleyn-style duo interrogating the BaileyTennants employees as to what exactly happened out on the Ranges. Meanwhile, the flashback sections quickly establish the fact that Alice was an abrasive, ruthless co-worker. Her behaviour might have been just about tolerable back in the city where Alice could exert an artificial authority, but with the group lost, running out of water and scrabbling for survival, a variety of tensions erupt into strong motives for murder.
  The plot is sufficiently labyrinthine to keep the most jaded of crime fiction fans guessing, but it’s Harper’s evocation of landscape that elevates Force of Nature above run-of-the-mill thrillers: ‘The gum trees gave way and they came face to face with a magnificent vista of rolling hills and valleys, stretching out beneath them right to the horizon. Shadows from shifting clouds created an ocean of green that rippled like waves.’ Something malevolent, however, lurks behind the beauty: ‘Beth wasn’t sure if the others had sensed it, but earlier she had felt the faintest stirrings in the atmosphere. Something base and elemental and almost primitive, where a bit of stale bread and cheese became a prize worth fighting for.’ Even the sanguine Falk, a hardnosed detective not given to flights of fancy, reflects that the Giralang Ranges is an ‘isolated terrain, where trees grew thick and dense on land that was reluctant to let anything escape.’
  Apart from one glaringly unnecessary red herring, Force of Nature is a powerful tale exploring the fragility of society, a compellingly plausible account of how quickly the veneer of civilisation can be stripped away when human instinct is reduced to flight or fight. Believe the hype: Jane Harper is the real deal. ~ Declan Burke

  This review was first published in the Irish Examiner.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Publication: GUILTY by Laura Elliot

On a warm summer’s morning, thirteen-year-old school girl Constance Lawson is reported missing.
  A few days later, Constance’s uncle, Karl Lawson, suddenly finds himself swept up in a media frenzy created by journalist Amanda Bowe implying that he is the prime suspect.
  Six years later . . .
  Karl’s life is in ruins. His marriage is over, his family destroyed. But the woman who took everything away from him is thriving. With a successful career, husband and a gorgeous baby boy, Amanda’s world is complete. Until the day she receives a phone call and in a heartbeat, she is plunged into every mother’s worst nightmare.

  GUILTY, Laura Elliot’s sixth novel, is published on July 26th. For more on the Malahide author, clickety-click here

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Now Reading: THE GOLDEN FLEECE by Robert Graves

The Golden Fleece is another fruit of Robert Graves’ efforts as revisionist historian and folklorist which culminated in his nonfiction work The White Goddess. The novel is written as though by a classical-age scholar who still had access to the original details of Jason’s quest for the Fleece. After an amusing first chapter, the story bogs down for a while, because Graves is so thorough in providing background. His syntax is ornate and old-fashioned, giving the flavor of the old Greek style, and a far cry from the lean descriptive technique of most contemporary novels. Still, readers with an interest in Greek mythology and the ancient worship rituals described in Fraser’s The Golden Bough will find enough to hold their interest until the story begins in earnest.
  Once the Argo is ready to set sail on its famous quest, The Golden Fleece offers pleasures much like those found in such eighteenth century novelists as Smollett and Fielding. Here too a stately, long-sentenced style, apparently somber and sincere, is used to tell a story full of sly humor and bawdy detail, in this case with a bit more casual slaughter and mass copulation.
  The chapters including the Argonauts’ sometime companion Hercules are pure slapstick, but the comedy continues even after that blustering hero with his penchant for incidental homicide has been left behind. Another recurrent comic figure is the fanatical beekeeper Butes, who critically appraises the honey they taste at every stop and becomes the accidental cause of tragedy. The Golden Fleece is perhaps as much a specialized taste as one of the rarer honey blends Butes admires, but it’s hard to imagine any other writer serving up such rich blend of avid scholarship and an engaging comic voice. ~ David Maclaine