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.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Nobody Move, This Is A Review: SAINTS OF NEW YORK by RJ Ellory

SAINTS OF NEW YORK is a hardboiled police procedural set in contemporary New York, and has for its main protagonist Frank Parrish, who is on the face of it a stereotypical crime fiction protagonist. He is a NYPD detective who is married to the job at the expense of his family; he is divorced from his wife, and has strained relationships with his son and daughter. He is a heavy drinker and has a haunted past which largely relates to his relationship with his dead father, who was a renowned NYPD cop in his time. He has difficulty communicating with those he loves, and is also regarded as something of a loner by his co-workers. He is also under investigation by Internal Affairs, and may well be one wrong move away from being fired.
  By the same token, Ellory is a good enough writer to create a unique character in Frank Parrish. Parrish is compelling in his downward spiral, and the character reminded me very much of a policeman version of Travis Bickle, or of the bad lieutenant played by Harvey Keitel in the movie of the same name, albeit a ‘bad lieutenant’ whose instincts are for justice and the general good of society.
  It’s difficult for the reader not to share Parrish’s obsession. Parrish is absorbed by a case in which teenage girls are abducted and filmed having sex, before being killed and having their bodies dumped. Parrish quickly begins to suspect that he is infiltrating a snuff movie ring, which may or may not be facilitated by a social worker specialising in adopted teenagers.
  It helps hugely that Ellory gets under the skin of New York every bit as effectively as he inhabits Parrish’s skin. SAINTS OF NEW YORK has a real tang of authenticity, which is important given that the story depends heavily on the kind of geographical detail that only native New Yorkers might know. This is worth noting, if only because Ellory is a British writer, albeit one who has set all his novels in America.
  Among the minor characters who populate the novel are Parrish’s new partner, Jimmy Radick, and his daughter, Caitlin. Less peripheral characters are Parrish’s therapist, Dr Marie Griffin, and Parrish’s dead father, John, a legendary NYPD cop and one of the original ‘Saints of New York’, whose shadow still looms large in Frank’s life.
  For much of the novel, Frank Parrish is convinced that his father, John Parrish, was a facilitator for the Mob, who certainly took pay-offs in order that the Mob could infiltrate JFK Airport, and who may or may not have actually killed to order on behalf of the Mob. One of Frank’s obsessions is the difference between the private and the public John Parrish, and one of the reasons Frank drinks is the pressure to live up to the reputation of a man whom he believes to be utterly corrupt.
  John Parrish was involved with a number of gangsters, the most famous of whom was Jimmy Burke, a character fans of the movie Goodfellas will be familiar with. Parrish tells his therapist, Marie, many stories about his father - about the real John Parrish. One of the stories, and the one that underpins his relationship with his father, concerns itself with John Parrish’s involvement in the infamous Lufthansa heist at JFK which forms the backbone to the Goodfellas story, and which was conducted by Jimmy Burke, who was played by Robert De Niro in the movie.
  I was surprised that Ellory devoted so much of the book to such a well known story, and curious as to his motives for doing so. Certainly Frank’s bid to come to terms with his father’s reputation makes for a fascinating strand of the novel, but I’m not sure that inserting a real-life story into the narrative wasn’t more of a distraction than a benefit.
  Another quirky aspect to the story is the way Ellory writes the interaction between Frank and his therapist, Dr Marie Griffin, which is achieved in chapters that are utterly devoid of any descriptive elements, and consist solely of dialogue. Ellory is an excellent descriptive writer, perhaps because of his background in photography and graphic studies, and the novel benefits hugely from his atmospheric descriptions of New York. I’m curious as to why he would deliberately eschew that skill during the conversations between Frank and Marie - although it has to be said, the conceit creates a superb intensity between the pair.
  The victims in the novel, teenage girls who are abducted and killed, are particularly vulnerable, given that they are for the most part adopted, or come from broken homes. While it might seem like something of a cliché, it’s entirely reasonable that the hardboiled, cynical Frank should respond to these victims so comprehensively, not least because their deaths cause him to reflexively think of his own daughter, Caitlin, who lives and works not too from the scenes of the crimes.
  As is usual in crime novels, the protagonist, Frank, becomes entirely consumed by the fate of the killer’s victims. Solving the case becomes Frank’s potential shot at redemption, but Ellory goes way past the clichés in outlining Frank’s empathy for the teenage girls. This is particularly true of the tone. I’ve described SAINTS OF NEW YORK as hardboiled, but there are times when it goes beyond that to verge on the existential. Some of the passages in SAINTS are a very grim kind of Zen. For example, on pg 88, when Parrish thinks about one of the victims:
“And it wasn’t simply that she reminded him of Caitlin [his daughter]. It wasn’t that she was orphaned or had a piece-of-shit junkie brother. It wasn’t that her St. Francis of Assisi friends considered her quiet and funny and pretty and sweet. It was something else. A reminder that if there was no one there to look after you, no one to keep an eye on things, then the world and all its wonders would devour you in a heartbeat.
  “You were there, and then you were gone.”
  And again, on pg 139, when Parrish is thinking about his job:
“Spend thirty years a cop you’re gonna die a cop. There was no easy way out of it. It was not a job, it was a vocation. After that it became a passion, an addiction, a crutch, a belief. Either that, or you got out. Cops didn’t marry well. They were lousy fathers. They walked out of the house into a world that no one else could see, as if only they could perceive the thin veneer that lay between what people believed was reality and reality itself. Reality was behind the crime scene tape. Reality was found at the tip of a stiletto, down the muzzle of a .38, back of a sawn-off Mossberg pump-action shotgun as it unloaded its guts into half a dozen diners in a restaurant on Myrtle Avenue. Reality was a stabbing, a beating, a strangulation, a drowning, a suicide, an overdose, a hanging. Reality was twelve-year-old junkies, fifteen-year-old hookers. It was stealing and running and hiding, and backing up into a corner while the world looked for you, and knowing full well that soon the world would find you and it would all be over.”
  All told, SAINTS OF NEW YORK is a powerful crime novel, inventively rich in its use of language, absorbing in its intensity. Highly recommended. - Declan Burke

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