“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.

Monday, August 24, 2015

“I Wish I Was In Carrickfergus (and Bangor)”


It’s off to Northern Ireland for yours truly at the end of this month, where I will be reading / answering Qs / juggling-on-stilts* at Carrickfergus Library (August 26th) and Bangor Library (August 27th). Both events kick off at 6.45pm, and both are free admission, as you might expect from library events, but booking is advisable.

For Carrick – Tel: 028 9336 2261 / Email: carrickfergus.library@librariesni.org.uk
For Bangor – Tel: 028 9127 0591 / Email: library@librariesni.org.uk

For any queries, clickety-click here

* largely dependent on librarians having in-house stilts for rental purpose

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Review: PARADISE SKY by Joe Lansdale

Joe Lansdale’s Paradise Sky is a fictionalised account of the life of Nat Love, aka Deadwood Dick, one of the Wild West’s most fascinating outlaws.
  Born in 1854, Nat (pronounced ‘Nate’) grew up a slave on a plantation in East Texas. In Lansdale’s novel, the young Nat Love – a self-confessed “runaway ass-looker, part-time horse thief and sometime farmhand” – escapes a small Texas town one step head ahead of a noose-dangling posse, accused by local bigot Sam Ruggert of disrespecting his wife. Nat joins the US Army as a cavalryman, goes to war with the Apache, and subsequently deserts and drifts west to the lawless towns of Deadwood and Dodge City, where his reputation as a horseman and sharpshooter becomes legendary.
  Lansdale’s account of Love’s life is broadly in line with the historical truth – the aging Love, now a Pullman porter, is telling us his story in a first-person narrative – but the story is also concerned with exploring how facts become wildly distorted by legend. At one point, Nat reads a dime novel about his old friend, Wild Bill Hickok. “It was the biggest batch of balderdash I have ever read,” reports Nat, “but it was pretty entertaining once I made up my mind it wasn’t no true-life story.”
  Best known for his award-winning Texas-set ‘Hap and Leonard’ crime novels, but also renowned as a horror writer and his work as a superheroes comic-book author, Lansdale is happily printing the legend in Paradise Sky. Relentlessly pursued by the vengeful Sam Ruggert throughout the Old West, Nat Love’s life is a series of shoot-outs, near-death experiences and encounters with famous names, including the notorious ‘hanging judge’ Isaac Parker and Wild Bill himself. It’s a hugely entertaining tale, not least because Nat Love makes for an engaging storyteller, a man of rudimentary education but one with a flair for dryly humorous vernacular. He also has a sharp eye for the casual racism of the Wild West, such as when Nat volunteers for the Ninth Cavalry, only to be told by a Colonel that, “We got plenty of riding niggers. What we need is walking niggers for the goddamn infantry.”
  ‘I figured [Nat observes] anything that had the tag “goddamn” in front of it wasn’t for me.’
  That wryly coarse vernacular tone is present throughout, and suggestive of how Huckleberry Finn might have gone had Huck and Jim abandoned the Mississippi and struck West (the novel opens with an epigraph from Mark Twain). Indeed, racism and bigotry underpin the entire story, as Nat struggles to escape those malign forces and establish his right to be accepted as a man on his own merits, the colour of his skin notwithstanding.
  Lansdale is also excellent when it comes to the humdrum brutality of the Old West, and particularly on how cheap life was. “I just turned and shot,” the teenage outlaw Kid Red tells Nat. “Bullet went right through the dog and hit that kid. He just sort of sat down out from under his bowler hat. That dog and him didn’t so much as whimper.”
  Overall, Paradise Sky is a charming blend of the starkly realistic, especially when it comes to the primitive living conditions to be found in Deadwood and Dodge City, and the wildly romantic notion of the outlaw life, with Nat Love a self-deprecating myth-maker who is as keenly aware of his own limitations as a hero as he is of the reader’s desire for credible truth. “Most of it is as true as I know how to make it,” he tells us, “keeping in mind nobody likes the dull parts.”
  True or otherwise, Paradise Sky is very rarely dull. ~ Declan Burke

  This review was first published in the Irish Examiner.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Review: WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT by David Shafer

There is a place in northern Myanmar, close to the Chinese border, that can’t be found on any map, even if you have access to the latest high-tech GPS systems. At least, that’s the experience of Leila Majnoun, an aid-worker employed by an American NGO and operating in Myanmar, who accidentally stumbles across what appear to be US mercenaries guarding a facility in a remote Asian jungle. Leila is curious enough to send out an email to friends and colleagues, asking if anyone has heard of the facility. Within hours Leila’s visa has been revoked, and her father – the principal of a school in California – has been arrested on charges of child pornography.
  David Shafer’s techno-thriller debut begins in a conventional fashion, with concerned citizen Leila the innocent victim of what Ned Swain, a sympathetic American spy based in Myanmar’s capital of Naypyidaw, describes as ‘an immoral conspiracy almost certainly unrelated to national security.’ Leila isn’t the only one caught up in the globe-spanning spider’s web: in Portland, Oregon, the blogger and conspiracy theorist Leo Crane finds himself the subject of an intervention designed to incarcerate him in an institution. Meanwhile, Mark Devereaux, the author of the best-selling psychobabble self-help book Bringing the Inside Out, is adopted as a guru by James Straw, the CEO of the fictional SineCo, ‘the digital search-and-storage conglomerate’ that appears to be an unholy amalgamation of the real world’s technological behemoths.
  With all his characters finally on stage and the backdrop in place, David Shafer reveals the essence of his plot: a filthy-rich cabal of private enterprise is ‘planning an electronic coup’ to ‘control the storage and transmission of all the information in the world.’
  It’s a storyline worthy of the grand tradition of the conspiracy thriller. The villains, given the scale of their ambition, easily outstrip the worst excesses of cat-stroking Bond megalomaniacs, but the way in which Shafer incorporates the banalities of everyday life into the story makes their plot entirely believable. The Node, for example, is ‘SineCo’s newest gizmobauble’, a gadget that bears a remarkable similarity to contemporary smart-phones, although here the Node is the means by which SineCo persuades the world to pay for the privilege of voluntarily collecting and storing its most personal information, which will later be ruthlessly data-mined by SineCo.
  But for all its conventional narrative scenarios of innocent civilians at the mercy of dark forces and its bleak dystopian vision of the near future, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is by no means a standard techno-thriller. For one, Shafer has sufficient confidence in his readers to craft a slow-burning tale that is, for all its gleaming hardware and plans for a ‘New Alexandria’ of a globally centralised library-for-unimaginable-profit, very much a character-driven tale. Leila, Leo and Mark are richly detailed and empathic creations, their quirks and idiosyncrasies integral to the way in which they gradually uncover SineCo’s foul machinations.
  Moreover, the writing is a joy, Shafer employing both sly wit and a sharp eye for the telling image. “The grandeur fled,” Leo observes as he emerges from a reverie of a better world, “like shining back into shook foil.” Leila decides that Myanmar ‘sounded like a name cats would give their country.’ Indeed, the entire novel – all 422 pages of densely packed text – is littered with deliciously wry snippets and quotable lines, which gives the overall impression of a Neal Stephenson novel redrafted by Carl Hiaasen in blackly humorous form.
  Frighteningly plausible, epic in scale and vividly imagined, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a lovingly crafted homage to the techno-thriller that is hugely entertaining in its own right. ~ Declan Burke

  This review was first published in the Irish Examiner.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Reviews: Irish Times Crime Fiction Column, August 2015

Benjamin Black’s – aka John Banville’s – series of mystery novels set in 1950s Dublin grow increasingly impressive, even as his protagonist, the pathologist Quirke, drifts further into existential ennui. Even the Dead (Penguin, €16.99), the seventh novel to feature Quirke, opens with this most reluctant of heroes on sabbatical, suffering from “mental blanks and momentary delusions” as a result of a beating he suffered two years previously. When a young man is discovered dead in suspicious circumstances in the Phoenix Park, however, Quirke rouses himself to go prowling “the mean and mendacious little city” with his companion in arms, Inspector Hackett. The pacing is as meandering as ever, as Black regularly digresses from the plot to explore Quirke’s bewilderment at the world and his place in it, and the story is again concerned with the malign power exercised by those who mix politics and religion that has proved fertile ground for Black in the past, but the lush prose (“the sky was an inverted bowl of bruised blue radiance, except in the west where the sunset looked like a fire-fight at sea”) is underpinned by a brutally noir moral relativism. Quirke, observes his daughter Phoebe, believes life consists of “going through the motions, observing the forms, doing the right thing.” That may be the case, but much like his creator, Quirke does the right thing in a deceptively effective way.
  Freedom’s Child (Harper Fiction, €19.50), the debut thriller from Jax Miller, an American author domiciled in Ireland, opens in dramatic fashion with the line, “My name is Freedom Oliver and I killed my daughter.” Living under an assumed name in a witness protection programme in Oregon, Freedom – who describes herself as “a murderer, a cop killer, a fugitive, a drunk” – breaks cover for the first time in almost two decades when said daughter, Rebekah, goes missing. Hunted by the recently released Matthew Delaney, who went to prison for 18 years on the basis of Freedom’s testimony, Freedom travels to Kentucky to investigate the fanatical Christian cult established by the man who adopted Rebekah, Virgil Paul. Plausibility is at a premium in Freedom’s Child, and language is here a rather blunt instrument, but Miller is less concerned with narrative subtlety and delicate prose than she is with creating a propulsive, full-throttle tale of revenge and redemption. The overall effect is a kind of literary grind-house, with Freedom Oliver a larger-than-life avenging angel driven by a host of demons, a self-confessed promiscuous drunk and glutton for punishment who might well be Lisbeth Salander’s long-lost twin.
  French author Dominique Sylvain’s second novel to be translated into English, Dirty War (Quercus, €13.99) opens in Paris with the horrific death of lawyer Florian Vidal, who has been tortured to death with a flaming tyre around his neck. When Commandant Sacha Duguin investigates, he discovers that Vidal is a business lawyer specialising in arms contracts for Richard Gratien, aka ‘Mr Africa’, a shadowy figure who has made a fortune from brokering deals in illegal weaponry to corrupt African regimes. It’s a fascinating set-up, and Sylvain expertly muddies the waters with a dispassionate account of the tensions that exist between the institutions – policing, political and judicial – responsible for counter-terrorism. Unfortunately, the novel is subtitled ‘A Lola and Ingrid Investigation’, and Lola and Ingrid – a former police Commissaire and an exotic dancer, respectively – repeatedly interrupt the narrative flow as Sylvain inserts them into the story to no great effect other than to duplicate Sacha Duguin’s investigations and to provide unnecessary exposition via dialogue.
  Sinéad Crowley’s second novel, Are You Watching Me? (Quercus, €17.99), reprises the character of Detective Claire Boyle, who was heavily pregnant during Crowley’s debut, Can Anybody Help Me? (2014). Delighted to be back at work after maternity leave, the Dublin-based Boyle investigates the apparently pointless murder of the aging, gentle James Mannion in his home; meanwhile, Liz Cafferky, Ireland’s newest media star and the communications executive with Tír na nÓg, a drop-in centre for old men, finds herself stalked by Stephen, who believes that Liz’s smile “was aimed at him; her words meant for him alone.” Crowley returns to the themes that underpinned her debut – the chilling vulnerability of a woman targeted by a psychologically damaged man, and the anonymity afforded by modern communications technology – but this is a markedly more assured offering. There’s a passionate intensity (and a very neat plot twist to boot) in Crowley’s poignant depiction of a whole swathe of old men abandoned by society, while Stephen, ostensibly the villain of the piece, is given a surprisingly sympathetic reading. A compulsively readable thriller, Are You Watching Me? is an absorbing variation on the ‘domestic noir’ genre.
  The Way of Sorrows (Blue Rider Press, €20.50) concludes Jon Steele’s ‘Angelus Trilogy’, and does so in very impressive style. The Watchers (2011) and Angel City (2013) established the scenario in which Harper, a private detective, discovers that he is in fact an angel in human form, and engaged in an aeons-long battle with the forces of darkness for possession of humanity’s soul. Here Harper sifts through the wreckage left behind by Evil’s onslaught at the end of Angel City, blending Chandleresque witticisms into a contemporary tale of the apocalypse as the action moves from Lausanne to Alaska and on through Russia to the explosive climax in Jerusalem, as Harper and his colleagues strive to make good on “a prophecy about a child conceived of light, born into the world to guide the creation through the next stage of evolution.” It’s an novel of jaw-dropping ambition and imagination – Zoroaster, the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaton, Jesus Christ and the space probe Voyager all play their part – as Steele, formerly an award-winning journalist, gives Harper an appropriately fabulous, epic finale. ~ Declan Burke

  This column was first published in the Irish Times.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

CRIME ALWAYS PAYS: The Fix Is In

I’m delighted to discover that CRIME ALWAYS PAYS has been selected as part of the Kobo thriller promo (UK only), which runs from 6th-10th August. The ebook of CRIME ALWAYS PAYS will be available for £1.99, and available at that price from all ebook vendors (Amazon, etc.) for the duration. Quoth the blurb elves:
Who says crime doesn’t pay? The perpetrators of a botched kidnap make their getaway in this hilarious sequel to THE BIG O.
  Karen and Ray are on their way to the Greek islands to rendezvous with Madge and split the fat bag of cash they conned from her ex-husband Rossi when they kidnapped, well, Madge. But they’ve reckoned without Stephanie Doyle, the cop who can’t decide if she wants to arrest Madge, shoot Rossi, or ride off into the sunset with Ray. And then there’s Melody, the wannabe movie director, who’s pinning all her hopes on Sleeps, the narcoleptic getaway driver who just wants to go back inside and do some soft time.
  A European road-trip screwball noir, CRIME ALWAYS PAYS features cops and robbers, losers and hopers, villains, saints – and a homicidal Siberian wolf called Anna. The Greek islands will never be the same again.
  As all Three Regular Readers will already know, CRIME ALWAYS PAYS was shortlisted for the Goldsboro ‘Last Laugh’ award at Crimefest earlier this year. So if you like your crime fiction in a sun-splashed destination, with some giggles thrown in for good measure, you’ll find it here (scroll down)…

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.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Review: SILVER BULLETS by Elmer Mendoza

Detective Edgar ‘Lefty’ Mendieta, the main player in Elmer Mendoza’s English-language debut, likes ‘an impossible case’. Not because Lefty is any kind of cerebral sleuth, a Poirot or Holmes seeking out the most difficult crimes in order to stimulate his little grey cells, but because Lefty is a Mexican policeman operating in the city of Culiacán with the Federal Preventative Police, and his experience is that murder cases tend to be ignored, covered up, deliberately botched or otherwise swept under the carpet. It’s for the best, Lefty believes, if his superiors declare a murder ‘an impossible case’ as soon as possible, and preferably before Lefty gets to the crime scene, so as not to wastefully expend the already pitiful resources of the FPP.
  Unfortunately for Lefty, the murder of Bruno Canizales can’t be easily filed under ‘impossible’, especially as the murderer rather flamboyantly used silver bullets when assassinating the high-profile bisexual attorney. Was the killer Canizales’ tempestuous lover Paolo Rodriguez, who subsequently committed suicide? His other tempestuous lover, the dancer Francisco Aldana? Or was the murder orchestrated by the all-powerful ‘Narcos’ who control Mexico’s drug trade, and who control virtually every politician, judge and policeman in the country?
  Lefty Mendieta is a terrific creation, a gloomy, intellectual introspective who is resolutely cynical about the world and his place in it. “What did he know about modernism, or postmodernism for that matter, or intangible cultural heritage?” Lefty asks of himself on the very first page, establishing the parameters of Elmer Medoza’s investigation into contemporary Mexico but also, courtesy of the high-falutin’ pondering, tipping us the wink that Mendoza’s own exploration of the culture will very likely shed no more light on the truth than one of Lefty’s ‘impossible cases’.
  And so it proves, as Lefty doggedly pursues the clues and the killer with the penchant for silver bullets, his efforts leading him down numerous blind alleys as he wonders about the significance of the bullets themselves and whether they are being employed for mythical purposes in order to kill a modern vampire or a werewolf. Lefty is happy to reference James Bond and Gary Cooper, but he’s no hero or tarnished knight, willing to acquiesce when his boss tells him to drop the case and equally happy to accept bribes in the form of cash in a brown envelope. That said, he’s no coward either, and he goes where the investigation leads him, even when it takes him right to the gates of the region’s most feared Narco, Marcelo Valdés. Not that Lefty, living his life according to the surreal logic of contemporary Mexico, is a slave to procedure: “He reminded himself that no expert follows the evidence, since in this business the truth always resides precisely where it should not.”
  For all of Mendoza’s comic asides, however, Silver Bullets is a serious novel about an entire culture in thrall to the ‘Narcos’. In Mendoza’s poverty-stricken Mexico, the cops are corrupt and the bad guys are the people’s champions, benefactors of communities and heirs to the romantic ideal of the outlaws who destroyed the status quo of the landed gentry. Mendoza’s style is as dense in its own way as James Ellroy at his best (or worst), with dialogue condensed into paragraphs with little by way of punctuation to tell the reader who is speaking. The effect is that you pay very close attention to who is speaking or you quickly find yourself lost, an effect that suggests Mendoza is criticising those who only glance at Mexico’s tragedy and then avert their eyes.
  It’s a superb novel, a blackly comic tale akin to the bracing realism of Dashiell Hammett’s early work that leaves the reader feeling claustrophobic, grimy and entirely hopeless about Mexico’s immediate future – a country where, as Lefty Mendieta grimly observes, “Nothing is true, nothing is false.” ~ Declan Burke

  Silver Bullets by Elmer Mendoza is published by MacLehose.

  This review was first published in the Irish Examiner.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Review: THE GOLDEN AGE OF MURDER by Martin Edwards

“Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” demanded Edmund Wilson in a New Yorker essay published in 1945. Taking its title from Agatha Christie’s Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? (1926), the essay describes the detective novel as ‘sub-literary’, a perhaps understandable addiction that ranked somewhere between crossword puzzles and smoking.
  Only a year earlier, however, John Strachey, writing in The Saturday Review, had declared that readers were living through ‘the Golden Age of English Detection’, describing detective fiction as ‘masterpieces of distraction and escape.’ So popular and pervasive were Golden Age mystery novels that Bertolt Brecht – tongue firmly wedged in cheek, no doubt – could claim that, “The crime novel, like the world itself, is ruled by the English.”
  The contradictions persist to this day. The Guinness Book of Records claims that Agatha Christie, with sales in excess of two billion, is second only to The Bible and William Shakespeare in terms of books sold. And yet the perception remains that Golden Age mystery novels were no more than bland exercises in puzzle-solving, comfort blankets for a middle class readership all too eager to be persuaded that while the country house defences might be breached, and the village green become stained with blood, such anomalies would be detected by ‘the little grey cells’ of superior education and the status quo quickly restored.
  “The received wisdom is that Golden Age fiction set out to reassure readers by showing order restored to society, and plenty of orthodox novels did just that,” writes Martin Edwards in the opening chapter of The Golden Age of Murder. Yet the best of the Golden Age writers, he argues, and particularly those members of the Detection Club who account for the book’s subtitle, ‘The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story’, defied stereotypes and were ‘obsessive risk-takers’ as they reimagined the possibilities and potential of the crime novel. “Violent death is at the heart of a novel about murder,” writes Edwards, “but Golden Age writers, and their readers, had no wish or need to wallow in gore … The bloodless game-playing of post-conflict detective stories is often derided by thoughtless commentators who forget that after so much slaughter on the field of battle the survivors were in need of a change.”
  Edwards, an award-winning detective novelist and the Archivist of the Detection Club, has written a fabulously detailed book that serves a number of purposes. A rebuttal of the ‘perceived wisdom’ that Golden Age mystery fiction was trite and clichéd is to the forefront, but The Golden Age of Murder also functions as a history of the Detection Club, which was formed in 1930 and over the years included in its membership Christie, Sayers, Berkeley, G.K. Chesterton, Freeman Wills Croft, Ronald Knox, A.A. Milne, Baroness Orczy, Helen Simpson, Hugh Walpole, Gladys Mitchell, Margery Allingham, John Dickson Carr, Nicholas Blake, Edmund Crispin and Christianna Brand, among many others.
  Through this framework Edwards weaves a mind-boggling number of plot summaries of novels (without, naturally, ever giving away the all-important crucial twists), the authors’ fascination with real-life crimes, and the way in which the Golden Age mysteries reflected the turbulent decades of the 1920s and 1930s and on into the Second World War, persuasively arguing that, “The cliché that detective novelists routinely ignored social and economic realities is a myth.” Equally fascinating is his documenting of the frequently tortured private lives of the authors, with Edwards turning detective himself as he explores how alcoholism, unacknowledged children, repressed homosexuality, unrequited passion, radical political activism and self-loathing – to mention just a few examples – found their way into the writers’ novels.
  There are also a number of intriguing digressions, such as when Edwards notes the relationship between detective fiction and poetry. T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, W.H. Auden, Cecil Day-Lewis (who published his crime novels under the pseudonym Nicholas Blake) and Sophie Hannah are among those name-checked as critics or authors: “From [Edgar Allan] Poe onwards, a strikingly high proportion of detective novelists have also been poets,” says Edwards. “They are drawn to each form by its structural challenges.”
  As a novelist himself, Edwards can be cynically humorous about the publishing industry (“Allen [Lane] met Christie when she called at the office to complain about the dustjacket of The Murder on the Links, having failed to realize that when a publisher asks an author’s opinion of a jacket, the response required is rapture.”) and his quirky style is reflected in his chapter headings (Chapter 15 is titled ‘Murder, Transvestism and Suicide during a Trapeze Act’).
  For the most part, however, Edwards plays a straight bat with a sustained and impassioned celebration of the Golden Age mystery novel. The Golden Age of Murder is as entertaining as it is a comprehensively researched work, and one that should prove essential reading for any serious student of the crime / mystery novel. ~ Declan Burke

  This review was first published in the Irish Times.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Best Books 2015: January – June

It being the end of June, and thus halfway through the year, I thought I’d post a list of the best new books I’ve read so far in 2015. In order of my reading them, they are:

Acts of the Assassins, Richard Beard.
On the basis of its opening 20 pages or so, the second offering Richard Beard’s ‘Messiahs Trilogy’ – the first, Lazarus is Dead, was published in 2011 – is an audacious take on the crime / mystery novel. Beard is clearly a student (or perhaps scholar might be more appropriate) of the crime fiction genre, given that the story begins as a straightforward police procedural investigation but also broadens out to incorporate other sub-genres such as the spy novel (“Jesus has skills, fieldcraft …” muses Gallio on his foe). The serial killer novel also looms large when it is discovered that the disciples, having exiled themselves to various parts of the empire, are being bumped off one by one, murdered by some shadowy killer in a variety of gory deaths, such as beheadings, flayings, stonings and so forth.

For the rest of the review, clickety-click here

The Shut Eye, Belinda Bauer.
A ‘shut eye’ is a magician so good at persuading the audience the illusion is real that he comes to believe in the trick himself. In Belinda Bauer’s superb sixth novel, The Shut Eye (Bantam Press, €22.50), the phrase refers both to Richard Latham, a celebrity psychic helping the police with their enquiries into the disappearance of young Edie Evans, and to DCI John Marvel, the detective inspector leading the investigation. Marvel is resolutely old-fashioned about police work (“John Marvel didn’t believe in coincidence any more than he believed in global warming …”) and refuses to countenance any supernatural aid, but his hardnosed materialism is shaken to the core when he meets Anna Buck, whose young son Daniel has also gone missing, and whose grief-wracked visions appear to offer clues to the whereabouts of Edie Evans. The Shut Eye is an unusual but absorbing police procedural that also functions as a thoughtful meditation on faith, hope and belief. John Marvel may well be a no-nonsense copper, but in a genre that has been dominated in recent times by the CSI school of facts and evidence, Marvel’s journey towards the truth is refreshingly unconventional.

A Song of Shadows, John Connolly.
The 13th novel in the Charlie Parker series, John Connolly’s A Song of Shadows (Hodder & Stoughton, €22.50) opens in Maine’s remote coastal town of Boreas. Recuperating from grievous wounds sustained in his previous outing, A Wolf in Winter (2014) – Parker was declared clinically dead before being resuscitated – the private investigator is drawn into a bizarre case when an obsessive Nazi-hunter is discovered dead on a nearby beach. No stranger to evil, and still coming to terms with his experience of another realm about which “he still had questions, but no doubts,” Parker finds himself immersed in the horrors of the Holocaust, and determined that this particular evil will not thrive on his watch. Connolly has been engaged for some years now in gradually refining the supernatural and horror tropes that gave the Parker novels their distinctive identity, and A Song of Shadows, blending the language of myth and New Testament into a hardboiled tale, marks a significant shift in Parker’s metamorphosis into an explicitly Christ-like figure (“This one bleeds from the palms,” observes one of his foes). That notion has been explored before, most notably by Ross Macdonald and James Lee Burke, and while A Song of Shadows more than earns the right to be judged in such company, Connolly further appears to be breaking new ground, not least in terms of Parker’s haunting relationships with his daughters, one dead and one living. It’s a fabulous piece of work, in both senses of the word, from one of contemporary fiction’s great storytellers.

Mrs Engels, Gavin McCrea.
Gavin McCrea has crafted a beautifully detailed historical fiction in Mrs Engels, and the political backdrop is indeed a compelling one as he describes the revolutionary frustrations of Engels and Marx, the fall-out to the Franco-Prussian war and the consequent rise and fall of the Paris Commune, and the rise of militant Irish nationalism in Britain. Lizzie’s drawing room hosts agitators, revolutionaries and activists of all hues, but there’s none so fascinating as Lizzie herself, toasted at one point by Engels as a ‘Proletarian, Irish rebel and model Communist.’ In truth, Lizzie is far more difficult to label that her lover realises. From the very beginning Lizzie tells us that she’s a pragmatic woman whose loyalty is only her own survival: “Establish yourself in a decent situation,” is her advice to all young women, “and put away what you can, that, please God, one day you may need no man’s help.”

For the rest of the review, clickety-click here

Disappeared, Anthony J. Quinn.
First published in the US, and shortlisted there for a Strand Literary Award, Quinn’s debut propels the Tyrone author into the first rank of Irish crime writing. An eye for vividly contrasting imagery means that Disappeared is superbly evocative of its bleak setting, such as when Daly leaves behind the rural shore of Lough Neagh to drive into Portadown. “The shapes of trees shining in the frost were like the nerves and arteries of a dissected corpse,” writes Quinn; little more than a paragraph later Daly is contemplating Dalriada Terrace: “The street felt like a dingy holiday resort inhabited by the inmates of a concentration camp.”

For the rest of the review, clickety-click here

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, David Shafer.
For all its conventional narrative scenarios of innocent civilians at the mercy of dark forces and its bleak dystopian vision of the near future, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is by no means a standard techno-thriller. For one, Shafer has sufficient confidence in his readers to craft a slow-burning tale that is, for all its gleaming hardware and plans for a ‘New Alexandria’ of a globally centralised library-for-unimaginable-profit, very much a character-driven tale. Leila, Leo and Mark are richly detailed and empathic creations, their quirks and idiosyncrasies integral to the way in which they gradually uncover SineCo’s foul machinations. Moreover, the writing is a joy, Shafer employing both sly wit and a sharp eye for the telling image. “The grandeur fled,” Leo observes as he emerges from a reverie of a better world, “like shining back into shook foil.” Leila decides that Myanmar ‘sounded like a name cats would give their country.’ Indeed, the entire novel – all 422 pages of densely packed text – is littered with deliciously wry snippets and quotable lines, which gives the overall impression of a Neal Stephenson novel redrafted by Carl Hiaasen in blackly humorous form.