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 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 Within hours Leila’s visa has been revoked, and her father – the principal of a school in California – has been arrested on charges of child pornography.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.