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.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Review: MRS ENGELS by Gavin McCrea

“No one understands men better than the women they don’t marry,” declares Lizzie Burns, the eponymous narrator of Gavin McCrea’s debut novel Mrs Engels (Scribe) and – the title notwithstanding – the unmarried long-term lover of Frederick Engels, who co-authored The Communist Manifesto with Karl Marx. A marginalised figure in the history books, the fictional Lizzie Burns is a marvellous creation: an illiterate Irish daughter of the Manchester slums whose withering deprecations cut a swathe through the self-delusions and hypocrisies of the founding fathers of Communism.
  The novel opens in 1870, as the expected Revolution draws near and Frederick and Lizzie move to London from Manchester to be closer to Karl and Jenny Marx. They move into a grand house in Primrose Hill, where the addition of a couple of servants proves vexing to Lizzie, who finds herself working harder to keep tabs on her girls than she ever did when she kept her own home. Such paradoxes are rife in Mrs Engels: Frederick, when Lizzie first meets him, is often vilified by the comrades as a ‘capitalist and millocrat’, a well-heeled German immigrant accustomed to moving in the best social circles. “It’s not uncommon that [Frederick] has to answer to this charge,” Lizzie observes, “not uncommon even though the world knows he worked in that mill to keep Karl and the Movement afloat. And knock me acock if I ever see Karl having to defend himself in this way.”
  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.”
  It’s a pragmatism born of surviving the worst of Manchester’s Victorian slums, and in overcoming the personal tragedy that brought Lizzie and Frederick together but which haunts them for the rest of their lives. Through it all Lizzie retains her robust sense of humour and her irreverent refusal to kow-tow to those who consider Frederick and Karl geniuses (“As for Karl, the state he was in, he was unable to mastermind the evacuation of his own bowels.”)
  Bawdy and uncouth, very much a woman who lives life on her own terms despite her economic dependence, Lizzie Burns is one of the most charming fictional comic creations of recent times. If that were all Gavin McCrea had achieved with Mrs Engels, it would have been plenty; but Lizzie Burns is also a heartbreakingly poignant heroine, a woman fully aware of her status as ‘a pauper woman on an expensive couch’ who has to endure society’s jibes about ‘my hike to the higher caste’, and a woman who above all craves the love of a complex man hugely conflicted about his entitlement to love her.
  Laugh-out-loud funny, touching and tender, and almost Dickensian in its physical descriptions of the Industrial Revolution’s worst excesses, Mrs Engels is a stunningly accomplished debut novel. ~ Declan Burke

  This review was first published in the Irish Examiner.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016


I reviewed five titles in last week’s Irish Times crime fiction column – Bill Beverly’s DODGERS, Bonnie MacBird’s ART IN THE BLOOD, Ryan Ireland’s GHOSTS OF THE DESERT, Robin Wasserman’s GIRLS ON FIRE, and James Swallow’s NOMAD. It ran a lot like this:

Bill Beverly’s Dodgers (No Exit Press, €19.50) is a road movie, a coming-of-age tale, a crime novel of gritty realism and a very impressive debut. East is a 15-year-old lookout for his Uncle Fin’s crack den in LA’s Boxes; when the den is raided on his watch, East is ordered to drive 2,000 miles to Wisconsin, there to murder a witness in Fin’s upcoming trial. Dressed in LA Dodgers’ baseball gear – “because white people love baseball, and the world is made of white people” – East and his fellow assassins embark on their quest, “running on luck and will and a supreme indifference to anything else.” In other circumstances East’s emotional intelligence would mark him out as a natural leader of men, but these teenage boys are, in the best tradition of noir, doomed even before they begin. Their road to nowhere diverts time and again into scenarios that might be blackly comic, given the boys’ ineptitude, ignorance of the world outside the ghetto and their blithe faith in their immortality, if it were not for the chilling presence of Ty, East’s brother and an unrepentant stone-cold killer at the tender age of 13. Comparisons with Richard Price’s Clockers are merited; Dodgers is an absorbing tale of young men brutalised by the world with very little opportunity to offer anything more than brutality in return.
  Bonnie MacBird’s Art in the Blood (Collins Crime Club, €28.50), a Sherlock Holmes adventure, takes its title from Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter: “Art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms.” At a low ebb when the story opens, Holmes is revitalised when the French chanteuse Cherie La Victoire asks him to find her missing son, and soon Holmes and Watson are embroiled in a plot that involves stolen Greek statuary, the powerful Earl of Pellingham, and the abuse of children in Northern England’s satanic mills. MacBird delivers a pacy read in this faithful, full-blooded and breathlessly (albeit unevenly) plotted homage, although it’s her interpretation of Holmes that is the most intriguing aspect of the story, with Watson declaring from the beginning that it was Holmes’ artistic streak that made him the greatest detective the world has ever known. Here Holmes is an instinctive artist teetering on the edge of physical, emotional and psychological exhaustion, “tempestuous, changeable … and vulnerable to flights of fancy as well as fits of despair,’ as Holmes himself describes Cherie. That unusual vulnerability runs contrary to the canonical depiction of Holmes as an unfeeling, rational, virtually superhuman machine, and makes MacBird’s debut a welcome addition to the Sherlock Holmes literature.
  Norman, an anthropologist specialising in ghost towns, heads into the Utah desert as Ryan Ireland’s Ghosts of the Desert (Point Blank, €14.20) opens, and quickly finds himself at the mercy of a feral clan of mercenaries and killers led by Jacoby, a crude mystic who engages Norman in Socratic dialogues on the meaning of the universe. With its echoes of Heart of Darkness, Ghosts of the Desert compares and contrasts the values of the ostensibly civilised Norman with those of the amoral savages of ‘Jacobyville’, although the lines drawn in the baking sand grow increasingly blurred as Norman, with escape impossible, gradually adapts to the life he is forced to live. Ireland’s sparse but exhilarating use of language is entirely apt in capturing the austere environment, while also creating a hallucinatory effect: is Norman dead and experiencing a barren purgatory, or alive and trapped in an endless nightmare? The theme, setting and language evoke Cormac McCarthy at his most brutal, but Ghosts of the Desert is a neo-Western epic of survivalism that deserves to be judged on its own merits.
  Set in a small Pennsylvanian town in the early ’90s, Robin Wasserman’s Girls on Fire (Little, Brown, €17.99) is a gothic take on the High School revenge fantasy, as outsiders Lacey and Dex bond to the strains of Kurt Cobain’s Nirvana and plot the downfall of ‘bitch-goddess’ Nikki Drummond, whose boyfriend Ellison committed suicide in the nearby woods. Wasserman tells the story of the ‘explosive’ pairing of Dex and Lacey, who alternately narrate the tale in a feverish, breathless style which accentuates the overwrought intensity of the deadly duo’s excesses as they seek to alienate their peers, parents and the authorities. The teens are too idealised to ring true – they read Nietzsche and Kant, watch Kurosawa and Antonioni, dream about celebrating birthday parties in graveyards – but then the story itself is a deliberately lurid contemporary fairytale complete with witchcraft, Satanism, dark incantations and psychological torture, a potent and occasionally shocking blend of cynicism, narcissism and nihilism.
  James Swallow’s Nomad (Zaffre, €22.50) begins with a covert MI6 mission in Dunkirk targeting a radical Islamist group. When the ‘Nomad’ team is virtually wiped out, the sole survivor, tech specialist Marc Dane, sets out to discover who betrayed his comrades. A globe-trotting affair that takes us to Barcelona, London, Rome, Sicily, Turkey and New York, Nomad is a ferociously paced thriller, a high concept tale of the solitary hero on the run bristling with technology and frequently erupting into lethal violence (the most obvious modern point of reference is Robert Ludlum, but John Buchan fans will recognise a trick or two). Told from a number of perspectives, including that of Halil, a teenager unaware he is being groomed for martyrdom, the story explores the off-the-grid world of shadowy arms dealers who supply the terrorists who make the headlines. The relentless pace and Swallow’s emphasis on plot twists and reversals means that characterisation is at a premium, but Swallow’s background in scriptwriting and videogames means that the tale is a slick and sharply focused thriller that is as entertaining as it is improbable. ~ Declan Burke

  This column was first published in the Irish Times.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Review: THE BLADE ARTIST by Irvine Welsh

I reviewed Irvine Welsh’s THE BLADE ARTIST (Jonathan Cape) for RTE’s Arena radio programme last week. It’s not giving too much away – it’s mentioned on the book’s cover – to reveal that the novel’s ‘Jim Francis’ is the alter-ego of Franco Begbie, the notorious hard-man from Welsh’s TRAINSPOTTING. The blurb runs thusly:
Jim Francis has finally found the perfect life – and is now unrecognisable, even to himself. A successful painter and sculptor, he lives quietly with his wife, Melanie, and their two young daughters, in an affluent beach town in California. Some say he’s a fake and a con man, while others see him as a genuine visionary.
  But Francis has a very dark past, with another identity and a very different set of values. When he crosses the Atlantic to his native Scotland, for the funeral of a murdered son he barely knew, his old Edinburgh community expects him to take bloody revenge. But as he confronts his previous life, all those friends and enemies – and, most alarmingly, his former self – Francis seems to have other ideas.
  When Melanie discovers something gruesome in California, which indicates that her husband’s violent past might also be his psychotic present, things start to go very bad, very quickly.
  For the review, clickety-click here (and scroll down) …

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Brain Noodles: Beethoven’s Ninth, Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit

I’d always assumed that Beethoven became deaf as an older man but – apologies if this is common knowledge – Beethoven (1770-1827) began to go deaf relatively early in life, in 1801. To put that into perspective, he had just finished his second symphony when he first started to suffer from tinnitus – yet to come were the remaining symphonies, Piano Concertos Nos. 4 and 5, the Violin Concerto, Waldstein and Appassionata, the Hammerklavier, the Missa Solemnis, the late quartets, and much else. If you’re feeling a little prickly today about what you have or haven’t achieved with your life to date, I don’t recommend listening to the final movement of the Ninth Symphony (and its then radical use of a choral section) and reminding yourself that the man who composed it was stone deaf:
  Beethoven going deaf was a tragedy, of course, although given what he created even whilst entirely deaf, you couldn’t really say it held him back to any great degree – in the grand scheme of music, it’s not as tragic as, say, Schubert dying aged 31. But a certain kind of mind might wonder what God was so busy with around about this time (Schubert died in 1828, the year after Beethoven’s death) that He couldn’t intervene in mortal affairs. Which would lead a certain kind of mind to consider the following possibilities:
(a) There is no God;
(b) God, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, doesn’t really care for music;
(c) God was heedless, careless or jealously vindictive;
(d) God was too busy saving starving orphans; and anyway, if Schubert was really all that, he’d have been smart enough not to contract typhoid fever / syphilis / the bubonic plague (and, viz. deafness, ditto for Beethoven).
  Books-wise, I read PG Wodehouse’s JEEVES AND THE FEUDAL SPIRIT this week, about which there is very little to be said other than if you haven’t read PG Wodehouse yet, drop everything and rush to your nearest bookstore and buy every Wodehouse in sight. Actually, that’s a little previous – I’m a Johnny-come-lately to the Wodehouse world, and so far I’ve only been reading the Wooster novels. For all I know – although I’m inclined to doubt it – the rest of Woodhouse’s considerable output isn’t the most purely pleasurable writing you’re ever likely to read. But, as I say, I doubt it. For the time being, though, if you stick to the Wooster novels, you won’t go far wrong. Unless this - in which a butler admits a guest into the hapless-but-unflappable Bertie Wooster’s presence - is the kind of thing you don’t like:
Seppings flung wide the gates, there was a flash of blonde hair and a whiff of Chanel Number Five and a girl came sailing in, a girl whom I was able to classify at a single glance as a pipterino of the first water.
  Meanwhile, if it’s a good movie you’re thirsting after, you’ll go parched a while yet in this most barren of summers. This week in the Irish Examiner I reviewed Gods of Egypt, The Conjuring 2 and Bang Gang, none of which could be remotely described as the celluloid equivalent of a pipterino of the first water. If you’re still interested, the reviews can be found here