Monday 20 February 2017

Books: A killer page-turner from debut novelist

Fiction: The Last Four Days of Paddy Buckley, Jeremy Massey, Riverhead Books, pbk, 304 pages, €17.40

John Boland

Published 09/08/2015 | 02:30

Death becomes him: Author Jeremy Massey used to be an undertaker
Death becomes him: Author Jeremy Massey used to be an undertaker
The last Four Days of Paddy Buckley

A mere 20 pages into Jeremy Massey's debut novel, I was convinced that the author was winding me up.

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Narrator Paddy Buckley, an undertaker with a respected Dublin firm, has just arrived at a trendy Pembroke Lane house to discuss funeral arrangements with 60-year-old Lucy, whose husband has passed away. Within minutes, Paddy and Lucy are having intense sex in her marital bed, whereupon Lucy has a shuddering orgasm and promptly expires.

Within five more pages, Paddy has reclothed her so that it will look as if she's just collapsed on the bedroom floor and is breaking the sad news to her daughter, Brigid, who now has the funeral of two parents to arrange.

To complicate matters, there's an immediate sexual vibe between herself and Paddy.

To be fair to Paddy, he has warned us in a preface that the events of his last four days would prove to be "so outlandish, so surreal" that they could only end in his death - but outlandish hardly covers what happens next.

Later that same day Paddy accidentally runs over and kills the brother of Dublin's most notorious criminal boss, Vincent Cullen, "whose very name instilled fear throughout the city".

It certainly instils fear in Paddy, who promptly flees the scene. But his troubles are only beginning because the next morning he's told to arrange the funeral of the man he's just killed and is thus obliged to meet up with the terrifying and deeply suspicious brother.

Who'd be an undertaker? As it happens, the 45-year-old author, who now lives in Australia, was just that, having spent five years of his younger Dublin life in the family business, where he got the idea for the hit-and-run plot strand, first developing it as a screenplay before finally fashioning it into a novel.

As a novelist, though, he's helplessly prone both to clichés (Lucy is not just "utterly feminine" but also "luscious and ripe and utterly gorgeous") and to usages that border on the farcically inappropriate - reflecting that not only was his DNA "lining Lucy's birth canal" but that the funeral arrangements being made with Brigid are merely because "your prick killed her mother".

So is the book a complete crock? Well, no, because it's actually insanely readable, indeed the ultimate page-turner where you can't wait to find out how the likeable Paddy could possibly evade being rumbled and murdered by the vengeful Vincent and his psychopathic underlings.

That's a tribute to the author's grasp of narrative and pacing, though he cheats somewhat in occasionally relating the story from the point of view of other characters.

He has defended this in interview by insisting that parts of the action which "needed to be in there" couldn't be told in the first person, though a more experienced novelist would have found a way of solving that problem while keeping Paddy as narrator.

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