Sunday 4 December 2016

Lessons in how to make crime (writing) pay

These novels, says Declan Burke, should be required reading for crime writers looking to avoid falling prey to cliche

Declan Burke

Published 16/01/2011 | 05:00

Review: Orchid Blue by Eoin McNamee Faber and Faber, €12.99

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Review: Dr Yes by Colin Bateman
Headline, €17.99

Review: Elegy for April by Benjamin Black
Mantle, €20.99

Eoin McNamee has forged a career from novelistic reconstructions of true crimes. Resurrection Man (1994) dealt with the Shankhill Butchers, The Blue Tango (2001) was woven around the murder of 19-year-old Patricia Curran in 1952, The Ultras (2004) concerned itself with the British undercover operative Robert Nairac, and 12:23. Paris. 31st August 1997 (2007) with events surrounding the death of Princess Diana.

Orchid Blue, McNamee's latest offering, is something of a sequel to The Blue Tango. Set in Newry in 1961, it employs the murder of 19-year-old shop assistant Pearl Gamble, and the subsequent investigation, for its narrative arc. Robert McGladdery, who was seen dancing with Pearl on the night of her murder, is considered the main suspect, but Detective Eddie McCrink, a Newry native returning to home soil from London, discovers a very disturbing set of circumstances. Not only have the local police decided that McGladdery fits the bill as murderer, but McGladdery himself appears to welcome the notoriety. Most disturbing of all, however, is the man who presides over the court case when McGladdery is brought to trial. As the father of Patricia Curran, who was murdered in very similar circumstances 10 years previously, Lord Justice Lance Curran should have disbarred himself as judge. McCrink quickly comes to understand that the "soft-spoken and implacable" Justice Curran has actively sought the position, and is determined that whoever murdered Pearl Gamble should hang.

Students of Irish history will know that Robert McGladdery was the last man to be hanged on Irish soil, a fact that infuses Orchid Blue with a noir-ish sense of fatalism and the inevitability of retribution. That retribution and State-sanctioned revenge are no kind of justice is one of McNamee's themes here, however, and while the story is strained through an unmistakably noir filter, McNamee couches the tale in a form that is ancient and classical, with McGladdery pursued by Fate and its Furies and Justice Curran a shadowy Thanatos overseeing all.

McNamee's preference for fictionalising true-life crimes has led to comparisons with David Peace's Red Riding Quartet and the work of James Ellroy (McNamee twice references the infamous Black Dahlia case in Orchid Blue), although McNamee offers a more elegant, formal style of prose. Relentlessly sinister in tone and poisonously claustrophobic, the novel is equally capable of almost unbearable poignancy, such as when the emotionally brutalised Robert McGladdery writes from his prison cell: "My mother Agnes McGladdery what can be said about her she done her best. I wish she'd stayed home nights when I was small the wind was loud in the slates it roared dear God it roared." All told, it's a powerful tour de force.

Dr Yes is the third of Colin Bateman's new series of novels, which feature the nameless hero "Mystery Man". The owner of Belfast's No Alibis crime fiction bookstore, Mystery Man tends to find himself dragged into investigations against his will, largely because he's a neurotic and self-obsessed coward -- think Woody Allen's character in Play It Again, Sam, with a voracious appetite for Twix.

Here Mystery Man stumbles into yet another adventure when -- for devious reasons that have very little to do with Good Samaritan acts -- he takes into his home the legendary Northern Ireland crime writer Augustine Wogan, author of the Barbed-Wire Love trilogy, who is down on his luck and in a murderous mood. Wogan believes that the plastic surgeon Dr Yeschenkov has wooed away his wife, an allegation no one believes until Wogan is discovered dead. Was it suicide, or was Wogan murdered to keep him quiet? Mystery Man, along with his pregnant girlfriend Alison, reluctantly agrees to investigate.

Bateman, who has written 25 novels, is a dab hand at constructing a page-turning plot, but the joy of the Mystery Man novels is the delight Bateman takes in deconstructing the conventional crime fiction narrative, even as the well-read hero takes his investigative cues from classics of the genre. Bateman subverts the tropes with a self-deprecating wit that makes a mockery of the overly earnest tone of many best-selling authors of gore, torture and wanton slaughter. His straw man here is the so-called "dice-and-slice" serial killer novel which boasts an implausibly sophisticated psychopath, a sub-genre to which Bateman applies his own scalpel with considerable glee. By turns humorous and caustic, Dr Yes should be required reading for aspiring crime writers who wish to avoid the pitfalls of cliche.

John Banville, writing as Benjamin Black in the third of the Quirke novels, Elegy for April, also passes comment on cliches and overly worn tropes. "Like something you'd read in a cheap novelette," observes one character of Quirke's industrial school background, while another character, an actress at The Gate, declares that her personal history is, "like a bad piece of social realism at The Abbey".

Set in Fifties Dublin, Elegy for April finds Quirke reluctantly -- very reluctantly -- investigating the disappearance of one of his daughter's friends, April Latimer, after he signs himself out of a drying-out programme at St John of the Cross. Banville is no stranger to the crime/thriller narrative -- The Book of Evidence (1989) and The Untouchable (1997) both engaged with the genre, as did his debut, Nightspawn (1971) -- although here, as with McNamee and Bateman's most recent offerings, he uses the traditional crime tale as a jumping-off point for an exploration of the genre itself.

Written in a laconic and self-effacing style, Elegy for April is as much concerned with the art and artifice of crime writing as it is with the requirements of plot, resolution and redemption. Quirke's Dublin is beautifully drawn and caught on the very cusp of its radical reimagining in the Sixties, while Quirke himself, despite being Banville/Black's series protagonist, and despite the limpid prose, remains as enigmatically opaque as the fog that shrouds the Dublin streets and alleys.

The novel lacks the page-turning pyrotechnics of the kind of crime novels parodied by Colin Bateman, it's true, but each succeeding Quirke novel peels back the layers of a complex character who grows ever more compelling.

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