Mystery Man returns with lots of laughs
Bateman weaves in plenty of gags as his whinging hero gets back on the case, writes Declan Burke
Published 24/01/2010 | 05:00
The Day of the Jack Russell
Ken Bruen and Reed Farrel Coleman
Busted Flush, stg£14.99
Faber & Faber, €13.99
The Day of the Jack Russell is the whimsical title to Bateman's latest offering, and the second title in a year from a new Bateman series which features a hero who goes under the moniker of Mystery Man. I use the word "hero" advisedly: Bateman's protagonist is the owner of a Belfast bookshop specialising in crime fiction, and a man who likes to dabble in puzzles and the solving of crimes unlikely to put him in any serious danger. He is a whinging hypochondriac, a coward and misogynist, a bookworm nerd who nonetheless gets the girl and saves the day. He may well turn out to be Colin Bateman's most endearing creation.
Employed by a local businessman to investigate The Case of the Cock-Headed Man, Mystery Man does so with his customary ease, even if he is plagued by his ex-girlfriend, the recently pregnant Alison, and Jeff, his feckless assistant in the No Alibis bookstore. Unfortunately, solving the case renders Mystery Man a suspect when the two men he investigates are later brutally killed. Sucked into a murder inquiry, Mystery Man finds himself at the mercy of dark forces beyond his control as he is besieged by spooks from MI5, the PSNI, and local hoods, all of whom are on the trail of a much-coveted Jack Russell.
For fans of crime writing, there are many in-jokes and tongue-in-cheek scenarios to be enjoyed. Mystery Man inevitably refers to classic crime novels when choosing his next step in an investigation, lampooning crime- fiction cliches in the process, and slandering some of the better-known names in the business. Brendan Coyle, the "Booker-nominated author" who dabbles in crime writing, makes a welcome reappearance, while the attitudes of literary snobs also get an airing. Pontificating about authors supported by PEN, an organisation which advocates on behalf of writers unjustly imprisoned, he has this to say: "Mostly we won't support PEN authors because their books are usually s**t. People would pay a lot more attention if John Grisham or James Patterson were locked up for criticising the state, although obviously, some would clamour for that even if they kept their traps shut."
The Day of the Jack Russell has much more in common with The Maltese Falcon than The Day of the Jackal, boasting a McGuffin (the eponymous terrier) the equal of the famous falcon, albeit in a much funnier setting. By the same token, Bateman is too experienced a writer not to know that the gags, puns, pratfalls and in-jokes are simply a bonus for the self-respecting crime aficionado, and constructs a page-turner that is deftly but intricately plotted. Mystery Man, the first book in this series, was earlier this year nominated as a Richard & Judy Summer Pick, but The Day of the Jack Russell is a funnier, faster and altogether a more polished affair.
The humour is much more of the gallows variety in Tower, a collaborative novel from Ireland's Ken Bruen and American writer Reed Farrel Coleman. The story is not an uncommon one, following the experiences of two childhood friends, Nick and Todd, who drift either side of the thin blue line as they grow up, but unusually for a collaboration, the novel is divided into distinctive halves. Bruen takes the first half, writing from Nick's perspective about a classic tale of brotherhood, gangs and betrayal, in a style that has become recognisably unique -- a taut, brutalised and brittle prose, muscular in its impact but capable of evoking both cruelty and tenderness within a single line.
Meanwhile, Coleman takes the second part. Instead of continuing the narrative on from the halfway mark, however, Coleman, writing from Todd's perspective, delves back into Bruen's material, sifting it and parsing it and offering a style that is consciously the opposite of Bruen's: elegant, quietly subversive, and a terrifying murmur to Bruen's more primal shriek. The net effect of his contribution, for all its subtle delivery, is to provide a devastating emotional critique of male bonding, or the absence of same, whether between friends or fathers and sons.
Both Bruen and Coleman are renowned noir authors and multiple prizewinners in the US, and Tower showcases their talents to superb effect. This is a serious novel about fatherless men, and the consequences that accrue when society ignores the disaffected rumblings at its margins. The settings are Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Boston, but the Irish-American diaspora won't be thanking either man for their depiction of devastated urban landscapes and the barely human flotsam washed up on their shores.
The "tower" of the title which looms over proceedings throughout is the North Tower of the World Trade Centre, implying an appropriately noir sense of fatalism and predestined fate, despite Nick and Todd's best efforts to escape the life they were sentenced to before they were born. If you can imagine a desperately raw and angry Irish-American Mean Streets coupled with the narrative inventiveness of Pulp Fiction, you won't go too far wrong.
A symbolic tower also features in Alan Glynn's Winterland, in which a building development on Dublin's quays represents a monument to the hubris of the Celtic Tiger boom. The novel is a classic "bait-and-switch". Opening with the deaths of two men with the same name, one a gangland hit, the other a drink-driving accident, the novel is ostensibly a thriller about Gina Rafferty's refusal to accept the official reasons for the deaths of her uncle and nephew, who are both named Noel. Through asking awkward questions, and refusing to be put off by pat answers she receives, Gina finds herself reluctantly investigating a conspiracy that threatens to blow the cover on a business deal that connects Dublin's criminal underworld, the business fraternity, and the upper echelons of Irish politics.
At this point the novel becomes less of a thriller and broadens out into a social novel that examines where we are now, and how we live. The usual tropes associated with good crime writing are present: a complex plot, fast pacing, vivid characters, the consequences of criminal actions on the "civilian" population. Glynn also writes in a terse style that can be called hard-boiled, although he does so in a quietly elegant, unfussy way. His choice of writing in the present tense also contributes to the intensity of the read, and he's a dab hand at pitch-black humour.
What lifts Winterland above the usual run of crime novels, however, is how relevant it is to contemporary Ireland. The story unfolds as if ripped from yesterday's newspaper headlines, and yet there is nothing simplistic about Glynn's plotting. Were an official "book of evidence" to be compiled for the DPP from Glynn's novel, it would be very difficult to put the finger on the one person, or small group of people, who are solely responsible for the events that result in murder and its cover-up. That's a frustrating aspect of real life, and Glynn mirrors the reality very well.
The novel is symptomatic of its time, perhaps, but it also chimes very well with other fine Irish crime novels from 2009: as with Stuart Neville's The Twelve, Declan Hughes' All the Dead Voices, and Gene Kerrigan's Dark Times in the City, Glynn's novel reflects the increasing politicisation of the Irish crime novel. If that makes Winterland sound like worthy polemic, nothing could be further from the truth: as with the novelists mentioned above, Glynn has something important to say about the society in which we live, but he understands that his first priority is to provide us with an entertaining read. He achieves both with some aplomb.