Books: Lean thriller with a steely grip
Fiction: Aloysius Tempo, Jason Johnson, Liberties Press, pbk, 253 pages, €13.99
Jason Johnson's third novel, Sinker, was one of my unexpected reading pleasures of last year. I knew virtually nothing of the man or his work, and so approached the book with a totally open mind - which was soon blown away. Sinker was fast, nasty, witty, bizarre and thrilling.
Aloysius Tempo, the Belfast author's follow-up, thus comes loaded with expectations, and questions. Will this book be as good? Can it match the deranged inventiveness of Sinker? Will I, in short, be disappointed?
The answers are yes, no and definitely not. Aloysius Tempo is a more straightforward story than its predecessor, which isn't to say it's banal or predictable; it's just that, honestly, few novels will equal Sinker for its off-the-wall, yet oddly plausible, theme and plot (binge-drinking as a professional sport).
But this is probably an even better book, if we're doing comparisons; a lean, tight thriller with a steely grip on the attention, and a plot as compulsive and propulsive as a Jason Bourne movie. We're talking murder-for-hire, guilt and recrimination, honour and patriotism, and dirty espionage, both domestic and international. The eponymous Aloysius is a hitman. He advertises a "hard solve" to your problems on the Dark Net. His speciality is making the death look like an accident, so there's no police comeback on whoever commissioned the hit.
Forty years old, his past is a distant mystery, even to himself. Orphaned as a baby, abused as a boy, he left the North as a young man and never looked back.
Now Aloysius isn't quite sure who he is, what's his purpose, whether he has one, whether it should matter if he doesn't. He's a hard man, damaged and ruthless, but not a sociopath, and not without a moral code.
Now it's 2016: enter Imelda and Martin, who are putting together a special project for the government in Dublin - one of those projects so murky and hush-hush, it's doubtful the government even knows about it. They want Aloysius to kill four people, beginning with a disgusting money-lender and rapist.
This, Imelda explains, is to make Ireland a better place. Through some sort of karmic rebalancing, these killings will "lift all boats", metaphorically speaking, making Irish people happier and suitably honouring the centenary of 1916.
The story clatters along in a whirl of violence and tension with snatches of morbid humour. The set-pieces are taut and cinematic, the characterisation is deft, there's real moral/philosophical heft, and the prose has a finesse you don't usually encounter in thrillers. (Indeed, it's not necessary to enjoy the genre, but it doesn't hurt, and here makes for a richer, more pleasurable reading experience).
Aloysius describes himself as the last person you'd want arriving at your door. Maybe - but the novel named after him would make a very welcome addition to your bookshelf.
Darragh McManus's Young Adult novel Shiver the Whole Night Through is out now