Friday 19 January 2018

Cathartic return for answers into murder of cheating wife

Remarkable range: Former military policeman Martin Malone
Remarkable range: Former military policeman Martin Malone
Black Rose Days by Martin Malone

Eilis O'Hanlon

Martin Malone is Ireland's answer to Andy McNab. A former military policeman, he served five tours of duty with the Irish Army in Lebanon and one in Iraq before settling down to concentrate on writing.

Thankfully, that's where the comparison ends. Malone doesn't specialise in testosterone-fuelled thrillers featuring indestructible men in combat gear. Instead, he writes carefully constructed prose that probes below the surface of terrible events to show what happens afterwards. Long afterwards, in the case of this seventh novel, Black Rose Days, as Irishman Dan Somers makes the cathartic journey from his new home in America back to the small town in Co Kildare where he grew up.

His first wife, Ena, was murdered there over 30 years ago, and Dan, who was considered the chief suspect at the time, becomes obsessed with finding out what really happened to her. This doesn't go down well with new wife Irene, who just wants a holiday. She'd always found him distant, and now knows why: "He is living in the past, and living there doesn't work for anyone." Could he also be capable of murder?

Meanwhile, the long-dead voice of Ena narrates her own version of events, the tragic shadow of a life soon to be snatched away adding poignancy to her confusion and lack of fulfilment.

The central question of who killed Ena all those years ago works well as a mystery, and the loose ends are resolved satisfyingly. For the reader, at least; there are still some things the characters will never know.

But whodunnit isn't the point. Black Rose Days is a story about what happens when the police have finally closed the file on an unsolved killing and everyone outside the immediate circle of those affected has moved on and forgotten the details. Not even the dead woman's family cares about Ena any more, mainly because there's no puzzle for them; they think Dan did it. And as he says to himself in the mirror whilst shaving: "You could easily have killed her - someone else did that for you… and people thought it made you happy for it to be done."

Dan himself has a long list of suspects, but some have also died in the intervening years, and he's a stranger in Ireland now. "He had not met anyone in town who used to know him. Two women on separate occasions stared at him and said nothing, just wondered with their eyes if he was someone they once knew." Even when he does track down people who remember Ena's murder, they can't help. "There'd been a few since then, one said, half-apologetically, each as bad as the last."

The town itself has grown larger, too, swallowing his memories. Luigi's chip shop, where Ena worked and met many of the men with whom she cheated on Dan, is now a taxi office.

Malone's range as an author is remarkable. He's written a number of novels and a memoir based on his experiences in the Middle East, as well as award-winning historical and contemporary fiction.

Here, he shows again his facility for concentrating on the small picture, unpicking with forensic compassion the unravelling of Dan and Irene's marriage over a past whose continuing hold on him he refuses to share. The interweaving of their accounts, and that of Ena, is accomplished more skilfully than is usual in novels with a split narrative. The three threads are all equally compelling, and there's ample compensation for Dan's all-consuming self-pity in Irene's feistiness and resilience. There will be few better books published this year.

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