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Tarantino meets Flann O’Brien in Ardal O’Hanlon’s rural whodunnit

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Ardal O'Hanlon. Photo by Mark Nixon

Ardal O'Hanlon. Photo by Mark Nixon

Brouhaha by Ardal O’Hanlon

Brouhaha by Ardal O’Hanlon

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Ardal O'Hanlon. Photo by Mark Nixon

Good God — can it really be 24 years since Ardal O’Hanlon’s first and, until now, only novel was published? I remember it well. I assumed — possibly a little spitefully — that he only earned a book deal on the strength of fame as gormless Dougal in Father Ted.

The Talk of the Town wasn’t bad, though, and that was no major surprise: there’s a long history of comedians turning successfully to literature, especially those like O’Hanlon who also perform stand-up. Crafting material for a live performance isn’t exactly the same as structuring 80,000 words of fiction, but they’re in the same ballpark.

You’d wonder why Brouhaha has taken so long. Almost quarter of a century. So was it worth that wait? I’ll do the classic “on the one hand but then on the other” fudge by saying “yes — if you like this sort of novel”.

Brouhaha can be broadly placed, I think, in a certain tradition of domestic literature, and within those parameters is pretty well done. I’m not really sure what to call this sub-genre: Irish rural Gothic, maybe? It’s that Pat McCabe kind of thing, much of Kevin Barry’s work, The Gamal by Ciarán Collins, John the Revelator by Peter Murphy, This is the Way by Gavin Corbett, among others.

These are usually set in small Irish towns, many near the border. There’s a wild sort of energy at their heart. Themes are dark and violent, often involving crime. The style is colourful, ornate, playful, sometimes musical. (McCabe’s books, it has been said, are better read aloud.)

They focus on an outsider, a loner, a weirdo as the main player. Their settings are gloomy places with menace, paramilitary or otherwise, seething under the surface; think The Valley of the Squinting Windows with added danger.

They bounce between shocking violence or horror and blacker-than-black humour, like some hybrid of Quentin Tarantino and Flann O’Brien.

I generalise, obviously, and have flattened out the distinctions between those authors and their work — but you get the rough idea.

Brouhaha is set in the fictional borderlands town of Tullyanna — population “three thousand pinched faces, all of them secretive” — which I’m guessing is in Monaghan (though it could be Cavan or Leitrim; it doesn’t really matter). The kind of place where most young men go by a stupid nickname.

Artist Dove Connolly, a bit of a sad-sack in early middle-age, has killed himself. Philip Sharkey, his ex-best pal now living abroad, returns for the funeral.

And something else: when they were teenagers, in 1994, a local girl called Sandra Mohan went missing. Both lads were in love with her, and not in love with her. Neither fully moved on from her disappearance; all those horrible, unanswerable questions. Was she murdered? Did she just leave us? Who was responsible, if anyone?

Three days before shooting himself, Dove left a message for Philip, that he’d “found Sandra”. He also left something physical: his comic-book, Brouhaha, which mashes together various Celtic myths into a manic stew — and, Philip gradually realises, it may hold a clue to Sandra’s fate.

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He’s not the only one digging into the past. There’s Healy, a decent and slightly eccentric former garda, who never got over the trauma of being shot by an armed raider — and never forgot Sandra. There’s journalist Joanne, who wrote a fifth-anniversary piece on the case for Howarya! magazine (it comes across as “Hot Press but for culchies”), and now, working for the local paper, still wonders what happened to the girl.

The unlikely Musketeers begin poking around, identifying possible suspects. Top of the list is republican election candidate Fergal Coleman. But in a damned town like Tullyanna, that’s only the beginning.

As a mystery story, Brouhaha works fairly well; the big reveal, the who-actually-dunnit, is believable. And in a nice touch, everything isn’t tied up neatly in a bow. People are messy, life is messy, trying to recall the past and make accommodation with the present is messy; not every innocent victim gets a full measure of justice, and not every guilty party gets what’s coming.

As a portrayal of small-town Ireland, it doesn’t work quite as well. Or rather, it works fine, depending on what the reader is after. If you like a heightened atmosphere, something giddy and a little cartoonish, Brouhaha is enjoyable. If you want realism or some sort of deeper “truth” about Irish life, not so much.

Fiction: Brouhaha by Ardal O’Hanlon

HarperCollins Ireland, 352 pages, hardcover €19.99; e-book £8.99

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Brouhaha by Ardal O’Hanlon

Brouhaha by Ardal O’Hanlon

Brouhaha by Ardal O’Hanlon

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