Thursday 18 January 2018

Books: Victorian mystery is easy to swallow

ENGROSSING: Conor Brady recreates Victorian Dublin
ENGROSSING: Conor Brady recreates Victorian Dublin

James Lawless

The Eloquence of the Dead by Conor Brady (New Island, €14.99)

The idea of a world-weary alcoholic detective may appear cliched, but Conor Brady in this sequel succeeds in making Joe Swallow into a credible character.

One can feel the book wooing one into the world of Victorian Dublin from its first pages as Swallow sets out on the trail of a pawnbroker's murderer, which fans out from the Pale to Trim, Galway and England.

The underlying resentment towards Swallow of rival Major Kelly, head of the secret service group, adds an edge to the narrative, and Swallow's amorous ambivalences towards Maria, a pub-owner, and Katherine, the Jewish girl who shared his interest in art classes and whom he saves by shooting dead a burglar in her father's jewellery shop on Capel Street, heighten the tension and foreboding.

Swallow, due to his drinking, blew a career in medicine, inducing guilt in him because of sacrifices made by his parents. Herein may lie the weakest part of the novel in the mere passing references to his mother. More of a build-up of her character would have been preferable perhaps at the expense of some of the myriad ancillary characters that populate the work.

Similarly the character of his patriotic sister Harriet (in a loyalty conflict with her brother) is a stock delineation of nationalists of the time.

There are some quibbles with the prose. Typos, such as suffering a "safe" fate instead of "same" fate, or Phibsboro losing and gaining its "ugh", and the detective's feeling for Maria are expressed in over-sentimental tones: "He felt part of her, drawn in completely into a union of the flesh and the spirit that he had never known before."

But such writing is more than made up for later by the moving account of Swallow's hovering around his former lover's abode on the eve of his departure for England. Also when he visits the Ulster office, he noticed the sentries had been issued with their greatcoats and "autumn was tightening its grip". One can sense here what Brady called the "buttoned-up" prose of his journalistic days flowering into a more novelistic style.

There is evidence of great research in the interspersing of history into the novel, particularly into the legal ramifications of the time -- how informants would sometimes send a child to Exchange Court to collect their undercover reward. The corruption in the land transfers process is brilliantly drawn and kernel to the narrative in the plan to defraud the Treasury. This sort of writing is in keeping with the author's hope that his fiction would also carry with it sociological insights, which indeed it does also in its touching upon the role of women in society or the teaching of Freud, albeit coupled with the hindsight of historical perspective.

Swallow's forensic knowledge is superb, equalling Holmes, or that of any sleuth, with his logical mind in establishing by means of knots that there were two presences at the scene of the murder, and the account of the graphite used to detect fingerprints is convincing. There is occasional humour too, as when the criminal Vanucchi claims kinship "with that fella who done the last supper".

Outside the criminal underworld, Brady also captures the soirees of middle-class Dublin society of the time, although the reference to WB Yeats and his Vision as a source for locating missing persons doesn't seem plausible.

Overall this book is an engrossing read. One feels a real empathy for Swallow, especially towards the end, as he tries to confront British duplicity. If there is a message, it seems to be: You can nab the little man in crime but corruption in high places continues. Plus ca change...

  • James Lawless' latest novel is Knowing Women.

Irish Independent

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