Review: A June of Ordinary Murders by Conor Brady
New Island, €14.99
Former Irish Times editor Conor Brady has not been idle since his retirement in 2002. His shadow still hangs over the newspaper, in a positive way; he has been vocal on media matters and he has been part of the Garda Ombudsman body, drawing from his deep interest in the Irish police: his first editorship was of the Garda Review and, bringing it all back home, his father was a garda.
Brady now draws from this knowledge and interest to write a novel about an Irish policeman in the rough and tumble of mid-19th-Century Dublin. Though slow to get going, his crime debut delivers with surprising panache, and by the time of its cliff-hanger conclusion the reader will be absorbed by the ride and eager for more.
Brady is respectful enough to follow the conventions of the crime formula. His central protagonist, Detective Sergeant Joe Swallow is a world-weary copper, living on old successes and now in need of a fresh one. It is 1887, Dublin is boiling (and smelling) under a summer heatwave and a new gangland war is threatened by the rival lieutenants of a dying crime boss.
Meanwhile, in an atmosphere of growing nationalism and Fenian unrest, the Dublin Castle administration is anxious that the impending celebration of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee should pass off without any trouble.
This is the fertile backdrop for Swallow's job brief. With the Land War at full cry, the priority now is to contain "special" crime while dealing with murders that appear to be "ordinary" and thus of lesser priority.
However, inevitably, Swallow comes across some bumpings-off, specifically near the Chapelizod Gate of Phoenix Park, where the distinction is not so clear and soon he, and his sidekick, City Medical Examiner Harry Lafeyre, find themselves dealing with the possibility of high-level involvement and culpability.
The book is good at describing how Swallow pursues his mission against bureaucratic intrigue and blocking, as well as political awkwardness. Impressive in its research and detail, the novel recreates the daily life and essence of the capital in the 1880s, with references to G men, Kingstown, the Daily Sketch and Nelson's Pillar. But, in terms of the genre, it is also expert in describing the early development of forensic science.
Fans of period detail and historical setting should thus be well satisfied with Brady's debut, and those who lean more towards characterisation will not be disappointed. Once it gets going, the pace raises the novel above period pastiche and offers a welcome romp around Dublin City and environs.
Like a road movie set in your neighbourhood, it delivers a thrilling sense of the familiar lit with the profane.
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