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Review: Operation Underworld by Paddy Kelly

At a time when people are more aware than ever of the lengths that governments will go to in the name of domestic safety from foreign threats, Operation Underworld arrives with a zeitgeist-capturing air about it.

His publishers are talking Paddy Kelly's novel up to be particularly controversial, but given that the events take place some 70 years ago, it is perhaps hard to see too many people getting in a flap over its tale of government collusion with crime bosses.

The story goes like this. In February 1942, the TLS Normandie, the fastest, largest and most lavish cruise liner in the world at that time, is the victim of arson while undergoing refurbishment to join the war effort at the New York docks. The question on everybody's lips is whether this is an accident, the work of criminals or sabotage from those nasty Germans. Either way, it has the authorities in a flap, and in their desperation, or so it would appear, they turn to one of New York's most notorious crime syndicates to help keep the city safe. So ensues a series of hush-hush meetings, double dealings and bending of the rules by officials who were meant to know better.

Kelly is unquestionably precise and has researched the background context as well as the mannerisms and vernacular of the time at great length. We are brought up to speed on situations such as union strikes, civil unrest and the prevailing attitudes to the war. Dock workers swear and shout coarsely. You can almost smell the creosote and tobacco smoke as they do, while the impression of a New World metropolis coming into its own is particularly potent. As a narrator, he never has us at a loss as to our location, and using something of a filmmaker's palette, he lets the streets and docksides of New York become a central character in their own right.

At the same time, there is something ambiguous about our narrator. We are in the thick of the era and its environment, but Kelly occasionally steps back into modern day, telling us that a scene resembles a Hitchcock movie, or drawing a comparison to the War on Terror. The numerous and detailed fly-on-the-wall descriptions of characters' personal moments and frivolous banter is hard to reconcile alongside narrative references from 70 years in the future.

Another quirk arises from time to time with the dialogue. Kelly has opted for intricate phonetics to convey the breadth of accents and turns of phrase across a range of everyday tongues, and while it never quite enters into Irvine Welsh territory, it can break the flow and force you to speak the phrase to yourself. In one tongue-tying exchange between private detective McKeowan and an old Yiddish woman we get: 'I am da voman! Andt my husband is cheatingt on me!'

These are small concerns, you could argue, especially given Kelly's strong devotion to atmosphere and, vitally, intrigue. It is in these departments that Operation Underworld really delivers.

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