Sunday 18 February 2018

Review: Plugged by Eoin Colfer

Headline, €14.99, Hardback

'If you loved Artemis Fowl," the dust jacket of Eoin Colfer's Plugged somewhat ambiguously declares, "it's time to grow up." Well, not being a child, I never read any of those best-selling children's novels but after finishing Colfer's first adult crime novel I feel he has quite a bit of growing up yet to do.

The book's wisecracking narrator is ex-Irish Army sergeant Daniel McEvoy, a balding 42-year-old who, marked by the trauma of peacekeeping duty in the Lebanon, emigrated to America and is now a bouncer at a New Jersey casino that's somewhat seedier than Tony Soprano's Bada Bing operation. The potential for violence is just as great though, and when, within the space of a few hours, Dan's best friend disappears and his favourite hostess gets murdered, he has no alternative but to find out who kidnapped Zeb and who killed Connie.

He could, of course, have left all that to the police, but that's not what happens in hard-boiled crime novels and especially not in pastiches of them, where half the fun is in playing around with the time-honoured conventions of the genre. In their comic capers, Donald Westlake and Lawrence Block have been masters of this, bringing a dazzling ingenuity to their often dizzying plots as well as a droll ear to their rapid-fire dialogue.

Colfer is not, or at least not yet, in this class. However outlandish the plot twists in Westlake or Block, they always made sense to the reader, but too often in Colfer's novel what happens is simply unbelievable -- especially in those scenes where Dan, surrounded by armed goons who are about to kill him, simply gets the better of them, either by physically outwitting them or by persuading them to allow him a highly unlikely stay of execution.

Matters aren't helped by the dialogue, which is relentlessly flippant rather than genuinely funny and which offers too many hostages to fortune. Trading tedious insults with the feisty woman cop who is his only ally, Dan observes that "all this wisecracking is more exhausting than the gunplay" -- a conclusion that had already been reached by the reader. And it's impossible not to concur when, after extended imaginary bickering with the vanished friend whom he calls "Ghost Zeb", Dan confesses "I gotta say, these conversations with GZ are tiring."

Towards the end, as Dan improbably wins ownership of the casino in a poker game, he notes that "the whole thing has an unreal quality about it, like something out of a TV show, and not the good ones with budget behind them; the afternoon reruns from the seventies with stereotype villains and a cheap set that wobbles every time a door is closed".

This book, alas, is a constant wobble. Its author clearly has great affection for the hard-boiled novels he's emulating but he shows little grasp of the mechanics that make them work. And while it must have been liberating to write a novel that's free of the constraints imposed by children's fiction, no amount of adult situations or rude references can compensate for a narrative that's intrinsically implausible.

"Shocking, ain't it?" Dan says to his cop buddy. "An Irishman who can't tell a story." Well, not on this occasion, anyway.

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