Sunday 25 February 2018

Reviews: Falling Glass by Adrian McKinty, A Death in Summer by Benjamin Black and Taken by Niamh O'Connor

Serpent's Tail, €13.99, Mantle, €14.99, Transworld Ireland, €14.99

Declan Burke

Three recent titles confirm that Irish crime writing is in a rare state of rude health, in the process showcasing the diversity of the kinds of novels Irish crime authors are writing these days.

Falling Glass is Adrian McKinty's sixth offering, a thriller in which an underworld enforcer, Killian, is commissioned to track down Rachel, the ex-wife of a wealthy Northern Ireland businessman, who has absconded with his two daughters. Naturally, things do not go smoothly for Killian, for the most part because a ruthless killer, a Russian soldier and veteran of the brutal conflict in Chechnya, is also on the woman's trail. Framed by an increasingly violent game of one-upmanship, the story hurtles down the tortuously twisting byways of rural Northern Ireland.

However, a number of elements set Falling Glass apart from conventional shoot-'em-up thrillers. McKinty has established himself as a writer who blends riveting plots, a muscular kind of poetry and blackly comic flourishes, investing his fully rounded characters with thoughtful insights that frequently veer off at tangents into something akin to philosophy. Killian, for example, is of Pavee origin, and carries with him the Pavees' traditions, mythologies and shelta language. Settled himself, Killian has tried to leave behind both his own kind and the criminal life by investing his ill-gotten gains in property, and studying architecture. It's a perverse choice for a former nomad, and McKinty deftly counterpoints Killian's peripatetic wanderings in search of Rachel and her two girls with Killian's own journey towards some kind of rapprochement between his conflicting instincts, building tension all the while, until the story explodes in an orgy of violence in which the dark deeds that lay at the heart of the Peace Process are finally revealed.

On the face of it, the genteel tone and setting of Benjamin Black's fourth novel, A Death in Summer, could hardly be further from McKinty's harshly noir modernity. Set in Dublin during the Fifties, and written by John Banville under an open pseudonym, the Black novels have a reputation for erring on the "cosy" side, an illusion fostered by an opening which suggests a homage to Agatha Christie, when newspaper tycoon Richard "Diamond Dick" Jewell is found in his Kildare mansion, having apparently blown his brains out with a shotgun.

A suicide verdict, however, is not accepted by Inspector Hackett and his lugubrious foil Dr Quirke, the pathologist with the morbid fascination with death and its consequences. Together the pair embark on an investigation which the mores of Irish society of the time require to be conducted in secret, lest the stigma of suicide be given a public airing.

McKinty and Black/ Banville have much in common, however, not least of which is an eye for a telling line: "The priest was studying him closely again," writes Black, "running ghostly fingers over the braille of Quirke's soul". Both novels also serve as a warning against complacency. Where Falling Glass engages with the unfinished business of a generation scarred by sectarian war, A Death in Summer explores the heartbreaking legacy of the blind eyes turned to the horrors suffered by those children who were consigned to institutions run by men whose vocations were all too often a mask for their perverse inclinations.

Banville believes that his Benjamin Black novels are the work of an artisan rather than an artist, but there's a palpable sense in A Death in Summer of the author fully engaging with the genre and realising its potential. Although set half a century ago, the novel is cuttingly contemporary in its conclusion, which offers one of the most stomach-churningly fatalistic noir endings of any crime novel published this year.

Taken is Niamh O'Connor's second novel, and the sequel to last year's If I Never See You Again, which also featured the conscience-driven Dublin detective, DI Jo Birmingham. The novel opens with the abduction of a child, but Birmingham's investigation pulls on a thread that unravels the seedy world of a recession-hit modelling business, and its links to organised crime.

Where O'Connor's debut was a fast-paced thriller with strong echoes of Lynda La Plante, Taken is less slick in terms of the mechanics of its plotting, less concerned with ticking off the expected conventions of the modern police procedural. Instead, O'Connor presents a far more satisfying tale for the noir fan, a raw and at times almost inarticulate blast of rage directed at a host of targets.

A crime journalist by trade, O'Connor brings her experience to bear as she goes behind the headlines to put flesh on the bones of the skeletons that dance in the closets of some of Dublin's well-heeled suburbs.

Particularly close to the bone is the plot strand that investigates the murder of a woman discovered bludgeoned to death in her own back yard, and the husband who finds her body, but who delays calling for assistance until it is too late.

The result is as uncomfortable as it is compelling, as O'Connor implicitly asks hard questions about the confluence of the worlds of crime and ostensibly respectable business. Most telling of all, however, are the questions she asks about the complicity of the Irish public in fostering the illusion of some imaginary criminal underworld, where a tolerable level of violence and murder is acceptable just so long as it doesn't happen in our own back yards.

Declan Burke is the editor of Down These Green Streets: Irish Crime Writing in the 21st Century (Liberties Press)

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