Declan Hughes

Wednesday 28 May 2008

Book Review

The Reapers

By John Connolly

Edgar Alan Poe is generally thought to be the founding father of crime fiction, although as befits an often lurid and historically disreputable genre, paternity has long been disputed, with accusing fingers wagging in the various directions of William Godwin, Eugène-François Vidocq and even Wilkie Collins. Certainly Poe's five Inspector Dupin stories are the first detective stories, although he didn't see them in that light, or rank them as highly as his other writing. Poe's roots lay in the Gothic and the romantic, and he produced tales not simply of mystery and imagination but of horror and terror. It was appropriate then that the Irish crime writer John Connolly should make an appearance in these pages recently to review a new biography of Poe, for it has sometimes seemed as if Connolly's entire project has been nothing less than to reintegrate Poe's morbid and sensational asesthetic into the body of mainstream crime fiction.

Not that Connolly is some kind of literary archaeologist or pasticheur; he has simply interpreted the parameters of a genre he prefers to describe as "mystery fiction" rather more broadly than many of his contemporaries. In Connolly's visionary brand of apocalyptic neo-noir, men and angels inhabit the same plane; demons are not psychological troubles but realities; the Gods may be dead, but still, they watch and wait. At the same time, the first five Maine novels, featuring PI Charlie Parker, along with the stand-alone Bad Men, were terrifically exciting, tightly plotted thrillers redolent in particular of the work of James Lee Burke and Thomas Harris: written in an uncommonly fine, supple, sensuous prose, these dark, violent, volatile books worked brilliantly within the genre while consistently provoking and subverting it.

And then something happened. It was called The Book of Lost Things, and it was a work of outright fantasy, a boy's rites-of-passage journey through a fantastical world in order to pick up the pieces of his own shattered life. It was a remarkable achievement, moving Connolly's work onto a new level, and it seems to have had liberating consequences for the books that have followed. Where occasionally in the Maine novels there had been the risk of the supernatural overwhelming the actual, of claustrophobia (The Black Angel sometimes read as if it were channeling Hieronymus Bosch), last year's The Unquiet held the disparate elements of Connolly's fictional universe in a new balance while sacrificing none of the previous intensity: confident, stylish and moving, it was by some distance the best of the Parker series.

That sense of greater harmony and assuredness carries through to The Reapers, a supernatural western set among an elite cadre of samurai-style contract killers and the most purely entertaining novel Connolly has written. The Reapers centres around Angel and Louis, Parker's murderous sidekicks, and the plot has a classical simplicity: Angel and Louis find their lives under threat from men acting for Arthur Leehagen, who seeks revenge for the murder of his son; Leehagen's rival in love and in business, Nicholas Hoyle, hires them to kill Leehagen; Leehagen lives near a deserted former mining town in isolated, open country; a team of assassins is assembled to mount the attack; when they're almost on top of the Leehagen place, Angel and Louis realise that a trap has been sprung, and that their team are being picked off one by one, and that the man on their trail is a Reaper with his own deadly grudge against Louis. The call goes out for reinforcements, the Detective (as Charlie Parker is called here) steps up to help his friends, and the stage is set for a showdown.

But in The Reapers, the men with guns do not get it all their own way. Much of the narrative is told from the point of view of a tenant of Louis's called Willie Brew, a sixty year-old mechanic and Vietnam veteran who never killed anyone but who gets reluctantly drawn into the climactic action alongside the Detective. Brew is a splendid creation in his own right, an ornery, fundamentally decent man, seen to amusing effect riffing Hope and Crosby style with his business partner and unlikely friend Arno; he also enables us to see the bloody climax plain, providing a moral counterpoint to the glamorous allure of violence.

Equally enthralling are the flashbacks to Louis's youth: to the racist America of sundown towns, where a black man was not welcome after nightfall, where a black man who broke the window of a white bar was lynched and burned alive, where Louis killed for the first time to avenge his mother's death, and was marked out and groomed for the grim fate that awaited him. Together they form a poignant backstory that supplies invaluable psychological and social underpinning for this utterly compelling tale of mystery and imagination.

The Irish Times, May 24th

Monday 12 May 2008

Book Review


By Joseph O'Neill

Novels are about love and sex and death and The Way We Live Now, or they are about nothing much at all. Except, of course, if they are American novels, in which case they get to be about all these things and about America too. Not America the country – one might as well read a guidebook – but America the Enlightenment idea, America the dream of yearning and infinite possibility, America as represented by Jay Gatsby's green light, "the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us."

In his remarkable new novel, Joseph O'Neill does not make any bones about his debt to Fitzgerald's great masterpiece: when, on page two, his diffident narrator Hans van den Broek, a Dutch banker who will be more spectator than protagonist in his own story, says of his time in New York, "But there's no such thing as a cheap longing, I'm tempted to conclude these days", the shade of Nick Carraway appears instantly at his shoulder. On the same page, a note of dark pastoral sounds when we are told that New York City insists on "memory's repetitive mower", which has the effect of "cutting the grassy past to manageable proportions. For it keeps growing back, of course."

The unattainable green in Netherland is not the light at the end of a dock, but the bright grass of a cricket pitch, and the dream is of cricket as a civilizing, cosmopolitan force that will rid the US of its insularity and enable it to build bridges with the immigrant Muslims and Hindus who play the game. Give It Back To The Indians, so to speak. O'Neill's Gatsby is Chuck Ramkissoon, Trinidadian immigrant, motormouthed autodidact, builder and developer and small-time gangster whose murdered body is discovered in a canal at the start of the book, and whose ebullient comic spirit is celebrated throughout its length; it is a measure of O'Neill's considerable novelistic gifts that Chuck's quixotic dream never subsides into bathos, or loses its glamorous allure.

O'Neill, an Irish-born, Dutch-raised barrister based in New York, has published two previous novels, but he is probably best known for Blood-Dark Track, a family history of his grandfathers' imprisonment during the second world war – one was interned for being a member of the IRA, the other, a Turk, was suspected of spying for the Germans – which read like an espionage thriller.

Hans van den Broek – "a member of the first tribe of New York, excepting of course the Red Indians" - falls gradually under Chuck Ramkissoon's spell as he spends two lonely, wretched years alone in New York. Anxious for the family's safety, his wife has taken their son back to London in the doom-laden aftermath of 9/11, a trial separation that is showing ominous signs of permanence. The marriage has collapsed because they are frightened, and angry at each other, and tired all the time, and because Hans, to his shame, cannot find it in himself to fight what he fears is inevitable: "that love was loss, that nothing worth saying was sayable, that dullness was general, that disintegration was irresistible." He walks the streets of the city, a melancholy, acute observer of its signs and wonders: "The rinsed taxis, hissing over fresh slush, shone like grapefruits" but if you looked down "you saw a foul mechanical dark"; "The tail lights, the coarse blaze of deserted office buildings, the lit store fronts, the orange fuzz of the street lanterns: all this garbage of light had been refined into a radiant atmosphere that rested in a low silver heap over Midtown"; Times Square's billboards and news tickers are "shimmers and vapours", to be regarded "as one might the neck feathers of certain of the city's pigeons – as natural, humble sources of iridescence."

The pick-up games of cricket among the Asians and West Indians of New York provide Hans initially with a respite from desolation; slowly the players become companions and finally, undemonstratively, as is the way with men, friends. Hans has not been an especially valuable asset to the team because he refuses to alter his orthodox batting style to suit the hardscrabble cricket pitches, but in the last game of the season, he experiences his own fleeting epiphany of release and reinvention: "I'd hit the ball in the air like an American cricketer, and I'd done so without injury to my sense of myself."

Netherland ends triumphantly, numinously, with two sunsets: one in London, atop the Eye, Hans happily reunited with his family; the other on the Staten Island Ferry as it approaches pre-lapsarian Manhattan, the twin towers looming, his mother alive and by his side. In a sustained passage of intense lyric beauty that more than squares any debt to Fitzgerald, O'Neill writes: "I wasn't the only one of us to make out and accept an extraordinary promise in what we saw – the tall approaching cape, a people risen in light. You only had to look at our faces."

The Irish Times, Saturday May 10th