Sunday, 29 April 2012

A June of Ordinary Murders: Review

Some weeks ago I mentioned the publication of Conor Brady's new historical crime novel, A June of Ordinary Murders.  The book's publisher, New Island, was kind enough to send me a review copy and here, alas, is the review!

'J.G. Farrell, the Liverpool-born, Irish novelist, renowned for his historical fictions, who died, too young, in 1979, wrote: “History leaves so much out … It leaves out the most important thing: the detail of what being alive is like.”  In his debut historical crime novel, A June of Ordinary Murders, Conor Brady goes a long way toward showing us what being alive was like for a Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) detective working a murder case during a heat wave in Dublin, circa 1887.  A crime novel rich in period detail and confident characterisation, the reader of A June of Ordinary Murders can almost feel the heat oppressing Dublin, smell the stench of the rancid Liffey at low ebb.  

Dublin Castle--the seat of British rule in Ireland
and headquarters for G-Division of the DMP
Set against the backdrop of the Irish Land War, in a city set to host a Jubilee visit by Queen Victoria's grandson, Prince Albert Victor, the novel presents us with Detective Sergeant Joe Swallow, a man tasked with solving the brutal murders of an unidentified man and child found in Phoenix Park.  To compound matters, the Queen of the city's criminal underworld, Ces 'Pisspot' Downes, has died and her retinue of vicious underbosses are beginning to jostle for control of her empire.  In a time when murders in Ireland were declared 'political' or 'ordinary'--with the bulk of resources devoted to  investigating 'political' murders in a country chomping at the bit of independence from the Crown--Swallow must negotiate the corridors of power in Dublin Castle as well as the mean back lanes and rough pubs of criminal Dublin in an effort to solve the murders.

Brady shows us early adaptations of
supposedly cutting-edge CSI 
It is Brady's portrayal of the murder investigation that is one of the book's strongest suits.  As a former journalist, Irish Times editor, Garda Ombudsman and author of the definitive history of the Garda Siochana, Guardians of the Peace: the Irish Police, Brady knows his cops and knows how they work.  In places, he exhibits this too well, one feels, with perhaps one too many scenes of crime conferences, which, while believable and fine summary of the story-so-far, could have been dealt with in a paragraph or two rather than pages.  This is a minor quibble, however, as Brady moves his tale along at a fine clip, pausing only to relish the minutiae of Victorian police work.  Much of this feels surprisingly modern, with revealing insights into the origins of much of what we take to be cutting edge CSI, such as the science of ballistics or facial reconstructions from the human skull.  He is especially good on the uneasily familiar relationship between detectives and their gangland nemeses which again, rings true.  There is a particularly fine scene where two young and ambitious detectives are somewhat too eager to believe the last-words of a dying underworld enforcer, and the results of their inexperience sail as close to real life as anything I've read recently in a crime novel.    

Swallow is a believable and sympathetic protagonist and his relationship with the publican, Maria Walsh, is particularly well drawn.  Another of the book's strengths, in fact, is its portrayal of female characters as rounded and modern in a way in perfect keeping with the waning Victorian setting.  All of the characters in the novel live on the page in a way that is never anachronistic.  It is the duty of the historical novelist to remind us that, while times change, people don't, and Brady pulls this off with panache.

His writing is clear and comfortable, as one would expect from a former journalist of Brady's stature, and the research, historical and criminal, exudes authenticity.  Again, a minor quibble, but perhaps too much of this fascinating research is evidenced in the early chapters; there is a long explanation of the Land War which, while interesting, admirably objective and well presented, would be better suited to a history textbook and could have been summarised neatly in a paragraph or bedded in the dialogue.  This tendency to over-inclusion of hard-won research--an occupational hazard for all historical novelists, myself very much included--fades, however, as the narrative progresses and we are left with a cracking whodunnit, rich in period detail and peopled with wholly believable, complex characters of whom I hope to see more of in future Joe Swallow novels.  All in all, a powerful, well-researched debut from Brady.  A June of Ordinary Murders is no ordinary historical novel and comes to you highly recommended by this reader.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Under the Boardwalk, Down by the Sea: HBO does it again

Kelly McDonald as Irish immigrant
Margaret Shroeder
Finally got around to cracking the dusty boxset of Boardwalk Empire last night and all I can say is: Why did I wait so long?  It is seriously excellent so far.  My wife and I have watched the first five episodes of series 1 and are enjoying it immensely.  As per recent posts, Boardwalk Empire is based on 'real' historical events and characters from prohibition-era Atlantic City, New Jersey.  Interestingly enough, and for much the same reason I explained of my own work in the previous post, the creator of Boardwalk--Terrence Winter, of Sopranos fame--took the figure of notorious political fixer/racketeer Enoch 'Nucky' Johnson and lightly fictionalised him as Enoch 'Nucky' Thompson so as to have more creative freedom with the story.

Enoch 'Nucky' Johnson and Steve Buscemi as
Enoch 'Nucky' Thomson
A few points from last night's viewing: 1) Steve Buscemi is wonderful as the crooked but complex Nucky.  His portrayal of venal...scratch that...mortal corruption would make the Mahon Tribunal blanche.  2)  Kelly McDonald, as the Irish immigrant Margaret Schroeder, (from Kerry--Schroeder is her married name though her husband...well, you'll have to watch it yourself...) is good and growing on me as a performance though the accent is dialogue-coach-101 for the most part.  McDonald is a fine actress--she was great in No Country for Old Men, where her accent was, to my ears, authentic and consistent--but could they not have found an actress from Kerry or Ireland at very least?  
Stephen Graham as Combo in
This is England
3)  Stephen Graham, conversely, is brilliant as a young Al Capone, despite hailing from Liverpool.  He is also a great actor and was cinema's most convincing psycho-skinhead in Shane Meadows' wonderful This is England.  I don't, in this case, mind that he's not actually from Brooklyn.  4) The sets are great but some of the panoramic CGI looks not a whole lot better than those shots of Atlanta burning in Gone With the Wind.  Technology is a funny old thing, but frankly, my dear, a minor quibble.

Martin Scorcese is an executive producer and directs the first episode, which I feel to be the best thing he's done on screen since Casino, though I've hardly seen everything he's done since then.  There is one long, Goodfellas-like tracking shot that roves along the boardwalk and into a dance hall only hours before the introduction of the Volstead Act and prohibition which is simply brilliant film-making.  

I'm surprised this series hasn't gotten the same resounding acclaim as, say, The Wire or The Sopranos.  Much like them, this is storytelling at its very best, most complex.  It makes one wonder (worry!), as a novelist, if the novel form is weaker as a vehicle for storytelling than high-quality, HBO-like TV series.  Any thoughts? 

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Is This Real Life, Is This Just Fantasy...

I'm reading The Cold, Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty at the moment and loving it.  Inadvertently, I find I'm on a real Troubles NI fiction kick at the moment.  This novel, as well as The Ultras, which I wrote about previously, are set in Northern Ireland in the 70's and (in the case of The Cold, Cold Ground, 1981) and both reek of cordite, boiled cabbage, bad haircuts, and ingrained hatreds.  Cheery reads, both...  But both evoke the period and the place(s) of the North brilliantly, particularly the sense that nothing was what it seemed and every act was believed to be driven by shadowy angencies with competing agendas.  Another thing both novels share is their use of 'real' characters from history in their narratives.  In The Cold, Cold Ground, Gerry Adams himself makes an appearance and not, I might add, protesting the 100€ Household Charge.

This got me thinking about the use of characters and events from 'real life' in fiction.  I've done it myself in Peeler and, most recently, in the forthcoming follow-up, Irregulars.  I generally, however, find it restricting and fictionalise characters from history, changing names etc.  (As does McKinty in Cold, Cold, introducing us to a certain Mr Scavanni, Sinn Fein spokesman and/or head of the IRA's Force Research Unit (Nutting Squad, I believe they called it)...would anybody care for some steak with that knife?)  I do this mainly because it allows me the freedom to have them act the way I want them to so as to suit the writing--occasionally, they resist direction and act any old way they please but that's true of all fictional characters and grist for another mill--rather than for the writing to have to bend to the demands of the lives actually lived by the characters.  

McNamee seems to have solved this problem in The Ultras by making Robert Nairac a cipher of sorts, an almost mythical construct framed by the (perhaps) delusional documenting of past crimes undertaken by the fallen cop Agnew.  This works (for me) because so much of the work done by men like Nairac and his (possibly) MI5 handlers in the book, as in real life, is mired in secrecy and rumour.  The violence is shadowed by the darkness of the cold ditch, by the quiet, lacerating shame of the compromised informer, by the black hatred of sectarian pseudo-gang set loose on the innocent and not so innocent.

Other authors do this as well.  Ellroy, particularly in American Tabloid.  Alan Furst.  Many others.  My question, I suppose, is: why we do it as writers and why, as readers, do we seem to enjoy reading about 'real' figures in a fictional format?  Is history not enough for us?  Is fiction better able to elucidate truth than the hard data of documentation?