New Irish Fiction

Book Reviews by Frank O’Shea

SIX WICKED REASONS. By Jo Spain. Quercus. 426 pp. $32.99

Lockdown. Stay inside, keep two metres from everyone; no visit to pub or club, no bowls or bridge or golf (this was Victoria). Fortunately, you still have your books and if you are lucky enough to have Jo Spain’s Six Wicked Reasons, you are happy to forget Auntie Rona for two days. This is the kind of book that draws you in, page after easy page, like an old-fashioned whodunit where the story comes first and literary embellishments are minimal. The challenge with this particular book is to make 400 pages last the full two days.

The story is set in the region of Wexford from which they run a ferry to Passage East in Waterford; one of the towns mentioned is Albertstown, which is probably the village of Arthurstown. The remoteness of the location has some significance because it is the kind of place where murders rarely happen.

The dead man is Frazer Lattimer who has been pulled out of the waters of the bay. At first it seems that he fell overboard from the luxury yacht where he and his family were having a celebration. But detective Rob Downes, sent from Wexford town to investigate, is convinced that his head wound did not happen when he went in the water. There were only eight others on the boat with the dead man; six were his adult children, another was the woman he was about to marry and the last was the owner of the boat, an old friend of the family.

So, there you have it: a limited number of suspects, all related to each other in some way and all able to support each other’s alibi. Succeeding chapters deal with portions of the life of each of the children in turn, interwoven with short chapters which cover the statements made by all of them to Detective Downes and his easy interrogation of each of them long into the night of the murder.

Only one of the six adult children lives in Wexford. Two are in Dublin, apparently successful in their careers; one is in Italy, another in New York and Adam is in Paris. He comes home after disappearing ten years earlier and this is the reason why all six are in remote Wexford at the same time. The story deals with each in turn and gives each of them a reason for wanting their father dead. The resolution is a surprise, but the author manages to make it more than believable.

Books like this should be recommended as a way to make lockdown in whatever form it takes, bearable. Much better than injecting Dettol.

FIFTY FIFTY. By Steve Cavanagh. Orion. 2020. 351 pp. $32.99

It is always a delight to find a new writer. As it happens, Steve Cavanagh cannot be so described, this being the fifth of his books featuring lawyer Eddie Flynn. Cavanagh himself practices law in his native Belfast, though he tells us in the acknowledgements at the end of the book that, thanks to the success of the Flynn books, he is now a full-time writer. What is surprising is that the Flynn stories are set, not in Belfast or Dublin, but in New York.

Two young women call 911 to say that their father has been killed, each accusing her sister of being the murderer. They are both charged with murder and the story deals with the twists and turns in the case. One of the two hires Flynn as counsel, while the other is represented by a high-charging firm of Manhattan lawyers. Kate Brooks is a junior in that company, lusted after by her boss, who uses his authority to try to seduce her. That element of the story is satisfactorily, if a little disingenuously, dealt with in the final chapter of the book.

Flynn’s background is explained early. ‘If my father lived to this day, he would’ve been ashamed. I could’ve been a boxer or a con artist or a pickpocket or even a bookie. He would look at his son, the lawyer, and shake his head and wonder where he’d gone wrong as a parent.’ As it is, he needs all of these skills to be a success in his chosen field, and uses them more than once in this story. 

Chapters in the story are devoted in turn to Flynn, Kate and a person known only as She. The reader is likely to alternate views of which of the two girls is hiding behind that personal pronoun. Meanwhile Kate and Flynn, each with her/his assistant, works on the legal aspects of the case that seems to strongly favour the District Attorney; he accuses both of the women of murder, happy if only one is found guilty, but even more if the jury convicts both.

Much of the story takes place in the courtroom. The judge is known to have racist tendencies, as is the DA, but it is in the best interests of both that these are carefully managed if the case is not to be abandoned as a mistrial. The insight into the practices of the large legal companies is a particular feature of the story and could come only from someone who understands the way they operate.

This is the kind of book that grabs you from the beginning and keeps you up late at night. Written in a tight font, there seems to be much more in it than the number of pages may suggest. Give yourself time and enjoy it.   

EXCITING TIMES. By Naoise Dolan. Weidenfeld & Nicolson  2020. 275 pp. $32.99

Is there no end to the conveyer belt of new Irish writers? The latest is Dubliner Naoise Dolan, a graduate of Trinity and Oxford, now living in London. She sets her first novel in Hong Kong with most of the characters being graduates of Oxford. They might have studied history there, but managed to get in to one of the two main careers where making money is more important than personal fulfilment: law and finance. The exception is the first person narrator, 23-year old Ava, whose degree is from Dublin and whose social background is metaphorical northside.

Ava tells us that she had ‘been sad in Dublin, decided it was Dublin’s fault, and thought Hong Kong would help.’ She is hired to teach English to young children whose first language is one of the varieties of Chinese. She teaches from old-fashioned textbooks that emphasise the difference between category nouns and exact nouns, between present perfect and present perfect continuous. She has to explain the difference between ‘if’ and ‘whether’ and insist on proper 5-7-5 structure for childish haiku. She teaches that a word like ‘film’ has only one syllable; her children say ‘fill-um’ and she ‘wanted to say that most of Dublin agreed, but their parents weren’t paying for Dublin English.’

The asides into her teaching work are a kind of light relief from Ava’s anguish about her love life. This is confused and can be summarised as follows: girl meets boy, girl meets girl, girl must decide between boy and girl. In the course of this, there is much sex, but in truth that is of minor consequence. In the first place, it is usually presented as an active verb beginning with the letter f, but just as significantly, it is routine, not particularly enjoyable or pleasurable, no more remarkable than having a coffee or going for a walk. In the end, Ava does choose, though the reader might be inclined to feel sympathy for the chosen one.

This might seem a flimsy garb in which to dress up almost 300 pages, but the writing is lively, clever, sparkling at times. Some characters are manipulative or imperfect, but there are no baddies as such. ‘Victoria: it was as if someone had ironed everything for her – her whole life – and her role was to make new creases.’ Or this reflection by Ava on her own situation, ‘Not all women idly contemplated whether their partners wanted to murder them and whether the prospect appealed, and if they did it was society that was sick, not them.’

Ava is still in contact with her Dublin family, telling them as little as she can, but they are clever enough to guess much of what is going on in her sex life. She phones regularly. ‘Mum,’ I said, ‘did you think of giving us Irish names? She said no, that people who did that sent their kids to tin whistle classes.’ She occasionally explains the difference that Dubliners can imply in simple phrases like ‘mind yourself’ or ‘f.. off’, each as likely to be angry commands or indicators of camaraderie. 

A laconic look at love and sex, class and culture, this book has been received with great enthusiasm and for once it is deserved.

Frank O’Shea is a member of the Tinteán collective.