New Irish Fiction

Book Reviews by Frank O’Shea

TERRY BRANKIN HAS A GUN. By Malachi O’Doherty. Merrion Press 2020. 252 pp. €16.95

Terry Brankin is a retired Provo. He is a successful solicitor and has half a dozen houses or flats in post-conflict Belfast. But his past catches up with him, mainly as a result of the work of a Cold Case Review team led by the annoying Inspector Basil McKeague. Most of such investigations are half-hearted, under-funded and carried out mainly to satisfy some media campaign focusing on events in the violent past. One of the outcomes of the Agreement of 1999 is that if someone is found guilty of an act from back then, he will serve a token two-year prison sentence.

McKeague is close to retirement and his main motivation is a hope that in the course of his questioning of people like Brankin, he will dig up some snippet of information that will result in plausible charges against the political leader of the nationalists, Dominic McGrath. The latter is now respectable, meets leaders of other countries and declares that he was never a member of the IRA. If that sounds a bit like Gerry Adams, there is little in the novel to take from that opinion. And, coincidentally, the author has written an unauthorised biography of Adams.

Brankin’s wife Kathleen is shocked to learn that her husband was once a killer and she agrees with him that however inadequate a two-year stretch would be for his past, he should at least pay something. Unfortunately, it is not quite that easy, because Dominic McGrath lets his old mates know that he is fearful that a confession will implicate him in some way. So Brankin has to deal with the IRA, some small-time thugs whom he kneecapped in the past, a nervous wife and a police inspector with strong views about hell and who should be there.

The result is a story that confuses at times, the constant switching of point of view and time period requiring some concentration on the part of the reader. The strongest aspect is the insight it gives into what life is probably still like in today’s Ulster, in the grim world occupied by former fighters who have been sidelined into obscurity by politics. It also gives a hint about what living in Belfast must be like. When the media headline says ‘Catholic Student Assassinated’, Brankin explains to his wife ‘You don’t have to believe anything to be a Catholic in this country. It’s just a way of saying Irish. Though we don’t say Irish because we don’t want to suggest that the Protestants aren’t Irish too, though ask them what they are and they say they’re British.’

The action of the story is set in the present, though the narrative moves back and forward, as well as moving across the border into Donegal, where some of the action takes place. Shortly before this book was published, the same publishers released Willie Carlin’s book Thatcher’s Spy. That is not a work of fiction, but reading it would leave the reader of this book with the view that the fiction here is not far removed from fact.

There aren’t many novels based on the Northern Ireland Troubles in the years leading up to the Good Friday Agreement; this one is a good start.

THE DIRTY SOUTH. By John Connolly. Hachette 2020. 470 pp. $32.99

John Connolly’s stories are not short. While The Dirty South falls well below the more than 700 pages of its big brother A Book of Bones – ‘a massive endeavour’ in the author’s words – it still manages to extend its story long into the weekend. And you may find yourself writing off Monday as well, because as with most of the Dubliner’s work, once you start, you are hooked.

As always, the central character is private investigator Charlie Parker. The difference in this book is that while his other adventures were set in current times, this one is set in 1997 when he has only recently resigned from his job as a detective with the NYPD. He is mourning the death of his wife and daughter and frantically trying to find the person who killed them. That search leads him to the small town of Cargill in Arkansas where two young girls have been killed and their bodies mutilated. He meets the local police chief, a man named Evander Griffin, and upsets him enough – over a cup of coffee, mind you – that he is confined to a police cell for the night.

As it happens, he is lucky, because while he is in custody, another young girl is killed, her body abused in a similar manner to the others: as an outsider, he would have been an obvious suspect. Instead, he is released and after at first enthusiastically washing the Cargill dust from every part of his person, he reluctantly accepts an invitation from Griffin to help solve the murders.

Now the story becomes complicated as many new characters are introduced, most with strange and not easily remembered names, the kind that one imagines are de rigeur in the deep south. You will need to pay attention, because it appears that Cargill has few citizens whose behaviour is completely above reproach and you will want to try to work out who the main offender is. In the final third of the book, a number of possible suspects come off that list, taking a place instead among those dispatched to useful work as daisy fodder.

Given the nature of Cargill, or, it is hinted, of the state of Arkansas, the final solution involves a blurring between justice in the strictly legal sense and vengeance in the old biblical understanding of things.

As in all of Connolly’s books, you get the impression that he is thoroughly enjoying himself and manages to pass that feeling of bonhomie to his readers. Here it is a character with ‘a flicker on his face: a smile attempting to construct itself from underused muscles.’ There it is the police opening ‘a refrigerator stocked with the kind of foodstuffs that offered satiation for minimum outlay, albeit by sacrificing a certain amount of nutritional value.’ Or we meet a truck owned by one of the baddies, ‘… an old blue Jeep Commanche that wouldn’t have been worth the effort required to set it on fire.’

These light, laconic touches, imitations perhaps of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, make what might easily be a grim tale of murder and mayhem into a perfect way to spend a long weekend. The front cover carries the following from the Independent on Sunday, ‘The finest crime series currently in existence.’ For once, it is difficult to argue with that endorsement.

HOME STRETCH. By Graham Norton. Coronet 2020. 359 pp. $32.99

Graham Norton is one of the highest-paid people on the BBC payroll and receives even more from his own company which produces the Graham Norton Show. So why, you wonder go to the trouble of writing novels? To suggest that it was just a way of cashing in on his popularity – an impression reinforced by the publishers who give his name more prominence than the book’s title –  would be unfair, because the evidence from this book is that he is a fine writer and an excellent storyteller.

It is the storytelling that is most striking. This is an old-fashioned page turner, a set of events in a small country town and the way that they affect his characters in their future lives. Six young men and women are in a car crash that takes the lives of three of them and leaves another in a wheelchair. It is small town Ireland in 1987, specifically West Cork, beautiful but slow-moving, the area where Norton himself grew up.

Connor Hayes, the youngest of those in the car, is the driver. A non-drinker, he is without fault for the accident, but has to leave town because he is unable to face the families of those who have lost their lives. He moves first to Liverpool, then London, before ending up in New York with his wealthy partner Tim. His sister Ellen is courted by the other survivor of the crash, Martin Coulter, a medical student in his final year. They marry and have two children but the marriage is not a happy one. The narrative moves from West Cork to New York as we follow the troubles of Connor and Ellen, each on a slow path to recovery.  

The story is moving along carefully, threatening to descend into a kind of redemptive lit, when we learn a small detail about the accident. Suddenly, we have a different story altogether and the reader is once again grabbed by the slow unfolding of events. It is almost like two stories, the change introduced not as a result of some deep analysis or zealous detective work but from a casual remark that changed the entire meaning of what had happened.

At an online pre-launch discussion, Norton described this as his ‘most personal story to date’, and the reader will be aware that the accounts of the gay scene in London and New York come from someone familiar with that world. What may surprise is that it is not all that different from the kind of world in which young people find themselves, irrespective of sexual inclination. Connor is not the only gay character in the story, but has more problems than the younger ones; this is shown in particular in the final scene in the book which involves the wedding of two gay men, attended by local townspeople.

As a story of small-town redemption, this is credible. Norton’s best book yet.

Frank O’Shea is a member of the editorial team of Tintean

P.S. While I have your attention, I must tell you that I am currently reading the latest book by Kevin Myers. Controversial at the best of times, he apparently offended the world and its pious grandmother by something he wrote in the Sunday Times in 2017. But what a writer! Here he is describing his first day at The Irish Times in 1979.

Litter lay everywhere. Lightning strikes had paralysed different arms of the public service: street sweepers one day, postal workers the next, then telephone operators and binmen. That noontide, the brand-new Irish-made Bombardier buses were sitting incontinently outside the Irish Times offices on Dublin’s Fleet Street, their fuel pipes dripping diesel like shot-gunned oil barrels while their drivers kept revving their engines to maintain the pressure in their already-leaking hydraulic systems. Nothing, including me, seemed to function in this Ireland where I was about to embark on my new life.

And we are still on page 1. More to come in future.