Saturday, December 27, 2008

Arlene Hunt: Black Sheep

Black Sheep is Arlene Hunt's third crime novel and her second in a series featuring Dublin private investigators Sarah Kenny and John Quigley. I'm just discovering Hunt's fiction, so I can't yet say anything about the series as a whole, or about her first, stand-alone, novel (False Intentions), but Black Sheep is an interesting amalgam of crime fiction styles: part George Pelecanos, part Sophie Hannah, part Vincent Banville (whose crime novels feature the purest hard-boiled detective in Irish fiction so far), and even part Maeve Binchey (a comparison inevitably suggested by the portrait of Kenny's middle-class Dublin family problems). Though the novel starts off a bit slowly, the various strands of the plot each developing more or less independently, the story builds to a very fast and violent final 100 pages on par with some of the best noir fiction being produced today and reminiscent of some of the best noir film. The last 30 pages are so are a bit of an anticlimax, and there's an epilogue that's really only there as a hook to lure the reader on to Hunt's next novel, but overall Black Sheep is effective and fun. The story concerns a young girl's body discovered in the forest, a middle-aged man drowned under a bridge, and the people who get sucked into the maelstrom around those two events, including the detectives, a gangsta-wannabe and his twin brother (the wannabe is the source of my comparison to Pelecanos), a genuine Dublin gangster, a fence and his father, and the friends of the drowned man. There are some coincidences linking various strands of the plot, and there's really not much mystery about what happened--the interest in the novel is in following the impact of bad decisions leading to more bad decisions leading to awful consequences. The conclusion offers little solace to anyone (other than some characters in a comic subplot), and the portrait of human character, contemporary Ireland, and the larger culture are pretty bleak; but the concentration on ordinary individuals caught in the misery and on their frequently inappropriate actions is moving and cogent: genuinely noir and a different style but a valuable addition to the stream of high quality crime fiction coming out of Ireland today.

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