Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Going forwards and backwards: Declan Burke's 2nd novel and Declan Hughes's first

I've already reviewed Declan Hughes's second crime novel, featuring private detective Ed Loy, but have just gotten around to reading his first, The Wrong Kind of Blood. And I've already reviewed Declan Burke's first novel, but am just getting to his second, The Big O. First, the Hughes: The Wrong Kind Blood is a bit more straightforward than its sequel, The Color of Blood, but still very much tied up with family dramas, rich folks, and Ross McDonald-style noir. And there are lots of bodies, though the "blood" in the title refers more to blood diseases and family histories. Perhaps a bit more prominent in this one is a tour of the new Dublin, quickly leaving its past behind. Whereas Hughes's books are very similar, Burke's The Big O could hardly be more different from his earlier Eight Ball Boogie. The Big O moves out of classic pulp-noir territory into a kidnap caper with style and plotting more like Elmore Leonard (or maybe Donald Westlake) than Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler. The narrative is actually mostly dialogue: even the non-dialogue sections, if you look closely, and internal monologues by the various characters. The voices are snappy, and the novel is divided into short sections, each from the point of view of one of the characters. The result is a kaleidoscopic narrative that moves forward at a rapid pace--and the result is also quite funny, in the way that Leonard's novels are frequently funny: expectations are overturned, characters move inexorably toward an unforeseen climax, and we glide past unbelievable coincidences without hesitation. Another writer I might mention for comparison is Timothy Watts, whose three novels (that's all he has published to my knowledge) are very realistic portrayals of ordinary people caught up in criminal situations, none of them more honest or truthful than they need to be, and often as involved in personal relationships as violent crimes. Burke's book is similar, in that none of these characters are master criminals, they're very much "ordinary decent criminals," a wonderful phrase that the Irish have bequeathed to the rest of the world, and the attraction of some of them for others is that of ordinary men and women (also a feature of Elmore Leonard's books, to their credit). The Big O is, ultimately, a crime farce of the first order (that is to say, it stands up very well to the Leonard comparison, or to comparison with one of my favorite Italian crime novels, the very funny and very violent Night Bus, by Giampiero Rigosi). The violence is postponed, riding along with the converging characters and plot lines until the ending that, though impossible to entirely foresee, seems inevitable once you've gotten to it. The unforeseeable aspect comes from another aspect that the novel shares with Leonard: the plotting seems casual, unplanned, with the random pattern of life--but looking back, the story is as tightly structured as a jigsaw puzzle (not that it's a puzzle novel in any way, except for the reader's curiosity about the meaning of the book's title, only clear nearly at the end). I may not be making myself perfectly clear, here, but The Big O is a lot of fun, hence the earlier mention of Westlake--it's not overly comic, as Westlake sometimes is, but the elements of the plot lock together as the story moves forward with an increasingly comic effect (as, for example, the plot of Pulp Fiction moves forward), and the "blackout" quality of the short sections and alternating voices adds an additional liveliness. I frequently talk about the settings of crime novels, and this one has a carefully ambiguous setting--sometimes it seems like Dublin, but not clearly or overtly so, in the fashion of Declan Hughes. Sometimes The Big O's story could be happening in the U.S., except that some idioms are clearly not U.S. English ("chemist" for what would be "drug store" here, among other examples). The ambiguity works effectively with the technique of the novel, though, focusing our attention on the progressively complicated story rather than on a definite setting. I highly recommend The Big O, and wish for the sake of its potential readership that it soon finds wider distribution--in the U.S., for example...

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