Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Big O's Big U.S. Release

About 15 months ago, I published a review of Declan Burke's The Big O here, and on the occasion of the Big O's Big U.S. Release, I'm pasting a slightly reduced version of the review here below. I cut the last line of the review ("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...") becaues that new distribution is thankfully upon us. One thing that's changed about the book since its original release can be summed up in another line I cut from the original review, regarding one of the book's surprises, the revelation of the title's meaning--no surprise now, since the fine cover of the U.S. version explains the title immediately and graphically. I don't know if the new cover is an image photographed specially for this book or came from stock photography (increasingly the source for book covers, as has been noted on several blogs with reference to different books using the same imagery), but the new cover is quite striking--Congratulations to all concerned, on the cover as well as the release next week.
The Big O moves out of the classic pulp-noir territory of Declan Burke's first novel, Eight Ball Boogie, 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, are 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. None of these characters are master criminals, and the attraction of some of them for others is that of ordinary men and women. The Big O is, ultimately, a crime farce of the first order. 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 plotting seems casual, unplanned, with the random pattern of life--but looking back, the story is as tightly structured as a jigsaw puzzle. I may not be making myself perfectly clear, here, but The Big O is a lot of fun, hence the earlier mention of Westlake--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 Ireland, but not clearly or overtly so. 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.

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