“Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Reviews: Grisham, Fyfield, Hiekkapelto, Higashino

The coalmining communities of the Appalachian Mountains provide the setting for John Grisham’s Gray Mountain (Hodder & Stoughton, €19.99), a legal thriller that opens ten days after Lehman Brothers folds. The financial meltdown that follows has a knock-on effect in the legal world, as Samantha Kofer, a third-year associate with New York’s largest law firm, finds herself one of many lawyers who have been downsized out of their comfortable lifestyles. Scrabbling for any kind of work that might keep her ticking over until the world sets itself to rights again, Samantha takes a position with the Mountain Legal Aid Clinic in the small town of Brady, Virginia. Anticipating something of a cosy but boring ‘furlough’, Samantha is shocked to discover a world of poverty, brutality and corruption, and an entirely legal scandal that goes to the very heart of American politics. Grisham is a former lawyer and politician, and one who remains heavily involved in the Innocence Project in the United States, and Gray Mountain has the feel of a very personal project. The story lacerates ‘Big Law’ while celebrating the non-profit legal aid organisations, who make the most of their limited resources in their fight on behalf of the sick and dying miners who are victims of the politically connected coal companies, while also detailing the environmental disaster of strip-mining in the Appalachians. The daughter of two very different kinds of lawyer, Samantha is already deliciously cynical about the legal process when we first meet her, but Grisham deftly blends her professional awakening to the ugly truths of the American legal system into Samantha’s complex personal development. It’s a stirring tale, despite the occasional didactic digressions into a whole raft of issues – black lung disease, meth addiction, political apathy – bedevilling the Appalachian communities.
  In Casting the First Stone (Sphere, €20.50), Frances Fyfield brings together two heroines from previous novels. Diana Porteous, widow and art collector, is introduced to Sarah Fortune, the sister of Diana’s agent, and together they hatch a plot to recover paintings stolen from an old woman by her son. As befits a story that revolves around an unusual art heist, however, the plot – or many sub-plots, to be precise – isn’t really the most important aspect here. Fyfield is more concerned with mood, tone and texture, and the story is less a straightforward narrative than it is a collection of pen portraits, as Fyfield offers intriguing psychological profiles of a host of fascinating characters, from plucky young boys to grizzled ex-policemen and avaricious capitalists. There’s an ethereal quality to the prose that seems to flit back and forth between dream and nightmare, reflecting the sharp contrast between the settings of the wild coastline of Diana’s home and the bustle of the London she is forced to visit in pursuit of justice. At the heart of the story lies Diana’s quest for a sense of identity, of belonging: the widow still in mourning for her beloved husband rather poignantly collects a particular kind of painting, the unsigned and unattributed art that would otherwise languish unloved in someone’s cellar or attic.
  Identity is also key to Kati Hiekkapelto’s The Hummingbird (Arcadia Books, €13.40), the Finnish author’s promising debut novel. Born in Serbia, of Hungarian ethnicity, Anna Fekete’s experience as an outsider growing up in Finland gives her an unusual insight into the immigrant mind-set when she becomes a detective in the Finnish police service. Her first day on the job is something of a baptism of fire: a jogger is shot to death on the outskirts of the city, while Anna and her colleagues also receive a desperate call from a young Kurdish woman who believes she is about to be murdered by her family in an ‘honour killing’. The twin investigations provide The Hummingbird with its narrative spine, but much of the story, which is translated by David Hackston, is engaged in exploring what it means to be Finnish, a place where ‘people were expected to unflaggingly present a play directed by market forces, a performance called Western civilisation.’ The plot isn’t entirely convincing as it arrives at its conclusion, but for the most part Hiekkapelto provides an unsentimental account of Finnish society and its cultural traditions, in particular the Finnish obsession with hunting and guns, which means that, in theory, virtually anyone could be the killer on the rampage.
  Malice (Little, Brown, €18.75) by Japanese author Keigo Higashino revolves around an investigation into the murder of best-selling novelist Kunihiko Hidaka. Police detective Kaga is initially stumped by what appears to be a classic ‘locked room’ mystery, but soon comes to suspect Hidaka’s best friend, children’s author Osama Nonoguchi, when he discovers notebooks in Nonoguchi’s apartment which suggest that Nonoguchi was in fact the ghost-writer of Hidaka’s novels. Translated by Alexander O. Smith, and delivered in a crisp, clinical style (the story proceeds by way of written accounts delivered by the main players), Malice offers an unusual take on the traditional police procedural while also functioning as a critique of the crime novel, as the business of writing becomes the art of murder. In this it parallels Higashino’s English-language debut, The Devotion of Suspect X (2011), although Malice is more playful and inventive (and blackly humorous) when it comes to reworking the genre’s staples and conventions. As much a psychological thriller as it is a police procedural, Malice is rooted in a search for identity, albeit one in which Higashino invests the conceit of the ambiguous narrator with an notable complexity. The result is that the novel represents another bold statement of intent, and while Higashino isn’t exactly reinventing the crime novel, Malice is a superb example of how flexible the genre’s parameters can be. ~ Declan Burke

  This column was first published in the Irish Times.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Feature: The Best Books of 2014

’Tis the season to be jolly, the herald angels sing, deck the halls with boughs of frankincense and myrrh, tra-la-la-la, etc. Ho yes! It’s that time of year again, when we check our lists (twice) and decide which books have been naughty or nice over the previous twelve months. My choice of the nice ones, in the order I read them, runs thusly:

Blue is the Night, Eoin McNamee
Blue is the Night is the final novel in a loose trilogy that began in 2001 with The Blue Tango (which was longlisted for the Booker Prize) and continued with Orchid Blue in 2010. The trilogy is woven around Sir Lancelot Curran, whose career took him from lawyer to judge and on to Attorney General and Member of Parliament, but Blue is the Night investigates the brutal murder of Curran’s daughter, Patricia, outside their home in Whiteabbey in 1952. It focuses on Lance Curran’s wife, Doris, and his right-hand man and political fixer, Harry Ferguson. The book is by no means a straightforward crime fiction investigation, however: on one level the novel is about the timelessness of evil and how it reappears in different guises in all cultures throughout history. McNamee refers to the ‘ancient malice’ represented by the mummy Takabuti that Ferguson sees in a Belfast museum, and the novel also stretches back in time to late Victorian London, and Jack the Ripper. It’s a superb novel in its own right, but also a terrific conclusion to the ‘Blue trilogy’, in which McNamee explores the concept of noir as being a kind of Calvinist idea of pre-determination – that what happens to you is destined to happen, that there’s a hand on the scales and all you can do is rage against it.

The Missing File, DA Mishani
Set in the small Israeli city of Holon on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, D.A. Mishani’s debut The Missing File begins with the mother of a young boy reporting his disappearance to Inspector Avraham Avraham. Perplexed but initially unconcerned – children are never kidnapped or killed in Israel, Avraham tells us – the inspector only belatedly swings into action, by which time the reader has already encountered the boy’s sinister neighbour, Ze’ev, an English teacher and frustrated author who craves the inspiration that will spark his writing to life. D.A. Mishani is a crime writer and scholar in his native Israel, and here he blends a subversive take on the standard police procedural with ruminations on the crime novel itself, cross-referencing the work of Agatha Christie and Stieg Larsson with that of Kafka and Dostoevsky, and advancing Avraham’s theory as to why there are no detective novels in Hebrew. The well-meaning but hapless Avraham is a delightful creation, particularly as Steven Cohen’s translation is strewn with Avraham’s humorously morose observations on the human condition. With its finely crafted plot constantly confounding expectations, The Missing File marks D.A Mishani out as a writer to watch.

Unravelling Oliver, Liz Nugent
Liz Nugent’s Unravelling Oliver opens with Dublin-based writer Oliver Ryan viciously beating his wife Alice. The assault is described in the first person by Oliver himself, but Oliver’s is only one of a number of first-person accounts on offer here, each one a piece of the jigsaw that gradually assembles itself into portrait of a pathetic young boy who grew up to become a monster who writes best-selling children’s books. The reader is given no framing device relating to who might have collated the various accounts, or why, but the narrative gambit pays off handsomely. Oliver Ryan may be a vain, shallow and ultimately violent sociopath, but his story grows more compelling and nuanced the more we learn about him and the factors that influenced the man he would become, some of which were set in train even before he was born. More an investigation into psychology than a conventional crime thriller, Unravelling Oliver is a formidable debut and a deserved winner of this year’s crime fiction gong at the Irish Book Awards.

The Black Eyed Blonde, Benjamin Black
Benjamin Black (aka John Banville) resurrects Philip Marlowe again in The Black-Eyed Blonde, a novel that finds Marlowe still trying to come to terms with the events of The Long Goodbye. Indeed, the tone falls somewhere between the bitter defeatism of Chandler’s The Long Goodbye and that of Robert Altman’s 1973 film of the same name, a movie disliked by many Chandler fans for its portrayal of Marlowe as a hapless klutz who understands that he is, ultimately, powerless when trapped in a vice constructed of money and power. In The Black-Eyed Blonde, Black acknowledges the general thesis of Chandler’s novel, with Marlowe increasingly aware that he has outlived his time and his code, and wondering if he shouldn’t fold his tent in Los Angeles and move to Paris to become a rich woman’s husband. I liked it a lot, and I hope there’ll be more Marlowe novels from Benny Blanco.

Irène, Pierre Lamaitre
Pierre Lamaitre’s Alex (2013) garnered rave reviews last year, not least for the way Lamaitre reworked the tropes of the conventional serial killer novel to create a clever police procedural which worked as a superb thriller even as it confounded readers’ expectations of the genre. The follow-up, Irène, is equally clever, as the diminutive Parisian detective Camille Verhoeven is initially confronted with a murder scene so horrific it puts him in mind of Goya’s ‘Saturn Devouring his Son’. Were Verhoeven the son of an author rather than a painter, he might have recalibrated his instincts: it soon emerges that the carnage is a note-perfect homage to the double murder carried out by Patrick Bateman in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. Pitting his wits against a killer the media quickly dubs ‘The Novelist’, Verhoeven – who is distinctly unimpressed by the crime fiction genre – uncovers a series of murders which mirror killings detailed in classic crime novels by James Ellroy, John D. MacDonald and William McIlvanney. Just as the reader begins to suspect that the novel is a macabre compilation of the genre’s ‘greatest hits’, however, Lemaitre pulls a switch that forces the reader to reassess everything that has gone before. Translated by Frank Wynne, Irène builds on the considerable promise of Alex and confirms Camille Verhoeven as one of the most intriguing protagonists to emerge in the crime genre in recent years.

The Wolf in Winter, John Connolly
John Connolly blends his usual tropes of the classic private investigator and a gothic flavouring with a simmering rage at the way in which modern American treats its economically disenfranchised. The twelfth of John Connolly’s novels to feature the haunted private eye Charlie Parker, The Wolf in Winter begins with the disappearance of a homeless man, who was himself trying to track down his disappeared daughter. Parker’s investigations take him to the town of Prosperous, an ostensibly civilised and modern community, but one which harbours dark secrets inextricably bound up in its shadowy origins. Arguably the best Charlie Parker tale to date. (And while we’re on the subject of John Connolly, the collection of short stories called ‘Death Sentences’ edited by Otto Penzler includes John’s Anthony Award-winning short story ‘The Caxton Lending Library & Book Depository’).

The Boy That Never Was, Karen Perry
‘Karen Perry’ is a pseudonym for a new writing partnership composed of author Karen Gillece and poet Paul Perry. The story opens with a prologue set in Tangier in 2005, where the readers learns that one of the central protagonists, Harry, is guilty of negligence in the death, during an earthquake, of his young son Dillon. The story then moves to Dublin five years later, when Harry believes he sees his missing son during an anti-government demonstration on O’Connell Street. When he fails to convince the Gardai that Dillon is alive and well, Harry confesses all to his wife, Robin, which is when we start to realise that Harry has a history of obsession and instability, and that Robin also has secrets she needs to conceal. This is by no means the first time we’ve encountered the unreliable narrator – it’s a staple of the crime / mystery genre – but The Boy That Never Was goes one better by giving us a pair of devious narrators, neither of whom we can trust very much. The result is an impressive debut that is equally adept at blending thriller and mystery into an absorbing psychological study.

The Tailor of Panama, John le Carré
Not a book that was first published in 2014, of course, but the best book I read all year.

The Avenue of the Giants, Marc Dugain
Marc Dugain’s The Avenue of the Giants offers an unusual take on a genre tradition, that of the sociopathic serial killer. Set in California in the late 1960s and based on the life of Ed Kemper, aka ‘the Co-Ed Killer’ (whom Dugain acknowledges in his Author’s Note), the story switches between third- and first-person voices, as convicted killer Al Kenner writes an autobiographical account of a trail of destruction that began when, as a disaffected teenager, Kenner murdered his grandparents. It’s an unusual account, not least because Kenner claims that his literary influences include Dostoevsky and Raymond Carver, with the result that the story unfolds in a style of downbeat realism that grows increasingly unsettling and claustrophobic the more Kenner reveals of his prosaically literal mind-set. There are echoes of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me in Kenner’s ability to fool those closest to him with his gee-shucks public persona, which allows the charming but manipulative killer to exploit the virtues of peace and love espoused by his hippy victims.

The Silkworm, Robert Galbraith
Set in London during the bleak winter of 2010, The Silkworm is a sequel to The Cuckoo’s Calling, and again features the private detective and war veteran Cormoran Strike. Strike is intrigued when he is approached by Leonora Quine, who wants him to find her missing husband, the author and former enfant terrible, Owen Quine. Soon, however, Strike discovers that Quine has gone to ground because he has written a slanderous novel, titled Bombyx Mori – which translates as The Silkworm – in which vicious pen-portraits of his wife, editor, publisher, agent and peers are easily identifiable to anyone in the publishing industry. It’s a fine sequel; if Robert Galbraith / JK Rowling is in the crime-writing game for the long haul, this reader will be very pleased indeed.

Young Philby, Robert Littell
The exploits of Adrian Russell ‘Kim’ Philby have been picked over many times, but Robert Littell’s Young Philby takes an intriguing approach to exploring the motivations of the notorious British spy, who defected to the Soviet Union when his cover was finally blown in 1963. The novel begins with a Prologue in 1938, with a Russian ‘handler’ of Philby being interrogated in a Moscow prison, before going back to 1933, and Philby’s arrival in Vienna as Fascism begins to take hold in Austria. Essentially a series of portraits of Philby offered by those he worked with, the story comprises fictionalised encounters between, among others, Philby and his first wife Litzi Friedman, Guy Burgess, Teodor Maly, who first recruited Philby in London, and Evelyn Sinclair, the secretary who recorded conversations at the heart of the British secret service. This last account is the most fascinating of a beautifully detailed mosaic, offering as it does a revolutionary theory on Philby’s career and activities. In re-imagining one of the most familiar figures of the Cold War landscape, Robert Littell has given us a spy thriller of the very highest order.

Perfidia, James Ellroy
Some readers, myself included, might have preferred to meet James Ellroy’s iconic characters in a state of grace, in order to better appreciate their fall. It wasn’t to be, but Perfidia was still one of the best crime novels of the year. It opens in Los Angeles in December 1941, with young LAPD detective Dudley Smith investigating what appears to be a ritual suicide by a Japanese-American family. Expecting a quick result, Smith is confounded with the Japanese navy bombs Pearl Harbour and turns his open-and-shut case into a political time-bomb. Dense, incident-packed, irreverent and intense, it is – for good or ill – vintage Ellroy.

The Surfacing, Cormac James
Cork author Cormac James’ second novel begins in the Arctic Circle in 1850, when we find ourselves aboard the stout ship The Impetus, under the command of Captain Myers and his second-in-command Lieutenant Morgan, as they go in search of the Franklin expedition, which went missing some years previously during a bid to discover the fabled Northwest Passage. The all-male environment aboard The Impetus – now trapped in the shifting ice – is disrupted by a stowaway, Kitty, who is pregnant with Morgan’s child. It’s a fabulously detailed tale, both in its historical research and its depiction of the savagely harsh landscape, but despite the apparent ‘Boys’ Adventure’ nature of the tale, it’s very much a tender, intimate novel about one man’s horror and joy and the prospect of becoming a father. The announcement two months ago by the Canadian government that they had located the wrecks of the Franklin Expedition puts the efforts of the characters here into some perspective, and amplifies the magnificent futility of their epic journey. Superb.

The Monogram Murders, Sophie Hannah
Sophie Hannah ‘resurrects’ Agatha Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot for The Monogram Murders, which is set in 1929. When a terrified young woman called Jennie blunders into a London coffee shop and sits at Poirot’s table, however, his famous little grey cells are energised by Jennie’s bizarre story of her impending murder – and her assertion that nothing must be done to stop it, because only then will justice be done. Enter Edward Catchpool of Scotland Yard, a police detective who stands in for Poirot’s regular sounding-board Arthur Hastings, to narrate the story of Poirot’s latest investigation. It centres on a triple killing at the Bloxham Hotel, in which two women and a man are discovered identically murdered in three separate rooms, each with a monogrammed cufflink in their mouths. Sophie Hannah provides a double function in The Monogram Murders: The story is told in Agatha Christie’s style, but it also partly serves as a critique of Christie’s style and methods. ‘I must say,’ Catchpool observes, ‘I did not and never would understand why he required such a sizeable audience. It was not a theatrical production. When I solved a crime … I simply presented my conclusions to my boss and then arrested the miscreant in question.’ All told, it’s a terrific piece of literary ventriloquism.

Us, David Nicholls
Us is David Nicholls’ fourth novel, and probably his most entertaining. As the story begins, Douglas Petersen appears to be suffering the reverse of the conventional male mid-life crisis. A pedantic biochemist contemplating the imminent departure of his teenage son Albie from the family nest, Douglas is – according to the rules of fiction, at least – a prime candidate to be eyeing up a Maserati and tumbling into an ill-advised affair with a woman half his age. As it happens, Douglas rather likes bumbling along in his comfortable, suburban existence, and is very much looking forward to ‘growing old and dying together’ with his wife, Connie. “Douglas,” says Connie, “who in their right mind would look forward to that?” The truth of it is that, now their son is reared and on his way to university, Connie is thinking of leaving Douglas. With a typically old-fashioned ‘grand tour’ of Europe’s galleries and museums already planned, Douglas hopes that the family’s final holiday together will reignite old passions for love, art and life itself – but once they get on the road, things very quickly go from bad to worse. Us is very much an escape, a laugh, a comfort and a thrill, but it is above all a thought-provoking meditation on how very fragile are the ties that bind.

The Burning Room, Michael Connelly
The shot was fired a decade ago but Orlando Merced, a mariachi band member, has only now succumbed to his injuries, which means Harry Bosch has a very unusual ‘open-unsolved’ (aka ‘cold case’) investigation to pursue in The Burning Room, Michael Connelly’s 17th novel to feature the veteran LAPD detective. Bosch, already on borrowed time as a working detective courtesy of the DROP programme, is less than a year from retirement as the story opens, but he has lost none of his edge. What appears at first glance to be a depressingly routine drive-by shooting develops, largely due to Bosch’s instincts, into a complex tale of jealousy, arson, robbery and politically motivated murder, as Connelly, in a story that wears its Raymond Chandler influences lightly, links the street-level crimes of Los Angeles with the city’s highest seats of power. Bosch, teamed here with impressive new recruit Lucy Soto, goes about his work with the same quality of unobtrusive directness that Connelly brings to his prose, the deceptively understated approach disguising a pacy, powerful investigation that yields results when least expected.

Tabula Rasa, Ruth Downie
Set in Roman Britain as the natives’ festival of Samain approaches, Tabula Rasa is Ruth Downie’s sixth novel to feature medicus Gaius Petreius Ruso, who is currently serving with the Twentieth Legion as they build Hadrian’s Wall. When rumours begin to circulate that a dead body has been dumped under the rubble packed into the wall, and the young boy responsible for circulating the rumour goes missing, the already tense relationship between the Romans and the native Britons erupts into hostilities. Ruso’s investigation, which he hopes will defuse the situation, is deftly crafted by Downie, but Tabula Rasa offers far more than the mystery genre’s conventions transplanted to Roman-era Britain. Equally fascinating are the contemporary parallels to be found in the Roman experience of conquering and occupying a foreign territory: their ignorance of the local language and customs, the blinkered arrogance of military power, and the nerve-shredding presence of constant threat.

  So there it is. It’s a busy-busy time right now around CAP Towers, so if you don’t hear from us between now and the holidays, have a terrific Christmas and a peaceful and prosperous New Year. See you on the other side …

Thursday, December 11, 2014

News: THE LOST AND THE BLIND Finds Its Way Home

Hark, the herald angels parp their trumpets, etc. I was very pleased indeed yesterday when copies of THE LOST AND THE BLIND (Severn House) arrived in the post – it will always, I think, be a childishly thrilling moment to hold a copy of your book in your hands for the very first time. Long may it run …
  Anyway, as announced here, THE LOST AND THE BLIND will be published on December 30th, although I’m reliably informed that you can pre-order a copy (or, if you’re of a mind to go completely crazy, copies) here
  It’s been a good couple of weeks, actually. For starters, there’s been some very nice early word on the new book, which is available via NetGalley for those of you who subscribe. Also, I was in Germany last month for a tour to promote the publication there of ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL, and this week the book pole-vaulted itself into the ‘Krimi-Zeit-Bestenliste’, with which I am very happy indeed, not least for the good people at Edition Nautilus, my German publishers.
  Finally, I’m not sure when it happened, as I’ve been pretty busy over the last few weeks, but ye olde Crime Always Pays page counter slid past the million-and-a-half mark in the last month or so. As always, I’m hugely grateful to the Three Regular Readers of CAP for constantly pressing their refresh buttons, and to everyone else for taking the time out to come here. Much obliged, folks …

Friday, December 5, 2014

Publication: THE WATCHED by Casey Hill

THE WATCHED (Simon & Schuster) is the fourth novel from wife-and-husband writing team Casey Hill to feature forensic investigator Reilly Steel. While the previous novels have been set in Ireland, Reilly returns home to the US for THE WATCHED. Quoth the blurb elves:
Quantico-trained forensic investigator Reilly Steel is back in the country of her birth. Unsure about both her future and her position within the Dublin police force, Reilly hopes that a relaxing stay at the Florida beach home of her old FBI mentor Daniel Forrest will help get her thoughts together. When Daniel’s son, policeman Todd Forrest, is called to the scene of a gruesome murder where the body of a beautiful woman has literally been torn in two, he is stopped in his tracks. Not just because of the grotesque and theatrical nature of the crime but because he recognizes the victim as Daniel’s goddaughter. In an attempt to find swift resolution on her old friend’s behalf, Reilly finds herself drawn into the investigation. And when another disturbing murder occurs soon after, Reilly can’t help but feel that she has come across something like this before. But where? The answer becomes apparent at a third crime scene - the killer is visually re-enacting some of the most famous murder scenes in screen history and posting his ‘work’ online for his followers and the whole world to see. Will the investigative team be able to find the murderer before his thirst for ‘screen immortality’ drives him to kill again? And will Reilly’s brief hiatus in the US force her into a decision about her future in Dublin, and the unfinished business she has there?
  For more on Casey Hill, clickety-click here

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Publication: DOWN ON CYPRUS AVENUE by Paul Charles

Paul Charles is one of the unsung heroes of Irish crime fiction. His latest offering, DOWN ON CYPRUS AVENUE (DuFour Editions), is a police procedural set in Belfast:
Brendy McCusker had it made when he took early retirement from the Ulster police force with a handsome pay-out. That is until his wife ran off to America with their nest egg, forcing him back to work in Belfast.
  On his first major case, McCusker partners with DI Lily O’Carroll to locate the two missing sons of a wealthy businessman. But before the brothers can be found, McCusker is reassigned to the brutal murder of an American banker staying on Cyprus Avenue. As the detectives delve into their subjects’ pasts, McCusker finds himself juggling his move to Belfast, O’Carroll’s frequent blind dates, his status as a hired-back rent-a-cop, and trying not to be distracted by Belfast’s beautiful women, especially one mysterious woman in particular.
  McCusker and O’Carroll eventually find a person of interest with an air-tight alibi, but only one of the detectives believes it is genuine…
  Sounds good, and the early word is very positive indeed:
“Twist-filled tale of betrayal and revenge.”—Publishers Weekly “Continuously absorbing, with a nice rapport between the hero and heroine.”—Kirkus Reviews
  For more on Paul Charles, clickety-click here
  Review: THE LONESOME HEART IS ANGRY by Paul Charles

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Interview: Cormac James, Author of THE SURFACING

It’s a long way from the Arctic that Cormac James (right) was reared. Born and raised in Ballincollig in Cork – when he was still Cormac McCarthy – Cormac James has lived in Montpellier in France for the past 12 years.
  His first novel, Track and Field (2000), was a historical tale set during the Irish Civil War. His second, The Surfacing, is another historical novel, although this one is set in the frigid wilderness of the far North.
  The story begins in 1850, when we find ourselves aboard the stout ship The Impetus, under the command of Captain Myers and his second-in-command Lieutenant Morgan, as they go in search of the Franklin expedition, which went missing some years previously during a bid to discover the fabled Northwest Passage.
  “I suppose it was always on the radar,” Cormac says when I ask where the obsession with the Arctic came from, “just Boy’s Adventure stuff. Obviously a big Irish contingent went up there, or at least to both Poles – Shackleton, Tom Crean, and so forth.”
  “The setting appealed to me as a novelist in terms of the psychological space, or even as an emotional space, that a character might live in,” he continues. “Somebody like Morgan, who is the main character, he’s someone who withholds an awful lot from the world. So I needed to represent his inner world somehow, and putting him in that space up there, where there’s a constant sense of not only menace and vulnerability, but also the possibility of something radical happening, some kind of breaking through, that that was an ever-present. The situation of having a ship that’s trapped very far from any possibility of refuge, you get to create a domestic situation in an absolutely hostile landscape. And that in itself is an interesting set-up.”
  The ‘domestic situation’ Cormac refers to is created when the male world of The Impetus – now trapped in the shifting ice – is disrupted by a stowaway, Kitty, who is pregnant with Morgan’s child.
  “You have what Morgan sees as a pretty much stable situation where he’s going to be in control,” says Cormac. “You have the ship, its hierarchy, the codified interactions, all of that. And then you have his own version, that he’s almost writing in advance, of the story he’s going to partake in, the role he’s going to play, one of traditional and typical male heroism, epic feats of endurance and this kind of thing. So you have that world, and you drop a pregnant woman into it. And of course, the key thing is that they’re so far away from anywhere, they’re so isolated, that there’s no possibility of communicating with anybody else, and it means that he can’t do what he’s been doing all his life, which is walking away from responsibilities, problems and even possibilities. He can’t walk out the door and slam it.”
  Ultimately, for all the thrilling ‘Boy’s Adventure’ aspects of the story, it’s a novel about becoming a father.
  “I think that’s absolutely what it’s about, with maybe the caveat that fatherhood is also indicative of something else,” says Cormac, who is himself the father of a four-year-old son. “It’s the first crack in the dam, as it were – an opening up to somebody that you are not. It’s a slight step away from centre stage, in terms of being dominated by your own egotism. Certainly the fatherhood aspect interests me an awful lot more than the search for the Franklin expedition or the exploration, which for me was really at the service of portraying a character – or more accurately, portraying a psychological process.”
  It’s a fabulously detailed tale, both in its historical research and its depiction of the savagely harsh landscape, so much so that it comes a surprise to learn that Cormac James has never been to the Arctic.
  “I haven’t, no,” he laughs. “But the fact that everybody asks me that, I’m taking as a compliment.”
  Contrary to the common perception of the Arctic as a uniformly white vast blanket of snow, The Surfacing beautifully winkles out the subtle changes to the landscape as the seasons change and The Impetus remains trapped in its icy vice.
  Given the cliché that the Eskimo people have forty different words to describe snow, I ask if Cormac ever felt the inclination to invent a few of his own.
  “It’s a challenge, like describing Morgan,” he says. “You’re trying to find the nuance, to somehow indicate the repetitiveness, the tedium, but in a way that’s significant. Apparently the thing about the Inuit people’s forty words for snow isn’t quite true. Their language is cumulative, a bit like German, so they’d have, say, ‘the-wet-snow-that-falls-on-the-wind-from-the-west-in-January’,” he laughs.
  I tell him that while I was reading The Surfacing, the news broke that the Canadians had finally discovered one of the ships from the Franklin expedition, which gave the story a somewhat poignant twist.
  “It puts it into perspective,” he agrees, “the fact that they’re only finding it now, 160 years later. It throws a certain kind of backward shadow on the guys that were up there searching at the time. It maybe stresses it even more, that it has taken so long, and taken such advanced technology, to get a first trace of the ships. It shows just how futile it was for them going up there, and in such harsh conditions.”
  Indeed, it’s an epic tale of a quite magnificent futility, so much so that when Morgan and company embark on their final throw of the dice to Melville Island across ‘one white tract … blind ream, to every point,’ you half expect a great white whale to hove into sight on the horizon.
  Cormac laughs at the comparison, and the idea that the story is itself a metaphor for the tortuous business of writing a novel. “Actually, I would have preferred if the island had another name, because you’re inevitably going to get those associations,” he says. “But I’m afraid that’s just an accident of the geography.”

  The Surfacing by Cormac James is published by Sandstone Press.

  This interview was first published in the Irish Examiner.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Launch: UNDERCOVER by Gerard Brennan

Gerard Brennan launches his latest offering, UNDERCOVER, at No Alibis Bookstore in Belfast next Wednesday, December 3rd, with festivities kicking off at 6.30pm. Quoth the blurb elves:
When undercover detective Cormac Kelly infiltrates a ruthless gang bent on kidnapping and extortion, he is forced to break cover and shoot his way out of a hostage situation gone bad. Tearing through the dangerous streets of Belfast with a twelve-year-old boy and his seriously injured father in tow, Kelly desperately tries to evade the gang and reconnect the family with the boy’s mother, football agent Lydia Gallagher. But she is in London, unaware of their freedom and being forced by the gang to betray her top client. As Kelly breaks every rule in the book and crosses the line from legit police officer to rogue cop on the run, the role of dapper but deadly ex-spook Stephen Black means the difference between life and death …
  For all the details, clickety-click here

Saturday, November 29, 2014

One To Watch: THE DEFENCE by Steve Cavanagh

Steve Cavanagh’s ‘The Grey’ is one of the most impressive of the offerings in BELFAST NOIR, the new short story collection edited by Stuart Neville and Adrian McKinty, and it augurs well for THE DEFENCE (Orion), Steve’s debut novel, which will be published next March. Quoth the blurb elves:
The truth has no place in a courtroom. The truth doesn’t matter in a trial. The only thing that matters is what the prosecution can prove. Eddie Flynn used to be a con artist. Then he became a lawyer. Turned out the two weren’t that different. It’s been over a year since Eddie vowed never to set foot in a courtroom again. But now he doesn’t have a choice. Olek Volchek, the infamous head of the Russian mafia in New York, has strapped a bomb to Eddie's back and kidnapped his ten-year-old daughter Amy. Eddie only has 48 hours to defend Volchek in an impossible murder trial - and win - if wants to save his daughter. Under the scrutiny of the media and the FBI, Eddie must use his razor-sharp wit and every con-artist trick in the book to defend his ‘client’ and ensure Amy's safety. With the timer on his back ticking away, can Eddie convince the jury of the impossible? Lose this case and he loses everything.
  For more on Steve Cavanagh, clickety-click here

Friday, November 28, 2014

News: PD James, RIP

As you very probably know, the terribly sad news of PD James’ death came through yesterday afternoon. She died peacefully at home, according to her publishers, aged 94. She had a phenomenal career, a wonderful writer who made an indelible impact on the crime fiction genre; but as I said last night on RTE’s Arena programme, she is one of those writers who transcended the concept of genre to take her place in the realm of world literature.
  I was lucky enough to meet PD James, last year at Trinity College, where she appeared to celebrate the 200th anniversary of her beloved Jane Austen’s PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. I was as nervous as you tend to be when anticipating the arrival of a living legend, and was entirely ignorant of the protocol of how to address a baroness and so forth, but as soon as she arrived – physically frail, perhaps, at the age of 93, but razor-sharp, radiant of smile and twinkly of eye – she put everyone at their ease, insisting that we all call her Phyllis and asking only one favour: that we dispense with all formality and minimise any fuss to the barest acceptable level. It was a truly wonderful evening, and one that will live long in the memory. PD James will be very sorely missed.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

News: Liz Nugent’s UNRAVELLING OLIVER Wins Best Crime Novel at the Irish Book Awards

Congratulations to Liz Nugent, the author of UNRAVELLING OLIVER (Penguin Ireland), who last night won the Best Crime Novel award at the BGE Irish Book Awards. It’s a doubly impressive feat, given that UNRAVELLING OLVIER is Liz Nugent’s debut offering, and that the novel is by no means a conventional crime title. It’s a book that reminded me very strongly of Karin Fossum’s work, and it will be very interesting to see what Liz Nugent does next.
  I reviewed UNRAVELLING OLIVER in the Irish Times when it was first released, with the gist of the review running thusly:
“Oliver Ryan may be a vain, shallow and ultimately violent sociopath, but his story grows more compelling and nuanced the more we learn about him and the factors that influenced the man he would become, some of which were set in train even before he was born. More an investigation into psychology than a conventional crime thriller, Unravelling Oliver is a formidable debut.”
  For a list of all the winners in the various categories at the Irish Book Awards, clickety-click here

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Publication: HARM’S REACH by Alex Barclay

Alex Barclay’s Colorado-based FBI agent Ren Bryce is a fascinating character who struggles with bi-polar depression. She returns in Barclay’s latest offering, HARM’S REACH (Harper):
FBI Agent Ren Bryce finds herself entangled in two seemingly unrelated mysteries. But the past has a way of echoing down the years and finding its way into the present. When Special Agent Ren Bryce discovers the body of a young woman in an abandoned car, solving the case becomes personal. But the more she uncovers about the victim’s last movements, the more questions are raised. Why was Laura Flynn driving towards a ranch for troubled teens in the middle of Colorado when her employers thought she was hundreds of miles away? And what did she know about a case from fifty years ago, which her death dramatically reopens? As Ren and cold case investigator Janine Hooks slowly weave the threads together, a picture emerges of a privileged family determined to hide some very dark secrets – whatever the cost.
  Over at Writing.ie, Susan Condon conducts a wide-ranging interview with Alex Barclay that covers most of her career, from DARK HOUSE to Ren Bryce and on to her YA fantasy fiction. For more, clickety-click here

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Publication: THE LOST AND THE BLIND by Declan Burke

I’m delighted to announce the forthcoming publication of my latest tome, THE LOST AND THE BLIND, which will arrive on a shelf near you on December 30th, courtesy of the good people at Severn House. A contemporary spy thriller, the story has its roots in the early years of WWII – or ‘the Emergency’, as we liked to call it here in Ireland. Quoth the blurb elves:
Why would elderly Gerhard Uxkull concoct a tale of Nazi atrocity on the remote island of Delphi, off the coast of Donegal? And why now, just when Irish-American billionaire Shay Govern has tendered for a prospecting licence for gold in the area? When a body is discovered drowned, journalist Tom Noone must find out the truth if he is to survive.

This gripping Irish thriller is an intriguing new departure for comic noir writer Declan Burke.
  So there you have it. THE LOST AND THE BLIND is available for early download for those you who use NetGalley; meanwhile, if any blogger / reviewers out there would like to receive a digital review copy, I’d love to hear from you.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Feature: The Alternative Irish Crime Novel of the Year

It’s that time of the year again, as the Irish Book Awards hove into view on November 26th, when I suggest that [insert year here] has been yet another annus terrificus for Irish crime fiction, aka ‘Emerald Noir’. The shortlist for the Irish Crime Novel of the Year runs as follows:
The Ireland AM Crime Fiction Award

Can Anybody Help Me? by Sinéad Crowley
Last Kiss by Louise Phillips
The Final Silence by Stuart Neville
The Kill by Jane Casey
The Secret Place by Tana French
Unravelling Oliver by Liz Nugent
  As always, however, there were a number of tremendous novels published that didn’t, for various reasons, feature on the shortlist. The following is another short list, of books I’ve read to date this year that are also easily good enough to win the title of best Irish crime fiction novel in 2014. As you might expect, there were also a number of very good novels that I didn’t manage to read this year; but the gist of this post is to celebrate the quality and diversity of Irish crime fiction in 2014. To wit:
The Dead Pass, Colin Bateman
The Black Eyed Blonde, Benjamin Black
The Wolf in Winter, John Connolly
Bitter Remedy, Conor Fitzgerald
Cross of Vengeance, Cora Harrison
The Sun is God, Adrian McKinty
Blue is the Night, Eoin McNamee
The Boy That Never Was, Karen Perry
  Finally, the very best of luck to all the shortlisted nominees on November 26th. Given that she has been oft-nominated and is yet to win, and her Maeve Kerrigan series grows more impressive with each succeeding book, my vote goes to Jane Casey’s THE KILL …

Saturday, November 22, 2014

News: Irish Award Winners At Bouchercon 2014

I’m not long returned from whistle-stop tour of Germany, so it’s a belated but hearty congratulations to John Connolly and Adrian McKinty, both of whom scooped awards during last week’s Bouchercon 2014 at Long Beach, California.
  John Connolly won the Anthony Award for Best Short Story, for his rather excellent tale, ‘The Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository’. Adrian McKinty, meanwhile, won the Barry Award for Best Paperback Original for I HEAR THE SIRENS IN THE STREET.
  For more details on the winners in all the categories awarded at Bouchercon, clickety-click here

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Launch: THE BLOOD DIMMED TIDE by Anthony Quinn

Anthony Quinn will launch his latest novel, THE BLOOD DIMMED TIDE (No Exit Press), at No Alibis in Belfast on November 20th. To wit:
We at No Alibis Bookstore wish to invite you to the launch of Anthony Quinn’s upcoming novel THE BLOOD DIMMED TIDE. Join Anthony in No Alibis Bookstore on Thursday 20th November at 7pm.

London at the dawn of 1918 and Ireland’s most famous literary figure, WB Yeats, is immersed in supernatural investigations at his Bloomsbury rooms. Haunted by the restless spirit of an Irish girl whose body is mysteriously washed ashore in a coffin, Yeats undertakes a perilous journey back to Ireland with his apprentice ghost-catcher Charles Adams to piece together the killer’s identity. Surrounded by spies, occultists and Irish rebels, the two are led on a gripping journey along Ireland’s wild Atlantic coast, through the ruins of its abandoned estates, and into its darkest, most haunted corners. Falling under the spell of dark forces, Yeats and his novice ghost-catcher come dangerously close to crossing the invisible line that divides the living from the dead.
  For all the details, clickety-click here

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Event: Nordic Noir / Celtic Crime

The Irish Writers’ Centre hosts ‘Nordic Noir / Celtic Crime’ tomorrow evening, Thursday 20th November, at 7pm. The featured speakers are Thomas Enger, Sinéad Crowley (right) & Declan Hughes. To wit:
Join us for a panel discussion with Scandinavian and Irish crime fiction writers for what’s likely to be the final Battle of Clontarf millennial celebrations. Our line-up includes Thomas Enger (Norway) and Arts and Media Correspondent with RTÉ news Sinéad Crowley (Ireland) and Leif Ekle, culture expert, freelance journalist and broadcaster with Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, NRK.

Declan Hughes (Ireland) will chair the panel and up for discussion are the different processes in writing crime fiction and exploring how culture, geographical location and gender influence the process.

Free Event, suggested donation €5
  For all the details, clickety-click here

Launch: BELFAST NOIR, ed. Stuart Neville and Adrian McKinty

BELFAST NOIR (Akashic Books), edited by Stuart Neville and Adrian McKinty, will be launched at the Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast, on November 22nd. To wit:
An event for crime fiction fans guys, one that is certainly not to be missed!

No Alibis Bookstore invite you to the Crescent Arts Centre on Saturday 22nd November at 6:30pm for the launch of BELFAST NOIR. This FREE event sees a variety of authors come together in a new anthology.

Akashic Books continues its groundbreaking series of original noir anthologies, launched in 2004 with Brooklyn Noir. Each story is set in a distinct neighborhood or location within the city of the book. Brand-new stories by: Glenn Patterson, Eoin McNamee, Garbhan Downey, Lee Child, Alex Barclay, Brian McGilloway, Ian McDonald, Arlene Hunt, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Claire McGowan, Steve Cavanagh, Lucy Caldwell, Sam Millar, and Gerard Brennan.

From the introduction by Adrian McKinty & Stuart Neville:

“Few European cities have had as disturbed and violent a history as Belfast over the last half-century. For much of that time the Troubles (1968–1998) dominated life in Ireland’s second-biggest population centre, and during the darkest days of the conflict—in the 1970s and 1980s—riots, bombings, and indiscriminate shootings were tragically commonplace. The British army patrolled the streets in armoured vehicles and civilians were searched for guns and explosives before they were allowed entry into the shopping district of the city centre . . . Belfast is still a city divided . . .
  “You can see Belfast’s bloodstains up close and personal. This is the city that gave the world its worst ever maritime disaster, and turned it into a tourist attraction; similarly, we are perversely proud of our thousands of murders, our wounds constantly on display. You want noir? How about a painting the size of a house, a portrait of a man known to have murdered at least a dozen human beings in cold blood? Or a similar house-sized gable painting of a zombie marching across a postapocalyptic wasteland with an AK-47 over the legend UVF: Prepared for Peace—Ready for War. As Lee Child has said, Belfast is still ‘the most noir place on earth.’
  For all the details, clickety-click here

Monday, November 17, 2014

News: GUN STREET GIRL by Adrian McKinty

Adrian McKinty is on something of a roll at the moment, with a ‘Ned Kelly’ Award for Best Australian Crime Fiction, the publication of BELFAST NOIR, and now the news of the latest Sean Duffy novel, GUN STREET GIRL (Serpent’s Tail), the fourth in the series, which will be published on January 8th. To wit:
Belfast, 1985. Gunrunners on the borders, riots in the cities, The Power of Love on the radio. And somehow, in the middle, Detective Inspector Sean Duffy is hanging on, a Catholic policeman in the hostile Royal Ulster Constabulary. Duffy is initially left cold by the murder of a wealthy couple, shot dead while watching TV. And when their troubled son commits suicide, leaving a note that appears to take responsibility for the deaths, it seems the case is closed. But something doesn't add up, and people keep dying. Soon Duffy is on the trail of a mystery that will pit him against shadowy US intelligence forces, and take him into the white-hot heart of the biggest political scandal of the decade.
  For more, clickety-click here

Friday, November 14, 2014

Review: THE MONOGRAM MURDERS by Sophie Hannah

There’s no rest for the wicked, they say, but lately it has been those fictional heroes whose job it is to bring the wicked to justice – James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe – whose literary rest has been disturbed.
  The latest fictional detective to be resurrected is Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, who featured in more than 30 novels. By some distance the most popular mystery author of all time, Christie’s final Poirot novel, Curtain, was published in 1975, although Christie – who died the following year – had written that book some three decades previously.
  In Sophie Hannah’s The Monogram Murders (HarperCollins), which is set in 1929, we first encounter Poirot, ‘the retired policeman from the Continent’, in ‘a most enjoyable state of hibernation’. When a terrified young woman called Jennie blunders into a London coffee shop and sits at Poirot’s table, however, his famous little grey cells are energised by Jennie’s bizarre story of her impending murder – and her assertion that nothing must be done to stop it, because only then will justice be done.
  Enter Edward Catchpool of Scotland Yard, a police detective who stands in for Poirot’s regular sounding-board Arthur Hastings, to narrate the story of Poirot’s latest investigation. It centres on a triple killing at the Bloxham Hotel, in which two women and a man are discovered identically murdered in three separate rooms, each with a monogrammed cufflink in their mouths. Naturally, the heinous crime is much more complicated than it at first appears, and only Poirot has the required acumen to disentangle the strands. Agatha Christie was justifiably celebrated for her intricate plots, and Sophie Hannah has done full justice to that reputation with a story that baffles to the final page.
  Not that everyone is entirely pleased by the bewildering nature of the tale. ‘Next time you’d like me to grasp something at once,’ Catchpool reproves a preening Poirot, ‘open your mouth and tell me facts. Be straightforward about it. You’ll find it saves a lot of bother.’
  Indeed, Sophie Hannah provides a double function in The Monogram Murders. The story is told in Agatha Christie’s style, but it also partly serves as a critique. Poirot is on holiday here, and has taken up residence in a house a whole three hundred yards from his home for the pleasure of looking back to enjoy the view. While the story is a full-blooded Poirot tale, a very English story of murder from the mystery novel’s Golden Age complete with quaint villages, vicarages and rare poisons, and – a clue! – afternoon tea taken at the wrong time, there are occasions, as above, when Hannah, via Catchpool, gently points out some of the flaws in Christie’s story-telling, particularly when it comes to Poirot’s infuriatingly obscure ‘method’, which as often as not delivered crucial clues to the reader about the identity of the murderer very late in the proceedings.
  Christie is also criticised for being too mechanical in her plotting, which makes Sophie Hannah an intriguing choice to write a Poirot novel. Hannah’s own crime novels are largely concerned with the psychology of criminality – the village of Great Holling, where this story has its roots, can be found in the same Culver Valley that provides the setting for Hannah’s books – which adds a frisson to Poirot’s declaration that, ‘We must think not only of the physical facts but of the psychological.’ Ultimately, we discover, The Monogram Murders is a novel in which the mechanics of plot, and Poirot’s reputation as the canniest of detectives, are harnessed for the purpose of exploring that simplest and strangest of all human emotions, love.
  Yet there is much more to The Monogram Murders, as Catchpool the crossword enthusiast discovers to his regret, than the solving of an emotionally charged puzzle. Hannah invests her tale with depth and breadth by investigating the grey areas between sin and crime, as her characters wrestle with Christian morality and the unforeseen consequences of a hypocritical interpretation of the spirit of Christian values (the ostensibly picturesque Great Holling is described as ‘a hell-pit of a village’). Further, the core event of the story offers a scenario that might, seen from different angles, be read as murder, execution or assisted suicide. To muddy the waters even more, Poirot asserts the conventional view that, ‘If a crime has been committed, one must ensure that the criminal is dealt with by the law in an appropriate fashion,’ only to be confounded at a later point by the declaration, ‘We were murderers, not according to the law but according to the truth.’
  In a fascinating act of literary ventriloquism from Hannah, the only real bum note is struck by the portrayal of Catchpool, the quasi-Hastings who faithfully records Poirot’s every utterance. A Scotland Yard detective with a terror of dead bodies, who lacks confidence in his own ability and who undermines his investigation on a number of occasions, the unfortunate Catchpool may well be the most hapless detective ever to grace the pages of a mystery novel. ‘Perhaps,’ he suggests when Poirot makes another brilliant discovery, ‘I’m in the wrong job,’ and it’s very difficult indeed not to agree.
  That said, there are occasions when it’s impossible not to agree with Catchpool, such as when Poirot assembles a host of characters in the Bloxham Hotel’s dining room for the traditional denouement. ‘I must say,’ Catchpool observes, ‘I did not and never would understand why he required such a sizeable audience. It was not a theatrical production. When I solved a crime … I simply presented my conclusions to my boss and then arrested the miscreant in question.’
  Catchpool and Sophie Hannah make a valid point, but then Hercule Poirot, luxuriant moustaches and all, would be nothing without his sense of theatre. Poirot may well be an entirely implausible creation, but his adventures – and The Monogram Murders deserves to take its place among them – are no less enjoyable for all that. ~ Declan Burke

  This review was first published in the Irish Times.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Review: US by David Nicholls

Longlisted for the Booker Prize even before it was published, Us (Hodder & Stoughton) is David Nicholls’ fourth novel, and arguably his most entertaining. As the story begins, Douglas Petersen appears to be suffering the reverse of the conventional male mid-life crisis. A pedantic biochemist contemplating the imminent departure of his teenage son Albie from the family nest, Douglas is – according to the rules of fiction, at least – a prime candidate to be eyeing up a Maserati and tumbling into an ill-advised affair with a woman half his age. As it happens, Douglas rather likes bumbling along in his comfortable, suburban existence, and is very much looking forward to ‘growing old and dying together’ with his wife, Connie.
  “Douglas,” says Connie, “who in their right mind would look forward to that?”
  The truth of it is that, now their son is reared and on his way to university, Connie is thinking of leaving Douglas. With a typically old-fashioned ‘grand tour’ of Europe’s galleries and museums already planned, Douglas hopes that the family’s final holiday together will reignite old passions for love, art and life itself – but once they get on the road, things very quickly go from bad to worse.
  Readers familiar with David Nicholls’ previous novels – Starter for Ten, The Understudy and One Day – will anticipate an acerbic take on romance and love, and they won’t be disappointed. “This is a love story, after all,” Douglas tells us early on. “Certainly love comes into it.” In fact, it’s three love stories, as Douglas strains to reconnect with Connie in a contemporary storyline while also recounting, in a parallel narrative, how they first met and fell for one another. Between the lines of these stories is lurks another tale, this one of largely unrequited love, as Douglas tells us of his failed attempt to be a proper father to Albie. This is, perhaps, due to his formative experience of a father-son relationship, when he grew up with a stern father, a GP, who ‘issued sympathy with the same reluctance that he prescribed antibiotics.’
  Blending a poignant tone with brilliantly timed deadpan humour, Nicholls leads us on a merrily chaotic dance through Paris, Amsterdam, Venice and Madrid that echoes loudly to the anarchic irreverence of Tom Sharpe, especially when the Douglas is offering his philistine opinion on the arts (“Since the time of the Greeks, had anyone ever left a play saying, ‘I just wished it were longer!’”). His take on the travelogue is refreshing too: “Munich was a strange combination of grandly ceremonial and boisterously beery, like a drunken general …”. It’s a hugely enjoyable blend, not least because it quickly becomes obvious that Douglas’s constant stream of pithy one-liners and off-beat observations serve as a kind of manic distraction from the almost unbearable loss that set the tone for the beginning of Douglas and Connie’s marriage. “Connie and I also had a daughter, Jane,” Douglas tells us, “but she died soon after she was born.”
  Us is a novel of the fine lines and tiny gaps that every family will recognise, those between intimacy and claustrophobia, between familiarity and contempt. Nicholls mines these rich seams and fault-lines for a novel that is by turns heart-breaking and laugh-out-loud funny. “Shouldn’t art be an escape, a laugh, a comfort, a thrill?” asks a plaintive Douglas as Connie drags him along to yet another depressing foreign movie. No, says Connie, and the reader is inclined to agree with her – Us is very much an escape, a laugh, a comfort and a thrill, but it is above all a thought-provoking meditation on how very fragile are the ties that bind. ~ Declan Burke

  This review was first published in the Irish Examiner.