After the gold rush


CRIME: KEVIN POWERreviews City of Lost GirlsBy Declan Hughes John Murray, 307pp. £12.99

IN FEBRUARY this year the novelist and songwriter Julian Gough posted on his blog what he called “an intemperate rant” about the state of Irish fiction. “I don’t get the impression many Irish writers have played Grand Theft Auto, or bought an X-Box, or watched YouPorn,” he wrote. “Irish literary writers have become a priestly caste, scribbling by candlelight, cut off from the electric current of the culture.”

We’ve heard all this before. Why aren’t Irish writers writing about what’s happening now? Where are our novels about the Celtic Tiger? Well, various people – including the estimable Declan Burke, who blogs at Crime Always Pays – have been patiently pointing out the truth all along: some of the best – and truest – novels about the boom period (and its tawdry conclusion) have tended to get themselves dismissed as crime fiction.

Over the past decade or so there’s been a rich cascade of new Irish crime writing, much of which has taken as its subject the changing texture of Irish life. Alan Glynn’s Winterland, published last year, painted a thrillingly accurate picture of a country in the sudden chill grip of recession, a country of brushed-steel towers and crooked developers, of gangland hits and empty office districts.

And Declan Hughes’s new Ed Loy novel, City of Lost Girls– the fifth in the series – features the recession as a kind of running subtheme: every character is aware of the parlous state of the nation, and even Loy himself notes that his Holles Street apartment is now in negative equity.

But it would do Ed, and his creator, a great disservice to present this new novel as nothing more than a fictionalised treatise on the Great Recession. City of Lost Girlsis a mightily satisfying read, packed with unemphatic (but carefully chosen) literary and cultural allusions, written with passion and skill, and propelled by a cunningly plotted mystery that double-crosses the reader before building to a surprisingly moving conclusion.

We first met Ed Loy in The Wrong Kind of Blood(2006), then again in The Colour of Blood(2007) and The Dying Breed(2008), and last year in All the Dead Voices. Loy is a private eye in the noble tradition: honest, literate, boozy, lovelorn and boiled harder than a 20-minute egg. Formerly based in LA, he has moved back to Dublin, where he walks the mean streets from Foxrock to Mountjoy Square, perennially attired in his funereal suit, tackling the corrupt and the vengeful and generally setting things right.

By now Loy has reached the tricky midseason stage of a fictional private dick’s career: he has settled down with a woman who loves him, he is getting on well with her kids and he is more or less off the booze. And we all know what that means: trouble.

In City of Lost Girlstrouble takes the form of Ed’s old friend Jack Donovan, an Irish-born Hollywood director and “professional Irishman” who’s back in Dublin to make a film about the glory days of Monto (in one of a number of allusions to Joyce, the film is called Nighttown). Someone’s sending Jack poison-pen letters. And, to make things worse, young female extras are beginning to disappear from the set of the film – just as they did from the set of an earlier Donovan production, during the Los Angeles days, when Ed Loy served as Jack’s bagman.

Hughes is steeped in the lore and craft of the private-eye genre, and City of Lost Girlsis full of little winks and nods to the work of the American pulp greats. One of Jack Donovan’s films is an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s noir classic The Dain Curse. At one point Loy makes himself an indulgent breakfast of scrambled eggs with chives and smoked salmon – very much in the style of Robert B Parker’s bon vivant Boston gumshoe, Spenser. And Jack Donovan himself might remind you of Roger Wade, the expansive alcoholic writer who relapses his way through Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye.

The writing itself is polished and propulsive. Hughes has mastered the laconic wryness of the noir style: “I dress and drink another cup of coffee and think about not having a hangover and how much better that feels than how I’m feeling now.” But he also has an eye for character and behaviour. As Jack Donovan plucks up the nerve to ask Ed Loy for help, the director has “an embarrassed expression on his face, as if, after all this time, he’s made it to the doctor’s waiting room and his cough has mysteriously disappeared”.

Crime fiction it may be, but City of Lost Girlsis, as well as being an excellent thriller, also a pitch-perfect evocation of “Dublin, the former goldrush town”. Julian Gough should take note.

Kevin Power is the author of Bad Day in Blackrock(Lilliput) and the winner of the 2009 Rooney Prize for Irish Literature