"All three of the Drumm brothers were at the funeral, although one of us was in a coffin." Liz Nugent's new novel, Our Little Cruelties (Penguin, £13.99) tells the story of how they got there: sleazy, abusive film producer Will, troubled, addictive rock star Luke, and stingy, manipulative talent agent Brian. Maybe they never had a chance, with a mother like former showband chanteuse and TV soap star Melissa Craig (the first Melissa in Ireland, one of her sons reckons: she changed it from Moll when she went into showbusiness and married up). A towering narcissist who can't even fake love for her youngest son, she is a magnificently monstrous presence in the novel, and a valuable new acquisition for Nugent's Gallery of Bad Mothers.
Each of the brothers takes a turn at narration, ranging back and forth from their 70s childhoods to the recent past; the effect feels like table hopping at a dysfunctional family funeral. “The awful thing in life is, everyone has their reasons,” Jean Renoir’s great line from The Rules of the Game, could serve as an epigraph to the book. Vulnerable, unstable Luke’s rise to stardom via early gigs at the Baggot Inn and the Olympia is superbly done; Will’s drive and charm are as persuasive as his reflexive sexism and predatory behaviour are disturbing; Brian’s middle-child victimhood breeds a meanness that mutates into blithely entitled extortion. It all adds up to a bleak domestic saga studded with set-piece events that mark social history milestones of the last 50 years, from the Pope’s visit, at which Melissa sings Ave Maria, through Bob Dylan’s concert at Slane, the scene of much turbulence, culminating in the marriage equality referendum, where granddaughter Daisy’s anthemic song rounds out the decades with (false) hope.
Exploring eating disorders, #MeToo moments and gender identity issues, the novel speaks very much to the contemporary moment; the eponymous cruelties, while often melodramatic, sometimes luridly so, are securely rooted, tragically but all too credibly, in the family plot.
What a terrific storyteller Liz Nugent is! Brilliantly structured, fluently told, rich in unsettling incident and pulsing with dark, tumultuous energy, Our Little Cruelties is her best book yet.
"Martin Kelly cried for his mother before he died. His face was glazed with tears, his mouth a grotesque O as first he pleaded for his life, and, when it became clear that they would not listen to him, called for his mother. Stripped naked, he knelt in the grave they had already dug for him." Brian McGilloway's cool, controlled, immensely powerful new novel The Last Crossing (Dome Press, £14.99) opens with the horror of an IRA murder in the Ayrshire woods, then flashes forward to the present day, where Tony Canning, one of the participants, is preparing to take the ferry from the North back to Scotland. Kelly's family need to know where their disappeared son's body was buried, and under the supervision of a young Republican activist, Canning, Karen Logue and Hugh Duggan must locate the unmarked grave. A separate timeline deftly outlines how Canning and Logue were recruited by stealth to the IRA by Duggan and obliged to carry out the murder. With one eye on the pragmatic exigencies of the peace process and the internal conflict between military and political imperatives, and another on the haphazard way in which young people become complicit in actions that will haunt their remaining years, McGilloway brings a forensic and compassionate eye to bear on the post-Troubles settlement in this thoughtful, moving, morally complex book.
McKervey draws clever, chilling parallels between the vampires assembling in The Un-Dead Count and the Nazis massing at the German borders
A Talented Man (Hachette Books Ireland, £13.99), Henrietta McKervey's stylish, compelling new novel follows Ellis Spender, aspiring writer and impecunious son of the late society painter Sir Sidney, as he tries to find a role for himself that does not involve work. Among his recently departed impresario uncle's abandoned papers he finds letters from Bram Stoker's widow, and hits on a scheme for forging a sequel to Dracula, The Un-Dead Count, to be sold for enough money finally to liberate him from the desiccated Victorian gloom of his family home. McKervey charts the steps of Spender's steady decline from callow, grandiose privilege into psychosis and murder with meticulous, Highsmithian ease. Although nominally set in London in 1938, the world of the novel feels pleasingly grounded in the Edwardian age; the prose has a certain antique formality to it, while Ellis's mother embodies the repressed decorum of that long pre-first World War afternoon; later, as Ellis looks to Europe for escape, McKervey draws clever, chilling parallels between the vampires assembling in The Un-Dead Count and the Nazis massing at the German borders. Perhaps a little stately in its early pages, once A Talented Man hits its stride it is an utterly absorbing, atmospheric, beautifully written novel.
Isaiah Quintabe – IQ for short – is the unlicensed private investigator and unofficial ombudsman for his East Long Beach neighbourhood. He sees his job as fighting human suffering and indifference, whether that means finding Mrs Marquez's missing Pomeranian, or (reluctantly) proving a local arms dealer's daughter innocent of murder. Hi Five (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £14.99) is Joe Ide's fourth IQ crime novel, and shares all the strengths of this superior series: IQ is a winning mix of Easy Rawlins and Sherlock Holmes and the books feature street smart dialogue, memorable minor characters and an intimate narrative voice that makes you keep turning the pages. The problem with Hi Five is that the central plot centres round a character with multiple personalities: Christiana is also Marlene, Pearl, Jasper and Bertrand. Margaret Millar's Beast in View is an example of how Dissociative Identity Disorder can be used to stunning effect in a crime novel; here it never feels anything other than silly. Hi Five is worth reading nonetheless for the vivid sense of place, the well-worked sub plots and the irresistible IQ himself.
AL Gaylin's dazzling new novel, Never Look Back (Orion, £8.99) was inspired by Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate, the teens whose 1950s killing spree was also the inspiration for Terence Malick's Badlands and Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska. In a complex multi-voice narrative, a 1976 strand follows the bloody progress of the Inland Empire Killers, teenage April Cooper and her murderous older boyfriend, who ultimately die in a trailer park blaze. In the present, true-crime podcaster Quentin Garrison, April's nephew, believes April survived and had a daughter, film critic Robin Diamond. Robin's initial scepticism turns to fear when her parents are violently attacked and she realises her mother may indeed have some connection to April Cooper. The various mysteries are plotted with verve and panache; Gaylin as ever has a lot of fun with popular culture, whether it be podcasting ethics or a Twitter pile-on over an all-female version of The Magnificent Seven, but the core of this propulsive, volatile thriller is dark as pitch, and its climax is utterly shattering.