THRILLER: JOHN BOYNEreviews WinterlandBy Alan Glynn Faber Faber, 468pp. £12.99
IT’S BEEN A rough 12 months for property developers. For years many of them had it easy, buying land, rezoning it, building apartment blocks and office buildings, coining it, creating a national bubble of imaginary wealth, before it went wrong and they stopped making millions and started begging the courts not to take it all away from them again.
And if they think they’re being portrayed as villains in the real world, it’s nothing compared to their depiction in contemporary fiction, where they now find themselves centre stage, scheming and manipulating, playing power broker to ambitious politicians, consorting with hoodlums, popping pills, carrying handguns and arranging murders, all in the name of construction.
The opening scenes of Alan Glynn's brilliant Dublin thriller, Winterland, present a city reminiscent of The General, where a small-time drug dealer is gunned down in the beer garden of a local pub. Nothing new there, of course; gangland killings and retributions are regular features of evening news reports, street violence a fact of life in the city.
Glynn, however, subverts our expectations as we realise that the hit on Noel Rafferty was a mistake; it wasn’t young Noel who was the intended victim, it was his uncle, engineer Noel Rafferty, who, like his unfortunate nephew, fails to make it out of the first chapter alive.
It’s a clever twist: two members of the same family, with identical names, killed on the one night, the official explanation being that the distraught uncle was driving home intoxicated, leading to a tragic but coincidental double loss for the Rafferty family.
For one member of that family, however, something doesn’t add up. Gina – sister of Noel Sr, aunt of Noel Jr – was with her brother shortly before his death and he was completely sober. Her suspicions are aroused and it’s here the novel takes off as she begins to dig deeper into the events of that night in an attempt to discover the truth.
Winterlandis filled with damaged characters, each new one more interesting and complex than the last.
Central to Gina’s investigations are two men whose master-and-servant relationship is in a state of constant flux, with each taking the upper hand at different points: property developer Paddy Norton and minister Larry Bolger, who is expected to become taoiseach within days. Both are stereotypes in their way – Norton will do anything to pursue his grand schemes to redevelop the Dublin skyline and turn it into a Hong Kong of Western Europe; Bolger is a politician with a shadowy past who is absolutely focused on the prize before him – but Glynn writes their inner lives and motivations with such intricacy and even humanity that they never once turn into clichés.
Indeed, the reader is left almost pitying them as their lives begin to fall apart, victims in their own way of the greed of the boom and their desperate desire for power.
Glynn eschews the typically linear narrative of the traditional crime novel and turns his attention variously from Gina to Norton to Bolger to Mark Griffin, an emotionally shattered victim of a car crash a quarter of a century before, whose story is inexorably linked to those of the other characters.
THE CENTRAL PLAYER, however, is not a person at all, but Norton’s almost-finished skyscraper, the tallest of its type in Europe, known as Richmond Plaza, whose core tenant is a shadowy American equity firm presided over by a Dick Cheney-type power-broker, whose brief appearances in the novel are almost gothic in their unspoken malevolence.
The building looms over every page of Winterlandand the fact that much of the action climaxes on its highest floor is perhaps a little more cinematic than literary, but none the worse for that.
This is Alan Glynn's second novel and comes bedecked with endorsements from crime luminaries such as Val McDermid, RJ Ellory and our own John Connolly. Their praise is not misdirected: Winterlandis a page-turner in the best sense of the word, a novel filled with clearly drawn, morally ambiguous characters, drawn from different social backgrounds, with conflicting work ethics and contradictory relationships to the truth, driven either by ambition or a desire to see justice served.
The plot never lets up for a moment and the three set-pieces of the story – the double murder at the beginning, an extraordinary central scene of gangland violence in a warehouse, and the rooftop climax towards the end – are as good as anything I have read in contemporary crime fiction.
The great achievement of the novel, however, is the creation of Gina Rafferty herself. Believing that a property developer has destroyed her family's life, she acts as a metaphor for an entire country that has been shattered by greed and the machinations of the filthy rich. Because of this, Winterlandtakes its place as the first contemporary Irish novel to explore the disastrous effects of the property boom and the damage it has done to countless Irish families.
For that, and for this thrilling, brilliantly written novel, Alan Glynn deserves enormous praise.
John Boyne's most recent novel is The House of Special Purpose(Doubleday)