Celtic tiger, hidden motive: the best of the new crime books
‘The Confession’ is a post-crash thriller, and ‘Undertow’ is haunted by Northern Ireland’s past
Anthony J Quinn: The Border provides Undertow with its theme, with Brexit and a possible return to the bad old days throwing a long shadow
Jo Spain’s The Confession (Quercus, €16.95) opens with a brutal home invasion, in which disgraced banker Harry McNamara is bludgeoned into a coma with his own golf club. Is the assault linked to Harry’s dodgy financial dealings, which helped to destroy the Irish economy? Why does Harry’s wife, Julie, simply sit and observe while Harry is being beaten to a pulp? And why does his assailant, JP Carney, turn himself in immediately afterwards, claiming to have no motive for the assault? Spain has previously published three police procedurals, but The Confession is a standalone psychological thriller which features not one but two confessions, as Julie and JP, in alternate chapters, tell us their life stories and the ways in which Harry McNamara has made their lives a misery. Delivered in an breezily irreverent, no-nonsense style (“McNamara is a banker. Who hasn’t wanted to kill one?”), the story offers a scathing overview of the Celtic Tiger years and the consequences of the subsequent economic crash: “The government, greedy and bloated on property-related taxes, and the Central Bank and the financial regulator, bought and owned on the golf course by the banks’ chief executives, had let things escalate out of control.” The money, however, is only a McGuffin; the assault on Harry McNamara isn’t business, but deeply personal. Spain teases out a tale woven around what Julie describes as “secrets, little petty lies and bigger sins”, which is reminiscent of Liz Nugent’s Unravelling Oliver in its vivid portrait of a fascinating monster.
Savages: The Wedding (Corsair, €16.95), the first in a quartet from French author Sabri Louatah, opens on the eve of a presidential election, with Idder Chaouch, French-born of Algerian heritage, strongly tipped to win. The novel revolves around the titular wedding, however, which takes place in Saint-Etienne between third-generation French-Algerian “Slim” Nerrouche and Kenza Zerbi, although it’s Slim’s brothers Fouad and Nazir who are most relevant to the story’s political backdrop. Fouad, a popular actor connected to Chaouch’s campaign, favours Arab integration; by contrast, Nazir advocates a more separatist Arab identity. It’s an absorbing set-up, not least because Louatah brilliantly conveys the anarchy and chaos of a wedding party in which both sets of families consider the other beneath them; on the downside, the novel is almost entirely composed of set-up, with the anticipated explosive events only occurring in the final few pages.
“Southern fables usually went the other way around,” Texas ranger Darren Matthews tells us in Attica Locke’s fourth novel, Bluebird, Bluebird (Serpent’s Tail, €16.99), “a white woman killed or harmed in some way, real or imagined, and then, like the moon follows the sun, a black man ends up dead.” When Matthews arrives in the East Texas community of Shelby County to investigate the killing of a black man and white woman, murdered in that order, he finds himself battling institutionalised racism and a thriving Aryan Brotherhood of Texas in a story steeped in the blues and woven from tangled bloodlines that span generations. Previously nominated for the Orange Prize, the Edgar Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Awards, Attica Locke has built a career on political novels wrapped in the conventions of the crime thriller, and Bluebird, Bluebird burnishes an already impressive reputation.
The Assassin of Verona (Zaffre, €22.50) is the second in Benet Brandreth’s series of historical thrillers featuring a young William Shakespeare – player, poet and spy. Following on from the events of The Spy of Venice (2016), Will and his comrades Nicholas Oldcastle and John Hemminges find themselves in the vicinity of Verona, hunted by the pope’s emissary, the inquisitor Fr Thornhill, as they seek to return to England with intelligence crucial to Queen Elizabeth’s court. The plot is more akin to the Robin Hood legend than anything Shakespearean, but the chief pleasure here is in the way Brandreth – who works with the Royal Shakespeare Company as an authority on Shakespeare – honours the spirit of the period’s language (“Perchance the pain within her womb is the blossoming of some seed in ground ill-suited to the harvest”) with a richly baroque hybrid style that is, almost inevitably, littered with references and allusions to the plays William Shakespeare will eventually settle down to write.
Undertow (Head of Zeus, €19.50) is Anthony J Quinn’s fifth novel to feature PSNI detective Celcius Daly, who is based on the shores of Lough Neagh, the “great wild space that had been his only respite from the two habits that governed his existence: work and insomnia”. Called to investigate a suspicious death-by-drowning in Lough Neagh, Daly quickly finds himself enmeshed in a thick web of collusion when he discovers that the dead man, a Garda detective who lived in Northern Ireland, was a member of an unaccountable cross-border collective running a stable of informers and spies, and not always for the benefit of the greater good. “That corner of Ulster was a conflicted place,” Daly muses, “betrayal running in every direction, shadowy figures exerting opposing forms of deception, the stress lines running through every layer of society,” and it’s the Border itself, and the recent history it represents, that provides Undertow with its theme, with Brexit and a possible return to the bad old days throwing a long shadow. Daly may keep himself busy “devising new ways of staying out of the past”, but he ultimately discovers that “the undertow of the past was too strong. It took the legs out from under him and dragged him down without mercy.” A powerful tale stained with the darkest of noir, Undertow is a powerful tale of a generation manipulated, betrayed and ultimately abandoned by the powers-that-be.
Declan Burke is an author and journalist. He is currently Dublin City Council/ UNESCO writer-in-residence