Crime: dark deeds and black ops to bring Gerald Seymour in from the cold
The underrated writer’s elegiac 30th novel confirms that he is in the same league as John le Carré
Top table: Gerald Seymour
Gerald Seymour’s Vagabond (Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99) opens in contemporary Northern Ireland, with MI5 shadowing a dissident republican group trying to buy weapons from a Russian arms dealer. In France the former British army intelligence-agent handler Danny Curnow – call sign Vagabond – is now employed driving tourists around the historical sites of the Normandy landings. When Malachy Riordan leaves Co Tyrone for Prague in the company of a double agent, Ralph Exton, Danny gets the call he has dreaded for decades: come in from the cold, there’s dirty work to be done.
Seymour’s multistranded narrative of dark deeds and black ops is fuelled by an exhilarating cynicism. Here the ambitiously self-serving prosper and the virtues of loyalty, friendship and patriotism are exploitable weaknesses. The pace is funereal and the tone elegiac as the story draws together strands from recent history, with “Desperate” Dan Curnow emblematic of the novel’s overall thrust in his beguiling blend of pragmatism, brutality and faith in the notion of sacrifice for the greater good.
Seymour, who debuted with Harry’s Game in 1975 (this is his 30th novel), tends to be overshadowed by John le Carré as one of the great British post-cold war novelists, but Vagabond confirms that he deserves to be seated at the top table.
Louise Phillips’s The Doll’s House, her second novel, won the crime-fiction award at the Irish Book Awards in 2013. Last Kiss (Hachette Books Ireland, €14.99) is Phillips’s third novel to feature Dr Kate Pearson, a Dublin-based criminal psychologist who helps the Garda investigate perplexing murder cases. Here Pearson attends a bizarre murder scene, in which the male victim is discovered laid out in what appears to be a tarot-card scenario. By then the reader has already met the killer, an unnamed character who offers a first-person insight into her motives. It’s an unusual and unsettling narrative gambit, as the first-person voice affords the killer a chilling intimacy (“I kill people,” she states in the opening chapter) that somewhat distances the reader from Pearson’s third-person account, and the truth and justice she seeks. Nevertheless, the blend of first- and third-person narratives gives the story great pace as Pearson is dispatched to Paris and Rome in the company of DI Adam O’Connor, their personal and professional lives overlapping as they try to build a profile of the killer.
The tarot motif and references to European folk tales serve notice that Phillips is exploring the dark matter of damaged sexual identity, and although the third act veers off into potboiler territory, the abiding impression is of the empathy Phillips evokes on behalf of her lethal but fragile anti-heroine.
The fifth of the French author Dominique Manotti’s novels to be translated into English, Escape (Arcadia Books, £11.99), opens in 1987 with a prison break in Italy. Filippo, a petty criminal, and Carlo, a former leader in the Red Brigades, go their separate ways, but when Carlo is later shot dead during a bank raid Filippo makes his way to Paris, claims refugee status and writes a novel about his experience. The book’s blend of fact and fiction makes it a literary sensation in France, where Lisa, an Italian journalist and Carlo’s former lover, realises that Carlo’s death was a murder designed to cover up political corruption. “People don’t do politics any more in Italy, they do business, it’s the grand ball of the corruptors and the corrupt,” Lisa tells a friend, which gives a flavour of Escape’s bracing cynicism.
Translated by Amanda Hopkinson and Ros Schwartz, and rooted in the radical Italian politics of the 1960s and 1970s, it’s an unconventional tale more concerned with the unintended consequences of writing a political crime novel than pandering to the genre’s traditional pursuit of justice. Indeed, there may be an autobiographical aspect to the character of Lisa, as Manotti, herself a union activist in the 1960s, charts Lisa’s growing awareness that fiction, not fact, may prove the more effective strategy in “the battle to salvage our past”.
The Rome-based detective Commissario Alec Blume returns for his fifth outing in Conor Fitzgerald’s Bitter Remedy (Bloomsbury, £11.99), although it’s a rather offbeat police procedural, given that Blume – recently a father, and apparently suffering a breakdown as a result – is taking a sabbatical in a mountain village to study herbal remedies. Approached by a nightclub owner, Niki, to investigate the whereabouts of an employee, a missing Romanian dancer named Alina, Blume finds himself dragged into the sordid world of people-trafficking.
The US-born Blume has an outsider’s eye for the quirky detail in Italian culture and policing, which is given an added dimension with Blume away from the comfort zone of his beloved Rome. There’s an element of the old-fashioned “golden age” mystery here, with Blume like an amateur sleuth bumbling his way around a picture-postcard setting, trying to lay to rest his own ghosts even as he excavates some long-buried skeletons.
The incorruptible Blume’s efforts to find the truth are given a blackly comic sheen courtesy of his spiky personality, but the comedy is contrasted with the brutality of the crime being investigated, via Alina’s parallel account of the harrowing experience of being trafficked into prostitution.