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The Lammisters: Comic novel of linguistic playfulness and invention

Declan Burke escapes long arm of crime yarns to write meta-fiction set in 1920s Hollywood

Declan Burke, author of The Lammisters.
The Lammisters
The Lammisters
Author: Declan Burke
ISBN-13: 9781999882273
Publisher: No Alibis Press
Guideline Price: £16.99

With The Lammisters, Declan Burke decided “to write a book that broke every rule I was ever taught.” Burke is a seasoned crime writer, with six acclaimed novels under his belt, and writes and talks about books in many outlets including this paper. So what might a book that breaks all the rules look like?

The Lammisters – the title comes from its motley cast who are “on the lam”, ie fugitives from justice – sets out its stall from the cover blurb. “A comic novel that will likely be declared a wholly original comedy classic by anyone who has yet to read Flann O’Brien, Jane Austen, PG Wodehouse or Laurence Sterne.” This is what we might call having your cake and eating it: invoking those high literary spirits in order to be self-deprecating next to them.

And that sort of funny, elbow-nudging self-referentiality does sum up one aspect of The Lammisters. It’s a mega-meta smorgasbord of inventive language, bookish references and footnotes littering the pages like confetti.

It features a group of unlikely compatriots thrown together in Hollywood in 1923. There’s Sir Archibald L’Estrange-B’stard, “last remaining scion of the famed dynasty of Knockfluck in the Co Donegal in the Free State of Ireland” and his secretary Bartley McGuffin who is the possessor of “a minor degree in Anglo-Irish literature from the lesser Dublin University.”


There’s “veteran chorus doll” Adele Fitzhalligon, who has designs on Archie and his “fine family fortune which requires the unstinting efforts of a Swiss accountancy firm with offices in six time zones just to keep tabs on the compound interest”. There is actress Vanessa Hopgood, a “shimmering goddess” in Archie’s eyes and a “tramp” in Adele’s, who is engaged to Samuel L Silverstein, illegal immigrant and movie mogul who wants to make a Jazz Age adaptation of The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Golf vs acting

Vanessa, who cares nothing for acting but really just wants to play golf, is also associated with local bootlegger Jasper Huxtable “Rusty” McGrew, who has an unwitting doppelgänger in George P Dangleberry III, the man Silverstein is hoping will finance his movie. Also present are supplementary characters, each with a name to roll around the mouth: Moxie La Roux, Abie Cohen, Felicia Fortesque aka Cordellia de Havilland, and more.

All clear? Never mind, because complicating things further is the narrator, who winds his way through the story and is also a character himself: Edward “Bugs” Dooley, a writer who has been tasked by Silverstein to script his Pilgrim’s Progress overnight.

The narrator is the real hero of the book, as he is of any book, because everything the lammisters do as they caper from the Musso & Frank Grill to the Tropico Springs golf club, everything is reported through the eyes of a narrator who, as Burke puts it, “has yet to learn that less is more”.

You can say that again (the narrator probably would), because the key experience of The Lammisters is its ultra-maximalist style, where every sentence curls back on itself and nothing is too straightforward to warrant a diversionary explanation. Here is a representative sentence:

Polyglot puns

“The blend of rage and despair that had accompanied Bartley’s belated understanding that his was a pointless existence lived as a microscopic speck in what is at best a blindly indifferent and at worst mindlessly hostile universe returns now to inflame Bartley’s instinctive fight-or-flight response as he raises his gaze from the derringer’s pitiless muzzle to meet the equally merciless stare of Felicia Fortesque, and it is now that Bartley McGuffin digs deep, mining a hitherto unsuspected seam of courage, fortitude and grace under pressure, and there finds, just when he needs it most, the wherewithal to give vent to a provocatively defiant sniff.”

It is all like this, all of it, for 310 pages, so caveat lector. (Polyglot puns are another feature of the book: one page has French, Greek and German within a dozen lines.) There are running jokes – golf is always “the noble Scottish art” – and playful tricks, like text crossed through, foreshadowing declared as such and one chapter which begins again two pages after a false start.

And the plot of course is, in appropriate Hollywood terms and making sense of Bartley’s surname, a mere McGuffin for the linguistic verve that Burke displays not just on every page but on every line.

But, as a taxi driver once said to Bertrand Russell, what’s it all about? The “philosophical proposition” of the story, we are repeatedly informed, is “that the world might be a better place if only everyone would make a little more effort to get along”. That may be pure Hollywood too (didn’t Jack Nicholson in Mars Attacks! say something similar just before being blasted?), but, ironic or not, it seems an apt enough slogan for our divided times.

John Self

John Self is a contributor to The Irish Times