The Loy is back in town


CRIME: All the Dead Voices By Declan HughesJohn Murray, 308pp. £11.99

THE LOY is back. As are some other problems we had hoped we’d seen the back of in this country. A predominant strength of crime fiction is its ability to reflect the times we live in, to hold a mirror up to the high street, as Stendhal wrote. Novelist and playwright Declan Hughes, through his literary creation, Loy, is rolling with the punches our island nation has recently endured. In All the Dead Voices, the property bubble has burst, inner city heroin abuse is on the rise and, perhaps most ominously – and most prophetically on Hughes’s part – violent activity amongst dissident republicans has kicked off.

The action begins in south Armagh in 1980. Two IRA operatives, Red and Ice, are lying in wait to blow up a judge’s car. One perceives himself as fighting for a united Ireland. The other wants nothing but to wreak devastation in the name of revenge.

The action moves forward to latter-day Dublin, to a match in Tolka Park between Shelbourne and Monaghan United on the Wednesday before Easter. A man in a balaclava appears on the pitch and fires a round of bullets into the air. On Holy Thursday, one of Shelbourne’s players, Paul Delaney, is murdered; shot in the face by a gunman. By Holy Saturday, the Delaney Brothers are back in town, keen to avenge their little brother’s death.

Meanwhile, Loy’s services are engaged by Anne Fogarty to investigate the unsolved murder of her father, tax inspector Brian Fogarty, in 1991. Brian Fogarty had “a thing about ill-gotten gains, how in Ireland, crime always pays . . . criminals buying property after bank raids, Provos with holiday homes, heroin dealers coining it, living like kings”. As the Criminal Assets Bureau had not yet been set up, Fogarty took it upon himself to send letters to three such suspicious individuals, outlining their tax liabilities.

One letter was sent to George Halligan, gangland leader gone legit, and a veteran of the Loy novels. A second went to IRA man, Jack Cullen, and a third to businessman Bobby Doyle, currently preparing to open the Independence Bridge across the Liffey to commemorate the 1916 Easter Rising.

Jack Cullen’s name also comes up in connection with the murder of Paul Delaney, as does that of his sometime associate Lamp Comerford. The Delaney Brothers tool up on Glock semiautomatics and AK 47s, waiting for the name of their target. A third faction is introduced – that of the INLA. It seems equally possible they had Paul murdered. More shootings follow, the corpses mount up, Loy collects wounds and keeps on top of the case – just about. Every good detective novel needs a good detective. What distinguishes Loy is his ripe Irishness. His office “didn’t have a glass door with my name on it, or a roll-top desk, and the whiskey was Irish, and in plain view, not hidden in a filing cabinet”.

Loy is a winning combination of caustic cynicism and romantic idealism, an adept at Beckettian failing better. The ladies fall for him, the criminals respect him. They even, in All the Dead Voices, try to hire him, but Loy has principles. His principles may not tally with accepted notions of right and wrong, but principles they are, nonetheless.

Hughes is a perennially interesting crime writer who has proved himself in All the Dead Voicesyet again as a soothsayer for the times we live in. He works with heavily resonant imagery, such as the Tolka Park shooting, which recalls that of Bloody Sunday in Croke Park, to explore the mixture of idealism and thuggery fuelling the violence of the republican movement, to sketch links between dissident republicans and drug dealing criminals, or drug dealing republicans and dissident criminals, as it happens.

Hughes’s four previous Loy novels were characterised by a strain of high Gothic which centred around the Big House, the notion of fate, and of corrupted bloodlines. They featured a preoccupation with inbred aristocratic types in particular, and unnatural couplings. His signature idea of bad blood seems at first absent in All the Dead Voices, but it rises to the fore in a less operatic but ultimately more substantial climax than earlier novels. The controlling idea of fatedness is thwarted through the innocence of a child. Hughes gives the reader an ending which confounds the expectations of the genre, and which is all the more satisfying for it.

Claire Kilroy’s third novel, All Names Have Been Changed, will be published by Faber and Faber next month