Dark, entertaining thriller that investigates post-boom Dublin underworld


BOOK OF THE DAY: KEVIN POWERreviews Dark Times in the Cityby Gene Kerrigan Harvill Secker 305pp, £11.99

RAYMOND CHANDLER always said that the best way to jumpstart a good noir narrative was to have two guys come through the door with guns. This is precisely how Gene Kerrigan begins his third crime novel, Dark Times in the City, which succeeds Little Criminals(2005) and The Midnight Choir(2007).

Former jailbird Danny Callaghan (fresh from eight years in stir for beating a mid-level mobster to death with a golf club) looks up from his pint to see two bike-helmeted gunmen striding through his local towards a stool pigeon named Walter Bennett.

And Callaghan, who suffers from a haunted nobility in the best noir style, intervenes – which lands him in all kinds of trouble.

What follows is a gripping read. After a somewhat slow beginning (before you twig who and what the novel is really about), it morphs into one of the best thrillers currently around. It’s pacy, the plotlines intersect in an apparently haphazard but actually extremely satisfying way, and the characters have real, rude life – they aren’t the usual ciphers you find in the garden-variety Irish crime novel (the sentimental junkie, the floridly unpleasant garda).

Kerrigan, no slouch, is alert to the possibilities of the thriller form. This is a novel that uses a beautifully spun crime narrative to say something interesting about Ireland in the here and now. (It’s strikingly up to date: Kerrigan has, I think, written the first Irish novel that manages to take account of the global financial crisis – doubly impressive when you remember that most Irish writers haven’t even caught up with the boom years yet.)

The city of the title is Dublin, of course, a city that was formerly rich and is presently poor. Kerrigan is very good at summoning a particular kind of urban Irish milieu – the multicellular apartment blocks with their interchangeable rooms; the hoodied kids drinking cider on the green. This is the contemporary city, in which council houses “bristle with extensions”, bagmen on the make wear Hugo Boss, and “every building and artefact had a sheen suggesting it had been installed within the past 24 hours” (this last line made me nod in recognition, and the book offers many other acutely observed moments).

Danny Callaghan’s world is weary, fallen, and runs on heavy fuel – the white, powdery kind. Without overdoing it, Kerrigan lets us know that the Dublin underworld of his novel basically runs on the money it makes selling recreational drugs to the aspirant middle class – “the financial centre crowd and the models and the lawyers and the journalists”, in the words of one of Kerrigan’s coppers.

This is a city in which the entrepreneurial spirit has changed everyone, high and low. The spirit of free enterprise extends to junkies, dealers, capos and straw-boss gangsters, and to the men at the top – in this case, Lar Mackendrick, the mob kingpin who, in a nice, Sopranos-esque touch, runs his business operations according to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.

The dark times of the title allude not merely to the book’s violent scenes, but to the end of the boom years themselves: Kerrigan’s Dublin is a place from which the money is vanishing at an alarming rate, and in which the old criminal order is being overturned by violent new gangs – “coked-up kiddies who’ll swat you if you look crooked at them”. Dark Times in the City is a serious book, but it wears its seriousness lightly, and never forgets that it’s a thriller. It is – to coin a phrase – seriously entertaining.

Kevin Power’s first novel, Bad Day in Blackrock(The Lilliput Press), is shortlisted for the International Education Services Irish Newcomer of the Year Award in the Irish Book Awards 2009