Sunday, 29 April 2012

A June of Ordinary Murders: Review

Some weeks ago I mentioned the publication of Conor Brady's new historical crime novel, A June of Ordinary Murders.  The book's publisher, New Island, was kind enough to send me a review copy and here, alas, is the review!

'J.G. Farrell, the Liverpool-born, Irish novelist, renowned for his historical fictions, who died, too young, in 1979, wrote: “History leaves so much out … It leaves out the most important thing: the detail of what being alive is like.”  In his debut historical crime novel, A June of Ordinary Murders, Conor Brady goes a long way toward showing us what being alive was like for a Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) detective working a murder case during a heat wave in Dublin, circa 1887.  A crime novel rich in period detail and confident characterisation, the reader of A June of Ordinary Murders can almost feel the heat oppressing Dublin, smell the stench of the rancid Liffey at low ebb.  

Dublin Castle--the seat of British rule in Ireland
and headquarters for G-Division of the DMP
Set against the backdrop of the Irish Land War, in a city set to host a Jubilee visit by Queen Victoria's grandson, Prince Albert Victor, the novel presents us with Detective Sergeant Joe Swallow, a man tasked with solving the brutal murders of an unidentified man and child found in Phoenix Park.  To compound matters, the Queen of the city's criminal underworld, Ces 'Pisspot' Downes, has died and her retinue of vicious underbosses are beginning to jostle for control of her empire.  In a time when murders in Ireland were declared 'political' or 'ordinary'--with the bulk of resources devoted to  investigating 'political' murders in a country chomping at the bit of independence from the Crown--Swallow must negotiate the corridors of power in Dublin Castle as well as the mean back lanes and rough pubs of criminal Dublin in an effort to solve the murders.

Brady shows us early adaptations of
supposedly cutting-edge CSI 
It is Brady's portrayal of the murder investigation that is one of the book's strongest suits.  As a former journalist, Irish Times editor, Garda Ombudsman and author of the definitive history of the Garda Siochana, Guardians of the Peace: the Irish Police, Brady knows his cops and knows how they work.  In places, he exhibits this too well, one feels, with perhaps one too many scenes of crime conferences, which, while believable and fine summary of the story-so-far, could have been dealt with in a paragraph or two rather than pages.  This is a minor quibble, however, as Brady moves his tale along at a fine clip, pausing only to relish the minutiae of Victorian police work.  Much of this feels surprisingly modern, with revealing insights into the origins of much of what we take to be cutting edge CSI, such as the science of ballistics or facial reconstructions from the human skull.  He is especially good on the uneasily familiar relationship between detectives and their gangland nemeses which again, rings true.  There is a particularly fine scene where two young and ambitious detectives are somewhat too eager to believe the last-words of a dying underworld enforcer, and the results of their inexperience sail as close to real life as anything I've read recently in a crime novel.    

Swallow is a believable and sympathetic protagonist and his relationship with the publican, Maria Walsh, is particularly well drawn.  Another of the book's strengths, in fact, is its portrayal of female characters as rounded and modern in a way in perfect keeping with the waning Victorian setting.  All of the characters in the novel live on the page in a way that is never anachronistic.  It is the duty of the historical novelist to remind us that, while times change, people don't, and Brady pulls this off with panache.

His writing is clear and comfortable, as one would expect from a former journalist of Brady's stature, and the research, historical and criminal, exudes authenticity.  Again, a minor quibble, but perhaps too much of this fascinating research is evidenced in the early chapters; there is a long explanation of the Land War which, while interesting, admirably objective and well presented, would be better suited to a history textbook and could have been summarised neatly in a paragraph or bedded in the dialogue.  This tendency to over-inclusion of hard-won research--an occupational hazard for all historical novelists, myself very much included--fades, however, as the narrative progresses and we are left with a cracking whodunnit, rich in period detail and peopled with wholly believable, complex characters of whom I hope to see more of in future Joe Swallow novels.  All in all, a powerful, well-researched debut from Brady.  A June of Ordinary Murders is no ordinary historical novel and comes to you highly recommended by this reader.