Praise for Declan Burke: “Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Irish Times Crime Fiction column, February 2018

An agoraphobic confined to her Harlem apartment, Anna Fox obsessively watches her neighbours in AJ Finn’s debut The Woman in the Window (HarperCollins, €15.99). Formerly a child psychologist, Anna self-medicates with too many pills and far too much wine. When she hears a scream from the apartment across the way, and sees her new neighbour, Jane Russell, stagger into view with a knife stuck in her chest, Anna is convinced she has witnessed a murder. When the police investigate, however, they introduce Anna to Alistair Russell and his wife, Jane – a woman Anna has never seen before. Is Anna hallucinating? Or is something more sinister going on in the Russell home? Taking its cue from Hitchcock’s Rear Window, as well as a host of noir classics, The Woman in the Window offers a clever variation on the unreliable narrator. Anna Fox is intelligent and resourceful, but the first-person intensity of the narrative’s diary format grows increasingly claustrophobic as the story unfolds. Fans of the psychological thriller will likely spot a couple of the big twists before they are revealed, but this is a hugely entertaining tale of cat-and-mouse that is steeped in the genre.
  E. Lockhart’s Genuine Fraud (Hot Key Books, €16.90) opens in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, where Jule is living an aimless, decadent existence at an upmarket hotel. When a friendly stranger starts asking too many questions, Jule realises it’s time to move on – but it is ever possible to outrun your past? The question is a pertinent one in relation to Genuine Fraud, the story of which unfolds in reverse, with each successive chapter taking us a step further into Jule’s recent past via her turbulent relationship with the mysteriously disappeared Imogen. Imogen’s fate will come as no surprise to fans of Patricia Highsmith, especially as Lockhart specifically credits The Talented Mr Ripley as an influence, although in essentially rewriting crucial scenarios from that novel, Lockhart blurs the line between homage and pastiche. The antithesis of ‘the great white hetero action hero’ she repeatedly mocks, Jule is no slouch herself when it comes to slickly dispatching anyone who threatens to stand in her way of self-gratification, a bad-ass anti-hero who believes her life cinematic. A narcissistic, manipulative and homicidal sociopath, Jule is a thrilling guilty pleasure, albeit one prone to needy self-aggrandizing.
  Opening in Hollywood in 1922, Gerard O’Donovan’s The Long Silence (Severn House, €29.39) is a mystery centring on the death of Irish film director William Taylor. With the scandal of the Fatty Arbuckle murder trial still fresh in the memory, studio boss Mack Sennett calls in ex-NYPD cop and former studio ‘fixer’ Tom Collins to ensure that Taylor’s rumoured girlfriend and studio asset Mabel Normand isn’t involved in Taylor’s death. William Desmond Taylor’s murder remains unsolved to this day, but O’Donovan doesn’t set out to write a fictionalised true crime novel; The Long Silence is a densely plotted odyssey through the mean streets and dark alleyways of Prohibition-era Los Angeles that pays homage, with its neon-lit rainy streets and teeming cast of lowlifes, gangsters and Hollywood wannabes, to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, albeit in a brisk, functional style somewhere between the bruised poetry of the former and the pared-down minimalism of the latter. Adolph Zukor, Douglas Fairbanks Jnr. and Gloria Swanson are just some of the historical figures who play bit parts in Tom Collins’ investigation, which delivers an atmospheric and cynical take on Hollywood realpolitik in the silent era.
  Laura Pierce sets out for the South of France at the beginning of Susan Stairs’ One Good Reason (Hachette Books Ireland, €15.99), determined to confront artist Paddy Skellion, the father of Tory Skellion, a young man acquitted of taking part in a home invasion which caused Laura’s father to suffer a fatal heart-attack. Laura plans to subject Paddy Skellion to a rough form of natural justice, but her scheme quickly goes awry. On the face of it a revenge thriller, One Good Reason is refreshingly pragmatic in the way it addresses the corrosive effects of hatred and the impossible fantasy of revenge; it also delivers a sobering critique of the law’s limitations and a fascinating exploration of the psychological consequences of taking the law into one’s own hands. The plot isn’t always entirely plausible, but One Good Reason is a thrilling account of how the absence of justice can transform raw grief into a potentially lethal obsession.
  The narrator of Leo Benedictus’ Consent (Faber, €15.99) is a logical, erudite and ‘uncomplicated person’ who tries ‘to live by simple principles with doggedness and honesty, and with an open mind.’ Fair enough, until you realise that he’s applying said principles to ‘studying people’ – or, to be precise, stalking. Benign to begin with – one of his principles is to never engage with ‘the subject’ – the stalking becomes increasingly creepy as our narrator grows obsessed with Frances, and begins writing a novel told from Frances’ point of view, a novel that includes our narrator as one of its main characters. The narrator’s pompous self-importance and overly florid language bring to mind John Banville’s Freddie Montgomery or Dostoevsky’s Raskalnikov, but behind all the self-serving sermonising Benedictus is having fun with the genre’s tropes, at one point assuring the reader that his ‘moral duty, if I have one, is to get away with what I’m doing.’ By turns whimsical and bone-chillingly explicit, Consent is a gripping reimagining of one of the crime genre’s most tired tropes: “I wonder if you’ll see a monster,” the narrator asks of the reader, “and if I am one, or if monstrosity is a costume to be tried on.” ~ Declan Burke

  This column was first published in the Irish Times.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Review: FEAR by Dirk Kurbjuweit

Terrorised by his neighbour, and fearing for his wife and children, Berlin architect Randolph Tiefenthaler takes the law into his own hands. ‘At about 8.40 am,’ Randolph tells us, ‘the accused, Herman Tiefenthaler (my father, that is), left the flat of his son, Randolph Tiefenthaler, with the Walther PPK, then in his lawful possession, and descended to the basement, where he induced the tenant, Dieter Tiberius, to open the door to his flat, either by knocking or ringing the bell, and then killed Tiberius with a close-range shot to the head.’
  That sounds like the conclusion to a conventional tale of a law-abiding citizen driven to murder a creepy and potentially life-threatening stalker, but Dirk Kurbjuweit’s novel is by no means a conventional psychological thriller. Kurbjuweit, deputy editor-in-chief at Der Spiegel, was inspired to write Fear (Orion) as a result of his own experience of being stalked; having laid out the events described above as early as page 16, Kurbjuweit then proceeds to tease out the cat-and-mouse game that developed between the creepy neighbour, Dieter Tiberius, and Randolph and his wife, Rebecca. It’s a ‘whydunit’ of sorts – one of the central mysteries to be resolved is why Randolph’s father, Hermann, has murdered Tiberius – although the mystery itself is something of a red herring: Fear is a novel that is much more invested in exploring the concept of masculinity than playing the kind of guessing game we tend to associate with the whydunit psychological thriller.
  Indeed, it quickly becomes apparent that Kurbjuweit is investigating various interpretations of masculinity, as Randolph discovers that a man is expected to behave in different ways according to the expectations of different people and different generations. Moreover, Randolph is a man who has been conditioned by fear from a very young age. The son of a man obsessed with guns, he grew up in Berlin at the height of the Cold War, living and breathing the threat of imminent extinction; Randolph’s parents, meanwhile, came of age during WWII, and are themselves children of fear, which may account for the simmering rage which underpins their relationship: ‘If you walked through the burning city of Cologne as a little girl,’ Randolph says of his mother, ‘heard the bombers, the shells and sirens, knew the smell of burnt human flesh and had to see open wounds and torn limbs, perhaps you feel you have put the worst behind you – that a domestic dispute is a trivial matter.’ Randolph, being a self-professed middle-class liberal, believes that he has rejected all that his parents stand for, including their petit bourgeois hopes and fears. His actions, however, suggest that Randolph, whether by nature or nurture, has inherited the best and worst of his parents’ characteristics, with tragic consequences.
  Studded with blackly comic moments – at one point Randolph’s therapist urges him to ‘stop trying to see everything so positively’ – Fear revels in playing with the genre’s conventions at every turn. Far from being an unreliable narrator, for example, Randolph is an entirely reliable guide, and perhaps even a little too honest to make for comfortable company on the journey. There’s no doubting he loves his wife and children, but Randolph is also very happy in his own company, which means he can come across aloof and remote, and an unusually austere hero, emotionally speaking, when it comes to defending hearth and home. Thus, when Dieter Tiberius torments Randolph and Rebecca by accusing them of abusing their children, and subsequently reports them to the police, the reader experiences a frisson of doubt about Randolph’s behaviour behind closed doors, even as Randolph, as any father would, protests his innocence to anyone who will listen.
  Beautifully translated by Imogen Taylor, Fear is a complex tale of plausibly conflicting reactions to a prolonged and almost unimaginably stressful living nightmare, a story that invites the reader – a citizen, presumably, as law-abiding as Randolph and Rebecca – to decide for herself how she might behave were she to discover herself in Randolph’s impossible situation. The final twist will likely come as no surprise to fans of the psychological thriller, but otherwise Fear is a complex, nuanced and gripping tale of domestic terror. ~ Declan Burke

  Declan Burke is an author and journalist. He is currently a Dublin City Council / UNESCO writer-in-residence.

  This review was first published in the Irish Times.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

One to Watch: TANGERINE by Christine Mangan

Set in 1950’s Morocco, Christine Mangan’s debut TANGERINE (Little, Brown) is billed as a blend of Patricia Highsmith and Daphne du Maurier. To wit:
The last person Alice Shipley expected to see since arriving in Tangier with her new husband was Lucy Mason. After the horrific accident at Bennington, the two friends - once inseparable roommates - haven’t spoken in over a year. But Lucy is standing there, trying to make things right.
  Perhaps Alice should be happy. She has not adjusted to life in Morocco, too afraid to venture out into the bustling medinas and oppressive heat. Lucy, always fearless and independent, helps Alice emerge from her flat and explore the country.
  But soon a familiar feeling starts to overtake Alice - she feels controlled and stifled by Lucy at every turn. Then Alice’s husband, John, goes missing, and Alice starts to question everything around her: her relationship with her enigmatic friend, her decision to ever come to Tangier, and her very own state of mind.
  According to Joyce Carol Oates, TANGERINE is ‘As if Donna Tartt, Gillian Flynn and Patricia Highsmith had collaborated in a screenplay to be filmed by Hitchcock.’ The movie rights have already been sold, with Scarlet Johansson slated to star, and George Clooney producing.
  TANGERINE will be published in March.