(Jump down to read a review of The Midnight Choir)
(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JUL 1, 2008)
"There were people who took shortcuts through other people's lives, didn't give a damn what harm they did. Sometimes, what mattered wasn't just the damage they left after them, it was the reckless contempt of it. It's like some lives matter and other people exist just to populate the landscape."
Frankie Crowe is one of those men who takes shortcuts. A "little" criminal, in the sense that he has a small mind and grand ideas of his own self-importance, he is among the most dangerous of criminals, a young man for whom no one else counts.
Recently released from a two-year prison sentence, Frankie has missed half of his four-year-old daughter's growing up years, but "The way Frankie added it up, even doing all the hard time that comes with the life, you spend a lot less dead time in jail than John Citizen spends shoveling shit for shit wages." Life in Dublin—at least the kind of life Frankie wants—is expensive, and his current scheme is to kidnap one of Ireland's wealthiest men and hold him for ransom. Justin Kennedy, the man selected, has been involved in the purchase of a small private bank, and Frankie figures that he will have an easier time obtaining a large sum of money than some of the other men on the "Rich List." Collecting a group of petty criminals around him, Frankie and his three associates conspire to make the snatch.
Filling the novel with the local color of life in and around Dublin, author Gene Kerrigan plots an involving mystery, showing the dark side of Irish life and creating characters the reader comes to know and understand. Not typically noir, this novel is far more concerned with showing why characters like Frankie are so unapologetically anti-social, if not sociopathic. As Frankie himself tries to explain to one of the gardai, "If you want to do the best for yourself, sometimes you have to do something you know is just plain wrong…because it's the only way to get where you want to be…People [who] do what they have to do, they own the people who don't…Maybe you feel bad about doing it, but it's that or be a loser." Frankie believes that "doing a bad thing doesn't make you a bad person," and he is so driven by his ambition that nothing, not even committing murder, will deter him from his goals.
When the kidnap takes place, Frankie and his crew change gears, deciding to kidnap Angela Kennedy, Justin's young wife, instead. Throwing her into the boot of their stolen car, they drive to the remote countryside to hold her, keeping her isolated and in fear for her life while they sadistically play with her husband's emotions by failing to contact him as promised, then changing the ransom demands. Justin Kennedy, who seems to be an honorable businessman, shows that he shares some of Frankie Crowe's drive for success, and as he negotiates the delivery of the ransom, his own business connections come under the microscope.
As the novel and its characters become more complex, Kerrigan uses the garda officers who are investigating a variety of crimes to comment on life in present day Ireland. "It's the new Ireland," one of them says. "Since we got prosperous, everyone's more tense and no one feels the day's complete until they get marinated…Used to be the Church set limits to things. That's all gone. All the old landmarks are gone. Even the IRA are wearing suits and discussing gross national product. It's all about money now, and grabbing your share and a bit of the other fella's."
For Detective Inspector John Grace, investigating the case, "the crime just kept on coming, and would keep on coming, and what he or anyone else on the force did wouldn't make a difference worth noticing." Everyone now seemed to believe that he was entitled to acquire whatever his vision of life required, and "apart from the odd radical priest or social worker on the way to early burn-out, no one gave a shit…No one said it out loud, but there was an acceptable level of crime, maybe even a desirable level of crime."
Debunking the myth of a jolly Ireland in which life revolves around storytelling, singing, and companionable drinking at the pub, Kerrigan shows the growing pains of economic "progress" and how that has changed the fabric of the country for its young people, a number of whom have put their entrepreneurial skills to use in unsavory ways. The older generation, as represented here by the gardai and by two elderly men, provide a counterpoint to the Frankie Crowe and his crew. These men have lived through shared hardship and the domination of the Church in community life, and they now find themselves facing a new society which, if they understand it, they may not accept.
The sociological underpinnings of this novel add depth and complexity to what might otherwise have been a shoot-'em-up in a Dublin setting. Smooth at the same time that it is gritty, and darkly ironic at the same time that it is brutally realistic, Kerrigan's novel often conveys real sentiment, seen even in the lives of criminals like Frankie Crowe. Frankie's callous, asocial behavior, in turn, often enhances the emotion through its shock effect on the reader, and the poignant sadness of the desperate resolution lingers long after the book is closed. Beautifully plotted, sometimes violent, and very involving, Kerrigan has developed a novel which goes beyond thrills and into the realm of literature.
- Amazon readers rating: from 18 reviews
"The Midnight Choir"
(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JUN 16, 2007)
"Even when you think you know what the law says, some smart-arse in a wig finds a new wrinkle in an old rule and you watch some sniggering thug waltz out of court. When the Law is a bouncing ball on a spinning wheel, all that a righteous man can aim for is order."
Bringing order to Dublin is Garda Detective Inspector Harry Synnott's specialty. A man married for fifteen years and divorced for six, he is too busy to spend much time with his teenaged son. His whole life is wrapped up in trying to see that order prevails—either order recognized as justice by the courts or the order that Harry and his Garda officer pals bring about themselves, when their evidence of a felon's guilt does not meet court standards.
Despite his willingness to ignore the niceties of law, Harry Synnott has a conscience, however, and he is shunned by many of his fellow Gardai because he testified against his fellow officers in the brutal beating of a prisoner. "It wasn't the prisoner's welfare that mattered to Harry Synnott. What was working away inside his gut was the blatant use of violence…the assumption that membership of the force automatically tied him into that shameless wielding of unbounded power."
In clear prose which often contains bits of black humor and a great deal of irony, Irish author Gene Kerrigan sets the primary story in Dublin, and the secondary, companion story in Galway, until they overlap. New information discovered during the Galway case brings about a devastating conclusion which shakes Harry to the depths of his soul.
The Galway story seems simple enough: Garda Joe Mills and Garda Declan Dockery go to the roof of a pub where a man is threatening suicide. They save him from suicide only to discover that the man's clothes are covered in blood. He will not tell his name, later discovered to be Wayne Kemp, and the only statement he makes is an enigmatic, "I'd never hurt a woman before." Kemp's only connections with Dublin are that he once worked for a Dublin security firm, and that his sister is a Dublin resident, and Kemp is so disturbed that he can provide no useful information for the Galway Gardai.
In Dublin, Harry Synnott is treading the minefield of police politics, moving from station house to station house, until he is finally recommended for a job with Europol, to start when his current case load is finished. As the novel moves from a Wednesday to the following Tuesday, the inexorable unfolding of events in several of Synnott's cases leads to a crisis and grand climax, both in terms of the action and in terms of Synnott's character. Synnott and Det. Garda Rose Cheney are investigating allegations of rape and abuse brought by Teresa Hunt against Max Hapgood, the son of a wealthy businessman with top-notch lawyers and public relations people. As he contemplates the fact that "justice" for the wealthy is far different from that of the poor, Synnott is also trying to get help for Dixie Peyton, a poor junkie, sometimes an informer, who has robbed a tourist couple with a syringe as a weapon. Joshua Boyce, a businessman with an indeterminate business, having spent weeks monitoring activity at a jewelry shop, commits a robbery and a man dies, and the Irish mob enters the picture, too. As the details of these cases unfold during the space of one week, one of Synnott's old cases, the "Swanson Avenue" case, casts its long shadow and eventually raises serious questions about justice, responsibility, and guilt.
In this intriguing police procedural, Kerrigan keeps the action crisp and fast-paced, with plenty of complications to keep the reader busy. What makes this novel different from so many of this genre is that he is also outstanding at creating characters with whom the reader develops empathy—Synnott, Dixie Peyton and her son, and eventually Det. Rose Cheney. Synnott, himself, is likeable and basically good-hearted, but he is busy, and he is easily distracted by events in which he is directly involved. He fails his ex-wife and son, even as he is trying to help poor junkie Dixie Peyton, who, upon her arrest, loses custody of her own son. Eventually he also fails Dixie and several other people he has tried to "help." His final recognition of his failings comes dramatically and brutally, and the reader is left to ponder whether he will be able to deal with his self-realization.
Dark and sad in its vision of humanity, even with the bleak humor that is scattered throughout, this dramatic and tense novel questions the relationship between freedom and responsibility, between order and justice, and between principles and expediency. The title, from a poem by Leonard Cohen, epitomizes Synnott's dilemma: "Like a drunk in a midnight choir/ I have tried in my way to be free."
- Amazon readers rating: from 24 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Little Criminals (2005; 2008 in US)
- The Midnight Choir (2007)
- The Rage (February 2013)
- Dark Times in the City (2009; October 2013 in US)
- Hard Cases: True Stories of Irish Crime (1996)
- Another Country: Growing Up in the 50's Ireland (1998)
- Never Make a Promise That You Can't Break: How To Succeed in Irish Politics (2002)
- The Big Lie: Who Profits from Ireland's Austerity? (2012)
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- Wikipedia page on Gene Kerrigan
- NPR review of The Rage and excerpt
- MostlyFiction.com review of Dark Times in the City
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About the Author:
Gene Kerrigan is a Dublin writer. He has been a journalist for over thirty years, Journalist of the Year in 1985 and 1990. He is a columnist for the Independent.