Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Gerard Cappa's "Blood from a Shadow": Book Review

This Belfast writer's thriller incorporates not only the 2012 presidential election, Iran's nuclear ambitions, and Al Qaeda's threats. It turns to ancient Ulster mythic figures, Cú Chulainn and his foster-brother and best friend Ferdia, to enrich this presentation of two contemporary veterans from Route Irish and the war for Baghdad. Con Maknazpy (hold on for the spelling; I happened to have guessed correctly its derivation, but it was a long shot!) and Ferdy McIlhane, pals from Yonkers, after a traumatic, pyrrhic first scene of strife in Iraq, meet separation. Con seeks to find out Ferdy's fate.

The mission with which Con's entrusted takes him to Belfast, Rome, Istanbul, and then back to New York City. Without any plot spoilers, suffice to say that Gerard Cappa's pace never lets up. His love for action sustains very brutal showdowns in three out of the four locales. However, he eases up the tension, amid considerable body counts and a massive amount of woe inflicted on and by the mid-thirties Con which seemed indeed to recall his Irish predecessor, that may defy a bit of belief, as required for such tales.

There's an astonishing amount of references--on cultural, political, and what's intriguingly a personal level for the author--packed into its pages. I found this considerably denser in its telling than the genre typically presents, once I noticed character names and places. This intertextuality may overwhelm some readers but entice others, as such dogged, clever, "Easter Egg" construction tends to do. A love of the Irish form of excessive delight in the detail and ramble helps.

Other allusions, to Rostram and Sohrab of Persian lore, to the Peacock Angel of the Yazidi Kurds, owls and crows of Celtic shapeshifting, Columbus, the Crusades, and the 69th Fighting Irish of the US Army--from the Civil War to Operation Enduring Freedom--show Gerry Cappa's wide-ranging interests, as he deftly incorporates them into the espionage and thriller genres. He aims at a diverse readership. One that demands a page-turning violent saga, and another that savors a more polished gloss.

As Gallogly keeps telling our compromised, conflicted hero, Con tends to radiate trouble around himself. He narrates his own story--this does lessen a bit of suspense as happens in such conventions. Wisely, Cappa balances this narrative choice with legendary resonances which play into the Irish, American, and Middle Eastern contentions for heroism, idealism, hubris and folly effectively.

Con surrounds himself with many who try to throw him off his course of investigating what may be a heroin trafficking network from the opium fields through the Middle East to Turkey, into Europe, and over via Ireland to the States. The old Irish republican gun-running trails, it seems, may be to blame. For this reason, Con's singled out, as he learns, to come to Ireland and to begin his frenetic quest.

The author likes to fill you in on the characters, who pop up regularly to try to help or fool the protagonist. Eddie the bartender "once had a grand Roman nose but now it folded under his right eye," while a beefy concierge displays "white bristles wired out of his grainy pore craters of his nose, shoulders made for bouncing the lowlifes and carrying the highlifes." Con tends to meet the lowlifes.

Con's story does get complicated. It can be, as with fast-paced thrillers, hard to keep up with. So much bloodshed can take its toll on a reader as well as its cast of spies, turncoats, and avengers. A cinematic flair in the settings and set-ups that gain vivid depiction shows Cappa's skill. It eases the labyrinthine, disruptive, often dialogue-driven and quicksilver-unpredictable story structure.

Red herrings abound, and false leads. The Turkish sections become markedly intricate, so the busy plot demands patience amidst the threats and mayhem, as in the midst of rapid movements and conversations with which I sought to keep up. Similarly, its New York scenes turn as energetically as a quickly edited sequence from a film such as "The Bourne Identity."

Speaking of parallels, setting this so soon in the future--nearly real time, as it starts October 2012--is a daring choice. It may shorten its shelf life. But even when we know who will be elected as the next president, it's a worthwhile look at the costs that international strife exacts on everyday folks, even if fewer of these exist among the more devious and less honest men and women who fill these pages.

All the same, vivid descriptions of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, the Belfast breeze, a venerable Roman church, or the brief camaraderie afforded our harried hero in a Bronx pub provide necessary respite among the skulduggery. Con needed a chance to recuperate now and then, considering his record in the ring lashing out against all who try to tame him. Cú Chulainn in the "Táin" translations of Thomas Kinsella underwent "warp-spasms" or Ciaran Carson "torque"; here, Con enters a "red cycle," "dark energy," and "soul plasma" as he faces off against inner ghosts and haunting demons not only on the outside, as his antagonists. This layer deepens the impact of this rousing debut, and I hope to hear more from the hero, once he recovers from his notably bloody routs!  British (British Amazon and + US Amazon 8-8-12)

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