Sunday, November 1, 2015

"Belfast Noir": Book Review

The Noir series from Akashic Books proliferates, as cities around the world inspire writers to set tales of crime in them. Long into the selection process now, it's Belfast's turn. As co-editors Adrian McKinty and Stuart Neville introduce this short story collection: "You can see Belfast's bloodstains up close and personal. This is the city that gave the world its worst ever maritime disaster, and turned it into a tourist attraction; similarly, we are perversely proud of our thousands of murders, our wounds constantly on display." So, these fourteen contributors, many who live in the city or nearby in the province, display their fictional characters, full of wounds and eager in many cases to keep inflicting more wounds, despite two decades of (relative) peace. No matter what, death beckons.

Part One, "City of Ghosts," opens with Brian McGilloway's story of undertakers, a logical cover for nefarious goings-on as certain men driving hearse and a coffin try to cross the border and back again. Lucy Caldwell's "Poison" refreshingly avoids death or corpses, and her account of daring schoolgirls fascinated by their language teacher and their former classmate, a few years ahead, who he left his wife for, turns awry in convincingly matter-of-fact fashion. Lee Child's "Wet With Rain" captures the haunted quality around Great Victoria Street. Ruth Dudley Edwards' "Taking It Serious" sidles around dissident republicanism, and its appeal to those who look to the generation of executed rebels in 1916 and after as their heroes, to the discomfort of the established republicans who have largely accepted the status quo in spite of their regular parades and graveside rhetoric to the contrary. While many stories here seem as if the speakers could have lived anywhere in the English-speaking world, her story feels despite its contemporary setting as if from an earlier time that Sean O'Faolain might have conveyed.

"City Of Walls" looks at divisions within Belfast. Gerard Brennan's "Ligature" squints around the city through the disoriented eyes of an unsteady young woman who winds up incarcerated after a series of desperate actions throughout a city half-gentrifying, half-divided. In this realm which his novels have long detailed in impressive fashion, Glenn Patterson's "Belfast Punk REP" typifies his ability to capture the fractured psyche of some in Belfast, through the career of a disreputable ugly fellow nicknamed Milky, who also winds up behind bars. Ian McDonald, known for his fantasy and science fiction, here offers in "The Reservoir" a story of revenge, inflicted after a rival's daughter's wedding.

In the third part, "City of Commerce," Steve Cavanagh's "The Grey" roams the court system, a setting otherwise if tellingly largely skirted by his fellow contributors. Claire McGowan in young P.I. Aloysius Carson may have a protagonist who can outlast the foes arrayed against him; the winningly plucky and self-deprecating hero draws the reader into his adventure to track down the owner of "Rosie Grant's Finger." Another enduring if fictional hero outside these pages, Karl Kane, in Sam Millar's "Out of Time" returns to inflict mayhem and utter hard-boiled dialogue in reliably pulp fashion. Garbhan Downey's "To Die Like a Rat" compares a testy rodent's fate with a human victim.

Finally, entries in "Brave New City" feature fresh takes on the drama of dead bodies. Known for his "Resurrection Man" (1988) novel dramatizing some of the most brutal of the thousands of contenders for murder in Belfast, Eoin McNamee's "Corpse Flowers" uses the ubiquity of CCTV and surveillance installed in the city to set up a haunting, elliptical story. Arlene Hunt's "The Game" turns the tables on some who make sport out of the torment inflicted on those unable to bear it, and like all three stories in this concluding section, it ends suddenly and effectively. Last of all, Alex Barclay's "The Reveller" starts with comeuppance of Paddy the Publican and ends in an unsettled state of mind.

Not every story hooked me all the way through, for a few dragged, whatever they may have tallied in pages. Still, while some did not capitalize on the Belfast setting or its complex heritage as much as I'd have expected, the mix of those troubled by the sectarian past and present for their actions and those who were more disturbed by the conventional motives for revenge and retribution that crime fiction and fact thrive on in any city make for a generally satisfying contribution to this ongoing Noir series.
(11-3-14 to Amazon US)

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