Saturday, 16 April 2011
The Wrong Kind of Blood
Declan Hughes' name will always have a resonance for me because of the experience of seeing his play Digging for Fire. I still remember the strong feeling that I had during the play that I could get out of my seat and simply stroll onto the stage and belong there. These were my peers, talking like we talked and with the same references we shared. Drink, Emigration, AIDS, The Pixies and a sensibility that seemed to be perfectly realised.
When I saw his name on the cover of a crime novel I was intrigued enough to buy it and finally (it's been there a while amoung the hundreds of unread refugees from charity shop bookshelves) I got around to reading it.
The detectives name, Ed Loy, is a clear hommage to Dashiell Hammet's great Sam Spade who, along with Chandler's Philip Marlowe, remains a touchstone for hard boiled crime novels.* (Loy is a type of spade which used to be popular in Ireland). It is also an anagram for Doyle and perhaps this refers back to Arthur Conan, who was of Irish blood on both sides and even lived for a while in Bray, just south of Dublin, my hometown and a place where an old Town Hall now houses a McDonalds, as in the book. When returned emigrant Ed Loy sees this he remarks "I stood outside it feeling utterly bewildered, like George Bailey in Pottersfield."
This is one of the themes of the novel. The difference between the place Loy has come home to and the place he left. He has returned for his mothers funeral from LA, the place where you go to forget. The irony is that he finds, in parts of his hometown Dublin that, "I felt strangely at home there. And then I realised why: because this scene reminded me more of Santa Monica, of West LA, of California than of the Ireland I had left." But many things remain the same. His mother's house is as it always was, but more worn. And now it is his.
But there is a difference. In Dublin the junkies mix with the upper echelons whereas "In California, they would have employed security to ensure that people who have money to spend never have to look at people who don't." However I did feel that the author hadn't done much mixing with these types either and they were written as observed rather than from within. The classic interior monologue even veers towards mawkish a couple of times: "if it (heroin) had gone onto the streets, would have caused a lot more deaths, left a lot of kids without their parents." Awww!
As an archetypical private dick of the hard boiled variety is wont to do, Loy puts his head to work, digging. Almost every time he finds something out he takes a beating. And some of the stuff he has to dig up is actually underground. In case you didn't get the point. The femmes are all fatale, or fatal, or mortal, or a mixture of the above.
Blood is the key to this book, blood and place.
"Sometimes it's all down to blood.
Blood can be wrong in itself."
Ed Loy bleeds to find the truth and the characters are bound together by blood and place, both blood spilled and the inheritance of blood. There is a kind of fatalistic belief in tainted blood as well, as if we inherited the sins of the fathers along with their genes. There is a repeated refrain that "it all goes back to Fagan's Villas" You know there's going to be an (Oliver) twist in the tale.
And indeed the plot twists like a strand of deoxyribonucleic acid and the writing is good enough to keep you going if not good enough to blow you away. It's not Red Harvest but then very little is. I won't be rushing out to buy the sequels but I may well end up reading more of them. There's just enough here to keep my interest piqued.
*This brought back memories of another play by Declan that I had seen called I Can't Get Started which (if memory serves me well) explored and Dashiell Hammett's writers block and his relationship with playwright Lillian Hellman. (I checked it out and that is what it's about). It seems now a projection of his inner selves - the playwright and the crime novelist. The crime novelist certainly seems to have got rid of the block. This book, published in 2006 has been followed by four more.
Footnote; One of the stranger things about the novel was the geographical and titular accuracy of some of the Dublin scenes and the blurring of others, with names and details changed. I felt a little unbalanced by this, trying to tie places down.
Declan Hughes web site is here. Note the atmospheric picture of the interior of The Stag's Head, for a number of years in the eighties my second home.