“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.”
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. (On my Favorites List for 2008)
The author’s photo appears on http://www.waterstones.com
The photo of the Gardai in St Stephen’s Green is by Julian Behal/PA: http://www.guardian.co.uk/