After a short prelude, Declan Hughes' latest Ed Loy novel opens up in Tolka Park at a Shels game. A gunman arrives and sprays the place with bullets, and as you read, you can't help feeling that if such a scene had been written 20 years ago, it would have come off as cheesy and embarrassing. But this is a different Ireland, and Hughes is a different type of thriller writer.
Loy has to deal with the death of an up-and-coming footballer whom he was asked to shadow. Meanwhile, he finds himself investigating a cold case involving the murder of a revenue collector in the early 1990s. Throw into the mix a couple of murders, the prospect of gang warfare, and the legacy of the Northern conflict, and Loy, as usual, is slap bang in the middle of something which threatens to overwhelm him.
All the old tropes are here. There's the general stomping around Dublin as Loy does his thing, the inevitable threat of narrative monotony as he deals with conventional question-and-answer sessions with murder suspects, and Loy gets beaten up more than once.
What lifts it all out of the ordinary is Hughes' self-awareness. He makes the stomping around Dublin convincing as we recognise the streets and landmarks of a city now more familiar with gangland crime than ever before. He briskly and deftly deals with exposition, and then ramps up the adrenalin just as things are beginning to flag. There's also a digression in which his skills as a playwright come to the fore, and we hear the different voices of a family making their way back to Belfast after a weekend away... the import of which only becomes clear later on in the novel.
And the violence? Well, the violence is very often senseless, crude, and vicious, but then isn't that the point of it; and Hughes happily deploys the sadism, when needed, to give the narrative its dark rhythm and verve.
Along the way, there are plenty of highlights. Loy finds himself at both extremes of the social spectrum when he visits first a gangland pub, followed by an excruciating Irish-American dinner at Shanahan's on the Green.
The characters at both occasions are just the right side of caricature, and will leave you feeling equal amounts of revulsion for each of them. There's also a smooth and clinically impressive chapter describing one criminal's discovery of a facility for murder which he never even knew he had.
Meanwhile, Loy retains that familiar mixture of hardness and vulnerability. He likes a drink, he likes to dress well, and he carries with him a constant sense of failure.
The narrative works through him and around him, and sometimes you find yourself waiting for another welcome appearance from one of the more morally suspect characters. But then Loy wouldn't be Loy if he didn't have a streak of the mundane which we recognise in all of us, and Hughes understands this. In the end, an enjoyable and satisfying read.
All The Dead Voices
by Declan Hughes