Thursday, May 27, 2010

Review of The American Envoy by Garbhan Downey (Guildhall Press, 2010)

Dave Schuurman, a Boston journalist with political connections, expects to get a plum posting from the new US Secretary of State. A minor indiscretion and a YouTube video ensure that the posting is as the US Envoy to Derry in Northern Ireland, helping to build cultural and economic relations between the two countries. On arrival, he’s taken under the wing of Tommy ‘bowtie’ McGinlay, a criminal lawyer with political connections. Schuurman is soon a member of McGinlay’s poker circle that includes the local mayor, newspaper editor and senior cop. He’s also tangled with Tommy’s ultra-feminist niece and local shock radio host, Ellie, and started to date Chris Diaz, the beautiful and ambitious manager of an American pharmaceutical company. Just as he seems to be finding his feet, helping to organise a trip to the US to try and encourage other companies to locate in the area, local teenagers start to die as a result of contaminated drugs seemingly imported from Scotland. Schuurman decides to use his investigative skills and new group of contacts to shut down the drugs gang. But things are not quite what they seem.

Downey, following in the footsteps John B. Keane and others, tells the story of an American envoy’s adventure in Derry through the correspondence between Schuurman and his father and the members of the poker circle. Given the prevalence of email, in an early letter Schuurman spells out the logic of using formal letter writing as security. It seems like a weak argument, used purely to justify the format of the book. And whilst I enjoyed the story, the weakest element for me was the concept of telling it though the letters sent or received by Schuurman. I think my main problem was that the letters were not credible, being too well written by all parties (everybody writes nicely structured, grammatically correct correspondence). They are also too long – who writes really long letters these days, especially when you are either meeting face to face, talking on the phone or webcasting regularly? And how many busy people attach extensive cover notes to letters? They also spell out things on behalf of the reader that would not have been included in correspondence between confidants (for example, at one point Schuurman documents the text messages to which both parties had been privy). Occasionally, the letters are interrupted by notes from Tommy ‘Bowtie’ which add nothing to the story. For me, it would have been preferable for the story to be told in the usual mode of a novel, where the plot and characters could have been explored a bit more extensively. Whilst the format didn’t really work for me, the story was good fun, and Downey demonstrates he can produce a savvy, humorous narrative, with an interesting cast of characters. And the quality of the writing was enough to convince me that I should read some of his other work.

1 comment:

Margot Kinberg said...

Rob - Thanks for this review. As a linguist, I had to chuckle when I read your comment about the way the letters in the story are written. I think you're spot-on about how we generally write. As you say, though, that's no reason not to try the book...