Monday, July 19, 2010

Review of Gallows Lane by Brian McGilloway (Pan, 2008)

When James Kerr arrives back into Lifford, an Irish border town, after serving time in the North for driving the get-away car in an armed robbery, he sets in train a sequence of events centred on Gallows Lane, where an arms and drugs cache has just been found.  Inspector Ben Devlin meets the born-again Kerr at the border, but he soon slips away after professing the need to sort one thing out before leaving the area for good.  Not long after a stranger is seen lurking in a garden off Gallows Lane, and then the owner, an Englishman with strong republican beliefs is found hanging from a tree.  Distracting Devlin from the case are station politics and internal rivalries, an upcoming interview for promotion, a break-in at a local pharmacy, and the slaying of a young girl, beaten to death on a building site.  As the summer heatwave builds, so the bodies start to pile up, and Devlin not only has to contend with solving two sets of murders – one seemingly centred on Kerr, the other around the young girl – but also threats and attacks against himself, and detectives from Dublin muscling in on his cases.

It took me a little while to get into Gallows Lane.  The first 100 pages or so seemed ponderous, and somehow lacking, and I wasn’t sure about some of the police organisation and procedural elements.  Slowly, however, I was drawn ever further into the book, all the careful groundwork laid out in the early stages gaining its significance as the various threads are pulled ever tighter.  McGilloway’s skill is in the plotting and sense of place.  He weaves several subplots in and through each other, although as with Borderlands some of the story is a little over the top, some situations are clearly plot devices, and I had difficulty believing the resolution of two strands.  The result is a slow burner that shifts through the gears into a real page turner.  He also does a good job of setting the reader in small town Ireland and the landscape along the Donegal/Derry border.  Where the book struggles a little, I feel, is with characterisation.  Devlin is well drawn and an interesting enough character – a committed family man that seems vulnerable to temptation, prepared to cut corners, occasionally hot tempered and prone to panic attacks.  Many of the other characters, however, are underdeveloped.  For example, we get little sense of Devlin’s wife, or the principal victims or perpetrators, or some of his colleagues, with little in the way of back stories and motivations.  This is partly due to the large cast and partly due to the pacing, where characters are getting little ‘page time’.  Regardless, McGilloway’s Inspector Devlin series is developing nicely and I’m looking forward to the next two books.  Comparisons are often made to Rankin and Dexter, but I think Robinson and Booth are probably nearer the mark.

3 comments:

Margot Kinberg said...

Rob - Thanks, as always, for the detailed and thoughtful review. That balance you refer to - between enough action to keep the reader interested and enough character development to make for solid characters - is a difficult one. It's very important, though, so I'm glad you brought it up.

Bernadette in Australia said...

I must admid I did not find this a very compelling book at all - I think a 2.5 from memory. I wanted to like it very much but I think the slow start ruined it for me. And its interesting you should make those two particular comparisons (Robinson and Booth) because both are writers that I have never gotten into (have read several Robinsons but only one Booth - neither are likely to crop up in my future reading)

Maxine said...

I enjoyed this book but I think it did not quite live up to the great promise of the first, Borderlands. I think the Caroline plot is the strongest part. (A bit odd, to my mind, that I believe that in the US they are publishing this one before the first one). The next one, Bleed a River Deep, goes off the rails somewhat. However, the one after that, The Rising, is very very good indeed - luckily, the author stops the track he is on in Bleed a River and goes back to what he's best at - great police procedural, family tensions, and local political tensions.