Sunday, July 19, 2009

Review of Dark Times in the City by Gene Kerrigan published by Harvill Secker (2009)

I’ve read two of Gene Kerrigan’s non-fiction books – Hard Cases: True Stories of Irish Crime and This Great Little Nation: An A-Z of Irish Scandals – and one of his previous novels, The Midnight Choir. I thought latter was a good read and had a great twist, so adding Dark Times in the City to the ‘to read’ pile was an easy choice. I picked it up in Murder Ink in Dublin.

‘I want something – I get it. That’s the way it works. We’re not equals. I say what happens.’ He leaned down, his face close enough so he could smell the fear from Finnegan. ‘I don’t have to make an effort.’ He pursed his lips, made like he was blowing out a candle. ‘Like that, you’re gone. Ten minutes later, I’ve forgotten your name. You’re not even a dead body, you’re just a missing person and your family doesn’t even have a grave to put flowers on.’

In Dark Times in the City Kerrigan gives as a good a portrayal of the relations between the new, vicious and ambitious gangsters and the older generation of Dublin’s underworld, and the ordinary folk caught in cross-fire, as any media investigative report (perhaps not unsurprisingly given he’s a highly experienced reporter). Anybody familiar with Dublin will know there have been on-going feuds between criminal gangs and tit-for-tat killings for a number of years. On Friday another gang member was shot dead at four o’clock in the afternoon in Ballyfermot, despite wearing a bullet proof vest. Kerrigan draws out what motivates the gang leaders, how they operate and the tactics they use to run their operations, and how they exert power over the innocent people living in their principle haunts, forcing them to submit to the gangster’s demands in the knowledge that going to the police will have dire consequences for them and their family and friends.

The novel’s principal character is Danny Callaghan whose has spent eight years in prison for manslaughter when he stepped into help three lads taking a beating. Eight months on the outside and repeats the mistake, intervening when two gunmen walk into a pub looking to kill petty criminal, Walter Bennett - for a short time Callaghan’s cell mate. Unsurprisingly the assassins are not happy at Callaghan’s intervention and coerce him into fulfilling Walter’s role in a struggle for territory and control between two criminal gangs, threatening him with the death of his ex-wife and her new husband if he doesn’t perform as instructed. Aided by his friend and mentor, Novak, Callaghan tries to keep himself and those that matter to him most alive as his life spirals out of control.

The writing is taut, using short half page to two page scenes to drive the narrative along. The prologue is good, but then I struggled to get into the story for the first 15 pages or so. After that the pages kept turning. The reason I think I had trouble with the opening was revealed in part three of the book which jumps back in time to provide the back story as to why Walter Bennett was the target of an assassination. Personally, I think the book would have worked a little better if it had started with this section. I don’t think it would have mattered if the reader wasn’t introduced to Callaghan until 40 or 50 pages in as the back story grabs immediately. Kerrigan is good at writing about the police and I would have also preferred to have had more scenes involving them, particularly Bob Tidey, who looked like he was going to develop into a great character and then all but disappears. Similarly there is a sub-plot with Oliver, Callaghan’s neighbour, that wasn't as fully developed as it could have been. These though are just personal plotting preferences and the book does work as is.

Dark Times in the City was an enjoyable read, though for my money not quite as good as The Midnight Choir (). I’ll be keeping my eye out for the next offering and in the meantime I’ll keep a look out for Kerrigan’s first novel, Little Criminals.


Maxine Clarke said...

I loved Little Criminals and Midnight Choir. I didn't think Dark Times in the City quite lived up to the earlier novels mainly because of the last section. But I enjoyed it very much, particularly its social commentary and its poetry.

Rob Kitchin said...

For me section 3 was the main problem. I also think he's very good at writing about the gardai and Bob Tidey was an opportunity lost. I'm sure Dark Times would make a good TV adaptation. I've heard good things about Little Criminals, so looking forward to reading that at some point.

Gerard Brennan said...

Great review. I finished DTITC last week and I think you raise a fair point. But I think I'd have given it 4 stars, personally, because I quite liked the jumbled timeline, though I did think the Oliver storyline could have been more powerful. Wasn't that bothered by the slightly unbalanced presence of the cops in the book as I thought it was primarily a book from the criminal point of view.

Anyway, different strokes for different folks.