Thursday, February 14, 2019

Review of Black Water by Cormac O’Keeffe (2018, Black & White Publishing)

Jig is ten years old and already enrolled as a foot soldier in a Dublin drugs gang. When he’s not doing dirty work for Ghost and his crew, he’s skipping school, avoiding his abusive father and blitzed mother, skulking around the canal with his dog, Bowie, and playing football for a local team. Shay, the coach, believes Jig could escape to a better life through his football skills, but Jig is enthralled by Ghost and his power. When a small job Jig performs leads to the death of an elderly woman the police start asking questions. Detective Tara Crowe wants promotion and taking down Ghost is a route to that. But nobody is prepared to risk talking to the police, least of all Jig and his family. But that isn’t going to stop Crowe trying to serve justice.

Set in inner city Dublin, Black Water is Cormac O’Keeffe’s assured debut novel. The focus is very much on poor, working class communities dominated by a drugs gang that operates largely with impunity, the police struggling to exert any control. The story revolves around four main characters – Jig, a ten year old boy living in an abusive household who has already started to work for the drugs gang as a gofer; Ghost, the ruthless visible power in the drugs gang; Shay, a local football coach and reluctant police informer; and Tara, an ambitious detective who wants to make her mark. The catalyst for the story is a job by Jig going wrong, with an elderly lady who is being intimidated for her son’s drug debt dying. The strength of the story is the strong sense of place through the portrayal of a poor neighbourhood being ruled by a drugs gang and the struggle of local actors and the police to counter their influence and the effects of the drugs, as well as depiction of the dysfunction of Jig’s family and his upbringing. My sense is that there's a strong degree of realism in all the social relations – the family situation of Jig, Shay and Tara, the operations and effects of the local gang, and the power games inside the police. The result is a well-told, engaging - if somewhat depressing - story of a cat-and-mouse game between a criminal gang and the police, with local folk caught in the middle and suffering the consequences.

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