THE CONSTANT SOLDIER by WILLIAM RYAN ; a review.

THE CONSTANT SOLDIER: WILLIAM RYAN

MANTLE 2016

The Second World War was not just another war. It was global, it was ferocious and it killed more than any other war in history. Yet what marks it out also is that during its course, and inextricably mixed with it, a determined attempt was made to wipe out the Jewish race. Roughly half the Jews in the world were murdered over a relatively short period. Some of the consequences remain with us today. This extermination attempt, refined and honed  to increase its effectiveness, went hand in hand with a with a military and political campaign of invasion, murder, ethnic cleansing and exploitation  directed at the peoples and countries of Central Europe on a virtually unprecedented scale.

The only possible rival in recorded history, in terms of scale and effectiveness, was probably the Mongol holocaust in Central Asia and the subsequent aborted but undefeated attack on Central Europe in the Thirteenth Century. Yet the Mongols were essentially a temporary phenomenon, a transient federation of nomadic tribes out of Central Asia, brutally welded together, brilliantly led by the mediaeval equivalent of Napoleon and supported by an officer corps chosen by meritocracy and as a fighting force far superior militarily to the moribund feudal armies which faced them. Twentieth Century Germany by contrast was one of the most advanced European societies with a long and enviable cultural history, embracing, inter alia, music, literature and philosophy, an advanced welfare state – for its time – and, Prussia apart, no particularly strong tradition of militarism. Then the country was hijacked by a madman and his supporters.

Nazi Germany continues to fascinate in all its manifestations. One subset of questions relates  less to the how and more to the why so many Germans  continued to lend support and legitimacy to the regime even though its nature and actions were demonstrably abhorrent and , certainly after Stalingrad,  though it was clear that the regime was driving the whole of Germany into disaster. Debate continues to rage about how much the “ordinary German” knew about the Death Camps, and the mass murders of the Jews and others. H.H. Kirst, author of the Gunner Asch novels and other satirical works about Nazi Germany and its aftermath, commented wryly on his Nazi party membership that he did not really know he “was in a club of murderers”.

An equally pertinent question is, even if they knew or suspected, what could they do about it? Nazi Germany was a brutal and efficient dictatorship, opponents had been liquidated in sequence (remember Niemoller’s poem “First They Came…..”) and the consequences of defiance were likely to prove drastic, not just for the individual but for relatives as well. Those who moralise or pontificate about following your conscience have very rarely had to come to grips with a modern totalitarian dictatorship. Those with loaded guns call the shots. Passive defiance was possible, but unlikely to derail the murder machine. (The same considerations apply, mutatis mutandis, to living in the Soviet Union under Stalin.) And even the 20 July Plot demonstrated how well dug in the regime was.

There was also the aspect of what Joachim Fest, in his memorable study of Hitler, referred to as “widening the circle of criminality.” The more people could be involved in the crimes, the more likely they were to acquiesce and eschew protest. Thus, in the aftermath of the invasion of Russia, as the special teams of murderers followed or accompanied the troops in, the Wermacht was pressurised and compromised to witness, sanction, support logistically and participate in the crimes of what Fest termed the “Third World War.”

These “Einsatzgruppen” were not necessarily just hardened Nazis and SS but included numbers of ordinary and retired police, drawn into the squads as police forces were reorganised and rationalised and as the scale of the mass murders demanded more staff at the killing end. In the stunning novel, “Ostland” (2013) David Thomas tells the true story of how Berlin’s top criminal detective – not a committed Nazi – Georg Heuzer, became the head of the Einsatzgrup operating in Minsk, where he personally supervised the murder of thirty thousand chiefly Austrian Jews, reverting to a police officer after the War and rising to become police chief in the Rhineland Palatinate before eventually being sentenced for war crimes in 1963. There were more like him, individuals led step-by-step into compromise and crime.

All this is by way of introduction to William Ryan’s new novel, “The Constant Soldier”. The novel was launched in Dublin on 1 September and has been garnering very favourable reviews in recent weeks, many containing “spoilers” about the plot, which, however, in no way diminishes enjoyment of the book. The author is already well established for his three crime novels with a difference. They are set in Stalinist Russia in the 1930s and feature Alexei Korolev, a Moscow CID Militia captain who is tasked to investigate some high profile murder cases with political connections. Against the background of the Great Terror, when one wrong move can result in a “holiday in Siberia” – Stalin’s jocular remark – or worse, Korolev must walk a moral and political tightrope to make progress. The Korolev books paint vividly and sympathetically the dilemma of the honourable man trying to cope in a totalitarian and mendacious society where values are reversed or non – existent. “The Constant Soldier” is a new departure in theme – a stand-alone novel set during the last year of the Second World War, yet the similarities with Korolev’s moral dilemmas are clear.

The novel’s first twenty pages are particularly memorable, recounting the gradual emergence of consciousness and awareness of a badly wounded soldier being transported by train back to his home. That home is a village in Silesia, in a mixed Polish –German rural community conquered and occupied by the Germans.  Here it is not just the matter of a murder. The whole setting is a crime scene. Most of the Poles have been driven out or murdered, their farms expropriated. Some are Partisans, watching, waiting in the woods as the Red Army advances.  A “work camp” and a mine are nearby – euphemisms for murder camps and a source of forced labour when required.  Could the camp be Auschwitz ? Or another? There were enough of them.  We are never told.  The camp remains in the wings throughout the novel, the horrors hinted at but never explicitly described.

Central to the story, rather, is the Hut, a rest and recreation lodge in the village for SS officers and personnel taking refuge or recuperation from their “toils” in the camp or stresses from the war. (Keeping up the morale of those tasked with mass murder was, apparently a priority for the Nazi leadership. I’ve come across several anecdotes of Himmler and others, and one of Ryan’s characters actually quotes Himmler, comforting those at the coal face of extermination and mass murder –  though at the right end of the gun-  acknowledging the “strain” but promising a better future once the task was complete! Thomas records that at Heuzer’s trial it was revealed that the Minsk murderers were partially anaesthetised with a bottle of vodka per head per day.) The Hut was staffed by SS foot soldiers until, as casualties at the front mounted, they were drafted into active service. Cleaning and cooking in the Hut was carried out by female slave prisoners.

The book’s central character, Paul Brandt, a Wermacht soldier, has returned home a hero, disfigured and mutilated from the Eastern Front. Not a Nazi, he had enlisted under threat. He returns wounded internally as well as externally, haunted by the murders he saw and was ordered to take part in. He knows the war is lost and longs for an opportunity to atone for his crimes. The opportunity comes when he is offered work as the supervisory steward at the SS Hut. Among the female prisoners working there is a girl from his past, Judith, who does not recognise his scarred and burned face and for whom he feels responsibility for her arrest and enslavement. He now has a mission – to protect and look out for Judith and her colleagues as well as doing what he can to protect his father and sister, neither of them Nazis and both well aware of what is happening in the camps.

To survive, let alone carry out his mission, involves living a lie in a fraught environment , where casual murder and brutality are commonplace and where, despite the slight leeway he is accorded as a decorated hero who has made visible sacrifices for “the Reich,” he must constantly be on guard. Ryan conveys very well the fin de siècle atmosphere which abounds, the doublethink and speak about ultimate victory when clearly nemesis is only a matter of time. The characters surrounding him include a committed Nazi, an amoral and foolish local mayor and several SS officers, as well as the Hut Commandant, Obersturmfuhrer Neumann, after Brandt the most interesting character in the story.

Intelligent and perceptive, Neumann from the start is clearly aware of some or most of Brandt’s feelings and demonstrates at several points that, though a Nazi and SS Officer, he has not bought in to the whole package. Indeed the subplot of the story is essentially the personal development and disintegration of Neumann, never quite total, and never fully revealed or even directly hinted at to Brandt. When another SS officer commits suicide Neumann confiscates his records of Mendelssohn, a Jewish, and therefore banned, composer, to play them himself. (And shockingly, Brandt discovers, among the dead man’s possessions, a box containing gold fillings ripped from Jewish victims at the camp.)

Neumann is not alone. There are other Nazis also less enamoured of what they have done, but for Neumann, his own crimes have put him beyond redemption and he remains haunted by images of his victims. A World War One veteran, he broods as to how these things could have happened.  A March Violet (the derisory name given by “old” Nazis to those who joined the Party after Hitler became Chancellor) he hadn’t planned on becoming a murderer. “It had just turned out that way.”  And of the Jews: ”mostly no one had ever imagined it would come to this. Until it had, of course.”

Brandt plots and schemes, finding allies among the Ukrainian SS guards, who know only too well what fate awaits them when the Soviets arrive. But ostensibly he must maintain the façade of normalcy, even as the Nazi world collapses. There are Christmas festivities, an incongruous New Year’s hunt, photographs to be taken, drunken SS to be humoured, while the news gets worse on an almost daily basis. Paris has fallen. Warsaw has fallen; and Krakow. The sound of Russian artillery can be heard. The exodus of German refugees begins. The final drama is about to be played out.

There is a counterpoint to all of this – Polya, a feisty young Russian, driver of a T34 tank for two years, a battle hardened veteran who has nevertheless retained her joie de vivre and femininity. She longs to get the job done and is enamoured of her tank commander Lapshin. At interludes in the main story her exploits intrude as her tank, and the Red Army, gets ever closer to Brandt’s village. There are some vivid and savage action scenes featuring Polya’s tank. There’s no doubt where the author’s sympathies lie. Polya, and the advance of the Red Army, crushing and obliterating their opponents, are very much a terrible swift sword, wreaking vengeance for what was done after 1941. The tension is built excellently as the reader wonders what will happen when Polya and her tanks encounter Brandt and a rag tag collection of boys, drafted as the last line of defence.

“The Constant Soldier” is a compelling read. I finished it in two days. Nor is it easily forgotten.  In an Afterword the author points to an album of photographs taken in 1944/5 by a senior SS officer at Auschwitz as providing inspiration for his book. The photos show members of the SS relaxing and chilling out in an R and R hut located several kilometres from the camp just weeks before the Red Army liberated it. If ever Arendt’s “banality of evil” categorisation of Eichmann seems appropriate it is here. Anyone interested in morality tales and looking also for a damn good story should read the novel, surely one of the year’s best. Highly recommended.

Reviewed for Writing.ie.

S.F.

8/9/16

 

ECHOWAVE by JOE JOYCE ; a review

ECHOWAVE
JOE JOYCE
LIBERTIES PRESS 329 pp €13.99

Echowave, by popular author and journalist Joe Joyce, is the third book to feature hero Paul Duggan, a captain in Irish Army Intelligence during the early years of World War Two when Ireland strove to preserve a precarious neutrality.

Echowave, set in 1941, follows his previously acclaimed books, Echoland and Echobeat, but is also a thoroughly entertaining stand-alone novel. Like them it is a stylish and accomplished thriller which evokes the period, the political pressures and the atmosphere of the time in a markedly realistic fashion.

The Dublin of 1941 is brought to life, from the huge mound of turf in the Phoenix Park – the “New Bog Road” as the Dublin wits had it – to a society where reliance on the black market to counter wartime shortages was almost a prerequisite for survival. Additionally. much of the book’s action takes place in Lisbon. Portugal, like Ireland, was a neutral country and Lisbon, because of its location, was the European spy centre during the War. Joyce’s portrayal of the Lisbon of the time, under the autocratic thumb of Salazar, is particularly compelling.

Now, we take our neutrality for granted. Back then it was anything but. For this was June 1941. Britain stood alone against Nazi Germany and was just emerging from the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. Germany and its allies dominated the Continent and, even as it undertook the fatal mistake of attacking the Soviet Union, seemed likely to prevail over Britain. The United States was neutral, though very clearly committed to supporting Britain, through Lend-Lease and Atlantic convoys, as well as preparing for war with the first peacetime draft in 1940.

Neutral Ireland was being squeezed. Ireland was heavily dependent on Britain and her ships for vital supplies, her Atlantic ports a prize for Britain and the USA, offering a potential haven to convoys under sustained U Boat attack. Churchill was making noises about seizing them, and seemed deterred only by his military and intelligence advisers. Germany was pressing for Ireland not to favour Britain; the North Strand bombing in May 1941, killing twenty eight, emphasised what entering the war might involve.

The novel opens with Paul Duggan in Lisbon, tasked to convince German intelligence there that he is an IRA man, acting as the contact and conduit for a captured German spy, Hermann Goertz. On his return he is sent to Mayo to investigate the crash of a US plane, its cargo looted by black marketeers. The cargo was mainly consumer luxuries for the US Embassy in London, but contained also a piece of secret military hardware – the Norden bombsight – of considerable interest to the Germans. Duggan and his Special Branch associate, Peter Gifford, must find the bombsight before the Germans do. They recover it after some revealing encounters with Irish black marketeers.

But what to do then? Here a number of strands become entwined. The British want to plant some disinformation. The USA wants to catch a high level German spy ring. Ireland, with her supply situation becoming critical, needs two ships promised by the Americans who are foot-dragging over delivery. And the Germans want the bombsight. The consequences for Ireland of a wrong move could be very serious and open to misinterpretation. Paul Duggan must return to Lisbon to work out a satisfactory solution. The pace and tension are maintained to the end in what is a satisfying, highly readable and informative book about Ireland’s not too distant past.

One for the Christmas stockings.

S.F.
1/12/2015

WINTER IS COMING by GARRY KASPAROV ; a review

WINTER IS COMING

GARRY KASPAROV

ATLANTIC BOOKS 320pp €17.99 e book €13.89
Garry Kasparov, long time World Chess Champion and one of the greatest chess players ever, retired from professional chess in 2005 to join the political opposition in Russia. He was jailed briefly and is now, like many of Putin’s opponents, in exile. This book is an emotionally charged look at Russia since the fall of Communism, centred on the rise and rule of Vladimir Putin.

With a title lifted from “Game of Thrones” and a subtitle that reads “ Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World must be stopped,” the content and tone of the book is not hard to discern. It’s difficult to find anything good to say about Putin and Kasparov doesn’t disappoint, delivering a polemic against Putin combined with a scathing attack on Western politicians for failing to stand up to him.

Kasparov traces the rollercoaster evolution of Russia since 1991. Yeltsin, though flawed, and increasingly corrupt, was the least bad leader for Russia at a time when there was a very real threat that the Communists might return. His 1996 victory over Zyuganov was relatively narrow, and, per Kasparov , Zyuganov was not the “performing pet Communist he is for Putin today” but rather a determined Communist revanchist who had resolutely opposed every liberal reform.

Interestingly, Kasparov suggests that the rise of the Oligarchs was facilitated by Yeltsin’s reformers, Gaidar and Chubais, worried lest the economic reforms might be rolled back by conservatives , selling off the state’s assets at absurdly low valuations. There was, however, freedom of a sort, in politics and the media, though the last two years of Yeltsin’s presidency were marred by increased and obvious corruption, a serious economic meltdown, resurgence of the war in Chechnya, rising crime levels and terror incidents in Russia itself.

Enter Vladimir Putin, relatively unknown, and, as Kasparov wryly notes, someone he then considered perhaps “might just be what Russia needed at the time.” The next fifteen years proved how wrong he was. Putin consolidated his hold on power, crushed the Chechens in a brutal occupation, cowed his domestic political and financial opponents and gradually tightened state control of the media. Kasparov suggests an analogy with the mafia, with Putin rising to become the capo di tutti capi in what is virtually a mafia state. He has now embarked on foreign adventures, annexing the Crimea, supporting Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine and intervening in Syria.

Play ball with Putin and you will survive. Oppose him and suffer the consequences – prison for Khodorkovsky., exile for Berezovsky (and Kasparov!), death for Litvinenko , Anna Politkovskaja, and, most recently, Kasparov’s friend Boris Nemtsov. His rule has been consolidated until recently by rising oil prices. The number of billionaires in 2000 was zero; by 2015 it stood at eighty eight. Kasparov notes that, in 2008, with genuine opponents disqualified from running by one subterfuge or another, the presidential contest was between “ the token nationalist nutcase Zhirinovsky, the token Communist caveman, Zyuganov, and Putin, represented by his shadow, Medvedev”.

The book’s second theme is that the West should have taken action against Putin earlier and should take stronger measures now – including, for example, sanctioning or restricting Russia’s energy exports to Europe, as well as arming Ukraine. Kasparov is scathing about the West’s political leaders, Schroeder, Sarkozy, Clinton and Obama in particular, for pursuing policies akin to appeasement, when different policies could have helped bring about a different Russia. Yet Kasparov concedes also that Putin is a Russian problem and it is for Russians to figure out how to remove him.

A fascinating and thought provoking book.

S.F.
8/11/2015

1916 : THE MORNINGS AFTER by TIM PAT COOGAN : a review

1916 : THE MORNINGS AFTER

TIM PAT COOGAN

HEAD OF ZEUS 329 pp €22.50

Tim Pat Coogan has been writing books about Ireland for half a century. His latest – the sixteenth – has the subtitle “From the Courts Martial to the Tribunals” and gives the author’s highly personal and idiosyncratic view of the period since the 1916 Rising.

In 1966 Coogan, now eighty, published his first book, “ Ireland Since the Rising.” As he notes in the current work, it was “suffused with optimism” as Ireland celebrated the golden jubilee of the Rising and the emergence of a new generation of decision makers. Two decades later he wrote “Disillusioned Decades”, commenting that the title said it all. “The Mornings After” he describes as chronicling “what can validly be termed the age of scandal and betrayal.”

Coogan sets out to tackle some of “the uncomfortable realities of what has happened in this country” as 2016 approaches. The tone is very much sorrow mixed with anger. He contrasts the ideals of 1916 as expressed in the Proclamation and the sacrifice of the leaders , with events thereafter, culminating in the catalogue of scandals, cover-ups and corruption recently revealed . He is particularly seized with the failure to cherish “all of the children of the nation equally.”

The book is entertaining and easy to read , with some good quotes and stories as well as reminders of events overlooked or forgotten. Any 300 page book covering this period must necessarily be selective and the author combines a focus on certain issues with a broad-brush approach that is anecdotal rather than analytical .

The first sections take the story from the Rising to 1932. These are followed by events since and developments in the North from the Troubles to the Good Friday Agreement. The last chapters are taken up with the failings and scandals enveloping the Catholic Church – Coogan’s major bete noire – together with the revelations in recent decades of political and business corruption and financial mismanagement.

One anecdote from 1916 recounts how Tom Clarke, the night before his execution, was humiliated and stripped naked on the orders of a British captain; several years later Michael Collins had the officer shot. Coogan notes that as acts of historical reprisal go “the Irish executions were comparatively mild” but decisively transformative. And he quotes O Higgins during the Civil War, when the Government began shooting republican prisoners, that “This is not going to be a draw, with a replay in the autumn.” De Valera, long one of Coogan’s targets, is characterised as “supremely lucky”, though given praise for the feat of keeping Ireland neutral in World War Two.

The Northern section focuses on the Blanket Protest ( on which Coogan wrote a book) and the Hunger Strikes, including Bobby Sands’ comment that “ our revenge will be the laughter of our children”. Paisley’s malign influence is acknowledged as is his 2007 volte face. But the biggest plaudits are for Albert Reynolds who was “absolutely instrumental” in securing a peace deal, achieving more than all his predecessors combined.

The major recurring theme throughout the book is the Catholic Church. Coogan makes positive reference to its role in Irish society at times since the Famine. He cites examples of decent and dedicated churchmen, from Bishop O’ Dwyer of Limerick in 1916 to Bishop Birch of Ossory and to the continued current activities of Brother Crowley and Peter McVerry as well as the important role of Fr Alex Reid in the Northern Peace process.

But these and others pale against the prevailing Church culture – controlling and manipulative, particularly where the sexual morals of the nation were concerned. This Church was typified by dominant figures such as Archbishop McQuaid, Bishop Browne of Galway, Lucey of Cork and others reflecting the “ self-satisfied” attitude of a Church leadership which ran hospitals, schools and institutions later shown to be rife with abuse. The Vatican is censured for its sustained support for the Irish hierarchy.

“Paedeophilia is unfortunately one of the areas in which the Irish demonstrably punch above their weight.” Coogan is not, of course, referring to the Irish as a whole, but rather to the incidence of paedophilia among “ priests who are either Irish or of Irish descent,” quoting additionally Pope Francis’ estimate that two per cent of all priests could be paedophiles. The usual cases are cited, Sean Fortune and Brendan Smyth ,who indirectly brought down a government and a Cardinal, as well as the more recent Fr Paul McGuinness, all protected by a culture of secrecy and cover-up.

That culture applied also to the horrific saga of institutional sexual and physical abuse in places such as Daingean, Glencree, Clonmel and Artane as well as the notorious Magdalen Laundries . Moreover, when the extent of the scandals was publicised, what Coogan describes as a “deplorable compensation deal” was negotiated in 2002 between the then Minister for Education Michael Woods and eighteen religious congregations which effectively indemnified the orders against legal liabilities, at a cost to date in excess of € 1 billion. Far from cherishing all children equally, he observes “ In these institution, it seems rather that children were all victimised equally.”

The concluding chapters feature “a never ending conveyor belt of scandals” – including Ansbacher, DIRT, the Galway Tent, right down to the present – in some of which Charlie Haughey ( another recurring “player”) features. Haughey’s well known misdeeds are detailed again here as is the charge by Judge Moriarty that he devalued democracy and his avoidance of prosecution after a judge ruled he could not get a fair trial . Separately Coogan claims that when diagnosed with cancer in 1996 Haughey refused to have his prostate removed lest it make him impotent.

The Stardust Disaster Inquiry is covered and comparisons made with the Cavan orphanage fire of 1943. Lest we forget also Coogan reminds us of the Hepatitis C scandal and the tragic case of Brigid McCole.

Coogan packs in some of the findings of political and business corruption from the McCracken, Moriarty , Mahon and Beef Tribunals together with the post -2008 revelations about the antics of banks, bankers and speculators which brought the Troika down on the country. The Anglo Tapes, the curious ongoing Cerberus affair are also mentioned. The author calls for increased powers for the Public Accounts Committee and greater transparency under the FOI legislation.

Yet Tim Pat manages to end on a cautiously positive note, describing the economic situation today as improving after the government took “ the dreadful but, overall, necessary decisions needed to get through” the “worst crisis since independence”. There is praise and admiration also for the GAA today as providing “a working model” for some of the aims and ideals of 1916.

S.F.
19/10/15

WITH OUR BLESSING by JO SPAIN : a review

WITH OUR BLESSING

JO SPAIN

QUERCUS 540 pp €17.99

It’s December 2011 and the body of an elderly woman is found crucified and mutilated in the Phoenix Park just a short distance from Garda Headquarters. When it emerges that the victim was a nun, Inspector Tom Reynolds realises that this is far different to the usual gangland killings with which his squad have to deal. The killer was making a point but what point?

The dead woman was Mother Superior in a rural convent outside Limerick, a convent that once housed one of the notorious Magdalen Laundries. Tom Reynolds and his team descend on the convent and begin to sift through a painful chapter of Ireland’s not too distant past. Could there be a connection, with someone from the past returning to wreak revenge? Or is the answer to be found in the personality of the nun herself, clearly disliked if not hated by her fellow religious and many of the villagers?

The convent is home to about twenty nuns, some of whom at least appear potential suspects. When inspected, its archives reveal a catalogue of ill treatment of the unfortunate girls and young women consigned there over decades, something confirmed by several of the nuns. Tom Reynolds rapidly becomes convinced that the clue to the murder lies within these past events, which have included illegal adoptions and mysterious pregnancies by women locked up for several years. Is the killer a wronged mother, deprived of her child at birth, or one of the adopted children? And what role does and did the local parish priest, the only ally of the murdered nun, play in all of this?

This latest addition to Irish detective fiction is the debut novel of Jo Spain and was one of those shortlisted in this year’s Richard and Judy Search for a Bestseller competition. For the author, the story has a very personal dimension. As she notes, her father was adopted out of out of an Irish mother and baby home and the book which “visits the sad history of such institutions” is written in his memory. The novel’s backdrop was based on some of MS Spain’s in-depth research to trace her family’s roots.

The Magdalen Laundries and the treatment of single mothers thirty years ago are a stain on Ireland’s recent history, something many survivors – and society – are still coming to terms with. Jo Spain’s novel attempts to bring to life in fictional terms what happened to some of the victims while making clear that there are many files to be read and many stories still to be told. As might be expected there were good nuns who deplored what was happening and who tried to help but the system was there and Irish society of the time was content to allow it. How times have changed, and the author cleverly contrasts the treatment meted out thirty or more years ago with the attitudinal change today when a detective’s daughter reveals she is pregnant.

“With our Blessing” is an easy, though not a comfortable, read.

30/08

THE GAME CHANGER by LOUISE PHILLIPS : a review

THE GAME CHANGER

LOUISE PHILLIPS

HATCHETTE BOOKS 422pp €17.99

Kate Pearson is back in Louise Phillips’ fourth book featuring the Irish criminal psychologist.

But it’s a different Kate Pearson in what is arguably the author’s most ambitious novel yet. The Pearson stories are set in real time and events have moved on since “Last Kiss.” Kate has finally split up with her husband, though relations appear fairly amicable over access to Charlie, their son. She is now living with her collaborator in earlier books, Detective Inspector Adam O Connor. She has scaled down her work and is enjoying life.

But not for long. When Adam is called out in the middle of the night to cover the apparent suicide of the Chief Superintendent’s brother-in-law it sets off a chain of events in which Kate becomes not only professional adviser but one of those intimately involved. The dead man, O’Neill, was an acquaintance of her late father and his death is suspiciously like that of his foster child, a friend of Kate’s who had died when she was twelve. O’Neill withdrew large sums of money before his death, raising the possibility of blackmail. Curiously, also, some of his DNA had been found at the murder scene in New York of an Irish emigrant known to Kate’s father.

Then an anonymous note is pushed under Kate’s front door:“ I remember you, Kate.” It stirs up memories, some latent, some forgotten. For Kate has a childhood secret. Aged twelve she had been abducted and had blotted out the memory of subsequent events. She learns that her parents had lied to her about her missing episode and wonders what else they lied about. Were there events in the past in some way linking her father with the two recent deaths? When more notes arrive Kate realises she is being stalked. Adam can promise protection but is it enough? And what happened when Kate was abducted?

Enter the Game Changer and a complicated parallel story. People are disappearing , vulnerable women for the most part, having, like O’Neill, manifested signs of depression and also having withdrawn large amounts of money before vanishing. All had reportedly been attending self-help and “enlightenment” courses. Kate, consulted, and amidst her own troubles and fears, suspects a cult, with all its sinister connotations. But who heads up the cult and could there be some connection with whoever is stalking Kate?

To reveal more would be to spoil what is another enjoyable Louise Phillips’ novel. The pace fairly zips along with over one hundred short chapters and frequent switches in points of view helping to stoke and maintain the tension. Kate and Adam are plausible and well-drawn characters, with complex personalities and a relationship to match, not always an idyllic one . The dialogue throughout is handled excellently.

If there is a criticism it is that the parallel story has sufficient depth and appeal to have constituted a novel in its own right . Several of the “disappeared” are sketched expertly and sympathetically, highlighting why they would be vulnerable to a plausible con operation like a cult. There’s also a surprising parallel minor hero who helps link the two narratives at a level other than that of police investigation. Finally, the author’s capacity for descriptive prose is given full expression, in particular in two scenes, one an account of a very distressed woman, the other a chapter in which a six year old describes the world she sees around her. This last piece was also that chosen by the author to read at the formal book launch. Unsurprisingly.

11/09

SNAPSHOTS by MICHAEL O’ HIGGINS : a review

SNAPSHOTS

MICHAEL O’ HIGGGINS

NEW ISLAND BOOKS 313 pp €14.99

Michael O’Higgins is a man of considerable talents. He started out as a journalist for Magill and Hot Press, writing on Crime and Northern Ireland. He published a lengthy profile of the Irish criminal Martin Cahill ( “The General”), based on extensive interviews. Called to the Bar in 1988, he became a Senior Counsel in 2000 and is now one of Ireland’s top barristers. In recent years he has appeared as defence counsel for John Gilligan, Michael McKevitt in connection with the Omagh bombing and former Chairman of Anglo Irish Bank, Sean Fitzpatrick. He was also lead counsel in the prosecution and conviction of Limerick gangster Wayne Dundon.

One of his hobbies is writing and he has twice won the Hennessy OXO Literary Awards in 2008 and 2010 for his short stories “The Great Escape” and “The Migration.” He has now produced his first book, Snapshots, distilling in it elements from his lengthy experience as a criminal lawyer.

It is Dublin in the early 1980s, a different world. It is the Ireland of the IRA Hunger Strikes and the public debate over abortion and whether Kerry might win five in a row. It is also one where for the first time Ireland is encountering a serious drugs problem and the rise of organised crime. There is the added worry that the Provos, their support massively boosted by the Hunger Strikes, are becoming active in Dublin working class areas, even cooperating with the local criminal gangs. The top brass in the Gardai are worried.

The most prominent gangster is Christy Clarke from the North Inner City, a murderer who escaped prosecution on a technicality and who is notorious for his ruthless attitude, meticulous preparation and planning which has so far enabled him to evade justice . At home he’s a wife –beater and a boozer with his soft side reserved for his racing pigeons. In dogged pursuit of Clarke is Detective Sergeant Dick Roche, frustrated at Clarke’s ability to evade justice and determined to be there when Clarke finally slips up.

Clarke’s twelve year old son Wayne has a talent for music and is taken under the wing of the local curate, Fr. Brendan. Fr. Brendan appears clean cut and above reproach and is chosen to be part of the team leading the anti-abortion campaign. In fact Brendan is anything but and is leading a double life, with potentially explosive consequences if revealed. Yet it is in the course of his normal pastoral duties that he unwittingly fingers a prison officer for retaliation by the IRA, acting through Christy Clarke. The brutal attack which follows triggers events involving all four principals.

The book is a page turner and has everything one might expect given the author : allegations of Garda brutality, tip-offs from informers, intimidation of witnesses, cross questioning of suspects and courtroom drama (and comedy) in abundance, all described in terms that ring of authenticity. The courtroom scenes involving a clever and resourceful defendant are particularly realistic. The difficulties of actually nailing a major criminal are pointed up even if, as the author notes, ” a judge handing down sentence to a man with an endless stream of road traffic convictions wasn’t long reading between the lines.” The denouement is both dramatic and unexpected.

Perhaps the ultimate accolade for authenticity is the description by the CIA of a book about its activities as “ a novel but not fiction.” This gritty thriller about the Dublin crime scene in the 1980s is in this mould.

19/09