“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Review: LITTLE BONES by Sam Blake

Skeletons tumble out of cupboards early on in Sam Blake’s debut novel, when the little bones of the title are found sewn into the hem of an old wedding dress owned by artist Zoe Grant. Garda detective Cathy Connolly makes the macabre discovery when she is called to Zoe’s house in Dun Laoghaire to investigate what she assumes will be a routine break-and-enter, her horror compounded by the fact that Cathy herself is newly pregnant. Has Zoe murdered a baby? And if so, where are the rest of the infant’s remains?
  It’s an intriguing opening gambit, but Blake doesn’t rest on her laurels. Soon after, Zoe’s fabulously wealthy grandmother Lavinia is found dead in mysterious circumstances, and a cold-blooded killer from Las Vegas arrives in south County Dublin with the FBI hot on his heels. Meanwhile, in London, Emily and Tony Cox volunteer to care for the aging Mary, a mugging victim whose addled memory offers us glimpses of a privileged upbringing not entirely dissimilar to that of Lavinia Grant.
  The reader, of course, understands that these apparently unrelated plot strands must converge at some point, dragged together by the resourceful Cathy Connolly. A three-time national kick-boxing champion, Cathy is a likeable protagonist, a force of nature who projects an impressive physicality and professionalism even as her interior monologues betray her emotional confusion and self-doubt. In this she is reminiscent of Jane Casey’s London-based Maeve Kerrigan and Alex Barclay’s Denver-based Ren Bryce, characters who are the antithesis of the supremely self-confident and all-conquering heroes of the more macho style of thriller, and all the more fascinating for it.
  Moreover, it quickly becomes clear as the story unfolds that Sam Blake hasn’t employed the motif of an infant’s bones simply for the sake of an attention-grabbing narrative gambit. Cathy’s boss, Dawson O’Rourke, reminds Cathy of a cold case from the 1970s, when a new-born baby was murdered with a knitting-needle, the investigation of which was botched by the Gardaí. That case in turn leads us back into the 1950s, with Blake evoking the kind of suffocating patriarchal society in which a desperate young woman, having given birth out of wedlock, might be driven to take exceptionally desperate measures. Not that much has changed for Cathy Connolly; on hearing the Angelus bells, Cathy is reminded “that the Church was watching, waiting, like a great black crow hungry for the weak to stumble.” Blake isn’t the first Irish crime writer to engage with the long shadow of the Church’s malign influence, of course – Ken Bruen’s Priest and Jo Spain’s debut With Our Blessing spring to mind – but here she handles her material with an impressive sensitivity to the horrors visited upon generations of Irish women.
  That said, the latter stages are less convincing than Blake’s set-up promises. A veritable blizzard of revelations is required to tie together the various plot-strands, and credibility is strained by some of the developments required to bring the truth to light. The pace is frenetic, and the last third in particular is chock-a-block with twists and reversals, but readers who prefer a more patient, inevitable denouement might find themselves disorientated by the sheer volume of shocks and surprises Cathy Connolly unearths as the story races toward its pulsating climax.
  For the most part, however, Little Bones is a notably ambitious debut novel, a meticulously researched police procedural and a striking example of the crime novel as a vehicle for exploring society’s flaws and fault-lines. Cathy Connolly is a compelling character, a creation as complicated, flawed and gripping as Little Bones itself, and one who augurs well for Sam Blake’s future. ~ Declan Burke

  This review was first published in the Irish Examiner.