It’s not James Joyce’s Dublin anymore. That’s what I was thinking the first time I read a Gene Kerrigan crime novel set in contemporary Ireland. And my assessment has been doubly confirmed after reading Kerrigan’s latest, “Dark Times in the City.’’
As the novel opens, an elder mobster and one of his new recruits stand atop a mountain, gazing down at the Irish capital — “A lot of lights, a lot of people.” The two are about to help dig a grave for an old IRA bomb maker and gunman whom a mob boss has condemned. “Half a million in the city itself, another half-million in the surrounding area. Every one of them wanting things, needing things. Some of what they wanted couldn’t be bought legally — other stuff, they’d rather not pay retail prices. Many of them were wealthy and wealth is detachable. . . . In that shallow, glittering bowl there were a million opportunities.”
Later on in this distinctly noir tale, a police detective whimsically calls the city “Manhattan on the Liffey.” But if it’s Manhattan that Kerrigan, an award-winning journalist as well as a novelist, conjures up, it’s the Manhattan of the high days of the Cosa Nostra. The opportunities here are mostly criminal, with warring gangs made up of scheming bosses and usually loyal foot soldiers, all of whom embody a new take on the mundanity of evil: Witness Karl Prowze, a young mob soldier, who munches on pizza while crushing some poor sucker’s skull with a bat.
At the center of the story is Danny Callaghan, a young ex-con trying to walk the straight and narrow after doing a six-year stretch for killing an attacker with a golf club. Upon his release he goes to work for his friend Novak, who owns the Blue Parrot pub.
One day Danny impulsively foils a mob hit at the bar, and this act of unintended generosity sets the plot in motion. Playing the good Samaritan gets Danny in a big mess and before long he has both the cops and mob boss Lar Mackendrick at his heels.
Mackendrick decides to draw Danny into his coming turf battle with a rival gang by threatening the lives of Danny’s ex-wife, her present husband, and her best friend. Mackendrick leaves him little room to maneuver and as the plot unfolds we see how interceding in that initial incident in the bar has marked Danny’s life forever.
The character of Mackendrick himself is a one-of-a-kind portrait of a gang boss. On the cusp of war, he still finds the time to think back on the murder of his dear brother and business partner Jo-Jo, recalling fondly the contents of his dead sibling’s library.
Jo-Jo, we discover, loved the mysteries of John Grisham and Alistair MacLean. More significantly, he left his brother a copy of “The Art of War’’ by Sun Tzu, which the middle-aged mobster peruses to calm himself as he makes plans to deploy Danny.
“The book had impressed Jo-Jo so much,” we’re told, “that he claimed Sun Tzu was almost a partner in the various businesses the family dominated in their area of northside Dublin — protection, cigarette smuggling, armed robbery, bootleg CDs and DVDs, the financing of drug deals.’’
In “Dark Times in the City,’’ Gene Kerrigan gives us a Dublin we never knew in sharp clear prose and neatly bounded dramatic scenes of Irish cops and robbers that leave us fearing that some of the dust and other detritus they stir up (blood, pizza sauce, soil from newly dug graves) may very well end up splattering on our shoes.Alan Cheuse is the book commentator for NPR’s “All Things Considered.” His latest work of fiction is a trio of novellas titled “Paradise or Eat Your Face.’’ He can be reached at email@example.com.