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AN IRISH SOLUTION
by Cormac Millar
Penguin Ireland, March 2005
320 pages
6.99 GBP
ISBN: 1844880265


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

There are times when initial impressions, not to mention reviewers, are mistaken and I hold my hands up in this case. After reading the first few pages of this book I put it aside as clichéd and pretentious. But a reviewer's duty called me back, and in this case I am very glad it did. This is – apologies for the cliché – a curate's egg of a book, but the good bits are very, very good. Many of the faults can, perhaps, be charitably ascribed to first-novelitis – a desire to make a big impression, which leads to over-writing.

Any attempt at a plot summary would not only be doomed to failure due to the plot's complexity, but would also be bound give a misleading impression, because the book's focus and tone shift from section to section. Section is accurate as there are no chapters in this book; instead we have sections divided by {{{{{{-}}}}}} marks. In addition the book makes sudden changes in direction, most notably after about 120 pages when a character unexpectedly dies. I will therefore attempt to summarise the book's weaknesses and successes in the hope that this will give a truer picture.

Starting with the bad then. As remarked, the opening really indicates the main faults. The gangsters and drug dealers – who are by no means all of the bad guys – tend, as so often, towards the clichéd. The writing can be pretentious and, as noted, Millar is sometimes guilty of over-writing. The book's ending is weak and disappointing; one feels that Millar felt he had to be fashionably cynical, rather than concentrating on the redemptive and positive.

And it is as a story of redemption that this book achieves its most striking and noteworthy attainment. Millar's success with this, always a very difficult area, can be compared to that of Minette Walters, who is the supreme practitioner of tales of redemption.

Seamus Joyce is a very unlikely protagonist, let alone hero, for a mystery novel. For starters he is a career bureaucrat, and there are not many mystery protagonists in that line of work (off the top of my head I can only think of Ruth Dudley Edwards' Robert Amiss and he is a comic character). But beyond this Joyce is a weak, vacillating man.

He has allowed his wife Theresa, lying ill in hospital with suspected cancer as the novel opens, to run his life for him while at the same time cuckolding him. He is seen by his colleagues as a stooge, and his appointment to be Acting Director of iDEA (the Irish Drugs Enforcement Agency) by the new Minister for Justice Richard Frye, to be the result of Frye's wanting a poodle in the job.

Joyce allows himself to be ordered around by Frye and the hard-man hero of iDEA, Billy O'Rourke. He devotes himself to the compilation of reports and statistics. He is indeed a most unlikely hero. There are times in the early and middle parts of the novel when he provokes a howl of frustration in the reader. But slowly he emerges as a brilliantly conceived character, and his eventual quest for redemption is one which wholly engages the reader's attention and emotions. Seamus Joyce proves to be a wonderful creation.

But if Joyce is, ultimately, the book's greatest creation, there are many other compelling characters and, indeed, strengths. The first of the latter is the sheer exuberance and brilliance of the plotting. The reader, unless they are extremely astute (and I am not!), will find themselves having to refer back on several occasions in order to check a plot development which takes them by surprise, but is in fact clearly signalled.

At times it may that Millar overdoes this; it is possible to lose sight of some of the minor characters, and the vast conspiracy which emerges in the ending (as previously noted one of the book's weakest aspects) is an aberration which sails close to absurdity. But when he is involved in the minutiae of plot development the book can be breathtaking.

This is also the case with some secondary characters. This is particularly true of the book's unlikely heroines, the schoolgirl Davnet O'Reilly and one of her teachers, the diminutive nun Sister Perpetua. Characters like this need careful handling and substantial skill if they are not to be absurd, unreal, cloying or any of the other myriad traps which they invite.

It is perhaps the greatest tribute to Millar's talent and promise that he avoids all of these and instead produces a marvellous pair of characters whose orginality more than balances the occasional clichés of his gangsters. Once Davnet and Sister Perpetua are involved in the action the narrative grips like a vice, and when their stories and that of Joyce's redemption co-mingle, the book achieves real greatness: it is only a shame that Millar retreated from this in his ending.

Millar also has much of interest to say about drugs and governmental policies, for which he uses the unlikely figure of a deeply cynical media consultant. The book's treatment of the working of bureaucracies and office life is fascinating and refreshingly well-observed.

Given that this is a first novel and many of its faults can be ascribed to first-novelitis, AN IRISH SOLUTION is a very considerable achievement. It would be little praise to say it is the finest Irish mystery I have read, though it is, as I have read so few. More commendable is the fact that on finishing it I wanted to re-read it, and that makes it a rare mystery.

Reviewed by Nick Hay, January 2008

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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