Friday, November 30, 2012

Slaughter's Hound, by Declan Burke

I think sometimes the form of the crime fiction series lulls us into thinking we know what to expect out of its novels. Indeed, this is usually half the intent. Drumming up a little business for the brand. Personally, I have nothing against this formulaic approach. When a series has gone on too long, I just stop reading it. No harm, no foul.

I suppose, then, I was looking forward to the second Harry Rigby book for the usual, but as it turns out, the wrong reasons. As anyone who read Eightball Boogie will know (and you really should read it first as this one has some spoilers for that earlier one), that story ends leaving Harry in some challenging straits, and a lot of time has passed since then as this book opens. So let's just say it's kind of the opposite of the Sue Grafton series, where Kinsey Millhone can remain the same age through several volumes of the alphabet series, or maybe even more.

Time, then, has passed, and it has not passed well for Harry Rigby. He is currently driving a cab and running various errands, not all of them on the licit side of the line. One of them involves bringing some grass to an old friend. It gives nothing away to say that that friend takes a fatal dive off a tall building, because it happens within the first two pages. The rest of the book concerns the whys and wherefores of this fateful fall. 

This is a dark tale, and it gets progressively darker as it goes along. In the middle, it reminded me a bit of Ross MacDonald, and also of his Irish literary descendent, Declan Hughes, with its tale of doomed families and the ruin that attends them. But there is a kind of go for broke quality to this book that I haven't really found in the aforementioned illustrious writers' work, and it took me till nearly the end of the book to realize that Burke has laid it all out for us in the very title of the work, and in a helpful author's epigram, in which he notes that the great warrior  Cú Chulainn's name really means Hound of Ulster and that he owned a number of war hounds called archú, who were known for their love of slaughter.  So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen--a quiet stroll by the river this is not. Instead, it is a tale steeped in the tradition of the Irish myth cycles, where deeds are great, but, well, bloody. So don't say I didn't give you fair warning.

But now that I have, don't be scared off. This is also a smart, and funny--yes, funny--tale of contemporary Ireland, and Harry is down and out partly because a lot of people are. It's just that he reaches a deeper level of loss than most, which propels him on a grim trajectory that in retrospect seems fated, as that of mythic heroes always do.

Burke is also a writer of gorgeous sentences, and just so I don't leave you the impression that the book is all havoc, let me end with the beginning...

(filched from his website)
"It was  a rare fine night for a stroll down by the docks, the moon plump as a new pillow in an old-fashioned hotel and the undertow in the turning tide swushing its ripples silvery-green and a bird you’ve never heard before chirring its homesick tale of a place you might once have known and most likely now will never see, mid-June and almost midnight and balmy yet, the kind of evening built for a long walk with a woman who likes to take long walks and not say very much, and that little in a murmur you have to strain to catch, her laughter low and throaty, her humour dry and favouring lewd, eyes like smoky mirrors of the vast night sky and in them twinkles that might be stars reflecting or the first sparks of intentions that you’d better fan with soft words and a gentle touch in just the right place or spend the rest of your life and maybe forever wondering what might have been, all for the want of a soft word and a touch gentle and true.
It was that kind of evening, alright. That kind of place.
You ever find yourself there, say something soft, and be gentle, and true.
Me, I found myself hunched over the charred dwarf that had once been Finn Hamilton, parts of him still sizzling in a marinade of oily flesh and melting tar, and all around the rank stench of singing hair and burnt petrol, seared pork.
Midnight, and balmy yet."

Now do yourself a favor and go out and find the rest.


  1. Yep. And I presume your invoking Kinsey Millhone was not a shot at Sue Grafton. But it is a reminder that Slaughter's Hound is not like other crime novels.

  2. No, no shots at Sue Grafton. I actually credit Grafton, Paretsky, Amanda Cross and Marcia Muller for getting me back into reading mysteries as an adult. They were using the form of the female detective in a fresh new way. Of course, we're now on to V is for Vengeance, there is the possibility that the series has gone on too long. I think I stopped at around J.

  3. SLAUGHTER'S HOUND was more than I expected. I kept reading and wondering where the story would go, and Burke never dodged a hard choice. As you said, not for everyone, but a fascinating and compelling story I'm sure I'll read again.

  4. Dana, you'd think after ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL, I'd know to hedge my bets with Mr. Burke's writing, but somehow I had been lulled into thinking this was going to be something predictable. Glad you enjoyed it as well.