Sunday, June 23, 2013

Crocodile Tears, by Mark O'Sullivan

I got a bit depressed the other day when I read an article about the decline of the paperback over at Slate. True, the article basically says that things may not be as grim as all that, but the gradual or not so gradual trend away from paperbacks in favor of ebooks seems to be unstoppable. Maybe it's the right moment to put in a good word for paperbacks, then. Mark O'Sullivan's Crocodile Tears seems an excellent book to use as an example.

I happened to win my copy of Crocodile Tears, but that didn't create much of a bias, as I had already been interested in it and was planning to send off for a copy of it anyway. Its appearance in my mailbox came as a pleasant surprise.

I recently listened to an agent's podcast about what hooks a reader--what gives a reader a feeling of solidity about a book and assures him or her that they are in for a good read. I thought at once of Crocodile Tears, because more than just having a good cover, which it does, or jacket blurbs, which, oddly, it doesn't, the book itself has a reassuring solidity--you feel that the publisher took some time in thinking the design of the book through, and that some care went  into the project. So even before you begin reading the text, you have that sense the agent mentioned of being in capable hands and off for a good ride.

Crocodile Tears is a crime novel set in Dublin. It shares some characteristics with the work of another Dublin writer, Declan Hughes, in its portrayal of the decline and ruin of a  privileged Irish family, complete with great house and troubled past. It also bears some similarity to the fiction of Alan Glynn and Declan Burke, who have both written crime novels set in Ireland of the  contemporary era, which is to say, post boom.

At heart, though, this is a police procedural, with the typical police team dealing with various crimes that emerge out of the first death. Its main protagonist is Detective Inspector Leo Woods (and one small gripe I had about the book was that this ponderous title was used in so many instances where "Leo", or "Woods", or "DI Woods" would have done just fine), and he is a sad and complicated man. Suffering from Bell's Palsy, which paralyzes and distorts one side of his face, Leo is portrayed as in some ways beyond help for his personal afflictions, which are spiritual and psychological as well as physical. As readers, or at least as this reader, we are never quite persuaded that he is as far beyond the pale as he thinks he is, which perhaps opens up material for future books. All of the police are in fact captured midstory--Detective Sergeant Helen Troy, who has just recently been promoted to this new position but is carrying a lot of  familial baggage with her; Superintendent Aoenghus Heaphy, who has undergone a painful and cosmetic enhancement under the impression that it will help him rise; the super capable but preoccupied Detective Garda Ben Murphy, and so on. These are the kinds of characters that will only get better if the series continues.

The story is satisfyingly complex, and takes us not only into the rarified heights of wealthy neighborhoods, but to failed housing estates and abandoned hotels as well. O'Sullivan sets his tale during a record cold spell, which only adds to the bleak atmosphere he is creating.

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