Thursday, November 6, 2014

Undercover: a Cormac Kelly Thriller, by Gerard Brennan

I'm not often in on the early part of a writer's career--I'm usually more in the last to know category. In the case of Gerard Brennan, it's certainly been interesting to watch the trajectory. I think the first piece of his I read was a twisty, not to mention twisted little tale of a rock musician whose life gets seriously gnarly called "Hard Rock". (You can find it in The Mammoth Book of Best British Crime Fiction Volume 8). I then went on to read the novel Wee Rockets and the follow up novella, Wee Danny, and another short novel called The Point. Although I suppose technically this isn't a chronological progression, still, all these tales have something to do with youth, and a fairly mean streets sort of youth at that.

So it's very interesting to see Brennan's vision rise out of his native Belfast haunts and look at a somewhat bigger picture. There are points in the story which literally soar above the landscape, and it's hard not see this as a metaphor for the author's expanded sense of scope as well.

But to get back to the story. Bifurcated from the start, it begins with a man in a ski mask, sitting watch on a father and son in a Belfast basement. It soon turns out that the man in the ski mask is not entirely what he seems. Meanwhile, in London, the wife and mother of the hostages is being forced to agree with the kidnappers' demands. What do they involve? Well, we're not entirely sure at the beginning, but we do know they must have a little to do with her top drawer client, the footballer Rory Cullen.

Speaking of whom. Every chapter begins with a little slice of Rory's autobiography, Cullen. I happen to be a big fan of epigraphs in novels and other forms of extraneously inserted information. And knowing nothing at all about European style football, at first glance I thought Brennan had used a real footballer's autobiography to add a different slant. But no, it's entirely fictional. And as such it gives Cullen, who is more football than footballer in the story itself, a curious extra dimension.

As is often the case with this particular corner of crime fiction I seem to find myself in these days, I wonder exactly how I came to the place where I am reading scene after scene of violent fighting. I don't mean I'm bored, but you know, I come more from the realm of Dorothy Sayers and P. D. James. My thoughts run along two lines when I encounter these. One is amusement at myself for following the carefully choreographed brutality, and another is a more detached sense that the readers of the world shouldn't all be like me. That is, female, middle-aged and probably unable to throw a decent punch. I used to be a bookseller, and I view books like Brennan's as a great gateway drug for young guys who only play video games and watch action movies. Who is writing actual books for them these days?

But for me, there are other rewards. As always, Brennan has an eye and an ear for what young boys are like. There's only one in this book, but his tough heart inside a kid's body was one of the most compelling aspects of this book for me. And on a comic level, I really enjoyed the ex-spook Stephen Black. Let's have more of him, please.


  1. Thanks a million, Seana! Chuffed to bits with this.


  2. Glad you approve, sir. I can say now that I somehow had the impression that the book was called Underground--it's the kind of thing that happens more easily when you're reading an ebook and don't see the cover that much--and I had a really interesting angle on that. Until I realized that I had it totally wrong.

  3. Underground might be good for a sequel, though. But then I'd have to rack my brains for other Under-related titles if I went beyond trilogy territory. Like Misunderstood... Under-worked and Over-appreciated... Under the Bridge Downtown...

    Is it just me, or could this actually work?

    After two seconds of thought, I'm willing to bet that it's just me.


  4. No, keep playing with it. Underbelly, underhanded, underage--there's a million of them that might fit your themes. And you can always alternate them with Over...