Sarah is an Auckland based book reviewer, who tends to prefer literary fiction, biographies, and other non-fiction works, but has also broadened her reading lately to include crime fiction. She has also reviewed for Good Reading, NZLawyer, and Scoop Review of Books in the past.
By Liam McIlvanney (Faber, Oct 2009)
Reviewed by Sarah Gumbley
Reviewed by Sarah Gumbley
In Belfast, it’s hard to ignore history. The locals try, believe me. Or at least when it comes to discussing it with visitors. But it’s there. The bullet holes in the walls, or the murals painted on them don’t just hint at the Troubles, they shout it. What’s a little harder to see, and so is all too easily forgotten, is Scotland’s experience with it all. It’s not quite so obvious, so recent or raw. But it’s there. And it’s this link that provides the backdrop for McIlvanney’s excellent, but rather intense, debut novel.
Gerry Conway, Political Editor at the Glasgow daily paper, the Tribune gets phone calls regularly from locals who claim they have some scandalous information for him. Usually he’ll brush these callers off. Experience has taught him they rarely have anything to offer, and simply want their five minutes of fame. However, one caller, Hamish Neil, is particularly persistent, assuring Conway that he has lurid details about the current and very popular Minister of Justice, Peter Lyons, who is expected by many to be the next Prime Minister. Rumour has it that Lyons was once a part of The New Covenanters, a group of Scots that were involved in the violence during Northern Ireland’s Troubles, and Neil has a rather grainy photograph of Lyons with Loyalist paramilitaries to prove it.
The persuasiveness of the call causes Conway to research a little into the story. The more he researches, the more he suspects there might really be something more to it. He convinces his boss, Norman Rix, to allow him to cross the channel to follow the story to Northern Ireland. It’s just a hunch, but if this story proves true, it could just make the life of the paper, already struggling to survive, a little more secure. So across to Northern Ireland he goes. When he is there, investigating, he encounters tough resistance. As a Catholic it’s not the safest place for him to be researching in any case, but it seems, worse still, there are people going to great lengths to ensure Conway stops his story as soon as possible.
This gritty, political thriller shows the Scottish-born McIlvanney, now a Professor living in New Zealand’s South Island, has plenty of talent. It doesn't matter how good his father, the famed crime-fiction author, William was, he has clearly developed his skill (and it is indeed a skill) of writing well. His sentences are short, dense and filled with detail and all his characters are fully formed, interesting, and believable.
As I’ve said with crime fiction before, it’s not the type of book I'd usually pick up. But I'm glad I did, as it's take on the setting makes it really worthwhile. McIlvanney has researched into, and written plenty on, both Irish and Scottish history and this allows him to provide such an accurate and interesting background in this novel. Having said that, it was a rather depressing and draining 300 or so pages. I’m not surprised to hear McIlvanney is now taking a different turn in his writing for his next book (a selection of essays on English fiction which comes out next year); he obviously needed a break.
So, what do you think of Sarah's review? Do you like the Guest Reviews addition to Crime Watch? Have you read ALL THE COLOURS OF THE TOWN? Does crime and thriller fiction set against a political or historic backdrop appeal? Thoughts and comments welcome.