The Irish novelist John McGahern once remarked that his country stayed a 19th-century society for so long that it nearly missed the 20th century. But in the mid-1990s, Ireland's economy took off, turning the country from a poor backwater into a so-called Celtic Tiger with fancy restaurants, chrome-clad shops and soaring real estate values. The country was transformed — until things came tumbling down during the 2008 financial crisis.
This rapid rise and even rapider fall may have taken its toll on ordinary people, but it was a godsend for a mystery writer. There's nothing like upheaval to make a society interesting. Just ask Gene Kerrigan, a longtime Dublin reporter who — since his fiction debut, LITTLE CRIMINALS, in 2005 — has been writing crime novels remarkable for their verve, moral trickiness and nifty plotting. All these gifts are on display in his new novel, THE RAGE, a boundlessly readable portrait of an Ireland in which all the old certainties have vanished.
Its hero, Bob Tidey, is a detective sergeant in the Irish police, or Gardai, who's investigating the murder of a dodgy Dublin banker. As Tidey searches for clues, a volatile thug named Vincent Naylor is out on the streets preparing a really big score. Eventually, both the cop and the crook find their paths leading to a third party, Maura Coady, a retired nun who has secrets of her own. Trying to protect Maura from danger — while still obeying the law — Tidey finds himself caught in a situation where, as he puts it, there's no moral thing to do, yet something has to be done.
Now, it's a cliche about the Irish that they are colorful, and it must be said that THE RAGE brims with vividly drawn characters, from cynical high-class lawyers to feckless lowlifes. As the story bounces among them, I was reminded of novelists like Elmore Leonard and Charles Willeford. It's not that Kerrigan writes like them exactly — he doesn't emulate Leonard's gold-plated dialogue — but his work has a similar verbal energy. It whooshes you along. His prose isn't flashy but it is acute, like his description of a male jewelry salesman whose dyed blond hair is "gelled into thorny shapes like something designed by an unemployable architect."
If Kerrigan has a target, it's not Dublin's little criminals — the louts, thieves and killers — who roam through its gentrified streets. He realizes that they are bad guys, but he also views them with bemused sympathy — they're not without their charm or common humanity. Vincent Naylor may beat up a stranger he meets at a store simply because the dude's been prissy with him, but rather than moralize about it, THE RAGE takes us inside the animal glee that makes Vincent tick. Everyone in Kerrigan's world has his or her reasons.