In the far north of New York State sits the city of Buffalo, the “27th county of Ireland”. The south of city, working class and suffering from the closure of the local milling industry, has such a high proportion of Irish Americans living there that it has become known as simply “the county”, an area with a fierce sense of community and heritage, and an innate distrust of outsiders. In the county, where you are from is everything; families can object to other families simply because an ancestor several generations back came from the “wrong part” of Ireland. It is into this distinctive and atmospheric world that Stephan Talty takes us in his debut novel, Black Irish.
We find the county faced with a brutal killer. Jimmy Ryan, a middle-aged man with an unexciting job is found inexplicably murdered in an abandoned church after apparently being tortured there for some time beforehand. A strange token is found at the murder scene – a toy monkey with hands over his ears, mimicking the wise monkey who heard no evil. The county normally responds to crime by presenting a united front, policing their own and dealing out the community’s own form of justice, often resisting intrusion from the local police department, even populated as it is by Irish cops. This is one crime that needs something more than the community can handle, however.
Enter Detective Absalom (Abbie) Kearney, a brilliant homicide detective (aren’t they all?). The adopted daughter of well-respected local retired cop John Kearney, she has recently returned to Buffalo after spell working in Miami to look after her ailing father. Despite being in the Kearney household since age two, she is still seen as an outsider in Buffalo, and her gender and degree from Harvard do nothing to make her fit in better in the eyes of the local police department. Abbie suspects a link to a second unsolved murder in nearby Niagara Falls, and by the time another body shows up in Buffalo with another toy monkey – killed as brutally as the first, although displayed differently – she is certain that a serial killer is at work. In a city determined to protect its own, can Abbie find out who is responsible for these killings and stop them from striking again?
In Black Irish, Talty gives us a novel full of sense of place and atmosphere, a city with the soul of Ireland and the grim backdrop of dying industry and poverty. A city that Talty knows well enough, as it is his hometown. In Buffalo, he weaves a story based around the complex histories and politics of the community that Abbie is policing, as you might expect from someone who is more known for writing non-fiction narrative histories than stories. The result is a book that is about much more than a serial killer, and has more depth to it than many thrillers and crime novels that I have read. My only objection really lies in the manner of the killings; as with many such stories, killing in itself doesn’t seem to be sufficient, the killer also has to murder in an unusual way that tells a story to the detective in question. Quite honestly, such things are unrealistic and a bit silly. With less sensationalist deaths detracting from the real core of the story, this would have been a better novel. Sometimes, less is more.
This aside, Absalom is pleasingly new and interesting detective, and despite her tendency to speak without indicating it is her who is speaking – really annoying in several key dialogues, which had to be re-read to get the true sense of them – I enjoyed spending time in her company. The detective work was far from brilliant, but the story was fast-paced and the plotting good for a debut novel. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see rather more of Detective Kearney in the future.
Recommended to fans of crime novels.
Black Irish by Stephan Talty
Published by Headline, July 2013
With thanks to the publishers for providing this review copy.
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