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By Hugo Hamilton

What has happened Hugo Hamilton at all, at all? The author of three stylish and individualistic previous novels set in Germany, Surrogate City, The Last Shot and The Love Test, and a collection of short stories, Dublin Where The Palm Trees Grow, has here gone in for a decidedly drastic and devastating change of direction, and produced a crime thriller set in Dublin. His earlier work marked him out as one of Ireland’s most promising literary hopefuls, but this new book is a tersely written tale aimed at the mass market.

Maverick Garda Pat Coyne is on a Messianic mission to nail top Dublin criminal ‘Drummer’ Cunningham and his gang, while at the same time trying to protect his wife Carmel and their three children from Cunningham’s vengeful attentions. He’d also like to rescue the gangster’s moll, Naomi. He’s the ‘Headbanger’ of the title, ‘Mr Suicide’, ‘the Dublin Dirty Harry’. Along the way we learn of his neuroses and obsessions.

On the plus side, there is much to sympathise with here, for example Coyne’s hatred of golf: ‘Golf is for emotionally disturbed whackoes’, ‘it was for failed psychopaths’; his hatred of art, which his wife Carmel has just taken up: ‘Won’t last. There’s too many at it. All that self-expression lark. There’s too much expression and too little understanding’; his hatred of DIY: ‘And the amount of DIY dickheads hanging around on Saturday morning was unbelievable. People all over the place couldn’t stop the urge to improve things. Can’t you just leave the world alone, you pack of demented dipsticks? Nothing better to do than to start taking apart your sad little semis. Guys deciding to build shelves every Saturday morning of the year until they had drilled an almighty hole in one of their plasterboard walls.’ All of this Neanderthalism on Coyne’s part is coupled with a near aesthetic ‘interest in the precision of language’, which has him fighting back the urge to go into a certain Dublin pub and tell them that it’s not ‘Embibing Emporium’ as the sign outside their door reads, but ‘Imbibing’. Even though Hamilton is doing a bit of literary slumming, you still can’t hide a good writer, and Coyne has some nice turns of phrase, as for example when he describes Naomi as ‘a social worker’s dream’.

On the minus side, there are some truly awful puns and word plays, like ‘Shag all’ for ‘Chagall’, ‘pick your own asso’ for ‘Picasso’, and ‘Vermicelli’ for ‘Vermeer’. There are cliched scenes not worthy of Hamilton, like the appearance of that best forgotten breed, the sadistic Christian Brother, and an ‘exciting’ car chase. This is Hamilton condescending to the lowest common denominator.

Perhaps Coyne’s anti-art stance is an ironic tongue-in-cheek comment by Hamilton on how he knows his new work will be received by the more literary of literary critics. Or perhaps he will be like Celine, who kept setting out to write block-busting best-sellers, which the critics kept hailing as great art. But I doubt it. Headbanger is an average to good thriller, but it represents Hamilton indulging in the opportunism of latching on to a hot topic, this time Dublin’s rising crime rate. It is an interesting exercise because it is by someone who was heretofore a ‘serious’ writer, but it is still a sell out by that writer. At least he seems to be having fun selling out. It remains to be seen if he will continue in this vein, or if he will revert to his earlier, more satisfying, mode.

One doesn’t have to notice that a well-known film producer is thanked at the beginning of the book for his generous support and encouragement during its writing, to foresee a film and a TV series. But if there are straight-to-video movies, why aren’t there straight-to-screenplay novels?

First published in Books Ireland



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