Tue
Feb 19 2013 1:00pm

Fresh Meat: Black Irish by Stephan Talty

Black Irish by Stephan Talty is a police procedural involving sadistic killings in the Irish-American community of Buffalo, New York (available February 26, 2013).

In Black Irish, the debut novel by best-selling nonfiction writer Stephan Talty, a killer is torturing men in the working-class, Irish-American neighborhood known as “The County,” leaving them in forgotten places with a worn old toy monkey.

Absalom “Abbie” Kearny has returned to Buffalo, to the neighborhood she once called home, to care for her aging father and to try to overcome the failures she felt plagued her in Miami. With a Harvard degree and a detective’s shield—measures of external success anywhere else—she feels disconnected, both from the community that’s always mistrusted outsiders and her adoptive father who always kept his distance even when she followed in his footsteps.

Meanwhile someone or something is haunting The County, killing off men in gruesome ways. The residents, usually quick to mete out justice on their own, can’t find, or are too afraid to look for, the murderer. And the more Abbie digs the more she suspects the deaths are connected to the local social club, the one her father brought her to as a child. The same social club that may or may not have decades-old connections to the IRA and the guns, drugs, and violence they brought with them from Ireland.

The research into the IRA and its ties to Buffalo is one of the things that stand out about this novel. Talty’s experience with narrative nonfiction enables him to weave a great deal of information into the story. Another standout is Abbie herself.

With dark hair and blue eyes, Abbie’s features mark her, in a community that shuns Irish descendents from the “wrong part of Ireland,” and are a physical manifestation of her sense of her otherness. Strong-willed, with a soft spot for orphans, for the poor, and for those who have been abandoned, Abbie is a good example of a strong female protagonist; she’s tough, but she’s not just a dude in a dress.

His eyes drifted down the length of her, seeing her for the first time not as the thin and intense schoolgirl from Mount Mercy, but as an electric thing. The memory of her body pressing down on his, its sinews and muscles, was still imprinted on his mind, and a thin pall of heat seemed to cover his stomach and crotch where she had ground into him. His eyes came back up, noticed the silky material of the shirt straining at the button between her two upturned breasts, and his eyes continued up the torquing flute of her neck, the curve of her lips—had she applied lipstick before coming to nearly kill him, or did she do that while she was on the phone?—the full cheeks and the blue eyes, now calm with the power of her body.

They watched each other for a moment, and the sound seemed to vanish out of the room and all he could hear was her breathing, not his.

“You put your gun in my mouth,” he said.

Years of projecting perfection have taken their toll, and underneath, she’s obsessive, angry, and lost. Her feelings that she doesn’t quite belong to anyone or anywhere are common among adoptees, especially ones with few clues about her birth parents.

In a way, Buffalo is a city without a clear sense of identity either, no longer industrial, no longer even populated, it sits on the lake waiting for a future that never arrived.

When she told her partner Z about how odd she felt driving Buffalo highways, he’d asked her why. She’d brushed it off then, but now she knew why. It’s the emptiness. The enormous emptiness. Or the loneliness, that was it, the feeling of being alone in a place that should be filled with other people, cars full of families headed to the supermarket, to the restaurant on the lake, to the hockey game. Buffalo had built miles of highways during the book years, enough for a million people. The people that were going to come, but didn’t. Why not? Where’d they disappear to? What happened to them?

Now the gray roads splayed across the city, empty half the time. The local joke was the only way Buffalo would get a rush hour was if Toronto got hit by a nuclear bomb and panicked Canadians came pouring south. You could drive for twenty minutes at a time at three on a weekday afternoon and not see another car pass you. The highway system was a network of veins laid out across a dead heart.

The desolation and isolation are everywhere in this book: the landscape, the people, the economic depression, the weather. Oh, the weather! After reading so many Florida mysteries, the cold was even more noticeable—so much so I caught myself shivering a few times while reading it—which made me wonder why anyone would choose to leave Miami for Buffalo in winter. Except, Abbie isn’t searching for the kind of warmth one can get on a beach. She isn’t searching for a vacation. She’s not even just looking for truth or justice or a killer. In the end, her search for her past is as important as her search for the murderer and the secrets he or she holds.

See coverage of more new releases in our Fresh Meat series.


Neliza Drew is a tofu-eating teacher and erratic reader with a soft spot for crime fiction. She lives in the heat and humidity of southern Florida with three cats and her adorable hubby. She listens to way too much music, writes often, and spends too much time on Twitter (@nelizadrew).

Read all posts by Neliza Drew on Criminal Element.

 

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4 comments
Andrew Kuligowski
1. KuligowskiAndrew
"In a way, Buffalo is a city without a clear sense of identity either, no longer industrial, no longer even populated, it sits on the lake waiting for a future that never arrived."

Oh. My. G-d. The local Chamber of Commerce will disagree, but this is the best description of my former home town that I've ever seen.
2. techeditor
I read an ARC of this book a few weeks ago.

Stephan Talty has written plenty of nonfiction, but BLACK IRISH is his first stab at fiction. In this book, a Buffalo, New York police detective is trying to solve serial murders in what is left of the Irish community there.

This book could easily be the beginning of a series, but I wouldn't want to continue with it. Granted, BLACK IRISH deserves praise for being unputdownable at certain points. That's the mark of a good thriller. But it also makes mistakes common to thrillers that fail for anyone who reads this genre regularly. The biggest of these is predictability.

Maybe someone who has never read a thriller would find the clues in BLACK IRISH less obvious than I did. But, like the person who does crossword puzzles often being better at crossword puzzles, I recognized many setups in the story and could predict their outcomes.

It also looks like this writer, new to thrillers, felt that this type book must incorporate certain ingredients: sex and violence. So he put some in there that were unnecessary to the story, gratuitous. Talty doesn't seem to realize that most readers of thrillers give highest marks to books without gratuitous sex and violence. If those things are part of the story, OK. But Talty seems to have stuck a couple scenes in there for no good reason, just for the heck of it.

Another scene in BLACK IRISH is a common type in thrillers that aggravate me: a lone person meets the bad guy intentionally and intentionally doesn't tell anyone and then gets into a really bad scrape. Oh please, Stephan, can't you do better than that?

Although BLACK IRISH is lacking in quality, I still think Talty is on the right track. The scenes that make the book unputdownable prove that. And the final outcome, the most important one, is unpredictable.
Neliza Drew
3. nelizadrew
There were definitely parts of the book that could've been improved upon, but I liked the character and she had potential for growth. More and more, that's my benchmark for books. I have to like the character before anything else, especially those that become series.
Neliza Drew
4. nelizadrew
@kuligowskiandrew

Sometimes I see descriptions of FL that make me nod my head in the same way. Chamber of Commerce might hate it, but... yep.
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