Monday, September 9, 2013

Dead Irish

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Dead Irish (Donald I. Fine, 1989).

When I first started reading John Lescroart's novels a couple of years ago, I wasn't able to find the first of the now 21 books about Dismas Hardy and his friends and associates, nor a couple of others that I'm saving for a rainy day. It's a really fun series, mostly legal thrillers but incorporating detective fiction and melodrama along the way, in which any of the characters can either take the lead role or just make a cameo appearance. Hardy, formerly both a cop and an ADA, had dropped out of life entirely after the accidental death of his infant son and, when I first met him in the second book, 1990's The Vig, he was working as a bartender. In time, he'd put his life back together and go back into private law practice, often putting him at odds with his best friend and former beat partner, homicide detective Abe Glitsky.

In Dead Irish, Lescroart is a long way from the standard tropes of his series, and I found myself glad that I ended up saving it for later. Hardy is still paralyzed by guilt and grief over his son's death and while some of his character quirks are there, including his cast-iron skillet and his talent with darts, he's just a mess of a man with a hollow existence. Proving that much growth was to come in later books, however, this one not only features Abe, who is later known to disapprove strongly of profanity, with an uncommonly foul mouth, and it ends on the optimistic note of Dismas on the verge of reconciling with his ex-wife, mother of his late son. This, fans know, will not be successful.

This story is the first instance of Dismas Hardy acting as an amateur investigator. His boss at the bar offers him an ownership stake for looking into the death of his sister's husband, Eddie Cochran. The coroner has ruled it as "suicide, equivocal," with no strong evidence one way or the other, and the police are in no hurry to add another homicide to their duties. Since an insurance payout rests on the verdict, and since Dismas used to be a cop, maybe he could make certain everything's being done correctly?

Dismas finds a really strange series of events revolving around the community newspaper distributors where Cochran had worked, and a very intense family life, with a longtime friend of the Cochrans, a priest, staying very close to the family. Eddie's widow, Frannie, has told nobody that she is pregnant, and the deceased left a teenage brother who is spectacularly troubled. Then there's a definite murder and huge theft at one of the papers, but nobody's certain it has anything to do with Eddie's death...

Another great hallmark of Lescroart here is that the text is incredibly dense, with very minor supporting characters fleshed out completely and given as much life as the stars, and incidents that end up not directly relating to the course of the mystery are also full of detail and color. The result is a story where everything and everybody in a large cast and not strictly a chain or a series, but an assortment of events is all given equal billing and focus. This can result in an occasionally tough read - I have been known, with Lescroart, to occasionally wish he'd compact episodes a little more and move things along faster - but it's a remarkably vivid one. I was completely fascinated to see the author's own style so established and certain, even while the characters had a great deal more growing to do before they inhabit the versions that are more familiar to me from the later books. Recommended.

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