A Hunt in Winter
THE setting is Victorian Dublin, as newly promoted detective inspector, Joe Swallow investigates an outbreak of sexual assaults on women.
Paralleling this is the British government’s attempt to undermine the Irish parliamentary leader, Charles Stewart Parnell, by trying to locate incriminating logs which Swallow and his superior, Mallon, are reluctant to reveal.
The description of “the fern-patterned frost on glass” captures well the winter scene, which is an atmospheric motif throughout the novel.
Victorian Dublin is caught authentically in the references to the beeswax, gas lights, Ormolu clocks, Webley Bulldog revolvers, and bentwood chairs.
The book shows great evidence of historical research, but sometimes it is overdone.
For example, when Swallow passes by St Catherine’s Church, in Thomas Street, we are given a potted history of the tragic Robert Emmet, and when this is repeated later, concerning a paper portrait, it make the author more like a tour guide than a narrator.
And do the Dublin Mountains have to be named individually?
But there are illuminating insights: the magistrates’ courts don’t sit on a Saturday and the author conjures up the shops of the time, such as Weirs and Pyms, and pubs like The Long Hall and the Royal Marine Hotel, in Kingstown, where the wedding reception of Swallow and his long-term girlfriend, Maria, takes place.
Here, however, there is as much wastage in the detail on the food consumed as there is in the unnecessary use of page space in between dates in short chapters.
There are no accounts of dancing, the wedding night is skipped over, and the period-accurate songs hardly constitute revelry. A lot of this space could have been more usefully spent in character development.
Swallow’s mother, for example, appears vague and ethereal in her scant delineation: “her relations with her son had been distant, cold almost, over the years since the death of her husband” could have done with elaboration.
And, while accepting Swallow is not much of a romantic, one would have preferred a nuanced build-up in the relationship between him and Maria. One wonders why she, as his new bride, is not at the forefront of his mind.
And the reference to Maria’s pub, in Thomas Street, which he has to oversee later, while she is in the maternity hospital, is treated as mere background material, and one would like to have witnessed one or two interpersonal scenes on these premises.
As well as being heavy on the sauce, Brady is also heavy on the adverbs: Elena Pfaus, (wife of Swallow’s counterpart in Berlin) “smiled contentedly” at Swallow, and the murder suspect Carmody “grinned mirthlessly”.
And having a Friar Lawrence arrange Swallow’s wedding sounded like the author had been reading Romeo and Juliet.
The story lifts off when the pregnant Maria is assaulted by Swallow’s rival, Major Kelly, head of the secret service, which is a a protected species by the British.
Kelly broke into Maria’s licensed premises, in search of the incriminating logs against Parnell. Swallow was in Berlin, arranging to bring back Carmody for questioning. The assault led to the death of their baby.
The stakes are high, now, and the story becomes gripping, as Swallow tries to deal with this.
What is interesting and daring is that the novel ends without resolution. The finger points to Kelly, also, as a possible sexual murderer, but Swallow is ordered by Balfour, the chief secretary for Ireland, not to charge him, and, as in Brady’s previous novel, The Eloquence of the Dead, the small man (Swallow in this case) loses out to the powers that be.
However, in doing this, perhaps the author is leaving room for the detective to return in a new book.
James Lawless’ latest novel is American Doll; jameslawless.net
Published in the Irish Examiner 28/1/17