German-speaking army First Lieutenant Paul Duggan is promoted to G2 Intelligence to investigate the activities of a German spy in 1940’s Dublin. Paralleling this is his uncle’s request for him to trace his missing daughter. The uncle, Timmy Monaghan, is a nationalist TD who believes his daughter may have been kidnapped.
This mystery story is low on tension and is not fast-paced or noir enough to be deemed a thriller. Nevertheless, the fears and tribulations engendered by the Emergency in Ireland are captured very well. The country at the time was divided into pro- and anti-German feelings. The Germans had steamrolled their way through France, forcing the British evacuation from Dunkirk. Many believed at this stage that Hitler would win the war. So the country was replete with spies and rumours that the IRA would join with the Germans to drive the British off the island.
Joe Joyce knows his history well and his knowledge of Dublin locations of the period is spot on, and an unscrupulous politician such as Monaghan, slipping into a church to receive Benediction before meeting Duggan to carry on with his machinations, is typically hypocritical and redolent of the times. But the author goes into far too much detail to the detriment of the narrative. And too much is made of cigarette smoking at the expense of more meaningful familial exchanges between Duggan and Monaghan, which are treated rather cursorily.
The writing is authentic and very visual as when Duggan, in his quest for his missing cousin, follows her friend Stella up the stairs to Nuala’s flat: ‘A strip of yellow linoleum ran up the centre of the steps, the black paint of either side greyed by ingrained dust.’
Some tension does arise but it is not till halfway through the novel when Duggan, following a lead to the whereabouts of the missing girl, is confronted by a man pointing a Webley 45 at him. The man is apparently looking for the ransom money offered by Nuala’s father. When Duggan mentions that the missing girl is his cousin, his captors, who are the IRA, appear not to know her, something which causes mystification to both the lieutenant and his abductors. Duggan is rescued by his accomplice Gifford from Special Branch. One feels that this is the moment where the novel could really have taken off but instead it sinks into vagueness with Duggan’s captors fleeing and the police platitudinously shouting: ‘Come out with your hands up.’
Duggan tried to think the conundrum through: ‘Nuala was supposedly kidnapped. Timmy paid a supposed ransom. Then sent some of his old IRA friends or contacts to get it back. Nuala gave back the money. Then her boyfriend was supposedly kidnapped by the IRA as a spy. Was that why she gave back the money? Someone had paid her back in kind. Timmy. Would have to have been him.’ There was a chance, Duggan concluded, that it was all a hoax, a nationalistic guise by Monaghan to score points against the old enemy England. Or in addition it could equally have been a warped revenge plan against his recalcitrant daughter because of a family feud as he told the IRA that her boyfriend was an English spy.
Another problem for the reader regarding the kidnapped girl, is that is very hard to feel sympathy for her when we hardly know her. Also Duggan himself comes across as rather flat with few compelling traits. An interesting romantic subplot could have been developed for example between the ebullient Gifford and Duggan in their competition for the attentions of the office girl Sinéad, but nothing comes of it.
Well into the novel, while in their pursuit of the German spy, Duggan, at Greene’s bookshop, runs after Gifford and declares: ‘I think we’re being followed.’ ‘Thanks be to God,’ Gifford says, ‘some excitement at last.’
James Lawless’ latest novel is American Doll; www.jameslawless.net
Published in the Irish Examiner 01/07/2017