The attitude of The Commitments meets the pace of Get Shorty in Eoin Colfer's new crime thriller for grown-ups, Plugged.
The novel is about Dan McEvoy, an Irish ex-soldier, who has certainly been around a bit, and is now washed up in a New Jersey dive of a casino called Slotz. One of the nightclub hostesses is murdered, one of his 'aquaintances' disappears, and McEvoy finds himself in a race against time, bullets, mobsters and crooked cops, baldness and walk-in freezers to pacify the whole lot. On the way, there are shoot outs, dog throws, barrels of steroids, combat flashbacks aplenty and mucho wise cracking. The reference points, I suppose, are Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler - the hard-boiled, laconic, guy-walks-into-a-room-with-a-gun kind of stuff ...
I think I'm on fairly safe territory in saying that I'm sure Colfer intends the book as pure escapism. It's undoubtedly the level at which the novel works best. If anyone takes it too seriously, or even wants to compare it too closely with Chandler (who has a lot more going on than he is often credited for), then there is going to be disappointment. I enjoyed the book a lot, and read it really quickly because it careens along at great speed and keeps you hooked, but I can't claim it to be as meaningful as some novels by other writers I've reviewed on the site of late - Fred Vargas, for example, or Andrew Taylor. But you know, it's just not meant to be, I think, it's basically meant to be fun - and I should just nail a fifth of Jameson's and fuggedaboutit.
If you're looking for action, for example, it deals it out in spades. There's an almost helter skelter run of mad set pieces - McEvoy is bundled from one do or die situation to another with barely a pause to load a gun or kiss a broad. There's one fight sequence in a car that's jaw-droppingly well put together. It is also occasionally very funny, and in a steadily riffing character device where McEvoy's missing friend carries out an imaginary conversation with our anti-hero, there is almost a self-referential knowing wink from the author to himself as the narrative deadpans on. Occasionally, through McEvoy, Colfer even brings himself up directly for how outlandish it's all getting, how unlikely the escapes, how corny some of the wise-cracks are becoming. If you don't take this novel too seriously, and you like all action, modern-boiled noir, with just a twist of the Dublin swagger of some of the characters in Roddy Doyle's early trilogy, this book is definitely for you.
I have to say though, even taking into account the escapist, fun heart of the book, for me the wise-assery got a bit exhausting, and I felt fairly wised-out by the end. Some of the asides just don't work, to be blunt. I think even Colfer is aware of this, and you can see him trying to temper it with the friend-conversation device I mentioned before. Indeed, there's an almost apologetic air about it at times, a sort of "look no hands" approach that actually ends up serving the book well. The problem of course, is that it's difficult to stay entirely immersed in a character endlessly smart-arsing away to this extent, because the comedy, and the occasionally unintended lack of it, diminishes the threat. There is a bit of that breaking of the fourth wall going on. The minute there feels like no threat in the midst of a hail of bullets, something is just not quite working in terms of creating a sense of menace and unpredictability. It's noir of a kind this book, but not the kind where the darkness is all pervading, seeping into the daylight like blood into water. Jim Thompson, for example. But as I say, this just isn't meant to be the deal.
I hope there's a series here because Plugged is a rattling good read, and there's real potential in McEvoy and his array of wacky chums and even wackier enemies to go forward. Colfer does pace and movement very well, and the violent set pieces (not to mention a Casino Royale style mother-of-all-card-games) are tense and well handled. It is highly visual, and would also make a great film. Right at the minute, Plugged and McEvoy make for a balancing act between a traditional noir mystery and black comedy screwball crime caper. Depending on what kind of reader you are, you may want one of these more than the other. The trick for Colfer if there are future McEvoy books may be the balancing of this.
One thing that struck me - if the Ian Fleming estate are ever looking for an author to write a Bond novel in the spirit of the Roger Moore films (the first great ones, like Live and Let Die, and not the last few parodies) they should give Eoin Colfer a call.