After hearing a couple of friends rave about the crime novels of Irish author Gene Kerrigan, I knew I’d have to read one sooner or later, and this brings me to Dark Times in the City, a gritty crime novel that explores the difficulties of remaining neutral in a corrupt damaged society where taking a moral stand can prove to be expensive.
Danny Callaghan is a 32-year-old ex-con who’s been out of prison for just 7 months. As an ex-con, he’s considered a success since he’s chosen the straight life. Callaghan lives in a nest of low-rent, drug-infested flats called ‘the hive’ and is holding his life together with a marginal job as a driver which allows him to tune out and remain independent. Ironically, he drives around visiting toffs and business execs whose nightly excursions tend to end in vomit-soaked drunken binges while Callaghan hangs out and acts responsible. One night, he’s minding his own business in a pub and having a quiet pint when two men walk in to make a hit.
The first assassin spotted his target and began to move forward. By now, most of those in the vicinity knew what was happening. The motorcycle helmet indoors, the armed minder watching the killer’s back and the quick stride towards the intended victim–in recent years, a routine as recognisable as a Riverdance twirl.
Danny doesn’t hesitate; he steps in between the gunmen and the intended victim and sends the two thugs packing. With this action, Danny finds himself dragged into a very ugly turf war between two rival gangs. One gang is run by the ageing Lar Mackendrick who’s had a tight fist on the Dublin crime scene for decades. The other gang is run by 27-year-old Frank Tucker, the head of a crime family that may or may not have old business with Danny Callaghan. Callaghan served 8 years in prison for manslaughter. He claimed he killed Big Brendan Tucker in self-defense, but with Big Brendan’s family, including his nephew Frank Tucker testifying against the self-defense argument, Callaghan served his time. Callaghan is concerned that Frank Tucker wants revenge and an unsettling meeting with the crime boss leans against that theory, and yet Callaghan still has the uneasy feeling that he’s being followed.
Tucker looked beyond Danny Callaghan, as though looking into the past. “Brendan and me, he was, what–about fifteen years older. He saw himself as a sort of uncle, I suppose. He was my cousin and I loved him, but what Brendan did best was throw shapes. He got a swanky car, swanky clothes, jewelry, bodyguards. You could quote any line from Scarface and he’d do the whole scene for you.” Tucker’s tone changed. “Too tall to be Pacino, though. Too fat, and too dumb. Brendan talked to the crime hacks from the Sunday papers, made himself out to be a big player. But everyone knew that Brendan would eventually fuck up. He did a bit of boxing early on, wasn’t much good at it but he knew how to push people around. Hardly a week went by he didn’t beat the shit out of someone. No way to build a business. Attracts the wrong kind of attention. And sooner or later—-“
To Frank Tucker, Callaghan is old business. While Callaghan worries that the past has yet to catch up with him, he doesn’t realize that he’s stumbled into the middle of a gang war where the vicious Lar Mackendrick is seen as “low-hanging fruit.”
If this were the Godfather, we’d be talking about gang members going to the mattresses, but here we see gang members picked off and brutally slaughtered–sometimes gleefully by the rival gang. This is an unpleasant bunch of characters who think nothing of beating some one to death and have fun doing it. Feeling he has little choice, Callaghan is dragged into the ongoing war and forced to cooperate, but still he struggles against an uneasy conscience.
Emphasizing the predictability of character and the impossibility of escape in given circumstances, Dark Times in the City is hard-boiled crime, and author Gene Kerrigan tries to balance the brutal darkness of this tale with moments of sentimentality involving Callaghan and various people he cares about. This balancing act may work for some readers who need to feel that there are some good, decent people in the world, but the moments of sentimentality work against the novel’s bleak, hard-core centre. That said, the pizza episode (and I’ll give no more away) nails how the lives of ordinary people are shockingly subsumed into the dark world that exists just out of sight in the margins of society. Ultimately, this is a page-turner which I would have preferred to see without its sentimental moments. The two mega-crime bosses are well pitched towards one another–both intent on the destruction of the other, and, of course in the post-boom collapse, there’s only room for one crime family, and the most savage will win and the weak, I’m thinking the weasely character of Walter Bennett, will be crushed. Frank Tucker is seen as the new face of crime in a country that’s still defining itself:
The North was still leaking blood, and the South’s middleclass aspirations and distaste for the excesses of nationalism came together to create a fashion in housing estates with English labels–Sherwood Park, Tudor Heights, Balmoral Lawns. That was before the economic boom and the winding down of the Northern bloodletting encouraged the middle classes to adopt a bit of the old nationalist swagger.