Tuesday, June 22, 2010

*Deadwater, by Sean Burke

Serpent's Tail Publishing
186 pp

 It's 1989, the scene is the Cardiff (Wales) docklands area of Butetown, a small community commonly known as Tiger Bay. A prostitute who had been slated to testify against two rather nasty brothers -- Tony and Carl Baja -- has been killed in her apartment after changing her mind and returning home. The next day Jack Farrisey, a local pharmacist, wakes up covered in blood with no recollection of anything that had happened the night before, since he was in an alcohol-induced amnesiac state. The local police want this crime solved, because as of two years earlier, the docklands area had been slated for regeneration and redevelopment, so  unsolved murders or murders in general would not be drawing new businesses to the area. The police latch onto the Baja Brothers, who swear their innocence,  but Farrisey still needs to know exactly what happened to him that night, and he has to rely on his friend Jess for answers. But Jess is chasing his own demons that deal with Jack and his pregnant wife.  Both make statements to the police, along with some other members of the community. But to make matters even more complicated, Jack's wife, an attorney, has decided to take the brothers' case to try to prove they didn't do it.

While Deadwater is a novel of crime fiction, it's also an examination of impending loss and futility.   As a child Jack lived in and fully  experienced the community and its "spectacular noise, of cockatoos, penny-slot pianos, of hurdie-gurdies, irrepressible Breton onion sellers, West Indian newspaper touts and stentorian fish hawkers." He spent time with his dad down on the docks. On the other hand, he also remembered the 1960s, when ethnic groups were relocated in an attempt to clear out the area slums because authorities feared
the sight of a creole community evolving its own way of being, its own ethics of spontaneity, respect and cheerfulness -- without need of statute, politician or book..
And now, with redevelopment and change looming over this area that Jack calls home, the very identity and future of the Butetown/Tiger Bay community is at stake:
The promise of redevelopment seemed less an attempt to rejuvenate than to raze a community with its own, self-regulating and irregular forms of justice and peacekeeping.
Mirroring the community's impending decline and the futility of any kind of hope for its future is the downward spiral of Jack's friendship with Jess, as  it leads him down a path that will ultimately end in betrayal and worse.

Deadwater is not a feel-good kind of novel at all, and stays that way right up until the last word. It is bleak and despairing, dark and gloomy. In tone it reminded me a little bit of Ken Bruen's Jack Taylor novels, in which the reader feels like he or she is watching a train wreck about to happen but is somehow glued to the spot and can't look away.  Sean Burke is a wonderful writer whose prose seems a bit out of place in a crime fiction novel because it is so descriptively lyrical (Yes, I know that "lyrical" for prose is one of those words that is way overdone, but it actually fits here). He's established such a forceful sense of place that it is not difficult to imagine the loud pubs, the dark streets, and the docks while you read. There is nothing to distract from the plotlines, and Jack's character is well defined to the point where he becomes real for the duration.

This is one of those novels that are not for the casual mystery reader - it is filled with tragedy and is definitely not for the faint at heart or people who think there is some measure of redemption in any situation. At the same time, I couldn't help but be blown away by Burke's rather heady writing which captured my attention from the outset and never let me down. I would recommend it, definitely, but beware the darkness.

fiction from Wales

1 comment:

Say what you will, but at least try to be nice about it.