Great writers can write anything, and “Plugged” is proof.
Its author is Eoin (pronounced “Owen”) Colfer, a name you might recognize because he wrote the best-selling “Artemis Fowl” books for young adults, as well as a sequel to Douglas Adams’s “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” Taken together, those books feature fairies, unemployed gods, a boy genius, a green alien and a galactic president, which means it’s not easy to categorize Colfer or his writing.
That’s a good thing. Because now he’s produced a bang-up crime novel for adults.
“Plugged” is the story of a few manic days in the life of Daniel McEvoy, an Irish bouncer at the seedy Slotz casino in New Jersey. McEvoy is a bighearted if unsentimental man, a loner who’s meeting middle age with wisecracks and hair plugs. Like any great fictional character, he is what he does, and the first thing he does in the novel is rescue single mom Connie, his favorite exotic dancer, from the roving tongue of a low-rent lawyer. A fight ensues, threats are exchanged, and a few days later, poor Connie turns up murdered, with Daniel a suspect.
He sets out to find her killer and begins to suspect that the same person might have killed his missing best friend, a wacky doctor named Zeb Kronksi. Along the way, he kills a few people and gets shot at by a few more, including Irish mobsters, crooked cops, a sex-crazed housewife and a gang of steroid sellers — a picaresque of sleaze. The pace of the novel never lets up, and considering that it’s only 254 pages long, it seems to run a knife fight, gun battle or one-liner in a continuous loop.
This might lead you to think you’re in Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen or even Damon Runyon country, but you’re not. Although there are echoes of all three writers in “Plugged,” Colfer’s novel is dominated, driven and fully animated by a refreshingly original voice.
And it isn’t funny.
At least not funny ha-ha.
For example, Daniel served with the Irish army in “the Lebanon,” and memories of exploding mines and battlefield injuries haunt him. He carries shrapnel in his back from a time he rescued his fallen comrades, despite the fact that his superiors didn’t order any covering fire. After the war, he went home “to a zero’s welcome,” and now he takes tranquilizers washed down with Jameson to sleep. Still, he never permits himself to complain: “Little moments like this, I can’t help thinking of patrols in Tibnin. I try to avoid the whole flashback thing when I’ve got stuff to do, but some moments are more evocative than others. Some moments are fat with menace. For some reason, this is one of those moments.”
Daniel is equally flinty about his childhood in Dublin, though it was also horrific, marked by an abusive and alcoholic father. When asked whether he has any good memories of his pappy, Daniel answers: “Yeah. There was this one day when he beat me with his hand because he couldn’t find the shovel. I’ll never forget it, still brings a lump to my throat.” Likewise, we learn briefly in flashback that his father killed the rest of the family in a car accident caused by his drunken driving.
Those details flesh out the fascinating characterization of Daniel McEvoy, and Colfer has the deftest of touches, so he underplays them at every opportunity, which makes the reader care all the more.
Interestingly, as the novel proceeds and the plot becomes zanier, Daniel becomes heavier as a character, more weighed down by the horrors of his past. By the second half of the book, he’s imagining conversations with the ghost of his doctor friend and is literally a haunted man. “My entire existence is getting a little dreamlike,” he says, “and I feel bulletproof and doomed at the same time.” Characteristically, though, he dismisses his own anguished insights, calling himself a “dime-store philosopher.”
“Plugged” packs a powerful dramatic wallop for such a slim volume, like a flyweight with a knockout punch. And Daniel McEvoy becomes a knight errant in a sensitively wrought study of the effects of war on the human soul.
As I said, great writing.
Scottoline serves as president of the Mystery Writers of America; her most recent novel is “Save Me.”
By Eoin Colfer
Overlook. 254 pp. $24.95