By Adrian McKinty
Scribner. 278 pp. $24
Adrian McKinty grew up in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles, studied at Oxford for a time and came to this country in the early 1990s. He worked in Harlem as a security guard, construction worker and bartender, then lived in India before returning to the United States and settling in Colorado. His biography is relevant because both his new novel, "Hidden River" (forthcoming in mid-January), and last year's "Dead I Well May Be" retrace his steps: A young Irishman flees the Troubles, only to find even worse Troubles in the United States. "Dead I Well May Be" was a brilliant, intense novel about a young Irishman who worked for a criminal gang in Harlem, wound up in a hellish Mexican prison, escaped and returned to New York for revenge. It combined extreme violence with poetic writing, and it set a standard that "Hidden River" doesn't measure up to.
Alex Lawson is, at 24, an ex-cop in Belfast, fired after undercover drug work ended with him becoming a junkie. Moreover, he's caught in the middle of a corruption investigation. If he keeps quiet, the investigators will send him to prison; if he talks, his ex-comrades on the force will kill him. When his first love, an Irish-born Indian named Victoria Patawasti, is murdered in Colorado, he jumps at the chance to escape there and investigate the crime at the behest of her father. His pal John, a part-time cop, accompanies him. Alex's first priority, upon arrival in Denver, is to score some heroin -- "ketch," he calls it -- which proves to be of a far higher quality than he has known in Ireland. (Is this a great country or what?) But things turn sour when Alex and John interview a man who may know something about Victoria's death. There is a scuffle, the man falls from his balcony, and the two Irishmen are running from a murder charge.
Alex persists in his investigation and decides Victoria was killed by her boss, Charles Mulholland, a rich do-gooder with political ambitions of the Republican persuasion. Charles is married to the gorgeous Amber. McKinty subscribes to Raymond Chandler's theory that the richer and more beautiful a woman is, the more lethal she will be. Amber scores high in all three categories. McKinty drops a strong hint at the start that Amber is the killer. This reduces suspense but makes clear to the reader just how foolish Alex is when he falls for Amber and persists in thinking her husband is the culprit. Even if we hadn't been warned, it is increasingly clear that Amber is bad news. In one scene, when she and Alex leave a pizza parlor, she steals from the tip jar. He learns that she is an expert in the martial arts, and when he searches her bedroom he finds, among other things, leather panties and a dildo. Alas, Amber is, like Chandler's Helen Grayle in "Farewell, My Lovely," one of those rich ladies with a sordid past and an itch for trouble.
In the novel's most bizarre scene, after Alex and Amber make love and she is sleeping soundly, he injects himself with heroin, then injects her. Happily, she neither awakes when the needle goes in nor overdoses, but in her stupor reveals crucial facts about the murder. In other improbable scenes, Alex three times manages to elude hundreds of bullets fired at him by police and gangsters. Call it the luck of the Irish if you will, but I grow increasingly impatient with heroes who dodge bullets.
Some readers may be put off by Alex's heroin use, but its highs and lows inspire some of the novel's best writing. Here, for example, Alex shoots up at an all-night summer solstice party outside Denver: ". . . and from nowhere some last residue of that wonderfully refined opium plant changed the chemistry of my brain. I smiled and the world's pain eased. We got to our feet and we walked naked to the tent and the stars lit our way and our feet trod lightly on these subtle and unforgiving grasses of the New World." Later, without the drug, "the world harsher. Denver a big, hot, unpleasant city, and I got hungry now and I could read people when they were angry and I couldn't ignore filth and dirt. Ketch softened the edges of everything, soothed you, blurred things like an impressionist painting. With ketch, Streisand was always singing and Vaseline was always on her lens." In time, Alex repents ("I fell in love with heroin, I fell out of love with truth") but not before he's made a mess of everything and doesn't care if he lives or dies.
McKinty is too good a writer to produce a bad novel, but "Hidden River" is a letdown after "Dead I Well May Be." Part of the problem is geography. Ireland, Harlem and Mexico all lend themselves to hard-edged noir better than Denver and its environs.
And it doesn't work well to have Irish cops trying to solve murders in Colorado without the benefit of money, credit cards or a car. At the end of the novel, McKinty spirits Alex briefly to both India and Oxford, two more highlights of the author's past. McKinty is good at portraying troubles in his native land and this one, but he needs to settle on one side of the Atlantic or the other.