Patrick McGinley is an Irish novelist of growing reputation whose male characters enjoy, in roughly this order, the outdoors, food, liquor, conversation, women and music. He likes to put them in strange surroundings, among people they scarcely comprehend, and have them stumble over a murder. Many novelists send their characters halfway round the world in search of such a situation. McGinley simply ships them over the Irish Sea.
In previous novels, "Bogmail" and "The Trick of the Ga Bolga" for example, McGinley brings an Englishman to his native Donegal, Ireland's weathered northwest corner of sea, mountain and bog. The Englishman possesses skills admired by the local people: He's a good shot, expert with a fishing rod, versed in the classics of literature and music, a good man to have a drink with. But he's out of his depth. Like Bob Dylan's Mr. Jones, he knows there's something going on here but he doesn't know what it is. And then the corpses start appearing.
With "Foxprints," McGinley reverses engines and sends an Irishman to England. Martin Reddin is a journeyman journalist from County Cork with something to hide. He flees to London, takes the name Charles Keating, and on the strength of his skill in the kitchen is soon sharing a suburban house, "Foxgloves," with an eccentric trio -- a Welshman, a Scot and an Englishman, journalists all.
Keating is well educated, witty, conceited about his good looks and a dazzling cook. He half-heartedly looks for newspaper work, but most of his energy goes into elaborate dinners and the pursuit of slim-ankled English women. In search of "suburban crumpet," he canvasses East Wistwood like an assiduous M.P. with an election imminent.
But despite his polish, at heart he's a simple country boy with a taste for Irish nature poetry and rambles in the countryside, which McGinley describes beautifully. Keating is baffled by the eccentricities of the three journalists. He doesn't know what to make of the lengthening string of women murdered in the neighborhood, although he suspects a connection between his housemates' obsession with foxes and the signature the killer leaves on the bodies of his victims. Nor, despite his best efforts, can he get the simple truth about anything. "There was so much fiction in the suburbs," he finds, "that it was impossible to establish fact."
His neighbors are no help. McGinley has peopled East and West Wistwood with as dotty a collection of characters as one could wish. There's the imperious Peter Quilter, the English jounalist who recruits Keating as cook, who knows all about vulpine sexual practices and tries them out on Jilly Dingles, the prostitute who makes house calls for a case of sherry. There's Sarah Stooke, a widow obsessed with death whom Keating calculatingly seduces and then can't escape. And Ann Ede, the elegant neighbor who's "like an autumn crabapple that's been seasoned in a haystack, hard and sweetsmelling with a hint of sourness overcome." Keating falls desperately in love with her but she gently puts off his advances, all the while confiding that she's bored to distraction with her husband and really wishes she could have been an abbess in the Middle Ages. She talks about religion incessantly, invites Keating to accompany her on a weekend retreat to a Catholic priory, and once she's convinced he's in a state of grace, lunges into adultery with him on the train home.
And there are the police, who come round after every murder and, on the theory that the murderer has trouble with certain words, submit all of Wistwood's inhabitants to a spelling test.
McGinley has a great deal of fun with the English fixation on class and status, and much of the action revolves around Quilter's attempts to emphasize the superior standing of East over West Wistwood, which is supposedly based on the fact that foxes prefer the former to the latter.
While clever and entertaining, "Foxprints" lacks the power of the two earlier books, mainly because the murders are too remote. In the books set in Donegal, murder was intimate. Killer and victim knew one another, had talked, shared drinks. The corpses were palpable presences, heavy, unwieldy, difficult to hide, a hard night's work to bury. The murders in "Foxprints" are modern murders; they happen at a distance, serial killings reported in the headlines of the morning newspapers, as insubstantial as the brief reports on the telly.
Without the weight of a proper corpse, McGinley's latest is more a souffle' than a main course.