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The Irish novelist John McGahern once remarked that his country stayed a 19th-century society for so long that it nearly missed the 20th century. But in the mid-1990s, Ireland's economy took off, turning the country from a poor backwater into a so-called Celtic Tiger with fancy restaurants, chrome-clad shops and soaring real estate values. The country was transformed — until things came tumbling down during the 2008 financial crisis.
This rapid rise and even rapider fall may have taken its toll on ordinary people, but it was a godsend for a mystery writer. There's nothing like upheaval to make a society interesting. Just ask Gene Kerrigan, a longtime Dublin reporter who — since his fiction debut, Little Criminals, in 2005 — has been writing crime novels remarkable for their verve, moral trickiness and nifty plotting. All these gifts are on display in his new novel, The Rage, a boundlessly readable portrait of an Ireland in which all the old certainties have vanished.
Its hero, Bob Tidey, is a detective sergeant in the Irish police, or Gardai, who's investigating the murder of a dodgy Dublin banker. As Tidey searches for clues, a volatile thug named Vincent Naylor is out on the streets preparing a really big score. Eventually, both the cop and the crook find their paths leading to a third party, Maura Coady, a retired nun who has secrets of her own. Trying to protect Maura from danger — while still obeying the law — Tidey finds himself caught in a situation where, as he puts it, there's no moral thing to do, yet something has to be done.
Now, it's a cliche about the Irish that they are colorful, and it must be said that The Rage brims with vividly drawn characters, from cynical high-class lawyers to feckless lowlifes. As the story bounces among them, I was reminded of novelists like Elmore Leonard and Charles Willeford. It's not that Kerrigan writes like them exactly — he doesn't emulate Leonard's gold-plated dialogue — but his work has a similar verbal energy. It whooshes you along. His prose isn't flashy but it is acute, like his description of a male jewelry salesman whose dyed blond hair is "gelled into thorny shapes like something designed by an unemployable architect."
If Kerrigan has a target, it's not Dublin's little criminals — the louts, thieves and killers — who roam through its gentrified streets. He realizes that they are bad guys, but he also views them with bemused sympathy — they're not without their charm or common humanity. Vincent Naylor may beat up a stranger he meets at a store simply because the dude's been prissy with him, but rather than moralize about it, The Rage takes us inside the animal glee that makes Vincent tick. Everyone in Kerrigan's world has his or her reasons.
Of course, some of those reasons are bad ones. Kerrigan hones his own rage on the big criminals, whom Tidey calls "the smart fellas." These are the bankers, real estate moguls and enabling politicians who fueled the Irish boom, got theirs and left everyone else to pay the tab. This elite knocked apart the old Irish society and replaced it with something new and hollow, where terms like "entrepreneur" and "branding" became treated with reverential awe. Chasing money became a new liturgy in an era when the Roman Catholic church, long the country's bedrock, had its authority broken by endless abuse scandals.
Like all of Kerrigan's novels, The Rage tackles a large theme — what it means to be honest in a society that isn't, where morality has become a gray zone. Along the way, Tidey must decide whether to perjure himself to protect fellow policemen who beat up some young drunks at a bar. Now this might seem like a no-brainer — of course, he should tell the truth — but Tidey lies, and Kerrigan makes us understand why, in this particular case, a good cop convinces himself to do a bad thing.
But he also makes us understand that such casual immorality is not without its cost. Lying in bed one night, Tidey tells his wife, "I'm not who I set out to be — not any longer. And I don't know where it goes from here."
In The Rage, Gene Kerrigan suggests that the same sad thing could be said of Ireland itself.