Wednesday, January 30, 2013

As life passes by, some get sidelined in Gene Kerrigan's "Little Criminals"

     One evening in in my late 40s, having worked for a small newspaper in a small town for more than 15 years, I told my husband I was wondering what to do with my life.
     “Do,” he said. “You’re doing it. You’ve peaked.” 
     Feeling momentarily young and ready to move to something more adventurous and much grander, I was taken by surprise. His response made me feel like a has-been, or a could-have-been.
     That’s the feeling that’s evoked in several characters in Gene Kerrigan’s “Little Criminals,” a crime novel set in and around Dublin.  It’s a feeling that the crime, a kidnapping, mitigates for the short time from its conception to its conclusion for those who commit the crime as well as those who pursue them. Between the book’s covers two covers, each has a chance at becoming vividly alive, of being a player.
     In Kerrigan’s hands, they’ve got a really good chance.
     Following a bumbled minor burglary, Frankie Crowe, still in his 20s but already feeling sidelined, decides to go big time. He plans to kidnap someone who will have quick access to big money. He picks his prey, makes a plan, and assembles his gang.
     Problem is the prey, it turns out, isn’t quite what he imagined. The gang is less A-list than the cast of Ocean’s Eleven. More D-list or even flunkies, it’s a loose assemblage of low-lifes, little criminals, the gang that cannot kidnap straight. And the caper --- ill conceived and poorly researched is ever more dangerous because of how random and careless the bunglers are. Even worse Frankie’s got a temper on a hair trigger; say the wrong thing, cross him, and who knows what might happen?
     The only one who has a good guess is a middle-aged detective, John Grace. Called in “as a consultant” because he knows Frankie, he tells the assistant commissioner and the chief superintendent leading the investigation: “The thing about Frankie Crowe, he’s a small timer but he doesn’t know it. This kind of stuff, it’s out of Frankie’s league.”
     Frankie’s been told as much, by a mentor who advises him:
    “You start off Frankie, you want to do everything there is to do, ten times over. … You get to a certain age, Frankie, you have to know what you can do well. You have to live with that ….   “We all find our own level, Frankie. “
But Frankie being Frankie just gets pissed off.
      The plot is repeatedly complicated by characters that don’t know when to keep their mouths shut. Some are advising, some defending, and some just being smart-asses.
       It also veers because Frankie is so unreliable. He says one thing and does another, keeps changing the terms, not so much to keep others off balance, but because he’s guided by whim, by impulsivity. Stuff happens that Frankie dismisses as: “It just happened.”
      And finally there are mere mishaps, by the victim, by the kidnappers and by the police – or garda – as they are called in Ireland. It all makes up a great plot that hardly seems plotted.
     Similarly, Kerrigan’s prose is the kind of writing that doesn’t sound like writing.  It’s peppered with Irish idioms, products and street slang. How can you not smile at when Frankie looks at an old man and thinks: “Culchie gobshite on day release from the local home for the bewildered. The country’s full of them.”
      Kerrigan has mastered the telling detail:  hair dye to cover up aging gray on the head of the superintendent leading younger men, or “American teeth” to describe the perfection of the upper-class wife and kidnapping victim, Angela.
     Then too, Kerrigan’s got such skill he can take on the big themes without seeming to, merely glancing them: rich versus poor, young versus old, plodding along with the ordinary versus going for broke; blue versus white collar criminals.
     Tucked into this ordeal, the new Ireland is on display– a ruthless place where, as in the U.S., the rich and poor seem to live in different universes, where even cops are ambitious up-and-comers who dress in suits and work efficiently in neat offices, where all kinds of promotions – including those in the form of favors granted – come at a cost.
     Kerrigan gives the reader a tour of the victim’s house from the point of view of one of the little criminals, Martin Paxton:
“The house seemed to go on forever. It was like they thought of something they’d like to do, so they’d add on another room to do it in. …
A large room with two long sofa facing each other across a big coffee table opened to an even larger conservatory. The fuck these people do, use their mobile phones to talk from one end of the room to the other? …
In the dining room, Martin reckoned you might just manage a game of five-a-side football on the long table, though that would kind of take the shine off it.”
     In this Ireland where everyone finds his own level, along the spectrum of ambition, John Grace seems the one of those most comfortable in his skin, most accepting of the life he has chosen and the life that’s chosen him. It’s an ordinary one with plenty of routine boredom and simple valued moments like reading stories to his grandson before bed. He has passed up opportunities, shady and otherwise and has been passed up for promotions in turn.     
Even so, the kidnapping stirs his ambitions a little: he puts on a suit for it and his tangential suggestions help get it solved.  However, Kerrigan has appropriately made his role less substantial than the detective heroes readers commonly encounter.
     Then there’s another character, so seemingly minor, in both the book and the book’s world, he’s hardly noticed. While Frankie and his gang may have held us captive for 300 pages, it is this marginal man, Sean Willie, who vindicates our love for observing life from the comfort of our armchairs, and it’s for him that Frankie’s  crimes are revenged.
     Sean Willie quotes “a fella writing about parades. The greatest pleasure, he said, belongs not to him that marches in the parade, but to the one that watches the parade from afar.”
  Sean Willie, a stand-in for many readers, is  also the guy who explains what he did with his life this way: “I worked. I watched a lot of movies. And I read.”
     In the end, it seems enough, a good life.
     Especially good now that it’s got “Little Criminals” in it.

 This review also appears at I am participating in the Europa Challenge.

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