Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Many voices unite for cacophony of crimes in Gene Kerrigan's "The Midnight Choir"

Dissonant singing – squealing on others in order to benefit oneself  -- sets the tone of  The Midnight Choir.  Irish writer Gene Kerrigan takes the title of his crime novel from a line by Leonard Cohen:
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free
 One character after another does in somebody else, then finds a way to justify the act. It isn’t just the singing that jangles. The novel could well serve as a series of case studies in what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance.” When one’s behavior contradicts one’s beliefs, there’s so much uncomfortable mental noise that people change the beliefs to align with the actions.  In this book even the most despicable can convince themselves they are somehow “doing the right thing.” 
Set during one week in the lives of several Irish police officers or “garda,” and those they investigate, The Midnight Choir is made up of many voices. As in other Kerrigan crime novels, several incidents requiring police attention intertwine. In Galway a cop, Joe Mills talks a suicidal man from jumping off a roof; the man is incoherent, covered in blood, and later states:  “I’d never hurt a woman before.” What woman, where? Mills and his partner seek the source of the blood.
In Dublin Detective Inspector Henry Synnott and Detective Rose Cheney investigate a rape.
Dixie Peyton, a widowed single mom, tries to rob an American tourist and gets nabbed in the process. She asks her jailers for Synnott. She’ll trade information, as she’s done before, for lighter treatment and the chance to save her son. The hoodlum Lar Mackendrick she’s snitching on is a big catch – and a very dangerous man.
Joshua Boyce stakes out and robs a jewelry store, but his escape includes some unplanned events that make the crime worse. Synnott knows Boyce did it, but needs to find a way to prove his guilt.
Synnott, a central character in this book, is a man who established his reputation for “telling the truth” by ratting on and testifying against other cops two decades earlier. His crime-solving methods have won high-profile cases, but garnered suspicion and made enemies among those he’s worked with. He’s up for a possible promotion, but needs to put the rape and the robbery he’s investigating behind him first.
Dixie, desperate Dixie, another central character, can’t catch a break. Despite drug addiction, losing her son, and several failed attempts at raising cash, she believes she’s got a shot at escaping the criminal life and raising her infant son.
            Somehow, I may not believe, but desperately hope that’s true. To the very end, I’m rooting against ruthlessness, rooting for Dixie.
Kerrigan makes harmony of discord by thematically and dramatically tying plotlines together: characters betray, even kill and justify their actions. The writer reserves the most brutal and emotionally difficult scene for a crime against a woman (something he will do again in The Rage.) Here he adds an extra layer: Who is worse the perpetrator of violence or the one who could have stopped it? Like other characters, both find ways to explain their actions to themselves. Kerrigan also repeats actions in slight variation. When we first meet Dixie, a syringe is dropped. A version of this action happens with Dixie again towards book’s end. 
Similarly, the O’Connell Bridge at the book’s very end literally and figuratively links it to the next in the series.
            As I learn to read Kerrigan’s crime novels, I grow in admiration of them. Like others of its kind, this series is best read in order. The Midnight Choir relates to the Europa edition that precedes it – Little Criminals, and the newly released Europa that follows it, The Rage. This series differs from others in that Kerrigan doesn’t focus on a single character; his series is not about an individual cop or criminal. It’s about a landscape of cops and criminals located primarily in Dublin over time. Minor characters in one book become major players in another.
           John Grace, who worked a case in Little Criminals has worked with Synnott in the past. Synnott attends Grace’s retirement party in The Midnight Choir. Synnott’s present partner Rose Cheney will partner with Bob Tidey, who also has a minor role in Choir, in The Rage.  Lar Mackendrick’s life habits have changed and he’s now running things alone in Choir after the death of his brother Jo-Jo and his mother  -- as related in Little Criminals.
Assistant commissioner Colin O’ Keefe and Detective Chief Superintendent Malachy Hogg preside over the detective, in all three novels, but have small roles.
            For Kerrigan the choice allows him to explore many personalities and interactions over time. For the reader, it offers an expansive view of the city and a chance to hear many stories, many voices.
It’s a view and a sound I look forward to enjoying in the next installment, whenever it's released.
This is the fourth book I have read this year for the Europa Challenge.

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