REVIEW: I miss having a photo of a book jacket to post at the top left of my review. That's because there is no book jacket for The Big Empty. I'm sure the publishers put it down to the recession that they haven't found a place for this sharply funny, jaggedly violent tale of a man walking a tightrope above a twisty canyon of family deceit and dirty money. Whatever the reason, recession or otherwise, it's a shame. Declan Burke writes with a razor wit so fine that the reader feels the sting of a thousand cuts by the end of Harry's journey. (Burke is so incisive that if the man were writing political commentary instead of crime fiction, I would expect to see his column on the Op Ed pages of every major English language newspaper in existence.)
Burke creates a pallet of characters to root for or against, or even just to marvel at. The late Finn's femme fatale mother is a devious creature whose literary ancestry hearkens back to female characters produced by Raymond Chandler and Tennessee Williams. Solicitor Gillick, Finn's shyster, conjures up images of Orson Welles in 'Touch of Evil.' Ben is no cardboard child; he's a breath of fresh air, being both as smart and aware as only a 10-year-old can be, and at the same time as naive as one would expect (or at least hope for) from a child his age; slightly rebellious but still more obedient than he will be at fifteen. He's a kid you can love because he's genuine, being neither a plaster saint nor the demon seed. And that's true of Harry as well. The reader can believe in Harry as much for his failings as for his strengths. And when Harry has been pushed to his limits, when he finally is bent on payback, prefixing 'Dirty' to his name would not be a misnomer. He does some things I've myself wanted to do to a lawyer or two. And it doesn't hurt that Harry cracks wiser than Philip Marlowe.
The pace and tension ratchet up with every complication or obstacle Harry encounters. And the author wisely opted to give Harry enough native wit to parry and sort out the tightly knitted problems and mysteries rather than relying on chance or the one lone missing miracle clue that suddenly ties it all together. Life is not so neat as Jessica Fletcher would have her viewers believe. Some of the mysteries and puzzles may be solved by this story's end, but no one's life is ever going to be as it was, and some mysteries may never be solved. Beyond the wisecracking and the hot tempo, this book has a heart easily wounded. Harry Rigby is that heart. The reader, and Harry, are left in no doubt that where there are wounds, there will be scars.
Just a couple of my favorite lines from this book:
You know you've arrived when a lawyer-type says you lack even a shred of human decency, by the shred being how lawyer-types measure decency.
Kids should love their mothers and hate their fathers. It's in all the best Feng Shui books.
And I forgot to point out that Burke's imagery creates vivid mental scenes:
O'Neill Crescent lay on the outer fringe of the estate, a quiet left-hooking curve of semi-detached cardboard boxes which petered out just before the crumbing road tipped over into a shallow ditch, through which ran a muddy stream choked with shopping trolleys, tin cans, condoms and bicycle wheels. In the bare field beyond, three emaciated ponies snuffled for grazing among the blackened circles of dead bonfires and the rusting hulks of burnt-out cars.
Can it really be recession that's keeping a fast, witty work of crime fic like this off the bookstore shelves? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe Harry Rigby, or someone like him, should have a little talk with the publishers.