The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

September 9, 2008


SYNOPSIS: Inspector Ben Devlin investigates a pair of seemingly unrelated murders in the border region between Northern Ireland and its southern counterpart. Assaults, arson, and assorted nasty occurrences trouble Devlin as he wends his way among travellers, former Provos, good cops/bad cops, an old flame, and a wife who won't stand for it. And amidst all of this, Devlin suspects his dog has been mauling his neighbor's sheep. Oh, and let's not forget it's Christmastime. Not much peace on earth for Ben Devlin though, not the way things are going here.

REVIEW: Because I am a salivating hound over much of the Irish crime fiction that has begun arriving in the USA ever since the Cult of Ken Bruen began, I had been anticipating the arrival of Borderlands by Brian McGilloway. I had not seen many reviews but enough to whet my appetite. I regret to report that I came away not unhappy but not satisfied either. The plot is nicely complicated, the prose is workmanlike, and the character development is...well, the characters are developed to a certain degree but not to the point where I found any of them irresistible. I couldn't work up any anger at Devlin for lusting beyond his marriage, nor fear for his family when they are placed in very real jeopardy. The first I attribute to inadequate characterization, the second to the lack of any real impact in the action sequences. Sometimes the writing in those scenes had the feeling of a writing puzzle being fit together, 'this goes here, that goes there.'

But in general, the prose does flow nicely. And kudos to the author for never getting bogged down in exposition, something I find occurs with a lot of procedurals. Yet neither through description nor action did I get any real feeling for or mental picture of this region. The political and historical complexities of the borderlands may just be too overwhelming to easily fit into a book of this length. I also suspect though that such complexity would best be shown through characterization and conflict, and there is some of both here, but insufficiently developed to keep me engaged.

One of the few scenes that really did give me a sense of place and people was when Devlin and a host of other men stayed out all night trying to catch the animal that was attacking the sheep. In that scene, the author does a nice job of conveying the cameraderie of strangers and the rural community spirit that leaves unspoken the obligation to unflinchingly help one's neighbors. Unfortunately there is not the same easy depiction of Devlin together with any other character, and once I began gathering the clues (a little ahead of Devlin I'm sorry to say) I had a hard time maintaining interest in him.

Still and all, the plot is generally solid and first books in a series (which I think this is intended to be) are often as much about promise as they are about delivery. In a blog, author McGilloway wrote:
A strong crime fiction series, to my mind, incorporates fine writing, a strong and engaging central character and an acute sense of a geographical place that reflects the personality of the protagonist and the themes of the novels in some way: Morse and Oxford are inseparable; likewise Rebus and Edinburgh, Bosch and LA, Parker and Maine and, of course, Robicheaux and Louisiana.

If future books are more like Rebus than Morse, I'll keep reading. If they trend toward Morse, popular though that character is with others, I'll move on.

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