Hey – the author previously known as Colin Bateman, who took the contemporary r and b one name route a few years back and became Bateman, has now become the author previously known as Bateman, because he’s got the moniker his ma and da gave him back: so Colin once more. Still good as ever though – the usual sharp characterful mix of low wit, ingenious plotting, acerbic social observation of contemporary Northern Ireland, pain, soap opera, occasional brutality, oh, and high humour.
The Dead Pass (Headline, 2014) picks up where the last Dan Starkey – Fire and Brimstone – left off. It’s not crucial to have read the earlier novel first, though if you have you will get more out of the New Seekers sequences, and the soap opera aspects of Dan’s domestic set-up. Dan used to be a crime reporter but is now a bespoke private investigator, albeit one who “still found it quite hard to tell anyone I was a private detective without grinning stupidly.” He is, says Sara, “a perfect example of the punk rock generation gone to seed.” (His punk credentials are tested by a priest at one stage: What’s the b-side of The Clash’s White riot single)*. Sara Patterson, who has a very bad time of it in The Dead Pass, is a crime reporter who is, in finest Raymond Chandler homage, “young enough to be my protégée, and old enough to not take me seriously. We had a flirtatious relationship. Mostly I flirted and she rolled her eyes. I couldn’t quite tell whether she enjoyed the mild suggestiveness of it or found it slightly creepy.” The New Seekers (yes, indeed) are a fast growing Christian cult run by a strident Protestant demagogue who recognise a teenage messiah, Christine – “funny and charming and charismatic, all the things you’d generally expect of a clued-in, savvy teenage Messiah” – who is mates with grounded cool uncle-substitute Dan. It’s a glorious set-up.
Having said that, the actual plot of The Dead Pass is concerned with a disappearance and murder (the body thrown off the Peace Bridge) set against the background of post-Peace Settlement IRA gangsterism and convoluted politics in Derry, or Londonderry as it is alternatively called throughout, and well out of Dan’s Belfast comfort zone. It’s fascinating stuff, involving control of a lucrative interactive internet porn business, with a side order the teenage messiah going AWOL. There’s drunkenness, hangovers, a punk musical called ‘It makes you want to spit’ and a whole lot more going on in passing. But the crucial thing is, it could easily stand on its own perfectly well as a first-rate crime thriller. There are plot twists and action in abundance, but what makes Bateman special – I’ve previously called him the British Carl Hiaasen – are all these savvy bonuses. And, for all the darkness, the fun. Like, in the past, the murderee “had been shot three times by a loyalist death squad that had not lived up to its name.“
Then there’s the sardonic nuances of the Northern Ireland situation, so:
“Okay. Is he or has he ever been part of an illegal organisation?”
“Yes, the IRA, the original version, not those … boys who call themselves the Ra these days.”
“Okay,” I said. “And nowadays? Gangster, community worker or politician?”
And how about this for a bit of scene setting?:
A little to my right was the city’s orange-hued Guildhall, where Derry Council met. It had been the venue for the pre-Jimmy Savile Saville inquiry into Bloody Sunday, two hundred million spent to discover the bleeding obvious. We were a crazy, mixed-up, contradictory province of a fading colonial power but still largely intent on resisting the lure of the leprechaun.
Or a lovely reworking of an old Belfast (atheist) chestnut, when Starkey, in a taxi, suggests to the driver
… that he get with the spirit of Christmas and he said it was more than a month away yet, and besides, he was a Muslim. I asked if he was a Protestant Muslim or a Catholic Muslim and he said he didn’t understand what I meant, that such a thing was impossible, and I said, there in a nutshell, was the problem with the Middle East and he said What? And I said ‘No sense of humour.’
I could go on with the pop culture references, the one-liners sprayed liberally about, but I think I’ll leave you with the teenage messiah:
They wanted her to preach in their church, which was her church, and bless them and lead them in the Promised Land. But she wanted a Pot Noodle and to hit the road.
Oh yes, and the hardback has wonderfully big print.
*1977. He got it right.