The Day of the Jack Russell
Joanne Savage is partially satisfied by Colin Bateman's latest offering
At No Alibis bookstore on Botanic Avenue, an overload of crime fiction has turned the proprietor into a tenacious private eye. Drunk on Christie, Ellroy, Parker and Conan Doyle, ‘Mystery Man’ applies the logic and insight of crime fiction to almost unravel a double murder case involving a stuffed Jack Russell, the chief constable of Northern Ireland, a passive resonant cavity bug and MI5.
The latest novel from prolific Bangor-born author and screenwriter Colin Bateman, who rose to fame with Divorcing Jack (1994), The Day of the Jack Russell is the second instalment in his Mystery Man series. The novel mixes homicide, humour, hammy-dialogue and near-farce, moving from an offensive graffiti incident on the Annadale embankment to the demise of two painter and decorators, many trips to Starbucks, a couple of hostage incidents and a bomb scare at Roselawn cemetery.
At the centre of the action is the nameless Mystery Man, a crotchety old hypochondriac and curmudgeon more motivated to solve crime because of his cold-blooded interest in decoding patterns and signs than catching the crook. Just imagine what Larry David would be like if he grew up in Belfast, ran a bookstore, had over dosed on murder mysteries and was asked to solve crimes.
Our anti-hero is a narcissistic fact-cruncher whose stock response to his nagging other half, Alison, is a very Belfast ‘So’s your face’ – even when she makes such pedestrian statements as ‘I’ll only follow you to Marston Court’.
You couldn’t love him if you reared him, and in this case count the mother – a cantankerous, paralytic harridan with a colostomy bag – out, because she mostly hates his obnoxious guts.
It’s a bit like Black Books at No Alibis, the misanthropic dysfunctional selling absolutely nothing, raging at the philistinism of the masses and haranguing his assistant and on-again, off-again ladylove. Except the wine has been replaced by an endless stream of lattes and cappuccinos, there are dead bodies to consider, and the protagonist just isn’t as funny as he should be.
Part of the problem with this crime novel is that the central murders haven’t been developed enough for the reader to care very much about who was responsible. Since the tone is jaunty and doesn’t allow for grave reflection or serious delineation of a brutal murder scene, the pivotal mystery is just like another black joke in the unfolding narrative, a vague, abstract problem like a rubix cube to be considered during breaks in the Belfast-y bantering. But being funny while outlining a homicidal mystery was never going to be easy, and to Bateman’s credit, there are moments when he treads the line between murderous mayhem and hilarity brilliantly.
People can be snotty and dismissive of crime fiction as a genre, regarding it as disposable pulp to be read in the departure lounges of airports – something rushed through to find out who dunnit, a genre less valued for the quality of the writing itself or the depth and weight of its thematic engagement.
Yet successful construction of a murder mystery requires enormous technical skill and conceptual verve. The reader must be led to the truth through a believable, airtight deciphering of signs - there must be a whole rationale behind the incremental completion of the jigsaw. The slow burn of the murderous plot must lead to an inevitable and yet surprising denouement. So the reader must be teased by numerous possibilities of guilt. They must be kept riveted, intrigued, suspicious, paranoid that they’ve left out a crucial detail or been fooled by a character’s protestations of innocence.
Bateman has a clear talent for constructing a snaking, careful murder mystery that leads through unexpected twists, turns and chicanes to its revelatory conclusion. That he succeeds in injecting humour is no mean feat. But while his Mystery Man is cooler and more truculent than Poirot and less prissy than Miss Marple, he needs more cojones and intensity before he can knock Sherlock Holmes off the bookshelves.