One reason for the recent increase in Irish crime fiction may be the increase in Irish crime. Another may be the successful ceasefire in Northern Ireland; the killings of the previous decades having made guns, for the duration, a lot less fun. But a boomtown loves crime fiction, especially hard-boiled crime fiction. Declan Hughes’s Dublin recalls Hammett’s San Francisco and Chandler’s 1940s LA - hot money towns in which the social wax was not yet set. What hard-boiled does best is portraying the moment a society turns respectable, or tries to; when the politicians fess up and the criminals take to property speculation as the women do to Botox. Ireland has come to it late - this myth that money makes all your sins go away - but being Catholic, we have so many sins to play with. The Dying Breed is based in the world of horse racing, but the plot slices through the murk of adopted children and regretfully sadistic priests that Ireland has always done so well. This time, however, a new music runs through it: the lovely, clinking sound of money.
As the hero, Ed Loy, says: Business washes us all clean. But I’m not one of the ruthless boys in a hurry, impatient to get on with the making and building and storing up wealth for the winter months. I’m one of the laggards, the stick-in-the-muds who are always looking back, endlessly worrying about some sticky little detail everyone else is too busy going forward to be bothered with.’
There is quite a roll to Loy’s patter, a mordant rhetorical flourish. And this is how it should be: like all PIs, he exposes the small follies and the lurid secrets of those he meets. So he is something between a priest and a tabloid hack, and he might even be annoying, were it not for the fact that all self-righteousness has been rinsed out of him by alcohol (would that this worked in real life), not to mention by regular beatings and a disastrous personal history. All the tropes of PI fiction are here - the femme fatale, the nerveless gangster, the trembling matriarch - but Hughes adds a few distinctive touches of his own. One is Loy’s ruthless ability to classify the social animals that he meets, from good-hearted lowlife to the ghastly middle classes. He is very exact about where people got their money and when, and how this makes them behave and look. He notices not just the age of a woman (and he notices this a lot), but also the age of her mortgage. It is like hard-bitten gossip - so timely and convivial that it might be satire, were it not for the dark, lyrical themes that stir beneath.
The other distinguishing pleasure in the series (this is the third Ed Loy book) is Tommy Owens, Loy’s working-class sidekick, who is one of those natural God-given characters who walk into a writer’s head and won’t shut up. Hughes, who is also a playwright, has a very amiable way with dialogue. 'One of those women George collects from Russia or Brazil who all look like they are waiting for the operation,’ says Owens, describing a criminal’s girlfriend. Hughes also has considerable verve when it comes to set piece and characterisation. Jackie Tyrell, 'a shrewd-looking blonde who was wearing cream and gold and the slightest hint of leopardskin’, is an alcoholic who answers the phone in the middle of the night sounding 'irritable and impatient, as if it was half four on a Friday and she was trying to clear her desk for the weekend’. The good cop, Dave Donnelly, looked ill, 'what with the high colour and the bad temper and the bursting out of his ill-assembled, badly fitting suits and anoraks’, but it was 'a reassuring kind of ill’. The priest, Father Tyrell, twinkles beadily at Loy 'with the nice combination of sympathy and malice that had kept his parish on edge for over thirty years’.
It is a rich mix, and the book’s conclusion owes as much to Greek tragedy as to Chandler - 'loy’ is an Irish word for 'spade’, don’t you know.
Hughes is not afraid to take his references and run with them, he is not afraid to have a good time. Above all, he is not afraid of writing well.