Wednesday 17 September 2008

A Wee Review - The Big O by Declan Burke

Declan Burke’s writing has earned recognition and praise from the likes of John Connolly, Ken Bruen and Adrian McKinty, and no doubt it will garner more when The Blue Orange is released by Harcourt in the near future. So I cracked open Declan Burke’s The Big O with pretty high expectations. It is, after all, the work of a crime connoisseur. Burke runs the popular Irish crime fiction-focused blog, Crime Always Pays, and knows more than a thing or two about the genre. So has all his virtual rubbing-of-elbows with crime fiction’s elite paid off? In a word, yes.

In The Big O, the cool and sexy Karen meets Ray, a mysterious Morrissey lookalike, while she’s sticking up a convenience store. She invites him for a drink and it’s not long before she finds out that there’s a lot more to this guy with the dodgy fringe than meets the eye. Could be they could work together on a pretty big score. So long as they don’t let a little thing like love get in the way. Unfortunately, Karen’s ex-boyfriend, Rossi, is getting out of jail and he wants his Ducatti, his .44 Magnum and his sixty grand back. Things are about to get... complicated.

The Big O is a furiously-paced crime caper employing a huge cast and shifting character perspective. The novel is chockfull of Hiaasen-esque humour and there’s a distinct lack of 2D bit-players. The plot is great fun, but on a slightly negative note, relies heavily on coincidence. However, as a reader, I enjoyed myself so much that I was more than happy to accept it.

What struck me most was Burke’s skill at painting very believable female characters. I’m no expert myself, but the bits I read out to my wife met with a nod of approval. You couldn’t say fairer than that, could you? Burke has taken the effort to present us with a female protagonist that isn’t just a perky pair of boobs and a few witty double-entendres. Karen, Madge and Doyle are three very real ladies with very real strengths and... not exactly weaknesses... idiosyncrasies, maybe?

The format makes the book a perfect candidate for newspaper serialisation. Reading it, I was reminded of Bateman’s I Predict a Riot. The story is told in bite-sized chapterttes that are conveniently labelled by the character driving the POV. In the early stages of the novel, this structure makes it a bit difficult to connect with the characters, but twenty-odd pages in, the aul brain gets into the swing of it and the sheer fun of the story and character-development fairly carries you along.

As a setting, Burke decided to go with Anywhere USA/UK/Ireland, with, in my mind, leanings towards the States. Knowing his penchant for the Irish crime scene I was expecting the novel to be set on the Emerald Isle with all sorts of wittiness smacking of blarney. However, this shrewd move may have contributed towards his securing a US publication deal, so more power to his elbow.

The Big O is a fun-filled and intense joyride that’ll dump you on the kerb way too soon. The humour’s great, but there’s a lot of poignancy too, so don’t sink too far into that sense of security. Burke whips it out from under the reader ruthlessly as he persuades you to feel sorry for the bad guys but shows them no mercy throughout to keep ‘em mean. The dialogue is wicked and the prose slick and stylish. This man’s going to go a long way.

The US edition of The Big O will be released by Harcourt on 22 September 2008.


Peter Rozovsky said...

A good point about the strength of the female characters. It's got to be the significant that Burke puts the novel's very funny opening thought and utterance into the mind and mouth of one of them.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Gerard Brennan said...

Thanks, Peter!


Michael Stone said...

Having read this review for the second time, I'm gonna have to take the plunge and get this book. I mean, so far CSNI has introduced me to Adrian McKinty, Ian Sansom and Lucy Caldwell, and all three have blown me away. I can't wait to get stuck into other books by these guys. Time I added Declan's books to my unread pile. So many books, so little time. And I still have the Sam Millar novel Verbal sent me as well. Six months ago I used to make a beeline for the sf/fantasy corner of the bookshop, now it's the crime table.

But just so you know, spelling Ducati with two Ts is a serious crime in the eye of a diehard motorcyclist -- albeit a one-eyed ex-biker such as I. I'll forgive you this time, but consider yourself warned.

Declan Burke said...

But Mr Ambassador, with this republished review you are surely spoiling us ...

Much obliged, squire.

Michael? The character Rossi was named for Paolo Rossi and Valentino Rossi. He wouldn't have been impressed with Ducatti either ... Hope you enjoy the book. Let me know how it treats you.

Cheers, Dec

Gerard Brennan said...

Mike and Dec - Oops. Normally I'd go back and fix the typo, but I guess it gives you two a chance to show off, so I'll leave this one for posterity.

Mike - The system works! I don't think you'll be disappointed, as I know you've a penchant for lashing of humour with your crime.

Now you just have to chose which edition to splash out on!

Dec - No bother, sir. Best of luck for Monday.


Michael Stone said...

Dec - you named characters after Paolo and Valentino? I figured having a Ducati and the name Rossi was likely a coincidence, but no, you truly are a VCP (Very Cool Person)!

Gerard - the paperback is showing up as unavailable at Amazon UK, so it'll most likely be the hardback I order from my 'local independent bookstore' here in Stoke-on-Trent. I might ask after 8-Ball Boogie while I'm about it.

Gerard Brennan said...

Mike - I'm sure Dec wouldn't complain about that. I have a copy of Eightball Boogie myself. I can't comment on it just yet, but it's nearing the top of the TBR mountain. Though having read The Big O and A Gonzo Noir, I've no doubt it'll be a goody.


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