Do­mes­tic noir that de­fies the norm

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - De­clan Burke

Since We Fell By Den­nis Le­hane Lit­tle, Brown, £12.99

Den­nis Le­hane es­tab­lished his rep­u­ta­tion as one of con­tem­po­rary crime fic­tion’s masters with the Ken­zie-Gen­naro se­ries of pri­vate eye nov­els, the first of which, A Drink Be­fore the War, was pub­lished in 1994. Since then, he has pub­lished stand­alone thrillers – Mys­tic River (2001) and Shut­ter Is­land (2003) – and most re­cently con­cluded an epic his­tor­i­cal tril­ogy fea­tur­ing Pro­hi­bi­tion-era gang­ster Joe Cough­lin.

Le­hane’s lat­est novel, Be­fore We Fell, of­fers his take on yet an­other crime fic­tion sub- genre, do­mes­tic noir. “On a Tues­day in May,” the pro­logue be­gins, “in her 37th year, Rachel shot her hus­band dead.” No sur­prises there, given that do­mes­tic noir gen­er­ally in­volves ter­rorised women tri­umph­ing over vi­cious, con­trol­ling men. “He stum­bled back­ward with an odd look of con­fir­ma­tion on his face,” Le­hane con­tin­ues, ac­knowl­edg­ing the sub-genre’s con­ven­tions, “as if some part of him had al­ways known she’d do it.”

The first of many twists swiftly fol­lows, how­ever, when Rachel re­alises that the last words her hus­band says to her are “I love you”, and that Rachel, if asked whether she loved her hus­band even as she pulled the trig­ger, would have an­swered “yes”.

The cen­tral ap­peal of do­mes­tic noir, of course, is that it ex­plores the ter­ri­fy­ing prospect of the per­son who is sup­posed to be your near­est and dear­est be­ing un­masked as your worst en­emy – an en­emy, more of­ten than not, with mur­der on their mind. The temp­ta­tion, from a writer’s point of view, is to lean too heav­ily on the read­ers’ ex­pec­ta­tions, and even­tu­ally re­veal the preda­to­rial char­ac­ter – there be­ing lit­tle else by way of con­vinc­ing mo­tive to ex­plain s uch a dra­matic volte-face – as a grotesque so­ciopath.

De­spite work­ing within do­mes­tic noir’s pa­ram­e­ters, how­ever, Le­hane re­fuses the easy op­tion at every turn. Rachel’s hus­band, Brian Delacroix, is gen­uinely like­able and charis­matic, and his feel­ings for Rachel are gen­uinely those of a lov­ing hus­band, a char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion that reg­u­larly wrong­foots the reader an­tic­i­pat­ing Brian’s tak­ing of axe to the bath- room door whilst yo­delling: “Heeeeere’s Brian!”

That said, Since We Fell is Rachel Child’s story, and Le­hane de­votes the first third of the novel to ex­plor­ing her com­plex char­ac­ter. Raised by her mother, Rachel be­comes ob­sessed with dis­cov­er­ing the iden­tity of the fa­ther who aban­doned her at an early age, an iden­tity her mother, poi­soned by bit­ter­ness, de­lib­er­ately with­holds. A jour­nal­ist by trade, Rachel nev­er­the­less finds her­self stymied at every turn and when she com­mis­sions a pri­vate de­tec­tive, one Brian Delacroix, to con­tinue the search, he is no more suc­cess­ful.

A decade later, with a failed mar­riage be­hind her, and sacked af­ter an on-air ner­vous break­down when broad­cast­ing live from Haiti, Rachel has be­come an ago­ra­phobe deeply scarred by the hor­rors she wit­nessed there. En­ter Delacroix, beam­ing his crooked smile and ex­ud­ing an ir­re­press­ible can-do at­ti­tude, lack­ing only a white charger as he sets about free­ing the princess from her self-im­posed ex­ile in her lonely tower, where she strug­gles to write a mem­oir.

With the story still pa­tiently me­an­der­ing down the by­ways of Rachel’s for­ma­tive ex­pe­ri­ences, it’s tempt­ing to be­lieve that Le­hane is de­scrib­ing his own ex­pe­ri­ence of writ­ing Since We Fell when Rachel ob­serves that her sto­ry­telling is “a more free- flow­ing ap­proach than she ever would have al­lowed her­self as a jour­nal­ist . . . some­thing that, at the mo­ment, spoke in cadence more than struc­ture”.

Then Rachel, on a rare out­ing, sees Brian in Bos­ton when he is pre­tend­ing to be in Lon­don. The story then swiftly ac­cel­er­ates into a plot with more twists and turns than the Monaco Grand Prix, to the ex­tent that you can be­lieve Le­hane is now hav­ing fun with Ray­mond Chan­dler’s ad­vice on deal­ing with oc­ca­sional sticky mo­ments when the ac­tion flags, which is to have a man come through the door with a gun al­ready in his hand.

What tran­spires, as Rachel runs for her life while try­ing to get to the root of Brian’s de­ceit, might seem im­prob­a­ble were it not for that metic­u­lously crafted build-up. There are no grotesques here, no facile cliffhang­ers, no red her­rings so ob­vi­ously stale they’re stink­ing the joint. Since We Fell is a de­li­ciously old-fash­ioned melo­drama about or­di­nary peo­ple do­ing ex­traor­di­nary things, a bril­liantly un­con­ven­tional do­mes­tic noir that con­firms Le­hane’s mas­tery of the crime nar­ra­tive in all its var­ied forms.

De­clan Burke is an au­thor, jour­nal­ist and edi­tor of the short-story col­lec­tion Trou­ble Is Our Busi­ness (New Is­land)

You can be­lieve Le­hane is hav­ing fun with Chan­dler’s ad­vice on deal­ing with sticky mo­ments

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