Written by Stephan Talty — The word ‘depression’ could have been coined with Buffalo, the city in northern New York state, in mind. The city haunts Black Irish like Marley’s Ghost. Its closed down, derelict buildings gather in the shadows like a group of undead hoodies. If ever there was a good place to die, then this is it. Black Irish is Stephen Talty’s first novel, and it is an impressive debut. You may have guessed that it is set in modern-day Buffalo – South Buffalo, to be precise – which is a place that has not been treated well by the financial failings of recent years.
South Buffalo has a large Irish American community, and this book sets its stall right at the heart of it. Our central character is Absalom ‘Abbie’ Kearney, a police detective who has returned to her roots after working in Miami. She is the adoptive daughter of a legendary local police officer, but still finds it hard to gain acceptance from the community in which she grew up.
When the mangled body of local ne’er-do-well Jimmy Ryan is found in the basement of a boarded-up local church, the seemingly sacrilegious setting has the locals up in arms. But the citizens of the neighborhood known as ‘the County’ are well known for being secretive and self-contained and Abbie has her work cut out to find anyone who will talk. Her search for answers is stonewalled at every turn, even by fellow cops.
Only when Abbie finds a lead at the Gaelic Club, where war stories, gossip, and confidences flow as freely as the drink, do tongues begin to wag – with dire consequences. But as the body count begins to rise and the killer’s bizarre calling card appears on her own doorstep, the hunt takes Abbie on a journey of discovery into her family’s murky history.
There is much to be admired about Black Irish. Talty has a deft touch when it comes to setting a scene, and both Buffalo and Niagara Falls are shown in a realistic, if unflattering light. The author is not about to win any awards from the local tourism agency. The plot, with its somewhat convoluted Irish connections, is imaginative, if a little clichéed in its depiction of the Irish American at leisure, and I had a pretty good idea of whodunit well before the end.
For me, the book’s main negative feature was Absalom herself. She is a square peg in a round hole, a Harvard graduate who still needs to learn a few lessons from the university of life. Problems with depression were hinted at but never really explored and the strained relationship between her and her adoptive father was also somewhat glossed over. It was as if the bare bones of a great central character were there, but just needed a bit more flesh to bring Abbie to life properly.
Hopefully this can be remedied as the series progresses. The real star of this show was the setting. Buffalo is definitely off my list of places to visit, but I’d certainly like to go there again via the pages of a book.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars