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penanceWritten by Dan O’Shea — Penance is a big, ambitious, sprawling novel set in Chicago 1971, and the present day. It’s so big, in fact, that it begins with a character listing – and let me tell you, I was grateful for that. It’s also a debut novel from Dan O’Shea and Exhibit A, and the author has appeared in several short story compilations in the past.

Let’s begin in 1971. David Hurley Sr is the scion of a political dynasty and current mayor of Chicago. David Jr, with the help of his advisor Hastings Clarke, is all set for the Senate, and from there the White House. All those plans turn to dust when David Jr dies in what looks like a murder/suicide following a homosexual tryst with another local powerbroker. Captain Declan Lynch of the Chicago PD gets the call to investigate this tricky case, and Mayor Hurley knows he can’t be bought off.

To save the family from scandal, and to salvage some political advantage, he calls in Zeke Fisher, a government spook, to tamper with the crime scene and lay the blame at the feet of the emergent Black Power movement. In a stroke of truly Machiavellian genius, he enlists Hastings Clarke as a co-conspirator with the promise of throwing the political machine behind his run for office. He may have lost a son but he’ll still get a tame senator. All that’s left for now is to deal with Lynch.

Fast forward to the present day and Ishmael Fisher is a sniper with the shady black-ops unit InterGov, headed up by Col Tech Weaver. Well, he was until he went AWOL, killing people seemingly at random, including one lady leaving church in Chicago. Weaver knows he has to shut Fisher down, and fast, otherwise the pressure from the suits in Washington to close InterGov will only increase.

For Weaver a perfect storm is developing. Detective John Lynch is assigned the case in Chicago. Meanwhile Col Weaver realises that Fisher is killing people just after they confess their sins in church. At this point they are in a state of grace, so he believes he can do penance for his father’s sins. So Weaver worries that if the cop Lynch joins the dots too, then a scandal that erupts sending ripples from Chicago all the way to Washington DC.

There is so much to admire and enjoy, but it hard to really rate this book. The writing is crisp without being flashy throughout, the theme of fathers and sons feels realistic, and the author never lets a convoluted plot become confused. Author O’Shea seems to be in control throughout his book. Another critic might easily award four or five stars for Penance.

However, the main character, John Lynch is not only the central character but he seems to be the most literally drawn. The author might have gone to a lot of effort giving him an everyman appeal, so that he can become a series character. Unfortunately this leaves him a little bland. Comparisons with Michael Connelly’s excellent Harry Bosch seem, at this point, off the mark. But what really killed it for me was the spook elements to Penance. I hoped that the InterGov element would be a side plot and peripheral. Instead it becomes increasingly central to the narrative. This sort of thing can be highly popular, but the Tom Clancy angle just doesn’t quite pay off. The whole secret assassins with hi-tech weapons business just makes me lose interest. If if you enjoy it then pick up Penance because it’s certainly very well done, but as a crime novel it doesn’t have quite as much traction.

Penance comes out on 2 May.

Exhibit A

CFL Rating: 3 Stars

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