Kerrigan, Gene - 'Little Criminals'
I was not sure I'd want to read a book about an Irish gang who kidnap a businessman's wife and demand a huge ransom. But, persuaded by great reviews by the authors of some of the blogs I regularly read, I decided to try it. And I am glad I did: it is excellent.
The book opens in a small southern Irish village called Harte's Cross, where Frankie Crowe and his sidekick Martin Paxton unsuccessfully try to steal the takings of the local pub. The actions of that day don't feature again until the very end of the book, when their reverberations contribute to a climax that is like a Greek tragedy in its elements of history, fate and hubris.
After the initial bungled robbery, Frankie decides to pull off a more ambitious crime, talking a few of his former friends and associates into helping him to kidnap a rich banker for some easy money. Part of the power of this book is the way in which Frankie seems initially almost sympathetic, perhaps a victim of difficult circumstances who just wants to make enough to put his troubled past behind him and start out afresh with his estranged wife and young daughter, of whom he is very fond.
The author has a real sympathy with all the characters - each of the gang members, for example - which makes them instantly real but also adds to the gripping quality. Our interest in everyone is maintained, nothing is one-sided or easy to judge. The target of the kidnap, Justin Kennedy, is affluent, successful and emotionally hypocritical - yet the author effortlessly makes us identify with him. When the kidnap occurs, Frankie realises he has misunderstood the newspaper "rich list" from which he selected his quarry, and that Justin is a solicitor acting for a bank rather than himself being a banker who can lay his hands quickly on a small fortune. Undeterred, Frankie changes his plan on the hoof, and the gang kidnaps Justin's gorgeous but feisty wife Angela, on the assumption that Justin will more easily be able to liberate the ransom money if she is taken, rather than the other way round.
The other main group of characters is the police: the upper echelons of smooth political and financial ambition, and the lower ranks tainted by back-handers for small favours. Caught in the middle is 46-year-old John Grace, an honest detective who doesn't stoop to the petty rake-offs of his junior colleagues. "He had mastered the methodical routine of detective work and was sure of his abilities as a supervisor of those beneath him on the ladder. Those talents got him to a respectable level, at which he lingered. From early on, Grace recognised his lack of the political skills necessary for zigzagging to the higher reaches of the garda pyramid. He'd come to believe he was the type that gets his nose stuck into a job and by the time he remembers to look up and work out where he's got to, most of his life has gone by."
Because of his past knowledge of Frankie, Grace is called in to assist the high-powered police investigation of the crime, and dryly observes the twin drives of his new colleagues who are striving to find Angela alive while achieving glory for themselves. The rest of the book plays out the story of the kidnap from the viewpoint of all the gang members and those affected by the crime. The knot of tension is twisted as the police draw closer, events continue to go wrong for the kidnappers and Justin alike, and the reader comes to realise Frankie's full psychopathic nature.
The story comes to a climax at Harte's Cross, where the book began: not just a climax to the story that has been told in the book, but an elegiac and fatalistic coming-together of past tragedies and sadness that collide with Frankie's current dreams. The aftermath provides us with sharp glimpses of how the crime against Justin and Angela has devastated everyone's lives - Justin's watch, for example, which in a couple of words at the end tell the reader everything.
My only cavil is the way in which Grace and his colleague end up, which seemed to jar slightly with the sure touch of all the other threads and themes of this apparently simple yet multilayered and tragic book.
Maxine Clarke, England