I’ve had a copy of Adrian McKinty’s Dead I Well May Be sitting on my bookshelf for over two years. I know it’s that long because I asked for it for my birthday, along with a stack of other books (of which at least one other – The Hare with Amber Eyes – still remains unread). I only got round to reading it last week, and if I could go back and give the 2011 version of me a slap, I would. ‘You were given this, and didn’t start reading it immediately? And what have you been doing since then? Don’t give me that bullshit about having a life, you doughnut!’
Dead I Well May Be is terrific. The novel follows Michael Forsythe, as he leaves his native Northern Ireland for New York, to take up a job with an Irish-American mobster. Whilst there, he becomes involved in a) violence, b) intimidation and c) the boss’ girlfriend. Not surprisingly, trouble ensues.
I say ‘not surprisingly’, but Dead is one of those rare novels that leaves you with no idea of what will happen next. This makes reviewing it difficult, as I don’t want to give anything away (can there be anything better than a book surprising the hell out of you? Answers, please, on a page torn out of the latest Dan Brown). Suffice to say that Forsythe gets into a lot of trouble (and I do mean a lot), and rock bottom is a long time coming – just when you think he’s hit it the ground opens beneath him again, and his predicament becomes much worse. McKinty continues to turn the screw; and we watch, transfixed, to see how Forsythe deals with it. Whilst he does come through, his survival comes with a high personal cost.
Forsythe’s voice and character shine throughout the novel, and he is a fully-rounded creation, not some paper cut-out. He has a taste for Russian literature, some time in the army under his belt, and a liking for strong liquor (aka ‘the Irish curse’; I’m with Brendan Behan, who declared himself ‘a drinker with a writing problem’). He’s also deeply conflicted about the situation he finds himself in. ‘Fucking shooting people for a living,’ he grumbles. ‘What kind of a life was that? Bloody ridiculous. Jesus, I wasn’t fourteen anymore. I was practically twenty.’
It’s Forsythe’s self-awareness that is one of the novel’s highlights; and throughout the book, he looks both forward (in an oblique way) to the climactic violence, and back to those decisions not taken which might have saved him. ‘If I hadn’t done that, things sure would have turned out differently,’ he says at one point. ‘There would have been no Mexico, there would have been no death. There would have been just me and this beautiful girl and a different narrative, a better one.’ I beg to differ, Michael – but it’s this feeling of inevitability that drives the story forward so powerfully. Forsythe cannot avoid his fate, instead becoming a vehicle for the revenge that sits at the heart of the book.
Dead is also notable for its strength of place, with New York featuring prominently in the novel. It’s set during the early 90s, ‘before Giuliani saved the city. Twice.‘ And yet alongside this, the book also has a very European sensibility, mirroring the main characters’ status as immigrants (Forsythe’s nickname from a particular head-case of a colleague is ‘Bruce’, which anchors the novel very firmly on this side of the Atlantic).
When I finished Dead on the train home, I immediately wanted to read more by McKinty, and I would urge you to feast immediately on any books by him lying close at hand. If not, you can do as I did and pop into your local library; sadly, mine didn’t have Dead‘s sequel, The Dead Yard (which I will be seeking it out; and when you do, it won’t sit unread on a shelf for two years – right, doughnut?), but I did pick up a copy of The Cold, Cold Ground – the first of a series from McKinty featuring Detective Sergeant Sean Duffy, and set in Ulster in the early 80s.
I’m only 20 pages in, but already enjoying it immensely; again, McKinty’s grasp of place and atmosphere is extraordinary (the fact that it included the phrase ‘I’d like to see things from your point of view, but I can’t get my head that far up my arse‘ didn’t do it any harm, either). Given past form, I have a suspicion that Duffy may be in just as much trouble as Forsythe – and that’s just fine with me.
Adrian McKinty’s website is at http://adrianmckinty.blogspot.co.uk/