Monday, August 01, 2016

Book review: Black Rose Days

Black Rose Days. Martin Malone. Murder mystery.

This is a bleak book, writes Brian Byrne. Martin Malone is an excellent writer and a seriously good storyteller. But he doesn't write happiness. Doesn't even try. 'Black Rose Days' is truly dark. Black as the crow on the shoulder of depression. There's gloom in the times where its origins are set. It is unyielding as the grave of Ena, murdered wife of Dan, who has come back to Ireland three decades after that event to try once and for all to solve the mystery of who killed her.

'Black Rose Days' is set in Malone's home town of Kildare, very thinly disguised as 'Kildarragh' for the purposes of a work of fiction. One can't help wondering how close to those he knew growing up has the author drawn his story and his characters? If close, it makes the overall sense of Kildarragh a very unlovely place in which to live. But of course it's Everytown to any of us who know our Ireland from the 60s through to the beginnings of the new millennium boom. Any such reader will easily be able to transpose some of their own hometown acquaintances and neighbours into Malone's gritty and greasy place.

The author uses a number of character narrations to progress the story, the key one bring the first person one from Ena herself. Building the detail of what will turn out to be the last few years of her life. A life that reflects family dysfunction, friends in no better place than herself, and a variety of men who aren't going to be any good for her. From the other end of the passed decades, Dan fills in the gaps of their time that aren't visible from her perspective.

Dan was probably Ena's best hope to come out of her life's mess, and she did try to take that chance. But the previous paths she'd travelled on hadn't left her much able to make it work.

This could be described as a love story. But with minimal if any love. Certainly no romance. There's lust, scrappy sexual encounters, low level prostitution, and a rape. And an unsolved young woman's death. Stuff of many small towns, perhaps, but for the purpose of Martin Malone's exposition, unleavened by any of the positivity which we all know does actually happen in those same places.

Dan has come back nominally to resolve a family property matter. Also to review his life, having recovered some way from a serious illness. His partner Irene is with him, but their relationship is already on the borrowed time of her pity for the state of his health. When he tells her some things from his past with Ena, even that is further diminished.

This could have been a one-dimensional story. But the author has honed his skills over many years and has developed a deft hand at sketching his peripheral characters in their places. Each is necessary to the story, but could have distracted. They don't. Equally, a number were suspects in the ending of Ena's short and fairly crappy life. But all the way to the final pages, the reader remains as puzzled as were the Garda before they placed their investigation on the 'unsolved' shelf.

'Black Rose Days' is not a nice easy book. There's sleaze and crudity and violence and the despair of desperate lives in a backwater place. But there's also truth and I can recommend it as a good read. Preferably if you you have enough personal optimism and hope to get through a story where not much of either exists.

I've been an admirer of Martin Malone's work ever since we first met many years ago, while he was trying to establish his writing voice. He is one of the many unsung heroes of the craft who continue to do their thing and tell the stories they want to because they must, not because they expect to produce best sellers and make the big time. If he ever does that last, he will have deserved it.

Previous reviews of Martin Malone's work:

Review: Deadly Confederacies and other stories

Review: Valley of the Peacock Angel

'Rosanna Nightwalker' — first night