Books: The last thing he expects keeps happening

Maid of the Mist by Colin Bateman HarperCollins pounds 10.99

Usually I find it's enough to read a book once before reviewing it, but in the case of Maid of the Mist, I read it twice. Not because it's particularly difficult to understand but because when I first got a copy four weeks ago, I was so excited I went home and read it from cover to cover that evening. But sitting down later to write the review, I realised I couldn't remember a thing about it. Well, except for the opening sequence in which a naked young waitress falls from a limousine belonging to The Artist Formally Known As Pongo, a coked-up, washed-up pop star, and is killed by an oncoming lorry bearing the slogan "Coke Adds Life". That would be hard to forget and ranks with the best of the darkly comic set-pieces that have become Bateman's trademark.

Like all his other protagonists (reminiscent of Chandler's), Inspector Frank Corrigan is a fast-talking Irishman with a tendency towards alcoholism; superficially cynical but essentially a romantic; just desperate enough to break the rules and several of his own bones in order to fight for what is right. After his involvement as an RUC officer in an alleged shoot-to-kill incident, he has relocated to the police department of the sleepy Canadian town of Niagara Falls. The last thing he expects is to get mixed up in a case involving a paranoid, delusional pop star, his crippled terrorist father, a psychotic Russian pimp, an international convention of drug dealers and the reincarnated spirit of an Indian princess. But then Bateman's novels have always relied on twisting the plot in the most unexpected direction and making the reader wait for a rational explanation.

Until now, the plots have served as an enjoyable framework for novels whose social commentary makes a lasting impression. Unfortunately, as Bateman has moved closer towards Hollywood - his first two Northern Ireland- set novels have been filmed, and the last three have been set in North America - the breakneck plotting and visually spectacular set-pieces have eclipsed the earlier attention to character development and the implicit attacks on sectarianism. There is next to no physical description of Corrigan, and it isn't until page 216 that we discover he is 32 years old. It is as if these details are waiting to be fleshed out by an actor at a later date. Indeed, in the epilogue Corrigan has been negotiating the rights to his story with Hollywood. Similarly, Bateman has admitted that his research for Maid of the Mist consisted of the first morning of a week- long holiday in Niagara, which explains the rather dislocated feel of the narrative.

The emotional core of Bateman's earlier novels consisted of funny but unsentimental examinations of failing relationships and marriages, and initially it seems that Maid of the Mist will continue in this rich vein. Having been cuckolded by a fat fundamentalist, Corrigan ironically turns to the battered women's refuge his wife stayed at. But when it transpired that his wife is little more than a plot device - one more death for the hero to avenge - I was left with the same rankling feeling I got watching Se7en and realising that Gwyneth Paltrow's engaging but two-dimensional wife role was written in only so that her death could facilitate the denouement.

Don't get me wrong. I loved reading Maid of the Mist - both times. But when Corrigan's deputy (having locked two internal affairs officers in the boot of his car) remarks that it would be really funny if it wasn't so serious, he hasn't got it quite right. For any of Bateman's previous novels you could turn that sentence around and it would be perfectly true. But if Maid of the Mist wasn't so funny it would be merely dull.

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