The Midnight Choir by Gene Kerrigan

A skilfully wrought police story where the end justifies the means
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The Independent Culture

The most dispiriting cliché in crime fiction used to be the boring, characterless copper (usually wearing a gabardine and trilby), shuffling in to solve crimes committed by far more colourful criminals. The breed was consigned to the dustbin by a new kind of copper, who bends the rules to get the bad guy. This maverick cop soon calcified into cliché in its turn. So it's a cause for celebration that such writers as Gene Kerrigan (author of the acclaimed Little Criminals) can still produce something fresh and radical with the concept.

In The Midnight Choir, Detective Inspector Harry Synott of the Dublin Garda has several high-profile cases under his belt. He is a policeman with uninflected views on the difference between right and wrong, and unforgiving when he encounters corruption. A glitzy promotion is in the offing, but Harry's aware that he has to crack an armed robbery - and he knows the perpetrators.

But he needs a lever to crack the case, and it comes his way in the figure of the desperate young Dixie Peyton. She is the widow of a petty criminal, and in her efforts to regain custody of her son she has taken to mugging. She accidentally stabs a tourist with a syringe that, she claimed, was full of HIV-infected blood (though this is a bluff).

Dixie is perfect cannon fodder: anything that could hurt the tourist trade in Dublin is frowned upon by Harry's bosses. As Harry and his fellow cops work through the usual rapists and thugs, he begins to feel that a sacrifice on the altar of his career might be justified if it can get him the breakthrough he wants - a sacrifice named Dixie.

Little Criminals marked Kerrigan out as a truly ambitious crime writer, with a dextrous use of language married to masterful plotting. In a very different genre, he has something of James Joyce's ability in conjuring up a vivid Dublin - but this modern city is very different from the one Leopold Bloom wandered through. The boarded-up shops and vicious thugs are artfully counterpointed with the cosmopolitan gloss of a European city on-the-up.

What really tells are Kerrigan's notions on the limits of justice. The wreckage of lives wrought by self-styled "righteous" men is the theme in microcosm here. It's possible to speculate that Kerrigan is drawing parallels with righteous men on the world stage, unconcerned by the destruction their virtue carries in its wake.

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