BOOK REVIEW / Victor: portrait of an ethereal killer: Resurrection Man - Eoin McNamee: Picador, pounds 14.99

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In Argentina's deadly days of torture and disappearance people developed fluent short-term memories. The keeping of names was treacherous: the state-run thugs who cruised Buenos Aires in their shadowy Ford Falcons were quite capable of working their way through an entire address book if they felt like it. So it became taboo to write down houses, streets and telephone numbers - you had to learn them by heart. It might all seem remote: another time, another place. But a similar, almost Argentine sense of feverish stealth, of normal life given a vicious wrench, haunts the city of Belfast, as described in Eoin McNamee's sharp first novel.

The central character is a murderous loyalist whose hatred of Catholics is made panicky and unstable by his possession of a dodgy taig surname: Kelly. Like everyone else in the book, he knows that these routine domestic details have a volatile resonance in a world where tit-for-tat prey is picked out almost - but not quite - at random. 'Inhabitants of the city were adept at deciphering the clues to religion and status contained in an address. Sectarian killers worked on that basis, picking up their victims according to the street they lived in. Your address was a thing to be guarded as if the words themselves possessed secret talismanic properties. Your name was replete with power and hidden malevolence.'

McNamee has a style well-tailored to the nervous, risky world he is describing. The full stops are working at full throttle: edgy silences seem to lurk between each sentence, so much so that paragraphs occasionally dissolve into lists of non sequiturs: 'William was a late child. His head was too big. He did not speak at all until he was four years old. He sat with his big head like a dumbbell. I was near forty. The doctor warned me of consequences. Birth defects. Prolapse of the uterus. When he was six years old he stuck a compass into the face of another child. To see what would happen.' The sentences have a declarative ring, like challenges or taunts. At times, in the book's more intimate or atrocious moments, it feels like prisoners whispering after lock-up. And it encourages the reader to scan the pages with half an eye on the look-out for trouble.

Victor Kelly does spend some formative time in Long Kesh, but he has friends in the right places and is released. So for the most part he cruises Belfast looking for game. At odd moments, as if paying lip service to the notion of an international brotherhood of hoodlums, he forms a little death squad of dim bullies and idles around in his Ford Capri, wishing he had sunglasses and miltary epaulettes. He drives slowly because he understands the ceremonial significance - the sense of a powerful engine held back on a tight leash - but also because he wants to let his victims know he is coming.

He's a terrormonger, and he's a tremendous success: people are scared to death. 'He never had to put his hand in his pocket for a drink. Barmen accepted that they were dealing with something outside the ordinary range of commerce and set drinks before him unasked. Victor sat alone at the bar and the other drinkers spoke in low confidential tones. The skin on his face had shrunk back on the bones and the men stole glances at him, sensing an erudition in the matter of last moments.'

McNamee narrates the delusions that underpin Victor's death-spree with calm and genuine brilliance. 'He saw himself as a figure in the shadows, someone elusive and dangerous to know. He thought that he could become a celebrity and give interviews to the papers on a regular basis. He thought about expensively dressed women with small but immaculate breasts and voices that hinted at mannered raptures. He saw himself wearing a dinner jacket in well-lit rooms, prone to a little sorrow sometimes amidst the gaiety.' In a moment of almost Humbert-like self-love, he rather gruesomely imagines himself a connoisseur, an artist in the employ of a national-religious mission who stages his murders in an elaborate theatre of submission; so what we have here is Victor - Portrait of Ethereal Killer. Very impressive it is, too.

The book is also very good on the way people conduct and adapt their lives to extreme brutality. They develop certain ceremonies, certain rituals which help make sense of senseless butchery. When Victor demands protection money from builders, he feeds on their sense of relief and gratitude: he has brought a moment of order into a random world; they know where they stand, at least. He makes a point of visiting them at exactly the same time every week, and regards himself as a local hero, which in a way he is. Mothers, girlfriends, the blokes down the pub - they avert their gaze, but they, too, play their parts in a pageant that has what one of the journalists calls a 'dark and thrilling beauty' of its own.

For some reason, however, McNamee has allowed himself to get sidetracked by a plot almost too big for a book this trim. Resurrection Man opens with some grimy urban atmospherics and for a while pretends to be a straightforward thriller. We are swiftly introduced to a James Cagney wannabe ('Victor worked hard at getting the gangster walk just right') who wastes no time in slaughtering his first victim, and it is clear that this will be the first of many in an alarming and private reign of terror. To clinch the point that this is a bitter world, there's the odd bout of callous sex ('Come on you big fucker. I'm dying for a fuck'). And soon we're knocking around with a pair of disillusioned journalists on the trail of this grisly news story.

On one level this is fair enough. Belfast is near enough a thriller milieu: murders, police investigations, world-weary journalism and corrupt politics are everyday matters which don't even make the front page unless they attain some new pitch of inventive horror. It is inevitable that emotional life is agitated by these harsh events, and it would seem indulgent to concentrate exclusively on mere feelings in the midst of such dire goings-on.

All the same, McNamee diverts all the superb momentum of his own work into a fairly ordinary conspiracy involving British intelligence (of course) and various high-ups being blackmailed for their rentboy habit. Perhaps it is supposed to be shocking; in fact it feels tacked-on and dull. It is as if the author feared that the book might be too boring or unrealistic without this lunge at scandalous Kincora- style documentary truths.

But the novel does compensate for this by ending with a poetic Joycean flourish; there is talk of 'some bargain of flesh and metal' and there's a solemn tribute to 'the lonely and vigilant dead'. We might well think it ironic that all this knifework and mayhem persists in its corrupt claim to be a ritual performed in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit so help me God. But there is a further irony: the drip-drip of death and dismay does not weaken the religious cords that bind the communities in their death-dance - it acts as a persuasive recruiting officer. 'It was necessary to have firm beliefs to get by,' says Victor's mother.

It's a pity that Resurrection Man, for all its excellence, neither pursues this sense of enduring sorrow nor quite lets it dangle. Hot causes do not invent sadists, but they do attract, encourage and tolerate them. Anyway, there aren't many things in the world crueller or more destructive than a firm belief.