Monday, September 14, 2009

The Guns of Heaven by Pete Hamill (Hard Case Crime)

Since September 2009 marks the fifth anniversary of Hard Case Crime, I will be reprinting my reviews of the first 40 books from my old (and now mostly defunct) Craig's Book Club site — 2 for the first 10 days, and 1 a day for the next 20. I hope you enjoy this refresher course in the variety of crime fiction that this fascinating publisher has to offer.

I have never been one to follow the ongoing political and religious difficulties among the different factions of Ireland. Everything I know about the IRA, I learned from the books of Daniel Silva and Frederick Forsyth, and the films of Jim Sheridan and Neil Jordan. But, whether you know more than I do, or have only read those books yourself, Pete Hamill's The Guns of Heaven can now be added to that list of helpful reference works, primarily because it feels as if it were written yesterday, despite its 1983 copyright date.

Sam Briscoe is a writer for a New York newspaper. Half-Irish and half-Jewish, Briscoe used to write a much-read column on Ireland (for which he is still recognized on the street, many years later), and still produces the occasional piece on the subject. On the way to visit his daughter Alice at her boarding school in Switzerland, he promises his editor he will drop by Northern Ireland (to visit his uncle) and come up with another article, thus getting the paper to pay for the trip.

This simple, highly irreverent beginning sets the scene for all that comes later in The Guns of Heaven, as Briscoe's life is turned upside down almost from the moment he steps off the plane in Belfast. There he meets Commander Steel, a mysterious leader of the Irish Republican Army, who asks Briscoe to deliver a letter for him once he gets back to New York.

From that point on, Briscoe gets signs that he is being followed, even once he arrives in Switzerland. After a dangerous car chase, he retrieves his daughter and takes her to her mother's house in Spain, whereupon he returns to New York to deliver the letter. Things from that point take a definite downturn as more people die and murderous intent comes from unexpected sources.

Pete Hamill is probably best known to fiction readers as the author of the bestselling New-York-after-9/11 realistic fantasy Forever. Even crime fiction aficionados are unlikely to be aware of the three Sam Briscoe novels he wrote early in his career: Dirty Laundry, The Deadly Piece, and The Guns of Heaven. His fiction is often steeped in New York atmosphere (not surprising given that Hamill has edited both the Post and the Daily News), and this one is no different.

I have to be honest and say that the whole Northern Ireland plot did not really interest me (probably because of my lack of Irish heritage), but I kept reading because of Hamill's skill at narration and description. He writes like a dream. Fans of Madison Smartt Bell's Straight Cut (another Hard Case Crime novel) will enjoy the "literary" feel of The Guns of Heaven. My favorite part of the book was an unexpected aside about Swiss pizza that die-hard New Yorker Briscoe narrates while eating lunch with his daughter:
Pizza is the most mysterious of all foods. You find it on sale all over the world now, but for me it never works anywhere except in New York. I don't care who makes it, as long as it's made in New York: some of the best pizza I ever had was made by a Puerto Rican in an Irish dance hall in Coney Island. Not even Italy gets it right, although the cooks at least try. But the Swiss didn't have a clue about making pizza. The crust was too thin, and there was not enough cheese. The cheese wasn't mozzarella, so the long strandy texture was wrong, and the tomato sauce was watery, and the chef had covered the surface with chopped ham, olives, and mushrooms, as if an instinct for the baroque could disguise the flaws in the basic form. The thing didn't taste bad. It just wasn't pizza.
Another pleasant surprise was that there were a couple of books mentioned within the text of the novel that may make me curious enough to pick them up. I always pay attention to whatever books a character is reading, as it tends to give extra insight into them, even when they are reading particularly uncharacteristic choices. Briscoe is discovered reading Stendhal's treatise On Love by a few other characters, all of whom react differently to this information. It was such an odd choice (even given what we learn about Briscoe in later chapters) that I came to instantly respect the character for making it. Also, in another instance, Briscoe calls Michael Farrell's The Orange State "one of the best books on Northern Ireland," and Hamill ties Farrell in with one of the other characters, making The Guns of Heaven feel just that much more realistic.

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