As previously noted here at Fair Dinkum Crime we’ve an elastic definition of Australian and are happy to adopt this particular Irish-born author writing about Ireland because he has lived in Australia for the past five or so years (and he loves living in St Kilda).
I am not the world’s biggest noir fan. Even if I ignore a lot of things described as noir that really aren’t it’s still not a favourite form of my beloved genre. The main reason for this is that a lot of it is unrelentingly bleak and I find this depression-inducing and a little on the dull side due to its sombre predictability. Funny noir is, however, a whole different ball game and I HEAR THE SIRENS IN THE STREET is bloody hysterical.
It is set in Northern Ireland in 1982. What the locals, masters of understatement, refer to as the Troubles has been raging for more than a dozen years. Unemployment is high, almost anyone who can is leaving for greener pastures oceans away and bombings, riots and murder are as much a part of daily life as breakfast. Amidst this version of human chaos a dismembered torso is found in a suitcase and Sean Duffy, one of few Catholic policemen in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, is tasked with identifying the man and finding out who murdered him.
Perhaps not, at first glance, ripe ground for comedy but, particularly in the novel’s cracking dialogue, McKinty has captured a vein of very black humour that is entirely realistic and which lifts the novel from the deep depths of despair that so much noir thrives on. This doesn’t mean the book treats its subject or setting with disdain or disrespect; rather it shows that for some the only way to cope with life’s grim realities is to laugh in face of them, even if at the very same time you are experiencing the bowel loosening fear of forgetting to check that the car you’re driving had no bombs under it that morning.
While his fondness for vodka gimlets might be seen as a precursor to the alcoholism that so many fictional detectives exhibit Sean Duffy does not, for the most part, conform to the tropes of the genre. He’s a bit too upbeat and hopeful for that and not heroic in the traditional sense of the word. He is a tenacious bastard though, usually to the point of his own downfall and, as in the best noir traditions, the reader is never sure if he will irreversibly cross an invisible line into wrongness at some point but there is a delicious tension in waiting to see.
There are crime novels with plots and characters so generic that they could take place anywhere, any time. SIRENS isn’t one of those. Everything from the social backdrop to the musical soundtrack that accompanies Sean Duffy through his days anchors this novel to its time and place (though my ego could have done without quite so many song references reminding me that this work of historical fiction is set at a time I well remember). The traditional investigation soon identifies the victim as an American who served in WWII and not long after is stonewalled by a local community’s avowed disregard for “the peelers”. But the fleeting asides are equally insightful, perhaps especially Duffy’s interactions with his mostly Protestant, mostly police-hating neighbours, the unofficial leader of whom declares with affection that they’ll kill Duffy last if it comes to that.
Despite being noir this is my favourite kind of crime fiction. It transported me to a time and place that is recognisable and enveloping, it taught me things without me really being aware of it and kept me guessing from beginning to end. The fact that it made me laugh out loud on multiple occasions is the icing on the cake. I highly recommend it to all, but only after you’ve read the first book in the trilogy.
I reviewed the first book in this series, THE COLD, COLD GROUND, last year .
Publisher: Allen & Unwin 
Length: 334 pages
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