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Monday, September 19, 2011

Beast of Burden, by Ray Banks (hardcover, $25)

British noir lives through the words of Ray Banks. It's got all the requisite elements of an outstanding crime novel: a flawed and complicated protagonist, Callum Innes, who alternates white and black hats; a plot that gives an overall sinking feeling the closer one gets to the end; and a nemesis, Iain "Donkey" Donkin, whose primitive reactions burst through, bypassing the red mist and other warning signs of impending eruption, until he regains his senses and wonders at the havoc he has caused.

Set in Manchester, we only view a slice of the underworld, a cage of dysfunctional police detectives, and a gathering of people who have spent time in a hell of one kind or another. Rationally, you know there's more to Manchester than corruption, greed, violence, and Sisyphean efforts to claw out of the criminal mire -- it would be the same as if New Jersey were only about "The Sopranos" -- but this way lies a good story.

This is the fourth Cal Innes book and concludes the story arc that began with Saturday's Child. The prior books are difficult to get in the United States. It would be nice to have the complete story, but Beast of Burden packs a solid punch all by itself.

The first shock comes when we learn that Cal Innes has had a stroke. He walks with a limp, is physically fragile, and has difficulty speaking, and half his face droops. And he's not even thirty. He was involved in criminal activities, spent a couple of years in jail, and has been trying to go legit as a private investigator.

Cal is hounded by a neanderthal of a police detective, Iain Donkin. Donkin doesn't have a problem with his temper, but other people do. A dim light flicks on halfway through the book, as Donkin realizes that perhaps he needs to do detective work based on reasoning rather than by beating the stuffing out of people.

What brings these two together again -- prior occasions having taken place in the other books -- is the death of Mo Tiernan, the son of a Manchester criminal kingpin. Donkin is convinced that Cal murdered him. The narrative flips back and forth between Cal and Donkin, so we know Cal did not kill Mo. We meet characters who have obviously been important in the other books. In some ways, Beast of Burden is a retrospective journey of Cal's life in Manchester. Overhanging all Cal does is a sadness over the death of his brother from a drug overdose. The Tiernan family and Donkin have something to do with that, and the story is slowly revealed, although sometimes the thread is hard to find for someone who hasn't read the other books.

Beast of Burden wrangles Manchester street language into flowing form, so even a glossary-less reader can manage. (Here's a heads up, though: "Scouse" is someone from Liverpool.) In the best noir tradition, the darkness lifts occasionally and we can see a safe harbor ahead, only to have it snatched away in a mournful moment.

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