Twenty years ago, when they were published in his native Ireland, Hugo Hamilton’s first two crime novels must’ve stung some of his fellow citizens. “Headbanger” and “Sad Bastard,” set in 1990s Dublin, have a mordant sense of place. These are books in which the main character, a cop named Pat Coyne, chases racketeers while accusing his country of heedlessly embracing consumerism and kitsch.
Coyne fumes about upscale housing developments with faux historic names. He rails against greedy bankers getting rich on the Celtic Tiger economic boom. Oh, and don’t get him started on the new generation of showy step dancers. Watching one such hoofer “kicking dust and waltzing on bandy legs,” Coyne wants to “give him a clout on the back of the head. Give that up. Dance properly. Stop moving your neck, you blackguard. And stop the pelvic thrusting, all of you. That’s got nothing to do with Irish dancing.”
Largely unknown in the U.S., “Headbanger” and “Sad Bastard” have just come out in a nifty single volume. Though flawed, they’re brisk, unpredictable and often pretty funny.
In the first book, Coyne is 35-ish and somewhat happily married, with three kids. He’s a driven officer who’s “one big case” from a promotion. His target is Berti Cunningham, a brutal drug dealer. Coyne’s by-the-books probe gets him nowhere, so he takes extralegal measures meant to provoke Cunningham. But when the thug responds by targeting the cop’s family, “the showdown [Coyne] was waiting for” ends in chaos.
“Sad Bastard,” like its predecessor, is a busy sub-200 pages. Coyne is now separated from his wife and, after the dramatic events of “Headbanger,” on leave from the force. A fixture at a dreary bar, Coyne is soon enmeshed in another investigation — this one involves human trafficking, a waterfront death and his eldest child Jimmy, an underemployed teen who’s inexplicably “spending money like a profligate son.”
Hamilton’s novels move more quickly, and are less formulaic, than some police procedurals, although at times they’re overly reliant on cartoonish mayhem. His prose is solid but can be repetitive. In “Sad Bastard,” for instance, Hamilton mentions a character’s “sense of immortality,” only to describe him two paragraphs later as “a figure of immortality.”
But as portraits of a caustic cop’s thorny relationship with his home country, these books are very effective. Coyne loves to affectionately mock his compatriots. “The Irish,” he observes, “would basically eat anything as long as it was dead and came with french fries.”
He also finds humor in the décor favored by newly wealthy Dubliners, such as the homeowner “with a white Louis XIV sideboard and a white piano, for God’s sake.” And he’s eager to upend the tourist’s-eye view of Ireland. The Guinness brewery, he complains, smells “of rot and ferment,” and the River Liffey flows with “red-brown water.”
“Headbanger” and “Sad Bastard” may not be groundbreaking genre novels, but when it comes to knowing their home turf, they’re exemplary, a pair of tough-love tales with a gratifyingly specific eye for place.
Kevin Canfield is a writer and critic in New York City.
Headbanger/ Sad Bastard
By: Hugo Hamilton.
Publisher: Oldcastle/No Exit, 352 pages, $21.95.