The Ethics of Bloody Retribution

A few years ago I read Adrian McKinty’s Dead I Well May Be, which instantly became one of my all-time favorite crime novels. In addition to being a blood-curdling revenge story, it was also a collection of surprisingly lyrical vignettes to different worlds: Belfast in the waning years of the Troubles, a city of desultory terrorism and economic stagnation. New York in early 1990′s, disorderly, larcenous, crazed.  The poor Protestant neighborhoods of the Six Counties over a decade into the Troubles, desperately clinging to a precious few privileges over the Catholics.

McKinty had a knack for sketching sharp characters and scenes with just a few choice details. His characters spoke with different voices, but all filtered through the wry and fatalist gaze of protagonist Michael Forsythe. He had a soft-spot for the underdogs and hopeless fuck-ups, people who chose to trust and love despite being given few reasons to do either. And Forsythe himself, too young for the work he did and far too careless to understand the import of the choices he was making, was one of them. He was just smart enough to know it.

Dead I Well May Be turns into a nightmare journey for the second act, and that gives way to a chilly, purposeful series of killings in the third act. By the time it ends, it has become a triumphant tragedy, the dead bodies piled high after glorious vengeance. Forsythe goes about his work with compassion and understanding, but not an ounce of mercy. It’s exhilarating to see it unfold.

The strength of that book made me a McKinty fan, but it didn’t take long before I started to worry that Dead I Well May Be was a flash in the pan. Hidden River, the story of a disgraced Royal Ulster Constabulary detective trying to solve a friend’s murder in Colorado, had its moments but was ultimately a dud. Not a single character was appealing, and the story behind the murder was devoid of any sense or import. The Dead Yard, the sequel to Dead I Well May Be, was a crushing disappointment.

McKinty seemed to be straining so hard to recapture the magic of Dead I Well May Be that he was turning into a parody of himself. His prose crossed that line from lush to purple, and his use of foreshadowing began to smack of narrative laziness. Rather than showing anything interesting happening, he just kept promising that interesting things would, eventually, happen. Most of them in another book.

The final part of the Forsythe trilogy, The Bloomsday Dead, was better than his other efforts but still a far cry from Dead I Well May Be. He never managed to make the case that Forsythe’s was a story that needed continuing, and the conclusion to the saga relied on a couple predictable twists and some unconvincing behavior on the part of some of the characters.

So I had just about written McKinty off. He’d produced one great novel, one decent one, one mediocrity, and one disaster. However, I gave him one last shot with his latest novel, Fifty Grand, and I’m thrilled to find that he is once again near the top of his game. This is easily his best work since Dead I Well May Be, and is also a marked departure from his other novels.

Fifty Grand is superficially a revenge mystery. A Cuban detective, Mercado, illegally leaves the country to find out what happened to her father when he was killed in a wealthy Colorado town.

That’s just the backdrop, however, for a story about class and illegal immigration. We know that Mercado is a smart professional and a first-rate cop on a fifth-rate police force, but in America she is nothing. Posing as a worker from Mexico City, she is given the choice of being a sex worker or a cleaning lady. The local police turn a blind eye to the illegals who are building their city and serving its elites. The human traffickers who run the immigration operation treat the workers as indentured servants. For everyone else, the Latinos are invisible. Just a bunch of Mexicans, whether they’re Mexican or not, here to build houses, clean them once they’ve been built, and occasionally to screw in them for money.

There is a scene where Mercado witnesses the sheriff administer a savage beating to her boss, Esteban, in front of her and another maid. After the sheriff drives off, Esteban tries to stop crying as he shakes with fury in the driver’s seat of his Navigator. He starts muttering that the sheriff couldn’t do this to him, he was an American citizen. Then he starts to cry as he says that all this, from Colorado to the Pacific, used to be Mexico. And he weeps.

Poignancy and irony are laced throughout this scene. Characters can be aware of the artificial distinctions and prejudices that are the bedrock of most discrimination, yet their ubiquity still makes those characters complicit in inequality. Esteban gets treated like shit because he’s a Mexican, and his reaction is to feel outrage because he’s an American citizen. It’s okay to abuse and humiliate illegals, he accepts that, but it’s outrageous to ask an Hispanic American citizen to accept such treatment. He accepts that American citizenship grants him superiority to the people who come over illegally from Mexico, but then he denies that Americans have any moral right to the southwest that they took from Mexico at gunpoint. Esteban, a Mexican, a citizen, and a trafficker, is mired in contradictions, chafing against a racist regime in which he is complicit.

This is a McKinty novel, however, and there is still a lot of room for lyrical violence and bloodshed. He sets the tone early with this passage, as Mercado tries to explain why she is out to avenge the murder of a man who abandoned her as a child.

Revenge is a game for pendejos. Hector says that tit for tat is a base emotion, from the lizard brain, from way, way down. He says we’ve evolved beyond revenge. Witnesses at executions always leave dissatisfied, and he would know, he’s seen dozens. But it’s not about feeling good, Hector. It’s about something else. It’s about tribal law, it’s about the restoration of order. Entropy increases, the universe winds down, and one day all the suns go out and the last living entity ceases to be. It’s about accepting that, accepting that there’s no happy place, no afterlife, no justice, just a brief flowering of consciousness in an infiinty of nothing–it’s about seeing all that and then defying the inevitable and imposing a discipline on chaos, even as the boilers burst and the ship goes down.

This neatly describes nearly every McKinty protagonist’s motivation. They are not history’s winners. They hunt the privileged and powerful, the people who will resort to violence and betrayal when they have nothing to fear, who cite the law when it is on their side, and who cry for mercy when they are on their knees with a gun pointed at their head. In this universe, justice is a mirage, a trick played on the downtrodden. The only safety is in the promise of retribution.

  1. Zac

    I think I’d broadly agree with your assessment here. I felt a great deal of freedom with Dead I Well May Be and I told the story exactly how I wanted to. There were big chunks of autobiography in there, true, but I allowed my imagination free rein as to story telling and style.

    Hidden River for me is the disaster of my career. The draft I turned in was 150,000 words long and really was so much more interesting than the dull noir which it became. I explored the nature of addiction, love, and betrayal and in that book the really interesting journey was as Novalis says – the journey within. Of course I had taken the advance and I was broke (Dead I Well May Be made no money) so under editorial instructions I compromised my vision and we are left with this bland, samey, crappy little noir which doesnt do anything for me at all. I’m so angry at myself over this book and it hurts to think about it.

    Dead Yard I enjoyed. Pretty run of the mill undercover crime story but I loved the environment and I was pleased with some of the set pieces, esp the attack on the National Guard HQ which cracks me up even now. Bloomsday again I thought was fine. Pretty fast paced little story, told through the goofy lens of James Joyce’s Ulysses. The entire novel is a series of ironic gags and puns on Joyce and I quite enjoyed that. I also liked getting rid of Michael Forsythe once and for all by tying him up in a family knot.

    I’m less pleased with Fifty Grand. Reading it six months after publication I felt it was about 10 percent too long. That kind of story needs to be tight and it was too flabby in the middle section. I also wish I had left in the stuff I was asked to take out for libel reasons which I removed from sheer cowardice. Again this book had the potential to really go after certain targets but I fictionalised real people and pulled my punches over other people and institutions in a way that, say, Lenny Bruce would never have done. These kind of compromises make me slightly ashamed.

    Anyway those are my thoughts. Thanks for your review.

      • Flitcraft
      • July 20th, 2010 6:07am

      I think part of my problem with Bloomsday, and just about any Forsythe novel you could write, is that it isn’t Dead I Well May Be. That book has a unique tone and sensibility, and Forsythe never again had such great foils as Fergal, Andy, Scotchy, and Darkey’s entire crew. By necessity, Michael’s later adventures are just that, adventures, and we never again get to see him slow down and live his life the way we do in Dead I Well May Be. I’m sure, having wrestled with how to continue that saga, you know all this better than I. Pity he had to murder everyone.

      Fifty Grand is better that you give it credit for being, I think. Perhaps the middle section was a bit slack, but 10% seems like a decent figure and that’s just not a very big deal in novel that size. We’re talking, what, a couple scenes with Mercado hobnobbing with the agent and the actor (those are the only parts I can imagine you’re referring to)? For me it went by pretty damned quickly.

      Regarding the stuff you’ve gone through with editing, I can’t imagine how awful the Hidden River experience was, and it sounds like your editors really pushed that one off a cliff. I’d have loved to read your original draft. There were some things I really liked in HR (there’s an early scene where Lawson talks about his relationship with heroin that is unforgettable), and it’s a shame that it became so centered on plot twists instead of Lawson and his memories. But what are you going to do when you need the contract, and the possibility of getting another?

  2. er, I meant, Rob, not Zac.

  3. You know its ok to fail and to fail big as long as you believe in what you put out there. I admire that. I admire writers who write some crazy thing that only they will ever like. I’m not letting myself off the hook here, not by a long shot, but when editors want “product” which is just the same as all the other “product” out there it’s a bad thing for everyone, for the editor, the writer and ultimately the culture. Like I say Hidden River was my fault, its got my name on it and I take the blame, but oh man if I had fought that battle and brought out the book I wanted to bring out sure a lot of people would have hated it (maybe even more would have hated it) but I would have been able to look back on that experience with pride rather than shame.

    As for Bloomsday, read it aa a black comedy rather than a noir and you’ll see where I’m coming from.

    best

    adrian…

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