The Color of Blood
by Declan Hughes
Published by William Morrow
352 pages, 2007
Buy it online
"I think it's Ross Macdonald I'm most influenced by. If Hammett took murder out of the rose garden and put it back in the alley where it belongs, Macdonald told you about the kid who'd been dumped in the alley, found out that he was from a family with more than a little loot, and then took you into their house to leaf through the family album and trace the deep history that led to that kid's death."
My first contact with Irish playwright and theatrical director Declan Hughes came a few years ago, when I responded to a review he'd written in the Irish Sunday Tribune (Hey! I read them all), which mentioned -- in passing -- a short series of Peanuts comic strips that cartoonist Charles M. Schulz had drawn back in 1983, shortly after the death of detective writer and fellow Santa Barbara, California, resident Ross Macdonald.
In those strips, budding detective novelist Snoopy is attempting to tap into, as would-be literary publicist Lucy van Pelt puts it, "the tradition of Hammett, Chandler and Macdonald." I found Schulz's simple, nonchalant inclusion of Macdonald in the pantheon, in such an unexpected place and at a time when the accolades for the late writer were flying in fast and furious, somehow one of the most touching I'd seen. Except that nobody seemed to remember those strips but me.
So I was thrilled that somebody else also recalled them. And not just anybody else, but a budding detective novelist himself -- and one with impeccable taste in both detective writers -- particularly Ross Macdonald, for whom we both share a passion -- and comic strips.
As our e-mail notes bounced back and forth across the Atlantic, Hughes mentioned that he had a new private-detective novel of his own coming out -- his first, entitled The Wrong Kind of Blood -- and asked if I would mention it on my Web site.
I ended up not just mentioning it, but reviewing it. I named The Wrong Kind of Blood among my favorite books of 2006, and tagged it as “an impressive, passionate and ambitious debut that heralds a major new voice in detective fiction.” And I wasn't kidding. Hughes had taken the Macdonaldesque riff on dysfunctional families and the legacy of tainted blood and nasty secrets they pass down from generation to generation, and given it a thorough updating. My enthusiasm for the book continued and, after a brief bit of qualification, I declared that “ultimately [Hughes'] strong and unflinching vision, his confident and unique voice and his passion bode well not just for his future, but for the genre's.”
In other words, I liked the book.
But that was then, and this is now. Hughes' second novel, The Color of Blood, has recently arrived, and it brings back Ed Loy, who has returned to his native Dublin after 25 years in Los Angeles, where he worked as a private investigator. He's decided to stay in Ireland, and to face down his own troubled and disappointing past, while trying to keep his drinking in check and make a go of it as a P.I. But if there's a truism in these books, it's that you can't go home again. Or at least not easily.
And blood always tells.
If that first Loy outing was a warning shot fired across the bows of a genre that too often settles for a sort of anemic predictability, this second novel is no tentative warning -- it's a direct hit, an audacious, full-blooded scream in the night, a bruising, ferocious assault on the evil that families do.
The tale starts off with Loy working a seemingly simple wandering-daughter job, the P.I. narrator giving us his clipped, first-person narrative as terse and matter-of-fact as the Continental Op's. But the complex, multifaceted plot soon turns as baroque and complicated as anything Raymond Chandler ever dreamed up.
Dr. Shane Howard, son of the late, great Dr. John Howard, hires Loy to track down his missing blond, 19-year-old offspring, Emily, whose appearance in a series of pornographic films is being used as a blackmail threat against the wealthy and image-conscious dentist. Emily is found easily enough, but her return to the bosom of her family seems to set off a chain of events that will soon tear the Howard family's comfortable, privileged lifestyle apart. In short order both Emily's former boyfriend and her mother are murdered, and the good doctor is fingered as the prime suspect. And that's only a harbinger of things to come. Before he's done, Hughes will have woven into his yarn Ed's ill-advised but torrid affair with his client's sister; a string of murders stretching back 20 years; abandoned children, murders, drownings, organized crime, real-estate scams, incest, child abuse, and plenty of alcohol; an unflinching critique of the Americanization of Ireland and the secrecy of the Catholic Church; and all the dirty perverted family secrets, past and present, that anyone could ever want.
The Color of Blood's ending is particularly brutal -- a prolonged pummeling as each piece of the Byzantine plot snaps firmly into place, every new revelation another blow to the reader. But this story is no mere wallow in the trough -- Declan Hughes has set his sights high, aiming for the lofty literary heights of a Ross Macdonald or of his fellow countryman, Ken Bruen (Cross).
And damn, if he doesn't succeed.
Over the course of a rambling series of e-mail exchanges that began earlier this spring, shortly after Color's release, we discussed the reaction to his work on both sides of the Atlantic, his wide-ranging tastes in music, his theatrical background, the rising scale of Dublin's criminality, and his concern for Ed Loy's physical health.
Kevin Burton Smith: First of all, let me just say that you, my friend, have written one fierce book. Utterly scorching. You must type with asbestos gloves on.
Declan Hughes: Thanks, I'm glad it went over so powerfully with you. It's intended to pack a punch. Although, given the terrain, it wouldn't be doing its job if it didn't.
I wouldn't expect any job offers from the Irish Tourist Bureau or the Dublin Chamber of Commerce at any time soon, though, if I were you. Or the Vatican, for that matter. Did you take a deep breath (or a stiff drink) before submitting this one?
It's weird, when I delivered the first draft, I was just so concerned with getting the damn thing finished that I'd as good as forgotten what it was about. But my editors had a fair idea of what was coming. It is pretty dark -- but that is in part a reflection of the kind of revelations that have filled the newspapers here in Ireland for the past 15 or 20 years.
What sort of revelations?
They're actually not dissimilar to those in the Boston diocese. There were areas of the country in which there was widespread clerical sexual abuse that was covered up by the church, which simply moved the perpetrators from parish to parish. Homes for "unmarried mothers" that were run like slave-labor camps. Things like that. The level of ignorance, shame and brutality that clung around the subject of sexuality in general, as a result of the church and its willing accomplices [was remarkable].
People were horrified -- but they were also relieved, after so many dark years of bullying and secrecy, to see the graves open, and the skeletons finally being hauled into the light. So if you're writing a crime series set in Ireland, you've got to deal with it.
So once you'd sent off The Color of Blood, you more or less forgot about it?
Well, actually, I did keep delaying working on the (not very substantial) redraft. Perhaps that was my subconscious saying: "Don't go back there. Have fun! Listen to the Beach Boys! Read P.G. Wodehouse! Ditch the noir guy!"
How's the reaction been so far at home?
It's being published everywhere simultaneously, so I've only had a couple of reviews so far. There was a good review in The Irish Times from John Boyne, apart from him being a shade sneery about, and under-read in, the genre.
But the first readers seemed very positive, Irish women in particular. They build them tough here, you know. Tough and beautiful.
And on the subject of reviews, it was nice to make The New York Times this time out.
There was also that letter from Pete Townshend of The Who, right?
Yes. It was a short message to my publisher: "Just read The Colour of Blood by Declan Hughes. I'm a new fan."
How's that feel?
Are you kidding? No work got done that day. That he even read my book, let alone felt moved to say he liked it ... I was stunned. That was a good enough reason to knock off work early that day, let me tell you.
Were you a Who fan? What did you listen to as a kid?
My first love was Marc Bolan and T. Rex. All the glam bands -- Alice Cooper, Bowie, Sweet, Slade, Mott the Hoople, early Queen. Then Led Zeppelin. And then The Beatles, the Stones and The Who -- I was born in '63, so they were the recent past. Research. And Thin Lizzy, of course. I have a weakness for '70s metal: Aerosmith, B.O.C., Deep Purple. I loved the Clash. And Bruce [Springsteen], of course.
What was it like growing up in Dublin?
Not unlike growing up in a suburb anywhere in the U.S./Anglo-sphere -- British and American TV and popular culture ruled, and the changes of the '60s were drifting through the ether.
Do you think, as a whole, that kids were happier back then?
I don't know. Our expectations were, perhaps, lower. But there was a lot of bullying and casual violence -- and much, much worse. I remember alternately being happy enough and very bored. I think kids have more stimulation now -- perhaps too much. But then, I am a grumpy old git.
Speaking of grumpy old gits, who was your first love: Dashiell Hammett, Chandler or Macdonald?
I think I liked Chandler first, for the wit and the scene-setting and the language, the romance of it all. Even if there are aspects to his work that maybe haven't aged all that well.
There's a real misogyny there, I think, a hatred and fear of women, a discomfort about sexuality that occasionally makes for uneasy reading nowadays, precisely because he's trying to be all tough about it but getting it all wrong. And [there's] an element of wish-fulfillment over and above what's swallowable in the genre, between the women falling for [P.I. Philip Marlowe] and the wisecracks -- it's a balance, and I think it's swung away from him a bit. But these are minor quibbles, you know, footnotes to Homer.
Sentence by sentence, he's hard to match.
And then I went through a period of Hammett-worship -- he is the J.S Bach of the genre. I don't think Red Harvest, The Maltese Falcon or The Glass Key will ever be surpassed. In fact, my first play, I Can't Get Started, was about Hammett and [Lillian] Hellman, and about the mystery of Hammett's 30-year silence.
There's always been so much speculation about why Hammett stopped writing after The Thin Man . What's your take?
It's a mystery.
That's actually part of what makes your play so effective, I think -- and certainly far more potent than that A&E biopic, Dash and Lily, a few years back.You don't come down heavily on any one theory, but you sure raise some interesting questions. That old Shakespearean trick, the play-within-a-play (well, novel-within-a-play) works very well in this context. I love the scenes where the private-eye hero of his unwritten novel bitches with Hammett about his status.
Thanks. I Can't Get Started was my first-born, and while I may occasionally look back a little harshly on it now, the first-born is always special
What about Macdonald?
I think it's Ross Macdonald I'm most influenced by. If Hammett took murder out of the rose garden and put it back in the alley where it belongs, Macdonald told you about the kid who'd been dumped in the alley, found out that he was from a family with more than a little loot, and then took you into their house to leaf through the family album and trace the deep history that led to that kid's death. That "family gothic" spoke to me, because Irish society is still pretty tribal, and because, despite the impression Irish people give that we're open and friendly and candid, there's a lot we don't want to tell you. A lot of skeletons in our closets. As it says in The Wrong Kind of Blood, "Whatever you say, say nothing."
So reading Ross Macdonald years ago, I always thought that that aspect of the P.I. story would certainly work well in Dublin.
I just had to wait a little longer for the other stuff -- the gold-rush town [Dublin] with opportunities for all, especially gangs of organized criminals -- to come about.
But Ireland's always had its share of crime. What's changed?
The scale. More people with more money equals more drugs, equals more money to be made in supplying them, equals more turf wars, etc. And second/third generation criminals, high on their own supply. Mental bastards. The stakes weren't that high 20 years ago.
And what about Snoopy?
Well, Snoopy. Hell. He the Man. Nothing you can do, ol' Snoop didn't do earlier, and better. We're all working in Snoopy's shadow.
You mentioned your first play, I Can't Get Started, about Hammett and Hellman. It was presented at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1990. How did it go over?
Very well, won me the Stewart Parker Award for best first play.
How did you get started in the theater?
At university -- Trinity College, Dublin -- I was taking English and philosophy, and I met a bunch of people who are all still working professionally in theater and film today. I thought I wanted to act, then directed. But writing was my goal, and the grounding in how a story works on stage was invaluable. We founded Rough Magic straight from college to build on the talent and energy we thought we had. It's still going strong 23 years later.
A production company doing three or four new shows a year: a mixture of new writing, adaptations of classics and world premieres of contemporary plays.
You've written a number of plays over the years, and directed several others as well. Are you still involved in the theater?
As [Philip] Marlowe said when Carmen Sternwood told him he wasn't very tall, "I try to be." There's a play I want to write, but I'm finding the book-a-year schedule doesn't leave much time to get a lot of other writing done. But I have been mentoring playwrights for the new writing scheme run by Rough Magic. That keeps my hand in.
What made you turn to novels?
Positive and negative reasons. I wrote another crime-related play, Twenty Grand, which went on at the Abbey Theatre, but it's the wrong medium for the genre.
Why? And do you mean all of crime fiction, or more specifically the type you prefer?
Before television, people would go see mysteries and thrillers on stage. Now, largely they won't. It all migrated to the tube. Right or wrong, that's just the way it is. And writing screenplays for film and TV was driving me insane.
What sort of things did you write for the big and small screens?
Commissioned stuff -- originals and adaptations -- that mostly never reached production, although a movie I worked on in 2000 finally got made a couple of years ago, The Flying Scotsman. I'm one of three writers credited. We were nominated for a Scottish BAFTA [British Academy of Film and Television Arts] for best screenplay. We didn't win.
But I was starting to hate the work. I needed to cross the street. And I'm glad I did, I'm having a ball.
Why crime fiction?
At the time I was becoming increasingly obsessed with crime fiction, particularly with the rise of the '90s wave -- [Michael] Connelly, [Ian] Rankin, [Walter] Mosley, [George] Pelecanos, [Dennis] Lehane, [John] Connolly, [James Lee] Burke -- and as I said, the conditions on the ground had always been right psychologically, but now they were right socially as well.
Were you aware of Brian Moore's 1987 novel, The Colour of Blood, when you chose the title for your second Ed Loy novel?
Of course: Brian Moore was not just a great writer, but an illustrious compatriot, and, importantly for me, a writer who happened to be Irish, rather than an "IRISH WRITER." But I would never have considered calling a book I Am Mary Dunne, say, or The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. But I figured The Colour of Blood was sufficiently generic as a title -- and I found out it had been used before anyway, for a 1967 collection by the poet George MacBeth. MacBeth was also a thriller writer, and would have been known to Moore, so my feeling is, MacBeth was probably the first to coin it. And after all, there's a long tradition of naming crime novels after quotes from MacBeth. By the way, there is a "u" in the UK edition.
Besides Hammett, et. al, and Snoopy, it turns out that you and I also share a passion for musician-songwriter Warren Zevon.
Yes. I just got the remastered [version of] The Envoy, which sounds even better now than it did. (My cassette copy was CrO2, which gives you some idea. Try telling the kids today about audio conditions in the early '80s ...) Stand in the Fire is my treat for next chunk of writing completed. I saw the great man in Dublin in '88 or '89 -- [I] think it was the Sentimental Hygiene tour -- in a 1,300-seat theater, very fine. Last time anyone put any money behind him, I think. And yes, of course, I know the Ross Macdonald connection. But this part of the conversation really needs a counter and some beers to fuel it.
Even once removed, your character's passing references to Southern California seem spot-on. Have you ever lived there?
Lived? No. But I've spent a fair bit of time there over the years -- Los Angeles, mostly. I was obsessed with L.A. as a kid: growing up by the sea in South Dublin, listening to the music, watching the movies, reading the books, listening to the Beach Boys, I used to imagine I actually lived there. For the few days we had that constituted a summer.
Does music still inspire your writing?
Very much. I listen to a lot of classical music when I write: Sibelius, Mahler, Vaughan Williams, Shostakovich, Bruckner, all the cheery guys. And then anyone from Bruce and the Stones to Arcade Fire and the Go Team. I listened to a lot of metal when I was writing The Color of Blood -- Mastodon, who are pretty good, I thought; and Lamb of God, who are awful, one of those metal bands who sound like the lead singer is the Satanic Cookie Monster. I wasn't very popular around the house when I was listening to that stuff. At the moment it's folk, Pentangle, who are enjoying a revival at the moment, and Sandy Denny, who was the best female singer ever, and '70s Irish acts like Planxty, Bothy Band, Paul Brady & Andy Irvine. And there's a really good new folky/trance band from Philadelphia called Espers. And I love Midlake. And this one needs a bar as well.
Speaking of which, your man Ed Loy sure does a lot of drinking. Name your poison.
Pints of Guinness if I'm in Ireland, local beers anywhere else. And I like whiskey, but only if the most complicated journey I have to make afterwards is to bed.
So, Jameson's or Bushmill's?
Jameson's. But not for any political reasons: it was the whiskey my father drank. And I like the taste. But if you've only got Bushmill's, line them up. I know there's supposed to be a political context, but really, if your politics stops you having a drink, what's the world coming to?
You seem to have written a bit of everything. What is your favorite medium, and why?
I don't have a favorite. Or rather, [it's] whatever I'm not doing -- if I'm working on a novel, I'm thinking how much easier it would be to be writing a play, and vice-versa.
When did you first think of being a writer?
When I found out Marc Bolan wrote poetry, I remember writing some myself, all about elves and wizards and so forth -- I'd've been 9 or 10. And when I was 10 or 11, I was a chemist's delivery boy after school (£2 a week!), cycling around Dalkey on a big black bike, and I remember making notes for an Agatha Christie-type story to be set on an island owned by the Markham family. I say notes -- I made up a few names and decided who would die first. Hey, come to think of it, they are notes, that's what I do now.
Would the teenage boy you were be surprised at who you grew up to be?
I think he'd be thrilled -- but of course, there's always so much work that happens in between, so by the time your play gets produced or your novel gets published, you usually say, "About bleedin' time!"
Like Ross Macdonald, your detective novels -- at least the two so far -- revolve around family secrets and how they never stay secret forever, with often devastating effect, particularly upon the children. Did you come from a large family? Do you have a family of your own now?
I have two elder sisters, and I sometimes felt the family was finished by the time I arrived, they had had their "children's hour" and I was shunted quickly into adulthood. I always felt like I had missed out. Maybe I retreated into my imagination as a result. Now, I have a family: I'm married with two daughters, aged 5 and 8. "You're not a girl, Dad," as my 5-year-old pityingly informs me.
Unlike Macdonald's private eye Lew Archer, however, Ed Loy is not an invisible man. He's very much part of a sort of social community, with a family of friends who affect not just his life, but his cases.
Yes, but ... I keep a lot back, I think. What music he listens to, what books he reads ... Someone asked me what color his hair was recently. I think I know, but I'm not sure. He has his sympathies, but they're toward waifs and strays, the same as most P.I.s. I don't know that the investigator who really feels for the insurance company's stockholders is ever going to be all that sympathetic.
This is something that was rarely seen up until the 1970s. How do you think the detective subgenre has evolved? What has remained consistent?
I think the basic elements -- the outsider with a code -- must remain constant.
And you've done that, giving Ed that outsider's view of Dublin by having him return after such a long absence. How do you think Ed's been "Americanized," or has he?
No more than Ireland has, I think. It's trying to be the 51st state, one of many. And the voice [of Loy] is recognizably Irish, with a slight American turn -- like most Irish people's. I think the American argument -- go away, start again -- is internalized by most Irish people at an early age. Maybe not for the same reasons now -- of survival -- but it has deep roots.
Your work certainly shows a kinship with the same three writers Snoopy admired. What about the Irish crime scene? With all that's going on, there must be several others working the same vein. Is there anyone we should be reading?
Apart from the folks like Ken [Bruen] that you're already familiar with, I think Gene Kerrigan [The Midnight Choir] and a new writer called Brian McGilloway [Borderlands].
You've mentioned before that The Wrong King of Blood and The Color of Blood are parts of a trilogy. Is that still your plan?
Well, I have a three-book deal. But my plan is to keep going with Ed Loy beyond that -- there's no shortage of material in contemporary Dublin.
I'm assuming that book No. 3 will also have blood in it's title? Because think how cool it would be to refer to this as The Blood Trilogy.
Oh, yeah. The third one will be called The Price of Blood.
What does your family think of your writing?
The best moment -- I'm tempted to say "in my life" -- was when my family went away for Easter so I could complete my first book. When they came back, there was a pile of manuscript on the kitchen table. My elder daughter, who's been a bookworm from an early age, put it on her head and marched up and down, chanting, "Daddy's book, Daddy's book." I had to go out into the garden.
Speck of dirt in your eye?
Do you ever intend to bring Ed back to California? For a visit, at least? Or is all that in the ether at the moment?
If that ever happened, it would be prequel, I think, when he was working there: L.A. in '94, '95 -- interesting end-of-the-century time, before the dot.coms and the Internet took off. Riots and earthquakes and fires and ... well, I've got big plans for Ed.
And I think he has the legs for it -- it's his liver I worry for. | June 2007
Kevin Burton Smith is a January Magazine contributor, a Mystery Scene columnist and the editor/creator of The The Thrilling Detective Web Site.