These days, Ireland sometimes seems to export writers the way it once did priests. Not least among them is a fine group of first-water crime novelists, including the redoubtable John Banville writing under the pseudonym Benjamin Black.
Declan Hughes also comes to the genre from a more elevated literary angle — in his case, a successful career as a playwright and screenwriter that included a stint as artistic director of the well-regarded Rough Magic Theatre Company, which he co-founded, and a writerly association with the Abbey Theatre. More recently, he’s thrown himself into a remarkable series of noir crime novels that impressively graft the hard-boiled detective style onto contemporary Dublin.
“City of Lost Girls” is the fifth Hughes novel featuring private investigator Ed Loy, who has returned to his native city after years of plying his trade around the edges of the film world in Los Angeles. Irish writers are fond of literary allusion and word games. Banville probably would say it’s an inherited memory of their native Irish, a language unusually rich in oblique reference and words with multiple meanings. A “loy,” for example, is a kind of shovel, or spade — as in Sam Spade — and Hughes’ first play, “I Can’t Get Started,” was an exploration of what might have lain behind the mysterious 30-year silence that followed Dashiell Hammett’s completion of “The Thin Man.”
As a crime novelist, he reveres the Holy Trinity of the Hard-Boiled: “I think I liked Chandler first, for the wit and the scene-setting and the language, the romance of it all,” he recently told an interviewer, “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 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 … 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 … 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… 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.”
Those skeletons rattle loudly across the pages of “City of Lost Girls,” which finds Loy comfortably — well, at least productively — settled after several years back in Dublin. He receives a summons from an old friend, a legendary Irish film director named Jack Donovan, a figure of Falstaffian dimension and appetite, given to breaking into operatic arias in pubs. Donovan is in Dublin to film what’s supposed to be his masterpiece, an epic set in the brothels and backstreets of early-20th century Dublin’s “night town,” the red-light district made famous in the Circe episode of Joyce’s “Ulysses.” Years before, in Los Angeles, Ed had been Jack’s friend and fixer, a role he’d finally walked away from because of the director’s mistreatment of women.
“Jack’s movies without exception got best screenplay nominations,” Ed thinks. “According to Jack, it was because he always buried a quotation from Yeats or Joyce or Heaney in there, to act as a watermark denoting Quality Irish Literature.”
Now Jack needs Ed’s help because he’s received threatening letters with a religious theme. They may be coming from the older sister with whom he may (or may not) have had an incestuous relationship but for whom he definitely procured an L.A. abortion. She’s now converted to a traditionalist Catholic sect. On the other hand, they may be coming from his Irish-born ex-wife: Their marriage lasted just slightly longer than the blink of an eye. Jack describes his meeting with her to Ed thus:
“ ‘She was a runner on “Twenty Grand,” the film I made after “The Dain Curse.” ‘
“ ‘I saw it.’
“ ‘You were the one, then.’
“ ‘That bad?’
“ ‘A metaphysical road movie set in the Sierra Mountains, starring a cast of unknowns and Harry Dean Stanton. Lord God Almighty, Ed, was I on drugs?’
“ ‘I don’t know. Were you?’
“ ‘Of course I was, but that’s no excuse. The business it did, let me tell you, it made ‘Kundun’ look like ‘ Star Wars.’ ”
Ed takes Jack’s case for the sort of reasons that make sense only in the world of hard-boiled chivalry, but in the meantime, he has problems of his own. Podge Halligan, one of those characters from the drug- and robbery-fueled depths of the Dublin ganglands that Hughes has evoked so well in previous novels, is about to go back on the streets after a manslaughter conviction and to seek revenge. “I have known the Halligans all my life … Podge Halligan is the most unpredictable of the Halligan gang, volatile and violent and quite possibly insane. The last time I was in his company, he pounded my head to a bloody mess and tried to finish me off with a scythe…"
Ed soon has more to worry about than threatening letters. Two beautiful extras, women of similar appearance, have gone missing from the set of Jack’s film, taking Ed back 20 years to when three women also vanished without a trace from the set of a friend’s picture in Malibu. He soon realizes that three young women of similar appearance have vanished during the filming of each of Donovan’s pictures: Either the director or one of the three comrades with whom he always works is a serial killer.
The search for the psychopath will send Ed back to Los Angeles to confront his own demons and then back to Ireland, where cinematic menace and the Halligans, who have burned Ed’s family home and desecrated his parents’ graves, converge in a violent climax worthy of Hughes’ hard-boiled American antecedents.