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Review: ‘Headbanger’ and ‘Sad Bastard,’ by Hugo Hamilton

December 29, 2017

Twenty years ago, when they were published in his native Ireland, Hugo Hamiltons first two crime novels mustve 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 dont 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. Thats 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, theyre brisk, unpredictable and often pretty funny.

In the first book, Coyne is 35-ish and somewhat happily married, with three kids. Hes a driven officer whos one big case from a promotion. His target is Berti Cunningham, a brutal drug dealer. Coynes by-the-books probe gets him nowhere, so he takes extralegal measures meant to provoke Cunningham. But when the thug responds by targeting the cops 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 whos inexplicably spending money like a profligate son.

Hamiltons novels move more quickly, and are less formulaic, than some police procedurals, although at times theyre overly reliant on cartoonish mayhem. His prose is solid but can be repetitive. In Sad Bastard, for instance, Hamilton mentions a characters sense of immortality, only to describe him two paragraphs later as a figure of immortality.

But as portraits of a caustic cops 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 dcor favored by newly wealthy Dubliners, such as the homeowner with a white Louis XIV sideboard and a white piano, for Gods sake. And hes eager to upend the tourists-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, theyre 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 BastardBy: Hugo Hamilton.Publisher: Oldcastle/No Exit, 352 pages, $21.95.