There are times, reviewing fiction, that you listen to the better angels of your nature and sift through a mediocre work to stress the positives. There are, sadly, occasions where a book is something less than mediocre and there is no reasonable option but to swing the hatchet.
Then there are those rarest of moments: when you come across a novel that is so wonderful, so perfect, so inspiriting, that you worry you’ll adversely damn it with hyperbole.
Kevin Barry’s Night Boat to Tangier is, for me, in the last of these categories. It is the novel 2019 has been waiting for – a masterpiece delivered by a glittering talent at the peak of his powers. It leaves the rest of the class looking somewhat underpowered and unambitious, perhaps even a bit shop-worn.
The pair are Irish bar-room philosophers, lyrical, profane, wisecracking and ruminative,
Barry is no stranger to acclaim. His first novel, City of Bohane, won the lucrative International Dublin Literary Award. His second, Beatlebone, a beguilingly elliptical tale about John Lennon escaping the pressures of fame by relocating the west coast of Ireland in 1978, won the Goldsmiths Prize.
If Beatlebone was his breakout work, Night Boat to Tangier should cement the Irishman’s place among the literary elite.
It centres around two ageing and infirm gangsters, Charlie and Maurice, who are waiting at the port of Algeciras for a boat that may or may not contain Maurice’s runaway daughter, Dilly.
The plot unfolds in flashback, as Charlie and Maurice recall their shared adventures across the decades. The pair are Irish bar-room philosophers, lyrical, profane, wisecracking and ruminative – like a tooled-up Vladimir and Estragon, or perhaps a drug-lord version of Statler and Waldorf.
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“Dilly Hearne,” Charlie says. “She’s a small girl. She’s a pretty girl.”
“She may just have done us over,” Maurice says.
“It’s in her blood to,” Charlie says.
“Green eyes,” Maurice says. “Off the mother she took a lovely set of Protestant eyes.”
“Cynthia. God rest her. She’d the palest green eyes.”
“They were like the fucking sea,” Maurice says.
Each flashback serves to shade in complexity – the years have not run smoothly between the pair. Particularly arresting are the set-pieces Barry conjures up. In one unforgettably tense (and desperately funny) scene, the denizens of a late-night drinking den watch nervously as the two hard men sit at a table quietly discussing a personal disagreement. It is only ever going to end in one way, but it is the getting there that counts.
Getting there is something Jackson Lamb always manages, eventually. Mick Herron’s Slow Horses series, in which Lamb is the unorthodox spymaster overseeing a group of MI5 screw-ups, has long since taken its place near the pinnacle of modern crime fiction.
Joe Country, the sixth book, is every bit as captivating as its predecessors. There is an enjoyable familiarity now to Lamb’s eye-wateringly un-PC statements and his unorthodox but effective modus operandi,
and also to Herron’s Red Wedding-style willingness to knock off central characters with little warning.
But the plots have never really been the point of these novels – instead, like a pin-sharp sitcom that happens to include murder and high politics, they purr along on the gracelessness and ineptitude of the self-deluding Slow Horses, the unmatchable Lamb, and the crackling writing that has made all six in the series unmissable.