Saturday, May 2, 2015

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Black’s Creek

I admit to a certain bias. I like to see former blanket men do well in their current endeavours, even against wiser counsel, retaining a soft spot for them when the grounds for it are dubious. Nevertheless, the crime writing of Sam Millar stands alone and is in no need of a supportive subsidy from an old fellow traveller from a road much rockier than it is today.

Don’t be fooled by Sam Millar. His adroitness in making crime fiction seem easy, belies the immense talent that a natural storyteller brings to their craft. The acumen lies in the telling as much as in what is being told.

His first work, On The Brinks, soared close to the sun, illuminating the author’s own life experience, without suffering the fate of Icarus. It guaranteed Millar primus inter pares place on that literary pantheon where his fellow republican prisoners assembled, having registered their own accomplishments. In On The Brinks he easily narrated his factual account with the pace and tension of a novel. How would he manage with real fiction? Miller’s Crossing, to borrow the title of a great Gabriel Byrne movie and take liberties with the spelling, has been deftly completed without anything being lost in the journey.

Black’s Creek is sketched on a small town canvass, the type of writing surface that was created for a novelist like Millar who can impose his characters on it in three dimensional format, no flatness, no tedium. A young boy disappears from the view of his friends, merrily egging him on as he edged his way into the water.  His body is later recovered. Like blood brothers sworn to each other, mortified and outraged in equal dosage, the trio who witnessed the drowning commit themselves to some score settling. Whether substance supported the firmness of their conviction, the train had left the station. The paedophile in the background to whom they attributed causality and therefore culpability would be brought to book. And what a book to do it in.

With the use of one word ‘mister’ Millar infuses a character with such vibrancy that the reader can almost hear Tommy’s mother spit out the “mister” to her teenage son. He embeds himself so well in the adolescent mind that his first person narration through the words of Tommy flows effortlessly. Characters like the alluring Devlin arrive from nowhere, an authentic act of special creation by intelligent design outside of the religious context. Tommy of course falls in the type of love destined to end in heartbreak.

A combination of intermediary events not only helps manage the pace but also prompts the reader to speculate that despite the simplicity of the writing the plot it sketches might just be a bit more labyrinthine than first imagined. The realisation dawns that the first death the reader encounters - there is more than one - may not be the prime victim. And the prime suspect? The story of Black's Creek pulsates with possibility: that a Black Mamba type sting lurks somewhere in the denouement.

Cops and prison guards who have so interacted with the life of Millar feature prominently here but despite his legendary dislike for prison staff the guard is portrayed in a sympathetic light: a very human man struggling to cope with grief.

The story also throws up the tension between due process and vigilante justice. A natural sympathy with the vigilante is induced by the storytelling but more detached considerations are brought into the fray.

I have promised to send the book into Maghaberry to another former blanket man. Many stories were shouted out from behind steel doors in the black creeks officially known as wings in the H Blocks. They helped sate an existential need for excitement in a world otherwise marked by ennui and intellectual deprivation.  It is soothing to think that Alec McCrory will once again pass a night being regaled with great story telling by another former blanket man. On the downside, he will only get one night out of it, not wanting to see the break of day with unfinished business outstanding.

Sam Millar, Black's Creek, 2014. Brandon: Dublin. ISBN 978-1847175281


sam millar said...

Anthony, you have left me speechless with such a beautiful and thoughtful review, and with my big mouth, that's a pretty difficult task! The last few lines, bringing Alex into the review, brought a lump to my throat. To think that there are still political prisoners being held after all these years, destroys both mind and soul. Many thanks for the time you spent on the review.

AM said...

Sam, you are welcome. It was an enthralling read. It will put a night in for Alec. Will drop him a line today

Simon said...

I bought this book after reading Anthony's review. Will read it soon. I like a review without spoilers so read them tentatively with my eyes focused between the lines just in case.

Noticed it received favourable reviews from readers elsewhere online.