Since September is back-to-school month, I assigned myself to read and write a report on a good, thought-provoking, perhaps even scholarly piece of literature. And I meant to, truly I did. But I am easily distracted, and despite my best intentions, I was led astray by a charming, canny Irish author whose book persuaded me to play hooky. And what’s more, I had such a good time reading Caimh McDonnell’s cheeky, hilarious, suspenseful yarn that I am utterly unrepentant. (If pressed for an excuse, I’ll just say the dog ate my homework.)
When it comes to genre, “A Man with One of Those Faces,” the first book in McDonnell’s “The Dublin Trilogy,” is an odd combination: a comedic thriller. It’s also a detective novel – a genre dear to my heart – and ultimately a story about love and loyalty. Brigit Conroy, a nurse at St. Kilda’s Hospice, calls our hero, Paul Mulchrone a “granny whisperer” because he spends six hours a week visiting the lonely, often demented, elderly patients there and pretending to be whoever they think he is: a son, husband, neighbor, nephew. He gets away with this harmless deception because he truly is a man with one of those faces. As the author puts it, “His every facial attribute was a masterpiece of bloody-minded unoriginality, an aesthetic tribute to the forgettably average. Collectively, they formed an orchestra designed to produce the facial muzak of the Gods.” So in a way, he serves as a blank screen on which the old folks project the image of the person they imagine him to be.
To be sure, Paul has not chosen to visit the dying old folks out of the goodness of his heart. He does it in order to fulfill one of the provisos of a bequest from his despised great-aunt Fidema’s will (the others being that he will stay out of trouble with the police and will not make use of any other form of financial assistance). On her death, she left him the use of her clapped-out Ford Cortina, her home, and a monthly stipend of 500 euros (roughly $500). According to her will, this bequest was meant to be “…a temporary measure while he endeavors to find proper employment a challenge, given his poor start in life.” Paul hates his odious auntie because she refused to help his mother, who died when he was 14, so he has decided to subvert auntie’s intentions by managing to live indefinitely – determinedly unemployed — on her meager bequest.
Paul is relatively content until he does a favor for Nurse Brigit that will have unintended and potentially deadly consequences. Brigit asks him to visit Martin Brown, a nasty old man who is dying of cancer. Brown thinks Paul is the son of a man he calls “Gerry,” an old friend and, we later learn, a criminal mastermind. Suddenly. Brown attacks Paul with a knife, stabbing him in the shoulder. Paul passes out because “he was not good with blood, people’s in general and his own in particular.” Later, we learn that trying to murder Paul has caused Brown to have a fatal heart attack. But this is just the beginning of Paul’s troubles. Before you know it, a professional assassin attempts repeatedly to do him in, for reasons Paul must figure out if he hopes to survive.
Much to his displeasure, cute, smart Nurse Brigit becomes his ally. As someone who has read far too many detective stories, she longs for a little excitement in her life, and of course, she also feels responsible for Paul’s predicament. Paul is also aided and abetted by Bunny McGarry, a huge, foul-mouthed, often violent Detective Sergeant, who has had a soft spot in his heart for the young man ever since Paul was the 12-year-old star of the hurling team Bunny coached. In case you’re unfamiliar with hurling, as I was until I looked it up, it’s an ancient and brutal field sport in which players throw a ball by means of a hurling stick — a device shaped rather like a very large wooden kitchen spoon. Apparently, they also bash one another with their hurlers. Bunny still carries his hurling stick everywhere, and often puts it to good use beating the tar out of bad guys. Many other wonderful characters populate this action-packed and infinitely surprising novel. What really stood out for me is that none of them are mere stereotypes – even the bit players. McDonnell has a real talent for description and dialogue, as well as for developing characters’ backgrounds and motives, so every person in the book is interesting and often a real study in human nature.
He’s also a very funny man. Not only do his characters say clever things, they also get themselves into situations that, though fraught with peril, made me cry with laughter. In one scene, for example, Paul, attempting to escape the killer who is at his front door, clambers up to his roof. The only way off it is blocked by another killer – a neighbor’s cat named Chairman Meow, whose vicious talons he fears. She stretches out in his path, unmoved by his feeble attempts to shoo her. Just then, his phone rings. It’s Brigit. She manages to roust miss kitty by whistling at her over the phone. But moments later, as Paul is trying to lower himself off the roof, the cat comes back, throws “a clawed left hook at his defenseless face,” and Paul takes a fall that, quite literally, nearly unmans him. More funny encounters, slapstick and otherwise, kept me chuckling delightedly.
But underneath the fun, the clever dialogue (which is often very raunchy), and the suspense, we see characters – even the monsters – willing to risk everything to protect someone or something they care about. So, in a way, I guess you could say that “A Man with One of Those Faces” is a love story – and one I recommend.
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