When one thinks of pulp fiction and noir, a few things automatically come to mind: femme fatales, guys in trench coats, guns, night, booze. Moreover, the time period that usually comes to mind is usually any year from the time of FDR’s inauguration to that of John Kennedy. That is to say, the 1930s through the 1950s. The 70s figure in the picture, too.
But the 1980s? Nah. At least, not to me. I have written that I’m fairly new to the genre of crime fiction. There may be a slew of great 80s books out there, just waiting for me. But, as of today, I don’t know them. The 80s just don’t seem like a noir decade to me. And that put Pete Hamill’s The Guns of Heaven at a disadvantage. It takes place in 1983 and deals with the conflicts in northern Ireland.
I’m old enough to remember seeing the news coverage of the various bombings but young enough, then, not to know what it was all about. And that’s where Hamill’s book shined. It reminded the reader—this one 25 years later—what all the fighting was about. Unlike a Michael Crichton novel—where Crichton unloads mind-numbing facts the reader needs to know in order to understand the actions of his characters, so much data that you feel like you have to take some notes—Hamill pares the Irish troubles down to its bare facts. His asides were good and necessary.
The story is, however, um, boring. Let me try again: the first half of the book is boring. Sam Briscoe is a 40-something newspaper reporter who agrees to carry a sealed envelope from Ireland back to New York. Sam is a veteran reporter and he doesn’t know that this might be a bad thing? He stops over in Switzerland to see his daughter in her boarding school. The end result is, of course, the bad guys know about her and end up kidnapping her. Hmmm, didn’t see that one coming.
The second half of the book is much better as the action takes off. But unlike other books I have read recently, I never was scared for Sam. Now, that might have been in part because I listened to the book while driving but that’s not all. There are plenty of books that got my heart racing so fast that I actually slowed down my driving in order to concentrate on both things better. The Guns of Heaven was not one of those books.
As a historical piece, it was fantastic. It’s quaint for me, a child of the 80s, to read a book written in an earlier time; I get to experience what they experienced. Hamill’s book took place in a year that I actually remember. I enjoyed reading about the state-of-the-art sound system that included tape decks and turntables. I enjoyed characters having to fish a dime out of their pockets to make calls on public phones. At some point in the novel, Sam refers to The Big Four: four famous American politicians (a governor, two senators, the Speaker of the House) who favored Ireland. I know that Tip O’Neil was Speaker, Ted Kennedy was one of the senators, but I can’t remember who the other two. Anybody help me?
The Guns of Heaven is my least favorite Hard Case Crime book to date. Perhaps it just had the unfortunate slot of being the first book I read after Money Shot. Shoot, Lucky at Cards was more entertaining. The reader, Christian Conn, was very good. His woman’s voices were okay but his male voices were superb. He did a great Irish and southern accent. My next audiobook, A Diet of Treacle by Lawrence Block, is read by Conn, too. It should be entertaining.
What I Learned As A Writer: For all the good asides Hamill wrote about aspects of the Irish cause, there were a few times where he wrote asides for characters that first emerged onto the book’s stage. Many of them were Too Long. One set of characters was given a bio that lasted about five minutes of listening time. Don’t know how many pages it was but it was too long. And, at the end, when this character did what he did, I realized that I didn’t really need to know this guy’s life story. That’s just me. I try to keep extraneous information down to a paragraph. Perhaps, in some future book, I’ll need a few pages but I’ll try to keep it down. It’s like musicals where the songs don’t’ advance the plot. They just get in the way. Perhaps Hamill needed to be reminded of Elmore Leonard's #10 Rule of Writing: Try to leave out the parts that readers skip. Ironically, when I do that, I get dinged for it by my critique group. Go figure.